[Editor’s Note: Jason Schlarb finished 10th at the 2014 Diagonale des Fous. Here’s his race report, which he has humorously titled, “The Indian Ocean, Sharks, Volcanoes, Hallucinations, and 840,000 Gluttons for Punishment and Absurdity: Réunion Island and the Diagonale des Fous 100 (and 8) Mile.]
The word ‘uncertainty’ really does a good job at describing my Diagonale des Fous (DDF) experience. I’m still not certain of the correct name for the race, ‘Diagonale des Fous’ (crazy-person’s crossing) or ‘Grand Raid Réunion,’ with the latter being more popular on the island and the prior being far catchier. I first heard about the race as I shopped for a third Ultra-Trail World Tour (UTWT) event nearly a year ago. DDF was the only race on the UTWT after UTMB, so I picked it. Then I found out about the ‘fous’ factor.
Where is Réunion Island? Does the race really have 33,000 feet of climbing, exotic jungle-like forests, an active volcano, a point-to-point course, crazed fans in the tens of thousands? Did I even have a chance at finishing two 33,000-plus-foot ascent 100 milers in less than seven weeks? Most advised against the absurd notion. While I was drawn to the ‘wow’ factor of one of, if not THE, world’s hardest 100 milers, in reality, I leaned towards NOT racing DDF. Only after a huge ego-boost performance at UTMB and the subsequent promising recovery afterward, did I finally feel brave enough to commit and book airfare.
After flying to Texas, Canada, Hong Kong, Patagonia, Gran Canary Island, Greece, Tenerife Island, and Amsterdam in the 11 months before the race, the disappointment in booking a 33-hour and 48-hour flight itinerary to Réunion Island and back was sickening. The booking of my ticket did explain why nobody I talked to had heard of Réunion Island and, furthermore, had any clue about its location 500 miles east of Madagascar (another place a lot Americans couldn’t locate on a map).
So there I was, committed to a ridiculously tough 100 miler in less than two weeks on the other side of the world with no crew and no clue on the details of the race. I couldn’t understand or navigate the French race website, so I didn’t know what the required gear was, what the weather would be like, and how or if drop bags were an available option. Then the Réunion Island magic started.
Several guys, Jerome and Daf, from Réunion, contacted me on Facebook and offered to help me when I arrived. Jerome and Daf had hosted Joe Grant in 2012, one of the no more than five Americans ever to run the race in its 22-year history. Jerome and Daf would, in the end, save my trip and, more importantly, my race from being a failure. Réunion Island is a French island and, like the U.S., a melting pot of culture and race. Everyone speaks French with many locals who speak Réunion Creole (a French-based, African-influenced dialect).
As my plane approached the airport, I could see the tall and sharp features of the island’s mountains and canyons. The landscape looked something like the Chilean Andes near Machu Picchu, super green but crazy, steep peaks rising over 10,000 feet out of the ocean, all the while surrounded by a wild and rough coastline. As I got off the plane near the beach, it was sunny, raining, a bit windy, and hot all at the same time. Réunion Island has very unique weather. Certain areas of the island rarely see rain, while some areas see meters of annual rainfall. Low-elevation areas on the island are always hot while high-altitude ridges, always cold. A zombie from no sleep in the last two nights of travel, I walked out of the airport to be greeted by colorfully dressed ladies dancing to lively music, exotic fruits and food to eat, interviews, pictures, and general DDF excitement.
Over the next 4.5 days, I would be spoiled with Réunion Island exploration. I enjoyed unique food, new friends, beaches, trails, amazing people, and snorkeling. Thank you Daf, Jerome, and Laurent for taking me everywhere! A huge fan of snorkeling, I had brought my gear and was amazed by the coral and fish diversity found in the beach lagoons near my hotel. Just a few feet off the sands of a fairly crowded beach in Saint-Leu, I found an unbelievable display of coral and fish from the Indian Ocean. I was also quite scared by the more-than-real shark threat. Sharks have been responsible for seven deaths on the beaches around the island in the last year or so, some just taking place a couple meters off the shore. I was the only snorkeler or swimmer at the lagoon closest to my hotel, something I didn’t brag to Maggie, my wife, about.
