Every year on Reunion Island, a small French isle located a few hundred miles off the coast of Madagascar, one of the biggest ultra marathon races in the world is held.
It’s called the Grand Raid.
In its 29 years of existence, no American had ever won the race, but that all changed in 2019 when Onalaska native Sabrina Stanley became the first American to claim the title of champion at the prestigious race.
She signed up about a month before the event. The magnitude of her involvement in the race didn’t sink in until she bought plane tickets.
“Then it’s like, ‘OK, you’re really going to do this,’” Stanley said. “So then the community started talking. Seventh place was the highest. There’s been 10 elite males to go over there and three of the 10 actually finished. The race is crazy hard.”
Stanley was originally planning to race the Hardrock 100 again, a competition she won for females in 2018 with a time of 30 hours, 23 minutes, and finished 12th overall.
The race was canceled in 2019 due to snow and avalanche danger, so she turned her focus to racing in the Grand Raid.
The race starts from the southern tip of the island and moves through a number of environments to the northernmost point of the island. The race isn’t a direct line. The curves, along with elevation changes, make it equal to a 100-mile race.
“You go from dense jungle like Hawaii and then you go to, it looks like here, pine forests and rocky volcanic rocks and stuff,” Stanley said. “There’s a lot of different ecosystems you run through. The weather goes from 86 degrees and crazy humid to when you get up high, it’s like really thick frost and it’s below 30 degrees. You’re running through like every element you can possibly think of.”
After signing up for the race, Stanley had to train her body in order to be prepared for the treacherous terrain of a race that isn’t typical of 100-mile races.
“Everything goes into that, so like you can’t use poles on it where like most mountain races, you can use poles, so then I have to train all summer without poles. You have to think about sleep schedule because this is one of the few races that starts at 10 p.m. instead of like 8 or 6 a.m., so you have to think about ‘How tired will I be starting the race?’” Stanley said. “What’s my sleep going to be? What caffeine do I need to take to stay awake during the race? That nutrition aspect of it, everything goes into it, and afterwards you kind of plan on being injured for a month or two before you really start training again.”
Stanley and her boyfriend, Avery Collins, departed from Colorado at 5 a.m. Monday and arrived on the island by 3 p.m. on Thursday.
The race is something unlike she’s ever experienced before. In America, the sport of ultramarathons isn’t as popular, but on the island, it is a big deal.
“Over there, trail running is like a legit sport that is bigger than the Tour De France on this island,” Stanley said. “Everybody knows about it and everyone follows it. There’s a TV station just for the race, where like here, nobody knows.”
The race began on Oct. 17 with a 60-hour cutoff for anyone participating. There were 2,700 runners in the race and a lot of the runners began the race at a fast pace. Stanley started the race out rough, dealing with digestive issues and also being involved in an early race fall.
“I start at like 12-minute miles for 100 because you have so much to run so you might as well save your energy, but with that many runners, you almost have to start at their pace or you’re getting mowed over,” Stanley said. “I saw a guy fall in front of me 10 minutes after the start line and I see the next guy and the next guy and there’s no avoiding it because you’re so packed in there and you’re all running, so then I fell down. There’s 10 to 15 of us just piled up so I’m bleeding, my water bottle popped, my head lamp broke and so, then I was just like, stay patient, it’s going to work out.”
Not everyone who runs the race is running it to win.
There are several aid stations along the way where runners can take breaks, eat some food and even take a nap on a cot. Stanley noted that the runners who are competing to win don’t take breaks. She didn’t want her muscles to get sore or stiff and to have to get her body warmed up again after taking a rest.
She was able to stay patient and as the hours went on, Stanley started to gain on the competitors in front of her, and by Mile 75, she knew she was going to win the race.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that I was not going to do well, but Mile 75 was when I was like, ‘I have this locked in, there’s no way I’m not taking first.’ That’s when I came into first place and I saw the lady that was in first, she was a wreck,” Stanley said. “We were at the top of this mountain and she was cold and shivering and I was in a T-shirt and felt fresh and so I had 25 miles left and I knew I just keep running the way I’ve been running, there’s no way she’s going to get stronger at this point, and I felt like I was still getting stronger.”
Stanley crossed the finish line on Oct. 19, 30 hours, 49 minutes and 39 seconds after the race began on the southernmost point of the island. She became the first American, male or female, to win the race.
“The way that they do signups, you don’t really know who you’re running against, and I don’t know a lot of the European runners, so I didn’t know how competitive it was this year,” Stanley said. “I wanted to win. I mean, it was literally 48 hours plus travel time to get there, so it’s a long journey to not perform well and it was kind of surreal. It was pretty awesome.”
Fireworks shot off and confetti greeted Stanley at the finish line after she won the race. Officials escorted Stanley to a press conference area where she answered questions, needing a translator to answer many of the questions that were asked to her by French reporters. She said it felt similar to an NFL press conference after a game.
“It was the first time I had sat down so I instantly got really nauseous and then my body gets like uncontrollably like, not cold but you shake because your muscles are so exhausted and then you have to do a drug test,” Stanley said. “Now we’re like two or three hours down the road and my boyfriend was running the shorter distance, so it’s 72 miles, and it started 24 hours after mine, and so he was still out there racing so I had to wait at the finish line for him.”
