The very first marathon runner, the ancient Greek Pheidippides, ran 26 miles to Athens to bring the news of victory over the Persians and died promptly upon arrival. By all accounts, he was sober. So it was with some trepidation that I wrote my name down for the Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc, a long-distance event in southwest France that takes an unorthodox approach to hydration.
Instead of energy drinks and energy bars, attendees are encouraged to sample at least 20 glasses of 30°C claret, gorging on croissants, cheese, oysters and steak – costume obligatory. No one has ever died trying the Médoc, but there is always a first time.
Five months later, as I stood at the starting line on a sunny September morning, having failed miserably to lose weight or exercise adequately, it occurred to me that there really are easier ways to have a midlife crisis.
Clowns to my left, Batman and Joker to my right (yes, really), I was stuck in the middle of 22 fellow Wonder Women seriously regretting their carb-laden booze meal in nearby Bordeaux the night before. I wasn’t the only one. The streets and cafés of the pretty town of Pauillac, where, until the pandemic, the marathon has taken place every September since 1985, were packed with participants who looked decidedly green around the gills – and not just the inflatable sharks doing calf stretches behind them. we.
Some runners were switching to Imodium and Alka Seltzer, while others had opted for a more civilized approach: A family of German Flintstones sitting at a roadside café washed down their hearty breakfast with pints of beer. By 8:30 they had ordered a second round.
The atmosphere was upbeat, a band was playing, people were dancing and the carnival atmosphere was enhanced by trapeze artists dangling from a crane above us and fireworks lighting up the river path, although what they had to do with to do with this year’s theme, “Medoc at the cinema”, was anyone’s guess. No one seemed to take themselves or the event itself too seriously.
The race is as much a celebration of the region’s fine wines and local delicacies as it is a sporting event. Many of the 8,000 participants may have been seasoned marathon runners (not me; up until a month earlier, the maximum distance I’d run was 10km), but they weren’t there to break their personal best, with tasting stops every couple of miles , what would be the point?
When the announcer began his countdown, most of the runners seemed to have forgotten that this was a race, rather than a street party. Then suddenly, shouting: “Allez! Allez! Allez!” we were out. Slow at first, dodging the hairy Smurfs in thongs, and then picking up the pace as we headed out of town.
We soon found ourselves in the vineyards. The marathon course winds in the shape of a figure eight, heading south from Pauillac, looping back halfway and then turning north before ending right where it started. Along the way you’ll come across many of Bordeaux’s best wineries, including such famous names as Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Montrose.
The path was lined with supporters; kids dressed as superheroes, local residents spraying the runners with garden hoses, and families preparing to picnic, cheering us on to shout, “Courage!”
Veteran Médocer Val – who wore a half-pint glass slung on a ribbon around her neck “to avoid going back for more” – recommended it, given the marathon’s six-and-a-half-hour cut-off point (guarded by a ” Sweeper Cart” full of brooms and, for some unknown reason, pushed by clowns in top hats), we should take our time.
If we aimed to complete the course in exactly 6 hours and 29 minutes, we would be able to taste wine at all 20 castles along the way and still reach the finish line fast enough to receive a medal. You couldn’t walk it, but the pace shouldn’t be too arduous, he said.
It had started so well. We were full of confidence having reached the immaculate lawns and fairytale turrets of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, three miles from the start of the race, well in advance, despite having sampled wine, pain au chocolat and several handfuls of biscuits cheese along the first stretch of road. Seven miles later, we were more than a little drunk and completely stone-faced when an elderly Bride of Dracula and a six-foot pirate ship caught up with us.
The plan began to unravel in the majestic Larose-Trintaudon castle. Taking turns drinking directly from the tap of a wooden wine barrel, the honking of a comical bicycle horn jolted us from our complacency: the dreaded Sweeper Cart had joined us. We fled in panic out of the gates and collided with a tipsy tyrannosaurus rex.
The next 10 miles was more of a takeout affair than an enjoyable wine tasting experience. Three of our number had to call him one day mid way. By then the scorching heat had begun to take its toll and our polyester suits were sore. David had to repeatedly stop to dry her huge fake boobs on vines. The streets were littered with discarded shirts, wigs, beards, and gladiator shields. Half of the male participants were now running in their pants.
“He’s more of a bum than a Baywatch,” Rebecca gasped, as a group of Frenchmen in red speedos passed her. A runaway bride collapsed. Many people were vomiting. And some simply disappeared into the vineyards, never to return. At Château Lafite Rothchild, six hairy Marilyn Monroes and the entire Jamaican bobsled team stripped naked and jumped into the lake.
But joining them wasn’t an option. With the Sweeper at their heels, there was little time to take in the spectacular scenery, dance to the bands, or pose in feather boas on the red carpet of Châteaux Haut-Marbuzet. I began to doubt that I would make it to the finish line. Running past, a German Dalmatian informed me that my exhaustion was entirely in my head. I was more concerned about the huge blisters on my feet.
Then, finally, we rounded a corner and the magnificent Château Montrose appeared, framed by the azure waters of the Gironde estuary. The final four-mile stretch along the water passed in a glorious confusion of music, oysters, white wine, and entrêcote (served straight into my palm by an insistent pantless smurf).
But it was the glucose explosion of the ice creams that limped us over the finish line. And finally, the world’s craziest drunken marathon was over.
And the prize for not falling dead at the finish? A souvenir bottle of wine.
The next Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc will take place on 2 September 2023. Registration opens in March 2023 and costs €96 (£83); www.marathondumedoc.com. Accommodation and transfer packages are available at the official Tutti Quanti travel agency (email@example.com)