Guadarun: 6-day, 150 km staged ultramarathon on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe
This was my second time running Guadarun “Marathon des Iles” – but this time I was here on the gorgeous Caribbean island chain to run it with my partner, Dave. The race is a six-day staged ultramarathon, unique in two ways. One is that each stage is on a different one of Guadeloupe’s islands – and each island is unique in terms of terrain, climate and culture. The other is that the distances for Guadarun are a bit shorter than for most six-day ultramarathons, a total of 150 km (as opposed to most others coming in at around 220 to 230 km). This makes it a much more accessible race for runners who are attempting the staged race format for their first time.
Dave and I had arrived in Guadeloupe a week before race start – a great chance for us to relax and enjoy ourselves in what truly is a tropical paradise: balmy climate, fun things to do, great Creole food (a mix of French and local flavours), and safe! It also helped us to acclimatize to the tropical conditions before racing. We chose to spend our whole week on the largest island, Basse-Terre, because of the steaming jungle-covered volcano there, offering lots of adventurous hikes for us to do.
After our week of adventure, we returned to the airport at the capital of Point-a-Pitre on March 3, 2013, to meet up with the group of racers and organizers. From there, we all headed out to catch a ferry to the rocky island of La Désirade, where we would camp on the beach for the night, and have a relaxing morning in the sun before running Stage 1 that afternoon.
Stage 1: 27 km, Island of La Désirade
This stage, starting at 3pm, was tough because of the heat – especially for the many racers who had only flown in from more northern climes the day before. We started near the west end of the island, in the main village of Beauséjour, and ran eastward along the coast on a paved road to the lighthouse as humpback whales spouted below us. After turning around at the lighthouse, we were on trails or beach for most of the rest of the route. A 300 m climb at the 12k mark took us to the top of the island, and we ran back along its spine, descending at the island’s west end back down to sea level to return to Beauséjour along the shore. A tough, but very beautiful first day!
Stage 2: 22 km, Island of Marie-Galante
Following our first day, running in the late afternoon, our second day was devoted to transport to Marie-Galante, a very yummy restaurant lunch, and setting up camp on a windy beach at the eastern top of the island (making sure to stay away from the coconut palms when setting up our tents). So Stage 2 actually took place on the third day of our event: 4:45am wake-up, 5:00am breakfast, and 7:30am race start.
A 500 m jog on pavement from the start led to the turnoff to the trails. Footing was tricky, as we ran through dry forest with copious leaf litter all over the forest floor, which obscured big ankle-twisting blocks of spiky limestone. Then we emerged on to the rocky coast, sometimes running on trails and sometimes having to use our hands to climb around the rugged limestone cliffs. Then we moved inland, running along dry tracks exposed to the burning sun, and finally to a final 3 km paved section back into town. Another challenging day… but again, the scenery was simply spectacular.
Stage 3: 15 km, Isle of Terre-Bas, Les-Saintes
Yesterday’s early stage meant that we could move to the isles of Les-Saintes that same afternoon. We camped on Terre-de-Haut for two nights, taking a short ferry ride the first morning to its twin isle of Terre-Bas for Stage 3. These islands are small, but very hilly. Both days’ routes were relatively short, at 15 km, but made up for that with the steepness of the hills, as we ran both along paved roads and on some very technical trails.
Today’s route started on pavement – a good uphill and a very long and steep paved descent – and then ended mostly on trails. There were a few in the group who were suffering from the previous days’ downhills, with sore quads or issues with their toes (from the descents, as well as feet swellling due to the heat). But another amazing Guadeloupian restaurant lunch awaited us – I had the octopus, and it was exquisite! – and soon our focus was on refueling, not our aches and pains, and on our next day’s adventure.
Stage 4: 15 km, Isle of Terre-de-Haut, Les-Saintes
Another short day, distance-wise, but with some steep climbs: two 100 m ascents and descents to start, then a long 300 m climb on pavement up to the island’s peak called Chameau, and a run back down and along the beach to the finish.
Although a few complained about wet feet, most of us were happy with the rain that fell today – a welcome break from the relentless tropical heat. Another very pretty route, with great views from the hilltops… but also with a growing sense of unease in the group, as we all knew that tomorrow’s route would bring us our greatest challenges: the steep jungly slopes of the island of Basse-Terre (where Dave and I had spent our first week hiking).
