Le Grand Raid

I felt my foot slip out from under me and completely off the trail. The rest of my body quickly followed suit.  As I hung there, dangling, clinging to a small tree, my feet finding no purchase, all I could think was, why am I still holding on?

It was maybe mile sixty of a hundred and I’d been awake more than 48 hours at that point.  I have never known such delirium and hope never to again.

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Le Diagonale des Fous.  The Angle of Fools. That’s the direct translation.  The translation of the race directors is not much better: The Madman’s Diagonal.  The race runs diagonally across the island. And you have to be mad to do it.

Or you will be.

I had first heard of the race from a French friend I met via Strava. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of the French or not, but he was one to over promise and under deliver.  He had proposed we do the race together–he would navigate the language and I would help him train. Alas, he found himself a girlfriend (not sure if his wife knew or not) and somehow “forgot” to register for the race.  

I had to get up at 3am to  register–the registration opened at noon Reunion Island time and generally filled in less than an hour. Reunion Island isn’t exactly third world but it’s also not first world, and the server couldn’t handle the load.  Angry red and yellow pages, made worse by being in French, kept popping up. I refreshed as fast as my fingers allowed and somehow finally got my registration completed.

Heart pounding with a mix of exuberance and what-have-I-just-done, I knew I wouldn’t sleep so my training started at 5am.

About seven years ago, I spent two weeks trekking in Nepal, around Manaslu, a trek that few Americans do, so not much English was spoken.  I spent one evening watching my guide chatting with a single woman, older and a hotel owner. This was highly unusual in Nepal. I had a million questions for her, none of which my guide would translate.  I promised myself I would never visit another country where I couldn’t communicate.

So right after I received my confirmation, I found a tutor to teach me French. Chelsea has lived the life I would go back and live if I could.  She’s a language major, speaks seven languages fluently, and has lived in so many countries. She understands culture. We often spent as much in weekly lesson as in animated discussion of politics.  

She had never heard of Reunion Island but had spent much of her childhood in France, living with an aunt.  Her stories were straight out of stereotyped legends.

During my stay, I would spend the hour before an encounter practicing what I would say. At the hotel: J’ai une reservation.  Je m’appelle Lynda Wacht.

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Then of course they would ask me a question. Avez vous votre idenficacion? To answer, I needed to understand the question. Which I didn’t.  I spoke French like a champ. Understanding it? Not so much.

Fortunately, the Reunionites do not share the French stereotype of pretending to not understand English.  Unfortunately, it is because they genuinely do not understand English. Some have a rudimentary understanding but I was definitely in the deep end and flailing like a muppet.

I was glad to have paid a little extra for a hotel where the staff spoke English.  At least I had a starting base.

After finding and checking into the hotel, the next order of business was mastering the bus system.  Once I realized my French friend wasn’t planning on being there at all, I had done quite a bit of research on logistics. Being a point-to-point race, beginning in Saint Pierre and ending in Saint Denis, made everything that much harder.  My hotel was in Saint Denis–I knew enough about racing to know that even in the US, I wouldn’t have the brain cells left to get on a bus and off at the right location after 48 hours of being awake.

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But that meant I had to get to Saint Pierre for the packet pickup and the race start.  The hotel people were great for getting me downtown via the bus. That took me right to the main station where I could get a bus to anywhere on the island.  Score one for me!

I wandered around the downtown area, trying to find the finish area.  I found a tourist information center and managed to secure a map, but not much else.   I’m pretty decent with navigation and soon found the large field that I hoped I would cross in a few days from then.  

Never have I been more thankful that most road signs are pictures and not words.  The last hurdle in my race would be finding a bus back to the hotel, two miles away.  There is no greater testament to the fact that it is the mind and heart that gets one across the finish line than not being able to walk three feet past that finish line, so laugh if you will: two miles after a hundred is an impossible distance.  I found the station I needed to return to the hotel and hoped my sleep deprived mind would remember the steps it took to get there.

