Running Away From Home – Marathon des Oussailles

The only words I understood were “fin, trois and kilometre”. It was the start of an out and back, before the closing stretch towards the stadium finish. The enthusiastic route marshal clearly said much more and, I assume, when translated the comments were likely positive and supportive. Still, I reminded myself only three kilometers to the end; less than two miles – maybe all over in less than quarter of hour? But at that point I didn’t know about the killer incline. Perhaps the marshal was also trying to warn of this final obstacle? Next time maybe I need to learn more than the worst case scenario, ”Je suis pas bien, s’il vous plait.

A few hours earlier… I’ve never cheered on anyone while eating two croissants that were delicately plucked from an oven only 5 minutes prior. Further, I’ve not eaten such delicacies with massive mountain vistas and fresh air filling my lungs, between crusty munching of course.  The event all seemed a bit surreal. Still, 7 days had passed since Rose had entered us in the relay, or equipe, format of the Marathon des Oussailles. On something of a whim, we were both quietly confident that we could share the 4 stages and complete the marathon distance of 42km.  The race started in Aulus-les-Bains and the route weaved its way south-north to finish in St. Girons.

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A few obstacles soon however presented themselves. First, a few days prior to the event, while Rose traveled to a conference, her luggage was inconveniently misplaced* between France and Denmark. This meant she lost both her ideal running shoes and essential orthotics. Second, I started to take more of interest in the route and soon observed that the division of stages 1-2 and 3-4 would be unequal: approximately stages 1-2 would total 18km (11.75miles) and stages 3-4 almost 24km (14.5miles). Lastly, the temperature at the 9am start was forecast around 180C, rising to a maximum of possibly 33oC in the afternoon. In short, I had inadvertently agreed to run the longer stretch in significantly warmer conditions.  Still, a great opportunity to competitively race in the Brooks Glycerin13 shoes, kindly gifted to me by Run4It (as part of my Loch Ness Marathon adventures…).

I’d parked the car, clicked on my waist pack with water bladder and waited for my Yorkshire Tourist team mate. The stage change over was idyllic. On a narrow, stone bridge in the scenic town of Seix. The sun was already belting down. I lurked in the shadows of a giant plane tree. Down the road, a purple vest soon came into view: “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire…”. My loud patriotic cries down the boulevard rewarded me with some strange looks from other competitors, not to mention the locals. A few other runners set off as Rose and I shared a quick embrace and I checked she was ok. After handing over the car keys and location map (drawn after I’d parked), I set off to tumultuous applause.

The tactics were simple. Three sets of 5 miles, enjoy the downhill gradient and run at a pace that was comfortable. The first section was, by all accounts, easy and enjoyable. Marshals stopped traffic at key junctions, there were water (and dried fruit) stops at least every 5km, sometimes more frequent. Supporters cheered. Locals spoke glowing in French. And motorists were considerate when overtaking. I even found some decent pockets of shade. But no obvious downhill sections.

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The middle section started to get tougher. The route became more undulating and less shaded. The temperature was suddenly flicked up to Gas Mark 5, and Rose drove passed, smiling, happy and cool inside the air-conditioned car** I still managed to pass a handful of full marathon runners here, plus also at least one relay runner. My pace however had slowed slightly, and I was really starting to sweat quite profusely. Frustratingly, the route also followed alongside a fast-flowing mountain river that splashed and lapped, seemingly refreshing, clear water over polished, cool cobbles.

I threw water over my head and sunk a flat coke at the change over between stages 3-4. Actually, I almost got this the wrong way round! Heat and exhaustion were setting in. The temperature was rising further and there was little shade as I entered the town of St. Girons. Perhaps more challenging, I now had no runners to chase and, after glancing over my shoulder, there were no runners close to catching me. Marshals again provided much need support and route direction, as I crossed a footbridge and trudged along a riverside trail path. The sun was now directly above and behind my every stride. Thankfully, my strides were superbly aided by my new shoes.

I weaved through the Centre Ville where café and restaurant patrons shouted and cheered “allez, bravo” and, quite possibly, something like: “courir grand homme, courir!” I glanced at my Garmin and calculated that there was less than a Parkrun to go; simple targets and small goals. This was quickly extinguished from thought when I reached a busier road junction. Route marshals were directing me straight ahead, while other runners returning from this destination were guided to my left – this was the announced out and back. A short distance down the road, waves of nausea washed through me, and currents of heat radiated from industrial buildings. “Le fin, trois kilometre…bravo, allez…”

Runners passing in the opposite direction were no longer keeping to the flow of traffic. Shade was the key driver now, and everyone adopted direct lines to find and absorb it for as long as possible. The road gently curved to the right and soon rose sharply for approximately 300metres. My pace reduced to what seemed like a plod, but still I passed a handful of marathon runners. Below a dominant chateau in St Lizier, the road again rose steeply, before the route reversed and, at last, the hot tarmac fell beneath my feet. Annoyingly, the tannoy from the finish area could be heard nearby, hidden behind trees perhaps only 500metres to my right.

I somehow stumbled into an uncomfortable groove, smiled and thanked the final few junction marshals. Soon I recognised the avenue towards the sports stadium, from where we’d collected our race numbers earlier that morning. A taped section led runners into the stadium, and the final circuit of the track. My legs were battered and my mind focused simply on running to the finish, for shade. Rose greeted me and asked if I was ok. My reply was short and when she insisted that she’d run with me to the finish I felt a little embarrassed – she explained it was customary for ‘equipees’ to finish as a team. We joined hands, crossed the line, and the announcer thrust a microphone and questions towards the Yorkshire Tourists’ spokesperson. I bolted for the first obvious bit of shade. We’d completed the marathon in a joint time of 3:52 (Rose completing in a storming 1:45, while I lumbered round in 2:07).

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* lost by buffoons, maybe French, could be Belgian, but likely Danes (wearing Fair Isle jumpers and plotting death, political infighting and drinking coffee…)
** Rose had found time, post-run, to relax, dip in a cool river, eat sumptuous cheese and sip a thermos of coffee

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