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by Peter Flax
August 14, 2018
Photography by Sally Holdsworth
Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: This is a story about a runner.
His name is Peter Thompson and he really doesn’t ride a bike too much these days. But he likes to cover long distances and he enjoys watching the Tour de France and he’s a seeker of adventure and it’s pretty safe to assume the guy relates to the virtues of beauty and suffering.
If all those things weren’t true, there’s no way he would be standing on the island of Noirmoutier, in the exact spot of the Grand Depart of the 2018 Tour de France. It’s a brilliantly sunny May morning, already pretty hot, and Thompson is about to tackle Stage 1 of the world’s greatest bike race. On foot.
Thompson’s girlfriend, Sally, is filming the moment. “I actually need to start this now,” he says, looking excited and perhaps a bit overwhelmed. “There’s really nothing left to do but put that first step down and get the challenge going.”
Seconds later, the 33-year-old Brit swivels to his right and starts jogging into the distance.
It’s kind of complicated to explain where he’s headed. In the most immediate future, he’s planning to cover a marathon and perhaps then he’ll run a few more clicks. Then he’ll wake up the next morning and do the same thing, and if he bangs out that one big day when the sun comes up again, he might reach the finish line of Stage 1 in Fontenay-le-Comte.
After that, there are 20 more stages and 3,000-plus more kilometers and a heart-thumping list of the most legendary mountain passes in the world sitting between Thomas and the Champs-Elysées.
There’s no easy way to say this: Thomas wants to run the entire Tour de France. It’s been done once before, but he wants to do it faster. And to inject a little added drama to his quest, he’s decided to begin his run exactly seven weeks before the start of the Tour. So as he runs through Noirmoutier and toward the bridge to the mainland, it’s already in the back of his mind that he’ll need to beat the peloton to Paris to succeed. If he doesn’t run about 30 miles a day for seven weeks without a day off, he’ll fail. My IT band just aches typing that.
Thompson has trained hard for this adventure, and he is in equal measures excited to get started and afraid to fail. He will soon face long monotonous days under a blistering sun. He will have to grind up l’Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. And more imposing, he will have to thump down the other side of most of those same mountain passes. Just think about that — running down the Aubisque.
Thompson is careful not to think about Paris. Not in mid-May, when the Giro d’Italia is in full swing and he’s in Vendée, still weeks away from his first big mountain. So he thinks about drinking water and caring for his feet and completing the next 10 kilometers so he can find Sally parked on the side of the road with fresh supplies and a few minutes of company.
At this point of the journey, thinking about Paris is a bad idea. You don’t finish a thing like this by thinking about Paris. You finish a thing like this by running the stretch of tarmac right in front of you. The only way to finish is to start.
Peter Thompson used to be a different kind of runner. He was the kind of runner who only thought about one thing: Racing.
“I was a 2:25 marathon runner at my best,” says Thompson one afternoon a few days after the Tour de France has wrapped up. He is back in London, trying to rest and recover, trying to summon some honesty for a reporter asking questions about his motivations. He’s talking about running but saying things a cyclist who obsesses over Strava might understand. “I just got too fixated on times, and stopped enjoying the reason I started running in the first place. It became all-consuming, really. That’s what spurred me on to want to do something different and get running back in a positive way.”
His first stab at doing something different came last year. Some folks might just try a Color Run or swear off intervals for a while, but Thompson is a bit more obsessive than that. So he ran a marathon in every country in Europe on consecutive days. (That’s 44 countries, if you must know.) The point was not to go fast — it was to challenge his endurance and have an outsized cultural adventure, too. He didn’t know how to follow up that grand caper, how to top it, until the Tour de France idea popped into his head.
Thompson is honest enough to admit that part of the appeal of tackling the Tour de France run was the quantitative audacity of the journey: 3,329 kilometers and more than 45,000 meters (147,000 feet) of elevation gain. That’s like running up Mt Kilimanjaro nine times, if you’re into that kind of simile.
But that numerical challenge really wasn’t what drew Thompson to the Grand Depart with a station wagon full of running shoes and Clif Bars. He didn’t go to earn kudos on Strava. “Part of what I love about the Tour is how it showcases France,” he says. He’d never run in the French Alps before, never tromped through the Pyrenees. Thompson says that running in these ranges, up so many spectacular passes was a “huge factor” in his decision to take on the challenge.
But before he could even tackle his first mountain, he’d have to slog his way for weeks to get there.
