Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

I ’ve always loved to run. To me, there is no sport more rewarding than running. After I finished my Chemistry BSc degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2011, I would run in the streets of Hilton wearing cotton t-shirts and Gilbert rugby shorts, and became known as The Guy with the Orange Running Bag.
Every day I would slip on my running shoes, grab my (very basic by today’s standards) hydration bag and dance with the souls of my feet for the afternoon.
However, my running career started long before my university days. At nine, I was running at Saint Charles in Pietermaritzburg in 1999, racking up the 100km term badges as fast as my little legs would carry me on cross-country days. I was so excited to sew the badges onto my running pants and march around, displaying them to everyone that I’d achieved the 100 Club.

tor des geants 2021 tim underwood opening spread Day4 Col Entrelor photo Pierre Lucianaz TRAIL magazine issue t42


Dean Riley, my PE coach at the time, was a Comrades Marathon runner, and to me was one of the big boys who was conquering the world of running!

Yet I knew I wanted more than the road scene. The vast mountain ranges that I saw depicted decades ago in magazines devoted to mountain biking (following Greg Minnaar) and running were calling to me – and I had to answer.

After finishing my schooling career and undergrad degree, I rekindled my running, but spent years trying to mitigate shin splints, tight calves, and aching muscles. I was buying endless shoes because I was told they were lighter, faster… we all know the story.
However, despite the setbacks, it got me thinking back to the time when I was the nine-year-old version of myself. I would sit on wet pine needles in the forests after a light summer rain, imagining what it would be like, one day, to line up as one of the big boys and take on those amazing outdoor adventures.

I had no doubts, no second-guessing my abilities to conquer those ambitious goals and just knew my Hi-Tec shoes would take me to the ends of the Earth. Well, at least until the food ran out. That came true for me in September 2021 after 144 hours and 349km (hey, I got lost!) at the 330km Tor des Géants (TOR330).

TOR330 welcome email

Inspired By Giants

TOR330 is regarded as one of the world’s toughest trail running races, set in the stunning Aosta Valley of north-western Italy. It’s famed for containing some of the tallest peaks in Europe, including Cervino, Monte Rosa, and the giant – Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe (4,808m).

The 330km race has over 24,000m of elevation gain, and runners have only 150 hours to complete the mammoth race.

To date, only five crazy South Africans had crossed the TOR330 finished line and earned the right to be known as Giants of the race. Armand du Plessis and Steens Luc were first in 2016, followed by Anouk Baars, Tiaan Erwee, and Matt Dove in 2018.

Matt, as well as Rob Graham, both founders of IronBorn Endurance in Hilton, have taken my running above the clouds since August 2020. Matt also finished the even more insane Tor des Glaciers (a race with 450km, and 32,000m elevation gain) in 2019.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of Matt’s TOR WhatsApp groups, dot-watching him for days, and that’s how I finally decided on TOR as my big boy race to enter.
In December 2020, after entering the lottery for TOR330 and praying to the running gods, training was underway for my first 100 miler.

Preparation

I had chosen South Africa’s toughest trail race, Ultra-Trail Drakensberg (UTD) in April 2021. That turned into a very special month and the start of something so much greater than I could have dreamed of.

One of the highlights in the vast wilderness of the Lesotho highlands was being accompanied by local rider Moses on horseback up towards Black Mountain. It was during this experience that I decided to accept my Tor des Géants lottery ticket entry.

In the months after, inspired by UTD, including reminiscing over hallucinations of hippies dancing around a 1960 VW van, I laced up my shoes once more under the skilled coaching on #teamironbornendurance to get the dreams of my younger self to the start line of TOR330.

It was all coming true!

Little did I know of the wonderful adventures to come, not only during a time of COVID trying to get to Italy but during the race itself, where I learned of the South African WW2 effort in Italy through carvings and memorial plaques in the forests of the Aosta Valley. SA soldiers were deployed to assist in the Allied war effort in Italy. Their service struck a chord with me, and the memorabilia came alive on several occasions during the race.

