Relentless: South African Peter Purchase returned from the 165km Grand Raid Reunion victorious … and humbled

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Grand Raid Reunion – Diagonale des Fous (DDF)  2017

About two weeks have passed and I have mostly digested the race. As I rethink everything it is like a debriefing session. I am less tired and a bit more compos-mentis. My left big toe is still numb and I can now remove the old skin over the foot blisters.  One word describes this race – RELENTLESS. Some 165km and almost 10 000m D+, 55hrs and some seconds of constant hard work and, strange as it may sound, the 2-odd hours of sleep were also hard work.  To be honest – a person’s head spins for a few days after the race – just trying to make sense of what just happened. It is not like anything I have done before – higher, steeper, harder, longer, relentless. One of the toughest in the world and therefore very rewarding.  I often get asked “will you do this or that race again?” and the answer is always “yes” because the tougher it is the more rewarding it is to succeed.  I believe that of anything in life.  But…..I want to experience new things, not do one thing 10 times over (like getting a green number at Comrades).  Life is too short for that. New experiences are far more exciting and enriching.

Back to the race: Mountains and I mean proper mountains! – not the stuff we get back in SA that we think are mountains!  These are really steep (inside of extinct volcanoes), high, dramatic, rugged, young in geological terms and therefore not nicely weathered and “rounded”.  Extinct volcanoes known locally as “Cirques” of which two are traversed during DDF, Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Mafate.  The highest peak on this small island is over 3000m!

The start of this race is strange and dangerous. From 6pm on Thursday it is kit check time and then  when you done with that you go into a pen and you may not leave until the start at 10pm.  All you can do is try to kill time by chatting with others, eating and drinking what they have on offer in the pen, fooling yourself into thinking you can lie on the ground and sleep for an hour or so, etc.  The adrenaline is pumping at this stage. When the race starts it is a total stampede and shoving match. All you have to do is grab onto someone and make sure you don’t fall.  You will get trampelled.  It took me about 400m to realise that my pack was very heavy, too heavy despite repacking it and getting rid of some kit and food beforehand.  “It is what it is” and I had to remind myself why I had opted for a “heavy” pack.  I elected to skip both bag drops at about 65km and 125km and to rather carry all my kit and nutrition from the start to the end.  I did not want to rely on “an easy way out” or any seconding on this run (it is allowed at certain points) in preparation for Munga (that’s the plan anyway).  This was my first official training run towards that race and I reckoned I need to push myself a bit harder mentally by adopting this strategy.  The Frenchmen I ran with at times thought I was crazy doing this but they had no idea what the bigger picture was.  They generally shower, shave (maybe not), sleep and seek medical attention and a massage at each of these points.  I just grabbed a plate of food and carried on.

The first 40km is uphill – starting at sea level and climbing to about 2200m above sea level. Slow going both from a strategy viewpoint but also congestion on the trail (which alone cost about an hour and a half).  This section of the run took us to dawn on Friday morning. The one thing that really struck me was the smell of foreign bush and veld, it is weird and a constant reminder that you are not at home. Not bad, just different. It took me about a day to get used to the smell of Reunion. Although it was not that cold the humidity causes a person to perspire all the time and one is mostly soaked in sweat all of the race. When it does cool down and when you slow down your core temperature drops so they have chicken soup en-route at a few aid stations.  Given my experience with chicken soup on the -8C night leg of Skyrun in 2015 and the effect it is having on me in Grand Raid I am convinced that there is something magical in chicken soup, it has medical value, I am sure!  

The first 56 odd km of this race can be considered tame and if you are fooled into thinking that there is more of what is behind to come you are in for a big surprise.  This is where the real business starts! And I had no warning.  Running along trying to keep up to a strong athlete ahead of me he suddenly stopped, grabbed back at something in his pack and mumbled a few words in French.  Trying to figure out what he was asking I promptly shoved his gloves, which were about to fall out, back into his pack. He wasn’t too happy and I made it known that I cant speak French.  In broken English he asked me to pass him the gloves, and these were your typically lumberjack gloves! Is there something I should know of, I thought?  He turns and says to me “if you have gloves it is now time to take them out”.  “why?” I ask and he retorts “is dangerous ahead, drop on left 900m and drop on right same, you hold trees and rocks”. Oh no!! my worst nightmare. And this is where the real business starts.  I survived the scramble behind Francois in the heat of the day and we were again in a less dramatic area but climbing steadily all the way. Francois and I ran together from here to Cilaos (a town in the mountains in the first extinct crater and the first bag drop point).  At last someone who I can chat with.

