British runner wins legendary Alps race – and sets new course record
Sabrina Verjee also finishes fifth overall in 330km non-stop Tor Des Géants race in Italy's highest mountains
The female winner of this year’s notoriously tough Tor Des Géants (TDG) race smashed the record by more than five hours. British ultra runner Sabrina Verjee finished the 330km mountain race in 80 hours 19 minutes.
She was the first woman to record a time of under 85 hours in the legendary race in the Italian Alps. Sabrina also took fifth place overall with only four men reaching the finish line in Courmayeur ahead of her after more than 24,000m of total ascent.
On winning, Sabrina, 41, said: “I think it was my best performance to date. I am very happy with how it went. Above all, I feel contentment on completing the race journey.”
Jonas Russi, of Switzerland, was the race winner in 70:36. Italian runners Simone Corsini and Andrea Macchi came home second and third in 75;27 and 76:46 respectively in the race which took place earlier this month.
In second place in the women’s race was Silvia Trigueros Garrote, of Spain, who had previously been a three-times winner. Her time of 84:58 was a personal best and some 25 minutes better than her previous course record.
What is the Tor Des Géants?
The Tor Des Géants is one of the world’s toughest mountain races. It challenges runners to a non-stop race over more than 25 mountain passes of between 2,000m and 3,000m altitude.
Competitors can choose where they rest or sleep throughout the days and nights, although there is a cut-off time of 150 hours in total.
The route of 330km follows the Alte Vie trails of the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps. TDG starts and finishes in Courmayeur below the mountain of Mont-Blanc and the total ascent is almost three times that of Mt Everest.
Sabrina Verjee: top British ultra runner
Sabrina went into the Tor Des Géants with a string of ultra distance successes to her name. Some of her greatest achievements include a new Wainwrights Round record in the UK’s Lake District set last year. She was also the female winner of the Spine Race in 2020.
For the first stage of the TDG, Sabrina ensured she remained within her comfort zone although by 50km, she had moved into second place in the women’s race.
Silvia, the more experienced on the course, remained at the front until some 260km into the challenge.
Sabrina revealed afterwards: “I had my own race plan and I wasn’t paying attention to what was happening at the front of the race over the first couple of days. Even when I went into the lead, I made sure I stuck to my own plan.
“These long races are not only about pace but also about being able to manage your nutrition, sleep and play to your own strengths.”
Altitude and appetite issues
Altitude was an issue for Sabrina, who is a veterinary surgeon living in England’s Lake District. She said: “I did some acclimatising in the two weeks before the race but it’s hard to prepare for all the huge ups and downs on the mountain passes.
“You are constantly going up or down and sometimes from 300m to 3,000m. I knew on my recce runs that the altitude might affect my appetite. I was pleased when I was able to eat well for the first eight hours of the race but then I found I almost totally lost my appetite.”
For some 36 hours of the Tor Des Géants, Sabrina found it very difficult to fuel herself. She said: “I had to spend a lot more time at different support and rest places, trying to force myself to eat. I was able to manage my favourite race nutrition, Mountain Fuel jellies, but it was a constant struggle to eat anything else.
“But I still kept trying because I know from experience that if you overlook proper nutrition, I would end up in a hole and feeling sick and unable to go on.”
A strong endurance race for Sabrina
As the race continued and despite the lack of fuelling, Sabrina continued to overtake other runners although she said that she was surprised this was possible at times.
She said: “I am usually slower going uphill, especially on steep climbs, and faster on the descents but I felt very fatigued and slow at many stages. I could see that others were weary too and they seemed to be slower than me so I guess we were all just going a bit slower.”
Sabrina enjoyed the company of other competitors for different stages of the race. She especially enjoyed running with Marco Gubert, from Italy, through one of the nights. Sabrina survived on less than 30 minutes of sleep in total, taken in short naps, and she aimed to keep going for as long as possible whether day or night.
At the half-way point on the TDG at Rif. Coda, she described a stunningly bright night. She said: “It was the second night by now and the setting was so peaceful and beautiful. There was a bright moon and the sun was just setting. It felt like an amazing place to be during a race.”
Sabrina took a 10-minute sleep and then decided to continue alongside Marco. She said: “It was great to have someone to chat to through the night. He was slightly faster than me on the ups and I was slightly faster on the downs but we had good banter.”
During the following 20km, Sabrina caught another few runners, and also enjoyed a companionable cat-and-mouse run with Marco until they reached Gressoney Palazzetto.
Leaving the base – this was the fourth of six lifebases – Sabrina felt sleepy and in the end she had a five-minute nap at the next Rif. Alpenzu. By this point, she had started to be able to eat again.
Sabrina said: “Thankfully, by the third day of the race my appetite started to return.”
Sabrina: appetite and strength return
Finally Sabrina was able to feel fuelled again and she recalls feeling “so much better”.
At Vareton (Torgnon), at around 260km, Sabrina caught up with Silvia and they decided t run together. Sabrina said: “I thought it would be nice to run for a while with Silvia and we enjoyed a few hours together and chatting.
“At the next rifugio, Lo Magià, Silvia went for a sleep but I wasn’t feeling tired. I had a strong coffee and dark chocolate and I felt good enough to continue.”
From here, Sabrina led the women’s race. The weather also started to change from warm and dry to cloud and drizzle.
The final base, Rey (Ollomont), had a treat in store for Sabrina. She said: “Some of the supporters of Martin [Perrier] had bought him some amazing cakes from a local patisserie. They told me Martin didn’t want any thing more to eat and they let me devour some. There was black forest gateau and tiramisu. They were so delicious.
“This is the stuff that makes things happen. I was fuelled on sugar and I only had another 50km to go and I was now lead female.”
Yet with every sugar high comes a low. Sabrina said: “I started up the net climb feeling great but then I suddenly felt so tired. At the next Refugio I had a sit down.”
The final 30km were very tough for Sabrina. She said: "I felt like a zombie. I’d never been so sleep-deprived but I was still managing to run a bit. But then I kept falling asleep while on my feet.
'At last, there was a lovely descent and I just ran and ran. The crowds as I ran into Courmayeur were amazing. I felt good. I thought, “Yeh, I’ve done it.”
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.
By Cat Ellis