Friday, October 5, 2012

Bordeaux Day 5 – I got stung by a bee

When I woke on my fifth day in France I had no idea that by the end of the day I would be reflecting back on a remarkable event and milestone in my life that was to take place.  While I'm a bit fuzzy on how old I was at the time, perhaps 6 or 7 but I nevertheless have a vivid memory of being in Jennifer Ciferni's backyard on 14th Street, next door to where I grew up, when I noticed a bee had landed on my arm.  Thinking for some reason that it was not alive I went to brush it off.  It didn't move but instead stung me.  It was the first time I'd ever been stung by a bee and I remember it hurting pretty bad.  Flash forward more than 30 years and despite being a fairly avid outdoorsy guy and being around loads of insects - bees included - that remained my the only time I'd ever been stung.  So it was strange that while I bent down to get my car keys from my bag in the town of Pauillac I felt something on my lower leg and, noticing it was a bee, instinctively went to brush it off only to have the little bugger sting me - just like his American cousin so many years ago.  Luckily I was able to extract the stinger immediately and Heather gave me StingEze to reduce the discomfort.  Really, quite an interesting day…oh yeah, before that I ran with 8,000 other maniacs in 90+ degrees heat through the vineyards and chateaus of the Left Bank in the Medoc Marathon.

This was it, the event that launched my planning for Bordeaux.  Its not that I hadn’t before had the desire to visit but two days after last year’s NYC Marathon I met a fellow runner who also happens to be a prominent individual within the Bordeaux wine community and he mentioned the Medoc Marathon to me.  Having never heard of it he told to me that it is “the longest marathon in the world.”  Odd, I thought, aren’t all marathons 26.2 miles long?  He went on to explain that it isn’t the length but rather that people tend to take longer to finish it because the course travels through many of the great chateaus of Medoc and they provide, along with water and usual marathon nourishment, a sampling of their oenological creations.  In addition, nearly all the participants dress in costume, some quite elaborately, which creates of a festival atmosphere.  Someone compared it to the Bay-to-Breakers in San Francisco, but longer.  Its been said there are two marathons that are must dos: New York and Medoc.  I’ve done New York twice – and am planning on a third in a month – so it was time for Medoc.

This year’s theme was “Bordeaux through the Ages” and I decided my costume would be that of an American Revolutionary War solider.  What does the American Revolution have to do with Bordeaux you might be asking, well simple, when our founding fathers finished signing the Declaration of Independence they toasted the document with glasses of Bordeaux wine.  So you see, Bordeaux was present and played a part in the beginning of our nation.  And thanks to the amazing work of Jill Folino, I arrived at the start this morning wearing an outfit patterned on the uniform worn by the 3rd New York Regiment of the American Revolutionary War, complete with hat, ammunition pouches, and the decorative hearts they had at the bottom of their jackets.  It really is a piece of work and many thanks to her last minute effort to get it done for me J.

On the way to the start/finish line in Pauillac I dropped Heather off at Ch. Beychevelle, whose team I was invited to run with, where she was going to be a volunteer to help pour the water and wine for the runners.  The chateau is at about the 10 kilometer mark and once the last runners were through there was a bus for VIPs that would take her back to Pauillac and the finish line.  From there, I headed to the the town.  My only experience with marathons up until to this point was with New York, which at more than 45,000 participants, plus logistical support, can basically be compared to a large town popping up on the fringe of Staten Island and then moving through the city.  By comparison Medoc is quite small at only about 8,000 runners.  However, the energy and enthusiasm was well beyond their numbers.  I’d expected costumes but nothing prepared me for what my fellow runners donned.  Countless members of the Roman Legion mingled with cavemen standing next to people suited to Cleopatra’s court mixed among all other manner of decadence and esoteric.  It was quite a crowd.

After some pre-race festivities that included a costume contest, arial acrobats swinging from an elevated platform, and a fly-over by a pair of French Air Force jets, the starting gun sounded and we were off. The course began by heading north and winding through the town of Pauillac but even before we had crossed the 1 kilometer mark we were at Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, the first of more than 20 tasting stations we would be running through.

Yes, 20 - give or take - chances to have wine while running.  Running at all let alone a marathon while drinking wine may strike you as a remarkable, if not a bit crazy, concept and you'd be right.  All the conventional wisdom and training guides would tell you that this is utterly counterintuitive but when in France one shouldn't question their traditions so with legs barely warmed from the start of the race I pulled over and picked up a small, plastic cup filled with their red wine.

Now I'm not going to bother trying to give tasting notes or impressions on the wines I would drink throughout the day because not only were there so many, which isn't normally a problem, but as the day wore on and my exhaustion increased I simply lost the ability to discern anything from the glass other than it was red (generally) and alcoholic.  Nor, I've been told, were the wines necessarily the chateau's export quality wine or more than a simple vin de pays.  Makes sense, why waste the good stuff on a bunch of sweaty, costumed runners?

So instead of trying to keep track of the wines I was drinking, I concentrated more on the views and vistas I was running through along the way, which I've already explained was nothing short of increasing levels of beautiful.  One of the first, magnificent chateau we came to was Pichon-Longueville, which was also the first to use real glass rather than plastic cups for their wine.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville

The building and grounds were quite gorgeous and because it sits right off the road behind a large reflecting pool we had actually stopped to take a picture of it a couple days earlier, without the crowds of runners milling about it.

