By Ken Hegan for The National Post
So I’m in France to get goon-faced drunk while running a marathon through grape-strewn Bordeaux vineyards. Why not?
I’m competing in the 27th annual Marathon du Medoc, a.k.a. The Drunken Marathon. The race is about to start and, though I’ve been to Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I’ve never seen a party as crazy as this one.
Every September, more than 8,000 runners, winos, miscreants and other costumed deviants descend on Bordeaux vineyards to taste wine while jogging 42 kilometres through 59 vineyards and dozens of French chateaux.
We’ve gathered in Pauillac, a tiny town in Aquitaine, where the marathon starts and finishes at a leisurely, hiccupping pace. Marathon du Medoc is also nicknamed The Longest Marathon in the World, and by that they mean it’s the slowest.
Think about it: How fast could you run 26 miles if you had to run through 23 wine stations during a race where they serve you fresh-shucked oysters, grilled beef and some of France’s greatest reds? More than 100 of France’s finest wineries are pouring along the route.
I see at least two problems here:
1. The marathon doesn’t have toilets along the route, and
2. I have the World’s Tiniest Functioning Bladder.
So after sampling every chateau’s wine (it would be rude to decline, n’est-ce pas?), I’ll thank each winery by staggering a few feet and peeing on their grapevines. There’s a much bigger problem, though: I’ve never run a marathon before. Worse, to train for this race, I’ve gone for a grand total of five jogs.
This is either an astoundingly ignorant approach to a race that could very well kill me, or a refreshing way to push my physical limits. How hard could this be, anyway? I’m already in decent shape by doing basically nothing.
The best part of this marathon is that everybody wears silly costumes. The costume theme this year is “animals.” There are runners dressed as ladybugs, jellyfish, tigers, and giraffes, Noah carrying his ark, Trappist monks pushing a beer cart (maybe they were party animals?), a guy being attacked by a squid, five runners connected in a green caterpillar costume, a seven-foot tall elephant, and various Japanese women dressed as Minnie Mouse.
I’m surrounded by so much animal makeup and sweaty bum tails, it feels like PETA activists broke into the local zoo, poured wine down the animals’ throats, tied sneakers to their paws and hooves, swung the gates wide open, and now these beasts are staggering drunkenly through the vineyards.
Someone has to control these herds, which is why my girlfriend and I are dressed as hunters, complete with bullet belts, safari hats and shirts, aviator shades, bloody claw scratches, and water guns to squirt the bare legs of any runners who dare cut us off or foolishly get between us and a glass of Château Pichon-Longueville.
It’s the start of the race. All 8,500 of us are crushed together near the starting line, and the beasts are restless. Two acrobats perform over the starting line as the speakers blast oom-pah-pah music. Jets roar overhead. My bloody claw scratches smear on to the butcher beside me. He laughs and swings his plastic knife and says I must kill the animals so he can carve them up.
Then the starting gun goes off. The crowd cheers and we run. I plan to pace myself by stopping at every water and wine station. To avoid dehydration, I’ll sip each wine then spit it out. I want to make it to the 23rd station where they’re serving ice cream.
The course is mostly flat and, if you don’t have to run it (like if you rode along it by bike or motorcycle), the scenery is beautiful. Bucolic, even. The sun is shining on rows of perfectly coiffed vineyards, their purple grapes nestling in the leaves like the expensive French jewels they truly are.
Despite my slothful lack of training, the first 10K are easy. The villagers in Paulliac line the road to cheer us on as we run by. It feels like the war has just ended and we’ve liberated their country. I yell “Vive la France!” and high-five little kids.
By the halfway point, 20K, my lungs are good but my knees ache and I slow to a trot. Sure, I’m quaffing fine wines from Château Beychevelle, Haut-Bages-Liberal, Lafite-Rothschild and Léoville Las Cases. No complaints there. But by the 22K mark, I realize I’ve run three times longer than my longest ever run. And there’s another 20K still to go.
Every three miles, volunteers in maroon T-shirts keep pouring us red wine. But they’re running out of cheese, which makes me think I’ll finish last.
The next two hours are all kinds of pain. I alternate between jogging and wince-walking. I’d somehow forgotten that I’ve had four surgeries on the cartilage of both of my knees. It’s the padding that keeps your bones from grinding against each other.
Then my legs start to spasm. My girlfriend stays close to make sure I don’t collapse sideways. The beasts keep passing us as we walk: bees, cows, ducks, and men dressed like cows leaping into roadside ponds. Plus there’s a guy jumping around in a gorilla mask and short-shorts. He keeps bouncing along the vineyard path and waving at farmers. He doesn’t have a number on and I’m not even sure he’s in the race. He might just be a hallucination.
Here’s the thing: If you’re running a marathon in Bordeaux but find that you’ve been walking for five kilometres, you’re no longer running a marathon. Instead, you’re just having a hobbling stumble through lovely French vineyards while being passed by dehydrated senior citizens, mentally challenged rats, and some seriously overweight pigs.
I’d like to tell you that, right then, I suddenly remembered an inspirational moment from an underdog movie like Rocky or one of those inspiring chimpanzees-on-hockey-skates movies, which made me dig deep, find a new well of energy, and finish the race. That would be a really cool way to end my tour de France!
But at the 33K point, we’re still walking and there’s another nine kilometres to the finish line. A bus pulls up. It’s carrying four defeated former-runners. The driver asks if we want a ride.
“No,” I say, “I’m a Canadian. I came here to run a marathon, and a marathon I will finish.”
“OK. But we are no longer serving wine,” he says.
“Oh. Well screw this,” I say. We climb on to the loser bus and take the ride of shame back to the finish line. No ice cream for us.
But is that so bad in the end? Sure, I didn’t complete the marathon, but I did run a half-marathon on zero training, and tasted France’s finest wines. I also learned three important things: French children cheer you on by yelling “Allez, allez, allez” and it’s the most charming thing you will ever hear; when they dress like animals, French people also like to wear fake naked human bum cheeks; and, if you want to conquer France drunk while wearing Band-Aids on your nipples, you should probably do some training.
— Ken Hegan
A guest of the France Tourism Development Agency, Ken drank red wine on Air France, which he paired with a preposterous action film about an assassin suffering from amnesia.