Tears which I’d kept at bay for the last five hours streamed down my face. After twenty-three hours and 112km of slippery, muddy, gnarly root infested trails with knee buckling steps I’d finally reached the high point of Maido. Temperatures had plummeted to a frosty 7c then crept above 30c in the space of just a few hours. The stunning rugged volcanic scenery was either clocked in darkness or tantalisingly hidden beyond my frame of reference as my world had shrunk down to just the metre ahead of me and the placement of my next step. The “I’m not good enough” monster whose roots stem back to my childhood reared its ugly head in full force. This time, while I knew I could push onwards by mentally crushing my physical and emotional state into submission which I had done at previous races, I chose not to. I’d got nothing to prove. The prospect of another ten hours plus of racing was distinctly unappealing. I’d mentally and emotionally checked out. Clearly, travelling half way around the world to discover this fact was admittedly an expensive and time consuming process creating unfinished future business.
Reunion Island lies nestled between Madagascar and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean; an enclave of French colonialism and a far flung enclave of the European Union. One of the original ultra-running events, the first edition of Le Grand Raid “Diagonale des Fous” (translated into English as “The Fool’s Crossing”) can be traced back to 1989. Renown within French running folklore and despite proclaiming forty-two nationalities the race remains firmly a very French affair with various unique and unfathomable idiosyncrasies. The 165km-long race with over 9,576m of elevation gain, crosses the island from south to north passing through gorgeous landscapes around the famous volcano, “Piton de la Fournaise”, which along with its ramparts form two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The slightly shorter “Trail de Bourbon” at 111 Km; 7,300m elevation gain is the races little brother and a solid introduction to the island in its own right.
The Diagonale des Fous is a rite of passage for any Reunion Islander or aspiring French trail or ultra-runner. Simply uttering these three words shifts the tone of any conversation into a mixture of awe and insanity. The ballot for local and French places is chronically oversubscribed yet interest from other nationalities is rather more subdued for this ultra-monster. The start-line atmosphere firmly trumps any UTMB event or IRONMAN 70.3 Triathlon World Championship event I have stood on as seemingly the entire island heads to Saint Pierre to show support. This first four kilometre stretch of seafront is inundated with crowds, bands and fire jugglers with fireworks lighting up the sky at regular intervals. It’s an assault on the senses as you are swept along by a tide of over two thousand pent up athletes. Thankfully those first kilometres of flat and fast promenade quickly turn into trail and the lights begin to fade as the route snakes up through sugar plantations and onto higher ground. The next six hours blur into one as the path narrows, the mud takes over, the wooden steps grow bigger and slippery tree roots materialise from nowhere. Temperatures plunge and the frost twinkles under my torchlight. This is supposed to be a tropical island not Scotland.
The “toughest” label has become an over-used adjective attached to an array of endurance events which in reality are impossible to quantify or rank due to the subjective nature of each race. Many will say that The Grand Raid is a contender for that title and I certainly don’t think it should be underestimated, though is it the toughest event I’ve tackled? Harder than the Marathon des Sables? Harder than UTMB? Maybe, maybe not. If those races are harder, why did I finish those races (twice for MdS) and not Grand Raid? Why is Grand Raid my only DNF?
From the comfort of my sofa in Wiltshire analysing my data and reflecting back on the race, the numbers mask the bigger picture. Endlessly pouring what is ultimately finite energy into building my coaching business; the uncertainty of my future “home” as the two year British Army posting cycle again threatens a move; seemingly endless travel bouncing backwards and forwards between London, Wiltshire, Chamonix, Malta and other destinations; the ongoing harassment and demands of my rental property’s neighbour from hell; all lead to an accumulation of a deeper fatigue. Admittedly, these are first world problems but each still adds a layer of stress.
