It’s a 13-hour flight to Mauritius from Heathrow, and I’ll be running 42 miles when I arrive, so the fact that the father-of-two in front of me is seven whiskies down and shouting demands to speak to the “commandant” of the aircraft isn’t ideal.
In an exercise in contrast, I was sitting on another plane a few months before, returning from Argentina, where I consumed servings of steak and malbec that would give Joey Chestnut indigestion.
Wanting a health reset, I registered for an ultramarathon endurance race at Beachcomber Shandrani, the first five-star resort to open on the island of Mauritius. But, to trot out that most time-worn Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” And this one started a few months before flying to Mauritius, in Greece, where I attended a luxury fitness retreat.
Daios Cove, Greece
I stand in front of a cryotherapy chamber at Daios Cove, a lavish all-inclusive resort on the caramel-coloured northeastern coast of Crete, stripped down to a notably dry swimsuit. If it were to be wet, it would freezer-burn the skin when the chamber plummets to a temperature of -87°C. I’m handed a surgical mask to protect my mouth, a pair of slides, thick woollen socks and gloves, a beanie and a wraparound ear-warmer headband with headphones.
“What song do you want to play?” asks George Fokas, the Wellness Coordinator at KĒPOS by Goco, the hotel’s spa. Fokas is a dietitian and former professional water polo player who competed for the Greek national team. He swims in the Aegean whenever he has the opportunity. He makes me feel a bit dilapidated when I stand next to him. Oh right, the song. Obviously, the song has to be the Beastie Boys; Sabotage.
I’m a wee bit nervous before stepping into the chamber, which glows an ominous shade of indigo. Breathing deeply, I shift my weight from foot to foot while the fan activates and the temperature plunges. Trenchant cold sinks in, colder than a high arctic winter. Beard and body hair bleach white with frozen condensation. I pant through the mask and squeeze my hands into fists. Just when I’m on the cusp of pressing the red stop button, the fan cuts out. The door opens with the same dry-ice effect as an airlock in a science-fiction film.
Cryotherapy is thought to have anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects that enhance muscle recovery and reduce pain and inflammation. In the days before, I’d incurred a bad case of delayed onset muscle soreness by jumping into a HIIT class not long after a mountain run along old Minoan pathways. The tenderness has dissipated. If I had a film or sports star’s bank account, I might do this more often.
The door opens with the same dry-ice effect as an airlock in a science-fiction film
Fokas takes me through a battery of treatments aimed to get the body firing on all cylinders. I’m hooked up to an IV drip and given a vitamin infusion. My body temperature is dialled up in an infrared sauna. During a cryo-energising treatment, I’m massaged with an icy wand touted to have toning effects. In a pressurised barometric chamber, my bloodstream is flooded with oxygen. However, nothing is as useful as the exhaustive PNOĒ Biometrics Assessment, which measures everything from one’s state of metabolism and cardiovascular fitness to body composition and cellular wellbeing analysis.
Fokas seems a little disappointed when I tell him how much I had to eat and drink the night before. Attempting to stay whistle clean at Daios Cove feels a bit like Tantalus under the fruit tree. The Greek cuisine at Daios Cove’s Taverna restaurant is more or less irresistible, while cocktails at the hotel are handled by Athens bar The Clumsies, a regular fixture on The World’s 50 Best Bars. Apparently, overindulging the evening before the test can skew the results. Oops.
With two lasers on either side of me, I rotate on a little circular plinth while they take a three-dimensional scan of my body to check its measurements and composition, which are in good order. Fokas outfits me with a chest-strap heart-rate monitor and oxygen mask, and takes measurements both while at rest and when pushing to failure on a treadmill in order to analyse my metabolic function. The results are… mixed.
While my lung and cardiovascular fitness are in decent nick, it seems that my fat-burning efficiency is not very good. My metabolism has limitations both when active and when at rest. Fat burning is essential for ultramarathon runners and endurance athletes, because when exercising for long periods of time, one eventually taps out all of the carbohydrates and glycogen in the system, and needs to rely on other sources of energy: specifically, fat.
In order to best prepare for the upcoming ultramarathon in Mauritius, Fokas recommends introducing more strength training, interval training, and especially Zone 2 training: slow, relatively easy exercise where your heart rate is at 60-70% of your maximum capacity and you can easily hold a conversation. This will help to improve the function of muscle mitochondria, essentially instructing them to feed off fat stores. To get a more accurate read I invest in a Polar chest strap monitor upon my return to London, and concentrate on logging longer yet less demanding workouts. It seems to work. A few months later, with all of this under my belt, I head to Heathrow Terminal 4. What could go wrong?
