Tails of Trails with Tim Underwood

Posted By Rejuvenate SA

After running Tor dés Geants (TOR) in 2021 with a 144h finish, the race was on in 2022 to improve upon that time. Running for Sthembiso Ngcobo and raising awareness for people with disabilities was an amazing driving force to traverse the glorious mountains of the Grand Paradiso Natural, Mont Avic Regional parks and the entire Aosta Valley region of Northeastern Italy in one 330 km, 24000m D+ elevation blast! Anyone who has been on their feet for over 32 hours will be able to relate, hallucinations become a vivid reality, almost to the point where we believe they actually exist; “Jeremy”, or “Gregory” ([?], I can’t recall) was my good friend after the third day… After TOR starts, there are the aid stations, known as “Life bases” that are situated approximately 50 km apart; they are our safe havens to rejuvenate, collect our thoughts and once ready, march into the wilderness with the Giants we now call friends. This is my story of TOR 2022…


Tor dés Geants starts in the quaint little village of Courmayeur, where there is a pizza restaurant on every corner, friendly people on every doorstep and more racing gear than you can imagine in every window – the Diagon Alley of Hogwarts for the outdoor enthusiast. Whenever I arrive in Courmayeur, an old quote comes to mind, “right now, the younger you is looking into the future and imagining all the crazy missions you are about to undertake… so don’t disappoint him”. This year, TOR afforded me the opportunity to learn something incredibly special, and that was to run with my heart and no obligations, not with my head. That little trick made for the most beautiful run I have ever experienced. A few months prior to arriving in Courmayeur, the opportunity was afforded to me to work with Travis Warrick Oliver, founder of www.RejuvenateSA.com on a mission to help someone with the biggest smile I have ever seen on a person. Sthembiso Ngcobo, is a 24-year-old man who is paraplegic. He was born in 1998 and now lives in Okhasini, Swayimana, which is near Wartburg. Despite not being able to walk or talk much, he smiles considerably. He doesn’t let his conditions control him, he goes about his days in happiness. However, there is a 30m crawl on muddy roads to reach his bathroom facilities. He has an older sister who is fine but his Mom had complications in birth and he has been wheelchair bound since. His chair is too small now and hurts him, so he crawls around more. His elderly parents carry him, but he is getting too big. His Mom had to stop working to care for him, and his Dad is sickly, so cannot work. Despite all those challenges, he is a happy person. An inspiration to all of us with way less hardships.


TOR began with over one thousand entrants this year, split into two batches, the 10:00 and 12:00 midday waves, I was in the second batch to leave. This year knowing the route, I made the decision to stand near the starting line, as the congestion towards and on the “highway” (a steep 700m single‑track climb just two kilometers from the start) causes you to lose considerable time getting stuck behind all the traffic. Boom, the race began…

This year, I ran without switching on my phone, as I am too tempted by the amazing landscapes to “snap snap snap” off a few quick pics. But multiply that by a few days and that adds up to hours (you will be wondering where all these pictures came from then? I met a crazy cool guy from Hong Kong, and we are now WhatsApp buddies, so he sent me his pictures taken during TOR, thanks Jeffery!). Running out of Courmayeur and into the Italian Alps is one of the most majestic experiences once can ever witness. Hands down, for me anyway, the most beautiful corridor of the race presents itself on day 1, as you summit La Tuile…

This moment in time cannot be captured on camera, nor when in the period wearing polarized sunglasses. Normally, I find the sunglass lens enhances the color of the scenery. However, there is something about this exact place that is simply inexplicable. While trying to “keep running” instead of looking at La Tuile’s beautiful scenery, I pushed onto the next checkpoint (Rif. Deffeyes, 28.2km into the race with 2500m elevation gain) that awaits you on the top after saying my goodbyes to La Thuile. A brief stop at the facilities and hydrating with one of many Coke refills (I think I consumed up to 25L Coke during TOR!), I set on my way. Approximately 15-20 minutes later, it was time to pull out the poles and start the next climb… Big oops, I left them at the checkpoint. First decision, leave them but decided against that idea very quickly and vasbyt’d back, grabbed them and was back on track. Weather wise, we were blessed with sunny skies and warm nights from Sunday through to Wednesday afternoon (after which the snow came in – to be discussed later). 

After La Tuile, you run on beautiful roads, gravel paths and single track that meander down through La Joux. If you now like your scenic backdrops, this if for you!

