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Diagonale des Fous - Race Tips with Roger Graham

Posted by John Ellis on

In this series of interviews, we ask runners to give us a few tips on some upcoming big international trail races.

Here we ask one of Hong Kong's most prolific ultra-tourists, Roger Graham, for some advice on how to get through Diagonale des Fous in one piece. For the record, Roger finished the 167km / 9,700m D+ route in 51:39:08 to just squeeze into the top 1,000 at 996th!

Key Tips

1. Getting there - Air Mauritius flies direct to (surprise!) Mauritius in ~10 hours, then it’s ~45 minutes to Reunion Island with Air Mauritius or other airlines. The cheap option was Air Austral but was ~20 hours including layovers so not recommended.

2. Pickup for bibs/drop bags/shirts/etc is at St Pierre on Wednesday. Given that you’ll probably be staying at St Denis, where the finish line is, it’s a bit of a pain to go to St Pierre and back on the Wednesday so just email the organisers and ask to pick up the stuff at their office in St Denis on the Thursday morning. St Pierre is a prettier option to base yourself but the bus ride back after the race is painful.

3. Awesome crowds all through the populated areas of the race. Similar to UTMB, there are simply endless calls of “allez!”, “allez Roger!”, “allez courage!”, “courage!”, “bon courage!” etc. The race is obviously a big deal on the island.

4. So many French speakers (obviously), many of whom had little/no English. Roughly half the racers are from Reunion itself, with another 40-45% from other parts of France, so foreign racers are very much in the minority.

5. For the start, the official buses supposedly took three hours with stops along the way, while you can try to share a taxi and negotiate a €170 fare. After the bag check, everyone is thrown together in a large holding area and not much seating or cover so make sure you have the gear to stay comfortable, dry and warm. There were 10 portaloos and only a small selection of food. At about 9:50pm, they opened a gate (you'll want to look for this) and everyone started running ~500m to get a good position for the actual start line!

6. My GPX is at https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1417313986. The track was very well marked and there are enough other racers that you are rarely completely on your own. There's lots of uphill plus technical downhills, mostly rocks and tree routes, and the rocky trail seems never-ending! This is natural rock, not the HK-style man made stuff. If you enjoy technical downhill, you will love this course.

7. With some minor exceptions, every CP had water, Coke, cut-up bananas, oranges and apples, sultanas, dry biscuits, bread (often with some meat or cheese filling you could chuck out), plus others had soups and gummy bears. The drop bag CPs are Cilaos and Sans Souci had hot food (e.g. rice or pasta, and chicken or sausage or veggies), plus rice and chicken at one other first-half checkpoint at Mare A Boue at 51km.

8. They had signs up showing the limits of the area where support is allowed, which were (very roughly) 100m either side of the CP itself, giving loads of space for supporters to lay out their wares.

9. Obviously the weather will be different every time but, for reference, we had daytime temps of 26-28C, while it can get very cold on the high parts with wind and rain. Many runners put on a raincoat and/or warm layer at night. The organisers say to come prepared for temperatures that could range from 0-35C and that's not an exaggeration.

10. Pack some food for the finish line as the finish food is quite limited, though there was a little shop in the carpark selling drinks and very good crispy French fries (they were out of kebab stuff when I got there, sadly). It takes around 30 minutes to walk from the finish area to the main area of St Denis where your hotel is likely to be.

11. Cut off times are very generous at 66 hours because it's an old event with very high local participation and one that was originally about completing the island traverse versus doing the absolute fastest time you can.

    Course Specifics

    1. The first ~30km is all ~6.5% uphill on average, but a lot of it is runnable. Lots of road through town, then road through sugar cane fields, then it becomes single-track at around 10km or so…

    2. …which leads to the first real bottlenecks, at around ~10-15km. Lots of stop / start / waiting around for people to figure out how to climb up or down little technical bits; we were literally standing around for 30 seconds or a minute time after time, wondering what it was that was causing everyone to back up. I got stuck, but I was around ~1,600th  Not sure what it’s like at the front, but you’ll want to be further up than where I was!

    3. A lot of the island (and trails) is rocky, and a lot of that is covered in fine dusty soil; fine enough that just stepping on it at walking pace would kick up dust. At one stage I used my buff to not breathe in lungfuls of dust being kicked up by all the other runners. Again, this might not be such a problem if you’re further towards the front, but it can’t hurt to have a buff on your wrist or neck just in case.

    4. The descent coming into Mare A Joseph CP at 62km is ~31% grade (~740m descent over 2.4km). It’s mostly narrow single-track, ladders, rope-holds on the steep narrow bits, technical rocky stuff to run / clamber down etc - so it can be a bit of a pain to pass slower runners.

    5. There is an awesome ~1,700m climb over 11km at ~105km, up the inside of Cirque de Mafate. Hopefully you do that during daytime, as the views over the cirque are incredible.
    The final ~660m descent over 4-5km from Colorado to La Redoute is mostly technical and hard work when you're tired.

      Tourist Stuff

      1. If you can spare €300, take the 55-minute helicopter ride all over the island, seeing the three cirques, giant waterfalls, the coast etc, ideally before the race so you can see much of the route. There are also shorter/cheaper versions.

      2. Other places to visit would include Saint Leu, a beach town with decent snorkelling, and Cilaos, a mountain town with hot springs. The more upscale resort hotels are around Saint Gilles.

      3. For getting around the island, public buses worked well for me. They are fairly frequent during the day, but stop early in the evening. They are cheap at €2 flat fare except €5 non-stop express between Saint Denis and Saint Pierre and run more or less on time. Timetables can be downloaded at the Car Jaune Reunion website.

      4. Produce on the island is fresh and tasty and Creole food is great - think Western-African-Indian-Chinese fusion! Can be a little heavy and spicy, thouygh, so maybe not right before the race...


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