Back in town, I found a small sandwich shop that looked empty enough that I would not annoy people as I tried again to navigate my way through the French language.  I successfully ordered my sandwich only to be stymied by a question: Khoka? I gave him my frustratedly embarrassed look. He looked confused. Anglais? He shook his head but pointed to the *Coca* Cola bottle in the display case.  Ah, si! Dammit. Oui!

I wandered around a bit more, finding a small bookstore where I purchased a running magazine in French.  The lady heard my excellent accent and asked (in French–and I understood!) if I was running the race and wished me well.  I smiled as I walked out. Another small victory.

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The next day was packet pickup in Saint Pierre.  I practiced my request to purchase bus fare. Je voudrais un billet pour Saint Pierre pour la journée, s’il vous plait.  I was behind who I was pretty sure was another runner. When it was his turn to purchase, he raised one finger and said “Saint Pierre”.  

He got his ticket and was on his way.

Saint Pierre was a madhouse.  The race I did prior to this one was the Ouray 100.  It was a four am start and there were 30 of us. When I went to get my packet for the race, I and the race director were the only ones there.  

Two thousand, five hundred runners had signed up for this race.  That is a lot of runners. A lot. All in one park, waiting for packet pickup to start.  Getting there an hour early had not done me much good. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  I looked around, trying to find someone to strike up a conversation with while I waited, but of all the languages I heard, none were English.  About twenty countries are represented at this race. Six people were from the US, nine from Canada and even less from the UK. So I just watched, trying hard to not be overwhelmed and intimidated.  

The group compressed as the gates opened.  Fortunately, I stood about a head above most, and was able to keep my bearings.  I smiled at people as we all became sardines, but the expression was rarely returned.  The race was the next day, and the goal was to get the bag and get back off one’s feet to rest.

I finally got my bag, t-shirts, GPS device, and race information. The line wound its way around all the sponsors.  I soon had quite the assortment of goods, most of which I had no clue to their purpose.

Saint Pierre is one of the most beautiful ocean towns I have ever visited.  Reunion Island wasn’t discovered by Europeans until the late 1800s, and most of the island still feel very quaint.  With the exception of Saint Denis, the business center, the towns are small and full of history.

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I wandered around, looking for the restaurant I had found online for lunch, right across the street from the ocean.  My legs were already tired from the couple hours of standing around.

Food is a bit tricky before a race, especially in a foreign country: lots of risk for getting ill.  The restaurant was buffet style, which got me out of having to know what was on the menu. I sat outside and enjoyed the view, trying to ignore my rising nervousness about the race.  I enjoy my own company and usually there is at least one person to chat with, so I rarely feel lonely, but at that moment, I truly felt lonely. I understood nothing that was being said around me.  I wished I had spent even more time learning French, even knowing it would not have helped much. There is understanding enough to get by and there is truly being able to converse. It would take more than a few months of tutoring to be fluent.

The race didn’t start until 10pm.  Unfortunately, the construction next to the hotel started at 7am.  Not that I was really asleep anyway. I got up and headed to breakfast, free with my stay and quite possibly the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever eaten.  I had on my race shirt already–I’m not sure why. It was a requirement of the race to wear it at the beginning and the end. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it during all those middle miles, so just planned on wearing it the whole race, like I do all my races.

Fast forward to the end of the race, where all I can smell is heavy cologne and everyone is wearing a clean shirt, packed in their final drop bag.  Ah, the French. Always about looking good.

Having my race shirt on did allow a TV sports anchor from France to recognize me as a race participant.  He was a beautiful man who spoke beautiful English with a beautiful accent and I learned about how truly popular and important this race is, to the country and to France as well. The entire race is televised both there and in France.  Now I understood the clean shirt at the end–and pretty sure this American was edited out. It was interesting to learn.

But mostly, I was just excited to be having my first real conversation in four days.

A bus was reserved for taking runners to the Saint Pierre from across the island.  It left around 5pm, so of course I got there around 3. On the way, I stopped at my favorite sandwich shop (wearing my t-shirt) and received a special sandwich from my new favorite store owner who remembered me from two days prior and wished me well on my endeavor.

