When château cos d’Estournel, one of the finest wineries in Bordeaux, offers the opportunity to represent the Château as part of its running team for the 2016 Marathon du Médoc, l agreed sans hesitation. Why not? Not only do I profess a steadfast love for the wines of the Deuxièmes Cru estate in Saint-Estèphe, the Marathon du Médoc has always been on my bucket list.
Dubbed the world’s longest marathon, this is no ordinary endurance run. It is possibly the wackiest race there is. Which other marathon features 23 wine stops, free-flow local specialties the likes of Arcachon Bay oysters, foie gras, steaks and ice cream along the
42-km route? This one commences and terminates in Pauillac, winding past fairy tale-like chateâux of the Médoc region, birthplace of some of the most esteemed wines produced in history.
Held annually on the second Saturday of September when the vines are in full bloom and weather is ideal, this year’s race has attracted 8,000 participants from all corners of the world; most of them donning disguises — from sword-wielding gladiators to Snow Whites and ninja turtles in all shapes and sizes — that stretch the year’s theme of Tales and Legends.
Merrymakers on the grounds of Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron.
I’ve never run a mainstream marathon, let alone the peculiar Marathon du Médoc despite having resided in Bordeaux for almost two years. Uncertain of what lies ahead for my first race, I check on my essentials as the forecasted rain makes way for splendid 26-degree C weather. Cos d’Estournel T-shirt with numbered bib, check. Camera phone, check. Spotify list, check. (I haven’t packed Imodium, as it hadn’t occurred to me to, though an Athena-resembling goddess saunters up to advice: “Should the occasion call for the loo, a bush will suffice.”)
At 9.30am, the horns sounds and all 8,000 of us advance north along the main road of Pauillac town, where the usually sleepy community of 5,000 inhabitants have gathered along the route with picnic tables laid out. From the sidelines, I hear an “Allez, Sandy!”, called out by a man who must have read my name from my bib. I return a big smile. There’s an electrifying buzz in the air with bands playing music. Allez, here we go.
The first wine stop, at Château La Pauillac Rose, is packed with merrymakers hankering a taste of ambrosia from the region. With the glasses regrettably beyond reach, I zip past, making good time to Bages village, renowned for Château Lynch-Bages, Chef Jean-Luc Rocha’s Café Lavinal, two-Michelin-star restaurant Château Cordeillan Bages and the hotel of the same name. I pause to greet Charles Thuillier, deputy director of tasting school Bordeaux Cercle Lynch-Bages, who beams a hearty welcome to runners as he hands out glasses of the estate’s wines.
Runners help themselves to wine.
After a quick sip, I’m off to Pichon Longueville Baron 5km away. The estate, which looks straight out of a Disney princess movie, never fails to stop passers-by in their tracks. With second wine Les Tourelles de Longueville served in Spiegelau glasses, a band rousing us with euphonic melodies and the warm glow of the sun making for good picture moments, it’s hard to advance from this dreamlike setting. But it must be done.
I push myself towards Château Latour, which is owned by French billionaire François Pinault. This first-growth property dates back to the 14th century but has only passed through the hands of three owners, producing some of the greatest wines with remarkable consistency of quality. Not surprisingly, a group of Asian runners have congregated here to recharge over a glass.
A queasy sensation begins churning in my tummy, resembling symptoms of runner’s diarrhoea (a condition that often affects distance runners with an urgent need for bowel movement mid-run). “When the occasion calls for it, a bush will suffice,” Athena’s wise words come back to mind. Now barely beyond 7km, I shrug off the squeamishness by jogging hastily along the picturesque route to Saint-Julien, a region renowned for its muscular and powerful style of wines. It becomes evident that a number of runners are experiencing identical symptoms and have conveniently darted off to release among bushes.
To my well-brought-up French amis, letting go in public under such a circumstance is, as they say, “part of nature”. But, an open lavatory, prickly bushes and no toilet paper — I refuse to succumb. Pushing through the physical torment, I scrabble past Château Beychevelle and arrive at the pristine Branaire-Ducru estate. Waving from the balcony of her chateâu is its owner. Her immaculate gardens further feature a three-piece guitar band.
Engulfed by discomfort, I spot what appears like toilets from afar and a line of bashful women. Hallelujah. My modesty is preserved.
Immediately after, I whisk off to Gruaud Larose, where handsome vintage Mini Coopers line up alongside the estate’s wines and lip-smacking charcuteries. Armies of volunteers stationed alongside the marathon route distribute water, bananas, oranges, colas and cookies, providing replenishment for the battered. It must be said that the organisers have deployed a large number of medical personal, taking health and safety of participants very seriously.
Time is ticking. At three hours, I’d done just 21km. But I can’t help but pause for a stretch at the revered Mouton Rothschild, where fantasising about being a vigneron, I nick a few berries to taste. Two more weeks to phenolic ripeness, I affirm. Next door at the impeccably coiffured gardens of Lafite Rothschild, a string quartet plays on as tired bodies flick themselves into the chateâu’s inviting pond. I don’t need persuading to help myself to a glass of Lafite: Deep crimson accompanied by aromatic notes of cassis, the mouth is caressed by luscious dark fruits, leaving me understandably seduced.
Ascending uphill towards Saint-Estèphe, I spot Château Cos d’Estournel’s striking pagoda roofs that hail from the early 18th century. India-inspired, they depict founder Louis Gaspard d’Estournel’s (“the maharajah of Saint-Estèphe”) early wine successes in exotic lands.
With flat grounds and immaculate grasslands now replaced by steep slopes, gravelly paths and off-beaten tracks, my muscles tighten and ache like never before. I search for people to pace with as the last kilometres prove demanding of concentration and endurance. Already there are decreasing runners still on course. Those who came to drink have fallen by the wayside and those who came purely to run have outrun us all. I watch as a youthful priest and a septuagenarian pass me on the side, never losing momentum. How is it possible that Grandpa is 40 years older than me but speedier?
All of a sudden, two men holding on to a piece of rope bolt past me. One of their T-shirts is marked “non-voyant”, which means one is visually impaired. Not being able to see, trusting the one who leads and continuously running through five hours of exhaustion and fatigue requires tremendous courage and faith. A lump starts to form in my throat and tears well up. Overwhelmed with emotions and reflection, I push myself to complete whatever distance remains. The fragility of my tummy caution of potential consequences from further ingesting of oysters despite friendly beckoning. I succumb to a piece of l’entrecôte instead.
Having passed five hours, I wrestle against the weariness of my form till a well-meaning person pushes an ice cream firmly in my palm as I scamper past. Ice cream in hand, sand on face and an Asaf Avidan song in my ears — “One day baby, we’ll be old. Oh baby, we’ll be old. And think of all the stories that we could have told” — I sprint and sprint to what awaits.