We caught up with Jeff Boggess, Trail Butter co-Founder and recent Tor des Géants (TOR) finisher, about his experience at this notably challenging footrace across the Italian Alps.
Can you provide an overall summary of your TOR experience?
The experience is definitely tough to sum up in just a few words. It was such a process that spanned new PNW adventures, conversations that wouldn't have happened with great people, and finally the race itself. Overall, I'd say it went better than I could've hoped. After months of training and wondering if I was physically and mentally capable of completing something so far beyond what I had done before, being able to push past that previous limit into unknown territory all the way to the finish was greatly satisfying.
A main key to success out there was teaming up with two other runners, Ted and Robin, from around 100k on. We pushed through as a team towards a common goal and supported each other through low points, while also feeding off each other's excitement and elation during high points.
Our Wildfire Relief Fundraiser that was being held while I was out on course also brought extra purpose and motivation to get to the finish. As well as perspective, when thinking about the folks that had lost their homes to wildfire in the West this summer, and the first responders who put their lives on the line to fight the blazes. What I was doing and any suffering I experienced seemed pretty insignificant in comparison. Particularly those affected by and battling the Caldor Fire, which came within 1.5 miles of my childhood home where my parents still live. By race end, we were proud to have raised over $4100 dollars for victims and first responders through the American Red Cross Wildfire Relief Fund.
What were the most memorable moments while out on the course?
The one that really stands out for me came just before Malatra, the final major 'col' or pass of the race. As I was power-hiking towards that high point with it visible in full glory a 1/4 mile ahead at the top of a rocky series of switchbacks, an older Italian gentleman came up next to me on the trail and broke down crying as he exclaimed how beautiful the site of that final hurdle was. He had just turned 65 the day before he said, and was overcome it seemed as he realized he was going to reach the finish, a goal I got the feeling was of great importance to him. This caused me to also realize the magnitude of that high saddle in front of us, which brought me to tears as well, and ignited a fire that sent me up and over the pass and down the final 10 or so miles to Courmayeur and the finish line.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while out there?
The lack of sleep was definitely a challenge, as you tried to navigate technical terrain, and manage time, physical and nutritional needs in a compromised mental state late, in the race especially.
The terrain was also a major obstacle. With around 100k feet of gain, the climbs seemed to go on forever at times and were numerous, which really challenged the body and mind, as well as the descents, which were often over extremely uneven, rocky terrain of stepped boulders that dropped from one to the next, 1' from one to the next. These really took their toll and led to swollen knees and ankles. But as hard as the climbs and descents were, those payoff moments like getting to a high saddle, or a vibrant valley village full of people, effectively refueled the stoke to keep going.
I was advised by a friend that had done TOR to avoid trying to comprehend the race in its entirety, rather take one climb and section at a time. This really helped to overcome both physical and mental challenges that arose.
How did nutrition come into play?
This was an area where I received another round of instrumental advice from a couple friends who had done the race. One was simply, 'Keep eating, even if you don't feel like it' which I took to heart and feel really played a key role. As I learned, on such a long endeavor when you're really pushing your body to the limit, it needs extra calories, protein and nutrients to continuously move and recover on the go.
Another bit of advice was, 'Don't try to eat like an American with our gels, blocks, etc. Embrace the European faire found out on course.' I relied heavily on aid station food to limit what I was carrying, since they were usually generously spaced at 7-15k. Most of these consisted of cured meats, Fontina cheese cubes, chocolate, dried fruits like apricots and dates, and heartier foods like orzo soup and penne pasta with tomato sauce. The aid station menu did grow a little monotonous though, so our crew started ordering off of hut menus with gnocchi, and cappuccinos becoming a couple favorites.
In between aid stations, I had a healthy supply of Trail Butter (Dark Chocolate & Coffee), Stinger waffles and chews, dried peaches and jerky from Mom, and Skratch electrolyte drink.
Of note, it's also fully ok at TOR to stop at restaurants when going through the towns and villages out on course, so having a little cash or a credit card along really came in handy. You're out there so long, stopping for a half hour to recharge with something tasty (Gelato? Yes Please) doesn't really make a difference. All in all, I was fortunately able to keep the stomach feeling solid, which was one of my main concerns going into the race, since that can basically shutdown a long effort.