Tor des Geants, as translated from Italian, means “Tour of the Giants” and this is where the first of many mountain passes (in Italian, “Col” means mountain pass) begin, yet the race hasn’t even started (21.8km in). Power hiking to the top of these Col’s requires you to focus on the goal, and the time you spend climbing. You will observe people overtaking you and then you are passing others, as with any race. Yet a five hour climb of sometimes only a few (3-5km) means you will see a lot of roughly 30 people day in and day out over the next 3-6 days. They are the Giantsyou run with and are your family of friends with whom you relate whilst on the mountains. Most of the time, I ran with people who spoke little to no English (French and Italians mostly), so when charades no longer helped, I ran day and night with nothing but the echoes of silent footsteps to keep me company. During this time, I developed games, songs, plans of attack, and how I’d mission my next life base stop with a change of clothing, pre-packed food sachets waiting for me in my “soon to be smelling” TOR drop bag. As mentioned earlier, the life bases (sports stadiums or community village halls) were a place to momently reset and at each life base, the organisers transported a 60L duffel bag (the TOR bag) with all our belongings and gear that we brought along for the race.

The first big col of the race was from La Joux to Col Haut Pas (1437 m climb in 9.4 km). I don’t remember much of the climb, but do remember quite well, the colorful flags that greet you at the summit, which are waiting of a rock statue with the col’s name.

2021 brought an unexpected injury at Col Entrelor, where all the ascending and descending puts considerable strain on your lower legs and I struggled with a shin injury early on that led to me being strapped up by a medic at Gressoney Life Base.H however, I was unable to flex my foot. This year when at arriving at Col Entrelor, I stood at the rock statue, just staring at it (with the upmost respect) … and then started praying… “Please don’t this year” I said quietly, haha. A good friend of mine said, “Tim, take the time and stretch your shin, quads, glutes and hammies”, when you get on top. So that’s what I did, a full on 5-minute palates class at 3002m above sea level, 74.5km into the race, with 7327m total elevation gain thus far. With adequately stretched limbs, I asked Entrelor to be kind and then started my descent… Phew is all I will say. Now I knew it was time to pick up the pace.

Some time later, I then came to Col Loson, in my opinion, the hardest climb of the race. It begins straight after descending Col Entrelor, then down to Eaux Rousses and then straight back up again. To put it into context. That’s from Col Entrelor (74.5km, 3002m) to Eaux Rousses (84.5km, 1683m) then back up to Col Loson (97.2km, 3299m). That equates to 22.7km with 2081m climbing, roughly a 5:50hr hike. Add on that there’s only one water point at the wooden house (described below). Cogne was the next life base at 110.5km, then onto Donnas at 156.3km.

It was during this time that I started to experience my first of many hallucinations. Just as I was approaching Col Loson, I filled up my reservoir bottles (during the daytime), and noticed a small wooden house. There was one lone Italian supporter standing close by and then I noticed the TOR bags, how exciting, why were they there!? “Excuse me”, I asked. She spoke little to no English, but I was used to this by now. “Why are the TOR bags here? Can I take mine?” She replied, “no understand, I don’t know what you mean”. A few thoughts later, “The orange/ yellow bags, can we collect ours” I asked again, gesturing to carrying a bag. “No understand, no English”. At that point I decided to press on. Rubbing my eyes, I looked again to the house, yes there was a house, but this time, the TOR bags revealed themselves. They were firewood neatly stacked against the side of the house. Now I understand why she was confused.

After confusing one poor Italian and summiting Col Loson, the climb from Donnas to Rif. Coda (330 to 2224m, 174.5km, mid race) was enjoyable. Despite Rif. Coda not being as high as most col’s (at 2224m) is an undulating climb that is very rewarding after discovering a JBL pumping Mumford and Sons at the top. Who new one would find that at the top of the Italian Alps! 

The passes, climbs and mountains came over the next 10’s of hours until just before Gressoney Palazzetto (which is the turning point in the race as you’re now back on your path to Courmayeur), where Niel greets you. It’s only a 4km climb with 400m vert and 2500 steps through forests leaving the village! This is where I was greeted by some fantastic volunteers at the top. Yet it was during this time that I started to think about Sthembiso. I was doing this race for him and for him, I would continue to march off into the wilderness climbing those stairs into the darkness. 

Gressoney, “The Hub” Life Base.

Gressoney is the life base where most people really “go to town” so to say with recovering, eating well, resting, recuperating. The opportunity presented itself, it was time to move and move fast I thought to myself. Whilst it’s “nice” to be in life bases, don’t forget the reason you went in the first place. That for me, was to run and to run with all my heart. This was where I realized such a moment; run with your heart and no obligations, not with your head…


Time passed, the nighttime light was settling in and darkness, for the third time was greeting me. The weather was changing by this point and fortunately for me I finished the race on Friday morning but for those still running throughout Friday night and Saturday, there was 15cm of snow that stopped the race at Bosses. I remember the moment vividly, after passing through Fenetre de Tzan around midnight (2738m, 263km and 23529m total elevation gain) we were heading towards Rif. Lo Magià.