Soon after leaving Pichon-Longueville I quickly discovered on of the things that would make this marathon quite a bit harder than New York: lack of pavement.  Unlike New York, which stays on the city streets, one of the charming - in theory - things about Medoc is that the course winds not only from chateau to chateau but also through the vineyards covering the area.  Most of the paths in and through the vineyards are unpaved so not only would I be struggling with the heat and hills but do so more often than not it felt on gravel or dirt paths.  As anyone who has ever run cross country will tell you, there is an added level of concentration necessary when running off of pavement that begins to tax your mind.  But I will admit that while running on dirt through the vineyards was an added challenge it was nevertheless quite spectacular to see the line of runners snaking backward and forward above the tops of the grapes.

After a couple more chateaus and a couple more chances to drink wine I reached Beychevelle.  Unlike when we went for the tasting on the first day, this time I arrived at the chateau from the side facing the water and was treated to the sort of view the ships' captains must have had when they gave the order to lower the sails while passing by.  Spreading out from the building itself is acres and acres of manicured lawn flanked on either side by stately trees.  It was an inspiring sight - made all the better with an American Revolutionary War "re-enactor" standing on in front.

Chateau Beychevelle

This was also were I had a choice to make.  Because I'd gotten a little worried about the temperature, which was forecasted to be in the upper 80s to lower 90s with no cloud cover, and how it would feel running in the costume, I strategized a way that I could make a uniform change if necessary.  I'd given Heather a different shirt that I could change into and leave her with the jacket and hat, if necessary, and continue on in my comfortable, traditional marathon appropriate attire.  As it turned out this wasn't necessary.  While I was quite warm in the extra clothes and don't plan to run again in such an outfit, Jill had the foresight to line the jacket so it performed great and I wore it from start to finish.

From Beychevelle, the southern most point on the course, we turned west and slightly north and headed further inland.  It wasn't long before the loss of the cooling affects of the Gironde was felt as the temperature increased as the sun rose higher in the cloudless sky.  Thankfully, in addition to the many opportunities to sample local wines, the organizers of the race were very good to have water stations placed throughout the course so it was never more than about a kilometer or two before there was an opportunity to hydrate.  As the kilometers rolled passed we passed and went through many of the most prestigious chateaus of Bordeaux including Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Cos d'Estournel, and Phelan Segur to name just a few.  Each was gorgeous and provided a boost to my legs that were becoming more tired with each step - or sip of wine.

As anyone who has run a marathon will tell you, spectators are a very important part of the experience and vital for giving tired legs the needed boost to keep going as the miles (or kilometers) click by - usually more slowly towards the end.  And while nothing can compare to the throngs of people that line nearly the entire length of the New York course, Medoc had amazingly supportive crowds.  In addition to all the people who gathered at or around the chateaus to cheer us along there were countless smaller groups of spectators peppered all along the route.  At one point around the half-marathon mark we came into a small town, actually little more than a few houses clustered around a single restaurant and general store-type market, where the residents had gathered to cheer us along.  Among the people lining the road was a woman holding a tray of canapés.  How could I resist her offer of pâté on a slice of baguette, especially when her daughter was standing just next to her with a tray of dry white wine with which to wash it down?  Again, perhaps not the ideal fuel to take on during a long workout but what a great treat!

That was just the start of the food also.  Sure, at all the chateaus there were tables of snacks such as sliced fruit, pretzels and chips, but in the last several kilometers the options ramped up with freshly shucked oysters, jambon (dry cured ham), grilled beef with onions, and ice cream.  Despite the exhaustion I was feeling throughout my body, the food and the lively crowds and bands kept me moving, albeit often walking, to the final kilometer banner where I reached deep inside and found a little more energy.  Raising my tempo from a fast walk to a steady jog, I covered the last meters with revived energy and - dare I say it - some pep in my step.

Crossing the finish line

Unfortunately, the heat, hills, wine and costume took its tool on me and my time was quite off my last NYC pace with a finish time was 5:40, a full hour and a half slower.  But, as every body told me leading up to the race, this isn't a marathon where time is of concern.  Rather, it is the experience of the event itself and fun of spending a day among the world famous vineyards and wineries of Bordeaux that draws people to do it and that drew me as well.  So in that respect it it was a rousing success despite my time!

What an amazing trip and awesome experience but but that isn't my last marathon of the year . . . I am registered to run the NYC Marathon for a third time and once again am running as part of Team Hole in the Wall.  Take a look at my post from last year to learn more about this great organization but as in the previous years I committed to raising a minimum of $3000 in order to run and hope you'll make a donation to help me reach my goal.  Please visit my personal fundraising page here (


  1. What a treat it was to share this momentous and memorable accomplishment with you, Andrew! You are a true inspiration in every way. Love you, Heather

  2. Very inspiring, Andrew! I commend you on so many levels. Big Love from your chilly buddy up here in Quebec City.
    Keep on truckin' as they say and enjoy every moment.
    Je te souhaite tout le bonheur!