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How to Tame a Dragon

Exploring mental anguish at Italy's Tor Des Géants.

Jenn Hughes

January 30th, 2023

10 min read

Getting ready to begin. Ignorant of what was to come, but excited!

Buddhism teaches that desire creates suffering. It could be said then, that if we desire a challenge, we are going to suffer doubly.

And we mountain runners do indeed desire a challenge—some combination of physical, emotional, mental, and yes, even spiritual. Ultra-distance races are a relatively safe, constructed environment where we can go explore our demons, while eating candy, bail-out if needed, and be admired by our community if we persevere. A hero’s journey all for a couple hundred bucks. 

So, why is it that we often feign surprise when we find ourselves thrashing in the belly of the beast we signed up for? Or, at least that’s how it went for me as I climbed aboard the dragon train that was my Tor des Géants experience. 

I had known full well, at least on paper, what I was getting into. Rumored to be around 220 miles and 100,000 feet of gain, this Italian epic would make my recent Hardrock finish look more like candy-rock. 

Perhaps I had failed to fully note the slightly haunted, awe-full look that flashed across finishers faces when I quizzed them about the Tor. Sure, I knew the lore of the race: As runners leave Courmayeur, the Tor dragon begins the loop in the opposite direction. Eventually everyone meets the dragon. What happens at this encounter defines the runner and the outcome of their race. 

Being a life-long spiritual seeker and a physically hardy, mountain goat of a woman, I assumed that whenever the dragon arrived, I would effortlessly pass the test. But that’s not how life’s lessons work.

Instead, the Tor broke me almost instantly—first into bite-sized chunks, and then heaping piles of sobs and petulance. Early in the race, the seasoned Italians who complete the Tor as their annual vacation cautioned me, “Relax, it’s the only way.” A wise runner from Canada tried to warn me, “This course will break your heart.” I nodded, smiled, and then marched into my own personal battlefield.

Was it the 3,000 foot climbs on permanent re-play, followed by rocky descents that went on for hours, broken up by horrific nights of wandering anguish that broke me? Or was it the cut-offs that were seemingly reasonable yet always looming just ahead with heavy pressure as each mile took a lifetime to complete? Or was it just my approach? Certainly there were runners around me who were smiling and seemed to genuinely be having a good time. I tried to mimic their facade, but inside, in the cave of my mental anguish all I felt was stress, hardship, suffering. 

Looking down from the summit of Col Loson, perhaps our hardest climb of the week. Ready to descend into another night.

I stayed on that dragon’s back for days. Holding on tight, while being flung around like a rag doll. Over endless peaks and down into valleys, I barely noticed the beauty of the Alps—my mind was at war. I tried to convince myself that I was the victim, the race was cruel, the challenge was unnecessary, and the right choice was to finally let go. To give up. To stop fighting for once and just accept that this was not my moment. Seductive, tear-filled, illusionary thoughts. 

Mid-morning on the fourth day, I finally relented. I had pushed hard to make it to the Champoluc aid station before cut-offs, and had succeeded by several hours, but the pressure had finished me. I sloughed off my pack, resigned and ready to say goodbye to my trekking partner, Vicki.

As I sat there, hollowed out, a gentle French man I had hiked with a few days earlier came over and kneeled next to me. We locked eyes and exchanged wordless mutual understanding. Finally he said to me, almost confessionally, “Last year I dropped at Swiss Peaks. I am strong, but it was not my day. You are strong, but it is not your day. It is ok.” He gave me a consoling pat on the back and went back to his food while I snuck off to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror I searched my eyes, firm but lovingly, trying to accept the permission he had offered. “You are strong,” I thought, “but it is not your day.” 

But it didn’t fit. If anything, it cracked me open. 

As I walked back to the main room, I felt myself pass my chair and head toward the food table. My eyes scanned the same tired options I’d been looking at for days—pasta, vegetable soup, chunks of cheese, bread, meat—desperately searching for divine inspiration. There must be a better way to do this thing. And then, imperceptibly, the universe shifted. Instead of crudité, I could make a good ol’ American sandwich! I asked the volunteer to cut me two thick slices of bread (versus cubes) and stacked them with all the fixin’s, then drenched the whole mess in a river of rich olive oil and cracked salt. Vicki looked at me cautiously as I sat back down. This was not the close-out sandwich of a quitter. This was the meal of a girl who had received an aha. 

Leaving Champoluc, I launched into a verbal and emotional release that lasted miles. It was an ultra-distance monologue, with no breaks for interjections, and dear Saint Vickie was generously there for it.  

Shortly after Champoluc, a magical moment.

“What if it were easy?” I asked incredulously. “This whole thing, why are we calling it HARD anyway, what does HARD even mean!? My body is fine, I don’t hurt, it’s just my screwed-up brain that is ruining everything!” 

As the waves of angst rolled off, I continued. “We just spent 24 hours worrying about cut-off times, but it didn’t make us move any faster, it only robbed us of our joy. I’ve made myself miserable and I’m sick of it. What if we let go of expectations, time, and just went for a damn hike?” 

