When the Stars Were Hanging to the Maido
Or this long moment where my goals were taken apart to honor solidarity
Pic: Max Lapierre, The Running Clinic
Starting time was going to be called in less than an hour in St-Pierre. Two of them had already gone by, which we spent trying to sleep, laying on our cardboard boxes. Musicians were rolling notes with their voices, using their instruments, giving the space a festive ambience. In the air, feverishness was palpable, as a perfume which couldn’t sneak in in an invisible way. Generally, I’m not a big fan of crowds, but this one had something special. Intriguing and reassuring at the time, it was bringing us closer, every minute, to the start. To the Diagonale des Fous.
For the third time in the last two hours, I get out of the cabinets, crashed, for the occasion, in the departure sas. I didn’t hear people moving, as I was locked in there. I’m trying to find, by sight, the warriors of my team. They’re not where I had let my vest. Most of them had been escaping to the front, following the crowd, ready to leave. Some stayed on the spot, taken by surprise by the wave. And so then, I’m not in the middle of the pack of people warmed up by the night, but, roughly, in the back. Fact to remind: we are about 2700 to get on the adventure tonight. Calm, but a little bit disappointed because my position slightly changed, I’m standing here, one of our team Warriors on my side, Jean-Nicolas. The wave starts to move. I can’t wait to find myself in the forest. I want to run, alone, as a wild beast whom we’d offer some huge land to explore.
THE ARCH AND THE CROWD
People are trampling as the arch is getting closer. It’s quite warm out here. The air feels humid, filled with hopes, goals and visions everyone pictured before we get here. I’d loved to stand in the front, but I’m not there, so I make an effort to feel peaceful as the desire to run grows with every footstep. A sound pops out and we can hear the crowd moving past the arch. Some are then already gone. I sneak in between wholes I can see in front or beside me. Slowly, the wave moves and my pace can go a little bit faster rhythm. I hop on every occasion to jump forward and I enjoy it. The party seems to extend way past beyond barriers and every runner is going on to the sound of people shouting encouragements, names, smiles coming from all around. Night time is here. It is past ten pm and I can see myself, as my pace extends, passing something like 1500 runners on this uphill way.
DIRECTION: FEED ZONES
Going up is pretty efficiently done. Many are walking, as heigh difference is surely felt, but I cannot slow down, conscious of feeling drowned by the momentum of this new night. Eventually, I realize that space is carving in between runners and the ambient air is getting fresher. I want to discover and to discover some more all aspects of these dark times, all the secrets I perceived in the arms of Reunion since I landed here. The Domaine Vidot, first feed zone, presents itself as a must-go passage in a building, a place where I quickly fill up my flasks, helped with a handy woman. I get out there pretty fast, entering a downhill path, in single track, decelerating because it’s getting quite packed as runners afloat.
Trains are forming along the path and I focus on the feet right in front of me, aware of opportunities to move on. We keep running like this up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, second stop for bibs control, feed and liquids. Sections of road, of trails and of what looks like fields appear one after the other. I can’t see too far, but it feels like weather is getting colder for many of us, as we progressively climb up in altitude. Lands are equipped of all sorts of ladders to step on, of turns and twists, of surprises forming, with a strange regularity, runners congestion. I make it to accelerate and I find myself, in the middle of the night, blithely running on a ground where a frosty blanket, along with our breathes, are forming white clouds. It becomes colder and colder. I’m surprised about it. I then start to feel a venous pulsation raising up and spreading all over my head. As a vice, pain gains space. I keep breathing, inhaling and exhaling, but I’m not slowing down.
