What follows is the tale of an adventure. Others who ran this race will have a different adventure. Theirs will undoubtedly be faster with much less sweating and swearing.
This is mine. It may bear no resemblance to what actually happened but it is how I remember it.
Cilaos, Cilaos, oh Cilaos
I arrived in the checkpoint of Mare a Boue around 8 in the morning. A large collection of tents were set up in a field and the farm road leading in to the field was busy with spectators and support crew. The sun was rapidly burning off the slight morning chill and despite it being breakfast time, I collected my plate of roast chicken, rice and vegetables from the energetic ladies behind the food counter and was given a bottle of Dynamalt a malt drink which tasted strange but which over the remaining 40 hours of the race I would grow to love.
Let me just say that again. I had run all night and still had 40 hours to go. I will confess that when I left Mare a Boue after diligently putting my suncream on, I wasn’t anticipating being out for another 40 hours. The Diagonale has a fearsome reputation, and my realistic pre race goal was sub 50 hours, but I had run well in the cool of the night. Despite it being uphill for the first 26 miles I had climbed strongly and had run comfortably on the flats and downs. Only 10K to Cilaos the first major checkpoint and drop bag. I was feeling quite upbeat about the whole endeavour. Yes it had been hard, but the start had been exhilirating, the climb through the night had been ok, the views were spectacular as the sun rose and I had already covered the best part of 30 miles. It couldn’t possibly take me 50 hours. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
If you are anything like me you probably didn’t know much about the Diagonale des Fous. I had seen the occasional reference to it in race literature but it wasn’t part of the mainstream ultra consciousness. There was a feeling that if it was a big race then it was a bit “French”. The more intrigued I became, the more it drew me in. First of all where was it? The clue is in the other name for the race – the Grand Raid de la Reunion.
Reunion Island is a tiny volcanic dot in the Indian Ocean somewhere between Mauritius and Madagascar. Investigate further and there are tales of it being harder than UTMB, tales of Kilian taking more than 24 hours to finish it, Francois D’Haene winning it multiple times. Tales of the whole island coming out to support. Tales of a 60 hour time limit. Tales of the final finishers being followed live on tv and the finishers, the “Fools” who survived the crossing of the island being treated as heroes by the locals.
Cilaos. Only 10K away. Cilaos, a word which still makes a knot in my stomach. 2 hours. I thought I was being conservative. That 2 hours was to turn into much more.
I am writing this some 3 months after the race. The numbness in my toes has finally gone in the last couple of weeks. As I try to recount the story of running the 165 kilometres of the Diagonale des Fous, it is frustrating because there are huge chunks that I can’t quite remember or can’t remember in the correct order and I really, really want to remember the detail because I know it was good, so good in fact that I just want to lie down and roll around in it and relive the feeling of being inside that magical mad bubble.
A set of happy coincidences conspired to make it possible to enter the race this year instead of the planned “some point in the future”, and so what started as a bucket list dream became reality.
The race starts in the town of Saint Pierre in the south of Reunion. St Pierre is a bustling seaside town, very much in keeping with places like Nice, with a long boulevard adjacent to a busy beach which slopes into the Indian Ocean.
The sun sets spectacularly on the Indian Ocean at 6:30 every evening, so it was dark when we set off from our hotel, laden with drop bags, for the short walk to the start corral. Immediately there was an atmosphere.
It was hot and humid.
The streets had no cars, instead they were busy with runners and spectators. Then the music started. The music of Reunion is mainly a style called Sega. It is a vibrant mix of jazz, calypso and creole with African sounds and rhythms thrown in. It is loud, happy, strident, at times almost aggressive, music and as we walked towards the start, it defined the race as being quite unique.
We really were a long way from home and the heat, the music, the dancers, the drums and the smells from the street food outlets confirmed that this was something different. I walked to the start with a big grin on my face.
This picture was not that grin. This picture was a wee boy from far away about to go off on his own to do something really hard.
The start corral is a large fenced area next to the beach. It is open for 4 hours prior to the the 10pm start time. Adjacent to the start corral is a full sized concert stage. Trying to figure out what is going on at a new race is always tricky, even trickier when everything is done in French. After some faffing I kissed Helen goodbye and headed into the arena. First up was the baggage trucks where I duly handed over my two drop bags which I would hopefully see again at some point.
