In early February I received a Facebook message in broken english from Yannick asking if I would like to take part in an Xterra he was organizing on the reunion Islands in April. I was thankful for his offer but embarrassingly had no idea where the Reunion Islands were. Before responding I did a quick search online and stumbled across some of the most beautiful images I had ever seen. I was hooked and determined to get myself to this start line. The dates worked out favorably and soon I had confirmed my entry and would be on my way to a new race venue.
The Xterra Reunion race organizers went above and beyond to ensure a truly phenomenal racing experience for both the professional and age group fields. The course was a perfect combination of all that is Xterra, white sandy beaches with crystal clear ocean water for the swim, hard climbing and fun, technical descending on the mountain bike and a fast scenic run with a couple of river crossings to end with. I was in my element and couldn’t wait for race day. Fellow South Africans Theo Blignaut and Carla Van Huysteen had also made the short trip across to the Reunion Islands and it was great sharing the weeks build up with them, this would be Theo’s first international Xterra so it was fantastic to feed off of his excitement and guide him where I could.
The Reunion Islands might just be the most beautiful place I have ever visited, the weather is warm and slightly humid but the ocean is never far away to cool off when needed. The island has a high point of over 3000m in elevation but is just 200km in circumference resulting in steep mountains shooting up from the ocean shoreline. Being the tip of a volcano the terrain is very harsh with lots of lava rock, which looks beautiful, but is not your friend when trying to ride a bike over it. Thankfully the course only had a few sections of this and for the large majority it was free flowing and fast racing.
As usual race day arrived quickly and soon we were swimming out to the start bouy looking across the flat lagoon and waves crashing into the reef in the distance, the only thing separating us from the open ocean. This is a very important piece of info as the waters surrounding the Island is home to hundreds of sharks, Bull sharks to be specific making it an incredibly dangerous place to swim. Thankfully the lagoon in which we raced is inaccessible to any sharks so we felt very safe.
I usually don’t pay much attention to the start list before a race but this race was different. We very seldom see ITU athletes on the start line of an Xterra as the two sports are in essence very different and require a very different set of skills. ITU star David Hauss is lucky enough to call Reunion Islands home and during the build up there was word that he may be racing. I was unconvinced as racing on mountain bikes is dangerous and something most ITU athletes avoid in case of injury, besides Richard Murray of course! To David’s credit he opted to support this local event, which was a welcomed surprise, and I was very excited to be racing against him. Traditionally ITU athletes are extremely good swimmers and runners but their biking is normally what lets them down, this was our only real hope in beating David as he would no doubt have the fastest swim and run splits.
David and Theo took a flyer from the start which saw me on the back foot as I didn’t understand the French count down, we went from chatting casually to a flat out sprint. Either way I knew I couldn’t match the pace of David’s early surge and I was happy to settle into 3rd and 4th with another French athlete Francois Carloni. We worked well together and after the first lap had roughly lost about 30sec, Theo was unable to stay with David and he was slowly coming back to us. I knew the bike started with about 4km of flat, mainly tar road riding so if the three of us could work together in the early stages of the bike we should catch David quickly. Thankfully this is exactly how it worked out Theo, Francois and I exited the water together and got a 1:30 split back from David.
On the longer straights we could see David and it was clear that we were closing quickly. Unfortunately Theo was struggling and was unable to help on the flats but Carloni and I shared the work and once the first climb started we went clear of Theo and bridged up to David. I was struggling to hold Carloni’s wheel at this point as he was making the best of his hardtail with constant surges out of the saddle. David hung tough for a few hundred meters but soon he dropped off and it was just myself and Carloni left up front. Carloni’s early enthusiasm faded and I took control for the remainder of the climb. We worked exceptionally well together and although the communication was limited we both knew what needed to be done. I was a little better technically so I lead on most of the single-track sections and he took control on the climbs. Unfortunately the only problem with leading a race is that you get no splits back to the chasers, however I knew we were doing damage as we kept each other very honest. It was really an awesome experience racing with such a strong positive athlete wanting to take advantage of every meter of the course.
Soon we reached the high point of the course and with just one long technical rocky single track descent back down into transition I knew I had to enter the trail ahead of Carloni as I believed I could definitely open up a gap before we started the run. I finished my bottle of OSMO Active hydration and went to the front. Carloni took me by surprise and sprinted past me to enter the trail first, clearly he had the same idea. I was angry that I hadn’t paid closer attention, as passing would be next to impossible especially at the speeds we were going. I didn’t have much time to sit and ponder on this mistake as soon I made another much more costly one. On the steepest most technical section of the course I chose a terrible line and went over my bars almost immediately. The crash was hard and shook me more than I was willing to admit. Thankfully my bike was not damaged but my shin was bleeding rather badly and my left elbow, which took the hardest impact, was extremely painful and I was struggling to grip my handlebars. Not my finest moment after a near flawless race up until this point. I took a second to refocus and just try and find a smooth rhythm again. The trail switches back on itself many times and although I couldn’t see the Frenchman I could hear him which gave me confidence that I was slowly gaining time on him. Eventually I got a visual on him and once I closed the gap completely I decided to just rest and leave it to a foot race as trying to pass him now would be dangerous and an unnecessary risk. With only a few hundred meters of trail left I hit a rock at a bad angle and my heart sunk as I heard that terrible sound of air leaking from a cut in my rear tyre. I could hear the sealant doing its job but I lost a lot of pressure in my rear tyre and the final few tar road corners were so sketchy. My prayers were answered and the tyre held through until transition.
Carloni exited T2 a few meters ahead of me but chose a poor line across the rocks and soon I was leading. His body language had change dramatically and I could see he was now struggling after all the work on the bike. Surprisingly I felt great and decided to hammer it while the legs were still there. The opening few kilometers were a mixture of sand, rock and cliff side trails all very flat and fast, which I really enjoyed. Eventually the course cut back on itself and I could see that Carloni was no longer a threat and I settled into a steadier pace. The rest of the run flew by and soon I had dropped back down to the shoreline and had just 1.5km of beach running to the finish. It was a stunning day and the ocean was flat with many families and friends out on the beach making the most of the beautiful weather. Besides dodging the odd topless woman (most of them were) out tanning it was a very easy run home and I made sure to enjoy each step, don’t think I have ever been clapped home by beautiful topless French woman before but I wasn’t complaining, a rather surreal experience to say the least. Unsurprisingly this has now become my favourite race location!
As with the friendly culture we had experienced all week I was welcomed across the line to applause and many friendly faces all wanting to hear the story of my race. I could not be more grateful to everyone involved and I will most definitely be back to this Island in paradise.
A special word of thanks to David Hauss for stepping out of his comfort zone and joining us in the dirt, David finished in 4th after completely losing his cranks after a crash. A very brave effort and as expected he had the fastest swim and run of the day. I hope to see him back on the start line next year.