Marathon du Medoc
"Now that's my kind of marathon," my doctor said. Her enthusiastic diagnosis came on the heels of my request for a medical release allowing me to participate in le Marathon du Médoc, a 26.2-mile race and wine tasting tour through the most famous vineyards of France. That's right, wine tasting. Every year 59 pedigreed châteaus with names ranging from Lafite Rothschild to Léoville Las Cases host 9,000 runners who set off from the quaint town of Pauillac in southwestern France. Rest stops along the route serve them such refreshments as fresh-shucked oysters and grilled beef. Musicians serenade them as they pass.
Le Marathon du Médoc bills itself as the longest--meaning slowest--marathon in the world. Its registration form explicitly discourages applications from persons obsessed with speed records or from anyone "sad, unfriendly or stressed out." Unlike other marathons, which typically honor those fleet of foot, this one gives you a medal if you cross the finish line (back in Pauillac) within six and a half hours. But nobody runs le Marathon du Médoc for speed. They do it for the wine.
Held every September since 1985, the race was dreamed up by five Bordeaux runners--four of them doctors--who wanted to celebrate pleasure, not pain. Initially five châteaus and 500 competitors participated. So great has its popularity become that the race is now capped at 9,000 entrants, with 20% of the field reserved for foreigners. Last year 223 runners from the U.S. competed.
Residents of the province of Aquitaine account for roughly 1,000 of the contestants. Last year Thierry Marx, head chef of Michelin two-star restaurant Château Cordeillan-Bages in Pauillac, finished in 4:27:44, then returned to his kitchen to prepare dinner.
The medical risks, if any, of combining alcohol with exercise appear to concern no one, least of all the marathon's doctor-founders. Every year they convene a medical conference in conjunction with the race that focuses on the physiological effects of running. Past seminars have included "Meat and Long Distance Running." Though many first aid tents dot the course, the main therapeutic activity is the giving of massages.
It is customary for runners to load up on carbohydrates on the eve of a marathon. At Pauillac the event, called "Soirée Mille-Pâtes," goes beyond the promised pasta. Last year's soirée took place at the Château Peyrabon vineyards and began with a cocktail hour that included Lillet, the popular French aperitif, and kir (white wine with a splash of crème de cassis). Linen-covered dining tables were set with china, silverware, menu cards and four wine glasses per person. Waiters filled these with Médoc wine, and the runners toasted one another's fortunes. A twenty-piece band played until midnight.
Smaller, more genteel dinners took place at many of the 22 vineyards that sponsored their own teams, runners for which are drawn from a chateau's own employees, wine exporters or retailers. Some châteaus recruit professional athletes. Nine-time Marathon du Médoc winner Philippe Remond, for example, last year ran for Château Lynch-Bages. Remond's participation had more to do with his interest in wine (he owns a 3,000-bottle cellar) than in setting records. His fastest run of le Marathon du Médoc was in 1995 at 2:20:07, 15 minutes off the world record for marathons. Many pros pass up the race for the good reason that it doesn't award cash prizes. Winners instead are given their weight in wine.
On race day the starting gun sounded at a very civilized 9:30 a.m. Since a majority of the runners participate in costumes--some outrageous—I was not completely surprised to see an entrant dressed as Cleopatra borne aloft on a litter (equipped with drink holders) carried by eight toga-clad men. We ran through the narrow cobblestone streets of Pauillac, creating bottlenecks and encountering our first delicacies: a table of fresh croissants, pain au chocolat and brioches set out for us by a boulangerie.
Leaving town, we negotiated dirt roads that cut through Médoc's renowned vineyards, their vines heavy with voluptuous grapes. Harvest usually begins the week after the marathon ends. Rounding a corner, we arrived at the castlelike Château Pichon-Longueville, where we were served--in glasses, not paper cups--a lovely sauterne, the first of many wines we would be tasting in the hours ahead from stations set at 3-mile intervals. A fellow American confided to me that he was determined, despite a broken toe only recently healed, to make it as far as mile 15, where a first-growth Lafite Rothschild was being served.
When we arrived there, we found, amid manicured flower gardens, runners crowded four deep around the pouring table, waiting for their chance to taste. So much wine had already flowed that the tub of water used to rinse glasses had turned red. Here and at other stops, I saw runners dancing with one another.
Official snacks included bananas, raisins and oranges, plus little cocktail crackers resembling mini pizzas. Spectators, however, offered heartier fare. One butcher provided crackers with cheese, pâté and saucisson. Gatorade? There was none to be seen.
As I ran on, I took strength from knowing that oysters awaited me at mile 23. Indeed, when I got there, mollusks were piled high in dozens of tubs, slices of fresh lemon alongside at the ready. The 42 volunteers who had shucked 22,000 oysters were celebrating, slurping down their own handiwork and pouring white wine.
Two more rest stations still remained--freshly grilled beef at mile 24, followed (as a last course) by cheese at mile 25--350 pounds of it, various kinds, all of them delicious. When at last I crossed the finish, I found myself rewarded with a kiss, a rose, a gym bag and--what else?--a bottle of 1998 Médoc.
On Your Marques
Slots are already filling for the Sept. 9 Marathon du Médoc. You’ll need to pay an 80-euro ($96) entry fee and obtain a medical release from your doctor (see www.marathondumedoc.com).
Most runners stay an hour outside Pauillac in the town of Bordeaux, which offers a wide choice of accommodations. But Pauillac itself has several small hotels, among them the Cordeillan-Bages, a Relais & Chateaux property. Les Sources de Caudalie, in nearby Martillac on the Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard, is both a luxury hotel and vinotherapy spa (merlot wraps, Cabernet scrubs and so on). From its clubby, tower-top cigar room you can gaze out over the vineyards as you exercise your lungs.