Jez Bragg in the Tor des Géants

One long race for a man, one giant leap for Jez Bragg

Jez Bragg in the Tor des Géants
Jez Bragg was embarking on the biggest challenge of his glittering running résumé when he took to the Italian Alps to face the legendary, 339km Tor des Géants

We’ve seen some incredibly impressive feats of endurance in recent weeks from Bournemouth AC members. There was of course Linn Erixon Sahlström’s 123 kilometre escapade over the fabled slopes of Mont Blanc in the TDS race. Then, also at the UTMB, Damian Boyle battled his way through the 101km CCC race.

Ant Clark’s spectacular success in the World 100k Championships has been well documented, with an 8th place overall finish and a 1st M40 over the line distinction. On that same weekend, Jacek Cieluszecki was tackling a 100k race of his own in the 7 Valleys Run, staged in his homeland of Poland, with JC also occupying 8th position in another high standard field.

These kinds of distances seem a hell of a long way to go in a one-off race and, as anyone who has ever done a marathon will know, the thought of doing that amount of running, nearly two-and-half times over is a seriously daunting proposition.

Amazingly, one Bournemouth AC member took things one step further when he entered the infamous and legendary Tor des Géants. The Tor des Géants is without a doubt one of the longest, toughest and most demanding non-stop trail races on the planet.

With a course billed at 330km in length (205 miles) and the setting being in the Italian Alps, as one would probably gather, the terrain isn’t flat. In fact, the route incorporates an elevation gain of 24,000 metres (78,700 ft), so this is no straight forward, long distance ultra race.

But who would be crackers enough to even attempt such a ‘mission impossible’? Of course, it could only be, the one and only Jez Bragg. To be fair, Jez does have a pedigree in doing the most extraordinarily challenging of races.

In May 2017 he completed the Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race, a five day mountain ultra covering a  total distance of 315 kilometres and featuring 15,500 metres of ascent across the spine of Wales.

In 2013 he ran across the entire length of New Zealand, meaning both the North and South islands. The 3,000km route took him 53 days to complete, setting a new record for the fastest time anyone has gone across the entire length of the country on foot.

Whilst those were both amazing achievements in their own right, they didn’t entail continuous running from start to finish. That would be a somewhat different prospect altogether.

To complete the Tor des Géants, he was going to have to dig deeper than ever before. As Jez himself said previously though, the greatest of adventures are those with the highest risk of failure.

It would probably be fair to say that this year has been a mixed bag for Jez and has brought both ups and downs. He was forced to pull out of the UK 100k Championships when representing England at the Anglo Celtic Plate. That was due to a horrific stomach bug he’d picked up just 24 hours before the start of the race.

Showing great character though, he came back and made amends by completing the Belvès 100k. The Bèlves 100k was the French National Championships for 100k and, whilst being a foreigner meant he didn’t have all the luxuries that his French rivals had afforded to them, being followed around on bikes with drinks, gels and food etc, it did mean that he qualified the open race.

The open race was for all those not competing in the French National Championships. Finishing a brilliant 4th overall, Jez received  a trophy for his 1st place in the open race.

Jez unfortunately also suffered a DNF at the Paddy Buckley Round, a fell running challenge in Snowdonia, where he completed the bulk of the slightly over 100k route before the tough terrain eventually took its toll and he was forced to abort.

At the Tor des Géants though, he was determined to see it through, no matter what. Jez’s epic journey began on Sunday 9th September at 12 noon (11am UK time).

The start of the Tor des Géants
The famous Tor des Géants gets underway from Courmayeur, as 900 runners set off on the most epic of adventures

The race’s previous history suggested it would take days to complete, with the very top runners over previous years take around 80 hours to get to the finish. That’s well over three days of non-stop running. And for the average runner in the field, it would be a lot longer.

How you even begin to think about pacing yourself for a run like that is hard to comprehend. Jez weighed in with a 6:54 mile though, although it was mostly downhill to be fair.

