My Marathon du Medoc experience
At any other time in my life, being overtaken by a giant snail, a stick of celery and a trio of naked chefs might have been a cause for concern, but not today.
It’s true that I had been running for several hours under the relentless summer sun, while the temperatures surged into the 30s and the humidity built up to such an extent that a thunderstorm could only be hours away, so the possibility of heat-induced hallucinations was strong.
But this was the Marathon du Medoc, the world’s booziest (and craziest) marathon. Fancy dress is compulsory at this unique event – this year’s theme was ‘gastronomy’, hence the snails and chefs – but its appeal is far more potent than your average fun run.
Running the Marathon du Medoc
The route winds through the famous Medoc region in France near Bordeaux, taking in some of the world’s finest vineyards and chateaux, and it’s a full marathon – all 26.2 miles (or 42.2 km) of it.
Most importantly and uniquely, there are no fewer than 23 wine-tasting stations along the course, where some of the aforementioned vineyards dole out gallons of fine Bordeaux wine to thousands of thirsty runners. Who said that red wine and running don’t mix? Not the organisers of the Marathon du Medoc, that’s for certain.
And it’s not just about the wine (although a lot of it is most definitely about the wine). Runners are treated to the most eclectic range of food I’d ever seen on a marathon route – and I’d run six before embarking on the grand vins of Bordeaux at speed. Food stations at marathons typically offer pieces of banana, orange segments and other nourishing, easy-to-eat snacks. Here, alongside the oranges and bananas, was blue cheese and biscuits, cake, charcuterie, steak, oysters – even marshmallows and a chocolate fountain. This was no ordinary marathon.
Entering the Marathon du Medoc
Now in its 37th year – or should that be vintage? – the Marathon du Medoc had long been on my wish list. The marathons I’ve run have been very traditional, classic road races – London, New York, Rome, Florence – and the Marathon du Medoc seemed very different to all of those. With just 8,500 places available, it sells out almost immediately when tickets go on sale each Spring, and it was to my astonishment that I managed to secure one this year. I wasn’t alone from the UK – almost 1,000 of the runners are Brits, and there were certainly a lot of British voices when I arrived at the tiny town of Pauillac on the Gironde estuary just north of Bordeaux, the day before the marathon.
Arriving in Pauillac, the starting point
This was where the marathon was to start and finish, and the entire town was engulfed in marathon fever. Pop-up food stalls and wine bars had been squeezed in all the way down its main street, tempting runners to try local wine, cheese and salami as they passed on their way to the Marathon Expo tent.
In most marathons, the Expo tent is a place where runners pick up their race bibs and try to resist buying lots of new running kit. Signs that this was going to be a very different marathon came thick and fast, from the signs offering free ‘degustation’ (wine-tasting) to runners, to the bowls of saucisson handed out with race numbers and the huge groups of runners getting stuck into beer, wine, Champagne – all very unusual behaviour. Pre-marathon evenings usually consist of a bowl of pasta, an early night and strictly no booze, whereas here drinking seemed almost compulsory.
Having skimped somewhat on my training, I limited myself to sampling just a few (delicious) wines and headed back to my hotel in Bordeaux for an early night, while 1,450 more dedicated partiers attended a massive pasta and red wine party at a nearby chateau, this pre-race event is famous for being the reason many runners start the Marathon du Medoc with a hangover.
Instead, I woke with a clear head to catch the 7.29am train in time for the 9.30am start, and it was quite a sight watching hundreds of runners in fancy dress emerge from the early morning darkness into Bordeaux’s vast main railway station.
After an hour, our packed train pulled into Pauillac, where the party had really started. Thousands of runners were liberally festooned in their own interpretations of the theme of ‘gastronomy’: there were giant tomatoes, ketchup bottles, hot dogs, popcorn buckets and doughnuts jostling for position alongside dozens of waiters, bottles of wine and a whole army of chefs.
With my own chef’s hat, apron and string of plastic vegetables around my neck, I fitted in well (more so here than on one training run where I’d tried running with my chef’s hat on, to the bafflement of my neighbours). With almost an hour to go before the race start, there was just enough time to join one of the massive queues for the scandalously tiny number of loos provided by the organisers before heading for the start line.
