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Marathon du Cognac

I always fancied the idea of the Marathon du Medoc, not for the running in particular (sorry) but the whole weekend is sold as a social event with maybe a little wine and food en route. As always, it clashed with the canoe slalom season. Hopes dashed and a little procrastination on the web later, I come across the ‘Challenge de la convivialite’ - a series of 18 races, principally in France with a couple of outliers in Germany and Belgium, this year.

Even better, we find the Marathon du Cognac - 26.2 miles of relatively flat (only 114m height gain) countryside running through the cognac vineyards in and around the town of Jarnac in the Charente region of France. Handily, it’s 5 km from Michelle’s parents’ house. A couple of calls later and a visit to a doctor for the mandatory medical certificate, I’m signed up.

Most race registration forms will ask you who you are, where you are from, the race you want to run (11.5km and half marathon alternatives also available), your t-shirt size, maybe even your estimated finish time; not many (and definitely not enough of them) will ask do you want to include the pasta party (as much as you can eat with free wine and beer) the night before, the after-party (see below), and then invites you for a free ’promenade gastronomique’ the day after. You effectively sign-up for the weekend…

A short £29 hop from Stansted to La Rochelle (plane to car park in under a minute) and I’m heading to Jarnac to pick up my number on Friday afternoon. A small running village awaits, eschewing clothing stalls for other races in the 'Challenge de la convivialite’, which are based around food, drink and the French love of sharing both. This is reflected in the bag collected with each runner’s bib: No gels or little packets of ‘zero’ hydration tablets here; mais non: A pack of butter biscuits, a live grape vine for the garden, a black and pink technical running vest, and half a litre of Courvoisier VSOP cognac…naturally.

Having collected the number, a quick tour around the mini race village visiting stalls advertising other races in the convivialite series, and giving tasters of their ‘station de ravitaillement’, e.g. sample of their local wines/beers/spirits/charcuterie/cake. You may have started to appreciate the theme of the weekend and my interest in this event.

Being the athlete I am... or, in the alternative, because I only had 3 hours sleep the night before and I was falling asleep by 6pm, I decided to eschew the ‘pasta party’. I had a quiet night in with Michele’s parents - 2 G&Ts, clam pasta, a bottle of red wine, and a rather fine rum from Martinique: I was at the pasta party - in spirit, if not physically.

The next day, up with the Church bells and the sound of heavy rain on the roof light, I headed off to Jarnac. A couple of espressos and pain au chocolat later, it’s time to hit the startline. Flanked by 20’ high inflatable people flapping in the wind and rainwater flooding down the gutters, we gathered amongst the serious runners, the fancy dress runners [the sight of a middle-aged runner wearing wearing bunny ears, a maid's outfit, over fishnets and a thong is (i) I fear ingrained on my head, and (ii) would have made many of us reach for a morning cognac - apparently he is a regular] and the rest of us. As the start time approached, the local air force put on an aerial display overhead, the local mayor said a few words, artificial fog which was meant to fill the start line was blown away, and then to the song of confetti ribbon cannons, we are off…

We head off south over the Charente river and head off in to the countryside, running between the hamlets and villages. In between villages, the grape vines stretch as far as we can see which reminds us why we are there. 3 miles and we reach the first drink stop - NO COGNAC - phew. Coke, water, cake, sweets, but thankfully they hold off on the alcohol… until we reach the 5 mile ‘water stop’….well it would be rude not to, so 9:50am-ish and a cognac down. Most people stop take in the live music and try to taste the cognac, whilst other ‘pros’ have mastered the run-with-cognac-in-hand approach; I take the opportunity to speak to a couple dressed in the traditional costume from Brittany.

Onwards…no time to stop…it’s still raining and rather cold in the wind. “Tu sais ce don’t nous avons besoin?”, a runner asks as we approach the half way point, having just passed a water and cake stop in the middle of an abbey: "Mais, oui... Du Cognac” Surprise! Well, around the 16 mile mark, another local cognac estate delivered - a rather good VSOP served with small canapés… It was tempting to stop longer but, you know, a little run need to be finished. By this point we headed away from the river uphill to the exposed vineyards. As we reached the highest point on our tour we crossed a ‘main' road, closed for each runner by the local gendarme who were being entertained by a large music system, so large we realised we could still hear the strains of the Macarena nearly a mile later.

At 21 miles, we ran into a courtyard of a fine local cognac distillery - the walls covered in portraits of the previous owners - and through a cognac barrel storage shed. As we exited back in to the daylight, the menu was offered: Firstly, the drinks: water, coke, tonic water, white wine, red wine, VSOP cognac; and then the food: charcuterie, pate on bread, pork rillettes on bread, charcuterie, and cake. We stopped - it would be rude not to. A couple of drinks later and chats with fellow runners, it is hard to leave this spot…they even have multiple fire pits around which you can warm up.

Tearing myself away after what the garmin says was only a short break (I must be getting better at my drinking), I head out to the countryside for the final few miles run / jog / walk into town. I turn down the offer of soup from a couple who are in the middle of nowhere; despite the race being spread out across the countryside and small villages everybody - young and old appears to be out with yells of “Courage!”.

Running into town, past the house of the late Francois Mitterrand, the last stop before the last kilometre to the finish line - the Louis Royer cognac distillery! An impressive building with monstrous barrels stacked to the rafters, they also offered the choice of ten or so cognacs…Well not one to turn down an offer…hic - only joking! There is photo evidence of me running out of the storage shed, plastic cup in hand.

A short run through town and I'm across the finish line - an amazing experience. The stats: 5:05:51+ 2 x red wine, 1 x small white wine taster, 3 x VSOP cognac, 1 x XO cognac, charcuterie, cake, cheese, fruit, pate and toilettes on bread,… Strangely, a PB despite the food, drinks and stops…

So at most races that would be that… A shower / change, 'une barquette de frites et une petite biere' and a little rest later, it’s time for the afterparty…

I arrive at the Salle des fetes to have a branded wine goblet forced into one hand, a beer into the other, and barrels being used as tables on which are placed baskets of bread and jars of pate. On the dance floor is a ‘marching’ band, who played everything from the Beatles to modern chart music with gusto. And when I say gusto, I’m not sure many people have seen ‘stage diving’ to the sounds of brass and woodwind instruments before?! Another drink…not a problem help yourself: "Please could I have a glass I asked?" "A glass of wine? Mais non… take a bottle.” If you insist and so it continued; the first band being replaced with equally furious group, playing to about 600 runners and volunteers.

I’ll leave it there, but needless to say a great event for a non-serious runner like me. Great people, an army of volunteers, serious runners (winner came in in 2:47 I believe - what a waste!), and some down time. I’m not a fan of road runs (mud, rock and hills are lovely), but drink-running makes it interesting.

So where were those other 17 races?