The climb was not excessive, but the temperatures were dropping and only a narrow footpath lead us in the direction of the Ref. Lo Magià. On route, there are always individuals who are struggling with dehydration, lack of food, sleep deprivation or any number of things. Yet, for some reason, I was concerned for this man, sitting on the path, looking tired, cold and in desperate need of something. Luca (French) was his name; he gestured to me with two hands pushed together and placed under his right ear and simply said the word “strong”. Then I realised, he was extremely sleep deprived and was wanting caffeine, or at least something to keep him awake. I checked my pockets, nothing. I looked through my medical sachet, nothing. What to do did I ask? I grabbed his forearm and with my other arm gestured to him, waving, pulling him to get up and follow me. I didn’t want to leave him on what was rapidly becoming a frozen corner of nowhere. Then I realised (what felt like the year before) that I had indeed packed a caffeine sachet. It was indeed the year before that I had bought the very sachet for UltraTrail-Drakensberg but never used it and then decided to bring it to TOR.

“Luca”, he spoke no English, so out came the charades again. Gesturing him to sit, I said “strong, strong”. He sat and I next to him and pulling out my silicon cup, pointing to mine in an effort for him to get his, he removed his from his vest and washed it with a little water. Then pouring half the contents (as he was insistent for me to keep half) into his cup, he added “so so” much water and after finger charades to encourage him to stir it, he drank. Now, from my limited French and Italian, “minutes” sounds quite similar in English, French and Italian. So, I was blurbing, “Minuut, Minata, Minua” on the hopes to find a way for him to understand that in ten minutes he would be “strong, strong”. Again, helping him up, we walked in silence as we could not communicate. Ten minutes later, I heard it all, “STRONG STRONG STRONG” and as smile resembling Sthembiso’s was stretched across Luca’s face. He was too tired to run, and I was itching to pick up the pace, yet leaving him was not in my toolbag of decisions. We walked past a few halluminating tractors and then Rif. Lo Magià was coming into sight. 

The lights of the base were speckles on the horizon. After the main component of the climb and on flat ground, he pulled out a sachet of treats, grabbed my hand and started decanting loads of dried fruit with so much ginger that I was coughing, sucking in air but couldn’t breathe all at the same time. He was so sweet and could see without a doubt how grateful he was, for what literally cost me noting. A short while later I wanted to leave him at Magià but he insisted I come in with him, (now) with an enthusiastic wave. We entered the base, he went to a bench and spoke to some French, I gathered he was ordering a cappuccino. I restocked my Coke supply, nibbles and was about to head out when I saw that infectious smile again, “Tim… Cappucino?” “Gratzie…non – Thank you – No” were the Italian and French words, respectively that I now had in my vocabulary. One thing’s for sure at TOR and that’s if you can understand the basics of French and Italian, you will be fine. I was overwhelmed by his kindness and didn’t want to appear rude at his gesture, but I needed to press on. “One more “gratzie…non” and I hopped back outside to follow the flickering’s of distant head torches.

Rey (Ollomont) was the last remaining life base the next day to which I arrived knowing full well of where I was (last year I thought I was finishing just after Rey, yet there is still a marathon to go at this point). Leaving Rey late evening I started my ascent to the infamous Rif. Frassati and Col Malatra. Col Malatra is a leg tester and after completing 331.8km, it is a significant climb. The climb is suggested to take approximately five hours from Rey. My journey was most exciting. I met the Seth ghost. Jeremy was my best “hallucination” friend. While tying my shoelaces on one occasion, he was standing right at my hip and startled me greatly when I noticed him for the first time – I almost fell over. Then he walked over to the wall to have a wee on the next occasion as I adjusted the other shoelace. It was a long wee, or shoelace tying event. One of us was indeed taking our time, I am not too sure. In any case. I asked him, “Jeremy, are you going to stop weeing?” We walked in silence for quite some time. I was having a good glare at some dandelion-type plants that were instantly growing on the curb, blossoming into beautiful blue flowers when he reappeared. “Jeremy, are you not talking to me now” He never did speak, I think he was offended by my lack of personal space during his loo break. 

I did not see much of Jeremy after that. The climb up to Rif. Frassati was fascinating. Merchants were everywhere in the “market”, selling slates of rock that looked like ironing rock-boards, rock-cellphones, rock washing machines, a rock jet ski, and my South African favorite, the “Rock-by-ball” rugby ball. Jeremey did protect me from some “traders” who were quite scary though in their dark, floating overalls; Jeremy was a solid friend, and I was grateful for him being there for me in that particular moment.

The remainder of the race was one of reflection. After passing over Col Malatra and through Pas Entre Deux Sauts, I did need some early morning guidance from one of my good friends, Rob Graham, since my watch had issues and I was struggling with not being able to navigate from lack of sleep. During this time, I had approximately 15km of solo mountain running from 02:00-07:11 where I finished off Tor dés Geants in uninterrupted bliss without another runner in sight. The flowing single track to the finish line was beautiful and more so from the lack of sleep. I honestly believe I ran through the streets of Courmayeur at sub 4 mins/km and couldn’t be more content running with the Giants of the Aosta Valley and across the finish line.

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