OFF THE GRID

MADA­GAS­CAR ISN’T JUST A PARADISIACAL PLAY­GROUND FOR TRAIL RUN­NERS. RUN­NING HERE RE­TURNS YOU TO THE SIM­PLE LIFE, FORC­ING YOU TO CON­NECT WITH YOUR EX­PE­RI­ENCE – AND THE PEO­PLE YOU SHARE IT WITH – IN A MEAN­ING­FUL WAY.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - BY LISA ABDELLAH

Mada­gas­car is a trail run­ner’s par­adise… and a wel­come re­turn to the sim­ple life. BY LISA ABDELLAH

AAn orange glow sig­nals the start of a new day, be­yond a wa­ter­fall spilling over the edge of the plateau. We’re a few kilo­me­tres from the near­est vil­lage, Anivo­rano, and yet I can see noth­ing but tall grass stretch­ing for kilo­me­tres around.

I doubt many peo­ple have come this way be­fore.

Thirty trail run­ners – who up un­til last night had never met be­fore – are sleep­ing in a row of army-green tents. A red and green ban­ner marks the start of the Ul­tra Trail Mada­gas­car: a six-day, 150km stage race in one of the most re­mote re­gions of the world’s fourth-largest is­land.

We’ve all trav­elled a long way. I flew from Cape Town to the cap­i­tal, An­tana­narivo. Then, from the win­dow of a do­mes­tic flight to Diego Suarez, I be­gan to un­der­stand how enor­mous Mada­gas­car is. It was like fly­ing over the moon: a des­o­late land­scape sprawled be­tween the city in the cen­tre and the far north, where noth­ing grows or lives.

A three- hour drive in a 4x4 fol­lowed, from Diego Suarez to the first camp – and with it, my first taste of the ‘roads’ in ru­ral Mada­gas­car.

Last night we were shown to our tents, and meat and white rice were la­dled onto tin plates. When the run­ners sat down to eat, their hu­man sto­ries be­gan to emerge.

South African trail-run­ning power cou­ple Chris­ti­aan and Landie Greyling have made a ca­reer out of com­pet­ing in en­durance races all over the world.

Dan Betts (44) is a bearded high-school chem­istry teacher, orig­i­nally from the US but who re­cently moved to Zam­bia. Dur­ing the late 90s, Dan served in the Peace Corps in Thai­land, where he be­came com­fort­able with be­ing un­com­fort­able. Cock­roaches were par for the course, and he once sin­gle-hand­edly re­moved a nest of rats from un­der­neath his bed. It was there he par­tic­i­pated in the Black Marathon, a 12-hour overnight run.

Isabella De La Hous­saye (53), from New Jersey, rented a hy­brid bike in the UK and cy­cled the 1 000 miles (1 600km) from Land’s

“IT WAS LIKE FLY­ING OVER THE MOON...”

End to John O’Groats – she com­pleted her 13day trip just six days be­fore the start of Ul­tra Trail Mada­gas­car. This trip was a grad­u­a­tion present for her son, Ca­son Crane, who in his short 24-year ex­is­tence has al­ready run the World’s Tough­est Mud­der, climbed the Seven Sum­mits, and fin­ished four Iron­mans.

Then there is Ar­gen­tinian Se­bas­tian Ar­me­nault. He started a char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion, One Mile One Smile, and pledged to run more than 2 500km of some of the world’s most chal­leng­ing races. Ar­me­nault usu­ally comes close to last, but his spon­sors do­nate far more to schools, hos­pi­tals and the el­derly than race win­ners re­ceive in prize money.

Mala­gasy run­ner Revelinot Ra­heri­nan­drasana has only one arm, and placed 10th in the men’s 1 500m in the Par­a­lympic Games in Rio. Sadly, sports aren’t a pri­or­ity in Mada­gas­car: Revelinot re­ceived no fan­fare upon his re­turn, and sim­ply went back to his job wash­ing laun­dry with his wife in a poor part of the cap­i­tal.

An­other Mala­gasy ath­lete is Zephirin Zi­mazava, who is blind. Last year, he only fin­ished the first stage of the race; this year, he will com­plete all six.

The camp i s as com­fort­able as it can be, con­sid­er­ing the re­straints. Last night I slept on a real mat­tress. There are bush toi­lets dug into the ground, show­ers con­nected to tanks of fresh wa­ter, and although meal times are an eat-whatyou’re-given af­fair, the food is tasty.

Still, it’s far from fives­tar lux­ury. Par­tic­i­pants who have trav­elled here from other coun­tries have paid good money to come on a trail­run­ning hol­i­day de­void of home com­forts and modern tech­nol­ogy. Over the next six days, I will hike, run, and drive along the route with a team of pho­tog­ra­phers and videog­ra­phers, hop­ing to find out why.

Leave Your Cell­phone at Home Without dis­trac­tions, par tic­i­pants in the Ul­tra Trail Mada­gas­car form strong bonds.

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