Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Fun and Frolics at a French "Festival"

 The "Festival des Templiers" is a trail running festival based around the town of Millau and the Grands Causses area. It has been occurring on an annual basis since 1995 and is considered by many to be the greatest trail running festival in France. There is something for everyone, whether you want to run 1.5km or 100km, or just try out some of the local delicacies and soak up the atmosphere over the long weekend of festivities. I've still not worked out the full connection with the Knights Templar, but the links are obvious on the race memorabilia, trophies etc

A "flamboyance" of flamingoes
A few of my friends were going to be there to race over the festival weekend (Tracy Dean, Ant Bethell and Janson Heath in the 100K and Ellie Greenwood in the main 75K event) and so I went over for a few days to join in the party (errrr.....I mean support and cheer!!). As I was not going to run any silly (!) long distance race, and I no longer had the Gobi 50K coming up (the postponement of it meant that I could no longer arrange any annual leave to get out there), I decided to make the most of being in France  - well, it would be rude not to sample the local cheese (we were in the Roquefort area) and wine, wouldn't it?

My flight arrived before Janson's and so I actually got a lovely run in while we waited to pick him up (Tracy and Ant had driven out in the van so we had wheels!!) - how amazing was it to run in the sun past a flmboyance (what a great collective term) of beautiful pink flamingoes? I knew my neice would be impressed as she's a fan of all things pink, but especially flamingoes.
Registration/the Expo/start etc
We were staying about 3 miles away from the start/finish area of almost all of the races, on the opposite side of the valley, but this meant that it was nice and quiet - and when the weather was clear, we had great views out over the area. The 100K started at 4am on the Friday morning, and so Tracy, Ant and Janson drove down to the start in the van....while I just turned over and went back to sleep for a few hours (there are benefits to not competing in these events!!). I had a nice relaxing day tracking them as they ran, and they definitely seemed to have lucked out with the weather as Friday was by far the nicest day - sunny and clear, yet not too hot!

By the time I decided to head down to the finish area mid-afternoon, Tracy was 3rd lady with the lads not far ahead of her. As they had taken the van, I hopped onto Tracy's bike to get down there....and nearly didn't make it, as I temporarily forgot which side of the road I should be cycling on.....and let's just say her brake cables could do with a bit of tightening!!!
It was lovely to hang around the finish area, soak up the atmosphere and catch up with friends in the sunshine. The whole festival consists of several races each day, of varying distances and with different start times, so by the afternoon there are people almost continuously crossing the finish line. There were celebrations aplenty.....and the "ministry of silly walks" was certainly in evidence!!
I know that trail running is not my forte, especially if it involves technical downhill sections, and I definitely have a tendency to clumsiness, hence often trip up and fall over. For this reason (and not because I'm scared of beasties that go bump in the night) I have always been rather scared of running in the dark. However, pne of the best way to deal with your fears is to face them, and so I decided to try a low-key night race where there would be no pressure on me. There was an 18K race that started at 7pm on the Friday night and so I entered it, hoping to have seen the others finish before I hopped on the bus to be taken to the start (mine was the one race with a different starting point, so that you ran from the village of Peyre back to finish in Millau). Unfortunately, this didn't happen, but I hoped that they were not far away but would still be hanging around eating and drinking when I finished. The race was called the "Trail du Viaduct" after the famous Millau viaduct (the tallest supporting pillars of which are actually taller than the Eiffel Tower).

The profile of my race

I had been given various conflicting people of information about  bus departures (in French), but luckily managed to get myself to the right place at the right time - though I felt like I was the only person going to the race that wasn't French. We were stuck for ages in a traffic jam, and only managed to move about a mile in half an hour, so I was very tempted to just jump off the bus and sack the race off. I was getting rather anxious about it and wondering why I was putting myself through it, but managed to talk myself into staying put and reassured myself that if the worst came to the worst I'd just have a long nighttime walk back which wouldn't be so bad after doing nothing all day. I think I was secretly hoping that the traffic jams would mean we got there after the official start time!