Looking at the race profile beforehand I could see that we had a few serious climbs and descents but nothing could have prepared me for the reality of these.  My frame of reference and expectation was totally inappropriate and off-the-mark.  My first huge surprise was around midday Friday when we headed up the outside of a Cirque (picture a dome volcano with a flattish area around the crater and a huge steep crater, we were approaching the crater).  Francois’s water was finished and mine not far from that. According to my GPS we had about 2km to our next checkpoint (Mare a Joseph) so I gave Francois some of my water and I had about 2 sips left.  At about this time he reckons “next checkpoint 900m that way” and I think “okay, its closer than I thought”.  Then we hit the rim of the volcano and ahead was a massive drop and I realised that what he meant was 900m vertically down. We were above the clouds and looking down onto the top of the clouds inside the Cirque de Cilaos. This is crazy…the start of a 900m scramble down on the inside of this extinct crater through the clouds and eventually beneath the clouds.  It took a good 1,5 hrs. So much for 2km away!  I was later told by Thierry, a local runner, that 3 people have died falling to their death on this race in previous years, one of whom on this descent.

I restocked at the next CP and continued to Cilaos. I had a plate of food at Cilaos (bagdrop 1) and went on my way. Francois remained to exploit the comfort and luxury of the checkpoint and to sleep. Dropping down and crossing a river nothing could have prepared me for what the next 4hrs would hold.  A climb back up to the rim of the volcano, very steep, relentless with a few rockfalls which had obliterated the trail, which were repaired but quite slippery and scary to traverse. Later in the race there was another even more dramatic exposed rock face. One slip and you would disappear into the abyss on the right and become another statistic. I eventually topped out at Col de Taibit as it started raining (thankfully not much) after dark and descended to “Maria” in Cirque de Mafate where I tried to sleep but wasted that time.  Packed like sardines in a tent kicking and shoving one another it was a futile attempt. Through Friday night (night 2) it was relentless and steep up and down through Cirque de Mafate at times seeing bright stars above just to later realise that they were headlamps on the trail ahead!!  It is when this happens that you realise that you are really, really tired and start falling asleep on your feet.  Dirk (fellow Saffer I had met up with at Maria) and myself spent the night running together.  At about midnight on Friday we hit a nasty ridgeline with horrible drop-offs on either side and this with a howling wind from the right.  Daunting and proceeding with only the thought that it is temporary and will pass.  At about 2am we decide to take a nap (been awake since Thursday morning).  We found a patch of veld that looks okay, kit up into some warm gear and lie flat on our backs. Set the alarm for 1hr and we both fall asleep immediately just to wake an hour later with teeth clattering and body shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Being soaked and sleeping on the ground my core temperature plummeted.  It took a good 30minutes of running in my warm gear to warm up and strip it off.   Note to self: “don’t sleep for more than 20minutes at a time again and use your space blanket!!”

Along the way the aid stations are great and I tried new foods (like boiled cassava) and drinks because I could not bring many of my “real foods” like salami along to another country.  I would virtually down a bottle of malt drink called “Super Malt” at each aid station.  There was a proper spread of food and snacks to choose from. Mars bars, their own salami type sausage, cassava, sandwiches, cheese, biscuits.  I eventually started stocking up with real food from the tables and cut back on my own energy gels and bars.   The support on this race is incredible with the entire island coming out to support.  It is amazing. If only I could understand what the words of encouragement meant.  I would respond with “merci” in my South African accent.  “Ale’, Ale’” all the time en-route.  

By now I was in pain in more places than not with my knee bugging badly from the steep descents for about 30km. At dawn on Saturday we arrived at Grand Place les Bas and I restocked and ducked into the medical tent for meds and strapping. Only about 65km to go!! I reckoned I should be done by early Saturday evening.  But again, nothing could prepare me for what lay ahead in the next 10km. Dirk decided to stay on at the station and I left alone.  The route just got more shear and dramatic. About 2km in we crossed a river at altitude 560m and then the real climb started at about 6am. We had to get to the top of Cirque de Mafate (to a place called Maido).  This is on the inside of an extinct volcano with an extremely steep gradient (probably about 60 to 70degrees) and we topped out at about 2100 to 2200m, a vertical climb of about 1500 to 1600m. This was relentless and hot!  I eventually got to the top at midday (after having stopped to restock at an aid station in the mountains which can only be reached by foot or helicopter).  It is here that I realised we do it all wrong back in SA.  It was here that I realised what ”the march” is.  Instead of leaning forward with your hands on your knees you straighten your back, stand straight up with your hands on your hips to fully engage your glutes and your march up the mountain. Straight up.  And you don’t stop, you just slow down a bit if you have to. And it works!    

Reaching the top it is followed by a beautiful run on the rim of the Cirque (1,5km drop on the right) and then down all the way to Sans Souci.  Nice to run properly again, even in pain. Delighted to have conquered Maido.  So now I realise that I will probably be spending my third straight night out on the trail.  Process this and make peace with it but don’t let any quitting thoughts in.  If you do it will be easy to quit.  I have learnt to always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.  That way it is easier to adjust mentally when you are tired and not thinking clearly.