NEZ DE BOEUF (KM 38,6)
I’m running, and have been for a while, with this pain violently crushing my head. Nausea has taken place and dizziness seem to ask me to inhale and exhale in a much better way. I keep moving up to Nez de Boeuf, an area where every runner seem to look up for warmth. As a November evening, at home, this moment appears pretty startling to me, mostly regarding our clothes, pouring sweat, and not covered with warmer stuff. I try to catch a coffee in express mode, but my body howls its pain. From the corner of the eye, I see a pavilion filled with camp beds, covered by orange woolen blankets. I’m not use to take some time to stop in a race, but I choose to walk in. Nurses seem preoccupied by my condition. They offer me painkillers. I lay down for few minutes. My fingers tend to shift to an icy something. I then choose to get back on track, taking the blanket and survival coat off, shaken by strong shivering. Nursery professionals seem to doubt about my capacity to leave the place, so I’m moving up, still shivering as a chicken swimming in the snow. Night is getting darker. I get up with the intention of warming myself up and I start walking, one foot after the other. Surrounding space is pretty occupied, but I take advantage of the wholes to move in an easier way. As my fingers are getting back to me, my attention is distracted from the pain and nausea, still playing around. I keep telling myself that everything will be fine. I go on until Mare-à-Boue, next feeding zone, lighten up with the morning light. 48,9km completed.
Once the feeding zone and bib control passed, I keep going, still dizzy, towards a section which should be pretty full of mud and littered with all sorts of stones. Technicality and narrow spaces are legion, so runners are evolving one behind the other, as a marshmallow skewer, along the trail. Overpass becomes an art, but somehow, it is doable. Some are running in the middle of the deep mud ponds, avoiding to look around, but everytime, as we run, my eyes catch an easy alternate track. We’re not getting out of it with clean shoes, but it is kind if predictable and we tend to enjoy it, I guess! I wobble between the pain going through my head, nausea and dizziness as I keep going further. I think about the fact that I’m not totally enjoying the process, right now. Foreign voices are multiplying due to the slow marshmallow skewer like pace, and they have a weird resonance in my head. Right here, I’d just appreciate to hear a familiar intonation. Time stretches out. Then, Benjamin, one of our Warrior Teammates, cross my way and says hi. It makes me smile. At this point, checkpoint timings I had written on my bib had gain an hour. The day keeps going up and I move on to Cilaos.
CILAOS (Km 65,3)
Cilaos’s area and its steep lands, which are getting quite impressive, attract the eye at first glance, covered with luxuriant vegetation, with its remote villages and towns, like hamlets, afar, in the Cirque de Mafate. Pedestrians are also on the mountain, here, walking with their children, their babies and even their mini tiny goats! Runners are on the path, rolling in the daylight, efficient, fluid. Some are going down faster than the others and their intrepidity surprises me, sometimes. The place is magnificent; I’d love to fly here, but I must admit I prefer taming myself, as I do not feel a hundred percent aware at the moment. Once more, I encounter a familiar face – Benjamin – and the simple fact that his fingers hold on, for few seconds, to my arm, reassures me. I am in pain, but by body still exists. So I keep going forward. The Sun gets warmer and warmer and it reminds me I love Summer, warmth, light. Details, for sure, but important facts in the moment. Volunteers are positioned along the road leading to Cilaos’s stadium, one of the biggest feed zone of the race. The Great Warriors Team is expected a little bit farther, at the military pavilion. In fact, exceptionally, soldiers, helped by health professionals, are there to welcome and take care of us in four locations along the race track. Cilaos is the second one of them. As an insight to me, it seems like the time has come for me to look at my race in a different way. I do not see myself crumbling into pain for the whole 166km. Neither going further in the Cirque de Mafate, through Taibit, passing by Marla and climbing up the Maido in a vacillating state. Two options can then be considered: to start thinking about giving up (not possible to me) or to slow down a little bit to make sure I can manage my body pain. As I walk in the pavilion and ask for my drop bag, I see Jessy.
Jessy lives nearby my little town, but we’re rarely meeting or encountering each other. I had the opportunity to exchange with her before the race and I know she’s focused on experiencing it in a way she feels at peace, without stress of any kind. Spontaneously, I offer to go on a little with her. We both get ready to go and Benjamin, who came in meanwhile, decides to come with us. I am not thinking about the next feed zone, but am more focused on the present moment. A new ascension is standing here, in front of us, and we jump into it, one foot after the other. I’ve got the rhythm of this new moment holding me on, keeping me in the second. Benjamin goes in the front, carried by the Sun. I know we won’t cross his way again and I think about running with him, but something in me says it is not time to accelerate. Breathe. Take time to center. Making a statement sounding like « Jessy’s presence equates moving beside a Buddha form of life, peaceful and strong ». I do not have the habit, neither do I have the ease to run beside someone else during a race. Exception: last June’s Quebec Mega Trail, on the 110 km race, as I met Sylvain Rioux, at the time I just had a good commotion and was running on it. He had helped me out through it. Curious coincidence, in similar circumstances, reminding me that last months were quite particular in terms of health and consciousness, in a large spectrum of action/thoughts.
