Racing the Planet Roving Race Madagascar 2014…a Review

Melissa start line stage race africa

Looking back on our first Multi-day stage race in Madagascar

Africa”…”Madagascar, Africa”….”RUNNING through Madagascar, Africa”…it just kept getting better and better the more we kept on reading about Racing The Planet Roving Race 2015. We never really thought of Madagascar as a “real” place till this race (Madagascar was always just a Disney cartoon movie). But once we found out Racing The Planet’s Roving Race for the upcoming year was to take place on the island of Madagascar, we were hitting the “Register” button almost without hesitation.

Describing a 7 day, 250 km stage race is not easy. The amount you see, the number of people you meet, the different race inputs you experience goes on and on but the highlights are easy to note. Getting to the start line of this race was not easy. In the 35C heat of the day, 20 or so vans were loaded up with anxious runners and headed down the meandering “roads” (don’t know if these paths actually could count as roads) to an army base just outside Diego Suarez, Madagascar.

beach running racing the planetOn August 31, 2014, we toed the start line with about 250 other competitors along with a local Malagasy running group who was to join us for the first 10km (lucky ducks!). Each and every runner was geared up with a pack containing their grub, clothes, and required gear for the entire 7 days. Water and a communal tents were they only thing you got a helping hand with from the race….otherwise, you are on your own. Standing on the start line, we knew the clean faces and fresh smelling clothes were soon to disappear. A little Eye of the Tiger played to get us pumped and we were off!

 

This race took us down some of the most unexpected paths. Each day ranged from about 38-46 km with one long melissa running xero shoes80ish km stage on Day 5. And with each brought some new highlight.

(See our live updates from each day: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5)

The first few days took us along the coastlines and through deep sandy tracks. The temperatures averaged in the high 30’s each day and with limited shade or tree cover along most of the course, your only saving graces were the many river crossings we trekked through. More often than not though you weren’t really enjoying the “cool off”, rather your brain was busy contemplating what kind of parasite you picked up in the still murky water you were trudging through. But hearing the locals from nearby villages singing and cheering us along the way would often distract the pessimistic part of the mind that searches for reasons

to quit. There was even an entire village cheering, chanting, and dancing for us at the finish line of one stage. These people stayed out there for 7+ hours cheering runners in by sharing their culture and energy. The next few days took us away from the coastline and sent us inland to see red tsingy, deep crevassed canyons, and endless rice paddies. Although the scenery was absolutely breath taking (which is quite the pun for someone already breathing heavy during a race….but you get my point); the people are what made this race.

mel and jon ultra marathonOur fellow competitors were a collection of unsung heroes. The true idols that should be on the front of those magazine covers at the grocery store check out instead of a Nicki Minaj. Some of these athletes had gone through some difficult life events, completed some of the toughest races, and came from a huge variety of different backgrounds. And still, they had the biggest grins on their faces and always willing to lend a hand….or in our case, an emergency gel.

The volunteers and workers were an ant army; always hard at work, always doing something, and never complaining. When they weren’t busy at their volunteer role, they were putting their cheer skills to work at the finish line…every runner that came in had a genuine, enthusiastic welcome…even those coming in late at night.

And then there were the locals. “Malak malak!”, “Ambato sara vasza!!”…two of the phrases that popped up everyday running in madagascaralong our trek thru Madagascar’s backcountry. There were times you weren’t quite sure if you were running through someone’s backyard or house; regardless they were always calm natured and would throw out a greeting or at least a wave. Children would run out from the huts and hop onto the fences screaming “Salam Vasza!!!”…”Hello White Person!!!”. The Malagasy embraced us. Every single competitor; regardless of gender, age, or the colour of their skin…they were truly non-judgemental.

This race as a whole is one we would strongly recommend, and plan to compete in another in the future (of course being a roving race it will be in a new location!). On the organization end, it was pretty much flawless: checkpoints were always where they were supposed to be, stalked with water and a med doc, tents were always already setup before you hit the end line of that day, and the hot water for food never ran dry. Like every race, you yourself go through big ups and downs. Running 250 km over 7 days with everything on your back can start deteriorating yourself mentally and physically, but the scenery, fellow competitors and Malagasy locals make it all so worth the journey! 🙂

 

HAKUNA MATATA

-M&J

And be sure to check out our Race Resume to see what other races we’ve tackled!

