LOST ISLAND ULTRA | FIJI'S FIRST ULTRAMARATHON
130KM IN 5 STAGES (FIJI 2018)
In the wake of Tropical Cyclone Josie, 32 runners headed into the brutal trails of Viti Levu’s rugged interior to take part in Fiji’s first ultramarathon: a story of knee-deep mud, extreme heat and never-ending hills.
The inaugural Lost Island Ultra was my first introduction to multi-day endurance challenges, and although the distances are hardly spectacular compared to similar events, for me it represented my first major endurance test. With the original plan a complete 220km traverse of the island, a tropical cyclone just days before the race forced changes to distance and route, and turned the already technical trails into a brutal trial of knee-deep mud and intense humidity. Set amidst the backdrop of Fiji’s fabled hospitality and spectacular mountainous interior, the Lost Island Ultra was an experience of a lifetime and firmly solidified my love of ultra-endurance.
All photos copyright Rob Rickman
PART 1 | THE CYCLONE
1st April 2018
The storm continued all night and is now in full force. The wind is stronger than I’ve ever seen – flying rain hurts my bare skin. Peels of lightning are tearing up the sky with great rumbles of thunder in tow. The sea is up – right up, flooding the hostel’s restaurant area and hurling tree trunks and the boat towards the rocks. I went out in the dawn gloom to watch and came back soaked to the skin in just a few short minutes. Even in my room I don’t feel entirely secure – I hope it calms down a bit before the race, if they can even run it in weather like this. There’s not really much I can do but hunker down and go over organising my race stuff again.
Over the rest of the morning the storm developed into a category 1 cyclone – TC Josie. The sheer power of the wind and rain was spectacular, but it wasn’t long before reports from the rest of Fiji began to come in. The cyclone had torn past the east coast, causing major flooding and landslides. Six deaths had been reported and many villages left cut-off. In the closest towns of Ba and Tavua the streets were flooded and people on their rooftops. Roadways were impassable, and even the island’s capital, Nadi, was mostly underwater. Much of the interior, where we were about to run, had become entirely inaccessible.
Seeing the flattened crop fields and the devastation in Ba town when we finally got there – broken, waterlogged and mud-filled homes – put the race into perspective for me. It made me think just how privileged we are to possess the excess time, money and energy to train and take part in such an event. In a funny way it feels the equivalent of an all-inclusive 5-star holiday, where everything is taken care of and we just enjoy the ride: I almost feel embarrassed amongst the local villagers. I certainly have no excuse not to finish – to do so would be a waste of all that expense, time and energy I’ve put in, and, in a twisted way, disrespectful to those less fortunate.
A couple of days later competitors made their way to the start line, and we pitched our tents in a grassy field, high up on a headland on the north coast. Beyond was the Pacific, sparkling blue in the late afternoon light, and to the south were the dark green hills of Fiji’s great interior – our route for tomorrow. As someone who’d had really no real-life exposure to the ultra-community this was all a bit of a whirlwind for me, talking running and strategy with like-minded people and sharing stories with vastly-experienced athletes the likes of ultra-running legend and race-coordinator Mimi Anderson. The atmosphere was incredible.
3rd April 2018
A kava ceremony was held by the elders of the local village, and the women cooked us a generous meal of dahl, cassava and other Fijian dishes. This soon descended into the characteristic Fijian singing and dancing. A young girl from the village came over and pulled me up to dance. One very old, hunched woman singled me out and laid a shell-bead necklace around my neck. I can only take it to be a good omen.
