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.
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!