From the drop bags, it was into the kit check. Every item on the extensive list was checked thoroughly and after some discussion over the validity of one of my two elastic bandages I was through. I just about managed with my schoolboy french but it would have been helpful if my french teacher had told me how to say foil blanket or nipples.
Once through the kit check it was time to pick up some sandwiches and a drink and settle down on the parched grass to await the start. I was a bit early and had nearly two hours to wait for the start so lay back on the grass and tried to zone out as the arena filled with runners and the speakers from the stage blasted out concert sets by Reunion pop stars Sega’El and MissTy.
One of the quirks of the Grand Raid de la Reunion is that all runners are required to wear the same official race shirt at the start and again at the finish. Runners are actually given two race shirts at registration along with a sahara style technical cap. It seems a bit odd, but it does make for an impressive sight to see everyone in the same shirt. It also serves a bit of a practical purpose as each of the three races has a different colour and while the shirts are otherwise identical the colour of the shoulders matches the colour for your particular race, so it is easy to identify which race people are in when they come charging past you later in the course once all of the race routes converge..
Time passed, music played, the start pen filled and then it was time for the off. 2500 runners set off on a cavalry charge along the boulevard. I have never seen so many spectators at a race before, not even in a big city marathon. There were bands every few hundred metres. Adults and children alike tried to grab High-5’s.
Somehow, even the high 5’s were different. they didn’t just slap your fingers they actually grasped your hand and wished you “courage”. It was quite an emotional transference of energy from supporter to runner. For the best part of 4 kilometres this continued. Crowds at times 10 deep, sometimes crowding in to create a narrow tunnel. A quick wave to Helen and her saltire . Allegedly I was grinning from ear to ear.
Regular chants of “On n’est pas fatigue” which turns out to be a French cheesy disco song, along with variations on “We’re all going to La Redoute” bounced through the warm night air. Fireworks were set off over the harbour as we reached the end of the boulevard, and after some raucous support in some smaller villages we finally hit the first climb and the start of the hard work. Having left the town and Helen behind, I was on my own, it was real and I was going to have to do this. Despite running at a very sedate pace, I was dripping with sweat and my shirt was soaked through. This was going to be an interesting experience for the Scotsman who struggles once the thermometer reaches 15C.
We turned off the road and started to climb gently through a narrow avenue cut through a field of head high sugar cane. The climb was to continue for the next 24 miles. There was a quick water stop which I ignored and the trail continued upwards, taking a pretty straight line up the hill alternating between fields of sugar, popping out to cross roads and bundling through noisy groups of spectators before disappearing into the night once more. Twice we came to a complete stand still as the mass of runners navigated the first bits of technical ground. We seemed to be stopped for an age but in reality it was at most a few minutes. I tried hard to remind myself that there was no point in fretting over a couple of minutes when I was going to be out for 2 days.
I was feeling quite relaxed and being as economical as I could. I was also being economical with my head torch. I had run the first 5 miles of the race in the light of other runner’s torches, and each time we came to a halt I either switched it off or dimmed it. My batteries were going to have to last a long time and managing energy consumption was going to be important.
Domaine Vidot: Time of Day 23:59pm, Race Time 01:59, Distance 14.6Km, Elevation Gain 655m
After about 10 miles we arrived at the first proper aid station in a place called Domaine Vidot. The hall was damp, sweaty and noisy as runners piled in from the darkness. This was the end of the prologue. like many others I removed my race t-shirt and was pulling on my normal running gear when Ashok bounded through the door with a big grin on his face and gave me a welcoming hug. A reunion in Reunion. It is a small world.
I didn’t really expect to see Ash again but actually ended up passing him a few hours later while he slept under a tree at the side of the trail.
After leaving Domaine Vidot there was a sense of the race beginning properly. The temperature dropped a bit in the early hours and the more it dropped the stronger I felt. Despite being punctuated by repeated drops into ravines we continued to climb upwards. It was a clear night and the stars were incredibly bright as we made our way upwards on the side of a steep gorge
Eventually the climb topped out and we arrived at the first plateau as dawn arrived. It was pleasantly warm. Other runners wrapped in multiple layers but for a Scotsman this was still tops off weather.
Nez de Boeuf: Time of Day 06:17am, Race Time 08:17, Distance 38Km, Elevation Gain 2406m
An aid station arrived followed by a run on relatively easy trail crossing some farm roads. There were a couple of unofficial aid stations at road crossings where crews were meeting their runners. One of the pieces of local knowledge which visitors aren’t aware of.