As it grew fully dark the kava ceremony and dancing faded, and competitors began to trickle into their tents. The stars are incredible tonight: the milky way a visible stain against the sky. The sounds of the waves from the sea far below surge in contrast to the silent silhouettes of mountain ridges to the south. The tent is unbearable though. I’m sitting here writing with sweat pooling on my sleeping mat. I’m going to have to get out again to dry myself in the breeze…
Runners prepare at basecamp for the days to come
PART 2 | THE RACE
Stage 1 | Fiji's Mountainous North
35km; 1250m; 6.30hrs
By 5am everyone was up and moving: the excitement in the air was tangible. I had a breakfast of porridge and dates with Kerry (a very experienced ultrarunner and fellow Brit) and we sat waiting for the sun. It didn’t disappoint – a glowing orb that arose from the ocean, bathing the mountains before us in rich golden light. People hurried about like ants, packing tents, filling bottles, organising packs. We were handed sulus: large cloth sarongs that we were required to wear each time we passed a village.
The stage started at 7am, on a countdown from Mimi, and we charged down the line of flags and onto the island’s circumferential highway, King’s Road. The locals were there to greet us, hanging out of windows and cheering from doorways. Soon we turned inland, into the quiet heat of Fijian cattle ranches and up toward our first mountain ascent. The views were incredible – huge rolling vistas of grass covered mountains, broken only by dark rocky outcrops near the summits. Patchy wisps of cloud caught in their green folds and along their edges. The landscape of Fiji is very unique.
Even at 10am the heat was becoming intense, and throughout the stage it became close to unbearable. It was over 35°C, with a complete lack of wind, and humidity upwards of 90%: the air was hot and stagnant. At every river I would submerge my head and body – it made it bearable. Besides overheating my main issue on that first day (and indeed ongoing) was the course markers: orange tapes amidst seas of thick grass and jungle foliage. Being red-green colour blind, I could only spot them once I was virtually on top of them. For a large portion of the race I relied on trailing the tracks of frontrunners before me – thankfully, in the remote parts of Fiji, trail shoes have a very distinctive print.
The day was a mix of mountain ridge-runs, groves of twisted trees, and wide-open grasslands with little tree-clad rivers that spread like veins across the massive valleys. Fijian horsemen pointed us the way, along trails of shin-deep mud and tangled root networks, through tunnels of elephant grass that stretched well above my head. I spent many hours with Maria, a quiet, machine-like runner from Spain. She ate ground slowly, but the pace never dropped, unlike my inexperienced surges and slows. A friendly Fijian saved us from getting lost, and introduced us to his family (all of whom were on horseback, currently midway across a rather difficult river crossing). The waist-deep water was decidedly unpleasant, warmed to bath temperature in the midday sun.
There was no shade – even lying under the knee-high verges gave no respite (I tried it…) – and the puddles were now uncomfortably hot. Eventually I sat down and took stock. I wasn’t in a good way. Not only dehydrated, but just simply overheating. My heart rate was way higher than it should’ve been and I couldn’t push at all. I plodded along as fast as I could, running a few steps every few minutes.
As was to become a trend for the next five days, it was a river that saved me. On reaching one deeper than normal, I lay in it, eating, drinking and cooling my core. It allowed me to stomach food that in the heat I couldn’t get down. I used this eating tactic continuously throughout the race and it worked extremely well. It was at this point that another runner, Toni caught me, and we ran together for some kilometres on undulating track and dirt roads. We hiked the ups and run-stumbled the downs, just allowing our legs to roll over as they pleased.
4th April 2018
On jumping into one river, a pretty young Fijian who was washing clothes in the shallows decided to join us, submerging herself with an impressive leap from the bank. Her tightly curled hair showered clear, glinting droplets as she surfaced and shook – wild, happy and free, before resuming her washing. At this point in the race I would’ve given a lot to sit down and join her.
Toni went on ahead soon after – I was unable to keep up in the heat. After a final, very painful few kilometres along an undulating gravel track of intense heat, along which the many encouragements and offers of rest from the locals deserve a mention, I glimpsed in the distance the blue flags of stage’s end. I finished to the cheers of those runners recently finished and the proud praise of Mimi. After a rest in the river and a brief interview with the Fijian Broadcasting Company (FBC) as the youngest competitor, I headed down into the village.
