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Runner's High | Running the Bordeaux Marathon

Skip the carbo-loading and the Gatorade: at Bordeaux's Médoc Marathon, Benjamin Cheever fuels himself with crème brûlée and good wine.

The course for the Médoc Marathon in Bordeaux reads like a wine list. Château Beychevelle, Château Gruaud-Larose and Château Lafite Rothschild all ornament the route and provide libations. That's right, wine is served at the water stops. First prize is the winner's weight in grand crus. When I first heard this, I was horrified. Health isn't supposed to be fun.

My American friends wagged their heads sadly. "Those French! Sacrebleu! Do they run smoking Gauloises?"

Runners in Le Marathon du Médoc pass 59 of the region's fabled properties. Indicated on the event's official map with tiny red goblets are 18 wine stops also offering local delicacies—cheese, oysters, steak, even sausage. All these stops account for the race's slogan: "Le Marathon Le Plus Long Du Monde"—the World's Longest Marathon.

I love marathons; I also love good wine. But this slogan made me nervous. If there's one quality I don't crave in a 26.2-mile foot race, it's additional distance. Pheidippides, who ran the first marathon, must have been in a splendid mood—he was bringing news to Athens of the Greek victory on the plains of Marathon. When he stopped running, though, he dropped dead.

The French must die young, we think, forgetting Jeanne Louise Calment, who passed away in 1977 at the age of 122. She enjoyed port and smoked until just a few years before her death. She spent her life in Arles and is said to have remembered Vincent van Gogh as "ugly, ungracious and impolite."

Genetics, you say. Maybe, but those who knew her report that the old lady was relaxed. Unflappable. Me, I'm American. I'm highly flappable.

Most runners arrive in Bordeaux a few days before the big event. But I'm an American. I was far too busy. Le Marathon was September 7th. I'd leave New York on the night of the 5th. My travel agent phoned that afternoon to tell me Air France had gone on strike. Fear not, she said. My flight to Paris wasn't affected, and my flight from Paris to Bordeaux would be replaced by a train ride. The railroad station was right at the Paris airport. I'd be given the train tickets at the airport in New York. Of course the airport clerk had no idea about train tickets. I very nearly went right home. Like I said, I'm flappable.

I arrived at Charles de Gaulle jet-lagged, dehydrated and sleep deprived. Ordinarily I won't run the day before a marathon, but I sprinted out of that terminal to the railroad station. Not fast enough, though. The train was already full. "C'est complet."

Fear not, I was told. There were other trains to Bordeaux. All I had to do was take two subways first. With my French and my sense of direction, the odds of my getting to Bordeaux looked bad. The odds of my getting to Bordeaux in time to run the marathon looked worse.

Harried and dejected, I slowly made my way. Many hours later, Bordeaux Wine Council representative Florence Raffard met me at the train station in the city of Bordeaux, presented a Renault Scénic auto and said she'd direct me to the pre-marathon party. I told Florence I didn't want to go to a party. I wanted to go to bed. Fear not, Florence said. Another journalist, Dora Tauzin, would meet me at the party and direct me to Château Les Ormes de Pez, where we would both be staying.

I started the drive just in time for the Friday evening exodus. It took two hours to make what should have been a 15-minute trip out of the city. Then it was another hour to Château Fourcas-Hosten, which was hosting the party. By the time I arrived, I had been traveling for 24 hours. I'd been awake for 21 of those hours.

At the party, I was introduced to Dora, who said my race number and shirt were at Les Ormes de Pez. "Everything you need to run a beautiful marathon," she said.

"What I need to run a beautiful marathon," I said, "is to go to sleep right now."

"First," she said, "you must enjoy yourself."

"All right," I said grudgingly. "But only briefly."

And so I was led to a great white tent, where a live band was sawing and banging away. There must have been a thousand runners under that tent, but they weren't acting like runners. I've been with hungry, anxious runners before a race in America. We've starved, loaded carbs and dosed ourselves with vitamins. We've even used horse lineament. But never alcohol.

Here the wine was being delivered in wire baskets and consumed at an astounding rate. I didn't see Gauloises, but plenty of people were smoking cigarettes.

I took a piece of bread and an empty goblet. Without friends or prices to guide me, I developed a new method for wine selection, which I will call—for lack of a better phrase—the "Oh là là" technique. I'd lurk at the edge of the tent until a new wire basket appeared, and when I heard cries of "C'est beau! C'est beau! Oh là là!" I'd pop out of the shadows, glass in hand.

Later, quite drunk, but far too tired and anxious to enjoy myself, I found Dora.

"I need to go to the hotel," I said.

"Château," she said.

"Château," I said. "I need to go to sleep." Dora's face fell. "But I am feeling fleet of foot," she said, "and I don't have to run tomorrow."

"What do you want to do?" I asked.