Pic: Nicolas Fréret, Distances+
FROM MARLA TO L’ÉCOLE DE ROCHE-PLATE
Jessy and I are arriving to Marla, smiling, in urge to pee, and with a need to get some drinks and foods. Marla is a haven of colors and of what seems to breathe as a « mountain like peaceful place », in the depth between its uphills, its passes and its summits, all located in the Cirque de Mafate. Marla comes with almost 78 km ran in ups dans downs of La Reunion. It’s also one of those places we need to think about the fact that it will soon not be possible to go back or to get out the race tracks other than by doing it. Fully going in the Cirque de Mafate means you need to get out of it by yourself. And I don’t fully realize, at this particular moment, it is very important to think about it. Marla is also the place where we meet Jean-Nicolas, another Warrior on the race. He is laying down and seem to be completely swallowed by fatigue and pain. As he just received a message from is children, he is pretty emotional and he shares with us his thought about the eventuality of quitting. Synchronicity’s wind is blowing a little too much and carried by it, Jean-Nic puts back his shoes and decides to go on with us. My emotions speaks of ambivalence: I feel nourished by the fact that we can move on counting the three of us, but also insecure thinking of the challenge it can represent. Time goes by as the forest gets wider in front of us. Darkness slowly arises, promise of a very special night. It feeds me to think about the eventuality of the three of us going, side to side, on the adventure, but I feel insecure about the challenges it could offer to us. Time keeps going fast as forest unfolds before us. Darkness slowly arises, announcing a very particular night. Going optimistic, I make a mistake and Grande-Place-les-Bas’s feeding zone appears really too far to me. I’d like to run as if my life would depend on it. But, this time, I learn to listen to the runners I’m sharing the ride with. I’m scared to get to the finish line too late. I doubt about my ability to keep my eyes opened.
Right here arises a space to let go. It keeps my head clear. Therefore, I do not feel the immense pain, coming from my head, anymore. A second night announces rain of little and tired eyes. We cross, along the path, on the edge of the cliffs, in the hollows, underneath their safety blankets, runners who needed to shut the light down for a moment. Surrounding space doesn’t offer much opened areas to rest, but every little spot can look like a salvation opportunity, might it be only for a quarter of an hour. Uncovered faces, gone in two seconds in an alternate world, mesmerize me by their beauty. Eventually, Jessy, Jean-Nic and me think about doing the same thing. Some runners are laying down behind a tent. We find ourselves a space and I’m taking out a safety blanket that my friend Anne had let me. When unfolding it, I realize it is sewed as a sleeping bag…and smile, so grateful to Anne for this amazing gift (it was, really)! Of the three of us, I’m the only one to dive in a sleepy place. Twenty minutes are going by. Then, quickly jumping out of the blanket, I’m back in the cold, so it feels to me, as a that material somehow feels like a plastic bag, giving us a wet sensation. We pack up and get back on the trail, headlamps on, towards what will be the most impressive climb of the race. Maido, getting closer to you, I’m not sure about how I feel.
STARS AND THE MAIDO
Our sights spread afar. Enormous peaks are raising at the horizon. The impression to be sas small as an ant isn’t an exaggeration. Our eyes get lost in the distance. It would be, really, an euphemism to say that we stand as master of the place here. Nature is amazingly alive, rich and unique, even as we are drowning in obscurity. The more we progress, the more headlamps are creating clear lines, showing us abstracts drawings of our path. We can see some of them on our left, on our right, going upwards or downwards, following different trajectories. It is something peculiar and very special to look at. I admire every one of these headlamp holders. Lights are opening the path as a danse spreading its wings as people embodying it are opening the way. It’s a majestic movement. And a little bit surreal. Those luminous spots seem to extend so high and so far that I’d tend to say they’d be like stars in the sky. Stars hung up to the Maido. Jessy and Jean-Nic start to laugh, thinking about it; my imagination is tuned on, here. It’s a good point. Downhill sections are quickly replaced by a continuous ascension. In my sight, there are only headlamps, again and again, moving on. Every step, every rock is touched and appears, before our eyes, like a surprise. I feel dizzy. I can barely control my posture and it looks like it takes quite an effort to keep going. I breathe, but I can sense I’m not at my best. My face might be looking like a with cloth, at the moment. Jessy asks me to walk in front of her, so I do, unsure about the move. I don’t ever think about looking at my watch. The moment itself is enough.
