- Kerry Sutton
Lost Island Ultra, Fiji
Here I sit looking out over the Fijian sea to a sun kissed island in the distance. The weather today much more representative of what I had in my mind
When I booked my flights to the Lost Island Ultra last year. As with many places around the world the Fijian island has been battered by rather unseasonal weather in the last 10 days. The first cyclone killed 4 people and the second whipped itself into a category 3 and caused severed disruption to businesses and homes, flattening them and causing a lot of flooding. Cyclones and heavy bouts of rain are not uncommon at this time of the year but to have two in such quick succession is very unusual.
The first of the two cyclones – Josie – hit just hours after I landed, saturating the Island, washing away bridges and ruining vegetation. The hotel boarded up windows and closed all the shutters around the restaurants protecting us from natures frenzy outside.
Over the next day or two, runners from around the world did their best to arrive onto the small island, many having endured flight cancellations and delays due to the severe weather. Many were still stuck and the difficult decision was taken to delay the race start by a day. The original plan had been to pick us up at 12 noon Monday and take us to the first camp for briefings and kit checks ahead of race start at 7am on Tuesday. This was pushed back by 24 hours. We wouldn’t miss any days of racing as the plan was to reduce the time allowed on the long stage so we could still get 5 days of running.
Time wasn’t wasted as those of us who were at the hotel were able to chat and share pervious race stories. We could get to know support staff and bond over a beer. We also needed to pay a visit to the local supermarket and buy supplies for the following 5 days. Fiji has strict import rules and as such we were unable to bring onto the Island meat, dairy or nuts of any sort. So normal race protocol of fuelling yourself on freeze-dried food was thwarted and instead Wes, the race director, provided a food package of rice and pasta for the evening meal and porridge and honey for the morning. There would always be boiling water available to all runners. I decided to supplement my evening meal of rice with tinned tuna for the protein and soy sauce to make the rice more palatable. I bought peaches to add to my oats. I had manage to find a vegetable protein powder in the UK so I new I had that base covered as a drink.
Whilst out on the course my race nutrition was covered in the form of Tailwind. A carbohydrate and electrolyte powder I put in to my water both before I set off in the morning and then added to my water refills during the day. I aimed for around 1,000 calories a day. I also had Shot blocks in my pack for a quick hit should I feel I need and Power bars and Chia bars as I went. I found that the heat on day one rendered both the bars mush and didn’t have the heart to eat more than one of them. The Tailwind was all I relied on to fuel me as I ran. It was easy to drink, tasted fine and I never got tired of it despite the quantity I had to drink.
Each bottle gave me 200cal, so I knew I was well fuelled each hour for what I was putting my body through. I did dip into the Shot blocks as back up after the intense forested and muddy vertical section to give me a boost. They are always easy to eat, requiring little chewing and don’t go dry in my mouth. I was surprised by how much I drank. I consumed volumes and volumes of water. I took 4 x 500ml water bottles with me each day in collapsible flasks. On the very hot sections I would easily get through those between checkpoints, which were around 8 – 15km apart. At a number of check-points I was also drinking straight from the aid station’s refill bottle to add more liquid to my parched body. Gulping down the water and then tipping it over my body in an attempt to bring down my core temperature was a relief!
The passing of Cyclone Josie prior to the race left the trail impassable in parts and muddier than a buffaloes wallowing hole and parts of it became inaccessible by medical teams due to washed away bridges. This meant the safety of the runners was potentially compromised so diversions had to be set up. The organisers had a full time job recalculating routes and subsequently remarking them. It meant we all had to be very versatile and accommodating.
The general pattern of these multi-stage races is that you get out early, packing up camp, running the designated course and then reach your next camp sometime that afternoon depending on your speed over the terrain. You then feed yourself, change, deal with any issues you may have like blisters and then you rest. You try to elevate your legs as much as possible so that you are rested and ready to run the next day. We managed to do this on only two of the stages such were the route changes required. After two of the stages we were herded in to a large lorry and driven half way around the island for 5 hours to reach our over night camp. It was also difficult for runners because the next day’s distances and courses were constantly changing. Not through anyone’s fault but it meant you could never quite be sure of what was happening next. As I say versatility was the name of the game!
Fiji, I have decided, is a land of few flat bits! It felt like I was forever powering up or flying down gradients. This was particularly fun in the forested areas where the mud was deep and the terrain uneven and technical. I revel in the technicality of it. Stepping on what you thought was solid ground only to fall in to a deep hole which sucked your shoe right off your foot, muddy water splattered up into your face as you landed in a particularly large puddle, weedy tendrils caught around your ankle as you lurched forward hoping you had the strength in your stride to break it before it sent you crashing to the ground. When this was combined with a welcome down pour, as it did on the second day, I really couldn’t have been more in my element! It was incredibly tough on the legs, sapping every last drop of energy but the fun factor rated really high. By contrast the road sections under the intense Fijian heat where no shade could be found were merciless.
