It looked just like a night carnival –
masses of excited, colourfully dressed people crowding the street, loud vibey
music pounding to the beat at maxi volume, bright lights everywhere, photographers
and TV crew rushing around eagerly.
Only, this wasn’t a carnival at all – the
colourful dress was body-hugging, sure, but it was lycra running kit, the
lights were headlamps, and the hoards of media were interested only in one
person: “trail god” Kilian Jornet. This was 10 mins to the 10pm start of the Grand
Raid de la Réunion 2012, the 20th running of this grand daddy of
international trail 100 milers, the Diagonale de Fous (Diagonal of Madmen).
The +2800 competitors had been gathering
for the past three hours at the start, in this tiny village at the southernmost
tip of Réunion called Cap Méchant. With only one major road around the
island, traffic congestion is a major problem, so each year fleets of buses are
laid on to help transport competitors from the capital, St Denis in the north
to the race start.
We’d come in two cars, arrived just 15 mins
before the start and, once through the compulsory kit check, had snuck along a
side alley directly to the front of the mass of people. Why so? Because we were
with that “trail god” Kilian Jornet, and he wanted to avoid the media frenzy
until the last possible few minutes.
Who were these special “we”? They were five
Salomon International runners, some of the best trail runners in the world –
one of whom would win this race in a mere 26hrs33; one who would run 134km of
the way alongside that champ but have to pull out due to injury; another who
would have to be airlifted out as a result of dehydration; and two who would
finish in 2nd and 3rd place in the women.
I was the sixth, and felt like the real
pleb tagger-on’er to this lot, but still very proudly Salomon and very
privileged to be there, daunted by the prospect of taking on a race that had
the reputation of being the toughest trail 100 miler on the planet. I had a
pretty good idea what I was in for, but no clue how I would fare. I’d done two
almost-100-milers before (the Tuffer Puffer, which at 150km in distance, falls
some 16km short of the full distance), but not only was this race slightly longer than 100 miles (170km in total),
its course was considerably more technical than Tuffer Puffer.
I knew the vast majority of competitors in
this race were French (either from France or from Réunion) and that the
French are renowned for being hard core – distance and difficulty don’t scare
them. The average finishing time for this race would be 57 hours – the cut-off
time was 65 hours (extended to 66hrs30min to allow for the last finisher), and
there would be a 52% drop-out rate. That all spoke volumes about this race.
I’m not sure which was louder – the
starting horn or the roar of the runners as they took off, but all I knew was
that I was pushed, elbowed, bashed and shoved in their frenzy to get going. The
pace at which they sprinted off would’ve impressed even Usain Bolt. I was
shocked – this was a 100 miler, not a 5km time trail, what was the panic? But
for fear of being mown down, I hooked on and joined the frenzy.
The first 5km were on flat tar, with crowds
of spectators lining the street, cheering us on. Then we turned off left and
the climb into the hinterland began, gently at first, winding us through fields
of sugar cane, inland and upward, the dirt road eventually becoming steeper and
narrowing into a rough single track gnarled with roots and rocks.
The start of the race also saw the arrival
of the rain, which would continue in varying degrees of intensity through the
night and well into the following day. It was warm rain at first, but the
higher we climbed, the colder it felt, so that at around 2000m (25km into the
race), I donned thermal layer, rain jacket and gloves.
I can’t really remember the details of that
night. Once at the top of that first long climb (sea level to 2400m in 30km), I
knew from the Google Earth map I’d burned to memory (click here for Google Earth view of GRR route) that I was running
alongside a massive volcanic caldera, at the centre of which sits the Piton de la
Fournaise (Peak of the Furnace), one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
But that night, everything around me was black – I saw no trace of anything
impressive, save for the calves of the speedsters in front of me lit in a
narrow shaft of light from my headlamp.
The hours ticked away, the km’s clocked up
and before long it was dawn and I was running through thick mist, being gazed
at by cud-chomping cows in alpine meadows. Already the numbers of runners had
thinned out – I had no idea how I was doing but I reckoned from the few runners
around, it couldn’t be too badly.