Stage 5: 21+ km, Island of Basse-Terre
Like many places in the tropics, Guadeloupe does not really have summer or winter. It just has a dry season and a wet season. This was supposed to be the dry season – but unseasonable rains meant that the muddy trails along the jungly flanks of La Soufriere Volcano, and the cloud forest along its crest, were even wetter than normal.
This was an incredibly tough route: a 900 m climb in slippery jungle mud over the first 7.5 km, then a 2 km scramble along the ridgeline, then an 1100 m descent, with nearly all of that elevation loss over the first 3 km of the descent. It is hard to explain just how wet and muddy it is there unless you have seen it – you would think that water should drain off the ridge crest, but there is just so much water constantly coming down from the clouds that the whole thing is just a vegetated mudfest, even at the very top.
The race leader, local Guadeloupian runner Jocelyn Martin, blew everyone away by covering those tough 21 km in just 2:35. (One of the runners who clocked the route on her GPS tells me that she recorded it as more like 24 km in length). Nine of today’s racers took over 6 hours to complete the route. Very tough going, and exhausting… but what a unique experience, and to me, one of the highlights of the whole event.
Stage 6: 28 km, Island of Grande-Terre.
The islands of Basse-Terre and Grande-Terre are connected by a narrow mangrovy isthmus – so we could actually drive to our next location rather than travelling by boat. And, what luxury – now staying in a hotel rather than camping! Just one more day of racing here, and then another night at the hotel for the post-race festivities!
I remember, from running this race in 2010, that this day (and not the jungle day) was the toughest for most of the runners. It is the longest route, at 28 km; most of it is in the hot sun, with no possibility of shade; and everyone is tired by now. This is the day where any mistakes in your body care or nutrition over the previous week will have you paying. And hydration (and electrolytes) over the whole final day would be key to making it to the end.
Nearly all of the route was off-road. In fact, much of it was off-trail – just running along coastal rockshelves of rough and spiky limestone. No tripping allowed! Today was also a bit tougher in terms of navigation, since we weren’t always on trails (on previous days, paint splotches or flagging marked the turnoffs). With no exact trails, we had to be especially vigilant in looking for markers – even more reason not to let yourself bonk.
Many racers did lose time today because of navigation mistakes – having to retrace their steps to find the route again. Dave and I had managed ourselves really well so far – I am not a fast runner by any means, but I do know how to pace myself on these long events. We were feeling strong right from the start, so were running with a faster group than usual, and we also made no navigation errors. There was one section where we had to follow a rock shelf right into the ocean, wading through thigh-deep water before emerging (when I ran this in 2010, the tide was higher – we actually had to swim a short distance!). In that climate, the chance to get wet was very welcome…
It was a very tough day for the last four runners, suffering from the heat and dehydration, who finished together, hand-in-hand, in 6:16. (In contrast, the three leaders all nailed this final stage in under 2:30!) Several runners were a bit battle-scarred from bloody encounters with the limestone and coral. But it was smiles all around at everyone’s sense of accomplishment, as we enjoyed another great meal provided at the finish line on the beach together, and got ready to head back to the hotel for a well deserved party!
Final results (cumulative time for all six stages):
The Guadeloupian men sure showed their stuff this year, taking the three top spots:
1. Jocelyn Martin, Guadeloupe, 11:13:35
2. Willy Vaitilingon, Guadeloupe, 11:55:12
3. Widy Grego, Guadeloupe, 11:57:35
1. Caroline Boisselle, Canada, 14:53:17
2. Magali Godoye, France, 16:28:53
3. Karine Fraisseix, France, 17:59:05
Dave and I finished in 21:34:17 – 39th overall, out of 53 – and feeling great! Dave could have run faster, but he stuck with me the whole way!
Like I said, this is an ideal race for runners who want to try out a multi-day format race – or for any runner who likes mixing tourism and sight-seeing with the running. The organizers are runners themselves, and they do an amazing job at designing a course that is interesting, scenic, challlenging, and extremely varied. This will be their 15th year running the race, too, so you can count on an experienced crew. (Oh, and did I mention, the food is amazing!)
This year’s event runs from April 19 to 27, 2014. Info at Guadarun. The race is conducted in French – but the Guadeloupian people are so incredibly nice that, if you don’t understand French, you will have no trouble finding someone to help you out.
Jacqueline Windh is a best-selling author, a slow but steady ultramarathonner, and the editor of this site.