When I decided to participate to “La diagonale des fous” back in august 2015, I had no idea where I was setting foot. Ok, I had already finished a couple of ultra-trail races (Ecotrail, maxi-race, etc ) but La Diagonale is not just another ultra trail, it’s a myth. A unique race, a class of its own. First, there is the length: 167kms, it’s long but that’s not all. Then, there is the elevation: 9700 m, it’s a lot but there is more. There is mainly La Réunion, a volcanic island. La Reunion, it’s an incredible playground for trail running, I fancied its beauty but I could not imagine its difficulty.
Before the race
I arrived at La Réunion, Monday morning (D-Day -4) to get used to the climate (it’s the beginning of summer here) and the landscape. The 2 first days were all about getting to know the route.
Wednesday was dedicated to pre-race administrative details (bib, base camp packages, etc). I was lucky enough to stand in the line right in front of François d’Haene, future race winner, winegrower and ultra trail legend, and got to chat with him for a couple of minutes. This guy is amazing!
After 2 very long 11-hour nights, I spent most of Thursday doing almost nothing except setting up bags that will be carried to base camps and equipment. The pressure was slowly building and I had to deal with anxiety attacks: “I can’t do it”, “what if I get injured in the first kilometers” “no, no, I won’t give up, I don’t want to give up, I just want to be a finisher.”
It’s Thursday 5pm and I’m starting to gear up, eat pasta and drink coffees. Here we go, to the starting line.
Entering the starting area is quite a long process, to drop supply bags, check mandatory equipment, etc. I had to wait for 2 hours, so I put myself aside from the crowd to rest and concentrate. It is 9:40pm, start is in 20 minutes, we are called to line up in the starting area.
The start — Thursday 20 October at 10pm
It’s kind of hard to find a good spot in the compacted runner crowd, but here I am, MY Diagonale, the reason why I have been training 12 hours per week for months. All the sweat, pain, training hours have to bear fruit now. My stomach is twisted by both stress and excitement.
Here we go, I’m running along the seaside, quite fast, 12km/h as planned then slow down in the first up-hills. I packed my backpack with a lot of water to skip the first refreshment point and keep up climbing among sugar cane fields.
I’m feeling good, there are a lot of people cheering along the road, big fireworks on the beach, it’s great.
Domaine Vidot (km14) — Notre-Dame de la paix (km25)
After a very quick stop at Domaine Vidot refreshment point, I’m a little bit behind schedule. I’m thinking about bottleneck trail ahead, I’m worrying.
After another quarter of hour going up-hill in the forest, the unavoidable : I hit traffic. The trail is not very technical in the jungle but 2000 runners can’t go through smoothly. Runner pack is getting more and more nervous and I’m starting to understand why race staff ban trekking poles, way too dangerous for cheaters who try to cut the line.
At Notre-dame de la paix, I’m stopped for about 45 minutes, I’m 30 minutes behind schedule and it’s annoying me.
Notre-Dame de la paix (km25) — Piton Textor (km41)
After another swift refueling, I’m back up-hills. First 40 kilometers of the Diagonale are almost up-hills, like 2000 m of elevation non stop. It’s tough. No kidding here, we got what we wanted. I pass a lot of runners, which is very good for my mood, I’m in good shape, the weather is ok, let hit the road.
I arrive at Piton Textor at 6pm Friday (after 8 hours going up-hills), the view is breathtaking but it’s cold. I gear up for the descent.
Piton Textor (km41) — Cilaos (km 67)
After this first descent, there is long stretch on a plateau ; it’s good to get some “easy” kilometers, those are rare.
Give it up for Mare-à-boue refreshment point, chicken drumsticks were dope!
Couple cups of Coca-cola and coffee, quick stretchings, let’s go for coteau Kerveguen, the road to Cilaos, first base camp.
That second ascension is long and steady and the rain starts to fall. After a 2-hour climb, I reach the top of the worst downhill of the race, -800m elevation in a single mile: a Wall.
Every step, stair, ladder is wet and slippery. It’s very technical and I am not very confident. Local runners pass me full speed but couple of turns later, I come upon rescue team helping a runner with a serious head injury, blood everywhere.
Ok, I switch from quiet to very very quiet, there are more than 100 kilometers to go.
Once I’m at the bottom, I pass a lot of tired runners with a very quick refreshment stop, I need to rush to Cilaos, the first base camp is 12 kilometers away.
People used to say that “La Diagonale” starts at Cilaos, I’m a bit tired but no significant pain.
Cilaos (km 67) — Marla (km 80)
I arrive at Cilaos Friday at 11am, I grab my supply bag, take a quick cold shower, change my clothes and stop by the medic post to have a leg massage.
A physiotherapist per leg for 20 minutes, so good.
I get a chicken rice plate, it’s good to eat hot and salty food. But I also packed sour candies in my bag, you know the little smurfs coated with sour sugar. Now we are talking!
Quick phone calls to my girlfriend then my mum, I refill my backpack with food and water and I hit the trail.
My stop lasted almost 2 hours, I feel guilty but I needed it.
I reach Bras-rouge waterfall in an hour, very beautiful. Next comes Taïbit and col des boeufs ascensions. It’s the middle of the afternoon, the sun hits my back but I’m feeling good after my long stop and I pass runners. I’m not very good downhill, because I’m worrying for my leg joints.
On top of Taïbit, I enter Mafate corrie, here I’m. Every runner talks about it, it’s the most remote place of the Island, wild landscape, steep trails. It’s my turn to cross it.