The villagers had put up a huge spread of food for us, and the singing of the women soon led to more dancing. Children tugged at us, goading us to play amidst the wet tents that dripped from makeshift clothes lines. I found Kerry in the large communal longhouse and she showed me how legs should be elevated after a day of running to help recovery, waste removal, and prevent blood pooling. It was a good afternoon, swapping stories from the stage, eating as much as we could get our hands on, and generally all getting to know each other a bit better.
4th April 2018
I’m lying amongst the other runners, with four young Fijian children crouched less than a meter away, staring at me intently while I try to get to sleep. This whole situation must be so strange and alien to them. I can hear the pounding of the kava root somewhere outside: thick, resonant thuds filling the heavy air. I am so genuinely happy. It hadn’t gone so well for all - there were three DNFs today, including a case of heatstroke. That’s a tenth of the field gone on day one.
Local Fijian support is strong in the northern mountains of Stage 1
Stage 2 | Mud, Rain and Waterfalls
26km; 1180m; 5.30hrs
Early in the morning village dogs started fighting, and it wasn’t long before some of the runners began to move about. I got down a tin of peaches and instant porridge oats, and we set to work filling packs and water bottles, before tying on our sulus for the run through the village. Mimi gave the count and we charged down the hill through the river. Children ran with us, and a makeshift choir of village women sang in perfect harmony to the beat of machetes on corrugated iron. Such is the beauty and innate ability of indigenous Fijian singing.
Through the river and up into the oppressive heat and silence of the jungle, broken only by breathing and the sucking of mud at our feet. I had started out much slower today and was already beginning to pick of the stragglers. The rain and clouds overhead provided an ideal running temperature.
Out of the forest and up a trail of mud and grass. It was almost knee-deep in places, with vertical walls of green preventing us seeing anything but the tunnel of trail ahead. The ascent was brutal – steep and slippery – and I had to use my hands often to keep moving upward. I fell in comfortably behind Maria and Helen. Neither of them liked the technicality, and with my long stride and good judgement in mud (borne of many hours in the grey English hills) I could keep up easily without pushing. I loved the ascent, and when we finally came to flatter ground, way up in the clouds, I broke away, leaving them far behind in a few minutes of power-hiking on up the hill.
I find that in this mud and gradient my walking is as fast as their running, and I can gain quickly on those more used to flatter running. On technical downhills I’m also pretty good – later I found that I could match some of the best runners in the race even when very tired. I think it’s a combination of good balance and ability to catch myself, and perhaps most importantly, a lack fear to just let myself go. All that said – you put me on flat ground and tell me to actually run fast, and I fall behind almost immediately.
5th April 2018
The trail was steep and technical, and I couldn’t get enough of it: thickly-forested, shin-deep mud on ridiculous gradients that rose up and down along the sides of a mountain. We transitioned between thin passages of slashed elephant grass and sugar cane, to root-woven trails of jungle and fallen tree-trunks: a virtual obstacle course. I flew down the hill, half-running, half-sliding in the deep mud and roots. I’ve never skied, but I imagine it must feel something like this. I passed Jaime – the New Zealander who currently held women’s third – who also seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself.
After an hour more of falling, climbing and sliding in the cloud forests with Scotty, an Australian marathon runner of excellent company and humour, we reached the end of the section, and writing this now, it remains the most technical trail I have ever run – over three and a half hours to cover just 12km – what a trail!
Two small children met us on the path, dancing between the rocks as they ran ahead to alert the others gathered at the river. Their bare soles flowed over the trail, leading us across the water and into a party of Fijian merriment at Checkpoint 2. Spirits were very high. The following kilometres of gravel road soon pulled me down however, and Scotty’s marathon legs left me long behind in very little time. I bid him goodbye and settled into a slow jog under the intensifying sun. Being a small out-and-back section, the lead runners began to pass me, coming back down the track. They were really flying, but each took the time to greet me and tales of the waterfall ahead began to come thick and tall.