COVID Hoops

We are all aware of the South African versions of COVID that are always significantly worse than anywhere else in the world. Ha! Travelling to Italy from South Africa was banned. Travelling to other European countries and Australia was also banned. I knew there was a way to get there. I just needed to keep looking.

July was getting close and by this time, restrictions were fortunately dropping. It was a choice of either quarantining in the Seychelles or Switzerland! A two-week quarantine was mandatory on entering Italy and would not be ideal stepping up to a 330km race after isolating in a hotel for a fortnight.

I found the loophole: the Seychelles was accepting South Africans in July, according to my first travel agent. But with little communication confirming the departure to the Seychelles, and September drawing nearer, I needed to act swiftly. Two travel agents later I met Dillan Silcock from Flight Centre in Johannesburg. Kudos to Dillan, and my younger brother Patrick, who discovered Switzerland was accepting South Africans. We bashed out a travel plan and I was set to venture abroad. But oops, I had nowhere to stay in Switzerland!

After searching all over the internet, I connected with Reon Coetzee on Facebook. He’s a South African living on a beautiful mountainside in Versoix, Switzerland. We started chatting online about the race. I was gobsmacked when he simply stated, “Come over”. I was trying to assess how long he would host me (I needed 14 days), how much I needed to pay him rent-wise, but he simply said, “Come, don’t worry about all that” once more.

Reon is an absolute gem of a human and he was the key to the success behind TOR. He invited me to stay with him and see his Meet Point business in the heart of Versoix selling good ol’ SA favourites: Marmite, Mrs Balls Chutney, Sparletta, and of course, boerewors and biltong. It’s ironic that I’ve been a vegetarian for 19 years and that I was going to stay with a South African ex-pat selling all South Africa’s favourite meats!

Recce Adventures

My stay with Reon was well spent: I explored the Jura range, the baby sibling to the Alps in the 13 days I was there. Sixteen days prior to TOR, I was fortunate to do some sightseeing and catch a bus after travelling around Lake Geneva by train to Mont Blanc and witness my very first Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in the beating heart of Chamonix.

Those mountains bewitched me with their beauty. And watching the big dogs line up, meeting our local hero Ryan Sandes, and then seeing US star Courtney Dauwalter enter the elite pen all made for an unforgettable day. Afterwards, I used my time in the trail running capital of the world well to gather last-minute accessories for my upcoming adventures in running heaven and of course, ate some French ice-cream. The calories would come in good use later.

Fast forwarding the next 13 days, the nerves were coming up, but the pizzas were going down well in the beautiful ski town of Courmayeur. After eating a stack of Italian yummies, I took my belly full of carbs to register, collect my coveted TOR duffel bag, and spent my last night re-checking my gear for the upcoming days of trail adventure.

The view from La Thuile soon after the start was breathtaking. They say a picture tells a thousand words, but runners will say that running shoes reveal ten thousand more.

Off We Go!

And then it was time to start. The Italian dancers wished us well, and immediately after we were off. Straight into the skies we marched. La Thuile – just 19km – in delivered 1,750m elevation gain! This was only a taste of what was to come. Matt told me from experience to eat solid food, as energy bars and gels wouldn’t cut it. TOR was an adventure – not a race.

Stomach discomfort reared its head for the first 100km. Only after 150km did I start heeding Matt’s words. Pockets full of queen cakes, chocolate chip biscuits, soup, dark chocolate, Italian pasta, tomatie with parmigiano, Italian coffee and teah (tea, which tasted like cat pee flavoured with lemon juice, although it was an excellent electrolyte) kept me in good stead.

Unfortunately, I picked up a tibialis anterior strain early while coming down Col Entrelor at the 75km point on Monday, which drastically limited my ankle flexion for the next 125 hours. My saviour was meeting an Italian physiotherapist on Wednesday at Gressoney. He had worked with the Sharks and in several African countries, and described his aid station as resembling a war zone. A miracle worker, his inventive strapping techniques were being tested every minute. Strapped up from head to toe, with a full belly, I headed out with 213km and 18,300m of vertical climbing in my legs.