It was my good fortune to find a native who spoke English waiting at the bus stop as well.  It afforded me a chance to ask a question that had been plaguing me since the night before: what the hmmm is a ‘sac banane’??   To pass the time the evening before, I had tried reading the race rules in French and discovered that ‘banana sacks are prohibited’.  In typical last minute freak out mode, I became convinced that I must find out what one is lest I show up at the start and be forbidden from running a race I had spent hundreds of dollars and hours on.  I emailed Chelsea who could offer no help. So I asked my newfound friend, who through a series of gestures led me to understand that a sac banane is a fanny pack.

Crisis averted.  I hadn’t owned one of those in many years.

I managed to sleep a little on the three hour bus ride to the start.  The start was complete chaos. I saw no signs and people seemed to be going in every directions.  I didn’t even pretend to know what I was doing, hoping someone would take pity and point the way.  Not so much. I wandered until I somehow managed to end up in a line, where I encountered an actual crisis.  I had purchased the wrong ACE bandages. Without the proper ones, I would not be allowed to start the race. Seriously.  Through yet another series of gestures, I learned that the correct ACE bandages were sticky. And I also learned that they were for sale at the next table.

Crisis two averted.

There was a large stage where the race director was being made up before being interviewed. A pop band was blaring music.  And two thousand five hundred runners were sprawled out, trying to rest before the start.

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I can’t even begin to express the sensory overload.  I was both excited and intimidated, wanting to cry but not sure why.

Everyone on the island was there.  Everyone. There were fireworks. And music. And cheering. And dancing.  I tried to slow my brain, taking it all in. The Ouray 100 had started with the race director waving his arms and yelling “okay, go”.  

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Turns out slowing down was the worst possible thing I could have done.  The first ten miles are on a wide road, which then suddenly becomes a trail.  The first ten miles took me two hours. The next three took over three hours. It almost cost me the race.

I just stood in line, trying to figure out what to do.  Some people were just pushing past everyone, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do.  Did I just stand there and wait? Was this really how it went? For how long? I mean, people finished this race–heck, most people did, given the generous cutoffs.

I finally worked up the nerve to ask the gentleman next to me, “C’est normale?”  

“C’EST NORMALE?  C’EST NORMALE?!! ….” I have no idea what he said after that, but from the gesturing and tone, I guessed a pretty angry rant.  Others were nodding and shaking their heads and I did my best to mimic that. Whatever was said, pretty sure the situation wasn’t normal.

Finally the line cleared and I took off, three hours behind my expected time and fighting cutoffs the rest of the race.  It was three in the morning.

Most of the rest of the race is a horrible blur. I have memories but cannot piece together exactly when any actually happened.  I was awake through three full nights, starting late Thursday and finishing around 11am Sunday.

I think the hallucinations started the second night.  The trail was next to a road and I heard voices near me.  Some people walking on the road. Then suddenly they were next to me! It gave me a start, but when my headlamp illuminated them, they turned into branches.  As I continued down the trail, all the branches turned into mannequins. Not quite as scary as clowns, but a close second.

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I had to force myself to not focus on the hundreds of mannequins lined up along the trail. Which just led to worse hallucinations.

Not scarier but worse.  At one point, I knew an aid station was coming up and I started looking for it.  Pretty soon there it was, with runners stopping and sitting–and eating pizza! It was heavenly.  Pizza sounded so good. Sitting sounded so good.

Just as I was about to enter the warm light from the tent, the whole thing disappeared.

I stopped, stunned.  No. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. But it was.

The hallucinations continued through the second and third nights, although gratefully the mannequins eventually went away.

There were high points too.  We traveled through villages, where residents would come out to cheer us on, even the the dead of night.  At one small village, the woman were singing a song about being exhausted, laughing as they sang. When I came closer, all the women stopped singing and there was a moment of complete quiet as they stared at me. I was pretty sure I should be worried but was too exhausted to really care.  Then the women started cheering and clapping, patting me on my shoulder.

