**Winner of the 2011 Lipstick & Wanderlust Travel Writing Contest**
– The Province – Sunday, October 23 2011
“You must cut back on your drinking if you hope to survive.”
I’d expect that kind of talk from a doctor, life coach, or even the homeless guy I give my empties to. But now, as I stagger through a vineyard wearing camouflage bootyshorts and a stolen feather boa, a man in a bee costume has just uttered those very words.This wasn’t what I expected from my first marathon.
I am not a sophisticated drinker. On a recent wine tour of the Okanagan, I mortified my sommelier friend by chewing gum at a tasting, mixing a 2001 reserve with 7Up, and explaining my technique for dismantling box-wine “so you can milk the bag”.He made it quite clear that if I was to be deemed fit to sip from their spit-buckets, I needed to smarten up. So I’ve come to France to run — and drink — in the Marathon du Médoc.This bizarre race is a full 42.2-kilometre marathon through Bordeaux’s vineyards with wine served to runners along the way. It’s an embarrassment of riches, including samplings from Châteaux-like Beychevelle, and Haute-Bages Liberal.
Since it was founded in 1984, the Marathon du Médoc has billed itself as “TheWorld’sLongest Marathon.” With 23 wine stations, an oyster table, and grilled beef served mid-race, my first thought was “of course, because everybody gets gout.”
And, as if 8,500 people drinking red wine while running a marathon isn’t outrageous enough, people run the Marathon du Médoc in costumes. The more flamboyant the getup, the better. The theme this year is “Animals”, which the French interpret as “corsets, capes, spandex, sequins, fishnet stockings, tutus, and maybe some form of animal ears.” And those are just the men.
To symbolize my ignorant North American ways (which I hoped to shed in France), my running partner and I opted to dress as hunters.
After raiding the Dollar Store for camouflage hats, water pistols, and some very realistic looking fake bullet belts, we were ready to bag some big game. I was amazed we got through customs.
The race begins in Pauillac, a seaside town famous for legendary wine. Elegant stone architecture contrasts sharply with cows, zebras, nuns, jellyfish, Indians, ballerinas, and Smurfs. An oom-pa-pa band playing from a marble balcony feeds the giddy, eccentric mood.I am here as an athlete and a scholar of wine, so I bust out my warm-up stretches, even though it feels more like I should be flashing people for beads.
Imagine what happens when alcohol is introduced to the mix.
At precisely 9:30 a.m., the runners start counting down. I think back to my preparation: early morning runs . . . wine education at L École du Vin in Bordeaux . . . drinking six whiskeys at a pub with scary biker waitresses and pulling a dine-and-dash . . . “TROIS. . . .”
My quads are tight and toned, my liver swollen and twitchy. I feel ready.
“DEUX . . .” I grip my guns tightly and shout along. “UN!!!”
Spectators crane out windows as the starting gun fires. Eight thousand sins against nature spring into motion. It looks as if someone walked into a bar holding a jungle-themed aerobics class during a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and pulled the fire alarm.
A few minutes into our run we stampede the first station, squirt guns drawn. I peer over the long wooden table expecting a bored, tuxedo-shirted wine steward. All I see are friendly volunteers speed-pouring into plastic cups as fast as marathoners can swig.
The race surges out of the village and into the countryside. The sides of the track are packed with beaming spectators. Children shout “Allez! Allez!” and a lobster galloping beside me high-fives them with his Styrofoam pincers.
Two saucy leopards help each other stretch between puffs of their Gitanes. A group of Japanese Power Rangers pose for pictures in front of Château Palmer, a stunning castle. All this is starting to seem normal to me.
For a culture steeped in art and politics, the French sure do love plastic novelty buttocks. The things are everywhere! When I questioned a Belgian man running in cat ears and his own rosy pair of cheeks as to why, he simply replied “Because they are hilarious!” Good enough for me.
“First prize is your body weight in wine!” Chatters an American woman in a hula skirt made of corks, “Nobody is really out to break records though. Well, maybe other than that Kenyan guy.” Then she wanders off the path to pee in the vines.
At the 15-kilometre marker, excess is on the rise but the crowds remain peaceful. Other than a spandex-clad pig in a policeman’s hat I didn’t see a single cop (His set of pink fake buttocks made me suspect he was not of official jurisdiction.)
Half way through the race, people are dropping all around us. Massage tents set up beside the course look more tempting with every mile. I shudder as we pass the bottom half of a horse costume laying in a pile of discarded wigs.
Now the ground is covered in more animal noses than a butcher’s floor. My fellow hunter strips off his bullet belt as we run and hurls it into the vines. At the next tasting station I surrender my guns to an adorable little boy who was eyeing them up. Hopefully he will carry on my legacy of shooting scantily clad men in inappropriate places.
Ditching props helps, but not enough. Soon I’m picturing my parents’ reaction to hearing I’ve been found facedown in a field with French obscenities drawn all over my body. Haggard as we are, the spectators only grow more supportive, holding sugar cubes and banana slices out to our sweaty carcasses.
I wrack my foggy brain for everything I had learned about pairings. Should I accept the bananas, or could this be some kind of French test, landing me in ridicule once again.
Then it occurred to me. French culture is famous for HOSPITALITY, not snobbery. Was snobbery just an American misinterpretation of prestige? Or maybe drinking water from my Dollar Store squirt guns had done something to my brain.
This was when the bumblebee man stepped in. “Come! You must be strong, the finish is close.”
His wings are drooping and his nylons are torn, but damned if he isn’t having a certified blast! Up ahead I can hear people urging the runners on.
Wine is art, but it is also a social lubricant, and so should help people feel comfortable. You can still appreciate it, even if you don’t know the difference between a Lafite-Rothschild and a Christian Louboutin.
From now on I will approach wine with the openness of French strangers cheers-ing us from their lawn chairs.
I get up, wipe the war paint out of my eyes, and follow the giant transsexual bee to sophistication.