The first week of Thompson’s Tour was a harsh test. The weather was scorching, with temps surpassing 35°C (95°F). The flatish stages that begin the Tour de France aren’t easy for cyclists, as nervous riders battle for position to avoid the kinds of crashes that can end a rider’s aspirations, but they posed different sorts of mental and physical challenges for Thompson. Straight roads, long stages, unchanging topography, hot days — these are not easy conditions for a solo endurance runner. Thompson suffered.
By the end of the first week, he was coping with a sore knee and blister problems and some confidence issues. If the first week, on flat terrain, was this hard, how would seven weeks through the mountains go?
The relentless brutality of his quest came to a head on the eighth day of his adventure.
“I was doing the end of Stage 2 and also the Stage 3 team time trial on the same day,” he says, referring to the 35-kilometer course that BMC Racing would win, propelling Greg Van Avermaet into the maillot jaune. BMC rode that undulating loop in less than 39 minutes, but Thompson’s passage dragged on for hours.
“After just 5 kilometers, I was just so tired and exhausted.” He says he had to stop every five kilometers or so and sit in Sally’s car, “just head in hands trying to motivate myself to get to that next block. We didn’t really have any leeway because we had to get to the next stage. I really questioned myself on that day to drag myself to the end of that stage.”
But Thompson made it through the TTT course and in the coming days, his body and mind seemed to adapt to the ridiculous challenge. The blisters faded and the balky knee got less balky. On many days he wore a cycling cap that was colorblocked in the French Tricolour with the word “ALLEZ” on the brim in big lettering.
Thompson obeyed the hat and kept moving, setting out from Annecy to hit the first big climb of his trip 30 days after his Grand Depart. That was June 17, just 20 days before the start of the Tour. He was still on track, but without a ton of wiggle room.
Over the next five weeks, Thompson would get his fill of mountains. He ran up all 21 of the famed switchbacks of l’Alpe d’Huez — in less than two hours. He ran through alpine meadows and shadowy forests and past a million chalets.
After the solitude of the flatlands, Thompson was suddenly in the company of fellow adventurers — the hordes of cyclists who attempt these iconic climbs once the summer is in full swing.
“Everyone’s in such a good mood because they’ve accomplished something huge to get to the top so it’s a really nice atmosphere at the end of these climbs,” he says, recounting the scene on the summit of the Alpe and the Tourmalet and other hall-of-fame ascents. “People were surprised and impressed by what we were doing. It’s nice to meet other people when you’re on your own for a fair bit— that camaraderie it just makes it a huge boost.”
Sometimes it got weird. When Thompson got near the top of the Aubisque, he discovered that the road had been literally washed away by a flash flood. Cars were being detoured off the mountain and an official initially told Thompson he’d have to turn around. “I was like, there’s no way I’m going to run all the way down and run around,” he laughs, describing how he “miraculously sidestepped” that obstacle to get to the top of the Aubisque. “It’s all just part of the experience.”
He had another odd moment in the Pyrenees, near the top of Laurns. Thompson was about a kilometer from the top of that tough climb — in roughly the same spot on Stage 19 where Primoz Roglic would attack to a stage win and the cycling world receive final confirmation that Geraint Thomas, and not his teammate Chris Froome, would win the 2018 Tour de France — when he ran into a tunnel bored into the side of the mountain. It was, in his words, “a bit of a stupid moment.”
“It was virtually pitch black and just filled with cows, ones with big horns,” Thompson laughs, recalling how he couldn’t decide to sprint past the cows, and risk scaring them, or to tiptoe past. He decided to walk. “They were turning their heads looking at me, like they want to kill me. So basically, I creeped through a pitch-black tunnel with 30 cows in it, just thinking why am I doing this?”
Similar thoughts crossed his mind once he got to the top of these huge climbs. Honestly, Thompson was far more concerned about going down vertiginous mountain roads than going up. “Before I started, my biggest fear was the downhills because the impact on my legs,” he says. “I didn’t really train for that and I don’t have a huge amount of hills around where I live, to run downhill for an hour and a half.” He did some specific gym work to try and prepare himself, but beyond that he just had to wing it and try to survive.
Remember the crazy descent down the Col du Portillonon on Stage 16, where Julian Alaphilippe soloed to victory after Adam Yates crashed in a slick hairpin? The victorious Frenchman flew down that steep, technical descent— which drops more than 600 metres (2,000 feet) in 10km (6.2 miles) — in roughly 11 minutes. Thompson pounded his way down that same route in about an hour.
Some descents took far longer to complete. “The longest one was 29 kilometres,” Thompson says. “That’s 29 kilometres downhill, which is a long time, about three hours of going constantly downhill on pretty steep gradients. The impact on your legs for the first hour is really enjoyable but after that you’re just wanting to see flat ground or just something different. “
Once the Tour started, Thompson would watch stages, or at least highlights, every night, and says that running up and down the climbs of the Tour gave him new insights into and admiration for the way the riders fly uphill and downhill on such tough terrain.