Sun is setting when I reach Marla on Friday 6pm, small village lost in the corrie. I gear up for the night and keep on running. A lot of runners are sleeping here and the atmosphere is strange, survival blankets everywhere. Weird mood, I need to go.
Marla (km 80) — Maïdo (km 115)
Now is the moment I fear the most, the second sleepless night, lost into the wild, I’m excited but it won’t last.
After the ascension of Col des Boeufs then Sentier Scout, I’m entering the famous Tamarins plateau (Tamarins is like a local olive tree), even if it’s dark, the atmosphere is amazing.
It’s now time for a long downhill, I’m running with 2 other trailers. It feels good not to be alone for a couple of hours, I’ve been in the trails for a full day. Our little group lasts until we reach Ilet à Bourse.
When I arrive at refreshment point of Ilet a bourse, it’s almost midnight Friday. The tiredness hits me back big time and I need to rest. So I open my survival blanket for a 15 minute nap. I fall asleep on my phone timer. When I wake up, I’m freezing, my legs are super sore, I understand that I’m entering a new race, a mental one.
After eating soup, coffee and saucisson, I head toward Grand Place.
I’m not feeling good at all.
Arriving at Grand place, 3 hours later, I had another 15-minute nap and hot meal. I know that the next part is a small technical downhill then a 2000m elevation ascension, one of La Diagonale masterpieces, the Maïdo.
I have to dig deep to find the resources to keep on moving. It’s time to use the emergency playlist on my ipod, French/English motivational rap: until I collapse.
This second night is endless, my legs are in pain and my mind is taking control.
I reach Roche Plate refreshment point, the middle of Maïdo ascension, at 4am Saturday. The sun is rising at 6am. I decide to nap a third time for 15 minutes. I need a little less than 2 hours to finish the ascension, I want to see the sun rising on Mafate corrie.
Last part of Maïdo ascension is a wall, steep, tough but mythical for every ultra-trail runner and it gives me extra resources.
When I reach the top, there are dozen of supporters along the trail yelling “go Loïc go” (my name is written on my bib)
I’m overwhelmed with emotions and unshed tears, looking down to that wild corrie bathed in lights. I was in the bottom of the corrie, at my lowest point and 4 hours later, I’m on top. So good, I really wanted this sunrise seated on top the mountain.
Maïdo (km115) — La Possession école (km146)
On top of Maïdo, we use to say that the hardest part is done and the finish line isn’t so far. In fact, we still have to go down 4000m and up 2000m, so “not far” is very relative but my Maïdo finish cheers me up. After refreshment point, I have a 1600m downhill ahead and I’m rushing through it. I feel good and “easy” kilometers are always a pleasure, especially after 100kms. I need to reach Sans Souci base camp as fast as possible, there are smurf candies waiting for me there.
I arrive at Sans Souci Saturday at 10am, same story, grab my bag, take a quick shower, put on clean clothes, stop at medic center for blisters and had a hot meal. I look at my phone, I finally have cell reception and I realize that I have dozens of new messages, All my friends and family cheers put a huge smile on my face. On top of that, I’m now 1:30 hour ahead of my schedule.
1h45 stop, it’s too long but it was good.
When I leave Sans Souci for Galet river, the heat is terrible, like 35°C. This part of the race isn’t my best memory, I can’t handle the heat. The trails are still very difficult. My mood is shifting quickly from “I feel amazing” to “I yell insults at rocks on the side of the road”. Another runner notices and warns me that I’m probably having a hypoglycaemia attack. Bad mood is one of the first sign. I try to eat but I can’t. I’m scared, I don’t want to give up now.
When I reach Possession school, I’m in very very bad mood, overheated.
La Possession école (km146) — La Redoute (km 167)
At Possession school, I put my head into a cold water fountain and stay there for a couple of minutes to cool off. As soon as my temperature gets back to normal, I’m super hungry and eat a lot.
Staff is saying that the finish line is 6 to 7 hours away, good news.
Now it’s the Chemin des Anglais.
It’s a real pain, a trail among 3 ravins (small hills) paved with volcanic stones. My ankles are killing me for 1 hour and half non stop. Only positive point: tiredness giving me visual hallucinations, I’m seeing maya characters on pavement rocks : turtle, jaguar, toucan
The sun is setting when I arrive at Grande Chaloupe, I gear up for the last night and start the last ascension: the Colorado.
12 kms and 700m elevation to go. I am fed up with the race, I’m feeling lonely. I have one thing on my mind: the finish line, La Redoute Stadium.
When I reach the top, I ask to medic staff for a quick massage, my legs are killing me and a steep downhill is waiting for me. A young physiotherapist gives me a quick massage, just enough to be able to finish.
As I start the last descent, I can see the lights of Saint Denis getting closer and closer at each hole in the dense forest.
Last checkpoint, I hear my phone beeping in my backpack, new messages! It gives me an extra boost, last couple of turns, I’m at the bottom.
The last kilometer is incredible, I’m running as fast as I can with all the images going through my mind: the good, the bad, the training hours.
It’s 11pm on Saturday when I enter the stadium and there are still a lot of people cheering every runner.
The music is loud, the feeling is amazing, I slow down to make the most of that moment. Once again, i’m overwhelmed with emotion: I gonna cross that f***ing finish line.
I’m a FINISHER.
I get the famous yellow finisher T-shirt.