I reached a very traditional village, the path lined by wooden stakes topped with painted white stones. My hastily-tied sulu clung to my thighs, soaked and covered in mud. A long line of children bordered the path up through the thatched houses, their outstretched fingers trailing mine amidst a great cheer of ‘bula’ as I ran past. The long climb to the waterfall was set along the rim of a deep canyon valley, thick with lush vegetation and clinging mist. A thundering of water echoed from its upper reaches. Kerry came down the path, going strong; a quick exchange and promises of what was coming drove me on, and after much climbing I reached the falls.
5th April 2018
Savulelele Falls. I’ve never seen anything that compares. The waterfall’s sheer size is incredible, set against a massive wall of rock so large you have to lean your head back almost vertical to see the top. Small jets of water spring from its face, as if in imitation of the great cascade itself, tumbling into vapour many hundreds of feet to the pool at the cliff’s base. A Fijian from the village told me the legend of the falls: that each smaller plume appears upon birth of a child, and for each death, one closes up. It is easy to imagine some higher workings of the world in such a grand and awe-inspiring place. There is a power, and force of nature around you; if spirits do exist, then it’s places like this that they congregate. As I left, the man began to call to the birds nesting on the rockface – his shrill cries and whistles a perfect impersonation, piercing the thundering around him.
I rested in a quieter pool downstream while Jaime came and went. I had felt weak when I arrived, but the power of the falls and the coolness of the water strengthened me, and as I hiked up the path toward the long downhill back to the village I felt strong again. I passed Helen coming up, and we exchanged a few words before I hurtled down through the village, leapt clean over a sleeping dog, and onto the final 10km of gravel track to the finish.
This wasn’t pleasant, and the heat had risen to a vicious intensity. The road undulated endlessly, and my run became a walk-run, and then a solid walk. Helen caught me and rallied me to run with her for a while, but unable to keep the pace I had to drop. I was ever aware of Maria somewhere behind me – I’d seen her after the waterfall not far behind – and I refused to have her catch me again.
I was struggling in the heat and couldn’t stomach anything, so I sat in a river for a few minutes eating dates and peanuts while some children played nearby. The pleasure of cool water on my skin in such a moment is difficult to articulate. After a final monster ascent, it was a last downhill towards another village finish: a seemingly endless walk-run from shade patch to shade patch.
On finishing I joined Helen in the river and was handed a green coconut by the villagers – the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. We shared it and watched the children dive into the rushing water around us. Unfortunately we’d just missed the first truck back to camp and waited hours for other runners, and longer still in the truck, circumnavigating the broken bridges of cyclone Josie. Cramped along opposite benches in the back, tiredness was deep and every jolt shivered cramping legs. It was made bearable only by the company.
By the time we arrived at camp (a field) it was now over eight hours since I’d finished: longer than my actual run itself. Runners from the earlier truck had kindly pitched my tent, and I fell onto my sleeping mat stuffing in as many calories as possible before I fell asleep. The rain hammered down outside and it wasn’t a good night – I was up regularly with a bad stomach. I think it was the tinned dahl I’d brought with me from a small Fijian supermarket.
Stage 2 brought us deep into the beating heart of Viti Levu
Stage 3 | Finding Ultra
26km; 760m; 3.40hrs
I felt awful when I woke. My stomach was in knots and sleep deprivation was beginning to hit. The weather was good at least – overcast and plenty of dribbling rain. This happy realisation was quickly forgotten with the discovery that my pack and shoes were filled with angry red ants. It took many bites and a large bucket of water to remove eventually remove them. I forced some cold porridge, honey and a TRIBE bar into my protesting stomach and barely managed to get my tent packed in time for the start.
I started slow again along the first few kilometers of gravel track, and was soon picking off runners. The turn-off into the jungle and proper trail couldn’t have come soon enough. It was a beautiful single-track, undulating and runnable, alternating moderately technical downs with grassy ascents and waterlogged flats.
By now I was running with Pedro, the muscled Fijian marathon runner, who’d damaged his hamstring on day one. Despite having to walk much of the steeper uphill backward he’d still beaten me the last two days. He’d now settled into a pace similar to mine, and being tall, our strides matched well. We soon caught Jaime and ran with her for a while, my spirits lifted dramatically by their excellent company. For a little while I could forget my complaining stomach. This was relaxed and fun, and my strength on the downhills meant I could push the pace a little without overdoing it.