finish line xero shoes run

Travelling to, from and around Madagascar

flight to madagascar travel africa

Instead of spending forever to write a novel telling everyone about our recent trip to Madagascar, we decided to break it into three parts.  Travelling to and around this island brought us some interested experiences and stories so we’ll share those with you this week.  Next we’ll tell you all about the amazing Racing the Planet roving race that we competed in with a detailed race report.  And finally we’ll showcase some of the highlights of the trip including finding the popular lemurs of Mada, visiting a crazy inspiring orphanage establishment, and taking on some remote and unreal rock climbing up in Diego Suarez!  Hope you enjoy:)

During our four week trip to this beautiful island of lemurs, we experienced just about all forms of travel Madagascar has to offer.  From haggling with a tuk tuk driver trying to get greedy with a couple Canadian tourists, to jumping on the expensive and unreliable domestic flights offered by Air Madagascar, we want to share  some tips, funny stories or useful travel insights for anyone who might want to explore this diamond in the rough destination.

Flying into Madagascar –>

It’s true what they say about most African countries, your airfare to get there will likely be the most expensive part of your travels.  Departing from western Canada, we were looking at 28 hours of travel time each way, and just about the most expensive country to fly to anywhere in the world.  Almost all the flights into the country will go through the capital, Antananarivo, and what a place this airport is.  Just be ready for slow moving lines, pushy taxi drivers, and you may even be asked for a bribe when going through security on your way out.  By our last day there, we actually had a conversation something along the lines of “I actually think that the employees at this airport spend more time thinking of how to get a tip or bribe, than they do what their next task in their actual job should be!”  Luckily the rest of the country doesn’t follow this pattern.

melissa adventure in madagascar

Taxi’s and Tuk Tuk’s in Madagascar –> 

These can be fun, in an odd kind of way.  They are no meters in the vehicles, pretty much all of their spedometers are broken, and most drivers have no problem asking you if you’re fine if they pick up more passengers to squeeze in with you.  Its somewhat entertaining watching how some of these things are still even on theroad and operating.  On the one side, most of the drivers drive in quite a safe manner and are polite so you feel safe taking them, even at night.  The flip side is they will often see a tourist as a cash grab, so whenever possible ask a local or an ex pat how much your taxi ride should be.

Taxi Brousse’s in Madagascar –>

These range anywhere from a large sized van to a minibus.  Somehow though, the same number fits in all, haha.  If you’re going for a longer ride, and have the luxury of getting on one of the premium vans with a company like Cotisse, then we’d say spring for the extra few bucks, because you’ll be significantly more comfortable. Sometimes however you’re options are limited and you just want to get going to you’ll have to squeeze.  Most of these rides won’t put you back more than 5, 10 or 20 bucks, to get pretty much anywhere in the country.  Where you’ll take the hit is with time, as they can only go as fast as the brutal roads will allow, so you could spend the better part of a day in a cramped bus if you’re going far.  Highlights of a taxi brousse ride??? Seeing just how much stuff and the kinds of stuff they will stack and strap onto the tops of those things.  I’ll admit they have it down to a science, but we’re talking, stacks of bags and mattresses, cages with live chickens, even full sized moped scooters, if someone can lift it then it can be strapped to a taxi brousse!!!

transportation around madagascar taxi brousse

Taxi Bay –>

This is essentially the bus system in and around Antananarivo, yet you won’t find too many buses, in fact its mostly just taxi brousse vans again, but these ones are riding on their last limbs.  If you can figure out where your going and what bus will get you there (maybe get a local to help you out) then this is a fun way to get around.  Yes you will be packed in there even tighter than on a taxi brousse sometimes, but come on what can you expect when only paying the equivalent of a Canadian quarter for a ride.  Fun fact??? While I regret never giving it a shot, this may be your chance of a lifetime to jump onto a moving bus, because when they see you running for it, sure they won’t take off, but they sure won’t stop! 😛

Air Madagascar –>

Let just start this one out with saying that these guys are lucky they have a lock on the market and are the only airline that offers domestic flights, because if there were any competitors, they might be going under pretty quick.  Dispite paying the same amount or even more for a domestic flight here than what you’d pay in Canada, the service and reliability is on somewhat of a lower scale.  We had the pleasure of two joyous flights on this air line, going to and from Diego Suarez from Antananarivo.  As soon as we arrived into the airport in Tana, we were advised air madagascar domestic flights madagascarthat our flight up north was delayed by an hour.  No biggie with Air Madagascar, and in fact this is almost the norm, so we took with thinking that it could have been worse!  This this next one is a gooder!!! So we board our flight from Diego Suarez back to Tana, we taxi out onto the runway, clench down and get ready for the miracle of human flight.  The pilot guns it, the engines roar, our heads rock back into the headrests and we make it about halfway down the runway…. then the engines cut off, we slow to a crawl and taxi on back to the terminal.  After an awfully akward taxi back with no word from the crew, the pilot finally says we have to empty the plane so they can fix a technical problem.  So heres the kicker, after about half an hour in the airport (***Totally not long enough to have a technician actually come, diagnose the problem and fix it**) we board back on the plane and get ready for round 2.  To this date, we are totally convinced that they just forgot to fill the thing with gas!! But we’ll never know for sure:P

