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Rochester runner goes from sunk to happy trails — 62 continuous miles of them

In August, Rochester man Georg von Bormann ran 62 miles, the trail taking him through the Alps. Von Bormann did it against long odds.

von Bormann photo.jpg
Georg von Bormann, left, shared his happy ending to the 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail race in August with Barry Cox. Cox was at the European race to aid von Bormann along the way, having met him at 10 checkpoints.
Contributed photo / Georg von Bormann
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ROCHESTER — It took Georg von Bormann two years to get into the lottery for this ultra-adventure.

Then it was three more years before he actually was chosen for the 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail race, the “Super Bowl” of its kind.

Approximately 10,000 runners sit in the lottery every year for the European event, 2,000 of whom are selected to participate.

So, finally in, there was no way the 43-year-old was going to be denied. The native of South Africa and Mayo Clinic Associate Administrator for the Department of Medicine and Pathology was thinking so, even as he stared at his right knee, suddenly swollen to the size of a small watermelon and completely locked.

That was on Jan. 16 of this year and had immediately followed what for von Bormann was a typical 13-mile run. He’d been doing these daily jaunts forever. It’s what had made him strong enough to qualify by standard for the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, but it’s also why his knee was suddenly unrecognizable.

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“I used to run six days per week,” von Bormann said. “I’d have to talk myself out of running, just to have a rest day. I have a bit of an addictive personality. When I do anything, I want to go all in. It’s all or nothing for me. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”

The Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail run — which would take him through the Alps and traverse parts of Italy, Switzerland and finally France — was seven months away, scheduled for Aug. 26.

Von Bormannn was determined to go, no matter what anybody said. That included any advice from his orthopedic brother, and Dr. Richard von Bormann did have something to say.

“My brother told me to wait a year,” Georg said. “It was just honest advice. He told me if I didn’t go conservative on the knee, because of its inflamed cartilage, that I could be in trouble.”

No turning back

There are few people who von Bormann, married to Caroline von Bormann and the father of their two children, respects more and is closer to than his brother.

But this was the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail run he was advising him to take a pass on.

The brothers later agreed on a compromise as they considered a right knee that had ballooned, was radiating heat, and for three straight weeks wouldn’t bend.

race scenery.jpg
The scenery through so much of the 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail race, which winds through the Alps and traverses bits of Italy, Switzerland and France, is breathtaking.
Submitted photo

The eventual plan, which in the end was advised by co-director of Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Dr. Jacob Sellon, who diagnosed von Bormann with patellofemoral syndrome (a degenerative breakdown of the knee joint), went like this: Von Bormann was being forbidden to run for the next three months and steered toward platelet rich plasma injections, given over a two-month period, three to four times per week. The PRP procedure injects a patient’s own platelets into the injured area, often accelerating the healing of injured tendons, ligaments, muscles and joints.

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The running hiatus combined with the injections, Sellon advised, was the only way that von Bormann had any realistic shot at being healthy enough to run the 62-mile trail race.

Von Bormann wasn’t about to say no. He also never fiddled with the instructions. The new regimen began Feb. 7.

“February, March and April, I didn’t run a single step,” von Bormann said. “And every single exercise I did, I did it to the letter of the law.”

Once May arrived and the knee had markedly improved, von Bormann was running again, but never back-to-back days. Yet he stayed active on those “off” days, riding a stationary bicycle as he continued to build his cardiovascular capacity.

“I did more miles on the stationary bike than I ever thought I’d do,” said von Bormann, who's become an advocate of cross training and has continued with those bicycle sessions ever since, now running three times per week and cross-training twice per week.

With it, his running results have never been better.

“I’m running less mileage, but running further and faster than ever,” von Bormann said. “(Sellon) said that my goal was to get to the starting line (on Aug. 26) in the best physical condition of my life, while doing it with the least number of miles on my chassis. I lived by that. Now I see this as a way forward. We don’t educate our recreational athletes well enough about cross training and diversifying our activities and our range of motion.”

