Thursday, September 14, 2006

The 2006 Medoc Marathon - The Big Sizzle

The 2006 Medoc Marathon - The Big Sizzle
After being told all week by the locals in the Medoc area that it was going to be "cool", "overcast" and "raining" on the day of the Mecoc Marathon, you have to wonder what crystal ball they were consulting... Because every weather forecast I could consult online in the week before the race got it better than the locals. Was it wishful thinking or an inability to read a thermometre? A heat wave is a heat wave is a heat wave!

I woke up at 5:30 AM on the morning of the race and it was already 75 degrees. By 9:30 AM the temperature was 80 degrees and climbing fast. At Noon, with the sun high over the vineyards it was 93 degrees (about 34 Celsius), but it felt even hotter as we zig-zagged through the fields and vineyards along the Route des Chateaux - the Road of Castles - without the benefit of any shade and with the asphalt heating up to the boiling point.

The Marathon start has to be seen to be believed. Four out of every five marathoners are in costume. It is not so much a race as an opportunity to party. The atmosphere is festive and everyone is determined to have a good time. Early on - actually when I broke into a sweat tying my shoelaces - I had abandoned a good part of my costume in an instinctive quest for survival. Other folks apparently had a do or die attitude that I am so obviously lacking.

There were Roman Centurions, Vikings and Barbarians, Knights and Crusaders, Cowboys and Indians, Cats and Dogs, Donkeys, Pigs and Cows and, it being in France after all, any number of highly suggestive and just plain erotic costumes! Many people were dressed head to toe in black. There was even one young lady who was masquerading as Cat Woman, replete with leather and PVC rubber. I had to admire her courage, her stupidity, or her inate desire to draw admiring glances. What skin showed glistened with sweat before the race had even begun. Other runners were encased in boxes and costumes that must have weighed at least twenty or thirty pounds! Ai Caramba!

You had to admire the French sense of theatre as at the start we were treated to music, dance and delectable mademoiselles in costumes that barely covered their delicous little derrieres as they cavorted on raised platforms all along the starting grid - in sailor outfits! Une spectacle! Roman candles flared bright red in the seconds before the start. Huge groups of runners, anywhere from twenty to forty, ran in identical costumes and pushed huge, unwieldy "chariots" along the course. It was madness, chaos and it was wonderful; at least in the very beginning...

Despite a week of temperatures in the mid-nineties, the race organizers completely underestimated the need for water on the course. And the first priority of any race organizer has to be the comfort and safety of runners on the course. Anything else is frankly unforgiveable. We had started at the back of the pack to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and we were shocked to find that the first two water stations were absolutely bereft of water. I mean no water at all. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. And we were definitely thirsty, having spent ninety minutes at the start of the race already standing in the sun with no water. And we hadn't brought water with us because of our costumes and because we had been repeatedly reassured that there was lots of water available on the course. We cursed our trusting natures and the duplicity of the French. At the empty water stations we were greeted by a surreal scene. Hundreds, if not thousands of empty plastic water bottles litred the site of the water stations like dead bodies. It was as if a massacre had taken place.

By the third water station, there was still almost no water, but someone at least had the presence of mind to put out a hose. Imagination, if you will, a thousand people, or more, trying to drink from a single hose. Desperate runners crowded around and fought to get water. It was like a scene out of a wildlife documentary as a herd of crazed wildebeest fought to slake their thirst after a hundred mile migration across the searing hot plains of the Serengti. As the biggest and tallest of the group I would push and elbow my way in to get enough water for everyone. If we had a mouthful or two, we were lucky. And not a single representative from the Medoc Marathon was anywhere to be seen...

And at each water station, we stopped for long periods of time to try and assess the situation. It took us an hour and fourty-seven minutes to run the first 10K. Of course the whole point of running the Medoc Marathon is to taste wine at the Chateaux. So initially we were treated to the bizarre scenario of all the wine you could ever want to drink, but no water? Where was Jesus when we needed him? A little wine into water, please...

By this time there were murmurings of another French Revolution, only it was race organisers that the running peasants wanted to decapitate. Le guillotine; s'il vous plait! But you have to give credit where credit is due. When the local people and the Chateaux saw the situation, they quickly took matters into their own hands. People everywhere dragged out their hoses and began spraying runners down, filling buckets and troughs where you could stop to splash water on your self and pour buckets of precious water over your head. After a few hours it didn't even matter how brown the water was... I even saw people wading in some of the moats and ponds around some of the larger Chateaux.

A few hours in I actually witnessed a woman runner in the shade, leaning heavily against a wall, her make-up running down her face, long streaks of mascara making her look like a raccoon, and her costume soaked in sweat, smoking a cigarette. I looked at her in astonishment and she shrugged her shoulders as if to say, "What else can we do?" I had to wonder, did she carry cigarettes with her, did she beg one? Only the French!

As usual I was wearing my heart rate monitor and despite a relatively slow pace my heart rate was as laboured as if I was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was shocked to look down as I crested a small hill and saw that my heart rate was 173. Seymour actually got his heart rate up over 180. And we weren't breathing heavily; but our hearts were racing even if we weren't! My heart rate over the six hours I ran averaged 150 beats per minute...

