At the moment I'm writing from an altitude of 8,600m and speed of 950 km/h, seated somewhat comfortably aboard the Emirates A380 flight from Dubai to Mauritius. With only another five and a half hours to go I thought I'd make good use of the time and get some writing done.
The last few weeks have been very busy for me and these last few days even crazier with having to tie up all the loose ends on trip preparations, performing several evenings, band rehearsals, completing required work on a couple of on-going composing projects, all while squeezing in some fun for my birthday this past week, and keeping up with demanding race training! Whew! It's feels nice to relax a little bit now... or as much as I can with the excitement in my system for this trip to Reunion Island, and my big race coming up on Friday.
Some of you might be wondering where Reunion Island is, and if you don't know, don't be embarrassed—five years ago I hadn't heard of it either. Just dust off your atlas if you still don't know what Google Earth is, and turn to the page of Africa. Reunion is only a tiny speck in the Indian Ocean but not too difficult to find if you can locate Madagascar. From there direct your eyes eastward where you'll see Mauritius and Reunion Island. Around the year 1507, Portuguese explorers came upon the uninhabited island. A century and a half later France occupied the island where they decided to keep mutineers & other bad eggs for a short time, then colonized it in 1665, when it was known as Île Bourbon. Then in 1793 the island was given the new name of Île de la Réunion to commemorate the union of revolutionaries from Marseille with the National Guard in Paris. The island's name was changed again when Napoleon Bonaparte decided to get involved but then switched back to Bourbon after another invasion. Then after the fall of the Bourbons during the 1848 French Revolution the island once again claimed it's name of Île de la Réunion. If the name Reunion Island seems to ring a bell for you it may be because of this past summer's news about the piece of missing aircraft from Malaysian Airlines washing up on shore there. Or maybe you just paid attention in geography class. If that's the case, pat yourself on the back. You might also know then that the island covers an area of just 2500 square kilometres and on the eastern end is the Piton de la Fournaise ("Peak of the Furnace") volcano. Apparently it's sometimes called a sister to Hawaiian volcanoes because of the similarity of climate and volcanic nature. It's already erupted a few times this year, most recently at the end of July.
So how did I come to learn about Reunion Island? Well, I little over five years ago I was fairly active on a website called PolyglotClub.com It's an online language exchange community for people (and nerds like me) who want to learn multiple languages. It works like this: you sign up, fill out the forms asking what languages you want to learn and which ones you can teach, then you find people with complementing knowledge to correspond with. I've kept in touch with quite a few people over the years from all parts of the globe, but there's one person whom I've maintained semi-frequent contact with who just happens to be from La Réunion. Her name is Marie Pierre.
Writing to her, I do my best to communicate in coherent French, she then responds in English and provides corrections on my French and then I respond to her email correcting her English (much less work than what she ends up with I'm afraid!) We've kept in touch via email and only recently connected on Skype where I got to meet her family. Her husband Sébastien is originally from France but now enjoys the island life, and her son Louis, who is now 16 years old. They also have a dog, Icare, whom I'll get to meet when I arrive tonight. They have so kindly offered to host me during my week on the island.
Making a journey to a fascinating place such as Réunion to meet a pen-pal in person is already an exciting opportunity, but the other part of the draw for me in this case is something called Le Grand Raid...
Around the time when Marie Pierre and I started corresponding, I was getting into running. It was spring 2010 and I had heard some rave reviews of the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall so decided to give it a read. The book has since become an icon in the running world. If you haven't read it, I do recommend it, even if you don't think of yourself as a "runner". It might just turn you into one. The book puts a lot of focus on the mechanics of running, analyzing our natural tendencies & techniques and looks at how the invention of thick-soled running shoes has (negatively) impacted how we run and leads to myriad injuries. Mr. McDougall explains all of this while simultaneously weaving it into a fascinating story of an ultra distance race in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. Before reading this book I thought that marathons were the greatest feat a runner could aim for. I had never heard of an "ultramarathon". But this book opened my eyes to that. Yes, it sounded crazy to me that people would want to (and even could) run for these extreme distances longer than a marathon (42.2 km). I was still trying to figure out how to run more than half an hour without a sore knee, ankle, or shin splints! After finishing the book there was something that stuck with me—a feeling, a thought, that maybe one day I could actually achieve that—become an ultrarunner.
Within a few weeks I had signed up for my first race, the Whistler Valley 10K Trail Run, and I was on my way to figuring out how to train my body (and mainly my feet) to run 10 km. There were certainly some sore days and periods of extended recovery, but in the end I crossed the finish line with a respectable time. In a letter to Marie Pierre I told her about my running and the trail race I took part in. She wrote back telling me about this big event that happens on Reunion every year—an ultramarathon! The Grand Raid. If you're wondering what defines an ultramarathon, I will explain...
The traditional marathon distance is 42.195 km (or 26.219 miles fer y'all still on Imperial.) Ultramarathon distances are then anything longer than that but typically are 50 km, 100 km, 50 mi, and 100 mi in length. They can be single day events or multi-day, covering up to 1,600 km. They're not anything new, but ultrarunning is definitely a growing sport.
There are three races that are part of the Grand Raid de la Réunion; the Diagonale des Fous (Madman's Diagonal), the Trail de Bourbon, and La Mascareignes. The event has been celebrated on the island since 1989 and draws thousands of participants, mostly locals, but a fair number of international runners too (yay!)
In a future post I'll write more about the details of my race in particular, La Mascareignes.
I haven't had much sleep in the last 72 hours so right now I'm going to have a nap!