Fortunately (hmmm....not sure about that) the buses dropped us off in the tiny village just before 7pm. It was already getting dark, and there was scant time to drop off a bag to be taken to the finish, dig out my headtorch and make it to the startline, never mind warmup properly. I would have loved to have been there slightly earlier as the village looked beautiful, built as it was into the side of a hill/rockface. The announcers said that the total population was about 150, yet there were nearly 400 runners about to set off through it.

We gathered in a rock cave/overhang and then suddenly were off. The start was straight up a winding cobbly path around the church and through the village. Never a fast starter, I had to be extra careful due to the narrow path and the raised boards put down to cover obstacles/mark the way. I'd worked my way round a few people as we reached the upper level of the village, and then several more as we climbed up onto the cliff top above the houses.

View from the village
(in the next day's daylight!)

We ran back down throught the village, crossing the start line in the opposite direction, which was great as there was plenty of support and it was now brightly lit up with red flares. Down onto the main road and then a 90 degree turn off onto a forest trail. I had absolutely no idea where I was in the field, and as there was very little light by now, I had to turn my headtorch on. I had been holding off for as long as possible as I feel that when you turn a light on, it makes everything outside of that beam seem much darker, but other people had lights on ahead and behind and so I seem to be trying to run in their shadows. We seemed to be climbing up and up - I know this is a relative forte of mine, and the darkness seemed to make no difference as I overtook several men on this section. I tried to keep running as much as possible, but occasionally had to slow down as I was trapped behind someone on a narrow section of trail (and in a couple of spots the steepness meant a few powerhiking steps were more economical than running).
The famous viaduct of Millau occasionally came into view on the skyline through breaks in the trees in the distance, but we were definitely not being routed straight towards it as the climb went on and on, interspersed with some flatter and even downhill sections. Finally the trees opened up and I was heading towards one of the well-lit bridge supports. Surprisingly enough, there was a path going right through the base if the support and then joy of joys, we had a rough road to run down the other side.

My joy was shortlived as an arrow directed me off onto a tiny winding single track through the undergrowth. The general direction was down, down and down again towards the river - at times so steeply, that I wondered if I would be faster on my bottom than on my feet. Luckily the darkness hid my "girlie arms" as I grabbed onto the occasional overhanging branch to keep me upright. Suddenly 2 men appeared out of the bushes just in front of me, and I recognised them from having passed them back in Peyre. I dredged some French up from the back of my brain and managed to "express my indignation" that they had cut the course. I caught up to them soon after this as the final bit of the descent was thankfully on a tarred surface and they did apologise to me.
After we crossed the river, I had hoped that we might have a nice flattish run along the valley floor....which we did, but first we had to scramble up and down some dykes using hands and knees due to the steepness. I found it rather difficult to see exactly where I was going as although my headtorch was good enough to get me home if I was out alone on a dark road, it paled into insignificance next to the "pro torches" of the men around me, so making everything look that much darker. Even my longed for road along the valley bottom wasn't quite what I expected as it started with a run through long wet grass, and finished with another steep rocky trail back down to the river again.
An arrow leading me over the edge?
After crossing the river again, we then entered a built up area, so marshals helped to guide us over a busy road and down a side street. Surprisingly, the next marshal I saw directed me between 2 parked cars and through a small gap in the wall. I appeared to be going into darkness as my headtorch didn't seem to pick up anything in front of me. A split second later I realised that was because we had to descend a steep staircase (practically a ladder) down onto a riverside trail. This trail gently undulated back towards the centre of Millau, varying between a paved surface, gravel, grass, stones and large puddles spreading from neighbouring streams. I could see no lights either in front of or behind me, and queried my navigation skills on several occasions, but spotted a tie in a tree or the reflection of a ground marker just before despair took over.