Despite drinking litres and litres of water, and having a belly that was sloshing with the stuff, I only had to stop and commune with nature twice. Over six hours. And it was like I was peeing French's Yellow Mustard. Bizarre.

And oh yeah, there were no portable toilets to speak of on the course. Not so bad for the men who watered the vineyards along the course, but a little more interesting for the women who had to dart in between the rows and rows of vines to find relief.

Within a few hours of the start of the race the heat, the costumes and the relentless glare of the sun beating down began to take its toll. White and blue ambulances and medical cars began racing along the course to rescue felled runners. Dozens of people were carried away on stretchers. Every spot of shade sported an exhausted runner. Runners who had water offered it to other runnners - complete strangers - on the course. By Noon we were all in survival mode and we were all in it together. And soon rental trucks carrying water could be seen rushing alongside roads to deliver their precious cargo.

By the halfway mark, some three hours after we had started, the situation was reversed. From no water, there was water everywhere, but there was still no system in place to dispense it efficiently and huge knots of people would crowd around a beseiged volunteer who was desperately pouring water into cups as fast as they could.

On the race course itself, more and more people were slowing to walk. It was an amazing sight to look ahead of you and see miles and miles of people snaking through the vineyards, and then look over your shoulder and see miles and miles of colourful silohettes behind you. You felt like part of some epic migration or crusade. It was a feeling enhanced by the huge, billowing clouds of dust that were kicked up by thousands of passing feet in the parched and dry vineyards. A haze hung over the marathon like a mood shot in a Kubrick film. And the costumes were slowly falling apart, the route scattered with glittering pieces of cloth and plastic and bits and pieces and strange odds and ends. Cut to the Fellini film. Some people had stripped off their costumes and you saw men and women determined to finish the race running in thong underwear, briefs, bikini bottoms and brassieres. Then imagine the same individuals after they had been hosed down in an effort to cool them off... Vive la France!

The "chariots" - the elaborately decorated carnival-type floats powered by bicycle gear - that had seemed so festive at the beginning of the race on pavement now became a huge pain in the ass. As did the innumerable number of cyclists weaving in and out of the runners - who were beginning to weave themselves at this point in the race. The vineyard paths were just too narrow to accomodate them AND all the marathon runners, and they suffered endless mechanical breakdowns, accompanied by shouts for "une mechanique!" This of course did not stop them from ceasely honking their horns to try and clear a path through the runners where there was no path to be had. In fact there were several spots on the marathon course where all 8,143 runners had to file through nearly single-file...

Of course many people were not wearing sunscreen and by Noon there were beet red noses and shoulders everywhere. Sunburn had been my one great fear and I was plastered head to toe in sunblock, Bodyglide and face paint. I was as greasy as a prize pig at a fall fair. And fortunately I didn't burn.

In the later stages of the race, the singing and cavorting had slowed, but despite the heat and evident exhaustion, people still kept their festive spirits. It was inspiring. And the local people were simply fabulous. Of course you resented the fact that they were cheering you from the protection of the shade with a glass of chilled rose in hand, but they buoyed our spirits and really did make us feel like champions.

With a few kilometres to go, and a finishing time of six hours in sight, most people were walking, but with the finish line in sight they roused themselves to cross the Finish Line running. And thousands and thousands and thousands of people cheered us on. I crossed the line at about 6:06. Happy to have survived, I might add!

An adorably sweet little girl draped me with a finisher's medal and offered her "Felicitations!"

And add the schwag! We got bottles of fine vintage wine, Medoc Marathon flip-flops, souvenirs and Adidas back-packs to carry it all home in.

Afterwards, we tried to get some food and refreshments - like beer - in the runner's tent, but yet again the organization had broken down, and after standing in a huge, inert, stinking crowd that wasn't going anywhere fast, we simply went to one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront in Pauilliac and got what we so desperately needed in seconds... Icy cold beers! Et pommes frites!

The organizers had done a great job setting up showers and by the time we went through there was no hot water left, but the icy cold water was like a little taste of Paradise. It was like being resurrected from the dead. My God!, it felt good. The floors of the showers looked like sandy beaches as the grit and dust of the vineyards was rinsed off the runners.

We lounged around afterwards, grateful to have survived. Happy just to be still in the shade and not having to move.

Then came an evening blurred by all the wine you could drink, dancing like a drunken hippo on badly blistered feet, and finishing with a spectacular display of fireworks set to rousing music in front of the Gironde inlet. It was a breathtaking display.


What a day...

I was in bed before Midnight and slept the sleep of the dead.

(Note) This Blog has disappeared once - and I have no idea how it did!!!!

And here is the follow-up to the original Sizzle post...


Anonymous deborah said...

I did the marathon and arrived at 6.25!!It was my first marathon, encouraged by my loving boyfriend (who has done 10)that I would love it, I went for it! And, although you paint a very accurate picture of the pain and the heat, I did love it. So much so that I've signed up for the paris marathon 2007. Thank you for such an evocative article.

9:14:00 AM  

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