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It was a theme that continued through the race.  Solitary women at aid stations would come up and smile and applaud.  Groups of women cheering.

Of the two thousand, five hundred runners.  126 were women. No, that is not missing a digit.  Less than 200 women. I have not read much about European running, but enough to know women are not encouraged or supported like they are here in the US. I had no idea it was that unbalanced. I hope it changes.  I hope I somehow inspired these women. Regardless, I was infinitely grateful for their encouragement and camaraderie.

The food at the aid stations that actually existed was amazing. Pasta and cheese and meats and cheese and other stuff and cheese.  Even pizza. Except the fake beer stuff. I was smart enough to not drink it during the race, but couldn’t resist a sample afterwards.  If you’ve ever had vegemite, that’s what it tasted like. One swallow and the rest went into the trash.

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I think it was the second night when I fell off the trail.  I was just so exhausted. People would run past, forcing me to step off the trail, only to stop and rest, forcing me to go around, only to repeat the process.  I was angry and tired and never saw the eroded edge. Another runner stopped and said something in French. I just started crying and told him I didn’t speak French. He quickly switched to English and helped me back onto the trail.

I was done.  The aid station wasn’t much farther and the cutoff wasn’t either.  My brain kept pushing but my body completely rebelled. It was an easy trail down and my brain won over as I started a limping jog.  I made it to the aid station with ten minutes to spare.

I tried finding motivation to go on.  I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.

Then I realized I had to go on.  My friend Lexi was at the next aid station. My phone was useless and I had no idea how I would get in touch with her.  I couldn’t even speak enough English at that point to explain what I needed. And if you dropped, you were responsible for getting back and I couldn’t remember where my hotel was.  

I saw no way out of it than by getting back up and heading back out.

Lexi of course wasn’t at the next aid station, nor the next nor the next. But my brain kept telling me that, forcing me to keep going, until I realized that I was going to finish that accursed race.

The final summit, early Sunday. As I made my way down the impossibly steep terrain, a fellow racer shouted out, “Once we’re at the bridge, we’re done!”

I spent the next two hours seeing a bridge after each switchback. I couldn’t even cry.

As I got lower and closer, day hikers appeared on the trail, giving me a small ray of hope that the trail head was near.  The hikers included one very angry Frenchman, yelling at everyone. I could hear him two switchbacks up. As I slowly and painfully made my way down, he was barrelling his way up until we were at a face off.  He continued yelling and gesturing, making it very obvious I was in his way and he would have none of it. I slowly straightened up, so he could see my race bib.

He immediately stepped out of my way with no more than a quiet “Respecte.”  Some part of my mind smirked.

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Finally, a real bridge and the finish line.  I smiled vaguely at the TV camera. There were no more finishers medals and only extra large t-shirts. I didn’t care. I just wanted my drop bags and to get to the bus station.

I didn’t make it that far. My body saw the cot and overruled my brain.  

I woke up from something far beyond sleep two hours later.  I found my bags and amazingly the bus station.

I was a day later than I expected and so had no idea if the buses were even running. It was Sunday on a decidedly Catholic island.  I collapsed on a bench, not sure what to do.

But of course the kindness of strangers.  

They didn’t speak English but I understood “Ou?” Where? I gave them the name of my hotel and they smiled and patted my shoulder.  When the bus came, they gestured to me and spoke to the driver, apparently explaining to him where I needed to go, because he gave me warning as my stop arrived.

I slept until the next morning, awakening to the construction, so thankful to not be moving.  I took it easy that day, only going out to dinner at a recommended Creole restaurant, surprising myself by ordering dinner through dessert in French only.

I had planned on a lot of sightseeing after the race but had not expected to take sixty hours to finish.  I did go to the nature museum and learn about shark attacks and animals indigenous to the area, happy I had not known any of that prior to the race.  I toured a couple small towns I remembered seeing on the bus ride. I purchased a small instrument whose name I have forgotten. I learned about the preservation of turtles.

I drank wine and put my feet into the ocean and called the whole adventure a success.

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