Worn thin by the Italian Alps, Doug Mayer stumbles into something unexpected.
Lining up for the start of the 360-kilometer (224-mile) long Tor des Géants in Courmayeur, Italy, last September, I felt reasonably well prepared. I had finished the previous running of the race, two years prior. And a few weeks earlier, I had finished UTMB’s CCC event, 100-kilometers halfway around Mont Blanc, essentially as a training run. I felt good.
Races like Tor are so long and so hard they are as pure a test of resilience as one can find (the 2019 event took me 145 hours to finish). You need to be ready for anything, including, but not limited to equipment failure, injury, rain and snow, decision-making while profoundly sleep-deprived, and a confounding array of mental states including hallucinations.
I thought I was ready for whatever Tor might throw at me, but I wasn’t ready for one thing. I wasn’t ready for English Knowles.
I had been living a pretty charmed life. As the owner of an Alps-based trail running company, on my better workdays it was my job to trail run (go ahead, eat your heart out). I got to write about the scene here in the Alps for a variety of magazines and web sites, and most days included a long trail run with my labradoodle Izzy at my side and stupendous views of glaciers and jagged peaks. Of course, it wasn’t all Instagram worthy. The hours were long and usually included weekends. And running a tour company during a global pandemic was akin to holding a rudder in a typhoon. Despite the ever-present tangle of French bureaucracy to contend with, life was pretty good.
I was, however, missing a partner. Past drama and a stubborn unwillingness to settle had yielded a mix of resignation and complacency which shoved the topic mostly off my radar. Besides, I was happy enough with Izzy, a home with a picture window that showcased a mountain range with 250 years of alpinism history, a wonderful, tight, loyal set of trail running pals, and the happy distraction of one mountain adventure after another. Life was rich enough. I had decided it was time to stop wishing for more.
My Tor started smoothly with the warm-up climb to Col Arp and the familiar trails of La Thuile. With a large writing objective in mind, I took my time. Since Tor has a 50 percent dropout rate, I wanted to stack the odds in my favor.
There is much about Tor that is unique and special. With 98,000 feet of uphill, the course is unrelentingly tough. The villages of northern Italy and the Alps in this tranquil region combine to make the visuals flat-out spectacular. The helpfulness of Tor volunteers is unrivaled, and the support from locals is legendary. If you are in need, they will literally open their homes to you. During the day, shopkeepers have been known to stop mid-transaction, step outside and clap as you run, walk, or hobble by. Tor touches your heart.
This setting, plus the unending push forward, the lack of sleep, the special vibe that brought it all alive, creates a bubble-effect. As the hours pass, the world beyond Tor falls away. After a day or so, there is just you, the trail, the next climb, the next footstep, and off in the hazy hours ahead, an aid station.
As I moved along the course, I realized how few English speakers there were in this year’s mix of participants. The pandemic was continuing to take its toll on international travel. I had a few conversations in French, but low on brainpower, it felt taxing. In Tor, every calorie needs to be focused on forward motion. So, I mostly kept to myself.
It was with this mindset that I was leaving Donnas, the midpoint of the race, which is literally and psychologically, a high-gravity location. Here, Tor crosses the Aosta Valley at its nadir of 1,155 feet. Just beyond the town limits, just over the 2,200-year-old Devil’s Bridge, the longest climb of the race challenges runners: 6,300 feet up to Rifugio Coda, perched high on an alpine ridge.
It was here that I met Susan English Knowles.
I’d like to say her hair was shimmering, or there was a certain lilt in her voice, or a radiant smile that lured me into her orbit. But this was Tor after all, and we had each covered 93 miles with perhaps 50,000 feet of vert and had, at best, six hours of sleep.
It was, instead, the American accent that caught my attention — a connection to a homeland that seemed a little too far away than I would have liked, amid endless lockdowns and travel bans. Talking as we pushed ever upwards towards Coda, this woman’s answers, her insights, her knowledge of both herself and the world around her seemed simultaneously street wise and book smart. She was a nurse practitioner with a degree in theology who had studied Tibetan medicine. I had to know more. And her every answer drew me closer.
Any other time, I would have been on guard. Thirty years of wearing my heart on my sleeve had led to a few wonderful relationships, but friends and family told me I had been guilty of mismatching. (Four different couple’s therapists for one relationship! Let’s just leave it at that, okay?)
And settling was out of the question. “Good enough” was a descriptor I was never going to apply to a life partner.
The keys to my heart were not just locked away, they were fodder for the landfill as far as I was concerned.
Well, maybe not quite. Halfway into Tor, my prefrontal cortex was tired, and decisions were now being made by my primordial brainstem. If Tor does nothing else, it strips you raw. A carefully guarded heart might, for example, be vulnerable to someone like English Knowles.
She was different.
Our conversations were fluid, easy, and always interesting. We built on each other’s comments. Topics swung to and fro — trail running, politics, aging, families, dogs, health, sickness, pandemics, truffles, books read and those waiting to be cracked open, the best hot chocolate, tarte myrtille and croute au fromage. She told me about living in Dharamsala, India and having an appointment to meet the Dalai Lama that she subsequently missed. I found myself telling her stories even close friends haven’t heard: the accident that very nearly cost me a leg; an awkward childhood spent badly stuttering for far too many years.
The miles passed and I barely noticed.