Having left Jaime behind and caught Kerry, the three of us pushed on, now with an uphill hiking pace being pushed noticeably by Kerry – it was all I could do to keep up. But I resolved to stick with her until at least Checkpoint 1 as Pedro disappeared down the trail ahead.
The checkpoint heralded the beginning of many kilometres more of the dreaded gravel roads, and it was here that things began to get really hard. We would run the downs and walk the ups, but Kerry’s walk was at a pace that I could barely sustain – I had to keep running to catch up. My breathing spiked and willpower began to be challenged. She kept me going with stories of her children, back home, races and foreign adventures, and we settled into a rhythm to the click, click of her poles. I wasn’t speaking - the conversation was very one-sided – but both I and her were determined I’d keep up. Jaime was somewhere behind, and as second woman she was Kerry’s main competition. Being hunted was exhilarating and motivation to push struck hard. I remember thinking how much I wanted to be a part of this competitive world.
We reached the second checkpoint ahead of Jaime and dived into the woods again, but she caught us after we went off course and had to side-track. The path became steep gullies of wide earth walls, and my quads were burning both up and down. I was really struggling now, gasping for air kilometre after kilometre, and when we pulled away again I was secretly impressed at my resolve to stick with Kerry rather than settling for Jaime’s gentler pace. Continuous uphill kept coming, and deep tracks of mud and broken vegetation made any sort of rhythm impossible. At times it was like running over piles of hedge cuttings. My breathing was sky-high, and my pain threshold was slowly being stretched. It’s funny though, in those moments my thoughts came very rationally and objectively. I knew I could just about keep up if I made the decision to.
6th April 2018
The mud got deeper and the hills longer, and I began to enter a new world of self-inflicted pain that I’d never yet experienced. To date, this is the hardest I’ve ever pushed myself. The descents saved me in terms of pace, as I threw myself down them with reckless exhaustion, paying no heed to the many spears of cut plant stems jutting aggressively up towards us. A few huge slides of loose earth at almost vertical gradient also helped – that was my domain.
By Checkpoint 3 I was in a state. I went into shock as I sat on the gravel, hyperventilating uncontrollably and close to tears. Kerry calmed me and slowed my breathing. The excitement of the race and pain of pure exhaustion was liberating. As I sat there slumped, a struggle between the desire to stop and the will to keep going filled my consciousness, in the most direct, clear form I’ve ever experienced it.
I can’t remember a whole lot of the next few hours. At this pace I couldn’t get down solid food – I chewed endlessly but was simply incapable of swallowing, even when mixed to a paste with water. Kerry saved me with half a litre of Tailwind powdered nutrition which I downed and felt a little strength return, though exhaustion and pain stayed put.We caught another couple of runners on the downhills – even now I was fastest when it came to the most technical stuff, and Kerry would put me in front. The lung-busting ups however became an exercise in pain management, but I kept with the group, knowing how good the end would be if I did; how disappointed I’d be with myself if I couldn’t.
As we came out onto a Lakeland-like open moorland of grassy bog and rain overhead, we caught a glimpse of Helen up ahead: the gravel tracks of the morning had suited her. Down in the valley on our right was a village: the finish line. Up a hill to the left, then across to the little track that ran down to the village. Kerry and the Spaniard with us, Tony, were speaking Spanish between themselves, him urging her to make me rest (so I later found out). I was oblivious to their conversation, more out of lack of presence than the fact I can’t speak Spanish. But Kerry had it in control, and as I went into shock once more at the top of the track down into the village, she set me to lean on her poles and calmed me. Then the three of us ran the final descent into the village.