Some ups and downs and I arrived a the aid station of Mare a Boue feeling surprisingly good. I had survived the first night, had climbed well and had made much better time than expected.
On to Cilaos.
Mare a Boue means sea of mud but so far I hadn’t seen much in the way of mud. In fact the first section after the aid station had been on surprisingly run-able trail. Then gradually things started to get a bit gnarly. Farm tracks became trail, which became single track, which started to climb. The sea of mud arrived but the weather had been dry for a few weeks so it was much more benign than it might have been. Logs and branches had been laid in the mud to help the passage. Mare a Boue complete. On to Cilaos and my drop bag.
By now the sun was high in the sky and as the path narrowed and climbed, the path demanded concentration with lots of rocks to clamber up and the path was bordered by large trees, however a look to the side confirmed that we were navigating some pretty narrow ridges with serious drops either side. I decided that I would maybe be just a little more careful jumping down off of rocks for a wee while.
After a fair bit of ridge hopping I reached the top of the Caldera. By this time it wasn’t just hot, it was sweltering.
On the elevation chart the drop to Cilaos looks quite steep. On the google maps flyover the trail just seems to go over the edge of the Caldera and go straight down to Cilaos, but these things always exaggerate the terrain and things are never as bad a they look on the map.
Not this time.
The sides of a Caldera are not just steep they are almost vertical. The drop from the top was around 3000 feet. I have never been so scared on a hill in my life.
Yes there were zig zags. Narrow zig zags with big drops. Sections of rock to slither down while pressed hard against the vertical cliff walls. Big drops down boulders which are fine if you are young, lithe and confident. I am neither young nor lithe and my confidence was diminishing with each nervous drop making me slower and more cautious with each step of the descent. I should add here that there was nothing which was actually dangerous, but when you have been running for more than 12 hours it certainly focussed the mind.
Cilaos was only a few kilometres away. I could hear the music and the announcer in the stadium. The only problem was that one of those kilometres was straight down.
It felt like people were streaming past me on the descent. All of the people I had passed on the ups. I was sure they were laughing at me descending like my grandmother.
That’s the thing about Reunion, it messes with your head. I would pass all of those people again later but as I crept downhill I felt like I was out of my depth. The heat, the terrain, I was definitely out of my depth.
After what felt like the slowest descent I have ever done I made it to the checkpoint at the bottom. At least I had made it to Cilaos. Only I hadn’t. This was only an intermediate checkpoint. Cilaos was still a few Kilometres away. A chance to redeem myself and get running again. I looked back to see where we had come from, and in hindsight I wish I had taken a picture because there was a Kilometre high vertical wall, covered in lush vegetation. If I hadn’t been on that path , I would never have thought it was possible to have a path there.
Cilaos. I was so looking forward to picking up my drop bag. I coaxed my legs into running once more, passed some small hamlets and then when Cilaos was almost in sight, the Diagonale did what the Diagonale does, it went down a ravine. And of course at the bottom of every ravine is a river crossing, and on the other side of every ravine is a steep climb up, usually scrambling up loose dirt, or over tree roots and boulders.There is also very little air in the bottom of a ravine. In fact it is like being in a damp oven.
After what felt like forever I popped out at the top of the last ravine to be met by some cheery volunteers who scanned my bib and pointed me to the road.
Cilaos: Time of Day 12:52pm, Race Time 14:52, Distance 65Km, Elevation Gain 3265m
Finally I had made it to Cilaos. I sent Helen a text
The checkpoint at Cilaos is in a sports stadium. A massive marquee was set up on the running track where you could collect the drop bag. Another marquee hosted beds and physio tables. It felt more like the end of a race, and for a number it was. It was also quite eerie because despite all of the infrastructure there weren’t many people milling around. I soon found them. They were all in the small changing rooms under the grandstand.
I managed to squeeze into a tiny space on the bench and tried to organise my clothes and my head. Lots of runners were taking advantage of the showers. I did not have the mental strength to take off my shoes, socks, calf guards, however I did take my turn under the shower soaking my head and chest under the cold water.
It was a struggle but I got dressed, took what I wanted and dumped the flotsam into the drop bag, took it back to the bag tent and went in search of food. Another meal was dispensed in yet another hall and finally it was time to set off again.
