A man dressed as an elephant slumps down on a low stone wall, tosses his fluffy grey trunk over his left shoulder and leans back to listen to a jazz trio perform in front of two terra cotta-coloured warehouses. Behind him a field contains a stone gazebo by a small lake. To the right is a large, turreted chateau backed by immaculate vineyards which disappear into the horizon.
This is not the mental picture oenophiles have of the Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, home of the Baron and Baroness Rothschild and some of the world’s legendary wines, but one day a year it opens its gates to a crazed collection of runners.
This is the Marathon du Medoc, which is the ultimate harvest festival. Held every September, the Marathon du Medoc breaks the mold for marathons. Instead of the usual lean, spandex-clad competitors, this marathon seems more of a cross between Halloween and Mardi Gras. That’s because the 8,500 runners are in costume and the dress code for this edition was animals. (For 2013 runners were to work with history and a carnival theme for 2014.)
We pulled into a convenience store parking lot in Pauillac, followed by a sleek blue BMW. Two adults dressed as bumble bees stepped out of the car, pulled two sets of gossamer wings from the trunk and stretched after their 1,200-kilometer drive from Germany. He is a banker, she is an economist. They were lean, fit and anxious to buzz off.
Walking to the marathon’s start line I passed a mini-United Nations of runners from South Africa, China, Finland, England, Canada, United States, Australia, Japan and every member of the European Union. Everyone, but the Japanese, who came as Anime action heroes, are dressed as animals. Runners were painting black and yellow strips on each other’s torsos to finish their bee costumes. Others helped preen friends’ tails, and adjust wings, utters and ears. There were flamingos, swarms of ladybugs, herds of cattle and almost 1,001 runners dressed as Dalmatians escaping several Cruella Devilles. There were suggestive kittens, gorillas, lobsters, swans, penguins, sheep, and lots of pigs. There’s a French expression to sum up a close friendship “on a pas élevé les cochons ensemble.” Meaning the only thing we haven’t done is raise pigs together. Many metaphorically crossed that friendship bridge by running together as pigs.
Those who broke the dress code, stuck to a French theme. There were bakers running with baguettes, butchers with bloody aprons and cleavers, some musketeers, a Napoleon in cutaway green velvet jacket and silk knickers, who ran with one hand either in his jacket or behind his back, and a surprising number of male French maids in various stages of déshabillé.
The marathon starts and finishes on Pauillac’s quayside. This is a small town on the Gironde River midway between the city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean. The marathon takes runners through the villages which dot the vineyards of Bordeaux. The citizens move furniture out to the street to watch the costumed runners squeeze through their narrow streets before heading to the vineyards.
Julia Child’s observation that “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport,” applies to the Marathon du Médoc. In typically French fashion this is no mere marathon, here they elevate the act of running into a culinary event. In North America marathoners are parsimoniously offered water and fresh fruit. In Médoc runners have that option. But since they run past 50 chateaux and vineyards, on a route that has 21 gourmet food stations, runners here have the option of red or white wine – literally whatever the house specialty is – as well as snacks of local cheese, oysters, and fresh foie gras served on warm-from-the-oven baguettes. It’s Médoc’s version of fast food. The Marathon is probably the world’s most hedonistic sporting event. And each food and drink stop provides live music ranging from classical to jazz to pop, rock, hip hop and reggae.
Shockingly, over 7,500 people finished the marathon. I say shockingly because many were up late the night before. There was a special four-course, carbo-loading pasta dinner with wine pairing for 1,000 people. Most runners drank and ate along the way. Some runners even took smoke breaks. They didn’t adopt any faux purist attitudes. They had fun. At the finish line I saw cartwheels, skipping, and much more energy that I have seen from other events where at the end runners collapse in the arms of a volunteer. At the end of this marathon runners are greeted with a shower, massage and special bottle of marathoner wine. The runner with the best time receives his or her weight in wine.
Even for non-runners, the Marathon du Medoc is a fun event because you can watch the start from Pauillac’s quayside, linger over a decent lunch while sipping amazing Bordeaux and observe the finishers to see which costumes held up best.
If you go:
Runner/non-runner, unless you score a hotel room in town, you need to get to Pauillac early in the morning because roads are closed to accommodate the marathon.
The marathon receives 15,000 applications a year and can only accredit 8,500 runners. Registration opens in February, so if you wish to run, register early!
For information about the Marathon, go to marathondumedoc.com. For information about the Aquitaine click on tourisme-aquitaine.fr.
Other unusual marathons:
For some unique, off-continent marathons to build your travel plans around, check out:
The Comrades Marathon (an ultra 56-mile event) in June. www.comrades.com
Also in June and, perfect for insomniacs, is the Suzuki Midnight Sun Run held in Iceland. http://www.marathon.is/the-race-midnight-run/suzuki-midnight-sun-run
July events include the Laugavegur ultramarathon in the southern highlands of Iceland. http://www.marathon.is/ultramarathon And for a real test there is the Swissalpine marathon which runs up and in mountains! http://www.swissalpine.ch/cms/index.php
Another September run is the Dam tot Damloop Marathon, Amsterdam. http://www.damloop.nl/en/