It was pitted and rain-washed, making the footing a little treacherous, but I felt strong, fuelled by a last-ditch adrenaline surge. Up a final ascent and between the flags. I was led away by the race medic, where I collapsed in a heap. Kerry forced me to eat before lying me down in a Fijian house. The top runners were already there, I think congratulatory and amused at my state in equal measure. I am so grateful to Kerry for keeping me with her and forcing me to push till the end: I owe her much from that day.
Despite my exhaustion, that finish was one of the happiest moments of my life, and even writing about it now, brings a surge of emotion. It was a turning point for me. More than anything, I had proven to myself that I could push myself beyond my limits, and, as cliché as it sounds, I made a vow to myself there and then to make that value a lifestyle, and ultimately, see just how far I can take it. From this modest experience of personal endurance and proof of self, for the first time I began to see the extremes of endurance and suffering we read about as tangible and even within my grasp – not a separate league altogether.
Soon we were on a truck amidst blaring music and a party atmosphere, led by the Spanish competitors - mostly their wives. I was so tired as to barely be able to sit up, and after a couple of questionable river crossings we transferred to a larger bus. Due to the cyclone and broken bridges we had to loop almost entirely around the island. Hours later we reached camp – an old hill fort on the south coast. A few of us set up in a side room and settled in for the night.
A test of mental grit on the rolling green hills of Stage 3
Stage 4 | An Endless Gravel Track
29km; 790m; 4.20hrs
We woke up to the Spanish cohort singing and dancing – spirits were very high. I’d been up all night with bouts of diarrhoea, but though my stomach was off, my morale was up and I felt positive. I lanced Kerry’s blisters, and then forced down a bowl of over-watery porridge (entirely self-inflicted) and honey.
On Mimi’s countdown we headed down from the fort onto the first length of yet more horrible gravel track. Unfortunately it filled almost the entirety of the day – an endless stream of rocky ascents and descents. I was beginning to realise that level ground doesn’t really exist in Fiji’s interior. Hoping to recover from yesterday and my diarrhoea I walked even the most runnable sections, third from last, quickly discarding the saplings I had cut to try as poles. I began to reel people in, staying with them at a gentle run on the downhills, before leaving them behind as I hiked hard on the ups, just as Kerry had taught me the day before. I liked this method of starting behind and picking people off – it’s very motivating.
The heat was up again, like we hadn’t had since the first stage, and everybody was suffering. At first it was just humidity, but the sun soon came out, bearing down on us for the remainder of the day. The route had very little shade. Views were spectacular though, and I felt positive as I greeted the front-runners returning from Checkpoint 2. By the time I got there I had settled into pace with Ingrid and Carsten, who I stuck with for most of the day. I lay in what was to be the only river of the stage for a few moments to cool off and eat, before we headed back up the hill the way we’d come.
After a few undulations the heat was really taking its toll. Every breath of wind would bring a tangible burst of strength and speed to our legs, only for the clouds of fatigue to return when it dropped moments later. We splashed through warm puddles and I pushed ahead to Checkpoint 3 for a couple of minutes rest before they arrived. Here I was doused in river water and my bottles were filled almost instantaneously by the wonderful support crew. Their laughter lifted me greatly.
We headed on together. I was feeling weak, but after some time we fell into a pace I could easily sustain and my energy began to return. I grew stronger and stronger until I was bouncing along the trails. We talked of the many ultras they’d both competed in, from the classic Marathon des Sables to all manner of other more obscure events. It was an extremely pleasant section, even in the heat, as we passed through herds of cattle and along tracks of hilly pinnacles and grass-lined descents. The views continued to impress, with the reaches of Fiji’s hilly interior laid bare before us as far as the eye could see. In the distance the sea came into view – we knew the finish was on the beach.
I left them just before the last checkpoint at the bottom of the final hill. Our pace along the tops had been too easy so far, and I wanted to push a little. I ran a section along the main road, with support from passing cars and houses alike, before turning down toward the sea. Feeling now really strong with a lot of excess energy, I sprinted the last half kilometre down the beach to the finish. A quick dip in the sea before a large beef, egg and bacon burger in a nearby restaurant with those
already there. It was a nice change from the porridge, rice and sardines of my race diet so far.