The final sting in the tail from Cilaos was I set off in the wrong direction!
Mafate – a slave to the rythmn
The heat was immense and the afternoon was spent picking my way through an interminable succession of ravines, steadily working my way upwards and out of the Caldera once more. I had picked up a small towel from my drop bag and decided to carry it with me. I soaked this at every opportunity and went through the ritual of wiping my face, wipng my arms, squeezing it over my head before finally wrapping it round my neck. I repeated this every time I came across some water.
At some point in the afternoon, while making yet another climb through the forest we encountered a rustic wooden house which doubled as a cafe. We were welcomed effusively by mine host who was dressed as some sort of King Arthur character, while his wife who was dressed in full hippy gear offered cups of broth and tea which was dispensed by a very laid back black guy with long dreadlocks. The whole area was pungent with the sweet aroma of some decidedly strange smelling substances. Meanwhile their children were running wild through the forest climbing rocks and trees and shouting to the runners. It was all very weird but the liquid was welcome and I filled my water bottles from the spout they had set up using banana leaves.
Still the sun shone, the hills came and went, checkpoints were ticked off and progress was made.
My next goal was to make it to darkness because with the darkness would come some respite from the heat and I would hopefully be able to run more freely again.
In hindsight I now understand what the trail was doing at this point. It was working round the edge of the great circle that is the Cirque de Mafate, sometimes climbing up to the top sometimes descending to the bottom crossing ravines which cut into the edges of the old volcano. I wish I had studied the route more carefully as I had no clear sense of where we were other than that every up had downs in it and every down was awful.
Marla: Time of Day 18:13, Race Time 20:13, Distance 80Km, Elevation Gain 4572m
As darkness fell I arrived in one of the significant staging points in the race, a checkpoint called Marla. Almost halway. There was a sleep station set up here and after having a meal, I was feeling quite traumatised and vulnerable and very wary of heading out into the darkness of another climb knowing what the previous climbs had been like. I decided to take a short sleep to clear my head and build up my fortitude before heading out.
I lay down on the large tarpaulin, wrapped myself in some blankets and promptly became wide awake. Tried again but no, my body was not for sleeping.
Headtorch back on and a little reluctantly I headed out into my second night.. I got into a train of runners as we picked our way over yet another set of ridges before eventually settling into some steep downhill running on good trails through forests of pine and eucalyptus.
The night made no sense to me. It was an endless grind up and down steep ravines. I had no sense of where I was or where I was going. This time however it didn’t cool down at night. I sweated like I have never sweated in my life. I drank as much as I dared conscious of the perils of drinking too much water. I filled my bottle at every stream. I soaked my towel, soaked my shirt, took my shirt off, ran with it rolled up under my bag, my waterlogged belly bouncing around as I clambered over piles of rocks in the dark. Strangely despite my overheating I was still moving and still moving quite well.
The hours ticked by one after another. A bright moon came out and lit up the prehistoric landscape. The edge of the caldera was perforated by steep sided inlets and we had to go down and up each one.
The run downhill on the second night, things started to get a bit strange. I began to feel slightly spaced out and a wee bit semi-detached. I was running quite well but couldn’t have told you why I was doing it if you had asked. This was one of the ways the tiredness hit me. I knew I had to get to La Redoute, but I had no idea why I was going there. It didn’t occur to me to stop, but I had forgotten I was in a race, and was just going to La Redoute because that was where everyone had to go to.
The side of the trail was littered with dozens of bodies. Small clumps of runners were curled up under the trees, wrapped in foil blankets, taking the opportunity to sleep.
Without huge incident I made it to the bottom of the hill. I was feeling very sleepy by now and was starting to see and hear things in the woods. I could hear monkeys throwing coconuts at each other in the tops of huge clumps of giant bamboo. I have no idea whether there are monkeys or coconuts on Reunion Island, but something was making a racket in the treetops. If I was hallucinating these were just disconcerting, there was more to come. A wee while later I found myself muttering that I really must have a word with Ian Beattie about the state of this course, you can’t have people running over paths as bad as this! Ian is of course the race director of the West Highland Way Race and has no connection whatsoever with Reunion Island!
