Diagonale des Fous


Back in 2018 my wife asked me what I’d like to do for my 50th. A repeat of my 40th with a gathering of friends and family would be enjoyable but nothing new. An interesting race on the other hand, well that would be something to get excited about. She agreed it was a good idea, so suddenly I had carte blanche to look look much further afield than the usual UK races.  A browse of ultras at  http://www.ultramarathonrunning.com/races/ didn’t reveal anything appealing in November but there was the Grand Raid in October, which was close enough to my birthday. I’d also been to Reunion for a fortnight of hiking some 30 years previously and so knew it was a lovely island with huge mountains. Now I just needed to figure out how to secure a place and then plan a holiday around it.

Looking at the details of the race it turned out that the Grand Raid was a banner for 4 races of differing lengths. The longest solo race was “Diagonale des Fous” at just over 100 miles with almost 10,000m of ascent – way more climbing than anything I’d done before but there was no way I was going for one of the shorter options. How on earth was I going to train for this? Box Hill and Leith Hill obviously weren’t anything close but there was no way I’d be able to get regular training in the Alps or anywhere like that so they would just have to do. Ultimately I embarked on a repeat of my previous Lakeland 100 training plan adding in as many ups-and-downs as I could to the usual Surrey Hills training routes. That plus building in two leg weight sessions each week was about all I could fit in. The plan started in in December 2018, so about 10 months of training.  

Entries only opened in late 2018 and I wasn’t certain I’d get in. I therefore booked Lakeland 100 as another “A race” for 2019 thinking that I could either cancel that or use it as a training run if I did manage to get in. I did get a place and ended up doing both but couldn’t possibly treat the Lakes as a training run trying hard to beat my previous time. In the three months between them I worried that I’d blown it as recovery was slow leaving me knackered and sore after a 15 mile run. Three months was just about enough though, as by the end I was feeling back at peak fitness.

Getting to Reunion ended up being a bit more stressful than I’d bargained for. There are no direct flights so you either need to fly via Mauritius or Paris. I opted for the latter, so Heathrow to Paris CDG and then Paris ORY to Reunion. That’s two different Paris airports with a 90 minute bus trip between them – something I’d not spotted when making the booking but fortunately had plenty of time (to worry about being stuck in traffic on the peripherique!).

The day of arrival at Reunion I had to get to race registration before noon. Registration was at the southern side of the island, in St Pierre, with the airport and my hotel at the northern side. Cue another couple of hours on a bus. There were however some good views inland to the mountains.

First view of the mountains

Arriving in St Pierre I didn’t really know where to go but simply followed the sound of music blaring and made it to registration at the town hall before noon. Registration took about two hours with a rather long queue. Chatted to a few runners who had run it before and learned that some difficult sections of the course were not where I’d expected them to be – a 15km downhill dropping over 2000m had looked like an easy part but it sounded like it was going to be a quad killer – more stuff to worry about! It also sounded like my 45 hour target was a bit optimistic and that 50 hours was perhaps more realistic.

The queue for registration

Next back on the bus to St Denis to find the hotel and hopefully get a good night’s sleep as the following two nights (hopefully not three) were going to be spent running.

Amazingly I did sleep well that night, almost unheard of for me the night before a race. Now I just needed to while away a few hours before catching the race bus at 4pm back down to St Pierre. Somehow I managed to relax by the pool and then set off on a local bus to Roland Garros to catch the race bus. This was my first big mistake: Roland Garros is both the name of the airport as well as a street in town. I assumed the former but the bus left from the latter. Shit! Now what? Hasty enquiries and I found the next scheduled bus to St Pierre was in 90 minutes. That still gave me enough time to get to the race start but didn’t leave me with much time to relax before the race started. Not much else to do beyond wait and hope that the bus wasn’t delayed.

Three hours later and I’m back in St Pierre walking to the town hall to find the start. Get there and it’s dead. What’s going on?!? Second big mistake: not finding out where the race start was. In my defence that wouldn’t have been an issue if I hadn’t missed the race bus. Fortunately the town was buzzing near the sea front – all you needed to do was head towards the music. It was a long walk though – about two miles along a road lined with bands, dancers and crowds. The race is big news here!

Eventually I make it to the start and there is a huge “queue” for kit check. This isn’t a polite British queue but just a mass of people pushing to get through a gate. Two hours in the crush and I finally make it into the starting area. I’m relieved but also stressed out – it’s only half an hour until the race starts. I’m hungry (haven’t eaten since lunch time) and need to find water to fill up the bladder in my race vest. The food tables are empty and I can’t find water. I can’t seem to find anyone that speaks English. This is not the way to start a race! Eventually I find a half empty water bottle next to a bin. It smells OK so it’ll have to do – should be enough to get to the first aid station. Now try and relax.

