A French summer of running

In August, I go to France. I have a ramshackle house in a tiny village in the foothills, sort of, of the Pyrenées. I needed a few weeks of sun, drinking, eating and relaxing more than ever: after my catalogue of injuries, illnesses, infections, I was desperate for a break. So FRB and I drove for two days, stopping in Chartres on the way, and got to the very very south of France where my house is. The background: I’ve not really run much when I’m in France. I was marathon training the year before, and did a few runs, including a lovely run in the rain up the very steep hill that rises behind the village (which is in a valley), and a long 15K on the Voie Verte, a 30K-long converted railway line, from my village, down its Allée des Platanes, past sunflower fields, past La Camonette, the most stylish snack-bar around, to the beautiful mediaeval town of Mirepoix. IMG_4973  IMG_4969But this time round, France was going to be where I got back to running, after getting back to running then falling off again. Apart from that short run to the chip shop, I had deliberately done nothing. We would get to France, we would sleep, and we would get up and run. And we did, around the stunning Lac Montbel, a freshwater reservoir with a 16K track running around it. We set off together, but FRB said he would run ahead, go further and then presumably loop back and catch up with me. I wanted to do 10K, he wanted to do about 12. Off we went. Summer at the lake is busier than winter, but still not busy. It’s barely known. There are a few fishermen, a few families on the shore. But most people head for the two official beaches, and ignore the other 14km of shoreline. This is a mistake, when it looks like this: IMG_6480I did 5K, slowly. This got me to the nautical sports resort, where some young men in a canoe-rental shack decided it was hilarious to send me in the wrong direction. Abrutis. Then back, to a gathering storm. There was hardly anybody about, just a couple of fishermen in tents, then a small group of horses and riders. I never know what to do when coming up behind horses. I mean, at what point to alert them and at what point it’s safe and at what point it’s inflammatory. So I called out from way back, and walked slowly past them, and then picked up my slow pace a bit so I didn’t get caught up. They didn’t catch me up and nor did FRB even though I stopped a few times to take photos. I got back to the car, he got back five minutes later, and as we had planned, we headed back to the lake for a swim. The storm broke and the rain began while we were in the water. I don’t usually like wild swimming, as I’m scared of depths and currents. But this lake is green and calm and beautiful. But even I knew that you shouldn’t be in water when lightning is coming, so we got out quickly, and headed back through the trees, another place you shouldn’t be when lightning is coming. FRB knows about these things, and told me that the best thing to do in lightning is lie flat in an exposed place. If you still get hit, then it was your time and there’s nothing to be done about it.

We didn’t get hit, we got very wet.

A couple of days later we decided to do a run-explore. The map showed that we could get from a nearby village, through the forests, over the hills and down to my village. There were tracks galore, on the map. In reality, they were goat paths that had long since disappeared. Even the unerringly good navigational sense of FRB couldn’t get us up and over the forest. We walked and fought through brambles and thorns for a couple of miles, then gave up, went back the way we had come, and ran back to the safety of the Voie Verte.

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There is always one walk or run when I’m in France that leaves me scarred and scratched for the rest of the holiday, and this was it. IMG_6535

Next, we decided to run up and down a mountain. I never fully exploit the Pyrenées when I’m in my house, usually because my guests aren’t particularly sporty or active, or they have children who do not want to go trekking or running in mountains. But this time I was determined to get up the mountains, and to go camping. So we packed the car (or FRB did: he’s better at it than me) and headed for a campsite near Ax-les-Thermes run by Dutch people and full of Dutch people. Then we headed into Ax and got the cable car up to the first ski station, then a chair-lift up to the next level, about 2000. The plan then was to run the mile to the summit, then the 8 or so miles back down. But I couldn’t do it. I found the altitude draining, and I had no energy. We got to the summit, but mostly by walking. It was stunning. (So stunning I obviously couldn’t keep my eyes open.)

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Because we’d taken such a late chairlift up, all the mountain bikers had finished for the day.

