Joe Grant’s 2012 Diagonale des Fous Race Report
Hands on knees, head nearly touching my forearms, I take one more step before collapsing under the tree. I prop my shoulder up on its trunk, tilting my neck slightly back to press my cheekbone against the smooth bark. My vision is blurred. I take short, rapid breaths through my mouth. My whole body feels like it is wrapped in cellophane, suffocating in the oppressive heat. I sit in the cloud of dust with my physical discomfort, letting my mind drift. For a moment, I try to remain in contact with the race. Stay focused, hold it together, I keep repeating. Runners have been dropping out ahead. I’ve been catching others. My apparent comeback into the race is nothing but an illusion. I’ve reached a place of utter exhaustion. I am completely empty.
As a child, when I would get into real trouble, my mother would not get angry, instead she would simply say, “Joe, I am disappointed in you.” The thought of disappointing my mother was infinitely harder for me to cope with than the wrongdoing. Similarly, knowing that I could no longer continue in this race, for me personally, selfishly, wasn’t a big deal. However, the race is bigger than me, bigger than whether or not I am okay with my failure. I consider being able to run a great privilege and had traveled over ten thousand miles from Colorado to be here on Reunion Island. I’d received immense support from my family, friends and sponsors. The people of Reunion Island had welcomed me with open arms, inviting me into their homes, cooking food and introducing me to the magic of this place. I did not come here to drop out. I did not come here to give anything less than my best. Nevertheless, here I am sitting under a tree, shattered, unable to give back, unable to finish.
Let me start from the beginning. 2,700 runners are lined up for the twentieth anniversary of La Diagonale des Fous (English: The Diagonal of Fools) on Reunion Island; a small island east of Madagascar. The atmosphere is unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a race. Thundering African drums set the rhythm accompanied by cheering and clapping. TV cameras swarm the front line doing last minute interviews. Mountain running is the national sport here. A poll in the local paper stated that 6 out of 10 people on the island would be following the race and with all the commotion you certainly can feel it. Runners push and shove their way forward as the countdown begins. At 10 pm, the human wave is unleashed into the night. The lead pace is aggressive for a hundred miler. I feel more like I’m running a road marathon for the first 3 miles on the highway. We soon turn off the main road and begin a gentle, but sustained climb for the next 10 miles; briefly running through sugarcane fields with rough golf ball sized volcanic rock underfoot before the pavement resumes. The air is thick, muggy and it is raining steadily. We are required to wear a mandatory shirt with race sponsors on it to the second aid station. Mine is a little tight making me feel a bit claustrophobic, adding to a general feeling of discomfort that I’ve had since the start. I pull over in the bushes for my first bout of diarrhea. I’m only 30 minutes into the race and my stomach feels really off. I sip some coke at the first aid station and force a gel down to not run an early calorie deficit.
About 13 miles in, we leave the road and wild roaring crowd to begin the ascent to the volcano. The grade kicks up significantly and the trail is laced with rocks and roots. I had really enjoyed this part of the course on my reconnaissance hike the week before, so I try to channel that and settle into a good hiking pace. Unfortunately, I stop in the bushes once, twice, three, four times again, in the hour and half or so it takes me to reach the crater. I’ve been drinking water and trying to eat, but nothing stays down. Shortly before the next aid station, I run into Wilfrid Ouledi a local runner and frequent top finisher in the race. He is having problems with his headlamp dimming, so I offer to run with him until he can change the batteries at the aid station. We make a quick transition and leave together. I’m happy to have some company to navigate the wide-open lunar scapes on the flank of the volcano. Heavy rain and thick fog make for poor visibility. It’s chilly, but not unbearable and I’m happy with just a windbreaker over my t-shirt. The path is now smooth and sandy and makes for some easy running.
At Piton Textor, I tell my crew, I’m switching to plan B of half coke, half water in my bottles, as it’s the only thing I can keep down. I also change from my Sense shoes into my Fellcross in anticipation of the wet, muddy, grassy section to come. It is very bizarre to go from running on the moon, to being in what feels like the Swiss Alps in a matter of minutes. Tight singletrack weaves its way through cow pastures and I hop small fences dividing cattle lots. Wilfrid and I are still together although he pulls ahead occasionally as I make my never-ending pit stops. We make our way through Mare à Boue (appropriately translated as mud pond) before the trail kicks up again for the second major ascent toward Piton des Neiges. We are literally running up a creek bed with water gushing down the rocky path. The flora has changed again with sections now more akin to a tropical jungle. The trail snakes its way along a pronounced ridgeline, up and down, like a rollercoaster, interlaced with ladders and fun scrambly bits. With the sun rising, I’m starting to feel a little better. I relax on the long, choppy descent into Cilaos. It is nice to see familiar faces and realize that despite the rough night I’m not terribly far off my projected time for this point in the race.
For logistical purposes, I’d split the race into three section. The start to Cilaos (about 45 miles) would roughly be the night portion. Then, Cilaos to Maido (about 30 miles) is run through Mafate and will most likely be very hot. Finally, after emerging from the cirques, Maido to the finish, will be more coastal running with a mix of rough technical terrain, road and tight singletrack through the sugarcane plantations.
After 11 hours of running my stomach has stabilized, but I have only eaten a couple of gels and cookies along with water and coke. With my body now accepting calories, I’m trying to make up the deficit while I work my way up the relentless climb to Col du Taïbit. The rain and cold have given place to scorching heat. The muddy trails are a distant memory as I plow along the now dusty, sun-baked path. As I reach the pass, the entryway into the Mafate Cirque, I pause for a moment, suck down some sugar and take deep breaths to avoid fainting. People line the trail cheering and applauding. While uplifting at first, I am now completely disconnected with what is going on around me. I stumble forward into the cirque, running on steam. Just under halfway into the race, it is much too early to be feeling this way. But, like in all races of this distance, I hold on to the thought that things may just come around. After all, I have revived from worse situations in the past. If I keep plodding along, trying to manage myself as best I can, there may still be hope.
As I plummet further and further into the heart of the Mafate cirque, the heat intensifies, my body becomes more and more clumsy and unresponsive. At Grand Place les Bas, I run into Michel Lanne who is sitting crippled inside the tent waiting to be evacuated by helicopter. I halfheartedly try to motivate him to come with me for us to finish this together. His drawn, pained face suggests that any attempt at pressing him further would be futile. Shortly thereafter, I find my own limit and collapse under the tree.
It takes me over 6 hours to crawl out of the cirque, a section that had taken me just under an hour and half during my recce, hiking with an overnight pack. When I reach Maido, I lie on my back overcome by a huge sense of relief that I can finally stop. There comes a point, when the race and everything else around it loses all of its meaning. To no longer care is both appealing and utterly terrifying. My instinct of self-preservation allows me to surrender to the fact that, today, I am simply not strong enough to continue. I do not have anything more to give.
My experience is put in perspective the day after, when I learn that a man took a fatal fall on the course. This is the second tragic incident on a race I have been a part of this year. It seems pointless and selfish of me to dwell on my relative discomfort during the race when someone lost their life. I am deeply grateful to have come out unscathed and this is yet another reminder to not take our privilege to run in the mountains for granted.
I would like to give a special thanks to Jerome Desire for welcoming me into his home for the duration of my stay, to Fabrice “Daf” Payet for his exceptional support and crewing during the race and to all the people on the island that made for an incredible experience.