That quickly changed though as he started going up the first of 20 2,000m passes that he would have to overcome if he was to make it to the end. It was a hugely daunting task when you look at it as an overall spectacle. As with all races though, the trick is to break it down into smaller chunks.

The gradients were super steep and he was thrust straight onto an upward curve of 27%. By the time he’d reached the top of the first mountain, he’d already racked up an elevation gain of almost 4,000ft. It was truly brutal. All part of the fun though of course.

After 2 hours and 42 minutes Jez reached the first checkpoint of La Thuile. Impressively, he was in 16th place out of 900 who started. At the next checkpoint of Rif. Deffeyes, he’d moved up to 12th and had been running for 4 hours 32 minutes. In terms of this particular event though, the race was still young.

The second big climb took him up to 20 miles in and his elevation gain was already up to 9,000ft. By the 50k point in the race at Valgrisenche, Jez had broken into the top 10 and had been running for 8 hours 45 minutes. He knew there was still a long way to go but at least it felt at this point like he was making progress.

As night fell, Jez carried on running. Due to the non-stop nature of the race, he knew sleep tactics would be all important. Along with the other fast guys, he was keen to see how far he could push it though and kept going all the way through the night.

Around 100km in, Jez had climbed to the highest altitude point in the race at over 3,300m (10,500ft). At that kind of high altitude, the air gets pretty thin and Jez was suffering from lack of acclimatisation.

He persevered though and at 8:14am, Jez arrived at Cogne, 108km into the race. He could at this point have been about the third of the way through so this was a big step. He’d now been running for over 20 hours and traversing up and down mountains for that length of time is incredibly demanding.

He wasn’t about to stop there though and Jez battled on. At 4.51pm that afternoon he arrived at Donnas, 153km into the race. He’d now been going for almost 29 hours and was still sitting 9th in the standings.

The slopes of the Tor des Géants
A spectacular scene on the slopes of the Italian Alps with a picturesque, pink sky backdrop

He then began the long journey to Gressoney St Jean, which would take him up to the 207km point. That meant another tough night out on the slopes.

Unfortunately, the thin, cold air at the top of the mountains had given him a chest infection which meant his breathing was severely compromised. As if it wasn’t already a hard enough challenge, he now had that to contend with as well.

Over the course of the night, he allowed himself 50 minutes sleep before getting up and preparing to get back out there. He didn’t want to lose any time to his rivals, so although it was tough keeping alert and staying safe on mountain terrain at nights, he had to try and stay focused.

At 11:44 the next morning he arrived at Gressoney St Jean. Another huge step in the journey had been taken and he’d been running for almost two full days.

There was no time to rest though. He had to get back out there and carry on the journey. Next it was onto Valtournenche, 240km in. This was quite a big landmark as it meant he technically only had 100km to go. 100km is still a lot of course, but if you’ve already done 240km, that probably puts a slightly different complexion on it.

Arriving at Valtournenche at 10:16pm, he’d now been going for a massive 56 hours. Due to the breathing issues he was having though, he had began to slow down a bit by this point and had slipped to 12th in the standings.

Showing tremendous courage and tenacity though, Jez trooped on and made his way toward the next big milestone, which was Ollomont at 288km. Reaching Ollomont would mean only 50km to the finish line.

That night he allowed himself only a couple of 10 minute laps as he was so conscious of not losing any time to his fellow rivals, especially is his breathing was still causing him problems.

Before reaching Ollomont though, he first he had to make it Oyace, which he managed by around midday on the Wednesday. That meant he’s been running for 72 hours, so three full days.

How he was still going is difficult to perceive but he was and it didn’t seem like anything was going to stop him. At this point Jez was at 256km and was currently lying in 14th place.

Five hours later he arrived at Ollomont, taking him up to 288km. It was a simply breathtaking display of determination and grit. A never say die attitude that very few are lucky enough to possess.

A few hours later he reached the 300km point in the race, which was another huge milestone to get to. He’d now been running for 18 hours and had incredibly reached an elevation gain of 28,000ft.

He was now in 16th place. It was 8pm though, so having 40k still to go meant he had another long night out on the rugged slopes ahead of him.