IMG_6467 IMG_6470So although I wasn’t going to give my Brooks Pure Grit the altitude training I’d promised them, they were going to learn a lot about descent. We couldn’t find the hikers’ trail on the map, so we decided it was safe to set off down the VTT trails, of which there were many. Down, down, down. At one point we ran down ski pistes instead, to get some relief from the rocky, technical VTT trails. I had no idea how taxing running downhill could feel like. We stopped in the Bonsacres, the ski station, for an overpriced but totally worth it Coke, then carried on. It was another four miles or so. I went over on my ankle and had to walk for a bit, but we made it down, stuck our feet in the hot thermal pools that are freely available in Ax, and despite having no change of clothes, headed for urgent pizza, me dressed in a tiny running skirt, a waterproof, and looking like something the cat had dragged in, but only because it hadn’t found anything else.

The next day. Ow. Quads! God they hurt. We were both hobbling around, but we still did a six or seven mile walk up another mountain nearby. The next day we’d planned to run, but neither of us was yet in a fit state, so another walk, then back to the blessed flat.

Next, a race. I’d decided I wanted to do a race while I was in France, months ago. I looked and looked, but south-west France is cycling country, not running country, and the number of local races was very small. I found the Marathon de Montcalm and though it looked good, but FRB checked the ascent and said, no bloody way. He was training for Ben Nevis but he didn’t want to run another Ben Nevis as well. I found another one in L’Hospitalet pres d’Andorre, but that had a similar altitude problem. Then, I saw a sign for something called the Marathon des Oussaillès in St-Girons, about an hour’s drive away. We researched it. Not just flat, but a net descent. It offered relay options, so I wrote to ask if we could do a half marathon each. Bien sur, they replied. Never mind that it would be on the day before we left to drive back home, nor that I had to fly to Copenhagen a couple of days before it to give a talk. We signed up, sent in the required medical certificates, and I started to get a bit nervous. I always get race nervous, but I hadn’t run near 13 miles for a while (the last had been Eccup 10 in June) and I didn’t know if I could. FRB offered me the first half, which turned out to be less than a half. The weather forecast was clear skies and 33 degree temperature, which meant the FRB would get the worst of the sun.

Then, disaster. Brussels Airlines lost my luggage somewhere between Toulouse and Copenhagen, which contained my favourite Brooks Pure Flow and even more importantly, my orthotics. I really really didn’t want to run without them, but my tendon hasn’t niggled for a while now and I decided to risk it. I had some older Ghosts that I’d left in France, so I thought, the cushioning will help, and I’ll just have to take it easy.

The registration ended at 7.30am, so we set off at 6, when it was still night, through and beyond Foix, along winding roads to St-Girons. The race HQ was in the local athletics stadium; FRB would get to finish on the track. It was a low-key atmosphere and really nice. There were only 50 marathon runners and 75 doing relays. It would be smaller than even the smallest fell race I’ve done. We got our numbers, marked with my hastily-thought-up team name (yes, yes, I should have made it Tourists de Yorkshire):

IMG_6682A quick stop for me to eat two pieces of bread and jam, then we drove to the start at Aulus-les-Bains. I’d never heard of Aulus-les-Bains, but I’ll be back. It’s stunning.

village1By now I was getting very nervous. The usual: how do I run? I can’t remember how to run! FRB at one point said, “remember three rules,” and I said “DON’T GIVE ME ANY BLOODY RULES,” even if they were good ones:

  1. Hydrate
  2. Enjoy
  3. I can’t remember the third one

We met a couple of other runners, including one nice man from the huge print-works we’d driven through, who spoke extremely good English and turned to be extremely fast. We asked a couple of people to take pictures:

IMG_6688Then FRB set off to get to the first relay hand-over stage, to support me, then to drive to the next, in the town of Seix. The route was beautiful on the map: a meander through two “shady valleys,” through several villages. We gathered around the back of a Centre for Trail Running (noted! I’ll be back!), and set off. A couple of hundred metres later, as we turned the corner into a street, an escaped horse came galloping up past us.

