A crowd stands with the calm, Eton-blue waters of the Indian Ocean on the left, an island that looks pretty much like East Africa on the right, and ebony sand underfoot. We are 150-ish strong, composed of mostly Reunion Island-ites and French folks, maybe 25 Rodriguans, a peppering of runners from other European countries, and one American (me). The sun has been up for two hours but it hasn’t yet burned through the layer of high, thin clouds shielding us from what will evolve into a 35-degrees-Celcius day. My clothes and skin stick to each other, indicating a top-of-the-charts relative humidity. The Trail de Rodrigues 38k will begin in a few minutes.
* * *
Does anyone else find irony in the concept of a race on a tropical island? We’ve all been to or at least seen on TV the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Hawaii, Tahiti, or another similar island and we know that nothing happens particularly fast. Everyone is always going somewhere and doing something, but the rhythm of life is slower, less regimented.
An example is what I call Island Time. If someone says they will meet you at 8 am in Island Time, they mean maybe 8:03, but more likely 8:45, and definitely before noon. Or possibly never but, perhaps, tomorrow. And Jesus would have to fall from the sky for something to happen before the designated meeting time. This is in contrast to neurotic America, where people are liable to maim you for turning up late. In Rodrigues and other islands of the tropics, the liberal interpretation of a timekeeping device’s numbers is the way culture works.
But Island Time on Rodrigues has a couple peculiarities. First, as I almost learned too late, you should arrive two hours early for your airplane ride to and from the island. (Though the boat that takes passengers and cargo on and off the island once each week operates on a flexible schedule.) And you better be early for the Trail de Rodrigues 38k.
Here’s the conversation I had with race director, Aurèle André, after the pre-race meeting:
Him, “On Sunday, make sure to get there early. We might begin early.”
Me, laughing incredulously, “Early?”
Him, “We began early last year and we might again. If everyone is ready, then why not?”
Me, still laughing hard, “I’ll be there early.”
* * *
At precisely 7 am — not early, not late — and after a countdown from 10, one of the Trail de Rodrigues 38k organizers, Reunion-ite Eric Lacroix, yells in French for us to go. We become screaming bullets. Well, I mean this relatively, as the punchy, cratered beach sand over which we run makes us all sloth-y, awkward versions of ourselves. But in comparison to the gently cranking machine that is life on Rodrigues, we are suddenly time travelers.
After a kilometer or so of running near the sea, during which at least half the field is in front of me and moving at a sub-seven-minute-mile pace, we begin climbing cross country. The grass underfoot is brown and crunchy — evidence of what the locals call drought conditions and worry is an effect of climate change — and the landscape is decorated with black boulders, acacia trees, and vacoa plants. Vacoa has a wide, root-y base, a multi-branched top, leaves that are dried and used to make hats and baskets, and a profile that, like the Joshua tree of the United States, can inspire anthropogenic musings. I pass about thirty people in the first ten minutes of climbing just by maintaining an equal effort. It is so Euro to sprint from the starting line at an unsustainable pace.
* * *
Oh, you haven’t heard of Rodrigues (pronounced ‘road-reegs’)? Six months ago, I hadn’t either. A visit to Google Maps and Wikipedia shows that this 108-square-kilometer island is located more than 600 kilometers away from everything else in the southern Indian Ocean, is inhabited by somewhere between 35 and 40,000 people, and is a semi-autonomous part of the country of Mauritius. Rodriguans are trilingual; they speak Rodriguan Creole, French, and English. Also interesting is that the island is just 18 kilometers long east-to-west and 8 kilometers wide north-to-south.
The island has a volcano’s profile and black, vesicular basalt outcrops that pop up here and there, both betraying the island’s fairly recent geologic origin. Beaches ring portions of the island and are composed of the coarse, off-white remnants of the corals growing wildly in the lagoon beyond shore. The lagoon is a massive, protective, shallow area ringing the island—it has more surface area than the island itself. A line of ocean-margin greenery lines the island’s edge but as the topography juts up, an arid steppe-like environment emerges. The island is intensely hilly: perpetual ridges and canyons look like rippled sheets and become greener as they rise up to the island’s high point, 398-meter Mont Limon.
* * *
We climb maybe 250 meters, then contour across the ridge we’ve partially ascended. We’re now running through pastures. Cows, goats, and chickens line the route, ‘moo-ing,’ ‘bleet-ing,’ and ‘cheep-ing’ presumed greetings. A few people sit or stand on their homes’ stoops, watching us pass. Almost all of them are widely smiling and cheering. I am presently running in the company of a couple Rodriguans, and they get the most cheers. The home team is a clear favorite.
After we’ve crossed the ridge, we drop into a lush canyon by way of, first, a livestock trail and, then, a scree field. A rope has been placed on this near-vertical pile of rocks, and I hold on as I drop down. Fearless (and more technically capable) Euros fly around me. Once I bottom out of the scree, I follow the course down the canyon bottom. We twist and turn our way back to the ocean and the first aid station at the 10k mark. I’ve drained my hydration bladder of its one liter of water and am intensely thirsty; the humidity feels awkward to my unacclimated body.
