Foulées du Sri Lanka
It's a formula tried and tested over a decade of Foulées de la Soie in China; a blend of an intense sporting challenge and cultural exploration away from the tourist trails. For its second year, Sri Lanka hosted the race; a tropical island still reeling from the Boxing Day tsunami. Yes, overnight accommodation was in hotels, but this race is no cakewalk. The intense heat and humidity saw to it that stretcher cases and intravenous drips were a regular feature at the end of each stage.
Day 1 and the unrelenting sun sets the standard for the rest of the race as narrow, rocky tracks carry us the 17km from Boyawalana to Metiyagane with few large trees to provide shade. Support vehicles driving past throw up curtains of orange dust to run through. Villagers keep the runners cool by throwing buckets of water at them as they pass. Refreshing, but the wet shoes soon lead to blisters.
Day 2 - the Habarana Trail, 16km , some tarmac but mostly similar to yesterday. A little more shelter from the sun today, and the heat seems more manageable, although the thermometer still touches 40oC. Perhaps we are acclimatising. For the first time we encounter elephants on the course, and there's a sting in the tail as we climb over and down a steep rocky outcrop to the finish.
Day 3 - and its 15km of running in awesomely beautiful surroundings that distract from the heat. We run alongside rivers and lakes, where crocodiles lurk in the muddied waters. A warning that we may encounter wild elephants on the course today! The advice is to stand still and stare at the creature until it backs off. If you try to run away, the elephant may charge. Fortunately, I don't get the opportunity to test this dubious theory. We finish in a tree-lined clearing at the foot of Sigiriya rock, the "eighth wonder of the world", monkeys scurrying around at our feet.
Day 4 - the Dambulla Trail and the scenery grows more extraordinary each day. A vast lake littered with dead trees jutting out of its waters. Enough brightly-plumaged birdlife to keep any ornithologist happy. At the end, a local lad called Jack leads me to a village well and pumps me a bucket of water to shower with.
Day 5 brings a 9km time trial in the mountains surrounding Kandy, the spiritual capital of Sri Lanka. Starting with the lowest ranked, runners leave at one minute intervals, with 3km of downhill running on tarmac, followed by nearly 6km of thigh-busting climbing on grass, rock and shingle. Only in the final 500 metres does the route turn downhill again, with runners hurtling uncontrollably down a bobsleigh like rock channel to beat the stopwatch.
Day 6 and now we are in the high country, although it seems no cooler. The ominously named Hellbode Climb is a 10km continuously uphill slog on twisting narrow roads through perfumed tea plantations followed by a descent of the same distance back to the valley floor. Children from the villages run hand in hand with us as we wind our way back down from the peak.
Day 7 brings rest as our coach driver negotiates seemingly impossible mountain bends as we head from the mountains towards the west coast of the island, and then it's Day 8, and the final stage of 14km of sand on Negombo Beach. An idyllic paradise, but the sun has saved its greatest strength for the end. A choice; to run in level but soft, sinking and strength-sapping sand on the beach itself, or to run at the water's edge where the sand was compacted but the camber was steep, straining already battered ankles.
That this ocean that lapped at our shoes had nine weeks earlier caused one of the greatest natural disasters in living memory evoked mixed feelings. Was it right to be enjoying a sporting hobby at the scene of such loss of life? The warmth of the welcome we received from the Sri Lankan people at every location we visited left little doubt as to their view.