I tend to be far less ‘educated’ on racing details than most ultrarunners. While most of my peers memorize the names of the mountains, towns, aid stations, and the details of climbs, descents, and distances, I don’t. I’m no less fanatic about my training, exploring, preparations, and racing, I just don’t geek out the race details. I like to keep my races more of a surprise. I do familiarize myself with the basics of climb and descent data, but cheat with an ElevationTat or note card on race day. I also don’t ‘educate’ myself that much on who is who and what they are doing all year long. DDF was no exception and I was surprised to find out the quality and quantity of competitive runners at DDF this year. First, second, fourth, fifth, and seventh from the 2014 UTMB were racing along with first and third from UTMB last year. Two-time DDF winner, Julien Chorier, would be racing, along with last year’s first, second, and third, as well as another half-dozen Euro elites. There would be 20 world-class studs toeing the line for this race in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which was a bit of a surprise to me. It was going to be a UTMB, or better, level race for competition. Daf and his friends offered last-minute crew support, which I graciously accepted and I quickly put together the logistics of my race… the day before.
My general race strategy has been pretty much the same for the last few decades: go out comfortable, build momentum, race, finish. With 100 milers, my strategy stays the same but with the addition of ups and downs experienced physically and mentally when running for so long. Comfortable racing for my body at both UTMB and DDF happens to put me in the front of the race on the flat, road-running starts. Running up front with 30,000 people lining the streets screaming, playing instruments, cheering, and high fiving at the 10:30 p.m. start made for 20 minutes of running that I won’t forget for the rest of my life. This is DDF. The island loves the race; they get out and run the race and they all, to some degree, get involved on race weekend. The course is full of over-zealous and enthusiastic fans. Eyes watering with tears of emotion (just writing about it does the same), we left the streets and ran up the mountain. François D’Haene, the eventual winner, and at least 20 others charged on while I relaxed. We passed the half-dozen teams carrying disabled people on special carts who had started earlier in the day, again, eyes were wet, my throat tightened with overwhelming emotion. Running bravery is one of the few things in life that renders me emotionally flushed.
Climbing the only gradual climb of the race, I eventually found my quiet place and got to work. The terrain varied from small doubletrack forest roads; to fell-like grass fields; to paved roads; to thickly wooded, singletrack trail that had very steep technical climbing. A few hours into the race, as is typical, I started to pass people who had started climbing faster than I did. I passed Xavier Thévenard sitting in a ditch with his head down, not his day. I passed some Hoka, Vibram, and WAA athletes which included Julien Chorier. Julien and I talked for a minute and he explained that his back had not healed completely and that he wasn’t doing well. It quickly became obvious this race was chewing up a lot of people. Not long after passing Julien, it began to rain. Then it started to pour. Then it started to flood the trails and roads. I teetered on the edge of getting cold, so I hurried through aid stations, only donning my stellar Smartwool arms sleeves and filing my Ultimate Direction bottles with Vitargo and water. I was feeling physically great and mentally ‘just okay,’ as I was a bit overwhelmed by the enormous task at hand. I would frequently catch myself wondering if I was recovered after UTMB or from my trans-continental flights (yes, plural). My guess is that I moved from somewhere around 20th to about 10th as I climbed to the first peak at around 40k. Just before making the peak alone, my NAO headlamp blinked twice, meaning I had less than 10 minutes before I would be in the dark. The rain had affected my reactive-lighting, eight-hour battery and I still had 90 minutes until it would be light. I had a not-so-bright emergency back up with me that wouldn’t be all that great to run technical trails with. I was pretty stressed. I picked up the pace. The lamp dimmed to a spot, but the rain stopped. The weak battery held on and the rising sun behind the clouds slowly made visibility possible without the headlamp. The hour or so of weak headlamp running turned out to be a nice distraction.