Grand Place: Time of Day 01:43am, Race Time 27:43, Distance 98.5Km, Elevation Gain 5573m
In due course I lumbered into the checkpoint at Grand Place had some food and decided to take advantage of the next sleep station. It was after midnight again, and at times I felt very far from home. I found a space on the communal sleeping mat, wrapped myself in tinfoil like an oversize tartan turkey and immediately found myself staring wide eyed at a sky full of giant stars. This time I wasn’t imagining it. I must have stopped for all of 10 minutes, but it was enough to clear my head so it was time to continue.
A few more ravines, and one final lung busting climb saw dawn break.
Down in the valley dozens of steep green peaks poked through a thick early morning cloud inversion. Roche Plate was in sight. It was on the other side of the valley but it was in sight. There was of course some climbing yet be done. This was the race of the fools after all,
Roche Plate: Time of Day 06:06m, Race Time 32:06, Distance 106Km, Elevation Gain 6519m
Roche Plate is perched halfway up a hill and is squashed into the hillside. The checkpoint was in the village school and it has hard to imagine anyone living there let alone enough people to merit a school. It had a vaguely Nepalese look to it. It also looked like a refugee camp. A row of bodies lay against an outside wall, each wrapped in a foil blanket. Some slept. All looked gaunt and haunted. Having spent the last few hours worrying about my overheating, I joined the queue to see the doctor. She spoke a little English and I spoke a little French and somehow I explained that if someone had come into one of my checkpoints with those symptoms I would ask them to see a medic, so could she check me out. My temperature, pulse and blood pressure all checked out and I was pronounced fit to continue. She wished me good luck and advised that I should perhaps slow down and not work so hard.
By the time I left Roche Plate the sun was up but I took the time to look around. We had circumnavigated about three quarters of this giant caldera. In the valley sunken below hundreds of sharp little volcanic mounds jutted skywards all covered in dense foliage. It was like the land that time forgot. I fully expected to see pterodactyls swooping below me.
Having sucked in the views and lungfuls of thin air I was still purposeful in moving forward. It was around 9 am, I had been out for two whole nights, but that didn’t matter any more. I had no sense of time. I wasn’t even particularly tired. I was completely absorbed in the adventure and the only thing which mattered was the next step.
Upon turning away from the landscape below me I turned to face the direction of travel and the vertical of wall of rock ahead, I remember quite distinctly thinking “WOW! that is an impressive hill, but that isn’t climbable so I wonder where the path goes”
Guess where the path went? Yes you got it first time. There is a 4500 feet climb out of Roche Plate. Initially up a rocky outcrop set at 90 degrees to the main wall of the caldera. Up past some shrines including a memorial to a runner who died during the race a few years ago. After a couple of hours climbing, the path became visible. A long narrow scar on the cliff, rising diagonally in a long traverse until it finally reaches the top far in the distance. The next few hours were among the most rewarding I have ever spent. The views were almost indescribable and as we finally approached the top a thick crowd of people spilled over the lip.
The last few hundred metres of the climb were like being in the Tour de France. Supporters lined both sides of the path, some were perched a bit too precariously for my liking, but they shouted, cheered, patted you on the back, offered you “courage” and despite the heat and the tiredness, when you hit the top of the volcano you did it with a massive grin on your face. The fools were going to La Redoute and indeed “on n’est pas fatigue”
Mentally I had reached a significant point in the race. That was the last big climb done, I was through the magic 100K mark, and there was a 13K run downhill to the next drop bag at San Souci. There was still lots of work to be done, but surely it would be relatively easy now we were off the volcano and were heading for the coast. I may have mentioned it isn’t called the diagonal of the fools for nothing.
Maido tete Dure: Time of Day 08:59m, Race Time 34:59, Distance 113Km, Elevation Gain 7598m
After something of a lap of honour running along the rim of the volcano admiring the scenery and waving at the helicopters which appeared from below us, followed by the usual throwing up incident in the field hospital which had been set up on top of the mountain, this also delivered by by helicopter, the downhill finally kicked in.
The run to Sans Souci took all morning. The sun was scorching so it was a relief of sorts to get into the shade of the forest once more. Some good running on pleasant trails, some indescribably horrendous ups and downs.
Sans Souci arrived and I was buzzing. I ran the last kilometre into the checkpoint like it was a 10K race.
Sans Souci: Time of Day 12:09pm, Race Time 38:09, Distance 126Km, Elevation Gain 7665m
Looking back now, I arrived in San Souci feeling quite pleased with my performance. I had just completed a 13K downhill run in 3 hours!