Behind and in front of us, runner stand in single file, but no one seem tempted by overtaking the ride to go first. We can hear everyone’s breath as if it were an official, crucial hymn, here. The wall is pretty steep and we can’t see the void, but everyone knows it’s there, close to our feet. It is probably one of those moments where runners humility is shared and felt by everyone. There is no space for vainglory. We keep breathing, one along with others. I am waving from one side to the other. As I tend to go towards the void, Jessy asks me to get closer to the wall. Few more steps. And, right there, the Roche-Plate commune and its school appears. They are located half-way to the top of Maido. Chorus of sigh relief. People from all sizes and shapes are laying on the ground, in the stairs, right onto the soil or in camp beds. Space is filled with hot and sweating or freezing runners at the time. We activate ourselves because standing still could lead to hypothermia. I don’t know what to eat and I don’t feel like drinking, but I’m trying to. Some cookies, a bite of dark chocolate and the temptation of a sip of coffee, ending up in Coca Cola are all I can get in. And we’re on for the second part of our ascension towards Maido’s summit.
TWO FEET FROM THE CLIFF
In the middle of our second night out, everything seem to go on at a very slow pace. There is no other solution but to keep moving on. Some runners go in the front, but they are rapidly caught up as many offer themselves a pause in between plateaus. The incline seem pretty big. Air feels rare. Speechless, still waving, I’m going on. Jessy and Jean-Nic too. I hear him, exhausted, expressing his need for a little break. Few little stops help us on the way up. I’m telling myself that I might not have the wisdom to stop, despite the sickness, if I’d been on my own here. I think about my daughters. I’m not super happy about the fact I’d gone on a slower pace. On the other hand, I realize I’m not scared about the fall. I’m asking myself if it’s normal or if the fear of death isn’t simply there. I’d hear, later on, that the fact that I was swaying on the cliff was pretty alarming for Jessy and Jean-Nicolas. As we only get one life in this lifetime…
Pic: Nicolas Fréret
Our trio is surrounded by other runners during the whole way up for this second pitch. It’s an ascent that keeps being demanding for everyone and we can hear, regularly, a « putain » or « No! », reacting to the distance left to go. I feel like time stretches. Then, slowly, we can see a light in between the mountains peaks. As we get to Maido’s summit – 112,9 km, the first daylights appear and warmth seem to expands around us. Jessy and I are getting to the summit, crossing Caroline’s way, armed with her camera. A sob grasps my throat. Emotion enfolds me. It goes with the feeling of flying as we run with the sun and I’d like to keep it on until the end of the race. Few km further, the military tent appears like a cocoon where we are warmly welcomed and efficiently taken in charge.
We’re leaving the place under a nice weather. I feel cherished, but it also tickles me to have to slow down. Jean-Nicolas feels quite tired. I must admit that it’s also my case – now on, I see objects, which might not really be there, on the way – but I can also feel fire inside my belly. Jessy and I are moving a little bit faster ahead, and then we decelerate. The next hours will be filled with those moments as Jean-Nic starts to feel worse. The color of his skin fades and his energy level seems to lower considerably. I can hardly contain myself, but I want to support others too, as they need it at the moment. I’m jogging and stopping, repeating the sequence. Mounds arises one after the other. Some summits too, offering nice views, green areas and little altar, dressed here and there. From the point where we started the race, in St-Pierre, I’ve been running with a prayer in my pocket, for my friend Dominic and his dad. As we get close to an altar, surrounded with prayers and flowers, I take, in my bag, this prayer. I get closer and I put it there, on one of the summits of Mafate Circus. A feeling of peace fills me up. Breathing. And I take my running back to go down the hill, alive; it feels like flying. Then I’m slowing down, adapting to my teammates. The day is only waking up and I can’t wait to be entering in St-Denis.