The constant up and down of the stony track broken up by the sight of a random cow or skinny horse tethered through its nose by a rope to a stake, or a small home where the sound of a cheerful ‘Bula’ emanated from within as you passed. These sections tested my resolve, sending my RPE through the roof and requiring me to dig really deep. I knew too, that this was where my competitors might gain the edge on me! Here was I, a Brit who has been training in a cold, snowy England who is totally unaccustomed to the 90% humidity and 30 degree heat. The two girls behind me had come from Southern hemisphere summers. They were more than used to this type of drain on their body. And seemed to cope with the heat with ease. It was during these sections that rivers were a saving grace. I’d venture to say the only reason some of the competitors were able to finish various sections of the course. The rivers played a particularly important part on day 1 when the sun was relentless, shade very, very sparse but luckily the rivers were frequent. I allowed myself to dip down in to the cold water where it was deep enough. Where it wasn’t I splashed water all over my body as I went through. Other competitors spent several minutes languishing in the cool waters. I will smile now when I go for a run back in Blighty and I am skipping over a muddy puddle. Not so in Fiji. Here I ran up to them with anticipation and excitement, running through it would mean a chance to cool my feet as the water seeped through my trainers and I would find the water refreshing as it splashed the mud up my legs!
The trails we ran on were a mix of dense jungle, high sugar cane and open farm land where the views stretched for miles until interrupted by an impeding rain cloud over high ground. On the more open land we passed through isolated villages or homes from where the customary greeting ‘Bula’ could be heard from within its confines and the children would run out waving. Fijians ooze warmth and joy and it was such a motivating force passing these lovely people and lapping up their charismatic ways. A couple of particularly memorable examples of this were at one particular check point on day two when after a particularly sapping section of trail it opened up in to a village. Here under a shelter was a check point offering water and rest for those who wanted it. ‘The Spanish’ girls had set up camp along with a number of local children and women. The reception here was second to none as they welcomed the runners in with a rhythm metered out on a tin can with two sticks and accompanied by clapping and singing from the kids. The energy and fun coming from this check point couldn’t fail to lift any flagging soul! The beauty of this particular check point was that we had the benefit of running past it a second time as we returned along an ‘out and back’ from viewing one of Fijis jewels, a stunning waterfall, quite a magical spot. If only I had time to sit and wallow in its power and beauty but there was running to be done!
Running multi stage ultras for me always presents an interesting dichotomy. I want be competitive, push myself, challenge my limits and get the best out of myself. But on the other hand I choose these races because they are in locations I am keen to visit, savour and explore. The races are generally organised so that you are running trails in remote and ‘off the track’ locations which covers the ‘exploring part’. The ‘savouring’ comes from the self supporting nature of the events, the group dynamic, the camping, the fuelling, the interaction with the locals and the self management required on these ultras. It’s being aware of my surroundings and the scenery that becomes a bit more of a struggle. If I run pushing my limits, I find I am invariably more consumed with my immediate surroundings, that is to say my horizon closes in as I push and work hard. I miss the vistas, the beauty, and it’s hard to savour the passing countryside, or to sit for a moment and reflect in a lake.
There’s no time to stop and chat to the local herdsman sitting in the shade of a tree with his horse tethered next to him, as he watches runners dash past. I don’t want to miss all of this beauty and richness. So there is a balance to be struck. In this race I think I got it right. I ran within myself for the first two days. The terrain played to my strength and I used it to gain a good lead. I knew then that this would allow me to take my foot off the gas slightly the following day. I could run with a fellow runner, have a chat, savour the views, take it all in. The following day was another hilly one along with some of the dreaded track but I decided this was another day to push and be sure that I maintained a good lead so that on the last day I could once more savour the whole experience. So again under the scorching, sapping sun I pushed over the rolling tundra and kept my lead. The final day loomed – a short stage of just 15km. The initial 10km was felt very runnable along the muddy train tracks to the mighty sand dunes of southern Fiji and the finish line. Once again I was able to run with someone and enjoy the journey to the end of this epic race. George and I pushing each other at different stages to the two flags planted in the sea which signalled the end to a fun, challenging, beautiful, hard and uncompromising Lost Island Ultra.
I had factored in 3 days of R and R for myself before the long slog home of over 30 hrs. I was hoping for 3 days lounging in the sun enjoying sun downers but that wasn’t to be. Cyclone Keni advanced on Fiji within a day of the race ending. Businesses and homes battened down the hatches once again. In some cases quite literally I saw a house whose owners had quite literally strapped the roof down with cabling! The lovely hotel I was staying at went into lock down, all but a skeleton staff remained and no services were provided. Breakfast of a ham and cheese croissant was delivered in a brown paper bag the night before Keni made landfall. Everything was closed and we were told to stay in our rooms until further notice! Not such a bad thing for a recovering ultra runner, enforced time to put my feet up and do nothing…how often does that luxury happen?! It also gave me time to reflect on the past week, not only with regards what it meant to me and what I have achieved but about the fantastic support I had received from loved ones back home. I was humbled by the messages of support I read on my return to civilisation. The kind comments, and the number of people who had been keeping an eye on my progress, was wonderful. James supported me in so many thoughtful, caring ways from cards to be opened on tough days, to hugs to be delivered by Mimi before I set off on a stage.
The cyclone passed and the following day life was returning to normal. I ventured into the sun for 30mins and promptly burnt myself! As I said at the beginning, I am sitting here looking out to sea as I write this, due to leave this beautiful Isle in 2 hours.
Life is built on memories and challenges make you stronger. I am taking a heap of memories and I have definitely grown from this race. I am really pleased to win my first multi day event here in Fiji. I raced it as I wanted and in so doing was able to enjoy the whole experience.