The race itself passed through some of the most stunning scenery that I have ever seen and was generally just great to be a part of, although the technical nature of the ground, boulders were relentless and was far more than I anticipated. The support along the route was astonishing, from the send off in St Pierre to the numerous drunk campers in the middle of nowhere supporting in the middle of the night to the great volunteers who maned the aid stations.
The start. The race started in a small party town of St Pierre at the bottom of the Island and with a 2230 start time, the supporting crowd was fairly well lubricated to give us a good send off. So for the first 3 kms we only had screaming French folk encourage us. I started quite near the back, as I was only too well aware from the previous events youtube videos how fast the start is. However as we started up the first climb, 2100m that would last until daybreak, all you could see was a line of head torches as far as the eye could see snaking its way up the mountain. Inspiring sight, although I still had rather a long way to go.
The First night. After the excitement of leaving St Pierre, I realised that I needed to take it steady, there was a long way to go. So I plugged in some calm music and gently wound my way up the mountain, initially through sugar cane fields, then through forests. The first proper aide station was a debacle, I queued for 15 mins to get into it and once in it looked liked the Mongul hordes had been through it. I was disgusted and decided that eating my food (Gus) was a better alternative. The pure number of people still astonished me, both runners and supporters. So much so that I we had to queue to get through some of the narrow places on the path. However the night was cool and moral was high. Then it started to rain.
The first day. With the arrival of day break, there was no doubt that the rain was going to be a significant feature of the next few hours. Thankfully my first advantage, Welsh background, had prepared me well for such eventualities and I started overtake the majority of people in my sights. By about 0800 I reached the first 2000m peak, albeit battered by the wind and the rain. Quick cup of tea and then off, many of the French just chose to hide in the aide station tent, but the only way to get out of the rain was to run through it. The next six or so hours were fairly bleak and passed through what I imagine is some wonderful scenery, although I could see non of it. Then after much trudging and trying to overtake on small paths I reached the most amazing view at the edge of the ‘Cirque de Cilaos’, photo below. As you pear down across the most amazing geographic feature, with the town in the centre and knowing that the first drop bag was there, I started the horrendous decent.
The arrival at the town with my drop bag, I was greeted with a bit of a surprise. There was a shower!! Fabulous, so showered, fed, new clothes, newly acquired tendonitis (re comment on descent into Cilaos) and 60km/14 hours complete. Well rested, but with some pain I started the steepest ascent of the route, 1100m over 4 km. Actually as I got into the rhythm of the climb and took gently but steady steps, it worked out fine and my second advantage kicked in, I live in Nairobi, so am well acclimatised, so again started to over take folk. The pain in my ankle remained fairly numb, nearly enough to ignore it.
The second night. As I topped out of the Cirque de Cilaos, we had limited time left in the light and I know from my mountaineering days, once the light goes you must slow and be steady, but while you have the light you should make haste. So a rapid decent was called for over the next 13km into the next valley. However, it turns out that it was the the most outrageous path I have ever run down. Far more hobble than walk or run. I made the majority of the 13km before dark, but not enough, so I was treated to running through forest with muddy, paths using my head torch again. All good fun, but the ankle was now getting worst. A brief stop at an aide station and I quickly pushed onto the next, where I knew there was medics.
The medics were superb, jolly, quick to diagnose and treated me well. I also discovered the aide station has a dormitory. So at 2230 I took my first proper sleep, a full 30 mins. After little disappointment that the alarm had gone off, I was up and feeling strong, bandaged. The start of the next big climb 14 km and up to 2000+m. It was here that I realised that the sleep was the best decision of the race. As I ascended and slowly made my way past the, now rain sodden other trail runners, the ‘trail corpses’ started to appear. People who literally could not carry on and wrapped themselves up in something and went to sleep. All round a bad idea, you would never recover in those conditions. The climbing was hugely long, but after having stopped at the last aide station for nearly an hour in total I only lost 7 places on this section I was to find out later.
As I crossed into the last ‘Cirque’ the weather immediately changed, to walking through the wonderful starry evening sky and luscious woods. However, my tendonitis was taking it’s toll. I could no longer keep up with the various other runners. So as I crawled into Marla at 0355 I was off to the medics again. Strapped up & drugged up, I decided another 30 mins sleep would not hurt and it didn’t!
The second day. Again waking from my short but valuable slumber I eat some food and started running. This was to be my last day and start of it was a treat, as we descended down the valley the views were astonishing, some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. My ankle was behaving (we had many a conversation) and I just lapped up the views. By 0700 I was on my way up the last 2000m climb of the race and spirits were high. I polished off the last climb in a respectable two hours. Where I was greeted by someone who I had ran with the day before, but it turns out had dropped out of the race. He joined me for a bit, explained he was a physio and carried out a full session on me, this was going to get me going again. Combined with my new found knowledge from one of the locals that I could meet my target, sub 48 hours, but I would have to work! So work is exactly what I decided to do, for what turned out to be the next 12 hours. As I descended to sea level for another 13km the going was tough, but spirits were high. I started to put in some great times, further lifting my moral. I got my second drop bag, and yes a second shower, wondering how could the next 31km take me more than the 11 hours I had left to make my target, I was going to do it. Well as with the rest of this race, everything seems further than you think and the paths always seem to be far more challenging than you think possible. This is where 7km took me 2:30. After that were treated to a further 6km of boulder strewn nightmare, which took am a further 1:30. However with that finished, I was on the penultimate leg, with a five min break, some chocolate and tea I was game to push this leg.
The start of the third night. I had known for some time that I would be finishing in the dark and as dark descended I decided to throw caution to the wind and just get a move on. All the runners around me were excited, we all know this crazy challenge is nearly over. Winding our way through forests and past homes, the crowds again were great. Arriving at the last station, I sat down, ask for more coke, tea & chocolate, no more than five mins I am pushing for a good time. It is anywhere between 4-6km to the finish no one on this course can ever agree how far anywhere is, mildly frustrating when tired. So I started the descent down the forest track with the view of St Dennis (pronounced St Denni) showing through. All caution had now gone I was on for a sub 47 not 48. Time to push, but my tummy had decided no more food.
By the bottom of the trail I was pretty fatigued, but I had promised myself 10 months ago that if I finished, I would run the last km. So with the adrenaline kicking in I probably averaged a 5 min km into the stadium to make it all stop. Crossing the finish line at full tilt, the crowd clapped and applauded, I however just immediately started vomiting. The crowd made a lot more ohs & arrhs. I stood up, took a bow, got a lot more claps and walked off to start the recovery process. Nearly a week later – still ongoing, although just the tendonitis, everything else feels strong.
It was wonderful to have so few low points during the race, with the rainy weather working in my favour, it turns out the French don’t handle rain so well. The number of ‘trail corpses’, folk literally just lying next to the trail and gibbering was astounding. All helped by not loosing my appetite until right at the end.
On reflection, I am still amazed that I did it and actually did it fairly well. In the end 50% of people dropped out (normally 30-35%) and I ended up 344th out of 1147 finishers and ~2500 starters, way better than I originally hoped for.
While no intention of doing that race again, genuinely too hard for twice in one life, I am keen to have a go at something else.
Thanks all for your wonderful support along this journey I took.