Pat Kinsella has a brush with extinction during a skyrun in Mauritius.
Dodo Xtreme Skyrun – one of the most punishing one-day running events on the international calendar.
Legend Ricky Lightfoot finished five hours ahead of Pat. PICTURE CREDIT: Berty Kingdom
The fact that the 50km Dodo Xtreme trail race – which runs right across the spine of Mauritius – doubles up as the African Skyrunning Championships, should have given me prior warning that the course probably wouldn't be a walk in the park. But who would have thought that an idyllic Indian Ocean island would have quite so many mountains? Or that race organisers – clearly a sadistic species – would make us run up all of them?
When I do look at the course profile graphic properly, it resembles one of those printouts you see emerging from a frantically beeping heart monitor in cheesy hospital dramas, when someone is just about to cark it from a massive coronary. How apt.
START OF THE RACE
Stretching seemed fruitless ahead of the gruelling event
I join my fellow Xtremers by the starting line at 5.30am. Headtorch beams dance around in the gloom, as runners sort out their gear and limber up. I follow suit, although I'm not sure stretching will make the 50 steep kilometres ahead any less painful.
It's not a huge field. Sensibly, most entrants have opted to do the 25km Ti Dodo Trail that starts halfway through our course, or the 10km mini Dodo Trail.
There are, perhaps, 100 people around me – an interesting mix of Mauritians (plus several runners from the neighbouring islands of Rodrigues and Réunion), athletes from all over Africa (here to compete in the skyrunning championships) and elite Europeans (mostly French and Spanish, but also the aptly named Ricky Lightfoot from the UK, who won last year’s race in a frankly obscene 5 hours 19 minutes). And then there's me.
Approaching Le Morne, one of five peaks on the course
Above us, silhouetted in a slightly sinister light against the starry sky, is Le Morne – a towering edifice of rock, usually crowned with clouds and always enveloped in the swirling aura of an oft-told local tale. During the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves who escaped the sugarcane fields fled to Le Morne to seek sanctuary on the summit. When news of abolition finally arrived on the island in 1835, a detachment was sent to tell the escapees they could come down with impunity. However, mistaking the approaching men as a posse sent to bring them in, the slaves defiantly threw themselves from the top.
It's a terribly tragic story, with continued resonance and relevance today. Around the base of the mountain many nations and leaders have paid tribute to the spirit of those proud people, who believed it better to die on their feet than live on their knees. My present predicament is utterly incomparable, of course, but I'll try and remember that spirit later on, when the demons of self-doubt come chasing after me.
TRAILS & TRIBULATIONS
Sugar plantations still blanket much of the island and, as I run through the darkness towards the beginning of Black River Gorge, the air is sweet with the aroma of the canes that sway in the pre-dawn breeze. It's almost enough to override the smell of sweat and trepidation that hangs around us. Almost. The aroma of ultra runners is a powerful force to be reckoned with.
The Dodo Xtreme Skyrun is a point-scoring event on professional skyrun circuits
Ricky had given me a valuable tip before the race: The first 7ish kilometres are flat and the paths are wide, but when the hills start, the trail travels along tight and twisty singletrack, where it's difficult to pass people. It's worth going hard on that first section to seize a good position and avoid getting stuck behind slower runners. This is more of a problem for him than me, obviously, but I come out of the traps fast and keep up a good pace until we begin the 600-vertical-metre battle towards Piton du Fouge, the first of five major peaks the trail bounds over.
The climbing turns out to be every bit as epic as the route map promised, and there are obstacles to clamber over too – including several 4-metre-high fences – but I reach the top in time to see sunrise set the island's highlands ablaze with the glow of a new day, which puts a spring in my step. As the mercury begins to rise, though, it's a relief to reach the first food and water station, where I'm slightly surprised to find chunks of cheese next to the bananas, and open bowls of salt for people to dip their fingers into. This is a brand of sports science I'm not super familiar with, but I'll take whatever's on offer.
Epic climbing includes 4m high obstacles
Even after words of warning from Ricky, I'm surprised at how technical the trail is. As we trace the narrow ridgeline, ticking off the peaks and dropping almost to the floor of Black River Gorge in between, the path is often tortuously rough, and we have to deal with everything from shin-deep quagmires and crumbly rocks to deep river crossings.
But it's the gradient that's truly staggering – several sections of the course are so severe that chains and ropes have been rigged to make progress possible. The climbs are savage, but some of the descents are absolutely terrifying, as we pick our way down brutal bare basalt stone slopes above precipitous drops-offs, where one slip or trip would send you plunging headlong into the abyss.
With the downhills as technical as the ascents are extreme, I tick the kilometres off at a worryingly slow rate. Fortunately, I'm not suffering alone. Just before halfway I find myself panting and peering up at the dark peak of Piton de la Petite Rivière Noir, the island's highest mountain, contemplating whether this trail is seriously going to send me into the same evolutionary cul-de-sac as the dodo.
And then I spot people on the hill behind me and remember that I'm in a race, and apparently not bringing up the rear, so I put my head down and crack on. These gradients may not be runable by mere mortals, but I can powerwalk them, and then run-stumble down the other side, where the elevation peels away at a rate of 700 metres in 1.5km.
Even as the unrelenting sufferfest unfolds, the beauty of the island unfurls and reveals itself in a way that those sitting and sipping by hotel pools down below will never see. We run, walk and clamber – and occasionally crawl and fall and shout and swear – up and down hills and through forests where rare ebony trees, with precious black hearts, still stand, overlooking sensational vistas across beaches and coral fringed coves.
PICTURE CREDIT: Getty Images
By mid afternoon I'm skystumbling, rather than skyrunning, and by the time I shuffle over the last hill and pick my way down the final intricately tricky descent into Riverland, Ricky Lightfoot has already been back for some 6 hours (six!), having finished in 5 hours 40 minutes.
How anyone can maintain an average pace even close to 10 kilometres per hour across terrain like I've just experienced is completely beyond me. Personally I feel like I’ve just been boiled, chewed and spewed out by a Dutch sailor, but I’ve escaped extinction long enough to cross the line at the African Skyrunning Championships, and that’ll do me.
Now where’s the beach?
The next Dodo Xtreme Race will take place on 8 July 2018. See www.dodotrail.com for more.
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