Ready to start

Soon enough the crowd starts inching forward so the race must be about to start. I’m right at the back but really don’t feel like pushing my way into another crowd. The crowd starts walking so I guess the race started (no idea what’s being said over the PA). Start the watch going and soon start jogging along the seafront. The crowd is even bigger than before, filled with bands and dancers and it goes on for miles. There are fireworks going off too. This is an amazing atmosphere but my head isn’t in the right place to enjoy it – I’m still stressed-out, sick of crowds and just want to run. I try and talk myself round – “this is it, this is the race you’ve trained all year for, enjoy it! Soak up the atmosphere!” but I just can’t switch moods.

After a few miles we leave town and start ascending through the cane fields. The crowd is thinning out a bit now so I can run at a nice easy pace. We pass through villages, each lined with people shouting “allez! allez!”, fortunately I’m starting to enjoy things – all the stress of the start has faded and I’m looking forward to getting up into the mountains and seeing the dawn.

Nine miles in and suddenly we stop, and not just briefly but for minutes. We are now on single-track and I’m towards the back of a queue of 2700 runners (at this point I was around 2000). 6 miles of stop-start follow but I try not to let it bother me – try to think of it as enforced rest that will help later. That kind of works and soon enough I reach Aire du Nez de Boeuf, which is the top of the first long climb.

Around then dawn breaks illuminating the 3000m peak of Piton de Neiges. There is frost on the ground so it really was close to freezing overnight. I can spot the mountain hut where we spent the night on the way to the summit 30 years ago. It’s a shame the race doesn’t take you over the top but then again this is going to be tough enough without an extra climb.

The next section is relatively flat and runnable and I’m enjoying it. Definitely passing plenty of runners and even some who sleeping at the side of the trail. I don’t feel the slightest bit tired and plan to keep going well into the second night before thinking about sleeping. I do wonder if they know something I don’t though.

Next up is the really steep descent down to Cilaos complete with chains, ropes and ladders. One of the blogs I’d read spoke about needing gloves to protect your hands and of people falling and ending their race here so I was a little worried about just how difficult it was going to be. Ultimately it was a long steep descent but not overly technical. You could spot the local runners though as they just flew down.

Reaching Cilaos was a major milestone. Huge crows cheering you in. Here was where you got your first drop bag so that meant fresh clothes, new shoes, proper food. I spent at least half an hour here freshening up and getting ready for the next section through Cirque de Mafate, which was going to be the hardest with two major 1000m+ climbs and another night before heading down to the coast.

Out of Cilaos in the midday sun with the big climb up Col du Taibit (2142m) ahead . Some of my running buddies reckon I’ve got a “diesel engine” when it comes to long climbs so I try to invoke that now and manage to stay feeling strong with a steady pace all the way up and then over into Marla. I gain 300 places over that section so it must be true.

Ready for Cirque de Mafate

Leaving Marla the trail descends into Cirque de Mafate, the most remote part of the route. There are no roads here and the aid stations are all supplied by helicopter. I’d heard you couldn’t drop out at any of the aid stations here and had to make it out to Maido. That could have been intimidating but I didn’t feel that there was any real danger of me not making it another 30 miles. Descending into forest it suddenly went dark and started to rain. Looking at my watch it wasn’t even 6pm so the next 11 hours or so would need a head torch – it was going to be a long night.

At this point I’d not had a conversation with any other runners. That’s very unusual for me as I almost always get chatting to someone on the trail, which is a great distraction that can get you through a few hours without noticing. Almost everyone in this race is French and I barely know enough to order a beer so conversations just weren’t happening. At one of the aid stations though another runner asked “are you English?” – he must have heard me trying to communicate with the staff. We quickly struck up a conversation – I was certainly glad to have someone to chat to, which helped a lot getting through the second night. Ultimately we stuck together right to the end of the race so I expect he was glad to have the company too.

Conversation kept us moving well until the big climb out of Mafate up to Maido. This was a monster climb of 1300m that we started at about 2am. Sleep deprivation was now becoming an issue and I wasn’t as sure-footed as usual. The trail was a zig-zag carved into the near vertical side of the mountain so there wasn’t anywhere to sleep. It was time to get that diesel engine chugging away again, although by this time it was spluttering quite a bit.