“Is that normal?” I asked someone running near me.

“Well, you don’t get it in Paris.”

It was going to be hot, but most of our 18K was indeed in shady valleys. They were very beautiful, though I took no pictures, but I did a lot of gawping. After the first mile or two, the field spread out and I ran on my own for most of it. At the first change-over, I pulled one number off my vest to reveal the second one underneath. FRB was waiting further on, checked I was OK, then overtook me on a long straight road afterwards. I famously don’t remember routes, but of this one I can remember green fields, forests, hamlets of houses with very sloping roofs, an ancient and crumbling house with what looked like a pigeon loft. There weren’t many supporters, but there were a few, and anyway I was happy ambling along with my own company and the scenery. As for difficulty, I think it was probably the easiest run I’ve ever done. There were water stations every 5K. At the third one, the volunteer said, “would you like some Coke?” and I could have hugged him. Every water table had dried figs and apricots and dates. The French obviously don’t do jelly-babies. I’m not sure I’d want figs, given their bowel-moving capabilities, so I stuck with water and Coke and gels. The miles went past really fast, at least in my memory, and I got to about a mile outside Seix when something popped under my foot: my skin had cracked. Lovely. I handed over to FRB on a bridge, wished him luck (at least, I hope I did), and took as much Coke, water and dried fruit as was on offer. Then I asked in the tourist office where I could bathe my feet, and the woman pointed out a ramp I hadn’t seen. I bought lots of delicious local sheep and goat’s cheese from an épicerie nearby, the kind run by a man who takes total pride in finding the best produce to sell, fetched bread and coffee from the car, the location of which FRB had written down in a pouch he handed to me with the key before running off. I went to the river, and I sat in it, for a long time, drinking good coffee and eating amazing mountain cheese. Who wouldn’t?

IMG_6683Eventually I dragged myself away, back to the car and headed off to find FRB. My tendon and legs were fine the day after, so I’m planning to sit in cold river water whenever I can after a race. I missed FRB at the first changeover, but drove past him on a long stretch of road. It was baking hot and he had no shade. It looked very very tough. I was going to stop again but by the time I found a good place to stop, I was in St-Girons, so I headed for the stadium. It was HOT. I found some shade to sit in, and tried to figure out when he might arrive. I’d done my 11K in 1:44, which was OK. He had 24K to do, in heat. I knew he’d be at least 1.45, so at that point I walked over to the other side of the stadium to see him back in. He didn’t arrive for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realise that not only had he run 24K in mostly exposed heat, but that the second leg had him run into St-Girons, then up a big hill to a chateau, then back again.

I saw that most of the relay teams were running to the finish line together, so when he did arrive, I said, “are you OK?”

“No.”

“I’m running the track to the finish with you.”

“No.”

He claims he just grunted. I’m surprised he got anything out at all, given how heatstroked he looked. Anyway I ran alongside him, though I was barefoot, we crossed the line together, the MC doing the interviews asked me to stay to talk to him and I turned to look for FRB and he’d sprinted over to some shade. It took about 20 minutes for him to look human again. The MC asked me the usual: why are you doing this race, and I said, why not? Then he asked if we were staying for the group meal, but I said we had to go and pack. We showered, drank a beer, and instead of packing went into St-Girons and wandered around desperately seeking an open cafe. Finally we found one, and ate salad and chips, and it was blissful. We came pretty far down the list of relay teams, but they were mostly running in fours, so I didn’t feel too bad. Apparently Marathon des Oussaillès is the fastest in France, but not official because it has too much descent. Anyway, the organization was impeccable and much better than for some big races I’ve done (yes, Edinburgh Marathon, I mean you). I would definitely do it again.

I’ve still not been reunited with my orthotics, so I’ve ordered more. Brooks have very kindly offered to send me some new shoes for the Yorkshire marathon. Though my training has gone extremely awry, I’m still going to try to do it, as long as my tendon doesn’t object and as long as I can stop having stupid accidents. But for now, I’m back.

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