There was a real festival atmosphere at the checkpoint. The facilities were spread throughout the school. The supporters were all smiles and encouragement and it seemed that everyone for miles around had come to watch the race run through. I had a good feed, a clean up and got my feet patched up by the team of podiatrists who were spending all day draining blisters, injecting iodine into the blisters before applying dressings.
Only a marathon to go, what could possibly go wrong?
I was in good spirits when I left Sans Souci. It was still early in the day, only 26 miles to go and according the the elevation charts the worst of the big hills were done. The calculations I was doing in my head were telling me that I should be finished before darkness, way ahead of my target time. Only 26 miles and not too hilly what could possibly go wrong?
The first thing to go wrong was that I had changed my shoes in Sans Souci, taking off my Brooks Caldera and replacing them with Skechers Go Trail Ultra, which are like boats in comparison. While they are great for plodding on flat trail, they turned out to be useless on technical ground. Getting my blisters treated was also a bit of a mistake in hindsight because the dressings were making my feet more uncomfortable than the blisters had been. The downhill rock hopping became even slower and more tentative than before.
First up was a wide river crossing, with a vocal group of spectators who I am sure were waiting to see if you fell in from the giant stepping stones, then a clamber up a ladder and a bizarre pantomime crossing of a large pipe.
A little section on road with a nice interlude where two little girls had a table set up and they were dishing out coke and water melon. I was really taken with their enthusiasm and generosity when it was obvious from the surroundings that this was a family of very humble means. Still making good time, still feeling positive, then the trail headed up hill once more. In my head I was expecting a few ups and downs and then an easy procession through the towns on the coast before arriving back in Saint Denis. The reality was chastening. Alarming descents slithering down steep hillsides.
One memorable downhill had a temporary rope slung through trees before being anchored at the bottom by a giant tractor tyre.
The was yet another 1000 feet climb before another painful steep descent and then finally the trail eased out and I settled into a relieved group of runners who headed into the school at La Possession.
La Possession Ecole: Time of Day 17:38pm, Race Time 43:38, Distance 148Km, Elevation Gain 8391m
I slumped onto the bench in the playground of the school at La Possession, then spent a few minutes ducking my head under the cold water in the big stone sinks.
The ladies at the aid station were wonderfully warm and cheery, and determined to fill me with food. We had a bit of banter in franglais and they shared a sip from the small bottle of Glenfiddich I produced from my race bag. The water of life indeed. By now it was dinner time in the real world. In my world it meant my hopes of being finished in the daylight had been left behind on the steep ups and downs of the previous section. However there was now only 20K to go. Less than a half marathon. An hour and a half in a race, two and a bit on the trails, time to suck it up and get the job done.
Symbolically I pulled my official race shirt from my bag and put it on, because I would need that for the finish and I was going to finish.
Out of La Possession school and miraculously we were in civilisation. This was an actual town, with cars and houses and lovely flat tarmac. A nice mile along the sea front to get to the start of the famous Chemin des Anglais.
The Chemin des anglais is a 4K stretch of cobbled path which makes its way along the headland between La Possession and Grande Chaloupe. Sounds fairly straight forward. This of course is the Diagonale des Fous so these cobbles were volcanic blocks, about 30cm square, which instead of being flat, were buckled and twisted by time and jutted out of the ground at ankle-breaking jaunty angles which made progress frustratingly slow. I had stopped halfway up the first climb (of course there is always a climb) to put my torch back on, and just tried to be as patient as possible as I made my way along the Chemin. What goes up must come down, so there was a slithery, nervous run down the cobbles to the checkpoint at Grande Chaloupe.
Grande Chaloupe: Time of Day 19:55pm, Race Time 45:55, Distance 51Km, Elevation Gain 8701m
There was so much excitement at Grande Chaloupe that initially I thought I had reached the finish, or at least had reached Colorado which is the last high point on the course. A quick refuel and slightly disappointed I headed out of the checkpoint and immediately it headed sharply up hill on more of those blasted cobbles. I thought I was making quite good progress, when in the distance I saw two figures standing at the top of the hill. I assumed they were marshals so that gave me a boost. As I got closer, it seemed that they were wearing costumes of some sort. When I got close enough to pick them out in my torch, it turned out to be a couple dressed in Amish type farm clothes, one of them holding a pitchfork. A little closer and fortunately they turned back into a large rock covered in lichen.