Test runs

Three weeks before the race, von Bormann finally did something he knew would be required of him in order to complete this 20 1/2-hour European trail run. He went out and ran back-to-back days. He went 20 miles on a Friday and followed that with 22 miles the next day.

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He survived it and actually felt pretty good. So he immediately grabbed his cell phone and took a picture of his right knee, which despite the two-day pounding was looking completely normal.

His brother texted him back, “Holy guacamole, that is quality!”

Any question that van Bormann was going to do that 62-mile trail race was now completely gone. On Aug. 23, he boarded a plane for Geneva, Switzerland.

On Aug. 26, in Courmayeur, Italy, situated in the highest European mountain range west of Russia, there was von Bormann, standing at the starting line of a race he’d dreamed about the past five years.

“It was funny, it was one of the quietest starting lines I’ve ever been a part of,” von Bormann said. “People are nervous going into this one. This is the top race of its kind in the world. The top 5 percent of trail runners are there and they are some very serious people.”

The starting gun went off and von Bormann never turned back, starting with a 2-mile run through the village before taking on the first of six mountain climbs, each of them more than 3,000 vertical feet.

Von Bormann reached that first summit in 2 hours. The view was dazzling, as were so many of the sights and sounds the remainder of the 20 1/2 hour run. There were shepherds in the mountains, free-ranging cattle with cowbells on, and tiny towns dotting the landscape along the way, seemingly frozen in time thanks to their isolation.

All of that breathtaking scenery sustained von Bormann, as did stops at 10 checkpoints along the way, and a Swiss friend — Barry Cox — who met him at each of those, acting like a ring manager at a boxing match.

The perfect aide

With von Bormann eventually soaked by rain, Cox was there with a towel and dry clothes for him. While von Bormann ate bits of food, Cox removed his friend’s shoes and socks, dried and taped his battered feet, then put dry socks back on him.

Cox did all of that while also offering constant encouragement.

“Barry was invaluable,” von Bormann said. “I could not have done it without him.”

Von Bormann also couldn’t have done it without Caroline.

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Runners in the 62-mile Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix trail race wore headlamps during the wee hours in order to illuminate their steps as they weaved through the Alps.
Submitted photo

At mile 50, with 12 miles left to go, von Bormann was “broken” by the race. Wet, cold, exhausted and in the dark, he picked up his cell phone and called her, prepared to give in, to quit. It was 2 a.m. He still had one more 3,300-foot vertical climb left.

It seemed too much.

Caroline talked him out of quitting, even admonished him for having given it a thought.

“She told me that the strongest muscle I have is between my ears,” von Bormann said, his wife suggesting that he just had to figure things out in order to finish. “I thought she might give me an easy out. She told me to get up and keep going.”

He did. Once von Bormann finally reached the end of his final climb, he was looking at the end point of the race. There, beneath him, was the village of Chamonix, France, its street lights shining.

Von Bormann took a picture and sent it to Caroline, complete with the words, “There it is. Chamonix in the valley.”

It was his now. He knew he’d finish.

As he ran the final half mile to the finish line, some 20 1/2 hours after he’d begun the race, von Bormann was euphoric. Not tired, not beaten, just so alive.

“At that point, I just felt indestructible,” he said.

Cox filmed him as he strode in. Yes, indestructible.

“It was just a transformative experience,” von Bormann said. “I was meant to do that.”

Related Topics: ROCHESTERRECREATION
Pat has been a Post Bulletin sports reporter since 1994. He covers Rochester John Marshall football, as well as a variety of other southeastern Minnesota football teams. Among my other southeastern Minnesota high school beats are girls basketball, boys and girls tennis, boys and girls track and field, high school and American Legion baseball, volleyball, University of Minnesota sports (on occasion) and the Timberwolves (on occasion). Readers can reach Pat at 507-285-7723 or pruff@postbulletin.com.
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