ON THE ROAD TO L’ISLET SAVANAH
Running downhill is kept on a very slow pace, as the evolution of Jean-Nicolas sickness. The approach of lslet Savanah takes on with an increasingly hot day. The surroundings and the area, which becomes more and more crowded as we enter it, offer distressing landscapes. It looks to me as the discovery of a place where poverty is part of the routine. Wastes decorate the ground and spaces seem in need of love. People smile at us, enthusiasts. They applaud and encourage us, shouting our names, creating a proper reunionese atmosphere. Hard to avoid smiling in return! Looking for hands pointing Islet Savanah’s feeding zone, I can suddenly see it we’re in urge to get there: Jean-Nic isn’t going well at all. I’m worried. Once on the spot, we’re trying to find a fresher space to rest. His face shows greenish colors. Next minutes involve a try to drink and to eat something. As Jean-Nic does, with Jess, I’m taking time to close my eyes…everything’s cicrcling around me. Ambient warmth is suffocating. The wake up call is quickly followed by a team discussion. I’m asking myself if everyone will be able to stand on his feet. We’re at km 128 and we’ve got still some more to go on. The decision to move forward is taken as a go for the three of us. Priority: Getting out of the town to catch some fresh air and breath in the trees and leaves.
CRAZY LOOP ON SINGLE TRACKS
The path reaching the next feeding zone, le Chemin Ratineau, present itself as a secret pass in the woods located around a city-like place. Crazy and funny decents, where we’re hanging on tree trunks and where dust spreads all over the place are filling me with joy. I’m getting wild and happy. Jumping from one trunk to another, I’m swinging down. Those few kilometers are furiously going by. They’re good to me. Jessy is running in front of me and Jean-Nicolas follows as much as he can, behind us. We get, like rockets, to the feeding zone and decide, as we fill up our flasks, to run the next two sections at our own pace, meaning separately, but to wait for each other at the control points/feeding zones, to make sure everyone is fine. From Le Chemin Ratineau to La Possession, the path is pretty wide and opened. Runners aren’t showing as a crowd and it’s easy to move around. At La Possession, I’m observing birds nests, suspended upside down. I’m telling myself that the world is the other way around. I had planned and anticipated this race, but I had absolutely not planned what I was experiencing here. My emotions are tearing me appart, tinted by a long time fatigue. I feel great gratitude towards Jessy and Jean-Nicolas and, at the same time, I’m realizing that I’m already thinking about doing it once more, in the future. Time is shrinking and a new section is undergoing. It’s talking by itself, fed by a strong past, its history.
THE CHEMIN DES ANGLAIS
Before the event, I had the opportunity to go on a recognition mission of this part of the race. Its history had moved me. The Chemin des Anglais has been built in three different sections, each one formed by good ascents and one decent, showing and holding its personality. What characterizes it? It is made of stones of all shapes and sizes, holding in all sorts of ways, as if time and ground had played wildly to have them go back to a more natural position, unmeasured. Some are pointing upwards as others seems to wobble in all directions. Vegetation is luxurious. I was told that slaves were put on the construction of this « road » in a painful manner. It’s kind of a pleasure to me to see that Nature, wild, takes back its rights. And I’m going for it with a child’s joy, dancing from one stone to another, landing on the tip of my feet, arms widely opened. Pedestrians are looking at me with incredulous eyes. I’m smiling, focusing on the momentum. Crazy moment, going by so fast. A green and yellow headed lizard encounter makes me marvel some more. I eventually get to the last part of the decent of Le Chemin des Anglais and I can see Jessy from afar. I’m bouncing from stone to stone to get to her. Then, I see her face, defeated. She’s not doing well at all. Dehydration and nausea are on the menu. We’ve got two km to go before we can reach the military pavilion of Grande Chaloupe. We’re at 152,4 km. When we get there, Jessy lays down and tries to get back to a tolerable health state. I eat and discuss with the soldiers on duty, waiting for Jean-Nicolas. As I’m walking to Jessy’s bed to get some news, Blaise is showing up. His benevolent presence feels good. I feel reassured to see him, as if a ray of sunshine would have crossed our way at the end of the day. Shortly, Jean-Nicolas comes in. He seems to feel better as Jessy is still fighting to get some energy back. We eventually get back on track, headlamps on (I’m praying for mine to work all the way to the end) to reach the Colorado. Initially, I had planned to get there in the morning and we were now at the corner of a possibly long evening.
