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.