The terrain was technical singletrack with short ladders, rock, and wooden bridges. Descending to Cilaos, I was excited to see my crew. I was in around 10th place or so. The descent was so steep that I had to carefully walk a number of sections of particularly treacherous terrain. I was having a great time and feeling good. The temperature was heating up and I went from sort of cold to sweaty hot. Running into the aid station I saw Gediminas Grinius preparing to leave. Gediminas had made my race at UTMB very painful as he chased me for five-plus hours until the last 10k of before I broke away on the downhill. Gediminas and I had spent most of the three days before the race hanging out together and we were now great friends. I looked forward to seeing him. Just as I reached my crew I also saw Sondre Amdahl, another friend from UTMB who had finished seventh. It was a party. I changed my clothes, put on dry running socks, and put dry insoles into my Altra Paradigms. Thirty minutes up the road and then trail, I passed a very tired looking Sondre. Half an hour or so after passing Sondre, I saw Gediminas as the climb got really steep on the way to Piton des Neiges, the highest point on the course at 2,500 meters. Gediminas didn’t look too tired but said he wasn’t feeling good. I carried my momentum and made the top in sixth position where I started to strategize what it would take to crack into the top five.
Wonderful views of the Mafate Cirque, the namesake of a Hoka shoe, were frequent. The walls of the Mafate Cirque were almost shear around the basin. A number of areas on the course had small villages only accessible by helicopter and it was obvious now why that was. Down steep, technical terrain I descended, feeling pretty good. Across Mafate I ran, happy to find that the mostly cloudy, helicopter-clad skies were keeping things much cooler, at around 70-something opposed to the normal 80-somethings that are standard for this part of the race. I wasn’t feeling supper strong as I climbed out of Mafate, but I was still moving pretty well. Gediminias must have been feeling better, though, as he caught me at around 100k just before the climb got steep. Gediminias explained that he was pushing the pace before the steep section, as he knew I would pass him again there. Unfortunately Gediminias’s pass was a bit of a mental breaking point for me which translated into a slackening of pace and confidence. I didn’t catch him on the steep climb and, furthermore, my race pretty much took a slow and gradual death from this point on, resulting in the longest and hardest 70k of my life.
Despite losing my ability to execute physically and mentally my goal race plan at around 100k, I was treated to my favorite section of the course at this point. The 30 kilometers from Col de Fourche, down to Roche Plate, up to Maïdo, and then back down were fantastic. You cross splendid forests with unique trees I’ve never seen the likes of. There were no roads, just small camps where locals lived and backpackers would make camp. There was a beautiful river basin just above Roche Plate that was full of funky volcanic rock formations and an extra-motivated crew of people cheering me on. Hands down the climb to Maïdo best displayed Réunion’s massive, nearly sheer volcanic-mountain walls with an impossible trail right up the side. Helicopters buzzed just above Gedimnias and I as we climbed. I had a short exodus from my downward-spiraling race and got back to within five minutes of Gediminias near the top of the climb to Maïdo, 115 kilometers into the race. At the top, the sun started to drop toward the ocean, creating mystic and peaceful lighting on the descent to Sans Souci. The 15-kilometer descent to Sans Souci was an oasis of downhill running amidst a race full of painfully vicious and technical downhill. Instead of a splendidly timed surge into the top five like Gediminius executed, I trudged along at a fairly slow clip.