On reflection the six-day lead time into the race reads like a comedy catalogue of errors of how not to prepare for your A-Race. Enduring an eleven hour flight with one meagre inflight meal; keeping your fingers crossed that the last remaining car rental booth has a car you can hire as your logistics manager (Ben) forgot to book a hire car in advance and the previous six booth’s didn’t have any cars left (thankfully it had one left!); keeping your fingers crossed that the last remaining hotel to call on the Airport Information Booth’s and Google’s list of hotels has a room for the night as you realise your Airbnb booking for the week doesn’t start until the following day and none of the previous 25 hotels you called had any spare rooms (it didn’t!) and finally curling up on the back seat of the standard white Renault in a motorway layby to try and get some sleep for the night. All rather embarrassing to admit to, especially as an ex-Royal Logistic Corps officer where careful organisation lies at the heart of everything. Classic territory whereby failing to prepare you’re preparing to fail.
Ultimately my decision to call time on the race when I got to Maido was based on a multitude of factors. Each individual reason stands insignificant on its own, yet collectively this myriad of physical, mental and emotional factors won out and led to my failure. Whether these facts or perceptions represent reality as bonafide “reasons” to call time on the race or whether they are a self-generated mental constructs – essentially “excuses” to deal with that failure - fades into inconsequence as time marches on. But I am going to have to go back!
The Dreaded DNF – I was battered physically, mentally and emotionally though this is a pretty standard part of ultra-running. Something was missing. The inner drive to push my limits regardless of the price. The likelihood is that the more you race, the more likely you are to one day DNF, whether for reasons like mine or maybe a dreaded injury. Whatever the reason of a DNF, it’s in the past so you can never change it and undo it, so don’t try. Learn from it and make yourself stronger as a result.
Extreme Hiking – The terrain in this race offers limited opportunity for any actual “running” with only a few metres snatched between yet another wall of knee high steps, slippery tree roots or mud. I longed for the smooth open trails of Chamonix or Gran Canaria, where you’re able to effortlessly glide up and down gently twisting paths. You can long as much as you like, but the trails are not going to suddenly smoothen out. Be prepared for the ruggedness. And, oh by the way – did I mention that you’re not allowed to use poles?!!
Google Translate - Despite partly living in Chamonix in the French Alps for the last twenty years, my French language ability remains embarrassingly stagnant at school girl GSCE level. Google Translate works wonder with written text, but this often isn’t sufficient when you need to decipher last minute verbal race instructions, communicate with fellow athletes along the route or speak to check point volunteers especially once the mental fog of fatigue sets in during the race. Be prepared to encounter little or no English throughout the race experience.
WAA Skort 2.0 - I’ve been wearing these upgraded beauties since June 2019 though only fully discovered the practicalities of the under shorts’ side pockets in the lead into Diagonale des Fous. These are properly accessible for 33fuel chia seed gels, dates, walnuts and M&Ms combo or just your rubbish. The “Paradise Pink” is a personal favourite and totally unmissable amongst the crowds!
Petzl - After experiencing torch challenges in the last couple of races I’ve finally mastered the complexities of the uber-intelligent and ultra-powerful Petzl NAO with the assistance of my technical advisor. Ben kindly deciphered the settings and pre-programmed the torch to optimise the reactive lighting technology system – it worked a treat.
Cool Wings – Recently re-discovered, these are fast becoming a firm favourite for their versatility. The thin breathable white coloured fabric reflects sun really well and when combined with a douse of water from a 500ml soft flask it activates a full evaporation cooling effect. Conversely at night they provide an element of warmth as long as they are kept dry.
The Inevitable - What’s Next...
This blog has sat staring at me half-written on my desktop for the last three months. 2019 was another action packed bumper year; on hindsight probably too action packed with ULTRA-X Sri Lanka 250km multi-stage (read blog post here), Lavaredo Ultra Trail (read blog post here) and the CCC (read blog post here) on top of lots of work, life and travel, all before even beginning to tackle Diagonale des Fous. A decent chunk of rest was sorely overdue before contemplating 2020 running adventures. I’ve finally caught up on that rest and as my mental energy has returned, I’ve been able to finalise my reflections, consolidate my thoughts, translate them into tangible words and do what was probably inevitable ever since I stopped at Maido – enter Diagonale de Fous 2020!
Watch this space for DDF – The Return!
Train Smart. Run Happy.