The Medoc Marathon diaries: I take on Bordeaux’s world famous wine marathon

Bordeaux’s Marathon du Medoc has long had a place towards the very top of my bucket list. The first I heard of it was over 10 years ago when I came across an article by someone who had just run it. A drunken, wine-fest of a marathon through Bordeaux’s vineyards! That can’t be right, can it?! I’m no serious distance runner – never have been, never will be. But if I was going to check off completing that elusive full marathon distance for the first time, what better motivation than a tipple (or 20!) along the way!

Medoc’s world-renowned wine marathon sees runners traversing through the stunning Chateaus of Bordeaux’s Left Bank region. There are 20 wine-tasting stops along the way through the region’s most famous producers in Pauillac, St-Estephe and St Julien. The marathon usually takes place in early September, just before the harvest season.

For fine winos out there, expect to visit heavyweights like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Montrose, Gruard-Larose, Leoville & Pichon Baron along the way… majority of whom will be pouring younger vintages of their second or third wines on free-flow. Local families across the villages come out in full force to support the event, many offering snacks and soft drinks for runners passing by… some even pouring their own home-made wines!

Fancy dress is not just encouraged, but compulsory! There are live bands at every stop to add to the raucous, fun-filled atmosphere. And lets not forget the food. And I’m not just talking the usual runner’s fuel of bananas, crackers and protein bars. There’s croissants, canelé pastries, and cheese… even freshly shucked oysters and perfectly medium-rare Ribeye steak to will you to the finish line!

For the elite marathoners out there, the winner’s prize is their full body weight in fine wine! For the majority of us non-elite runners though, this is one marathon where PBs go out the window. In fact, speak to most participants, and the general consensus is to run the course as slowly as possible to take full advantage of all the wine on the course. All you have to do is finish ahead of the sweeper cart’s 6 ½ hour cut-off time* to get your hands on the official finishers’ medal and a free bottle of wine! (*occasionally, in unusually hot weather or if the sweeper cart pacers themselves lose track of time from all the drinking, the cut-off time will get extended to round the 7 hour mark).

6 hours of running, 1.2 litres of wine consumed and with my finisher’s medal proudly in hand, I can confirm that the myths of the Medoc Marathon are all 100% true! A challenge for novice runners and light-weight drinkers it most certainly is… the full 42 km marathon distance, drunk or not, doesn’t get any shorter! But for those who enjoy their wine, it will undoubtedly be every bit as fun, raucous and enjoyable as anyone who has ever run it will tell you it is.

For anybody out there seriously thinking about signing up, below are some memories, experiences and tips.

 

Training

To fully enjoy the course and all the wine, food and festivities involved, I’d suggest getting some decent training in. This was my first full marathon. Prior to this, I had only ever done 1 half marathon and a few 10 km runs. So to condition the body for the full distance, I loosely followed most of the novice marathon training plans out there which google threw up.

I ran about twice a week over 5 months – 1 short run (5 to 8 km) and 1 longer run (10km to start, ramping up to 25km towards the end of training). The furthest training run I did was 30 km, 2 weeks before the marathon. I thought about doing a training run of the full 42km distance, but eventually decided against it as I didn’t want to injure myself from overtraining. Plus, I knew the adrenaline, crowd and wine(!) on race day would help carry me through to the finish! In between the runs, I did plenty of squats, toe stands, bike spinning and core stretches to strengthen the knees, calves, quads and back muscles. The course is relatively flat for the most part, but there is a fair amount of rocky dirt tracks, so do some training on uneven paths (e.g. off road in parks) to condition the feet.

I found it extremely useful to do 1 of the longer training runs in full fancy dress, carrying any extras like phones, energy gels, sun block etc to simulate race day conditions. Some runners on the day had bleeding nipples and armpits from chafing, so test-drive your fancy dress outfit ahead of time, and take the necessary precautions (e.g. gents especially, anti-chafe balm is a lifesaver!).

 

How to book a place on the Medoc Marathon

To save a bit of money, we booked the marathon ourselves without using an agent. The few agents I researched offered a combination of travel, accommodation and bib number pick-up/delivery for quite a steep premium.

To book a place without an agent however, you will need to keep a constant lookout for when subscriptions open. The official Medoc Marathon website this year was a bit vague on the exact release date, with updates like “Check back in early March” and “tickets will be released next week” appearing in the weeks leading up to the official release day. So stay tuned to their social media and refresh the website in the days leading up to release.

Places are limited to about 8500 runners and fill up quick! When I checked 4 hours after we booked, the event had already sold out. On the bright side, we spoke to a fair number of people who missed the initial release but still managed to get a place on the marathon a few weeks later via the waitlist.

The cost to sign-up for the 2019 marathon was €88. There were add-ons like the Pasta Party the night before and the Recovery Walk and Lunch the next day that can be purchased for a supplement.

