One-man race

In a bid to en­joy the an­cient stat­ues of Easter Island in his own unique way, trail run­ner Dan Slater or­gan­ised a race around the coast­line of the small Pa­cific island, lo­cally known as Rapa Nui.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words Dan Slater Pho­tos Miguel Car­rasco

Trail run around Easter Island? Well, why not!

What I didn’t ex­pect was to be dressed in jeans and a fleece and have a 20kg duf­fle bag over my shoul­der, or for my route to take me through crowded San­ti­ago de Chile air­port, but the irony is lost on me as I weave through tourists and trol­leys to­wards the check-in counter. It looks de­serted, and I’m not flu­ent in Span­ish but I’m pretty sure that Cer­rado means ‘Closed’. This is not good.

Fast for­ward 22 hours and I’m stand­ing in the pre-dawn glow at Ahu Ta­hai, a cer­e­mo­nial plat­form just out­side Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui’s only town, await­ing suf­fi­cient light to start run­ning. I’m lucky to be here: with my worst fears re­alised and the air­line em­ploy­ees sin­gu­larly un­sym­pa­thetic, I’d only made my flight by de­mand­ing a board­ing pass and leav­ing my en­tire lug­gage be­hind. Stuff­ing my run­ning gear into my carry-on bag and my run­ning shoes onto my feet, I’d vir­tu­ally thrown my duf­fle at the ‘Left Lug­gage’ clerk and sprinted through se­cu­rity to the gate, one of the last to board the Boe­ing 787 Dream­liner to Easter Island. It was an in­aus­pi­cious start.

The co­ral eyes of the Moai glow men­ac­ingly from in­side its sil­hou­ette, the only sounds the crash­ing of the Pa­cific Ocean on the jagged shore­line and the jud­der­ing of my ner­vous left leg against the soft earth. It doesn’t look as though any­one else has turned up but, then again, no one else was in­vited. There’s only one sure way to win an ul­tra-marathon and it has noth­ing to do with strict train­ing regimes, nu­tri­tional plans or be­ing lucky on the day. The se­cret is to be the only en­trant, and that usu­ally means or­gan­is­ing the event your­self. Though it was un­likely that some ran­dom run­ning en­thu­si­ast would fly out and join me, I made it an in­vi­ta­tional just to be on the safe side.

As my watch ticks over to 8.30 and I judge it light enough to be­gin, I can hardly be­lieve that I am ac­tu­ally here. The whole thing seems so im­prob­a­ble, and yet all it took was book­ing a flight and get­ting into train­ing. The idea for the Nui Ul­tra Trail Run (NUTR) came to me late one night. I’d been given the op­por­tu­nity to visit Chile for work and had im­me­di­ately be­gun think­ing how I could jus­ti­fi­ably crow­bar in a side trip to Easter Island, long on my bucket list. On the cusp of sleep, it came to me – I’d run around the coast­line. It’s pos­si­ble no­body had ever done it be­fore; I mean, why would they? Sleep be­came im­pos­si­ble as my rest­less mind imag­ined all the pos­si­bil­i­ties and went on to plan minute lo­gis­ti­cal de­tails. It was ridicu­lous re­ally; I had no idea how far it was, for a start. Was it even pos­si­ble? The fur­thest I’d ever run be­fore was 50km.

I set off at a gen­tle jog. Come on legs, do your thing! The first part of the route is rel­a­tively flat and the weather good, some scat­tered cloud keep­ing the tem­per­a­ture com­fort­able. As long as I keep the sea on my left I can’t re­ally get lost, and I soon settle into a rhythm and be­gin to en­joy my­self. Al­though this is the only part of the coast that is reg­u­larly walked by tourists, there isn’t much of a trail to fol­low, just lightly worn rocks and grass, and my en­joy­ment is marred slightly by con­di­tions un­der­foot. Be­ing a vol­canic island the ground is scat­tered with old lava, both boul­ders and smaller rocks hid­den in the long grass, and the reg­u­lar­ity with which I kick or skid over them is alarm­ing. Even forc­ing my­self to slow down and watch ev­ery step doesn’t pre­vent the fre­quent trips, and a cou­ple of times I end up crash­ing head­long to the deck.

For­tu­nately there isn’t an­other soul in sight to laugh at my clum­si­ness as few of the 6000-strong pop­u­la­tion live out­side Hanga Roa, and I’ve only a few iso­lated Moai for com­pany. Horses and cows roam the island freely but lupine, a plant orig­i­nally in­tro­duced to con­trol ero­sion, has proven sadly poi­sonous to the equine and bovine res­i­dents. Bleached, scat­tered bones are com­mon­place and a tragic num­ber of fresh and semirot­ted carcasses lit­ter my path as reach the north­ern­most point of the island and turn east.