Jogging into Sans Souci, I was jolted to life when I saw eventual fifth place Javier Dominguez running into the aid station in front of me. At first I thought he was in some other race, even though that was completely illogical. I received some aid and and encouragement from my crew and Julien Chorier, who was now following the race in his car. I left the aid station like a drunk fool swerving and weaving, then jogging and then finally running. Javier followed behind. I put on a 5k push to the next aid station where I had to lay down and just close my eyes for a few minutes and let Javier go. Racing was over, again. Once more, I stumbled out of the aid station, this time to encounter the most heinous section of downhill ‘trail’ I have ever been on. The trail was not runnable or even walkable. Shrubs and trees hanging over the rocky descent were shiny smooth in places from being used to hold and swing down from to make the next rock landing. This absurdity lasted way too long for my current condition. Then, like a thief in the night, Javier came out of nowhere and passed me for the second time in the last hour. He told me he had been taking several naps in the last few hours, thus explaining his mysterious re-appearances. The bizarre, drunken-like misery continued. For the first time in my life, my mind started to play games with shapes of objects on the trail and in the woods. Sticks became strangely life-like snakes, stumps and shrubs became monkeys and dogs, but the really unique part was the subtle, life-like movement they made. As the crazy trail ended, I found my legs approaching a point of not being able to really run, or I ran at a pace close to 20-minute miles. I was happy that my body had no one disabling ache or strain. Instead, I was experiencing a complete-body exhaustion.
I had now been moving nonstop for over 20 hours. I had sweat so much for so long that I could smell a urine-like stench on my body. Calorie and water intake were becoming insatiable and I stopped keeping track of how much I consumed. After just a few minutes of faster jogging, I would have to pound my Vitargo to recover. Making it down to Possession École Aid Station, I was passed by someone, but my mind was only focused on race completion and the persistent and exhausting mental math of figuring how long and far I had to go. I then began the 10k or so Chemin de Anglais section, a centuries-old rock road that was sometimes runnable, sometimes a rocky mess. At one point, ascending the road, I just laid down and closed my eyes. I heard eighth and ninth places run past; it was the first Réunion runner and a Japanese runner.
After my rest, I passed them both as they now laid on the road; I had been a bad example. The three of us stayed relatively close to each other, passing and being passed several times each. No one was in the mood for conversation. I reached the Colorado Aid Station using embarrassing tactics like speed walking and shuffling with exaggerated arm swinging to force my legs to follow. The Réunion and Japanese guy had put on surge earlier and were now long gone. I considered taking some of my caffeine packets, but decided I rather not jeopardize the sleep I had been fantasizing about once I finally finished. I was determined, instead of a caffeine rush, to push the last 5k down to the stadium and actually… run. A few minutes into my ‘strong finish,’ I was on my butt sliding down the trail. The finish wasn’t runnable as it was dark, wet, steep, and very technical. I still pushed as hard as I could, determined to retain my top-10 position. Over an hour later, I finished in the stadium at four in the morning, in 29 hours and 28 minutes, and in 10th place after 172 kilometers. Hands down, the hardest, most exhausting, hard-fought physical battle of my life.
I certainly lacked the required 110% confidence needed to race to my potential on one of the world’s most competitive and hardest 100-mile races. Just shy of seven weeks after UTMB and with only 4.5 days to adjust for the the 10-time-zone mega-travel certainly had its impact on my body. More important to me, though, I seized the opportunity of a lifetime to experience one of the world’s true gems, Réunion Island. Diagonale des Fous lived up to and exceeded all expectations of what one of the world’s best 100-mile, mountain trail races should be.
I have to thank Payette ‘Daf’ Fabrice and his friends for crewing me. Without Daf’s logistical support, but more importantly encouragement and upbeat energy, I would have been alone that last 70k and most certainly would have failed. Thank you for making my race, Daf.
Without the Ultra-Trail World Tour, I would still probably not know that Réunion Island existed and, without their support, I would not have been able to make it out for the race this year. The UTWT is improving our sport and creating opportunities for so many.
Altra, Vitargo, Smartwool, Flora, Julbo, and Ultimate Direction continue to create opportunities for me to live out my dreams and produce the best products to get me to the finish line. I wore Altra Paradigm shoes, used Vitargo for my fueling (about 145 calories per hour average), and wore Smartwool Merino socks/compression socks, shorts, shirts, and arm sleeves. I carried my gear in an Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek vest, wore Julbo glasses, used a Petzl NAO headlamp, and wore a Garmin 910 watch (for the first 23 hours).