Street Party: 8,000 runners line up at the start
Six hours, 42 kilometres, 23 glasses of wine. Not my normal race strategy, but then this was not a normal race.
The festival of wine and running that is the Medoc Marathon used to be a well-kept secret by the French, but in recent years it has begun to attract overseas runners too.
And for good reason: this year's race in the Medoc wine region near Bordeaux in south-western France took in more than 30 of the regions' gorgeous chateaux and vineyards.
The Medoc region's world-famous chateaux – including familiar names like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Latour – opened their grounds and cellars to offer runners some of the world's most respected wines at 23 drinks stations along the route, as well as countless food stops serving local delicacies from foie gras, oysters and entrecote steak, to ham, cheese and fruit.
The party starts well before the race begins though. In the days leading up to the Saturday-morning start, the small town of Pauillac on the banks of the Gironde River becomes the race headquarters. And it takes its role seriously, putting on such a lively – that's French for 'drunken' – pasta party the night before that it's a wonder the 8,000 runners even make it to the start of the race.
Fancy dress galore
With everyone crammed onto the main street, the pre-race entertainment began. There were upside-down tightrope walkers, dancing girls on plinths and the opportunity to have a good look at the variety of fancy-dress costumes on display. Dressing up is taken almost as seriously as the wine tasting at this race.
A crowd of smurfs – head-to-toe in blue paint – enjoyed their moment in the spotlight when the compere invited them onto a stage in front of the runners before they made way for dozens of burly, tattooed, close-shaven men dressed as Breton maids with delicate lace hats and pinnies.
Bunch of Grapes: Fancy dress is a must
A group of runners in brown body stockings covered with purple balloons were pretty convincing bunches of grapes, while members of the French Airforce were dressed in smart navy and white uniforms, accessorised with a scale model of an aeroplane whose wings could be flipped up when the course narrowed.
So if you want to win a fancy-dress prize in a future race – next year's theme is the circus – the trick to being asked up on stage before seemed to lie in the number of people dressed identically rather than in the quality of the costume.
A heavy downpour just before the start failed to dampen spirits or detract from the carnival atmosphere, but it did put some of the more flimsy costumes to the test.
This year's fancy-dress theme was exotic places and islands, and looking around I noticed that my grass skirt and plastic flower garland combo was easily the most popular outfit.
It was the first time I've raced in fancy dress, so my lack of sartorial bravery was to be expected. Plenty of British runners didn't realise that dressing up is de rigueur, but this is one time when you will stand out if you're simply wearing your running kit.
I began the race with a single aim: to have as much fun as possible, and if that meant running slowly and soaking up the wine and atmosphere, then so be it. I just had to run round within the time limit of six-and-a-half hours – a cut-off time that was only introduced recently as a way to discourage runners from spending too long enjoying the hospitality of the wine-stops on the course.
Unlike many of the runners, I managed to start the race without a hangover, but anyone wanting to adopt a hair-of-the-dog recovery strategy after the wild pasta party didn't have to wait long before the first drinks station came into view.
Some of the more sensible runners cruised past the tables laden with wine – presumably judging that 9.45am and one kilometre into a marathon was too early to have a drink – but I grabbed the plastic cup thrust at me and downed what would be the first of many tastings.
World-famous chateaux open their doors
At some chateaux we collected our samples and carried on running with them but we lingered at the chateaux that served the wine in proper glasses. I tried to keep track of each chateaux and remember the names of samples I liked but it all became a bit of a blur after the 10th glass.
With drinking taking high priority at this race, the organisers could have provided more loos on the course, but the lack of facilities didn't really matter as runners ducked between rows of vines to answer the call of nature – something that French men enjoyed drawing attention to with loud cheering and pointing.
The laissez-faire attitude of the race organisers also extended to 'vehicles' on the course. As well as various aeroplanes, pirate ships, windmills and miniature steam rollers clogging up the route, quite a few runners stashed bikes in the hedges just outside Pauillac and hopped on to them as soon as the race began.
"They're just cheating themselves," we all agreed every time a bike overtook us. Besides, taking the race at a leisurely pace ensured we could appreciate the carnival atmosphere created by the dozens of bands lining the route.
There weren't too many spectators to cheer runners, but we did encounter some British people who lived down the road and had generously set up their own refreshment station – complete with Union Jack tablecloth – and were encouraging runners to stop and say hello. We were rewarded with a slice of homemade quiche, yet more wine and some words of encouragement.
We also discovered that the sunny weather at the previous year's race had created far more casualties than this year's overcast conditions – although everyone still looked extremely rosy-cheeked, but whether that was down to the heat, exertion or wine, it was hard to tell.
Raising a glass at the finish
As well as 23 wine-tasting stops on the route, the organisers had remembered to include a few water stations too. If you'd made it as far as translating the pre-race literature, the final page of the race brochure featured an advert explaining that it's a good idea to hydrate with water during a marathon – a piece of advice no one heeded during or after the race.
By the time I stumbled across the finish line, I couldn't face any more red wine – every finisher received a bottle in a smart souvenir holdall – so I headed for the refreshment tent where the free cold beer seemed like the perfect way to rehydrate and celebrate my perfectly timed effort of 6:28:50.
For anyone still standing at 11pm, the day finished with a spectacular fireworks display on the banks of the Gironde.
There was also a recovery walk the following day but by then we'd returned to Bordeaux to explore the city and check out the excellent quayside market.
City Of Culture
We'd left the wine tasting behind in Pauillac, but back in Bordeaux it never stops. This is a city built on wine.
The stunning 18th-century architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site uses the same attractive honey-coloured limestone that creates the region's award-winning wines and gives Bordeaux a good chance of succeeding in its bid to become the 2013 European City of Culture.
Even without the excitement of the Medoc Marathon, the city is well worth a visit – just make sure you bring your wallet: in some smarter shops you'll have no trouble spending thousands of pounds on a single bottle of wine.
The region's wines might be among the world's most expensive vintages, but it's impossible to put a price on the simple pleasure of tasting many of them at the Medoc Marathon.
The race was so much fun that I'm already planning my fancy-dress costume for next year's circus theme. I imagine runners being fired out of cannons, balancing on elephants and falling over each other in big clown feet. I've even started to train for the race: now where did I put that corkscrew?
|So you want to run the Medoc Marathon?
The next race – on September 12, 2009 – will mark the 25th anniversary of the race, so expect places to fill even more rapidly than usual. To find out more, visit www.marathondumedoc.com. For a package that includes guaranteed race entry, transfers and accommodation in Bordeaux, visit www.209events.com.
If you can't wait until next September to combine your running and drinking passions, the sixth Marathon des Premieres Cotes de Blaye takes place on the opposite bank of the Gironde on May 9, 2009. With 20 wine stations and a six-hour time limit, you'll need to put in some drinking training as well as the miles. Find out more at www.marathon-cotes-de-blaye.com.
For other French highlights, check out our top 10 of the country's races.