It’s been a while since I’ve done a race review…that’s because it’s been a while since I’ve done a race! It’s safe to say running and I weren’t on the best of terms for a while, I know why, but that’s a post for another day.
This one is to tell you about one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful and demanding races I’ve ever done. The Trail de Queribus in Cucugnan, France.
First, an explanation. I only came across this race because I have a friend with a house in Cucugnan who informed me there was a trail running festival in May each year and he planned to be out there for it. This friend is the race whisperer; he has the ability to mumble something in passing and an hour later I’ve booked flights and accommodation for another foreign marathon. Long may it continue! When he mentioned the 21km race and an extended break in the continental sun I was sold, I didn’t even look at the race details, just paid my money and booked my flights. Perhaps if I’d looked at the web page a little closer I may have hesitated a moment longer…
It turns out the race I had signed up for was a 21km mountain run, with 1,200+ metres of ascent to the top of two mountains flanking the town of Cucugnan, which included sections where they’d simply forgotten to put a path…probably because it seemed like too much hard work given the jagged rocks and treacherous terrain!
Had I paid a bit more attention I would likely have paid a bit more respect. There may even have been some training involved, I think it’s a course that deserves it. As it was I flew to France with a few hill runs and not much more in my legs since Milan marathon. There followed a few wonderfully relaxed days touring the area, taking in the sites of the Gorge de Galamus and a local swimming hole. We’d also popped to Girona for the day and collected Kristina, the Danish national trail running champion…another reason I probably should have done some training! It was fantastic to spend a few days with a running pro though and talk about how she got there, the races she’d done and what her plans were for the future. I’m certain she’ll feature in this blog many more times in the years to come. You can read Kristina’s version of events HERE, but you may want to translate the page…
Sunday was race day, after a wonderful evening of communal pasta and live music in the marquees erected for the event. There was also free booze but I only had a very small glass of local wine, so maybe I was taking it seriously after all? The race started at 9am in the streets of Cucugnan, with lots of excited shouting and cheering in French that you didn’t need to understand to enjoy. A quick lap of the town with the cheers of the crowd to spur you on and we were out in to the countryside and the first climb of the day. This immediately stretched out the pack, the racing snakes at the front disappeared in to the distance while I very quickly settled in to a fast march along with many other runners. The climbs in this race were brutal, I don’t remember any gentle ascents just lots of lung-busting, leg-shredding climbing.
The first 6km climbed to the high point of the race. Not the high point in terms of altitude, there was still over 100 metres of that to gain, but for views and drama it’s hard to beat running through a medieval castle. For me the challenge was the terrain not the clock, so I took a few moments to enjoy the incredible scenes laid out below me and gaze across the Pyrenees and beyond. I’d love to return one day when I wasn’t running for a proper look around.
From the castle it was a further climb over broken rock, sometimes turning from running in to speed scrambling, and at other times practically crawling from jagged rock to jagged rock. The course markings were brilliant, route finding was no problem, but there was definitely nothing you’d call a trail in this section of the trail run!
Things ticked along nicely through the kilometres, although there was very little opportunity to relax and open the legs, the course demanded attention practically every step of the way. Even the downhills were challenging in their steepness and ground conditions, alternating between slippy dust and broken rocks, but the sun and views and novelty of running through the mountains made every step enjoyable.
I made a friend on the way, in fact I made several. I must admit my shame that the only French I managed during the race was to apologise for being English and not speaking French, but everyone then immediately switched to their best broken English to point out a particular view, tell me it was hot or welcome me to France. One particularly large chap informed me he was going to run “like a boat”, slowly but ever forwarded. It reminded me of my own “be a shark” motto that came in handy later on. I also met a Spaniard who spoke French but no English. What followed was several kilometres of sweaty charades as we communicated as best we could without sharing a common language. Then disaster struck…
My Spanish friend was insistent I should look at something over the valley, despite being on a technical downhill section. I resisted for a while, but curiosity got the better of me and I risked a glance. That’s when I planted my foot on a loose rock and went over on the historically weak ankle, as I tend to do when I go running in mountains! To add insult to injury it turns out the Spaniard was just distracting me while he stopped for a pee!
So the last 8km of the run were more of a stumble, limp and hobble. I pushed on whenever I thought I could trust my ankle but on any broken ground I was reduced to a very cautious trot. It did give me a chance to take in the beauty of the region, stop for a while in the village of Padern for refreshments and chat with other runners as they passed me. I was determined to see the finish line though, there’s no DNF in my DNA – plus I didn’t know the French for “can you take me home please?”
The course had been challenging but fun, in the last few kilometres it just got challenging. The final climb was the steepest I have ever taken on in a run; there were parts where you could reach out and touch the path in front of you without bending over, it felt like running up a wall. Coming over the crest of that climb and seeing the village below, that final descent should have been a delight. Unfortunately I couldn’t even enjoy the downhill by this stage as the uneven ground and dodgy ankle made even that a steady shuffle rather than a flying downhill sprint.
And so, 5 hours after starting and at least an hour later than I’d hoped I reached the line. The finish was at the same marquee where the post-race party was to be held and I was greeted by friends and tables full of drink and food. I learned that Kristina had managed 4th place despite running 1.5km extra after getting lost, which is an incredible effort and by my calculations means she would have been in a race with the first lady if she’d stayed on course! Our other runner, Rachel, ran a very respectable time just over 4 hours, so was also there to greet me at the end and celebrate a job done and a fantastic trip.
I’m already thinking about going back if invited, and taking the course a little more seriously and training accordingly. I also think I’ll avoid any Spaniards and maybe leave that glass of wine until after the race, it can only help!
Thanks to Just A Little Bit for organising the trip. They don’t actually do tours, but they do do brilliant t-shirts so go take a look!