 

Accomodation / Travel Logistics

Pauillac, where the marathon starts and finishes, isn’t the largest of villages. So non-camping accommodation options are limited and book up quickly. So we did what majority of runners did and based ourselves in central Bordeaux town. There are official marathon bus shuttles from Bordeaux to Pauillac (and back) that you can book through the official marathon website for an additional cost (60-75 minutes journey time each way depending on traffic).

In hindsight though, to get a bit more sleep and to fully enjoy the pre and post-race festivities (more on those below), I think it’s worth planning early and getting accommodation in (or near) Pauillac itself for a couple nights before and after the marathon.

 

The Day Before

The full program begins the day before. The organisers require bib numbers and timing chips to be picked up in person 1 day in advance. So do bear in mind if you are staying in Bordeaux town and booked without an agent, you will need to make this extra trip to/from Pauillac.

Given we had to go to Pauillac anyway, we thought we may as well join in some of the pre-race festivities there. There’s a small expo area at the Race Village where the bib numbers are handed out where you can explore other booze marathons of the world, purchase official merchandise or hit the beer tent to get the liver warmed up!

Come the evening, there are several Pasta parties hosted in nearby Chateaus and venues you can buy advance tickets to. We signed up to the “Miles Pates’ Dinner, the largest of the official launch parties, held this year at the gorgeous Chateau Trintaudon.  Expect a boisterous evening of carb-loading, free-flow wine, live music, fireworks and dancing with fellow marathon runners who have come in from round the world!

Bear in mind, most of the Pasta parties only wrap up at 11pm+. So if you are staying in Bordeaux, you can forget about getting an early night in. By the time we got back to our city centre accommodation, it was past 12 midnight!

 

RACE DAY

5am. The morning of my first ever marathon. Waking up slightly hungover and sleep-deprived having only managed a couple hours was never supposed to be part of the plan! For anyone wondering why on earth we needed to be up this early, the bus shuttle from Bordeaux town to the start line at Pauillac was scheduled to depart at a rather pre-party unfriendly 6.30am!

After a light breakfast and willing myself to take a shit in the comfort of our hotel so I wouldn’t need to wait for a portaloo later, off we went in our fancy dress to catch the shuttle bus. With all the traffic, it was a little after 8am by the time we arrived in Pauillac. After dropping off our bags at the bag-drop and queueing up for a pre-race pee, it was almost time for the 9.30am kick-off so we found ourselves rushing to assemble at the start line.

And what an electric atmosphere there was at the start line – just the adrenaline buzz we needed to wake us up! The theme this year was Superheroes. We found ourselves surrounded by fellow Avengers, Incredibles family members and every Superhero under the sun.

Before we knew it, the start gun sounded and we were off! The narrow streets of Pauillac were near-bursting with the crowd of 8000+ runners, so expect the pace over the first couple of kilometres to be relatively slow and easy. My wife and I had originally planned to do the first 10km or so together before running at our own pace, but we somehow managed to lose one another in the crowds after just a couple kilometres! With phone reception patchy, we ended up going our separate ways for most of the marathon!

First up, the 3km mark. Breakfast croissants! After standing in a non-moving queue for about 3 minutes, I got impatient and skipped the crowds to find more space to run in. I figure I already had breakfast anyway so wasn’t missing out on much! Same overcrowding problem again at the 5km mark for wine stop #1. With 19 more wine stops in store, there would be plenty of opportunity to payback the wine at some of my favourite producers later.

7km mark. Chateau Lagrange. One of my favourite producers. I will forever remember savouring the taste of that first wine of the day. Served chilled, it was so much more refreshing than I was expecting for a Left Bank Claret on a hot summer’s morning. These lighter bodied, lower tannin, 2nd or 3rd wines that most Chateaus were pouring were perfect for thirst-quenching. A cheeky 2nd glass followed, and on we continued.

From the 7km to the 21km halfway mark, the wine stops came thick and fast! And the quality of the wines on this St Julien/Pauillac stretch were absolutely top notch too. Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Beychevelle, Leoville and Pichon Baron to name a few of the 1855 Grand Cru classe highlights we visited along the way.

And wherever there was wine, there was plenty of food to line the stomach too. For the first half of the distance, it was mostly crackers, bananas, apples, cakes and pastries (the more substantial food like donuts, steak and oysters were in the 2nd half). I reached the halfway mark in 2 hours and 30 minutes – a good pace considering the pit-stops I thought, though I was sceptical I could keep it up over the 2nd half!

25km. Just over the halfway mark. And there it was. The one and only Chateau Lafite-Rothschild – the only First Growth Chateau pouring wines on the course this year. They were pouring from unlabelled bottles – a young vintage of their 2nd Carruades de Lafite wine, guessed some Bordeaux wine aficionados I chatted with at the tasting station. Whatever it was, the quality was indeed a cut above any of the earlier wines. I went back for a 2nd tasting. Then a 3rd. And before I knew it, 15 minutes had passed at this one stop alone! Weary I still had a long way to go, I reluctantly moved on.