And so, I did. I let go. Not in the DNF way, but into the ease, grace, and magic the Tor (and life) had been offering but I had held so stubbornly firm against.

Suddenly, the trail was enveloped in rich fall colors I hadn’t even noticed. Bright flames of fiery orange and yellow so vivid it almost seemed like a dragon’s breath was curling around, and now gently receding, from my feet. 

As I hiked, I started to understand the Tor as a seemingly impenetrable, ‘géant’ wall—as tall as the heavens and as wide as the cosmos. Like a medieval soldier using inefficient armor, I had been throwing myself at it with misery and force. Not surprisingly, I had been flailing back to the ground for days, more wounded each time. 

Now, with my mind finally lifting, I could see cracks of light where one could sneak through the wall with ease, maybe even joy. The more I relaxed, the bigger the openings became, until the whole wall of suffering began to dissipate like the illusion it always was. 

After that, I no longer fought the journey, but instead danced in its portals and accepted its many gifts. 

We await the race’s official decision… but are happy, come what may.

Vicki and I discovered we could order demi-tasse cups of dark Italian espresso at the refugios, sometimes with a side of chocolate torte. We sweet-talked a gruff farmer into a nap in his horse shed. A high school boyfriend I hadn’t seen in over twenty years appeared and hiked to the top of a col for a photo. A Norwegian woman named Hiedi, who looked like she walked right out of the fairy tale, taught us the happy magic trick of step-counting while hiking uphill. You simply can’t be negative and count because the brain won’t process both functions (Try it, it’s true!). We were granted the holy miracle of two hours sleep in a village church. And, for a few precious moments here and there, we ran like children in alpine meadows and shared no language, but much laughter with Italian trail friends. 

Just after midnight on the sixth day, we paused at Saint-Rhémy-en-Bosses to load up on one more bowl of Tor’s signature pasta con sugo before the final summit and then our victorious downhill return into Courmayeur. My mouth stung with cold sores from eating so much acidic tomato sauce and yet still I went for a second serving. The pain was now my pleasure. Sitting there, deliriously spooning in noodles, I felt deep contentment. I could walk for weeks if they told me to, now that I knew how to find the flow. 

As it turned out, we only had to hike a few more hours. With only about 12 miles to go, a sudden blizzard swept in making the final mountain pass at 9,600 feet treacherous. After much deliberation, the race organizers canceled the event, but because of our position on course we were considered official finishers. 

I was bummed, but only a little. For me, the Tor had been won back at the moment in Champoluc when I realized there was a better way to meet life’s dragons.

12 thoughts on "How to Tame a Dragon"

  1. Bob Crowley says:

    Jenn, You’ve eloquently captured the transcending movement when you encounter the dragon, and earn her approval for passage. It’s the equivalent to a “runner’s high” but at another level; never knowing how to achieve it, when or if it will come, how you will react. It’s a unique and very personal journey of the soul. The Tor gives us the opportunity for the quest, but neither guarantees it will be found nor assures we won’t be repelled by the dragon. Congratulations on your journey and transcending through your personal portal. Very well written.

  2. Holly Hamilton MD says:

    This is a very inspiring story. Thank you for opening up about it. My big question for you is this: did the mentality shift stick? Do you think you will be able to maintain that “enjoy the journey” attitude in your future racing career and in life? We all do endurance events for a reason, and your story is really meaningful.

  3. Amy N Koop says:

    Indeed beautifully written – thank you for so wonderfully sharing your story!

  4. This made me cry! It’s so hard to put into words those “aha” moments when you suddenly click into the flow, and life opens up before you on the trail. It’s mysticism at its finest, and proof to me that I love this sport as truly as I love any human. Thank you for writing this!

  5. Liz Perez says:

    I truly enjoyed reading your story, I am still learning to process running long distances. But one thing for sure when I read in your story; once you accepted the brokenness of your thoughts and body. Your thoughts shifted into a more positive outlook, it became easier to accomplish your journey. I so far embrace my brokenness during my Ultras, it teaches me more about myself when I do this, I no longer fight the feeling.

  6. James Madson says:

    Great write up, Jenn! Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  7. Jennifer Hughes says:

    Dear Holly Thank you for your kind read. I think taking the “aha” home and making it a part of your life is definitely the hardest part. Whether it be a multi-day ultra or a multi-day meditation retreat — how does one actualize those big revelations? That’s the real practice and ongoing opportunity.

  8. vickiromanin says:

    Jenn, I loved this honest, beautifully written report. It was exactly as I saw it unfold. It was such an honour to have travelled this oddysey with you. It was Amazing. You are Amazing. We are Giants!! Cookies & Coke, Baby! 😉

  9. John T. Sharp says:

    The essence of ultrarunning is found at the heart of the multi day!! It was really great to meet you this summer in the big mountains, dreaming the big dreams.

  10. Elaine Stypula says:

    Well done, Jenn! Tor leaves a mark on your soul . . . in a good way . . . in a knowing way . . . and you will be forever glad for it . . . and weirdly alway want more because you know now how much more there is to learn and discover.

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