After about two hours I reach Anakena, the only real sandy beach on the island, which I’d es­ti­mated to be about a quar­ter of the way around and ear­marked as a rest stop. My orig­i­nal plan had been to run un­sup­ported so I’d asked my ho­tel, Ex­plora, if they could help me drop off some wa­ter at three strate­gic points along the route. They were hav­ing none of it, how­ever,

I’m run­ning hard, legs pump­ing, sweat bead­ing on my fore­head. I ex­pected this; after all, I’ve trav­elled half­way around the world for a trail run.

and in­sisted on send­ing a staff mem­ber to meet me at each lo­ca­tion with ba­nanas and chilled min­eral wa­ter. It seemed rude to refuse. In fact, after the de­ba­cle with my lug­gage, the team at Ex­plora rose to my needs with gusto, lend­ing me ev­ery­thing I’d left be­hind in my rush, from a head torch to strap­ping tape to the ex­act model of Julbo sun­glasses I was miss­ing. From a state of near panic on ar­rival they got me calm, col­lected and able to fo­cus solely on my goal.

The morn­ing after I came up with the NUTR I checked some ba­sic facts – the circumference of the island was about 70km and I could find no ref­er­ence to any­one hav­ing run it be­fore. Could I re­ally com­plete a world first? No. One of my spoil­sport run­ning friends dis­cov­ered one Susie Stephen, who had the ex­act same idea two years pre­vi­ously. Susie had found ref­er­ence to the Ara Mahiva, an an­cient walk­ing track around Rapa Nui’s coast­line, and de­cided to run it as part of a larger project she was un­der­tak­ing fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Kather­ine Rout­ledge, an English ar­chae­ol­o­gist who ini­ti­ated the first real sur­vey of Easter Island’s trea­sures.

Ini­tially I was a tad dis­ap­pointed that my thun­der had been so swiftly stolen, but I came to re­alise that Susie’s ex­pe­ri­ence would be very use­ful to my own plan­ning and I made con­tact with her. While know­ing the sta­tis­tics for her run proved that it was pos­si­ble, I had no other yard­stick against which to mea­sure her per­for­mance. Was she a wannabe run blog­ger or a to­tal trail weapon? Also, I could find no other ref­er­ences on­line to the Ara Mahiva and I just had to trust that she hadn’t made it up. On the other hand, I was wor­ried that run­ning the Ara Mahiva would turn out to be a reg­u­lar event on Rapa Nui. I half-ex­pected the first is­lan­der I met to say “Oh yeah, the Ara Mahiva marathon was a cou­ple of weeks ago. Young Riu Tu­rakiu broke the five-hour bar­rier!” As it was, all I got were blank stares and “The Ara Ma-who-va?”

I’m feel­ing pretty good as I re­sume run­ning from Anakena. The re­main­der of the north coast is quiet save the pound­ing waves, the screech of dis­turbed fal­cons and the reg­u­lar burst of ex­ple­tives as I skate over an­other lump of lava. Rapa Nui is roughly tri­an­gu­lar with a vol­cano at each cor­ner, the largest of which, Tere­vaka, I’ve con­toured al­ready. The first real chal­lenge is Poike, which con­sti­tutes the east­ern nub of the island. As I gain al­ti­tude, ma­jes­tic cliffs rise to my left, bro­ken by gul­lies, and I steer away from the ab­so­lute edge which of­ten looks like it could give way at any mo­ment.

In stark con­trast to the rest of the island, the Poike Penin­sula is a red desert, a bak­ing Mar­tian land­scape de­void of life and rut­ted by nu­mer­ous ravines. Susie had be­come dis­tracted near here and strayed in­land, in­ad­ver­tently cut­ting off the east­ern­most point, and I’m de­ter­mined not to make the same mis­take. As I round the grassy cliffs I’m treated to an amaz­ing view of the en­tire south coast abut­ting an end­less blue ocean, and for the first time the true iso­la­tion of Rapa Nui, five hours flight from any­where, is fully ap­par­ent. The next vol­cano, Rano Kau, is just about vis­i­ble through the haze and, my God, it looks a long way away.

I’ve been run­ning for over five hours by the time I reach the half­way point at Ahu Ton­gariki, one of the big­gest cer­e­mo­nial sites and home to 15 stand­ing Moai. I’m track­ing slightly slower than I’d hoped but feel good none­the­less; I’m still ahead of the pack, after all! Al­though the fa­mous mono­lithic stat­ues were still stand­ing when Euro­peans first ar­rived on the scene in 1722, most were top­pled dur­ing later civil con­flicts and re­mained so un­til re­stored by ar­chae­ol­o­gists last cen­tury. In fact, al­most half of the stat­ues still lie in and around the quarry where they were carved from vol­canic tuff be­tween 1250 and 1500, and con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief they all have bod­ies at­tached to their heads.

I’m treated to an amaz­ing view of the south coast abut­ting an end­less blue ocean.

Right Now into the home straight, Dan skirts the beau­ti­ful marshy crater of Rano Kau.

Below Ahu Ton­gariki from the sea.

He wouldn't be smil­ing if he knew how much longer it was go­ing to take!

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