Over the next few months Fast Running will follow Natalie White on her journey back to the Tor des Geants. The articles will focus on training, kit, nutrition and other topics, but first, why?

If there ever was a race that inexplicably drew people back, even after completion, the Tor des Geants fits the bill.

Six years after first running the almighty 330km non-stop mountain race, with over 30,000m of up and down steep trails and rocky paths, Natalie White is once again toeing the start-line.

“There is something about the whole event that just makes it extra special”, says the former British and English fell running champ. “We go to support the event every year, whether we have friends running or not. It’s the whole community that you want to be a part of”.

Supporting each year is one thing, racing is even more all encompassing. White isn’t the only runner who keeps coming back. Irish international Paul Tierney, who finished 11th last year in 88 hours is returning too.

The fell-runner, based in the English Lake District, feels that “in Italy mountain running is like the national sport. The Tor is one of the perfect examples of this, because so many of the local people are involved. There is almost a pride for them in the fact you have chosen to visit their town, their mountains, and they want to make sure you have the best experience.”

Ruggedly handsome Paul Tierney in the 2021 Tor des Geants Photo: Roberto Roux/TorX

What is it?

Starting and finishing in Courmayuer, runners circumnavigate the entire Aosta Valley. Crossing mountain passes as high as 3200m, spending hours upon hour at breathtaking altitude and sleeping, if at all, on cots in “lifebases”, the Tor is more than just a race. It’s a full-on adventure.

If the weather is good and your legs are strong, then it can be the best week of your life. If snow, hail or rain, mixed with baking hot days, mix with night time running, then it can get a little tough.

“The first time round it took me 118 hours and in total I think I slept about 6-7 hours. That was broken up into 80-90 minute bigger sleeps, and a bundle of 20 minute powernaps,” the Yorkshire born, Italy based runner tells us.

“The powernaps normally came when you literally fell asleep on your feet. Getting into a welcoming checkpoint in a mountain Rifugio, it was all you could do to keep your eyes open whilst brilliant volunteers brought you coffee, soup, hot pasta. It’s Italy so the food was always great”.

A huge part of the Tor experience is the people. Photo: Stefano Jeantet

More than just checkpoints

“It’s like an all you can eat buffet of the things I love, especially the meat and cheese. The volunteers are all the local people and their enthusiasm is just a fantastic part of the race,” continues Tierney. “No one ever tells me I’ve had too much either, there is always another plate of pasta being offered.”

The life-bases, seven in total, take race check points to a whole new level. Often open for 36 hours plus, even days in the second half of the race when the field is spread out, whole armies of volunteers look after the runner’s every need.

The famous yellow duffel bags of the Tor are transported ahead of the runner, so crew isn’t necessary to bring your kit. Crew does help you faffing around in a sleep deprived state for hours on end though.

The life-bases have beds, showers, physios for massage and proper kitchens keeping the runners fed. When you’re potentially out for a whole week in the mountains 150 sports gels don’t really do the trick. Pasta, rice, meats, cheeses, cakes and beers are all on offer.

Sarah McCormack probably trying to convince Paul Tierney to eat his pasta.

Is it just about the food?

If you’re just a fan of Italian food then there are easier ways to satisfy the urge. Why do the runners keep coming back?

Italian resident White tells us “it’s just such a huge personal challenge, in an awe-inspiring environment. The combination of the mountains, the people but also the competition. It’s a really competitive 200 mile race that climbs over mountains and that means it goes beyond just being out in the hills.”

“Ultimately I want to improve on last time, but it’s about the time more than the position. You cannot control what other people are doing, but, I guess, equally I cannot control things like the weather. If it snows or rains for the whole week then time goes out the window and it’s a wholly different challenge compared to last time.”

“You get to move really slowly in the hills and eat loads,” laughs the jolly Irishman. “Seriously though, each time I’ve done the race I’ve had a very different experience. Although it’s the same race you will always get something new from it.”

Looking after your feet is a key part of a race this long. White’s are the ones on the left. Photo: Majell Backhausen

Upcoming focus

In the next few months, as White and Tierney prepare to return to the mountain trails of Aosta we will follow both in their adventures.

From kit and training, to nutrition and the physiological and psychological challenges of such an event, Fast Running will feature articles on the questions a 200 mile mountain race poses for each.