Descending down a steep forest trail, making sure every footstep was precise as it cut up the soft turf, I breathed a sigh of relief as I finally reached the bottom. Then I looked up and saw I’d been confronted with a sheer valley wall that looked like you needed climbing equipment to assail it.
Puffing hard to the summit, I emerge from a line of trees knowing the rest of my team would be close by to give some encouragement. Instead, the first words I heard were a guttural cry of “Allez Michael” from someone I had met for the first time only an hour before.
Welcome to the wonderful world of team trail relay run – Gallic style.
It was not an event I’d even considered taking part in until after the 2011 London Marathon: that was humid, incredibly crowded and despite four months of hard training, I ran poorly. It felt unrewarding and I came to the decision that I needed to try a new running experience.
A few weeks later a friend who had also suffered the Marathon blues turned up at our running club raving about a trail run she’d done in France. Great atmosphere – check, small running field – check, fantastic views – check and a banquet of food and drink at the end – check-check-check. Forget the running, I was sold on the refreshments and a weekend in France.
The Chemins du Mellois (Literally translated as ‘The Paths of the Mellois region’) is a trail race with four legs (26km, 17km, 19km and 22km) that takes place in the beautiful countryside an hour south of La Rochelle. The day started and finished in the same small town, but the rest of time circumvented the surrounding villages, forests and hills.
I’d always been put off runs abroad in the past. They can be expensive, there’s always nerves the day before and a long journey on tired legs afterwards. If you are going to suffer, you may as well suffer at home.
The Chemins du Mellois was different. With a flight for less than £100, free accommodation thanks to our fabulous French hosts (who most of our team had never met before) and a €15 entry fee, the costs remained relatively low.
With no expectations of a good time, there was little pressure. The day before the race, the closest we came to tactics was choosing who would run each leg. This was done with great informality, while enjoying a coffee overlooking La Rochelle harbour on a beautiful spring morning. I liked this race already and it hadn’t even started.
Building up your energy reserves the night before a run is important, but the French certainly take this philosophy lightly: the mix of home-prepared meat, pasta, salad and couscous was washed down with a fair amount of wine. I made the wise judgement of sticking to white all night, until I was convinced that only a good red would go with the cheese course. They should market this as essential pre-race preparation at all races. You certainly sleep well afterwards.
Race day started at 6.30am and finished about 12 hours later, but most of this was spent as support crew for the rest of the team: cheering them off, driving to find good vantage points along the course, handing them drinks and then cheering them home.
My leg of the relay was the shortest, but hilliest. I lost count somewhere around the seventh climb and the aforementioned valley wall; I could just about savour the stunning scenery through sweaty eyes. Regular drink stops and shouts of ‘bon courage’ kept me going.
The atmosphere amongst the runners was encouraging more than competitive; we were all in it together. The extreme hills and my terrible French meant chatting was kept to a minimum; the best I could muster involved variations of ‘fatigue’ and ‘combien kilometres a la finit?’ Locally prepared cakes, biscuits and fruit provided by clubs, volunteers or just some very kind souls helped us recover at the end of the leg.
After cheering on Wendy, our final runner, at a couple of points during her leg, we rushed to near the finish line to re-join her and complete the final 2km together. As well as giving the last runner a great boost, it also meant you could get a photo taken as a team down a beautiful country path – The Mornington Chasers jazz-hands pose is sure to catch on soon.
Once all the teams had finished, there was a prize giving ceremony in the local town hall, with the now-customary food and drink. A team which had just beaten us to at the finish insisted on filling our glasses with beer the second they were empty.
We came 23rd out of 85 teams; fairly respectable for a mixed team. Then, in amongst a lot of unintelligible French, we heard: “Mornington Chasers.” We’d won a prize – for the team that travelled the furthest. On the plane ride home, we were already planning next year’s race.