Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Marathon de la Baie du Mont St. Michel 2012

Mont St. Michel is a beautiful monastery island off the north coast of France.
The island monastery of Mont St Michel

The Marathon de la Baie is a point-to-point race along the coast and I was more than a little apprehensive about it.  It conjured up not-so-distant memories of the last time I tried a marathon in a similar setting.  I needn't have worried though as the experience couldn't have been more different and, of course, the event provided its own particular challenges.

The race lies over 550 km from our home and so, with the help of my mum who looked after the kids (Thanks!), my wife and I were able to make a special trip of it.  We stayed with friends in Brittany the night before and got to St. Malo after a leisurely drive along the coast, taking time out for a relaxed  lunch and to walk the dog along the beach.

The reason we headed to St. Malo is that it's the location of the marathon village.  Mont St. Michel itself is a small island occupied entirely by an abbey.  Oh and some bars, restaurants and tourist shops.  The registration process was pretty slick once we cleared up their questions about my medical certificate and the expo was pretty much what you expect for this kind of thing.  For the first time, though, we went to the Pasta Party which was a great way to spend an evening, especially as it included a lovely few kilometres walk there/back on the beach with my wife.
Pasta Party
The race had an 8:30 start and, as it was a point-to-point, we knew there would be many road closures and diversion.  Having got to the outskirts of Cancale, the town hosting the start, I had a pleasant but chilly walk to the quays from which we would start.  The organisation was good and, thankfully, the sunshine kept us all from shivering too much as we waited to go.  The weather was pretty much perfect:  Sunny all the way, temps climbing from 8C to 16C and a light headwind. I can only imagine how different it must be in more difficult conditions.

2012 Route
My main concern was the relatively short time limit for the course which stands at five hours.  I know that's not much of a problem for actual athletes but for someone like me, it's a big worry.  My last three marathons had taken 5 hours or more and there were cut-off points at 21k and 31k.  With this in mind, I deliberately went off a little quicker than usual, determined to complete the race within the time allotted.  I decided to run tech-free for this one so my only way of judging pace was to keep the 4h30 flag behind me and the 4h15 ahead.  In truth, I didn't see the 4h15 after the first couple of km anyway.

The course is pretty flat with the only long hill across the first couple of km as you climb away from Cancale.  The hill was fairly gentle and served as a great way to throw off the last chill from the starting area.  Descending again to the coast, we caught our first sight of the Mont at about 4k.  It was just a tiny bump on the horizon with the spire of the abbey clearly visible even at this distance.  Fortunately, we frequently lost sight of the it behind buildings and woodland so we were spared the illusion that we were never getting any closer.


The rest of the first half was delightful as the day gradually warmed to more comfortable temperature.  I had dressed for the predicted warm day ahead so I was glad to soak up the warmth.  I saw my wife at around 9km and headed along the coast through picturesque villages and past traditional Breton musicians to the halfway point.  I hit the half-marathon at a very pleasing 2h10 although even now I was feeling a little worn.


In parallel with the marathon, there was also a Duo event.  Two runners share the marathon distance with a change over at 20k.  The first runner gets a shorter distance but the hill at the start.  An unexpected consequence for me was the demoralising factor of being passed for the next 10k by all these fresh relay runners who just blew past me like I was standing still.  I kept hard at it, still gradually losing pace until I passed the second cut-off point at about 3h10.  At this point I knew that I'd make it to the finish within time but also that I'd burnt myself away too soon.  By 31k the 4h30 flag went past me and I tried to keep pace with them for a few hundred metres without success.

I was reduced to a jog/walk routine for several kilometres but still had the presence of mind to enjoy the changing scenery as we moved off the road and onto paths through land reclaimed from the sea called Polders.  The shade from the trees lining the route was also very welcome.
Finally, I got to 39km where my wife was (once again) waiting for me.  As you can see, I was far from the only one reduced to a walk by now.  We walked along hand-in-hand for a while in the afternoon sun as I gathered myself for a last push.  More than anything else, I think walking along this section towards the beautiful island will stay with me.


At last, I got properly under way again, running along the causeway towards the island.  I could feel the sun finally starting to bleed past my sunscreen and also burning my scalp through my hair but I  just pushed forwards.  Thankfully, the finish was at the foot of the Mont as, after the EcoTrail de Paris, I'd had quite enough of ending a race with a climbing challenge.

At the finish line
I finished looking much stronger than I felt and made my way through the arrival area, grabbing a bag full of food and drink on the way.  It can be good when one of the sponsors is a supermarket.  Outside, I sat in the sun with my wife before we went for a (very) slow walk around the iconic monument on the island.  As for the time, I was quite surprised to find I'd made it in just over 4h47.  I was expecting a much slower time given just how much I faded over the last 10k.

We headed back to the hotel in St Malo where we enjoyed a meal in the restaurant and then a romantic walk along the beach where we were treated to a spectacular sunset.  All in all, a fantastic race experience.  I have no doubt that the great weather contributed massively to the whole thing but the organisation, scenery and spectacular route also played a great part.