Private vehicle in Madagascar –>

This is by far the most convenient form of transport, especially because most of the vehicle’s to hire are SUV’s which coast along the pot hole filled roads much smoother and quicker than buses., however this will definitely be the most expensive mode of transport available.  For most vehicles, you must not only rent the vehicle but hire the driver to take you where you’d like to go.  We never sprung for a private vehicle during our trip but were able to snag a ride with a fellow racer that we ran into surprisingly while we were searching for a way back to Tana from one of the National Parks.  So we can vouch for saying how much quicker these can get you around.

streets of madagascar africa adventure

Not a popular means of transport in Madagascar, but definitely picture worthy. (Yes, that’s a plastic chair strapped to a bike!)

Trains, railcars and boats of all sizes –>

These three options weren’t in our itineraries for this trip, but we did look into them a bit at different times.  The boat trips on sailboats or powerboats are common along the coastal cities who offer scuba diving, snorkelling or other water activities and will sometimes include a stop on a small island for a lunch break!  Trains and railcars (Yes Mada has a Michellin railcar!!) are limited but can be useful if they happen to lineup with your travel paths and schedules.  They are affordable and can be a more comfortable option than a taxi-brousse, so visit Madarail to check schedules and routes.

Travelling around the little bit of Madagascar that we managed to see was to say the least, wild!!! The thing we loved was that every day was different, and almost every one of those days we had at least one thing happen where we could say “You don’t see that back in Canada!”  Travelling around this country is relatively straight forward, offers lots of options to fit different budgets, but the only thing we will say is leave lots of time for hiccups.  As the Malagasy like to say, they live a Mora Mora lifestyle, which essentially means slow and laid back!

So now if you’re in the midst of planning next years vacation consider visiting Madagascar to experience the culture, the people and the amazing land that makes up this wonderful island!

7 Days of Race Food – Racing the Planet Madagascar

With our first stage race rapidly approaching, we’ve finally narrowed down and organized our dining menu that we’ll be bringing with us on our 7 day stage race through Madagascar.  The only requirements that we had to work with from the race organizers were the following:

  1. Minimum 2000 calories per day
  2. Enough electrolyte powder mix or tabs to 30 hours of running
  3. Being able to carry a minimum of 2.5L of water at any given time

With that, and no previous stage running experience, we weren’t quite sure where to start.  First thing is first we planned out our main meals.  For this we received some awesome advise and support from two great Canadian companies.

mel and jon prairie naturals supplements

Prairie Naturals: 

Prairie Naturals make a wide range of all natural supplements, tons of which we will use before, during and after the race.  From they wide range of organic vegan proteins to mix in with breakfast oatmeal, to their clean L-Glutamine to keep our muscles from breaking down too much, and of course their organic spirulina and chlorella supplements to help get us some greens while we’re out in the middle of nowhere.

harvest foodworks mel running nutrition

 

Harvest Foodworks:

Based out of Ontario, Harvest Foodworks offers a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan dehydrated food options.  Yes the recommended way to prepare their meals requires some short cooking, however we experimented with many of their entrees and found quite a few that cook quite well by simply mixing in hot/boiling water and letting it soak it all up.  They are jam packed full of protein, carbs and fats with some desirable ingredients such as curcumin, ginger or ghee to help keep fight off inflammation.  And who could forget, like with almost all dehydrated foods, a high salt content is a huge perk for nutrition planning while running through the heat of Madagascar.

 

 

Next up, we needed to find some high calorie, stomach friendly energy bars!  There are actually a whole bunch of vegan energy bars out there to choose from, the catch however is that most vegan eaters, ironically aren’t huge fans of super high calorie bars.  After an extensive trial and error process during all types and lengths of workouts, we narrowed it down to two varieties that we will be packing with us:

larabar vegan energy bar

Larabars:

These little guys are made from so few ingredients (some as little as 4!!), its comforting to know that we’re not eating a chemistry lab each time we chomp one down.  With a primary ingredient of dates, these are high in natural sugars and offer some sweetness to the race menu.  Each bar is small in size but brings with it just over 200 calories each.