At that point I hadn’t chatted with anyone
in 8 hours. Up there it seemed no one on this planet understood English. Everything
to do with this race is in French – from the website and the pre-race info, to
the runners themselves: up there it seems history unfolded differently – Napoleon
must’ve won the Battle of Waterloo and now English just doesn’t exist. So you can
imagine my joy when I bumped into fellow Cape Town runner Andrew Stuart – we ran
along nattering for some km’s, both relieved to have someone to chat with at last.
Then I ran on, through the steady stream of Frenchies, in silence.
Before long I was climbing again – by now I’d
long realised that in this race if you weren’t descending, you were ascending,
there was never much respite for the quads. Sadly though, the incredible views
I’d been told to expect of this volcanic island were hidden for much of that
first 18 hours of the race, shrouded in a blanket of heavy mist or soft rain.
Mud played a large and rather inelegant
role in my life that day – thick, cloying, slippery stuff that saw me sliding
into extremely uncomfortable semi-splits mid stride on innumerable occasions,
until I was splattered and smeared from butt to toe with the stuff. Mud – and by
that I mean the real stuff – is not something we really experience here in
southern Africa. And I’m glad, as it’s not fun.
The hours passed, day became night and one
mountain became the next, and the next. The strange thing about loooong races
is that they require such single-minded focus for such a length of time that soon
nothing else matters – you forget about everything else in your life, and the
path ahead becomes your world. Eating, drinking, time and distance
covered/still to cover occupy the brain, and the body tags along. Where I was
placed in the field became my obsession – by this time I’d heard I was within
the top 10 women, and my life became centred around ensuring that no other women
Somewhere around 10pm that night I could
feel my mind drifting. Physical fatigue is difficult enough to deal with, but
when you add sleep deprivation to the mix, things go pear-shaped fast. By this
stage I was 24hrs into the race, so about 40hrs since I’d last slept. Endurance
running requires a strong mind, and if the mind goes, the body follows: weak
mind equals weak body. I knew then that if I didn’t get some sleep, I’d be
So at the next refreshment table, I had a
20min power nap. The race organisers had the runners’ needs sussed: 10 stretchers
laid in a row, each with a blanket, and a roster recording runner’s name and desired
duration of sleep. The runner turnover was efficient – as soon as you’d been
woken up, you needed to vacate your stretcher for the next in the queue. It was
like a sausage machine, but with sweaty zombies instead.
My power nap worked wonders – 20mins
recharged my batteries and I felt (almost) as good as new, able to tackle the
next string of mountains with renewed energy. I learned I’d been pipped by a
woman while I’d slept, but I chewed her up and spat her out in the first 30mins
back on the trail J
Dawn of day 2 came while I was running
downhill through what felt like a neverending forest, so when I eventually popped
out into the light, the sun was shining and life was good. That was the longest
downhill imaginable – over a 21km distance we dropped 2000m in altitude (with a
cumulative gain of 9500m already under the belt), and my quads were screaming. I
wasn’t sure which I dreaded more: the ascents or the descents… everything was
The final 20km of the race were for me the
least enjoyable – we were in civilisation again, and every km felt a heavy
slog. Somehow we still squeezed in another 1300m of climbing, and dropped some
1500m, just for quad punishment. And two quads = double punishment.
I crossed the finish line just after
6:30pm, 44hrs35min after having started in the south of the island. I saw my
man, and I burst into tears of relief and exhaustion. I’d made it, and in one
piece. I’d finished 9th woman, and 4th in my category
(Vet 1), an unexpected podium place.
The Grand Raid de la Réunion has long been an itch I
needed to scratch. It was an incredible experience, and one I feel well the
richer for. It’s now ticked, and there’re others on my bucket list that need
attention. But right now, it’s time for some fun playtime on our Cape
thanks to Salomon International for making my dream a reality; to my sponsor Salomon
South Africa for four years of fantastic support; and to PeptoSport for
supplying me with great fuel to keep body strong and joints healthy.
Labels: Grand Raid, Kilian Jornet, Salomon