In the waning hours of our first night, we shivered inside our hooded down puffies outside Rifugio Coda. The sun rose on our descent. We ran off a high ridge and into a valley on the endless rollercoaster of Tor des Géants. Somewhere around early morning, we both badly craved sleep. At a small, private refugio — doors and shutters bolted tight because of the pandemic — we pulled out our emergency blankets, found the least uncomfortable few feet of ground, and closed our eyes. Sometime later, ten minutes or two hours, I awoke.
It had started raining. I was wet and shivering, the sleep, unsatisfying.
And English was gone.
Dutifully, I did what Tor demands. I packed up and started moving forward. If there is one thing you always must do at Tor, it is move towards Courmayeur. I wanted to find English even as I told myself out loud, “You are a fool, Mayer. She lives in California. You live in France,” and mentally ran through all the other reasons it would fail.
Still, I looked for her at Rifugio della Barma and Colle della Vecchia. I looked for her at the tiny mountain aid stations, and again in the valley village of Niel. I searched for her in the Tor lifebase at Gressoney, a location where Tor’s “Time in” and “Time Out” charts later showed that we overlapped. I scanned the tired faces with my headlamp at Rifugio Alpenzu.
Again and again, I tried to shove aside the thought of her. I daydreamed that she enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed hers. I wondered if I had somehow passed her.
And I looked for her even at Col Pinter, in the middle of a windy night as snow began to fall, where for the second time in my life, I met the dragon.
“Everyone meets the dragon,” Tor’s colorful announcer, Ivan Parasecco, had once told me. Ivan is right, and when you meet the dragon, one of two things will happen. Resist the dragon and you are wiped off the race course. But give in, turn your ego over to the universe, open your very soul to Tor, and you will see Courmayeur. Just like Tor itself, it sounds crazy but it’s true.
Then it happened. Sometime during some morning on some date I would only find out in retrospect, English and I crossed paths a second time. Exactly what happened is lost to the forgotten history of Tor, but one thing is clear, on the climb out of Champoluc towards Rifugio Gran Tournalin, we were once again together and trading stories.
And so it went. I gave up caring about the stopwatch and cared only for sharing the trail with English. We watched the sunrise at Refugio Cuney. We took in the view at tiny Bivouac Clermont where we both voiced a desire to come back. We met my friend Sam at Refugio Champillon where he joined us for the climb to the col, then together we took in the sunset. We battled exhaustion so severe at aid station Ponteille that English grew lethargic and quiet, and I worked to find her food and warm drinks. A few miles on, we grabbed a 15-minute micro-nap in a damp and chilly forest. We slept on cold pavement at Saint Rhemy, stumbling with heavy eyelids up a climb so long that our trail companion screamed obscenities at the starry night sky after one-too-many dashed hopes of finding the next hut.
And then, our second and final Tor sunrise together, we shared the climb to Col Malatra.
During Tor, arriving at Col Malatra is transcendental. It cannot be understood in any ordinary way. Crossing the narrow, high col – a cleft wide enough just for one person – one sees the Mont Blanc range up close. You are, for all intents and purposes, done. All that remains is an easy 9 miles. You could crawl if it came down to it. Being able to share the crossing with English felt like a miracle.
From Col Malatra the Tor bubble doesn’t burst so much as it begins to wear thin, at first imperceptibly. If the narrow passage through Malatra is a sort of rebirth, each step beyond is reanimating. There are growing numbers of cheering onlookers, family and friends looking for loved ones, and, eventually, the first steps on tarmac that lead to Via le Monte Bianco and the finish line in Courmayeur.
Not far past the Col, at a small aid station, it was my turn to leave. Sam had arrived, bringing greetings from friends, and stories from a world from which I now felt oddly detached.
I left because leaving was, well… protective. Besides, there was exactly 5,815 miles between Healdsburg, California and Chamonix, France. Who wants that carbon footprint? Rational reasons to say no were everywhere.
But since when has a heart ever worked that way?
My mind ping-ponged.
Hope dies last, I thought in my final few minutes alone, before cursing Truman Capote forever writing those words.
And then… celebration. My friend Meg, true to her promise, handed me the leash and Izzy joined for the final few hundred meters through a boisterous Courmayeur. Crossing the finish, a collection of those loyal Chamonix friends were there. Hillary, Izzy and I shared a group hug.
My Tor was over.
Still, English was never far from my thoughts. A few hours later, I cheered her and John over the bedecked yellow finish line. An hour later, back at the Hotel Bouton d’Or, I fell asleep in mid-sentence while talking to Sam. That night, I tried for dinner, but our plans didn’t mesh.
Curious to see if we clicked outside of the surreal world of Tor, I invented a pretense, Whatsapping her to see if I could interview her for an upcoming article about Tor. She said yes.
She was insightful and smart, and because I was still sleep deprived and developing a bad crush, I don’t remember anything she said.
The next day, we parted ways.
Two months connecting on Whatsapp led to video chats. We made plans to meet when work brought me to San Francisco, by which time, hundreds of pages of instant messages had allowed us to paint rich and full pictures of each other’s worlds: the heartbreaks, the high points, the missed opportunities, the crises, life’s surprises. By the time we met again, much had been revealed. And every word of it had brought us closer.
Sometimes, when it is the last thing on earth you are looking for, at the least likely moment you can imagine, and despite your best efforts to stop it, love finds you.
Doug Mayer lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy and — as her schedule allows — English Knowles.