From the June 2012 issue of Runner’s World
Calling all nature-loving racers: a marathon that’s green in both senses of the word
By Justin Bowyer
To recommend somewhere by calling it the second largest marsh in France may feel like damning with faint praise, but the 970 square kilometre Marais Poitevin in west France is also a stunning spot. Its verdant landscape and network of tranquil canals, the result of ancient land reclamation, gives rise to its colloquial name The Green Venice – an ideal place, then, to stage an “eco race”.
Claiming to be the first marathon organised under a “nature charter”, it has a zero tolerance approach to litter and encourages people to donate money to the area to help offset the carbon footprint. But fear not: there’s no overzealous environmental stance here, just a gentle cuddle of a reminder that small steps can make a big difference.
On a cool Sunday morning, more than 1000 competitors mingled at the marshalling area, which blended the feel of a woodland fete (think homemade jams and handicrafts) with the slick accoutrements of a much bigger race: chip timing, pace setters and a dozen water stations – most with sliced fruit and all with biodegradable paper cups. The 600 runners doing the marathon distance (the rest were limbering up for the 10K race or 11K walk) mingled at the start line amid a tremendously French display of good luck kisses.
The first 1.5 kilometres threaded through Coulon, the village at the heart of operations, and its narrow streets thronged with cheering crowds who acted as if this were the biggest thing to hit the town in years. In fact, I can attest to the fact that the night before it had hosted a music festival, as the musician outside my hotel window segued seamlessly from Édith Piaf’s French ballads to Lady Gaga into the early hours.
Within 10 minutes of running we were delivered – a little unexpectedly – back to the start line. At least it was only the runners who showed surprise. The crowd seemed to be expecting us and cheered us madly on our way down to the riverside and on to the outlying environs: along canal paths, country lanes and hedge-lined secondary roads.
The Marais Poitevin is home to some 250 bird species, 44 mammal species and 23 amphibian and reptile species. Although I didn’t manage to tick them all off the list, a good many appeared to be scampering about in fields or splashing in the water, oblivious to the mass of runners. This, combined with the sight of local fishermen and punts making their soporific way along the canals, created an air so tranquil that it rapidly permeated my running – never have I felt so relaxed on a run.
I practised my (limited) French on a field of cows, waving and calling “Bonjour, Monsieur Vache!” while other runners regarded me as if their race had been infiltrated by an overgrown hyperactive toddler. I didn’t care. Nor did I care at the eight-kilometre mark when I was forced to tackle the course’s first real incline: the experience lasted 10 seconds and elevated me 3.4 metres. Worse greeted us at 11 kilometres, when we began the 16.5-metre climb to the beautiful village of Le Vanneau-Irleau.
Leaving the village via a jolly but brief downhill canter, the 11K walkers who were tackling things in the opposite direction appeared, providing an unbroken wall of support – waving, clapping and shouting “Bravo!” for a whole 20 minutes. There was an unexpected side effect to their approach: it made my steady 5:40 per kilometre pace feel much faster.
At the 19-kilometre mark I passed my hotel window in Coulon. Yes, Coulon. For here is something I have been keeping from you (as I know many die-hard runners could, at the revelation, cast their application forms aside): the Maraisthon is a twice-round marathon. Now, I hate laps as much as anyone. I associate them more with school-day punishments than adult leisure pursuits. But stick with me here: this is a course of such beauty that it’s well worth seeing twice.
In fact, the second loop felt like I was reacquainting myself with old friends: hello again, 16.5-metre hill; bonjour, local fishermen. I even waved again to the cows, although at this protein-depleted stage, I found myself thinking of steak tartare.
My running continued to feel good until kilometre 34, at which point my right quad began to spasm. To say this was a surprise on such a flat course is an understatement. But amid such great scenery I simply refused to care.
At the finish line I was draped with one of the most unusual medals I’ve ever received – a soap on a rope made from donkey’s milk. I simultaneously learned two things: you can make soap from donkey’s milk and you can milk a donkey.
By a country mile, this was the most fun marathon I have ever run. If an increase in international runners can be achieved without upsetting the ecological applecart, then this event should go from strength to strength, gently educating us in ways of both environment and donkey-milking.
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