Missy and Brett Gosney stop for a photo beneath Monte Bianco (known as Mont Blanc on the other side of the Alps) near the end of their five-day, 205-mile Tor des Geants in September. The two were among nine Americans to race and less than 400 runners to finish the grueling race./Photo by Brendan Trimboli

Giant steps

Local couple completes 200-mile 'Tor des Geants'

by Page Burno

It’s called an “endurance trail run," but the Tor des Geants, a 205-mile (330k) run through the Alps of northern Italy, is more than a test of endurance.

For two local ultra runners, husband and wife duo Brett and Missy Gosney, it was the high point of an already impressive running career.

"It was the race of a lifetime," said Brett, still in the throes of recovery from the race, which took place Sept. 8-15. In addition to being two of only nine Americans chosen via lottery to run the race, the Gosneys were among the less than 50 percent of the race's 740-some participants to actually finish.

As the name would suggest, the "Tour of Giants" (TDG) is a six-day race of epic proportions. Starting and finishing in the Aosta Valley of Northern Italy, runners climb and descend 78,000 feet – roughly the equivalent of going from sea level to Everest, three times. During these dramatic changes in elevation, runners can experience anything from intense heat and sun to rain, wind and even snow. Although billed as "noncompetitive" in nature (all finishers are given an award), the race is not staged, meaning racers must muscle through without the benefit of a good night's sleep or much more than the clothes on their backs.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable odds, interest in the race, now in its fourth year, is huge. This year's race drew participants from 41 countries, ranging in age from 20-77. This year's winner, Iker Karrera, of Spain, ran the race in just more than 70 hours, averaging 69 miles a day and beating the previous year's time by almost six hours.

For the Gosneys, a month after finishing, the race still seems like some sort of crazy dream.

“You go through all these stages of remembering the different aspects and looking at it different ways … the things you remember, the things you don’t, the things you suffered through,” said Brett, who is the CEO of Animas Surgical Hospital, “… including the question of ‘how did we get ourselves involved in this?’”

Missy continued. “I know we put our names in a lottery, and I know that our names were picked, and then we looked at each other and said, 'let’s go.'”

But the back-story of how the two decided to put their name in the hat in the first place involves many, many miles.

Brett was an avid climber for several years, but in the mid 1990s a quest to travel quick and light started what he calls "adventure mountain runs," which morphed into competitive running. Brett, at 54, has now run more than 34 ultra running events – including competing in the Hard Rock 100 seven times. He now serves on the board for the Silverton race.

“The idea is just to get into the mountains ... year by year I just kept shedding things. I found the more I got rid of, the more fun I had,” Brett said.

At 44, Missy ran her first ultra after spending nearly 20 years working for Outward Bound and spending a significant amount of time in the mountains.

“I hadn’t done a ton of long runs, but I’d spent so much time on trails,” Missy said. “I have a competitive streak, so I love getting to the start line.”

She has completed four ultra events, placing first in the 100-mile Cascade Crest in Washington and second in the 50-mile San Juan Solstice outside of Lake City.

While the two both had experience with running distances up to 100 miles, the TDG broke into a new realm of "epic trail running."

Each fall, the couple sits down to choose their “hit-list” for the coming year. They tossed their names in the hat for the TGD, which has long been on their radar. When their names were drawn in February, the training began.

“We started training the minute we got in,” Missy said. “We were extremely well-trained, but rookies to the run itself.”

The bulk of their training took place in the San Juans, and at the peak, the two were running about 25 hours at a time – or approximately 100 miles with 30,000 feet of vertical.

Pine Needle Mountaineering offered the two loads of support with gear, letting them try out various packs and jackets before making a decision.

 “TDG is billed as the most difficult mountain run in the world for a number of reasons,” Brett said, “the distance being the most obvious.”

Aside from the distance, Brett said one of the most challenging pieces was that although the mountain passes are generally about 3,000 feet lower than the local passes, the climbs are much longer due to the intense vertical relief of the region.

Unlike many staged races, where participants huddle down in camps and rest for the night, the nearly 740 racers who enter the Tor des Geants sleep only when they must. For Missy and Brett, this meant about nine hours of z’s over the course of five nights.

 “It’s a single-stage race, and that’s one of the things that was really interesting about it. Part of the puzzle, the Rubik's Cube, is how you put together the strategy to do it as a single stage; can you actually figure out how to put it together without blowing it?” Missy said.

The first 20 hours of the race proved brutal, as rain and cold caused hypothermia in many racers. A Chinese man, Yang Yuan, died of a fall, and numerous injuries were reported.

Fortunately, the Gosneys made it through unscathed and stuck to the distance and pacing plan they had developed with their trainer: cover 50 miles a day and stay together.

“The plan worked really well for the first 48 hours,” Missy said. “But then we hit the hardest stage, our bodies were pretty hammered, and we sort of hit the brick wall. We had to go ‘oh no, this isn’t going to work any more.'”

On day one and two, the couple covered 50 miles each day. By day three, though, they had to readjust the pace to around 30 miles per day. But, the two managed to stick together, perhaps one of the bigger challenges of the race.

“It’s rare for people to run together, and we really debated about the wisdom of trying,” Brett said. “It’s so complex with people having highs and lows at different times, and then throw into that the fact that we’re married.”

They decided there were more pluses than minuses in staying together but made a contingency plan to do their own thing if it wasn’t working.

“In the back of my mind I hoped we would run together – that’s a long time to be alone – but chances were we probably wouldn’t be able to pull this off,” Brett said.

The route was dotted with seven “life stations,” located in towns and villages, as well as a handful of backcountry huts. The life stations, which were situated every 50 kilometers, supplied food and cots for sleeping, as well as racers' pre-packed duffel bags.

“Compared to aid stations here, the food is really deluxe – it’s like sausage and cheese and pasta and yogurts. Very European,” Brett said.

On the other hand, at the smaller backcountry huts, where some provisions are provided, racers are allowed to sleep for only up to two hours. Understandably, sleep deprivation is a serious concern.

“Sleep deprivation was just brutal,” Brett said. “You can see why they use it as a torture technique.”

Ultimately, the couple crossed the finish line together, bleary-eyed but otherwise incredibly intact, 122 hours after starting. Coincidentally, they finished 122nd, and Missy was the 10th woman across the finish line.

 “We were experienced and well trained,” Brett said, “But there was also a big element of luck.”

The local crowds also helped keep them going. One of only 80 women to finish the race, Missy received attention in the small towns that oscillated from overwhelming to inspiring.

“I was kind of the invisible man,” said Brett. “Missy’s out there, one of very few women, maybe the only one running in a skirt. The photographers went nuts – but more than that, the Italian women.”

“They would stop me and kiss my cheeks – saying ‘bravo, bravo,’” Missy recounts. “It was awesome.”

The support overall was unprecedented and unlike anything the two had witnessed at races in the States.

“Over there, it’s a real sport,” Brett said. “Here it’s a sub-niche sport that nobody knows about.”

Thousands of supporters gather at the beginning and finish of the TDG, as well as cheer for the runners as they move through the villages.

As they recall the race, they both shudder, but with a spark. Clearly, what many might consider a bizarre form of torture offers these two deep satisfaction. And, while their bodies might still be wondering what exactly that is, the smiles they flash while they recount the race are unmistakable.

“We actually do enjoy doing this. It’s not just this crazy sufferfest,” Brett said. “There’s no question that there’s an element of suffering, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s this really fantastic thing to be part of, and a great way to be in the mountains.”

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