After the long bus rides of the two previous days an afternoon in camp with everyone was extremely welcome. It’s amazing how an experience like this brings you together, and once again it struck me just how happy I was. For the first time on the race I slept extremely well.
Stage 4 - the sun beats down on endless miles of gravel track
Stage 5 | Sigatoka Sand Dunes
16km; 212m; 1.45hrs
Throughout the night a thunderstorm raged around us. The threat of a second tropical cyclone – TC Keni – was very real. Despite a still dodgy stomach, I felt well rested when I woke. I ate very little not wanting to throw it all back up, and figuring that on such a short stage it wouldn’t matter too much. I drank a litre of water to get ahead on the inevitable dehydration, and we waited for the later 8.30am start. The FBC gave me a final interview and a group photo was taken. The energy was electric – a good number of Suva Marathon Club’s runners had joined us for this final stage and Mimi’s countdown couldn’t come too soon.
We went off possessed. The front guys virtually flew at close on 6-minute miles. Kerry and I began turning out a gentler 8.30 pace. Still not bad I thought, considering four days of Fijian mud and hills. I never looked back. Though I was certain I couldn’t sustain this, the crash never happened, and, if anything, I began to grow stronger. That feeling of new strength and fitness after four days of intense effort is a magnificent feeling – I felt on top of the world.
We hammered down the track to town, over a bridge and onto the sugar-cane railway. Kerry was struggling a little, and for once I was the stronger. My energy seemed endless and we began to overtake some of the fresh Fijian marathon runners – that felt good! I didn’t collect water at the 8km checkpoint, though Kerry paused briefly to drink from the supply directly. What had started as a fun run had become a give-it-everything all-out to the finish, and I loved it.
We turned into the dunes at 10km, immediately confronted by a vast wall of sand. These were the Sigatoka sand dunes – the same dunes famously used to train the legendary Fiji Rugby Sevens team. We pushed into the slope hard, hiking without break of effort, hands and feet, calves and lungs burning. It was two steps forward and one back as the sand gave way beneath us, over and over. Finally onto a ridgeline we ran through marram-like grasses, scratching at our legs. Here we caught Pedro, and before long were hiking up a massive double-summitted dune: somewhat of a moonscape. The drop-down to the beach was huge – scree running without the risk, and I gave it my all. Digging in my heels I turned my legs as fast as they would go, flying down in a moment of sheer ecstasy, and turning back to see Pedro diving into a full-body roll with a huge grin.
A good number of ups and downs followed, with a couple more flying descents, before we turned back into a coastal forest of rooted paths not dissimilar to those back at home. Kerry was still suffering and had got through half a litre of my water on top of her own.
One final dune and we emerged onto a beach of black sand and bindweed: the purple flowers poking up every few metres from a dense network of interwoven stems. Kerry began to gain strength, and now I was the one struggling. I’d eaten nothing, knowing it wouldn’t go down at that pace and had drunk less than half a litre. The sand was tough. It refused to stay firm, making running hard and walking harder. We vaulted debris, broke through the trailing tendrils and slogged against the heavy camber of the black sand.
7th April 2018
As we rounded the final headland, and the finish flags came into view. Even from the distance they must’ve seen us, and a cheer rose up. A final reserve of strength and we ran together along the surf line. A young girl joined us with an enormous Fijian flag and we turned toward the sea, where the finish flags stood, waist deep, about fifty metres from the shore. I dived in, thinking in my exhaustion that swimming might be faster than running at this point, before surfacing and re-joining Kerry to stride hand-in-hand to the finish. I cannot describe the feeling that moment brought.
After many congratulations, hugs, tears from Mimi, a half pack of soggy ginger biscuits, a litre of water and a couple of bottles of Fiji’s Vonu beer, we took interviews with the FBC and watched the finishers to follow. At the last we joined the final runner in, 30 strong, for one final finish. The elation was huge. For what it’s worth my final placing was 13thin a time of 20 hours exactly – better than I had ever hoped for.
