Monday, 4 June 2012

Marathon de Sauternes 2012

The second annual marathon in the town of Sauternes and its satellite communes.  Previously, I had only taken note of the (staggeringly good) sweet wines until it was suggested that I run in their inaugural 2011 marathon.  At that time, I was absolutely not ready for this kind of challenge and anyway my running mentor advised me against combining my inaugural marathon with someone else's.  So, I waited a few months and started with the Marathon du Médoc as planned.

This year, however, nothing stood in the way although, in hindsight, perhaps I should have considered things a little more carefully...

With around 500 runners, it was a cosy atmosphere when I arrived at the marathon "village" to pick up my bib at 7am.  The large tent in the grounds of Château Filhot, where the race would finish, was a definite indication of how the rest of the event would be organised.  The volunteers at the collection desk were efficient, friendly and very, very cheerful.  With the race starting at 8:30, I had plenty of time to get myself kitted up and then walk the mile or so through the vineyards to the start at Château Guiraud.

I think a few people were caught out by the separated start/finish points and, reasonably enough, the start was delayed a little to make sure everyone was there.  As we set off, the weather was warm (20C, 70F) and cloudy with a pleasant breeze.  I paced myself well for the first 15k or so until we arrived at Château de Malle which was where the clouds fairly suddenly blew away and the sun came out at full strength.

The temperature rapidly climbed from a warm-but-manageable straight up to a very humid 32C (90F).  Only three months before, I'd been running in temperatures well below freezing point and the few sunny days since had done nothing to acclimatise me to this.  The sun beat down and the breeze was like standing next to an open oven door.  The heat bled away any pace I could muster and it was a real slog just to keep going.

None of which took away from the beautiful course we were making our way around.  There was a great deal of camaraderie and chatting amongst the runners and the organisers had obviously foreseen the effects of this kind of weather.  Instead of aid stations every five km, they were more like every three.  I couldn't get water in quickly enough and often left a station feeling too full to drink any more.  Only 500 or so metres down the road, I'd already be thirsty again.

For nutrition, I took a little and often strategy which worked well and I never felt short of resources.  The issue was with the heat making it so hard to tap the energy I had available.  Even at the slow pace I was able to keep up, my heart rate was disproportionately high and soon after the halfway point, I had to fall back on my strategy for ultras:  Walk up any rises, jog downhill and do what you can on the flat.

I was having thoughts at around 20km that I might have to abandon the race.  With that in mind, I resolved to take every opportunity to try the wines offered on the way around the route.  If I wasn't going to finish, I could at least profit from the generosity of the local vintners supporting the event.  The Sauternes wines are extremely sweet, balancing their acidity almost perfectly so I was able to get some easy sugars in along with the alcohol.  Of course, for every few sips of wine I would also take a full cup of water.  Dehydration was a real risk here.

For the wine buffs:  I would say that Château Haut-Bergeron and Château Filhot really stood out from the others I tried.  All of the wines on offer were good but those two really were to my taste.  I did, however, pass up the many opportunities to sample foie gras and similar delicacies.

There were a few interesting features on the middle section of the course including running through the chais (wine cellar) of Château Haut-Bergeron and through a passage underneath Château de Myrat, clearly visible in the picture on their home page.

Obviously, this did nothing to improve my pace but my morale was quickly restored a little by the wine but mostly by the scenery, the volunteers and the runners who were uniformly encouraging.  I hope I did my bit in lifting a few others out of their darker spots as we went onwards.

Kilometres 33 to 38 (20 to 23 miles) saw a fairly constant rise up the hill to the world famous Château d'Yquem.  As much as anything else I'd been looking forwards to going through this property and, while there was unsurprisingly no tasting available there, the warmth of welcome and cool, shaded courtyard were very pleasant.

The last few kilometres were flat but still very challenging as the temperatures continued rising up to 36C (97F).  I managed to jog most of these last few miles but the effort required even to do that was immense.  At the finish was a fantastic buffet for the runners with plenty of cool water available. 

And the time?  Around 5hrs 30 minutes which is a new Personal Worst.  No damage to speak of, though.  A little sunburn here and there but my experience at Mont St Michel had taught me well how to avoid the worst of it.

I was delighted to discover that there was a minibus shuttle to the local football stadium where cool showers were available.  Clean and changed, I didn't stick around for further wine tastings.  Instead, I drove back to share a meal at a friends house, camp overnight through the rain and massive thunderstorms and get up the following day ready to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in weather much better suited to running.

For those well able to cope with the potential heat, the Marathon de Sauternes is an great event, somewhat similar in character to the Médoc but on a much smaller scale.  I know they're hoping to have the event officially recognised by the FFA and I can't see why that shouldn't happen based on the truly excellent organisation and attention to detail shown throughout the day.  This is one I would like to have another go at, hopefully better prepared to deal with the weather next time.