The marathon start
Finally we were off! – a rollicking, riotous rabble of runners heading out of town in search of wine. It didn’t take long to find, as there was a wine-tasting station just round the corner from the start, but it felt a little early in the race to start quaffing, so we galloped on, first along roads and then through the first of 60-plus vineyards with their immaculate, straight rows of world-class grapes stretching for miles.
The first wine-tasting station
Reaching the first wine-tasting station was a roller coaster of emotions – ‘At last! Wine!’ rapidly followed by ‘It’s run out!’ This was a devastating blow, and spurred many runners to double their speed to the next chateau to ensure such a catastrophe didn’t happen again.
They needn’t have worried, as there was ample wine at the 22 remaining wine-tasting stations to ensure no-one went without. I drank my first full taste of wine at the next stop with some trepidation – would this make me feel ill, even incapable of running? – but I was surprised and delighted to find that it not only tasted wonderful, as befits a top Bordeaux wine, but my body also welcomed it. It suddenly seemed that any future run without a red wine or two would be an opportunity missed.
A wine-connoisseur friend of mine had told me to select only the best vintages to try, but after the success of my first drink, it seemed daft, if not rude, not to sample as many as possible. When else would I get to try some of Bordeaux’s famous Grand Cru wines? But, given the heat and the fact I still had to run most of a marathon, I counterbalanced some of the effects of the wine by drinking frequently from the numerous water bottles handed out on the course, and skipped a few of the wines on offer when they came hard on the heels of another vineyard.
Getting in the marathon mood
Ten or so kilometres and half a dozen chateaux in, and the marathon had gained some kind of rhythm. Running through the dusty paths through the vineyards, you would sense another wine stop was approaching when you could hear the music – many had live bands playing, to add to the party atmosphere – and there might be a bottleneck (appropriately) as hundreds of runners tried to squeeze through the gates of a chateau.
Our tiring legs would crunch along the gravel, often a stunning 18th-century building, and descend like locusts onto the wine-tasting stations, where armies of staff and volunteers would be pouring out the wine.
Then, sampling as we went, there might be the chance of some food, water, even a massage or a quick dance to the music, before we were out of the other side and charging onto the next stop. As the temptation is to just drink and dance for hours, in recent years the marathon introduced a cut-off time of six hours 30 minutes to complete the race, with a broom wagon trundling along at the back to eliminate people taking longer.
Most people, other than elite runners, had the same strategy as me, which was to spend as much time enjoying the race and to finish just under the time limit, which still meant you had to keep on moving or risk being swept up. It was enormous fun, even when my string of plastic vegetables fell off and I had to scuttle back to retrieve them.
And the runners were in great spirits, with plenty of comments flying around about the costumes – the guy in the snail suit was chastised for running too fast, while the bottoms of the naked chefs were much commented upon by a group of excited ladies.
Drinking Chateau Lafite-Rothschild on the run
Somehow, we all managed to keep on running even though the sun was relentless. This was helped no doubt by the red wine, which continued to flow from some illustrious names – drinking Chateau Lafite-Rothschild was a particular highlight – and the scenery was quintessentially French: little villages, rows of vines and winding lanes through the countryside.
The last 10km or so was a real endurance test, as the route left the vineyards for a straight, featureless road with no shade.The s un bore down on the flagging competitors as they ran, walked and staggered alongside the Gironde river back into Pauillac.
At the 40th kilometre, the PA cheerfully announced: ‘And for our runners, we have oysters!’ My stomach turned just at the thought, but I was clearly the exception, as everyone dived for the oyster tent in the boiling heat, with not just red wine but white and rose to pair (the French would never have oysters with red wine, whatever the occasion).
With just a few hundred metres to go, I summoned up all my remaining energy for a spectacular (to me) sprint finish, chef’s hat staying true to the very end, and crossed the line in style at an official time of six hours 15 minutes.
My plan to savour the marathon experience while staying just ahead of the broom wagon had worked – and to be honest I couldn’t have run any faster. And running my seventh marathon just before I turned 51 was particularly satisfying.
I was handed a finisher’s medal, a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of red wine, but what I really wanted right now was… a beer!
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I stayed in Bordeaux at Staycity Aparthotels which was right in the city centre and just a few minutes walk’ from the tram stop to the main railway station – handy for tired legs!
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