* * *
Rodriguans define themselves as Creole, and their bloodlines trace back to France, East Africa, Madagascar, the rest of Mauritius, and, once in a while, another European country. A few people of Indian descent mix in, too. Tourism is a quiet operation here — there are only a reported 700 guest pillows on the island — so the main elements of the island’s economy are fishing, agriculture, and the selling of life’s other necessities. People are poor by American or European standards, but everyone has a home, a toilet, and eats nutritious food that is grown or caught locally.
Every kid goes to primary school and many continue onto secondary school, excepting those with disabilities for whom there isn’t (yet?) an adapted educational curriculum. The closest place to achieve an university degree is on the island of Mauritius, a 90-minute plane or three-day boat ride away. Beyond the main town, there are dozens of villages which most people live in or near. The balance of folks spread out into little homes on rural hillsides.
And, then, there is this race, the Trail de Rodrigues, which is in its third year. This year, there are 700 participants in three distances, a 38k, a 10k, and a 5k. There are two main intentions with these races: to bring in visitors like me (and the cash flow that accompanies us) and to get Rodriguans fired up about spending time on the island’s trails. The race is intensely successful at both.
* * *
I’m spidering my way up a rocky, thickly vegetated ridgeline. It’s hands-on-knees, grabbing-tree-roots, panting-style. It’s my favorite piece of terrain so far, and I’m far better at ascending than descending terrain like this. But the morning’s haze is melting and this forest is a furnace. My clothing clings to my body in a way that makes me feel like the world is closing itself upon me. I’m headed to the top of Mont Limon now, which is just not that high, so I know the ascent will shortly end.
I also know from scoping out this part of the route beforehand that an aid station is not far off. I met the folks who are organizing it when I was out course-peeping, and they told me to look forward to some Coca Cola, homemade pastries, and local music. I’m water-less again and beginning to understand that I’ve brought the wrong size bladder to this race.
The aid station is a party of people lining the incoming and outgoing course. I drink Coke faster than they can pour it. I grab two handfuls of yellow cake-like deliciousness and go. A moment later I’m in someone’s farm field, vegetables of various kinds and stages of growth surround the piste. A local is climbing the same trail as me, a gigantic squash in his hand. He stops to let me pass; I stop to greet him. He says the squash will be part of dinner for his family. Of 11. The family includes his wife’s parents and his children. My French is poor so I can’t quite make out the last thing he says, something about an extra child staying with them now. He tells me to go on, so I do.
* * *
Being a tourist in Rodrigues is not like being a tourist in most parts of the world. In almost every place I’ve previously traveled, there are tourist sectors — hotels, restaurants, squares, trails — where foreigners congregate. And often in these places, you can make life how you want it, according to your schedule, by ‘Western’ standards. To be a tourist in Rodrigues is to incorporate oneself into all the trappings of life.
First and foremost, you’ve got to slow the H-E-double-hockey-stick down. Everything, and I mean everything, operates at a leisurely pace. When you order a drink in a restaurant, it will most certainly come. But the server will take about quadruple the time he or she would take in America or Europe. A three-person line in the grocery store is about a 20-minute endeavor: checking out means also checking in with the employee. How is she doing? How are you doing? What have you seen today? Where are you from? Taxi rides are akin to riding an airport’s moving walkway or taking the Disney World parking-lot tram. You might as well grab your camera and get comfortable. And the Internet might be the slowest I have seen anywhere, ever.
The way Rodrigues works can feel unnerving. You want to send a message to your mom so she knows you made it to the other side of the Earth, but it takes 15 minutes. You’ve run 10 miles and you’re starving as you sit down to breakfast, but the actual provision and consumption of it will swallow up the next 90 minutes. Someone says they’re going to pick you up at 9 am, and they roll in at 10:15. You think you might really die from the humidity and the man from whom you’re buying a Fanta is just dying to learn about what state you’re from in the US and where it is in reference to Los Angeles and Texas. But after a while, you realize it is you who possesses the problem of mal-adaptation.
* * *
I hit the 10K-to-go aid station after pushing hard over a stubby climb and bound-able descent. I stop to fill up my water bladder and I shift around in a woozy circle that concerns a journalist taking my photo. The heat and humidity is finally getting the best of me. I guzzle Coke and water, inhale a banana, and eat two pinches of salt even though they burn going down. The journalist tells me it’s two kilometers of hard climbing, then eight kilometers of rolling terrain to the finish.
I’m relegated to a crawl on this last climb. My calf muscles twinge in what I know from previous experience are the almost-cramps of dehydration. They become my limiting factor for the last hour of this race: there is a speed above which cramps begin and below which I feel just fine. I get good kicks out of fast race finishes, so I’m a little sad that today’s is devolving into a leisurely amble. But during the five or so minutes that another runner and I go off course (by following a cow trail that looks just like the one the race route is using), I realize: Rodrigues is slowing me down to its speed. It is by Island Time that I finish.
[Author’s Note: I traveled with Dan and Janine Patitucci from PatitucciPhoto. Here’s their photo-and-word blog post from the race and our trip. Please check out iRunFar’s Facebook album from the trip, too.]
[Editor’s Note: Meghan wouldn’t say so, but she finished third woman at the 2012 Trail de Rodrigues.]