Adjustment. Everyone is showing evident signs of tiredness, but refuses to fall asleep. We want to get to La Redoute, in St-Denis, today. Climbing up Colorado feels like and endless sandy-white path. I’m almost walking over a pretty long grass-snake, looking at me with its mini eyes. Darkness and the light beam of my headlamp have me discover a lunar-like ground where vegetation doesn’t show up. I’ve got the sensation that we’re just been guided to move and turn around to accumulate some extra mileage. I have to other reference than Jessy’s or Jean-Nic’s shoes. Once again, the ascent is steep and it keeps us from going too fast. Route sections are sometimes cutting it, but we keep it slow, as the legs aren’t all aligned with the same freshness. Back to an empty-like nature up to Colorado’s control point, km 161,4. We’re like in the middle of nowhere. Wind and a black surrounding landscape dress it as a mysterious panorama. Jessy doesn’t feel better and nausea is still walking with her. We start to move downwards very carefully. Lee Emmanuel, Marc Antoine and Alex, Warriors of our team, reach and pass in front of us, faster than us. It is the last descent. Vertiginous. At a nice speed, we were told it would take us 45 minutes. But we will need extra time to make it to the bottom. Stops are essentials to allow Jessy to breathe and to maintain herself on her feet. Every time our little train stops, I close my eyes and instantly drown past the sleep line. I can’t wait to get to La Redoute. I’ve been thinking about it for so long and this moment seems so abstract, right now.
ST-DENIS, LA REDOUTE
City echoes make themselves louder. We can hear noise and car humming their usual symphonies. Turns, in the descent, make themselves wider. Suddenly, a street opens before us. I feel chocked, as if we couldn’t make it anymore. Few walking steps will be followed by a nice run, initiated by Jessy, as I wouldn’t even dare to suggest it in the situation. She is impressing me. I’d like to run at eighty miles an hour and jump in the stadium like a rocket, but emotion is knocking me off. We are, the three of us, at the doors of this very special moment, the one leading us to km 166. I can hardly believe it. From a competitive mindset to a journey unveiling as a convalescent body call, eventually shared with Jessy, going on in a meditative state of mind, it has driven us to Jean-Nicolas, sitting in an agony-like attitude. Nothing I had planned in the past months. So, at this moment my foot crossed the line marking the arrival, hodling heands with my teammates, I could see and feel all that spoke to my heart, body and soul in the past 48 hours. Blaise is standing beside us, recording, as a gardien bird, as a protective soul, observing us, with contentment, being back « home ». Everything is clashing in my head. I’m sharing a hug with Jessy and Jean-Nic, speechless. And as I’m walking to receive my medal, I strongly feel the need to come back and ride with La Diagonale once more. I want to run, walk and breathe every part of it again. From 160 to 888km, here and elsewhere. With all that I am. With all I’ve become and all I still have to learn to Be.
ON THE PLANE
Tonight, I’m getting back home, my heart pounding in my chest.
I miss my daughters.
But, at the same time, I do not want to go away and leave all I’ve experienced from the inside as well as in an outer-world perspective. I know that something has been awaken, once more. I can feel it. I can see it in my eyes. It reminds me of the stars, somewhere in the Maido’s surroundings.
Grand Raid, we’re meant to meet again. It’s a rendez-vous.
Huge thanks to the team of Guerriers du Grand Raid, to the Running Clinic, to Blaise and Mickaël, to Isabelle D. and to Rose, their special and super strong partners. Thanks to Jessy and Jean-Nicolas, to Caroline, to Claudine and Aurélie, my colocs, to all those I met along the way, to Izna and Arielle, to Marie-Josée, to Chantale, to Anne, to Dominic, to Justin, from the Clinique Ressource Vitale, to all my friends from Quebec, to Jean-Paul, Josée, Diane, Carmen and Alain and finally to all those who have been helping me out, here and there. I’m lucky to be here and be surrounded as I am.