[Editor’s Note: Guest writer Glenn Mackie is a six-time Hardrock 100 finisher and a just plain gnarly dude. This year, he created his own ‘World Slam’, finishing four very tough 100-milers around the world. The hardest of his World Slam? Diagonale des Fous, one of the three races taking place at Le Grand Raid Réunion on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Here’s how the ‘Madman’s Diagonal’ played out for Glenn.]
I knew that I’d arrived at some sort of trail running Mecca when my taxi driver from La Réunion airport told me he’d run the 100-mile Diagonale des Fous three times. This tiny volcanic island 425 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean is home to the Diagonale des Fous, now in its 21st year. It’s an event the island’s entire population of 840,000 is involved with, both as fans and as runners. The Diagonale des Fous has also been a right of passage for French ultrarunners who’ve made the pilgrimage over the years.
It took me over 30 hours of travel to get here from my home in Dallas, Texas but the stress of travel quickly wore off when I arrived. La Réunion is a former French colony and today is operated under the French overseas department. Its historic importance was as a resupply point in the 17th and 18th centuries for ships traveling the Cape of Good Hope on the way to Asia. The native language is French and the population is mixed, Creole heritage. On the drive out of the capital city of Saint Denis, home to the race’s finish, the beautiful, tropical coastline of the island quickly goes into insanely steep vertical several miles inland. The high point of the island is the 10,069-foot Piton des Neiges, near the center of the 40-mile long island with a curvy spines of high volcanic craters and calderas, known as “cirques”. These high points are normally shrouded in clouds, but when they clear, the view is breathtaking. Nearly the entire interior of the island is a national park and a UNESCO protected natural site for its unique and beautiful topography.
What brought me halfway around the world to run an ultra was a plan to run an international ‘Grand Slam’. Based on the venerable Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, I wanted to run a series that was truly international. The sport of ultrarunning has expanded all over the world and is embraced by so many different cultures that I wanted to create a ‘slam’ that recognized this. Plus, I wanted it to be hard. So, I picked the Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji to begin with in April, then the Hardrock 100 in July, followed by UTMB in August, and finally, Diagonale des Fous in October. Each of these runs has a 100 miles and over 30,000 feet of vertical gain. The Diagonale des Fous, being the ultimate race, would also be the toughest of the four.
Nearly all of the race information available online via race reports, runners’ forums, or in the official runner’s manual was in French, a lot of it in a Creole French dialect. On Réunion Island, even though English is taught as a second language, its use as practically non-existent. I’m not a French speaker, but managed to get around. Fortunately, I was also adopted by some French-speaking runners at my hotel who were executives at Compressport International, a Swiss athletic apparel maker, who explained some important points about the race and helped me get around. These guys not only run the company but also test their products in some pretty demanding events themselves.
The race course is point-to-point and covers nearly the entire length of the island. It begins on a Thursday night at 11:00 p.m. at the coastal town of Saint Pierre on the southeast side of the island and ends to the north back at Saint Denis. At the start, the entire town of Saint Pierre was packed with about 1,900 runners (half from Réunion, the remaining mostly French) and thousands of party goers, as the island was beginning a long weekend. In the staging area near the start, African drums beat and singers and dancers performed–African drums and dancing were to be a constant and welcome theme throughout the course. Television crews were everywhere as the event is broadcast live in Réunion and in France.
The first three miles of the course runs parallel to the shoreline through town. Huge crowds lined the road for the first half hour until the trail turned inland and up through cane fields. In typical European fashion, the starting pace was fast and felt a little like we were running the ‘Saint Pierre 5k’, but the mud of the cane fields put an end to that foolishness. The trail then climbed nearly continuously up 7,000 feet before reaching a jagged ridgeline. Once there, and because of the large amount of runners and the extreme technicality of the trail, there were frequent stoppages as runners tried to negotiate steep, muddy sections. Some years during periods of high rainfall (Réunion holds most of the global rainfall records), the mud in areas can be knee deep. Fortunately, we were sparred the experience this year and even a notorious section called “Mare à Boue”, or “Mud Pond”, was completely dry.
The mud sections mostly end before the course reaches the town of Cilaos at the 41-mile point. This town, located high in the mountains in the center of a dormant volcanic crater, was the point of our first of two drop-bag locations. The sun was up and the scenery was stunning–and steep. Before the race, I’d viewed the course on Google Earth and just couldn’t believe trails could exist on some of the terrain. Indeed, many of the trails were carved into the sides of mountains through volcanic rock, with shear drop-offs of hundreds of feet. Unfortunately, there was a fatality at last year’s race when a runner went over a cliff. Race officials were positioned before many of the dangerous cliff sections to ensure runners were alert.
I took a slow and easy pace through most of the race since the effort of running three other big mountain hundreds over the summer had taken its toll on my 51-year-old legs. Thanks to an iRunFar article by Joe Uhan, I’d recognized that I probably had Fatigued Athlete Myopathic Syndrome, a nuisance condition from all the training I’d done over the summer. Knowing this helped me taper my running coming into Diagonale des Fous and set an appropriate pace so that I could finish, and do so safely. I even took several naps during the race, something I’d never done during an ultra (and didn’t know what a great thing I was missing).
The next 60 miles out of Cilaos rolled through the “cirques”, the most famous of which is the Cirque du Mafate, named after a Maroon slave from the 1800’s who hid in the remote area. Then, down into towns before once again reaching the coast. Crowds lined the course in these small towns and there was always a drum band and groups of dancing children. As tired as I was, I’d still stop to high five the kids or talk to locals. I was always asked, “how did you hear of Réunion?” Everyone seemed aware of the island’s obscurity.
Overall, the course is brutal, even with perfect conditions like we had this year. Out of 1,942 starters, 1,361 finished (70.1%), but only 14 runners finished in under 30 hours. For the race’s winner (men: François D’Haene, 22:58; women: Nathalie Mauclair, 28:45), it’s a competition, but for everyone else it’s mostly an adventure or journey to be savored. The local Creole food at the aid stations (cari du poulet, raugail saucisse, pâtés créoles), the people, the music. Last year’s winner, Kilian Jornet, at this year’s race, suffering from an injury and finishing in 22nd place and over 30 hours alongside Emelie Forsberg, in response to why he didn’t drop, said, ”It was not ‘wise’ to finish, but we are at the Diagonale de Fous”, which poignantly sums up the value of the experience here.
I’ve been running ultras for over 10 years years and when I thought that maybe the novelty of 100-mile races was starting to end, along comes this experience. And after running Fuji, Mount Blanc, and now the Diagonale, I encourage anyone, if they can, to get out and enjoy one of these international events. They’re really built for the fans, the local communities, as much as for the runners themselves. Being part of these different cultures, not as a tourist but as a competitor, adds to the rich experience.
42 hours, 50 minutes (249th place)