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by Eddy Matzger

Real Tahitians would laugh at the pirogues (outrigger canoes) you wear to ply the ground. To their understanding, these little boats with waterproof undersides are lashed to your feet the way their outrigger is held together by chewed up strips of uru (breadfruit) bark.

Look at their feet. They're splayed wide for superb balance and calloused hard on the bottom for all terrain. That's why Tahitians will laugh at your shoes. Why on earth strap yourself into a seafaring vessel for use on land?

Modern man, however, whose tender bare feet get sliced like sashimi on coral and volcanic rocks, appreciates the protection that running shoes afford. They are extremely practical in rugged mountains or in the cool of night.

Tahitians need nothing for their journey. Highly adaptable and resourceful, they are rest-assured that all provisions are close at hand. They can easily open a coconut and drink its pure water or grab a stick to dislodge any number of exotic fruits from the trees, dig up starchy tubers like manioc or tarot from the ground, or even spear a sleeping fish in the lagoon.

A modern runner, vrai dire, is encumbered by much. Their "canoes," which seemed so practical at first, quickly fill with water after a bungled stream crossing or get caked with thick layers of red tropical soil. Not used to drinking like a bird in the stream or asking a brother for a quick swig, modern runners will carry their own store-bought stuff and worry about running out. Their energy bars will weigh them down at first and they will need to eat more because of it and soon go hungry.

True navigators, the Tahitians' bearing is proud because they are always looking forward to the horizon - many wave sets in front of them - and so is prepared for the future and rarely gets broadsided unexpectedly.

Modern runners, par contre, are prone to look down at the ground so closely that they rarely see the sleeping stone or slippery root lying in wait. Or they place such trust in their shoes that they admire only the view and fail to see the obvious crab den that can swallow his ankle whole.

In reality, the best running experience in Tahiti is a marriage between traditional and modern. You can experience the sensual pleasure of bare feet on benevolent terrain or don the "canoes" for full-on wilderness forays. Whether you're searching for scenic beauty, a marathon with a vacation attached, a little competition with the locals, or just a clear space inside your head, look around a little in paradise, and Tahiti and her islands will give it all up for you.

The goudron (tar) you'll encounter along the coastlines of Tahiti and her islands is ideal for road running. Granular and patched en ville, with only some occasional paved, the surface invariably becomes smoother and more continuous farther out. Try a heavenly training run on the sacred island of Raiatea from kilometer marker 8 to 16 and back. In the dark of night, you'll find yourself gazing upwards from the middle of the road at the Milky Way, running along the axis of the astral plane.

I tried this same run early one morning and was pleased by the highly dependable bord de la route (shoulder) of shortly cropped crab grass that's springy underfoot. With each step, the morning dew transformed itself into fine mist around my ankles. Crabs provided entertainment as they beat a retreat back into their holes in advance of my passage. Friendly folks yelled "io!" (short for iorana, or hello in Tahitian) and flashed a "hang loose" with their hands as I sailed by. On one occasion, two kids leaned out onto the road and spontaneously offered me high fives. At the turnaround point, I revived myself with a sweet papaya, and negative-splitted my way back home.

On Tahiti itself, you can select any number of roads that wind their way up into the neighborhoods - that is, if you're into hill runs with grades of 5-18%! My favorite is an out of the way chemin (path) in Arue that climbs up the creek and finishes with a spectacular view of Moorea.

To get away from it all, take le truck from Papetee out to Taravao on Tahiti Iti (Presqu'Ile) and sit on the left side of the bus. It only costs 200 PF (about a buck and a half) and you'll be treated to views of palm trees hanging out over the sky-blue lagoon, while local surfing talent rides the waves. You'll get off literally at the end of the road, where a wide river disgorges into the ocean. Majestic mountains and a white sandy beach tempt you to stay all day. You can run back as far as you like before hopping back on the bus or hitching a ride back into town.

Running on Moorea will turn you into a hopeless romantic. You'll be filled with awe and mystery as you gaze up at the eroded remnants of the volcanic crater rim which resemble sleeping maidens and fearless warriors. An overabundance of fruit entices you to stop and sample at every turn. High up, clear mountain streams are suitable for drinking and swimming.

Head for the hills if you don't fancy sharing the road with cars. My favorite runs on Moorea all lead from the unpaved transverse road between Cook's Bay and Opunahu Bay. There are countless combinations of loops and traverses that'll take you past pine forests and pineapple plantations while affording you views of both mountain and mer (sea).

A challenging trail run on Moorea is one that takes off from Pao Pao at Cook's Bay and climbs through the woods to the Belevedere (lookout point) and then back along the base of the cliffs before dropping back down again. Along the way, you'll stumble across passion fruits and find a newly-discovered marae (ancient religious cult site) deep within a chestnut grove.

Initially, you will need a guide, because it's easy to take a wrong turn and get caught in la brousse (brush) or up high on the mountain in the dark. Caroline Maruoi is a native who will accompany you for a nominal fee (1,000 PF, or about $7). She'll show you how to get around like a local and fill you with and all the local lore and luscious fruits you like.

Marathon, Marathon Relay, Half Marathon, and Fun Run
The Tahiti Nui International Marathon departs from Papetoai on Moorea at 5 a.m. in early February. Even in the moonlight, you'll see that a few Polynesian runners opt for pied nus (bare feet).

Past the Club Med, you'll double back at the Tiki Village cultural and artistic center (mile 6) and hightail it home to the beach at Temae, where Polynesian dancers and flower garlands await all finishers.

Take the whole family. There's also a marathon relay (four-person teams run about 10 kilometers each) at 1:30 p.m., a 7 kilometer fun run at 4 p.m. (wear a pareo or go all-out with a grass skirt and a coconut-shell bra!) and a half-marathon that leaves at 4:10 p.m.

For more information about these and other running events in French Polynesia, visit Way Beyond.

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