Beachcomber Shandrani - Mauritius
We’re delayed getting off when the flight touches down in Mauritius as two police officers arrive to escort the unruly dad off the aircraft. Beachcomber Shandrani Resort is just a ten-minute transfer away, on the southeastern side of the island. Situated on a private peninsula, the hotel is extensive, spread across 140 acres of powdery blond beach, mango trees and mangroves and centred around a massive pyramidal thatched-roof reception lobby. The property sits on the Blue Bay Conservation Area, above which looms the lumpy, leonine peak of Piton Marron.
On an activation run to pave the way for the longer race, I stop to take a shameful middle-aged beach selfie and meet Dorit Löffler, who offers to take the photo. Dorit is a veteran ultra trail runner and a flight attendant for Austrian Airlines. During layovers, she jogs across all corners of the globe, from Bangkok to Bucharest, and races ultramarathons regularly. She’s here with her fiancé Tom Rottenberg, a prominent Austrian running journalist and author, the only other writer covering the event.
As it turns out, endurance fitness at luxury hotels is a growth market. The Pangkor Laut resort in Malaysia runs Chapman’s Challenge, a jungle triathlon paying homage to British Colonel Spencer Chapman’s escape from a Japanese internment camp. Five-star Zafiro Palace Alcudia in Spain sponsors and runs a 70-mile triathlon. Rottenberg mentions that hotels often host these races to book out rooms during the quieter shoulder seasons.
And then there’s the Highland Kings Ultra, which serves up four days of running spread over 120 miles in western Scotland with Michelin-level meals served by waiters in castles, RIB boat transfers across sparkling lochs, a butler service, a top-of-the-line Garmin MARQ watch, and a six-month training regimen. It would, ahem, run
you a minimum of £5,495.
Beachcomber Trail du Sud Sauvage sits somewhere in the middle, with the hospitality you’d expect from a hotel served up at aid stations along the course. Rottenberg loops me in on a meeting with Raphael Nicholas, one of the organisers who co-founded the race in 2014. “Trail running is a religion on this island,” Nicholas explains. “This race is a great opportunity to show visitors that there’s more to Mauritius than just the beach.” He’s not wrong. Beachcomber Trail gives racers the opportunity to experience the entire breadth of Mauritius, sharing space with mongoose, giant tortoises, crab-eating macaques and flying foxes, while discovering parts of the island less visited by tourists, striding past cascades, spires and gorges hewn away by millions of years of dense tropical rainfall.
I spend a sleepless night waiting for the race to begin, lying supine with my legs elevated, breathing through anxiety. Having never tried my hand at a jungle race or run through Mauritian mountains, the spectre of the unknown hangs like a pall over the room, and circular thoughts spiral until the alarm goes off. The shuttle bus departs at 2.30am from the hotel lobby to drive an hour across the humpback of the island through heavy rain. It pulls off the tarmac and up an unpaved track to Chassé Case Noyale. Hydraulics gasp as doors open and the racers disembark from the bus, making their way to a halogen-lit lodge, where commercial EDM is played at eardrum-shredding decibels. Both runners and the support team gather around tables laden with coffee, croissants, fruit and energy drinks.
I hear my name called over a megaphone. Three members of Beachcomber’s communications team beckon me over and, as I’m the only non-French speaker at the race, walk me through the course and offer a rundown of the terrain in English. After a quick warmup, the trail will head into Black River Gorges National Park for over 20 miles of muddy, technical climbs and descents, many with ropes and chains, for a total vertical gain of 7,217 feet, before flattening out and rolling along the coastline for another 17 miles until the finish. That’s what it says on paper, at least. The altimeter and GPS on my watch will tell another story.
Hydraulics gasp as doors open and the racers disembark from the bus, making their way to a halogen-lit lodge, where commercial EDM is played at eardrum-shredding decibels
At 4am, an unearthly procession of head torches departs through the inflatable Red Bull arch at the start line and climbs into the Black Gorges massif. I lose Dorit within a few moments and then, right off the bat, follow a group of runners the wrong way and double back half a mile to course correct. The sleep deprivation and jet lag feel insurmountable and I immediately want to quit. Pressing on through thick jungle, the brown earth crumbles away to the right in an abyss, the darkness so thick it’s almost tactile. A pang of deep, primal fear stabs in, but I stick with the plan laid out by Fokas in Greece months ago and focus on the breath, keeping my heart rate squarely in zone two, never pushing too hard, trusting the process. Yes, I guess one could say, I focus on Fokas.