27km mark. Still buzzing from Lafite-Rothschild’s wines! And just when I thought things were going well and I could start to visualise the home straight, the dreaded cramp appeared out of nowhere, big time. The pain was piercing, reverberating through my entire right quad as I started to climb the hill leading to Chateau Cos d’Estournel in St-Estephe. The course on the whole is relatively flat, but this particular hill was a killer, bringing an entire crowd of runners to a slow crawl towards the hill top.

The next 10 km felt like a lifetime. A torturous, stop-start cycle of walking, jogging & cramping through the 10 wine stops in this stretch. Worst of all, the clouds had cleared completely too and it was suddenly the hottest it had been all day. Donuts and ice-cream at Chateaus La Haye at the 30km provided some momentary respite.  As did the party atmosphere at the draw-droppingly gorgeous Chateau Phelan-Segur. But as soon as I set off each time, the quad cramps returned with a vengeance. Both foot arches were starting to feel very sore as the unevenness of the goat tracks through the vineyards started to take it’s toll.  The wine also really started to hit me. Reaction times slowed down… I could barely take a photo or keep a video in focus. Even taking the phone out of my running pouch or peeling an energy gel open felt like an impossible task.

Then my saviours arrived! A couple of French guys I had met the night before at the pasta party who we shared our meal and many a glass with. They themselves were struggling with cramp too. So together, we walked, ran, limped and drank our way through this seemingly insurmountable stretch.

37km. 5 hours on my feet so far. There was no sweeter sight than the spacious grounds of Chateau Montrose. I could barely stand at this point while tasting their wines, so for the first time all day, I found a bench to take the weight off my feet and stretched out. A couple swigs of Montrose’s marvellous 3rd wine later and it was time to tackle the home straight back towards the finish line at Pauillac.

The last 5km home straight along the Gironde estuary felt seemingly never-ending! Thankfully, there were food distractions aplenty every kilometre to keep spirits high. Freshly shucked Oysters and Bordeaux Blanc first. Entrecote next. Then the Cheese and ham sandwich station. Closely followed by the ice-cream stop! Most of the runners had slowed down to a walk by this point to enjoy (and digest!) all the food.

41 KM. 5 hours 55 minutes on the clock. Finish line in actual sight. Thanks to all the rest and food, my cramp had temporarily abated. Time to finish strong I thought. Others around me started to break into one final gallop too. And what I always envisioned would be the hardest kilometre to get through, actually flew by in a flash.

42.195 KM! 6 hours 1 minute! As I crossed the finish line, a mix of relief, ecstasy and pride at having completed my first marathon started to wash over me. I limped over to pick up my goodie bag, complete with my finisher’s medal, free bottle of wine and a plastic cup for the free-flow beers in the finisher’s tent!

After sharing a quick celebratory drink with my French pals who carried me through the toughest stretch earlier, I went back to the finish line in time to see the wife cross the finish line with a couple Australian friends we had met earlier that morning. More beers followed! And before everything could quite sink in, it was time to catch our 5pm shuttle bus back to Bordeaux. It’s a good thing the organisers thought of leaving a reserve bus to catch late straddlers like us as we struggled to find the bus station and ended up half an hour late for the return bus! (FYI, there is a later return bus at 11pm you can book too, but having got up at 5am we didn’t think we would last the evening in Pauillac).

When we finally got back to Bordeaux, it suddenly hit me how hungry I was! So after getting cleaned up, we limped over to a nearby Japanese Ramen bar and celebrated a most extraordinary day over a carb fest of Ramen, Soba and Fried Rice!

 

Post Race Day

For those looking to warm down after the marathon, there’s the option of a 10km recovery walk through the vineyards the next day back in Pauillac, followed by a celebratory lunch. I’ll be honest – with soreness running through every fibre of my body and a monster hangover from the wines and beers from the day before, I totally regretted signing up for this when I first woke up.

But as we had already paid for the walk, meal and return bus fares, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 8am and hopped back on the shuttle bus to Pauillac again.

So there we found ourselves, part walking, part limping with 1500 other fellow marathon finishers from the day before and their family members. Walking the first couple of kilometres was tough. The delayed onset soreness in my legs, especially round the foot arches, knees and quads was intense!

Soon though, the wine started flowing again. I counted 6 wine stops over the 10km walk – an even higher concentration per km than the marathon! Hair of the dog as they say and after the first few swigs, the soreness and pain started to ease too! It was particularly nice to be able to stroll through the Chateaus at a more relaxed pace to take in the sights. The free-flowing wine continued into lunch, with barrels of wine at the ready to self refill any empty bottles!

A final thought for the road…

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely, I would. This has genuinely been one of the most fun, fulfilling and uplifting experiences in my lifetime so far. We’ve also had the joy of meeting so many new friends over the marathon, some of whom we’ve continued to stay in touch with.  Perhaps we will take a break for a year or two so our legs recover from the wear and tear of training.  One thing I am certain about though – this won’t be the last time we take on the world’s booziest marathon!

G.

P.S. If you enjoyed the above read, do also check out my wife’s Medoc Marathon stories highlights on her IG profile for the blow by blow, 100+ part mini-series, covering the joys, struggles & laughs of a first time marathon runner!

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