Did you have to do any problem solving while out on the course?
Luckily the race was pretty uneventful when it came to unexpected problems. I know that could've easily been totally different so pretty grateful in that respect. Gear and body held up for the most part thankfully (thank you Jenn for getting my core tuned up for the abuse!).
One bit of advice which I put into practice was to address any sign of problems immediately as they arose to keep them from becoming major issues, and stay on top of personal care throughout the race such as cleaning feet, changing socks, applying lube to chafe-prone areas, charging batteries at life bases, etc.
The only issue that required attention was having to do with my legs late in the race and some swelling in the knees and ankles. So grateful for that massage therapist at the Ollomont Life Base that nursed them back to health as I lay passed out on his bench.
What kept you going while out there?
The beauty of the landscape, diversity of villages and huts passed by, the encouragement and camaraderie of our three-man crew, volunteers and townsfolk who were there cheering us on and providing fuel (both culinary, and spiritual), chance encounters with fellow PNW runner Ely and wife Kaytlyn along the way, and most-definitely the well wishes from back home that Casey and Team were passing along. Probably a good deal of stubborness, too.
Any couple of gear items you're super glad to have had while out there?
Poles were essential! I'd recommend not skimping on waterproof gear. Thanks to Roger at Helly Hansen, I had a bomber rain jacket that kept me and my pack dry during the stretch of wet weather. Going one size up on the jacket to allow it to cover both was a real benefit. I had a pair of fingerless bike gloves that I feel saved my hands from 200+ of pole usage. A powerbank borrowed from my brother to charge headlamps and phone at life bases while I slept for a spell was great (even though the race had charging stations available). Lastly, I was very happy with my Salomon ADV Skin 12L pack, which was just big enough to carry everything and stayed comfortable through to the finish.
Describe the feelings you had when you were certain you were going to finish.
I think I finally allowed myself to think about the finish about 10 miles out (I think) at Malatra, the final pass. That really marked the final barrier before a mostly downhill coast to Courmayeur and brought all kinds of different emotions as I tried to grasp that I was really going to complete this thing I had spent the last 6 months training for and obsessing about.
Some emotions that came to mind were elation, relief, pride, gratitude, disbelief, excitement, connection, anticipation, weightlessness, vitality, joy, euphoria, openness. Appreciation for the people that had contributed to the effort with advice, encouragement, coaching flashed through my mind as I descended as well.
Describe your experience regarding the camaraderie with other individuals out on the TOR course.
The way TOR brings people together, both participants and supporters, in an inspiring place like the Aosta Valley was one of the most special things about the race in my mind. You really feel and fuel off of the positive energy coming from runners, volunteers and townspeople that are so happy and proud to show you their home. It was impossible not to be energized by that collective feeling of doing something special in a special place.
For my personal experience, I really don't know if I could've completed TOR without Ted and Robin, the guys I teamed up with out there. You can't help but develop a bond when you've been through and overcome challenges with individuals. The camaraderie was definitely running strong as we battled towards the finish together.
How do you feel now, a few weeks out from crossing the finish line?
I've been feeling lucky to have gotten through fairly unscathed physically, and mostly recovered. It's hard not to see the experience with rose colored glasses, as more time passes. When I crossed the finish line, I probably wouldn't have said, 'Sign me up for next year' but now a couple weeks later, that seems strangely appealing as many ultra runners can relate to.
After months of training and devoting every weekend to long runs it's been nice to bask a little in the feeling of knowing I'm on the other side and met the challenge. I love how successfully completed goals, whatever they may be, that are a little outside your comfort zone become new base points for future challenges, athletic in nature but also in life in general.
I've definitely embraced the recovery phase, possibly a little too much, consuming a few more calories and sleeping a little more than usual, but am excited to build off the experience and plan future adventures soon.
Jeff completed Tor des Géants, officially earning the title of "giant," in 129 hours and 10 minutes. He slept for approximately 7 hours and 45 minutes. The 2021 TOR330 course covered 350km / 217miles and ascended 31,000m / 101,000feet.