The trail climbs 2,650 feet upwards to skirt the peak of Piton de la Rivière Noire, the tallest point on Mauritius, where dawn breaks over a spectacular mountainscape. Overnight rain and human traffic have turned the pathway into a morass and I’m up to my knees in mud. It covers every inch of my legs, it’s in my shoes, it’s in my eyes, mouth and nostrils. I fall at least a dozen times, but so does everybody else. We check if the next person is okay, then carry on.
I watch the Mauritians. Charles Darwin made a stop in Mauritius while travelling from Australia during The Voyage of the Beagle. He beat a path to the island’s peaks and climbed the third-highest of them, Le Pouce. Darwin is said to be the first to make it to its summit but, having observed the utterly confident way some of these Mauritians move through the landscape, I have my doubts that a tourist was the first to blaze that trail. The locals are especially fast during downhill sections, where they perform an amazing shuffle-slide-skate and descend at speed. My technique is slightly different. I throw myself from tree to tree like an ape, praying that the branches hold my weight.
The trail shoots down a few thousand feet into the Gorges de la Rivière Noire, and then a few thousand feet back up the Parakeet track onto a broad plateau. There’s an aid station at Alexandra Falls, where chugging the warm broth of chicken soup does wonders for the constitution. The team here tends to the racers, enquiring about everyone’s medical state, refilling water bottles and offering everything from energy gels and bananas to barbecue and penne arrabbiata. It’s a novel experience eating five-star cuisine in the middle of the jungle. However, they’re not shy to take the piss, either. In my half-delirious state, one man almost convinces me that he placed second the year before, another that the finish line is five miles further than anticipated.
The scary forest is in the rearview, but even at the beach, it’s no day at the beach
Finally, after jogging over the caps of Montagne Cocotte and Piton Savanne, the altitude begins to gently tail off toward the Indian Ocean. The scary forest is in the rearview, but even at the beach, it’s no day at the beach. Blocks of basalt have sticky teeth that can trip you up and there are three big crossings where racers must guide themselves hand-over-hand on a rope strung across the river to negotiate wet boulders as the water flows in two directions, both from the runoff current and from the waves coming in from the ocean.
Immense rollers shatter on the coastline and cliffs to create jets of spindrift that shoot 50 feet into the air. I run with a 23-year-old Mauritian named Godwyn Piang Nee for a few miles. Godwyn turns out to have attended the US Coast Guard Academy on scholarship and has taken his skills back to Mauritius. He’s even visited Katahdin, the tallest mountain in my home state of Maine. “It’s nice to run with someone for a bit,” he mentions. “It takes your mind off the demons.” Thinking back on my frame of mind at the beginning of the race, more than ten hours before, I can empathise.
At three miles out, I’m feeling good. Back at Daios Cove in Crete, George Fokas was right on the money when he suggested switching up predominantly quick, tempo training for more steady and sustainable running to enhance muscle mitochondria and their fat-burning ability. I flirt with a quick pace for the last three miles, spread my arms as I enter the race village, cross the finish line, then point it to the lagoon and throw myself into the ocean, the heat seeping out of my limbs as if by osmosis.
Later, I check the stats logged by my Suunto watch. I’ve made it 42.43 miles and climbed 9,439 feet in 11 hours and 54 minutes. I’m the 30th racer to finish. The process has paid off. Tom Rottenberg finds me splay-legged on the beach. He seems a little surprised that I’ve made it. I tell him that I found my feet. He glances at them and laughs, they’re so soaked that they appear almost gangrenous. Not really the type of feet you’d want to find yourself with.
Look, there’s nothing luxurious about falling repeatedly or lowering yourself down a muddy chute holding onto chicken wire fencing that makes you question the status of your tetanus inoculations. However, it is a luxury to have the opportunity to push back against the fear of the unknown, take on a challenge, and realise that your capabilities surpass your expectations. I found this support both at Daios Cove and Beachcomber Shandrani. Travel, whether in your home country, or on an unfamiliar island such as Crete or Mauritius, remains one of the most uniquely transformative experiences available to us.