Running a 210-mile race up and down the Alps in northern Italy provides time and motivation for all sorts of thoughts, reflections and even hallucinations.
Veteran trail runner John Anderson went from physical and mental agony to actual ecstasy during his greatest challenge yet last month, the Tor des Geants Endurance Trail through the Aosta Valley and surrounding mountains. The weeklong 330-kilometer event is the longest endurance race of its kind in the world, and after finishing 32nd out of 700 competitors and as the first American, Anderson hardly can wait to try it again.
The 38-year-old Chattanooga native and 1996 Baylor School graduate is an emergency room doctor in Reno, Nev., who lives in nearby Truckee, Calif., near his brother Andy, with whom he recently started a company teaching rescue and medical emergency procedures. Both ran cross country for Baylor.
Their parents, Yogi and Joli, still live in Chattanooga, and the brothers maintain other ties to their hometown. John, for instance, won the 2008 StumpJump 50k race and still is a member of the Rock/Creek trail racing team.
He's been doing trail ultras for years, and he heard about the Tor des Geants three or four years ago and soon started thinking about trying it.
"Really last year I started thinking seriously about doing it, and this year seemed like a now-or-never good time," John said recently. "I committed to doing it this year and began training for it.
"I put in a lot of long days and tried to put in as much vertical climbing as I could," he said. "The race is long and that is one of the challenges, but all the climbing and descending you do is unique."
The Tor involves 80,000 feet of ascents and the same in descents in its return to Courmayeur.
In a regular part of his training, Anderson would spend "Saturday, Sunday and Monday out most of the day running, all in the mountains." He also at times went to Squaw Valley and ran up the ski slopes.
He set a goal of finishing in the top 10 in the 2016 Tor. The notion of being the first American didn't really develop until he was in the race.
Anderson almost crashed and burned the first night, as he described in a blog he did for www.donnerpartymountainrunners.com.
"Day one was a disaster," he wrote. "Going up the third climb, I began to feel nauseated and soon thereafter I was hanging off the side of the trail watching my breakfast disappear off the edge."
He began to feel a little better, but on the ensuing climb, he wrote, "things went from bad to worse. My legs were cramping and the vomiting began again in earnest. I curled up on the side of the trail a few miles out of the checkpoint and tried to get it together. I was low, I was broken and I had my own private pity party.
"Things did not improve," the blog continued, "and as it was now night and cold, I turned around and headed back to the checkpoint for warmth and more wallowing in my broken pride. To be honest, I was pretty sure my race was done — that I had come all this way, trained for all these months to be defeated in the first 40 miles."
He spent more than six hours at that checkpoint but somehow he "just got up, got cleared by the medical staff and walked out into the night back up the trail. I entered the checkpoint in around 20th place and left somewhere around 300th, my hopes of a top-10 finish dissolved."
Then came a remarkable turnaround.
"I leaned into the next 5,000-foot climb, and so began the second part of my race, the last 170 miles and perhaps the greatest running experience that I've had in 25-plus years of competitive running," he reflected.
The breathtaking vistas mixed with the extreme effort required on a route that included ropes and metal ladders built onto cliffs, plus the heroes' welcome and food offered by villagers along the way, the organization of the Tor's six "life bases" about 50 kilometers apart and the competitive camaraderie of the participants all made it uniquely memorable.
Then there was the sleep deprivation. The race allowed the runners/climbers to stop and sleep as much as they wanted, but there always was the urgency to push on — especially in Anderson's case as he tried to make up for his early lost time. He said he slept only four to five hours total during the race, which he completed in just over 104 hours.
"The Tor is not a bigger or steeper or longer race," he said in his blog. "It is a completely new experience. A little after midnight on the second night at around 90 miles, I stopped for my first nap and spent a few hours in the life base eating, doctoring up my feet and recharging. It was sometime in this second night that my body and mind settled into a singular existence, and awareness of only the present moment. My body was running, and I was inside it.
"I felt an immersive peace for the last few days of the race," he wrote. Yet, he emphasized, "The race is hard. Over the last three passes were torrential rain and pounding snow. The nights were long, and I had vivid hallucinations. I saw ghosts, and I saw the dragon. There were soaring highs and crushing lows."
Certainly once should be enough, then. Right?
"I was proud to be able to recover and make a push," Anderson said. "I would like to go back and see if I can put together something a little faster. I understand the challenges and could make some adjustments in my training.
"Yes, it would be good to do it again next year if possible."
Contact Ron Bush at email@example.com or 423-757-6291.
Correction: The Tor des Geants is the longest endurance trail race of its kind in the world. There are longer relay races and road races.