Three hours later we crested the summit and I was now struggling to stay awake but couldn’t stop to rest as I’d run out of water half an hour before. Fortunately it was an easy ridge run to the aid station – a place to get water, food and hopefully a nap. There was no place to sleep inside and it was pretty cold and windy outside. Continuing to the next aid station wasn’t an option so I just put on all my layers and curled up on a stretcher outside with a countdown alarm set for 20 minutes. Having never before slept during a race I had no idea if I’d be able to nod off but the alarm woke me so I must have. I was bloody freezing though! There was frost on the ground again so it was time to get running to warm up. Next was the long descent to Ilet Savannah that I’d heard about. I hoped my quads were up to the task.

The descent was indeed long: 1875m over 15km but really not that difficult. I did trip up once on the way down though (my only fall of the race) and by some miracle landed in a soft bush – right next to a nasty spiky one. The descent ended at Ilet Savannah, a town near the coast, which was the next big aid station with the second drop bag. There were showers here too, so even though I had no soap or towel I took the opportunity to freshen up, change clothes and give my feet some attention. A quick hot meal and it was time to tackle the last 25 miles with two 800m climbs. That really didn’t sound like a lot, although it was getting hot already.

Two little climbs to go

The first of the climbs felt easy enough and the terrain for the descent was some interesting scrambling over boulders filling a ravine, which ultimately took us down to La Possession at the coast. Only one more similarly sized climb left now – this should be easy.

Ha! I wish! I’d read about Chemin Anglais being this horrible track that destroyed you but didn’t think things could be that bad with just the one climb left. It was bad, really bad. Thinking back it’s hard to say just why. The track itself was in distinct sections of entirely different character, almost as if it had been constructed by different people. It started off as a paved jeep-sized track made of flattish rocks fairly evenly put together. It didn’t look that bad but somehow the surface made each step a little different so that took away any rhythm. A sudden change in character and it was now as if builder #2 had decided not to bother laying any of the stones and had just scattered them willy-nilly. Somehow that seemed worse than no trail at all. A few more changes of character, all sudden and distinct but never making the going any better. The climb seemed to go on for ever and sapped every last bit of physical and mental energy. I swore at lot and can’t have been much fun to be around, but somehow made it to the top of the climb where there was a beautiful grassy meadow and the final aid station before the descent to the finish.

Chemin Anglais

Only three miles left now, all downhill and I can hear the music from the stadium at the finish. My watch says 43:30 – surely we can manage to sneak it in in under 44 hours? I ask Antti if he’s up for a final challenge. He doesn’t seem that keen but agrees to give it a try. At this point we have to put the official t-shirt on as you have to cross the finish line in it; there’s a time penalty if you don’t (the French have some weird rules).

With the end so near my legs feel brilliant and I’m flying down, overtaking loads of runners who all seem to be struggling. Sub-44 is slipping away but I don’t want to stop trying and keep on pushing. Eventually the trail comes out at a road and the stadium is there. Crowds of people lining the entrance clapping and cheering but no sign of Antti. He can’t be that far behind can he? After having stuck together for half the race we can’t not finish together so I stop and wait for what feels like an age. It seems that everyone I overtook on that last section is now passing me again. I’m starting to worry that he’s fallen and injured himself but he does turn up and we finish it together.

The end

Before this race I’d decided it would be my last 100 miler. 2020 was going to be all about Mountain Marathons; 100s were just silly really. Chatting to Antti it turned out that I now had enough points to apply for a place at UTMB. That’s never happened before and is unlikely to happen ever again. I don’t have much choice really, just one more then…

Checkpoint stats

St PierreThu. 22:0100:00:00
Domaine Vidot6682066Fri. 00:0202:01:31
Notre Dame de la Paix10401816Fri. 02:4504:44:18
Aire du Nez de Boeuf7561514Fri. 05:3907:38:10
Mare à Boue641322Fri. 07:1209:11:17
Cilaos (Stade)1091252Fri. 11:5213:51:22
Sentier Taïbit (début)4541048Fri. 14:1316:12:13
Marla842937Fri. 16:1718:16:54
Plaine des Merles507820Fri. 18:1420:13:26
Sentier Scout40781Fri. 18:5220:51:12
Ilet à Bourse107778Fri. 21:0123:00:15
Grand Place438744Fri. 21:5523:54:57
Roche Plate679667Sat. 01:0727:06:37
Maïdo Tête dure790598Sat. 04:0230:01:09
Ilet Savannah90556Sat. 07:3933:38:39
Chemin Ratinaud640557Sat. 10:2736:26:21
La Possession176560Sat. 12:1938:18:04
Grande Chaloupe339544Sat. 14:3440:33:16
Le Colorado821550Sat. 17:0343:02:43
St Denis Le Redoute28552Sat. 18:0844:07:22

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