What it’s like to run the world’s drunkest marathon

The race is both a celebration of regional wines and local delicacies and a sporting event - Yves MAINGUY

The race is both a celebration of regional wines and local delicacies and a sporting event – Yves MAINGUY

The first marathon runner, the ancient Greek Pheidippides, ran 26 miles to Athens to bring news of victory over the Persians – and dropped dead immediately upon arrival. He was sober in every way. So it was with some trepidation that I entered the Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc, a long-distance event in southwest France that takes an unconventional approach to hydration.

Instead of energy drinks and energy bars, participants are encouraged to try at least 20 glasses of maroon in 30-degree heat, gorging themselves on croissants, cheese, oysters and steaks – in obligatory disguise. No one has ever died trying Médoc, but there’s always a first time.

Five months later, as I stood on the starting line one sunny September morning after failing to lose weight or train properly, it occurred to me that there really are easier ways to deal with a midlife crisis.

Clowns to my left, Batman and Joker to my right (yes, really), I was stuck in the middle of 22 other Wonder Women, seriously wishing I had eaten an alcoholic meal in nearby Bordeaux the night before. I wasn’t the only one. The streets and cafes of the beautiful town of Pauillac, where a marathon had been held every September since 1985 until the pandemic, were full of green-gilled runners – and not just inflatable sharks doing calf stretches for us.

Some runners passed Imodium and Alka Seltzer, while others opted for a more civilized approach: a family of German Flinstones sitting in a roadside cafe drinking a hearty breakfast with pints of beer. At 8:30 they ordered a second round.

MARATHON DU MEDOC 2022. Edition 36. J3.  Paulillac (33).  Samedi September 10, 2022

MARATHON DU MEDOC 2022. Edition 36. J3. Paulillac (33). Samedi September 10, 2022

The mood was upbeat, an orchestra was playing, people were dancing, and the carnival atmosphere was heightened by trapeze artists hanging from the crane above us and fireworks lighting up the river – although they had something to do with this year’s theme: Medoc at the Movies, no one could have guessed. No one seemed to take themselves or the event itself too seriously.

The race is both a celebration of regional wines and local delicacies, as well as a sporting event. Many of the 8,000 attendees may have been seasoned marathon runners (not me; just a month earlier, the furthest I had run was 10K), but they weren’t there to break their personal record – with tasting stops every few miles, what’s the point?

By the time the announcer started the countdown, most of the runners had forgotten it was a race at all, not a street party. Then suddenly, with shouts of “Allez! Allez! Allez!” we were out. Slowly at first, dodging hairy Smurfs in thongs, then picking up speed as we drove out of town.

Soon we were among the vines. The marathon course winds in a figure-of-eight, heading south from Pauillac, turning halfway, then turning north before ending where it started. Along the way, it passes many of Bordeaux’s best vineyards, including well-known brands such as Château Lafite-Rothschild and Château Montrose.

The route was lined with well-wishers; kids dressed up as superheroes, locals spraying runners with garden hoses, and families packing for picnics urging us to “Be brave!”

The runner stops for a wine break in the courtyard of Chateau Montrose, near Pauillac

The runner stops for a wine break in the courtyard of Chateau Montrose, near Pauillac

Veteran Médocer Val—who wore a half-liter beaker on a ribbon around her neck “to save herself coming back for more”—recommended it given the six-and-a-half-hour marathon finish line (guarded by a Sweeper Cart stuffed with brooms and, for some reason, pushed by top hat clowns), we should take our time.

If we wanted to complete the route in exactly 6 hours and 29 minutes, we would be able to taste the wine at all 20 castles along the route and still make it to the finish line fast enough to receive a medal. You can’t go through it, but the pace shouldn’t be too strenuous, she said.

She lied.

It started so well. We were filled with confidence after reaching the immaculate lawns and fairytale turrets of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, three miles before the race, well in advance, despite having tasted wine, chocolate chip chocolate and a few handfuls of cheesy biscuits on the first stretch of the road. Seven miles later, we were more than a little drunk and completely unfazed when an elderly Dracula’s Bride and a six-foot pirate ship overtook us.

Emma Keelan (right) at the Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc

Emma Keelan (right) at the Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc

The plan began to unravel at the stately Château Larose-Trintaudon. Declining to take turns drinking straight from the tap of a wooden wine barrel, the honking of a comedy bicycle horn snapped us out of our complacency as the creepy Sweeper cart caught up with us. In a panic, we ran out of the gates and collided with a tipsy tyrannosaurus rex.

The next 10 miles was more of a grab and go party than a leisurely wine tasting. Three of us had to end the day at the halfway point. By then, the infernal heat had begun to take its toll, and our polyester outfits were beginning to chafe. David had to stop multiple times to dry his huge fake tits on the vine. The roads were littered with discarded shirts, wigs, beards and gladiator shields. Half of the male participants were now running in trousers.

“It’s more of a bumwatch than a Baywatch,” Rebecca grimaced as a group of Frenchmen in red speedos zoomed by. The runaway bride collapsed. Many people vomited. And some just disappeared into the vineyards and never came back. At Château Lafite Rothchild, six hairy Marilyn Monroes and the entire Jamaican bobsleigh team undressed and jumped into the lake.

Contestants feed on oysters and white wine - Alamy

Contestants feed on oysters and white wine – Alamy

But joining them was out of the question. With Sweeper hot on our heels, there was little time to enjoy the spectacular scenery, dance to the band’s music or pose in a feather boa on the red carpet at Châteaux Haut-Marbuzet. I began to doubt if I would even make it to the finish line. A German Dalmatian running past helpfully informed me that my exhaustion was entirely in my head. I was more worried about the huge blisters on my feet.

Finally, we turned a corner and saw the magnificent Château Montrose, surrounded by the bright blue waters of the Gironde estuary. The final four-mile stretch along the water was spent in great music, oysters, white wine and entrecote (served straight into my hand by an insistent, pantsless smurf).

But it was the rush of glucose from the ice cream that carried us limping across the finish line. And finally, the drunkest, craziest marathon on earth has come to an end.

And the reward for not dropping dead on arrival? A souvenir bottle of wine.

The next Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc will take place on September 2, 2023. Registration will open in March 2023 and costs €96 (£83); marathondumedoc.com. Accommodation and transfer packages are available from the official Tutti Quanti travel agency ([email protected])

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