“I had a huge amount of respect for the riders before I ran the Tour,” says Thompson. “But that just got blown out of the water after my run. The bravery it takes on some of those descents — you wouldn’t get me going down on a bike down some of those. My respect for what the riders are putting themselves through is unbelievable.”
There are a lot of good reasons to take on an outsized challenge. It’s an opportunity to test yourself and redefine your limits. It’s a chance to experience something entirely novel, to visit new places and meet new people and maybe eat a lot of really awesome brioche. It’s a chance to live in the moment and take in the amazing weirdness of life. For Thompson, his Tour de France run was all of those things.
But a lot of people who take on an outsized challenge find it even more meaningful if they pair it with a cause that resonates with them. In Thompson’s case, he created an initiative called Marathon of the Minds. “I was trying to raise money for three different mental health charities in England,” he says. “I deal with a lot of people suffering with mental health problems for my work, and I’ve got quite a few friends and family that suffer quite seriously with mental health problems. It’s an issue in England getting talked about so much more nowadays, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done and I’m a trying to raise that bit of awareness.”
Thompson’s big run did more than raise awareness. It raised money. To date, he’s raised £22,500 (almost $29,000), adding to the £19,000 ($24,000) he fundraised with his European marathon challenge last year. Fifty grand isn’t chump change.
“It’s been amazing how generous people are in supporting the cause,” Thompson says. “It’s an issue that affects so many people — most people know someone who suffers from a mental health problem, so I think people relate to that.” Thompson says that sometimes cyclists or locals would talk to him on the side of the road or atop the big passes, and wind up making an online donation on the spot.
Like a lot of people who pursue a philanthropic effort to help other people and then discover surprising personal dividends, Thompson found that the Marathon of the Minds project made his Tour de France run a richer experience. He talks about friends, some who had never run before, who were so inspired by his 3,200km journey that they started jogging 5km every day of his challenge. He talks about strangers giving money to support mental health treatment in a foreign country. And he talks about how it gave his run genuine purpose.
“I did this because I wanted to go on an adventure, and because I wanted to support the charities,” he says. “But it wound up becoming a huge motivation to keep me going.”
For many weeks, Thompson had tried hard not to obsess about Paris and his quest to beat the peloton to the Champs-Elysées, but as he grinded out the long, hard miles he earned the chance to imagine it. After you’ve worn out six pairs of running shoes in six weeks, you can dream about Paris.
On Monday, July 23 — as the pro riders enjoyed a rest day before hitting the Pyrenees — Thompson set out to tackle the Tour’s penultimate stage, the 31-kilometer time trial to Espelette that Tom Dumoulin would win by one second over Chris Froome. After Thompson ran that hilly and technical circuit — in three hours, one minute, and 23 seconds — he had good reason to think hard about Paris. After all, he had to make a seven-hour drive to Houilles in the northwest suburbs of Paris, where the final stage of the Tour de France would begin.
Thompson recalls his emotions on that long drive. “Yeah,” he says. “It was a journey that I’d dreamt about, really.”
The final stage of the Tour de France was 116 kilometers. Thompson didn’t mess around. Even though he had a few days to spare and had friends from England not yet in town, Thompson ran Stage 21 in two days. On the penultimate day, he ran 16km (10 miles) further than a marathon. “Those were still tough days,” he admits. “But it was done with much more of a smile on your face and excitement and relief and all those things that you kind of feel toward the end of something like that.”
On his final day, he spent six and a half hours running circuits around the Champs-Elysées. That was on July 25, a Wednesday, and the peloton was tackling the short but brutal parcours of Stage 17. He had beaten the Tour de France riders by four days.
When asked what it felt like to run the final few kilometers of that massive journey, Thompson takes a deep breath before answering. “It was quite surreal really,” he says. “It can be easy in the moment to forget everything that’s come before, so I obviously was trying to think back to not just when I started running, but to what it took to even get to the start line. That moment is going to be something that I’m always remember — it was amazing. To actually get to that finish line is a feeling like no other really.”
While many Tour de France riders would stay up and party late into the night after their finish in Paris, Thompson had a mellower celebration. He was tired.
“It was quite a small celebration,” he says, noting how important it was to share the victory with his girlfriend, Sally, “the only person who will really know what I went through the whole journey. So for us to share that finish moment together was brilliant. We had a couple of beers and were in bed by 10 o’clock. I know that’s not very rock and roll, but we were just exhausted.”
Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.