Stage 5 and a final race to the finish on the sand dunes of Sigatoka
PART 3 | POST-RACE THOUGHTS
There is quite a low that comes post-race – I even remember discussing it with the other competitors. Having spent five days absorbed entirely in the present moment, thinking only of keeping the body in working condition and the challenge in hand, re-entry to the real-world is a bit of a shock to the system. Add to this the constant exposure to like-minded individuals with a common focus, and stepping away is really quite a come-down. Especially when, as it was in this case, stepping away involves going into hiding in a hotel room as a second tropical cyclone, TC Keni, tore through the already damaged island. I was stranded once again.
During those days I had a lot of time to analyse the race and relive the highs and lows in my mind. These are some of the main takeaways that I jotted down – dreaming of what it might take to actually be competitive in such an event:
1) I got stronger every day.
I really surprised myself at how well I recovered between stages, and I was fast enough to feel just a hint of the actual competition. The pull and excitement of it was huge, and gave me a huge drive of motivation to see what might be possible in the future. I know I can do better with more dedicated training, and a better pacing strategy across the stages.
2) I didn’t get sore.
After the first day my legs did cramp up a little, as one might expect from 35km of heat and dehydration. But from then on they felt relatively fine each day. It’s amazing how long you can keep going when you don’t give yourself an option, and I’m keen to try more consecutive days at a time to see how I can cope.
3) My feet were good the entire way through.
I’ve never been prone to blisters but I still find this remarkable – I didn’t develop a single blister or any form of bruising, despite the thin soles of the Inov8 X-Talon 200s I was running in (which performed outstandingly on all the mud). I wonder if my feet were so okay because of the amount of mud and technical up and down, as opposed to flat running, but there were plenty of rocky sections and gravel roads also (especially on day four), so I’m not entirely sure.
4) Technical terrain - and especially the downhills.
I could keep up with many of the front runners (although to be fair they were mostly ‘runners’ rather than technical specialists), and these were by far my fastest, strongest and most enjoyable parts of the race. That said, the mud was fairly forgiving, and it’ll likely need some serious training to apply this to rockier technical trail where foot placement needs to be more precise.
Compared to many of the other competitors, my uphill hiking was naturally strong, partly I think due to my stride length. But walking with Kerry showed me just how much stronger it could be, and how much of a weapon it can become in such a race. I feel this is definitely within my grasp.
2) Mental grit and pushing myself.
I showed a respectable resolve on Stage 3. I just need to work on regular replication and being able to do it reliably to that same level when alone, and without the draw of a finish line reception. It’s funny how what felt like my weakest on the start line became my strongest day by far. Whilst a large portion of this is credit to Kerry pulling me along, it just goes to show that such performances are always there if you’re willing to dig deep enough and accept that you never really have an excuse. You mustn’t let how you’re feeling at the start psyche you out – everything can change just a few kilometres in.
1) Feeding when really pushing.
I think this was partly due to the heat, but it became a real issue, and at times I could only eat sat in the rivers. I think for me it’s worth looking into powdered nutrition options to fuel faster efforts.
I have too little experience with the running proper, and it showed on the flat, level sections of road, especially in the later kilometres of each stage. This is the thing that would improve my competitiveness more than anything else: fast run sections are where the most time can be gained or lost.
3) Knowing how much I have left in the tank and how long I can redline.
On both Day 3 and 5 I was able to continue pushing way into when I thought I should have crashed. Day 3 especially shows that I can go hard for much longer than I thought. Only experience can help me with this.
Overall, I really surprised myself with my performance, and it’s given me a huge degree of confidence and motivation to really push my training for the next big event. Perhaps more importantly though, this was the first time I’d had a chance to fully immerse myself in the ultra-community, and it didn’t disappoint. The intensity of absolute engagement in the race, alongside like-minded others in such a focused environment, made me feel alive to a degree that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. I can genuinely say that the Lost Island Ultra was some of the happiest days of my life thus far.