The tiny volcanic island of Reunion lies about 7000 miles south east of the UK, and 600 miles deeper into the Indian Ocean than Madagascar. With a length of only 39 miles, it’s hardly surprising I hadn’t even heard of this place until I discovered this race (and even when I did, there’s no way I could have located it on a map). Reunion is some sort of trail running mecca. The entire population know about the race; they have either raced the DDF or know someone who has. They’ll either be watching it live, apparently 20,000 people watch the start and 10% of the population will watch the race live at some point on the course. Or for those who can’t travel, the local TV and radio stations provide non-stop race coverage for days. Coincidently (or perhaps not) the Airbnb we had randomly chosen to stay in over the race belonged to a sports journalist who would be covering the race in its entirety on the radio. The ‘Diagonale des Fous’ (‘fool’s crossing’) is 165k long with 9500m of climb. It caught my attention when shopping for a third ultra-trail world tour race this year, but it was only after my DNF at UTMB that I fully committed to this race. I’m not sure racing both UTMB and the DDF is entirely sensible, given that they are only 7 weeks apart (with obvious exceptions e.g. Andrea Huser). It took about 28 hours of travel to reach Reunion from my home in Derbyshire, but the stress of travel quickly wore off after arriving on the island. I had 48hrs before the start which was just enough time to register, catch up on sleep, get a feel for the climate and have a swim or two in the Indian Ocean (although we were pretty cautious given the more than real shark threat).
I’d gleaned as much information as I could about the course from reading multiple blogs and memorising stats between checkpoints etc., but I still remained largely in the dark about what the next 30 plus hours would bring. We arrived in St Pierre 2 ½ hours before the start. It seemed excessive but I’d been informed (and accurately so) that the traffic and crowds would be a significant barrier. We ended up parking on the motorway slip road and walking the final 2km. The entire town was a hive of activity. There were numerous bands, dancing and circus performers creating a festival type environment for non-running islanders to come out and enjoy themselves. The start area was more chilled, with a sea of runners taking the last opportunity to lie about and conserve energy. I managed to blag my way into the elite area despite my name not being on the official list – I was gradually learning that in Reunion they don’t really stick to rules. The disadvantage of being in this area was that there was no toilet. The 100 or so of us were all peeing behind a skip.
The start was rowdy, heated and furious. Crowds lined the streets for several kilometres, and I couldn’t even hear the continuous fireworks due to the noise of the crazed fans. The pace was frantic – I felt like I was running the St Pierre 5k. I’d heard about stoppages early on so I decided to stick to the pace. The route meandered through town and wide dirt and grassy trails through sugar cane fields for about 15 miles, gradually climbing the whole way. The rules stated that all competitors had to wear the official race t-shirt from the start to the 2nd check point, and from the penultimate check point to the finish. With the temperature still not far off 30 degrees I was soon overheating in 2 layers (I planned to remove the outer layer at the 2nd checkpoint, although most people had taken theirs off well before this). At some point in the first few hours we left the wider trails and roads for narrow, windy, rooty trails through forest, and this alternated with open fields and scrub land. As it was dark and I had not run any of the route before the race, a lot of the first night blurred into one. For the early part of the night I felt non-specifically sluggish and slightly apathetic. Perhaps as the adrenaline of the start had worn off and I was getting down to business, but not even close to starting to race. At some point, I blindly followed a bunch of head torches off course which ended up costing me 2 miles, about 20 minutes and over 50 places. This was almost a turning point in the race as the frustration woke me from my daze and I felt like I was running a 100 mile race again. It got a little chilly when over 2000m but I never had to add a layer. It also didn’t rain as apparently it always does in this part of the island, and the notoriously muddy ‘Mare à Boue’, or ‘Mud Pond’, was completely dry. When the sun came up and I saw unique landscape of cirques and volcanos for the first time I was completely overwhelmed. This was why I had come all this way. The descent into Cilaos at 43 miles was essentially the first descent of the race. It was ‘fun’ technical, but borderline extreme due to the gradient, abundant rocks, roots and ladders acting as obstacles. Arriving into Cilaos I was in 9th. In Cilaos I topped up on rations from my drop bag and hurried down some hot food. On leaving the town I felt physically OK but mentally really good.