Gressoney is the turning point in TOR, and I was now heading back towards the finish at Courmayeur. It was a good place to note the kindness of volunteers at TOR. The people of Italy are all so genuinely kind. Ordinary people leave their homes to support, hand out food right outside their houses to passing runners, and cheer you on.

The volunteers at checkpoints were always a delight, with their huge smiles, treating each runner as a king or queen upon arrival and then hastily dishing up bowls of various Italian dishes.

Grazie (thank you) and prego (you’re welcome) were words of the day.

The strain shows at the 234km mark (Saint-Jacques), with 20,270m climbing in the bag. Tim has had less than three hours’ sleep in 80 hours of race time.

The Halluminations Arrive

After 73 hours of running and just two hours of sleep, I started to experience hallucinations, or halluminations as I called them in WhatsApp voice notes to my followers and friends.

By Friday, the halluminations were in full swing during the day. They were most intriguing and kept me entertained. I had never experienced halluminations during daytime. This made me ponder whether they were going to leave, or were they now with me forever, even during my daytime periods of consciousness? It was either discussing that between me, myself and I, or listening to Linkin Park for the 87th time.

My most vivid memory was a visit to the Ice Queen’s Palace as I headed down Col Malatrà, a 600m descent. She was asking me to take over her valley due to her increasing age. I refused several times and on multiple occasions was stabbing rocks well into the early hours of Saturday morning as I was convinced the rocks were people frozen in the fetal position – her victims frozen for millennia.

These runners have the good fortune to be crossing Col Malatrà during daytime. Tim met the Ice Queen here at 3am. He remembers: “It was an icy experience with very cold toes!” Photo Davide Verthuy

On other occasions, the wooden South African WW2 soldiers carved out of old trees in the forests came to life. I distinctly remember I was able to Photoshop the horizon out of my sight, leaving only my friends waving at me on a nearby grass bank. It became so ridiculous that I even tried recording it on my phone. I still have video footage of me recording footage of a rock…

The night skies were clear on three of the six nights. Runners were treated to views of the heavens seen by few humans nowadays. Photo Stefano Jeantet

Not Quite Home

Saturday delivered a shock. I realised the last pass at Col Malatrà was not actually the final stretch. There was still a marathon to go.

Yet the time had flown by. I’d been nearly 140 hours on my feet, and experienced more blisters, chafe, and pain than I can explain, but it felt truly irrelevant.

It was impossible to dwell on the discomfort (but I did complain considerably at some points!). It was in those moments that I realised we all have the magic inside us to chase out dreams. All we need to do is simply be brave enough to start them.

I met an amazing group of people en-route. TOR 2021 had 712 starters, but around 250 had withdrawn by Tuesday (48 hours in, final DNFs 281), and only 431 finished.

Reality And Imagination

During the race I shared interactions within a constantly changing group of no more than 30 people from all walks of life. There was a Russian now living in America, a South African ex-pat currently in Switzerland, several Italians, Spanish, and Polish, most of whom spoke little to no English, but we had wonderful charade discussions hour after hour.

Also in this group of acquaintances was a Brit, Richard Newey. He spoke profound words somewhere along the route that will remain with me forever: “When your reality is better than your imagination, life is indescribable”.

Tim celebrates becoming a Giant after 350km and very little sleep. This is one of the times that holding your country’s flag upside down for a photo is totally fine. Photo Elisabetta Gambino

That sums up my TOR experience perfectly, and especially the moment I ran onto the red carpet into Courmayeur and across the finish line!

So 2021 became the year where I realised running is a team sport. It was the most amazing experience to become part of such a community.

Thank you to everyone, especially my group of running crazies at IronBorn! Get out there, seek, adventure, and explore! The world, literally, is waiting.

Read the original article in TRAIL 42.

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