She got some food and took a nap while waiting for Avery to finish the race.
Reflecting on the race, she believes it was the hardest race she’s ever competed in.
“In the states, everybody recognizes Hardrock as the toughest 100-miler because you’re at elevation and you’re doing a ton of climbing, so the climbing almost equals Hardrock but then the trails are 10 times more technical,” Stanley said. “It’s super rocky, and then they have all these different level steps, like some steps are 2 or 3 feet high and some are like 2 or 3 inches and so like your stride is constantly being altered. You can’t have a consistent stride because it’s so varied. So the technicality is beyond anything I’ve ever ran for a 100 mile race. It’s the hardest one in the world in my opinion.”
She felt the celebrity status after winning the race before coming back to America, with moms and daughters coming up to her and asking her for an autograph.
“Just walking through the airport leaving, that was what was crazy because everybody’s pointing at you and you can see them whispering and you can see them trying to sneak pictures of you walking through the airport,” Stanley said. “Then, the pilot of the plane wants to take pictures with you and Air France, they sponsor the event and they really took care of us and they were super stoked to have us there. They wanted their staff and the people that checked us in and then we got on the plane and they wanted to take pictures and it was like living a rockstars life. It was kind of crazy.”
Stanley has come a long way since becoming a full-time runner and feels like she really arrived on the scene when she took third at Western States.
“I started getting paid to run, and it wasn’t like anything to live off of but there were companies that wanted me to run for them and at that point, some people could say you’re classified as a professional,” Stanley said. “As soon as you’re getting checks, it was still really weird. It was like, I’m a sponsored runner, I’m not a professional runner, and then as the years have gone by and my result list grows it’s like, OK, I need to take myself seriously and call myself a professional because I am and now I’m doing this full time as a living.”
Growing up with an older sister and four younger brothers, Sabrina always tried to show that she was the best athlete of the group.
“I wanted to wrestle and play football and there weren’t lady-like sports, and my parents wouldn’t let me play so I had to find a way to be like, ‘I’m better than my brothers.’ I can’t compete in strength and I can’t compete in short distance sprints and speed and so I started running,” Stanley said. “Now, they can’t outrun me in distance. They just never will be able to and that’s the one thing I have on them. So them being in my life greatly affected my competitive spirit and trying to be good at something.”
When she first quit her job to run full time, her family wasn’t enthusiastic and assumed at some point, she would ask them for money. That never happened and with her success, the family is fully onboard with her career choice.
With her status as one of the top ultramarathon runners in the world, she believes she can officially claim the title of best athlete in the family.
“I don’t think there’s a debate, they do. They would probably argue that but I don’t think so. They have no idea the levels of pain it takes to run a hundred miler,” Stanley said. “I mean, yeah, it becomes normal and you become familiar with those levels of pain but until they run, even a marathon, I won’t take their argument seriously.”
While she is making a living as a professional runner, she hopes that the sport will be able to catch on more in America with the addition of purses for winning races as well as sponsorships.
“It’s part of their culture where here, the races either don’t have money or the sponsorship isn’t quite there yet,” Stanley said. “You don’t see American Airlines sponsor races in the U.S. like Air France does or Turkish Airlines for races in Turkey and so we just don’t have that level of sponsorship and I think it’s getting there. There’s a lot of debate in the running communities like the bigger name sponsors you bring in, the more money it brings the sport and then you have to start paying purses because there’s not a lot of purses in the sport.”
She also said if the sport does get bigger, the risk of athletes using performance enhancing drugs increases, but she doesn’t think that will have a huge impact on the sport since there is already some money involved. She hopes that as a full time runner, putting in 40 to 60 hours a week training for races, that the sport will eventually earn the attention of American audiences in order to help the sport grow domestically.
She has some irons in the fire with some things that she’s excited to announce once the calendar flips to 2020. Her racing plans for next year include the Transvulcania, a 44-mile race on La Palma Island in Spain on May 2-9 and the Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colo. on July 17.
With her current resume, she expects to be ranked in the Top 5 of the female ultramarathon runners rankings, released every year in January.
After resting her body following Grand Raid, she’s excited to get back on the trail as soon as she can.
“I’m trying to give my body time to rest but I’m like counting the days until I get to like go out for a few miles,” Stanley said. “I think if you took a three week vacation, are you like feening to go back to work and if you don’t answer yes, then maybe you’re not doing the career that you love and you should be. I would say that I’m definitely in a career that I would like to be in for my entire life.”
It’s been a crazy ride for Stanley since she started her running career and she is quite literally, as Tom Petty once said, running down a dream.
“From the very first contract I signed to the latest contract I signed, it’s just like I can’t believe I’ve reached this new level. I dreamed about it. I think every little kid dreams of being a professional athlete and you never really truly believe you’re going to get there,” Stanley said. “I know it’s not like a well known American sport, but at the same time, it’s pretty crazy to say I run for Altra or I run for X-company and to be on their list. It’s a dream. I don’t know any other word to use, I am truly living a childhood dream.”