Halvah bar sesame seed health

Hallvah bars:

These guys have been around for a long time, however we just discovered Halvah Bars recently.  Again an all natural bar with simple ingredients, though these ones are mostly made up of sesame seeds.  This gives them a super high fat content, however its a healthy fat that can be utilized by the body quite well for energy, and in fact will sustain you for longer than a sugar based bar.  Topping the charts as the highest calorie bar we could find anywhere we looked, each one contains between 400-480 calories per bar.  These also have a little bit more of a savory flavour for when we’ve had enough sweet for the day.

Drink mixes

Next step was one we weren’t too familiar with, thats the drink mixes.  We do our best to keep our diet as natural as possible so downing artificial supplements isn’t a daily things for us.  We sought some tried and tested advise from our friend Ray Zahab (Co-star in the documentary Running the Sahara) who has competed in some of the most extreme stage races and running expeditions, so he’s figured it all out!!

We’ll be packing two kinds of drink powders with us, a carb loaded one called Vitargo, and a electrolyte rich on known as EFS.  The Vitargo simply helps you pack down the easily digestable calories to keep you going, with less of a sugar spike/crash effect that sports drinks bring with them.  EFS carries the claim to fame that it has the highest amount of electrolytes per volume, leaps and bounds higher than simple gatorade or powerade will provide.  While yes these are both chemically made, the alternatives would leave us with simply WAY to much food packed in our tiny packs to carry.

tired runner ultra distance race

Lasty, a couple of treats to look forward too and a couple emergency items for along the way, when the going gets tough.  Ray told us that on the ladder stages of the race, you might fall a bit too far behind in calories, so pack a gel or two for a rescue shot of calories.  Also bring one or two treats with you that you can crave and have after a tough stage, our plan for these is a couple Honey Stinger Waffles (our favs!) and a small pack of salted almonds! dehydrated ultra marathon running

 

 

 

 

 

All this tallied up rolls in right around 18,000 calories, well above the minimum 14,000 required.  We feel confident in all of our food choices and have tested them our while running at different paces, in different temperatures and in different amounts.  All fuel us well, digest well and will hopefully push up towards completing this race!

 

Follow along here or on our facebook page “Ultra Mel & Jon“, as we write quick updates after each stage of our race!

As always, live dirty, eat clean and run free! 🙂

Mel and Jon

Ray Zahab ultra marathon runner adventurer

Next Ultra Marathon Adventure is Set for Madagascar, Africa

“We have one chance in our lives, to do something great!”      

Ray Zahab (Founder of I2P)                                    

From the hot plains of South Dakota to the humid jungles of Costa Rica, 2013 challenged Mel and I in ways we could have never imagined.  We’ve changed our diets, our footware, our goals and most importantly our outlook on the amazing sport of ultra marathon running.  After competing in 4 memorable races throughout the 2013 season, we look forward to new year and the opportunities that are out there.  One of our biggest challenges has been set, a 7 day/6 stage race in Madagascar, Africa!

racing the planet roving race africa4 Deserts organizes 4 annual events every year, located in the Atacama Desert, the Gobi Desert, the Sahara Desert, and Antartica (Bi-Annual race).  7 Years ago they introduced a yearly “Roving Race” which would follow the race structure of their popular 4 race series, yet the location would change every year.  Having been hosted in destinations such as Nepal, Vietnam and Iceland to name a few, the 2014 Roving Race is set to take place in beautiful Madagascar.

Having always been a dream destination for both Mel and I, Africa is home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes and wildlife this planet has to offer.  Not to mention some extremely elite running cultures throughout.  Madagascar is ever more unique in the sense that over 90% of its flora and fauna is only found on the island itself.  It will truly be enlightening to run over 250km through this country.

impossible 2 possible adventureOn top of the entensive training and preparation that is going to be required for this race, we are partnering up with Impossible 2 Possible to raise funds for their youth expedition program, which works to inspire, educate and empower today’s up and coming youth.

This race will be life changing for us and we want to share everything we learn and go through with those around us.  We hope we can inspire you to become a bit healthier, reach out to someone in need, help spread awareness of a global problem, or any little change than can brign a smile to someone elses face.

Ultra mel and jon ultra marathoners africa

Run Free!            

Ultra Mel and Jon    

Ps. NDIZOTHEKA: is a term thats used in parts of Africa that essentially means “anything is possible!” We first learned of the term in a film called The Boy who Flies.  Super inspirational and we both highly recommend it!

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