Next came the 1200m climb up to the edge of the famous Cirque de Mafate. I must have been enjoying myself (perhaps a little too much) as I moved up 22 places overall on this climb. The temperature was heating up nicely and the views from the Col du Taibit (the entry point into this relatively inaccessible Cirque) were mind blowing. By the time I reached Marla I was in 6th. It hadn’t been my plan to move up so early I tried to hold back a little. I ran a fair bit of the way through Mafate with Gilberte Libel, an islander who seemed to have friends in all the remote villages. The villages are only accessible by helicopter so these are good friends to have. She kept stopping to get support from the locals before catching me up again. She looked incredibly fresh and strong and I was just waiting for the moment when she’d pull ahead. I found out the following week when staying in her uncle’s Gite in Mafate (Reunion in a small place!) that she is a true local and had grown up in the Cirque.
The walls on the Cirque are almost sheer and the basin in anything but flat. This was the crux of the race, both for me physically and in terms of the physical environment. I have never run anywhere so spectacular, and never seen anything quite like it before. The basin was watched over by fortress-like ridges and was riven with deep valleys. 7 hours after leaving Cilaos it was now time for the mammoth, 2000m climb to get out of this volcanic amphitheatre. A helicopter buzzed above us as we climbed. I left Grand Place feeling fresh and optimistic, but I arrived in Maido as a down spirited, exhausted mess. Marcelle Puy and Gilberte overtook me on the 14km descent towards the coast which was a mental breaking point for me, resulting in the final 40km being the hardest of my life. Sans Souci was the second drop bag checkpoint so I made an effort to sort myself out; I ate a plate of rice and some sort of stew and changed into my Inov8 Roclites for a bit more cushioning.
I had a second wind after leaving Sans Souci but it short lived. The vicious and painfully technical trail was getting the better of me and I was trudging along in a drunken-like state of misery. I had foolishly assumed that now we were out of the mountains the terrain would become kinder, but I found myself climbing up ladders, scrambling over boulders up and down the hillside with frequent aid from ropes on the steepest sections. This ‘trail’ was not even walkable and it continued for way too long. Then there was the ‘Chemin des Anglais’ (apparently it was used by the British rather than built by them). It is a centuries old paved road, which sounds appealing, but it is paved with irregularly shaped boulders which are placed various distances apart making it an exhausted runner’s worst nightmare. A rocky mess. This absurdity lasted for several hours and my hopes of finding any easy trail before the finish had evaporated. The 800m climb to Colorado, the final aid station, was almost a blessing as I didn’t have to feel guilty about walking. Usually in the last few kilometres the pain goes away, but the final descent to St Denis was a continuation of the last 40k. I stumbled down through the steep, rocky jungle in the same, bleary-eyed state. I arrived at the stadium at 6am, 32 hours and 8 minutes after I’d started, in 6th place. It was the most hard-fought physical battle of my life.
I was only semi-happy with my finishing position, but more importantly to me, I had seized this potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this unique race. I had finished this race that had defeated a whole load of the best international competition.
In the days following the race we hiked the Cirques and volcanoes at a leisurely pace and were able to absorb the unique topography in a more relaxed and unblinkered way. We stayed in the mountain gites, ate Creole food, drank rum and tasted numerous exotic fruits and vegetables. This place is one of the worlds true gems.
Thanks to Raidlight, the main race sponsor, for welcoming me to Reunion and providing me with ace kit. In particular, the Responsiv 10L Race Vest is the best there is. I wore LCF Nepal socks, Inov8 TrailRoc 285 shoes, fuelled myself with Tailwind and SIS.
I would also like to thank my mum who made a last minute decision to come and crew for me, on the pretence of a holiday. She did a great job!