Amazing crowds of people and the second bag drop point (129km into the race).  Here I restocked and slept on a stretcher for an hour.  A French lady is tasked to take your details down and how long you want to sleep and then she wakes you at the time you gave.  When she woke me I was really grumpy and wanted to sleep more but I got a scolding in French, no idea what she said but it was forceful.  I realised I MUST get going.  I left San Souci at 4.30pm on Saturday and never slept again until the finish.  Night 3 lying ahead alone and new territory for me. Motivated to get this race done!!! Initially I was fine but leaving La Possession (km 146) later that evening I was hammered. It was here we got onto the old dilapidated cobbled road (Chemin des Anglais – “English Road”).  It is terrible running on large cobbles for the best part of 10-12km at this stage. Often rock hopping because sections had washed away. In pain and again, relentless!  When I left Grand Chaloupe on the cobbles I was tired, very tired. My SUUNTO had lost satellites in the Cirques and had incorrectly estimated my distance and elevation gain at times. At this stage (km 153 and about 8600m D+) my watch was showing 190km and 11450m D+.  So to get to the next CP I added the distance (9km) and vert (1000m) for the next leg to my watch reading and used it as a “mental target”.  My mind was cooked at this stage and I had to find a way to push through.  As I marched off I repeated to myself “199, 12450, 199, 12450, 199, 12450…….” while keeping an eye on my watch.  I was a zombie and repeated this to myself for probably an hour or longer. I think I would have been committed to an asylum if someone was taking note of my behaviour at that stage. Past me marched two runners one carrying a boom box playing loud clubbing music.  Probably a strategy to stay awake – unless it was my imagination due to sleep deprivation.  Couldn’t tell and won’t ever know.

Approaching Colorado (last checkpoint at 162km) I had 4,6km to go!! It was 3am on Sunday morning and I phoned my wife to let her know I would be done soon. I reckoned about an hour or so.  And it was cold, really cold at this stage.  Quite a lot of climbing up to Colorado – way more than the target I was chasing and it felt never ending…relentless.  The last 5 odd km stretch from Colorado is down and technical and painful. Every step was very very painful, I tried to run and in my mind I was running flat-out.  I could see the lights in the stadium in St Denis but they just weren’t coming closer.  This stretch took me 2hrs!!! 4,6km. And I felt I was sprinting. Obviously my mind was gone and I wasn’t physically and mentally in the same space. Running in over the last few hundred meters is indescribable, the emotions overwhelming and struggling to fight back tears.

My wife met me about 300m from the end and ran the last section with me. That was very special, very emotional. It was 5am and the sun was rising, for the third time! It is Sunday morning.  Will I do it again? Yes!! Absolutely, it is special and tough and a second time would be nice, learn some French and take some pictures next time.

Stats: 2700 odd starters 1800 odd finishers, 900 DNFs (33% of the field).  Race cutoff: 66hrs.  Last runner in: 66h10.

Lessons learnt:  

  1. Don’t arrive the night before the start of the race, give yourself a day or two to acclimatise to the humidity/local conditions
  2. Try to simulate the race terrain in training as much as you can – being from Pretoria this is not so easy so throw in some core and strength work
  3. Don’t sleep for an hour at a time – you feel like you can murder the person trying to wake you.  Also, your core temperature plummets even more the longer you sleep
  4. Try new foodstuffs en-route – trust your cravings and exploit the offerings at aid stations
  5. Learn a few works of French – “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” – that’s how you feel running amongst people whom you cannot communicate with, quite cut off and alone
  6. Extra socks are like new feet, always take extra socks with.
  7. Run around the block with your backpack before finalising your packing – it is probably heavier than you think or need it to be, but don’t compromise on safety
  8. Stick to short sleeps – that is what worked in the Cederberg a year ago and I will be reverting back to that strategy
  9. Use bag drop points if you have no reason not to.  It is rejuvenating and you feel like a new person after a rest.  That is what saved me in the Cederberg
  10. Training doesn’t always go to plan but trust Coach Neville’s program and advice, it brings sanity and balance that you can’t do yourself!  He also helps avoid any panic when things don’t go to plan leading up to a big race. Thanks Neville!
  11. When the going gets really tough on the up hills, start “the march”: straighten up (don’t crouch forward!), engage the glutes 100%, hands in sides and just slow down, but don’t stop.
  12. Learn to adapt and improvise during the race if need be, like eating boiled cassava, downing malt drinks, etc. Go with your gut!! Learn to trust it!
  13. If the route goes through towns, carry some cash
  14. Improvise…I bought a Coke in Grand Chaloupe and I carried the 500ml bottle on the last two legs and refilled it at each station.  When I felt I was falling asleep I took a few sips. Together with the zombie mode talking to myself it helped me pull through night 3.

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