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Kelsey Hogan : Ten Thoughts on the Diagonale des Fous 2022

A post-race story by Kelsey Hogan

I was fortunate to participate in the 30th anniversary of the Grand Raid Reunion’s Diagonale des Fous, thanks to a partnership between Quebec Mega Trail and Grand Raid. Thank you to both organizing committees for the opportunity to take part in this epic adventure. I’m already dreaming about how/when to come back and tackle it again!

Below are a collection of thoughts, in no particular order, on my experience at this year’s Diagonale des Fous.

(1) “Diagonale des Fous” is the perfect name for this adventure. More than just an ultramarathon “run”, the 165.7km course involves steep ascents up rocky climbs, tricky descents along steep steps, bouldering rock walls using hands and feet, and lots of wild ups and downs over ladders, mud, rocks, roots, and stream crossings. It traverses varied and challenging terrain, and it is unrunnable in so many sections. The race earns its name as the Diagonal of Fools…and the challenge made it much more fun!

(2) The Grand Raid is an event steeped in history and stories. The event was first held in 1989 and this year was its 30th anniversary. I heard stories from runners returning for their second, fifth, or tenth time. Similarly, many of the organizers and volunteers return each year to support the race and take a lot of pride in the course. Everyone on the island seems to know about the race or know a friend or family member who has run the Diagonale (or one of its sister races, the 109km Trail de Bourbon, 72km Mascareignes, or 148km Zembrocal Trail Relay).

(3) It’s inspiring to see so many runners of different ages and abilities running in this event. From the incredible Courtney Dauwaulter and a talented elite field to courageous finishers taking up to 66 hours, choosing to start this race is an accomplishment for so many people. This year there were runners aged 20 to 78 years old, 340 women, and 40 countries (including 16 Canadians). This sport can be more inclusive, but it was to see this race welcome people of so many different ages, backgrounds, and abilities.

(4) 10,210m is a lot of climbing! A lot of the climbing is on big rocky steps carved into the mountains. The steps are often knee height (if you have little legs) and sometimes you’re climbing over giant boulders. It’s challenging and fun. I needed to remind my legs and feet to just keep moving. Sometimes they wanted to rest, but they let me keep going because each step brought us closer to an aid station and to the finish line.

(5) The scenery is breathtaking and beautiful. The course takes you through incredible landscapes — the ascent up the Piton des Fournaise volcano, the Cirques de Cilaos, and views of mountain ranges through Mafate. The views along the ridges are spectacular. Even the night sections are stunning — the night skies twinkle and your headlamp illuminates unique biodiversity along the trails (like white calla lilies and giant stands of bamboo trees).

(6) Réunionnaise are lovely people. The entire race is a celebration. It began with a warm welcome at the airport with music, dancing, and hot coffee (much appreciated after our 36+hour journey from Canada), continued with pillars of fire lining the start of the race, and ended with an epic award ceremony with DJs and fireworks. There were thousands of Réunionnaise out hiking, watching the race, and cheering on runners at aid stations. They shared food, music, and great energy. Little kids lined up along the trails for high-fives and every single person cheered passing runners with calls of “bonne courage” and “bravo”.

(7) It’s a race filled with extremes. Temperatures ranged from 0°C at night in the mountains to 30°C+ during the heat of the day. Managing my body temperature was a big part of the race. I added and removed layers throughout the course and used streams to cool off during the day. The weather changed quickly (just like home in Newfoundland!), going from hot and sunny to rainy and cloudy. The elevation ranged from sea level to over 2000m and was almost always going either up or down.

(8) Je veux pratiquer mon français! The entire time we were on the island I didn’t hear another conversation in English and most of the race information was communicated only in French. It was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the French language and to practise my communication skills. I appreciated the patience from everyone who listened to me chat away with my limited vocabulary and poor grammar. Merci beaucoup!

(9) The organizers of this event are superhuman. I can’t imagine how much planning goes into the logistics for an event like this. There were four different races at the same time, thousands of runners, hundreds of volunteers, and aid stations throughout the island — including at locations only accessible by foot or helicopter. Congratulations and a big thank you to the members of the Grand Raid organization and all of the fabulous volunteers for their hard work.

(10) The race lives up to the reputation as one of the toughest ultras in the world. So much of the course is unrunnable and at times it felt like a long power hike / obstacle course / adventure race with some running here and there. I worked hard to stay focused because every step required my full attention. The terrain was filled with never ending climbs and descents, sections of bouldering, stream crossings, and ankle-rolling rocky trails. It’s a truly epic challenge!!! Somehow, that makes me love it even more. I’m already dreaming about how/when to come back.

Kelsey Hogan
Canadian Ultramarathon Athlete

Thank you so much to the race organizers of the Grand Raid, the volunteers and medical team at the event, the other runners for their spirit and kindness, my race crew (Adam, Mom and Dad) for their support during the race, the wonderful people of Réunion, and the other runners who took on this challenge with courage and kindness. A special thank you to the Quebec Mega Trail team for supporting my entry into this event, and to the friends and family from the Canadian trail running community who cheered me on along the way. Merci beaucoup à tous!