It must have been mentally tough for Jez to prepare himself for that, but he would have been buoyed by the fact that if he could make it through this one last night, he would surely see the finish on the following day.

With that in mind, he battled on, reaching the next checkpoint at Bosses at 2:30am. That night he allowed himself one hour’s sleep before he got back out there.

He’d lost a few more places by the time he got to Rif. Frassati at 7:11 on the Thursday morning but he kept going and did his best, despite his breathing issues, to maintain the pace. It was then onto the penultimate checkpoint of Rif. Bertone, which he arrived at at 10:39am.

45 minutes later, his monumental journey reached its conclusion when Jez arrived at the finish line in Courmayeur. He’d only gone and done it! He’d completed all 339km of the Tor des Géants! He’d taken on the toughest mountains the Italian Alps has to offer and looked them right square in the eye and said “You are not going to defeat me!”

Jez Bragg finishes the Tor des Géants
After four gruelling days in the Italian Alps, having covered almost 400 kilometres and climbed 80,000ft of ascent, Jez crosses the famous yellow ramp to complete his epic Tor des Géants journey

It was a dream come true for Jez. He’d been on the most amazing adventure and he’d seen it through to the end. In spite of all the difficulties he’d suffered along the way, he had kept on going and had refused to let anything stand in his way.

His official time was 95 hours 24 minutes and 9 seconds, so he’d made it just before the four full days of running were up. He’d scaled an elevation of 30,900m (80,000ft) and had finished in 23rd place. It was a truly astonishing piece of running, even by Jez’s very high standards.

In fact, the 339km (210 miles) it was meant to have been was way off the mark. By time he arrived at the finish line, Jez had actually run over 245 miles, which is 394km. That was a big difference and makes completing the race seem even more impressive and even more of a superhuman achievement.

Although he went through some difficult times over the duration of his four day foray, Jez said it was the most amazing experience. The local people of Astoa Valley, which is where the route circumnavigates, were very kind to the runners. They gave them great levels of support from the mountain huts and were very passionate about helping the runners through it.

They even fed the competitors and gave them shelter when needed and their warmth provided Jez and his fellow participants with the strength they needed to keep going.

Jez was the first Brit to cross the line, which was a huge accolade in a very diverse, international line up, finishing 30 minutes ahead of Jamie Aarons who came in 26th place.

There were athletes from all over the world taking part. Of course, there were many Italians, with it being on their home soil, but there were also Americans, Canadians, French, Spanish, Swiss, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, South African and many, many other nationalities being represented.

Jez Bragg and Paul Tierney after completing the Tor des Géants
Jez compares notes with Irishman Paul Tierney over which one of the 25 or so mountain passes was the toughest

The race was won by Franco Colle of Italy, who finished in a time of 74 hours and 3 minutes. Galen Reynolds of Canada was 2nd in 74 hours 40 minutes.

In total, 534 of the 894 who started the race managed to make it onto the famous yellow ramp of the finish line. That meant that 360 of the participants sadly did not make that far, so it was a 40% drop-out rate. That just underlines how difficult this race actually is. Each and every one of the competitors will no doubt have stories to tell about their truly unique Tor des Géants experiences though.

Out of all the races he’s done in his illustrious running lifetime, Jez said this one was by far the hardest. That’s saying something as he’s done some other incredibly demanding events in the past. He was glad to get it done and get it ticked off his bucket list though and he was extremely proud to be a finisher.

After the race they had a ceremony in Courmayeur, where all the finishers were presented with a special finisher’s jersey. It was a journey that had taken Jez deeper than he’d ever gone before but he felt hugely blessed to have made it.

At the end of day though, or rather in this case, the end of the four days, was it all worth it? The relentless ascents, the trashed and painful quads, the breathing difficulties, the sleepless nights, the extreme levels of fatigue…

Here’s a quote from Jez that perhaps goes some way toward answering that question: “The mammoth scale of the challenge creates a constant rollercoaster of emotions, but at the end, the ultimate sense of contentment knowing the most special of journeys is safely saved in the memory bank.”