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 passed me.
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 history.
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 punishment.
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 mountains.
A huge 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.