As I wound round up and onto the final bridge over the river, I knew that I didn't have much further to go, as it was less than a mile along the road to the start/finish area. Unfortunately the marshals/arrows had a different idea, and I was soon heading off road straight up another hillside. I tried to run as much as possible, but had to resort to hands on thighs powerwalking. Having been on my own for so long, I would've been really disappointed to be overtaken at this point, but I couldn't push any more than I was doing. I wondered if anyone was sneaking up on me using some moonlight to guide them rather than their headtorch, and so turned mine off briefly (the weird things that being alone in the dark does to your mind!!!).

This made me nearly miss the last arrow which pointed me back downhill again, so I'm glad I turned it on just in time. By this point I could see headtorches approaching me from the opposite direction, as we joined some of the other events for the final run down into the finish. As I was in a shorter event, and these were further abck in their respective fields, I was obviously moving at a faster pace (even on the rough downsloping ground), so I politely asked to pass several of them. I didn't think my French was bad, but one lady told me off for not having a full discussion with her about which side would be the best one to pass her on....I think it was more my lack of breath and time (as the discussion would've taken longer than passing her) rather than my French which stopped me doing this.
A final twist for the finish of all the races is that you approach from above, but then you have to run (ie slide) down a steep slope to end up below it, so the gantry is only reached by climbing a set of stairs. Still, I think I manged to finish with a smile on my face, and have enough breath to chat to the finishline commentator about where I was from and how I'd found the race (which was better than I'd expected for my first night-time trail run!!!).

Ant and Janson had finished together not long beforehand so I found them in the "feeding area" and shortly afterwards Tracy crossed the line as 4th lady and came to join us. I've no idea how they could be so lively after being out for that long, but maybe the promise of the wine I'd got ready for them  perked them up.
A gentle walk was in order for the others to loosen off stiff muscles the next morning, so we headed off to look at Peyre in the daylight. Unfortunately the weather wasn't quite so good, being grey and overcast, but it was still a beautiful village. It was great to be able to have a proper look at the narrow streets and the buildings cut into the rockface, and also look out towards the famous viaduct that I run through. We then drove back to Millau as I had decided to make the most of the weekend and run another race.

The "8K" race profile

This one was more of a "sprint" as it was only 8K long and just for women. Although there was still a decent amount of climbing and descending involved, I thought the course looked like it most of it would be on a sealed surface so I opted for my road shoes. I didn't get off to the best start as it was hard to hear the French announcements over the tannoy and I found myself at the back of a random group warm-up. Suddenly people were streaming away from me across the startline and it was all I could do to work my way up and down kerbs round some of the walkers. By the time I passed Ant and Janson cheering me on, I'd run all of about 400m whereas the leaders were about 400m further ahead down the road.

At least the early part was on tarmac!
With a bit of effort I caught them up and moved ahead just as the lead motorbike turned up a rough track away from the tarmac (sniff!!). This was not a good time to be behind the bike as I then had to fight through the dirt it churned up. As the path got steeper and rockier, he pulled over to the side and I carried on past. I was a bit confused to catch a few more ladies as I climbed up the hillside, but I think they were the tailenders of the previous race. My legs were starting to protest after their efforts the night before, but unluckily for me, no sooner did the climb stop than it started to descend steeply, and they definitely didn't like that. The steep descent was a narrow singletrack and involved some hopping over roots and rocks, and I wasn't very confident of my footing especially given my shoe choice. I was overtaken by a speedy local lady and thought that I'd never see her again, but it seemed that we were destined to play cat and mouse as I passed her again on the final ascent.

Getting the flowers home was
the biggest challenge!
"Malheureusement" the race ended with a very steep slippery descent - and I really regretted wearing my road shoes. I did ponder whether I would have been faster going down on my backside as I lost the lead again. Again we merged with other races as we headed into the finish, but this time I made sure to shout which side I was passing on. It was amazing how different it looked in daylight, though the final steps up were just as steep! Still, having managed to stay on my feet for  2 races within 24hours was definitely worthy of a few samples of local roquefort and wine with the others afterwards!! Not a bad weekend's work ;-)

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