Time was passing, and distance was ticking off. There was a very long uphill haul which I climbed strongly, but again I lost my bearings a little and couldn’t quite figure out why we were going in the direction we were. I got a bit frustrated at what seemed to be pointless meanders up and down through awkward little hills and trails before finally getting to Colorado.
Colorado: Time of Day 22:12pm, Race Time 48:12, Distance 161Km, Elevation Gain 9532 m
It’s all downhill from here
Colorado. 161Km done. So close to the finish. only 5K to go. How many times have I run 5K in training.
After a brief incident trying to persuade an over enthussiastic doctor that I was ok an dthat I wasnt really neading his asistance and that I had only sat down on the chair outside his tent for a rest, it was time to head to the finish.
The first Kilometre was ok. Nice running on a gentle downhill, but I had this nagging feeling that there might just be one more surprise.
I then entered the woods. At this time my head torch was starting to fade. I knew I had spare batteries in my bag, but it hadn’t faded completely, it was just dim enough to dent my confidence and I was suffering from runners brain and not making smart decisions. I should have changed the batteries, but I couldn’t face the mental challenge of lining them up the correct way round and reassembling my torch. With a clear head I might also have remembered that I had a spare torch with me as well.
The the real downhills started. Runners flew past me. I limped down rocks, blisters screaming each time I jumped down. It felt like the longest 5K I had ever done. Every time I thought the downhill should end, it dropped again. when finally I broke out of the forest on to the very edge of the hillside and could see the lights of St Denis, they still seemed a very long way away, and I began to wonder if I would ever finish or if I would just fall off the edge and have a nice long sleep. I wouldn’t have been the only one. I passed a runner curled up sleeping less than 3K from the finish.
The course dropped 600metres in the space of 5K. Runners hurtled past me, fueled with the prospect of finishing. I seemed to get slower and slower. I was sure that 100 runners passed me. In reality I lost 8 places on the descent. 90 minutes it took me, but it felt like a lifetime.
And then there was a checkpoint, with a band playing, and if there was a band playing it must be near the road otherwise how would they get the instruments up there? Yes! From the checkpoint you could see the road at the bottom of the hill.
A quick exchange of texts with Helen to let her know that I was on my way.
I rushed down the last section and made it to the pavement and to the underpass where Helen was waiting. I was in a bit of panic because I wanted to finish under 50 hours, and I wasn’t quite sure what time it was or how far it was to the finish line.
She told me I was fine and we ran down the road together to the entrance of the stadium. It was nearly midnight, still warm and the stadium was still jumping with people. We unfurled a saltire and jogged leisurely round the running red dirt running track to the finish line. The organisers had even managed to fly a saltire over the stadium. That was a nice touch and meant a lot.
Over the line, to be given a medal which the volunteer insisted Helen put round my neck, and an interview with the finish line announcer before getting a well earned seat.
I enjoyed the last of my whisky and shared it with a fellow fool sitting next to me. His face was a picture as my Glenfiddich woke him up quite spectacularly
I survived. I really did.
I like the concept of a Grand Raid – a big adventure, which is what it was. A race is just too hurried in comparison and this was about finishing, not about beating anyone else, even if I did beat Jim Walmsley!
It is a fantastic island and the people who organise the race do so fantastically well and go out of their way to help runners finish. The crowds and the support from the locals is second to none. The race was live on tv and the race demanded a special edition of the local newspaper.
It really is all about the journey.
I loved every minute of it, even the bits that scared me, and there were many of those, the times when I was tired, confused, depressed and sore.
It transpired that it wasn’t just me enjoying the journey. There was a whole community of friends back home avidly dot watching on the tracker and following Helen’s facebook updates. It was a brilliant, funny and inspiring experience to go back and read all the threads afterwards. I almost wish I had been following me as it looked a lot of fun.
I started not knowing if I could finish. I finished 49 hours and 39 minutes later in 976th position having been 1824th at the first checkpoint. I had executed the race as well as I could have hoped for. For those 49 hours it was about me and the climb up that next step.
Even now, months later, I find my mind drifting back to Reunion, and the fleeting thought that yes, I really did that.
The Diagonale des Fous was big, hard, scary, eye opening and inspirational. Everything I could have hoped for and more.
I cannot wait until the next time.
I am a Fool.