"I want to have fun," she said. "I want to dance."

"Can you have enough fun in an hour?" I asked.

"Certainement," she said.

"All right," I said. "You have fun for an hour. Then we can go to the hotel."

"Château."

"Château," I agreed, and began disconsolately to eat her crème brûlée while she went off to the dance floor.

When an hour had passed and Dora still refused to leave, I headed into the night alone. Miracle of miracles, I found a wall with a sign for Château Les Ormes de Pez on it. But I couldn't figure out how to get behind the wall. I had a cell phone, praise God, and called my contact at the château. Soon I was in bed.

My eyes blinked twice, drunkenly—and it was 7:30 a.m. The race was in two hours. I took a bath and joined a dozen French runners at breakfast. We ate bread and butter and jam. Also yogurt. I'd read that dairy products can slow the long-distance runner. Broken French to broken English, I asked the other runners about the wine at the marathon. "When can I safely begin to drink?"

My new friends conferred. The one with the best English was deputized to warn me that I should be careful with white wine, "but red, this can do you no harm."

Dora appeared.

"You look fine," I said in disbelief. "How can that be?"

"That's because you can't see my liver," she said.

As we drove to the start, I asked nervously about the wine. "You should drink it," Dora said. "It's good wine."

"What about finishing the race?"

Dora shrugged prettily. "Of course there are people here," she said, and her voice fell dramatically, "who come to run a fast race. But they are verrrry borrrring."

For reasons lost now in the mists of time, many competitors at the Médoc marathon wear costumes and carry props. I inserted myself into a band of men and women dressed as Native Americans, in buckskins, with painted faces, bows and arrows. It turned out that they didn't speak a word of English. I saw a man dressed as an American soldier. He didn't speak English either.

Alone, I wondered sourly, would I finish this race? I'd run dozens of marathons. I'd always finished, but then I'd never run a marathon on so little sleep. I'd drunk at least a bottle of red wine the night before and breakfasted on yogurt, which at this moment was doubtless transforming itself into muscle-cramping lactic acid.

Napoleon said that morale is to all other factors as four is to one. If I started near the back, I'd pass people later on. This would buoy my spirits. So I moved back.

Four great cranes had been set up on the road, each with a dragon's head built on it. In the crane nearest to where I stood, I could see a young woman working the controls so that the dragon's head reared back and shot colored strips of paper skyward. This was not a marathon. This was a party.

And so the race began. It was slow at first, terribly slow. The course passes through many narrow streets, and I got stuck behind a wagon with a model of a Champagne distillery on it. I ran with a group kitted out as African tribesmen pulling a cage with a stuffed gorilla.

I found a Canadian couple and noted the jam. "It's not about speed," the man told me.

"It's not the wine that slows you down?" I asked.

"No," he insisted. "I used to think that drinking was bad for running. It's not. There was a time" he said, shaking his head in disbelief, "when people thought sex was bad for athletic performance."

Many of the runners around me were dressed as grandmothers, toting pocket books. I didn't appreciate it when they zipped by me. I almost died of humiliation when I heard wheels and glanced back to see that I was being overtaken by a man pulling a wagon with several potted grapevines in it.

Then the countryside began to work on me. This region has been producing wine since Roman times. (There were many runners in togas.) Most of the claret encountered in medieval literature came from Bordeaux. This part of France still produces the greatest quantity of the finest wines in the world.

Even if you didn't love the wine, you would love the landscape. There are stone walls on every side, and beyond the stone walls, vineyards. At the end of a row of grapevines, there is often a rose bush. It is said that roses in vineyards function like canaries in mines: Flowers are prey to many of the same blights that hit the vines, but the roses get sick first. Despite their utilitarian origins, they still look like roses, which is to say beautiful.

Set back behind the vineyards are great buildings in blond stone, the châteaus. Every so often, we'd jog up a graveled drive, past decorative pools and into a courtyard. There we'd find a table with a white tablecloth and on the table, glasses of wine. Not plastic or cardboard cups of wine, but glasses.

Roughly halfway through the race, I decided I'd try an experiment. I'd drink some wine. I'd look at my watch and twenty minutes later, see how I felt. So I had a glass. I think it was Château Grand Puy Lacoste. I forgot to look at my watch. Next stop was Château Lafite Rothschild. Even on the run, Château Lafite Rothschild is a rare treat.

A marathon is always an escape from self-consciousness. The curtain that intellect and memory insert between the runner and the world falls away. You're alive. You're in the now. This is true without wine, but the wine helped.

I was completely in the spirit of the event. Carriages had raced up these drives, the sound of hoofs had echoed through these very courtyards. There must have been damsels, right? And honor. I was part of something ancient and fine.

I caught up with a runner who had a CANADIAN GIRLS KICK ASS sign on her...well, it was on her ass. She was younger than I and stronger, but I kept up. "The wine I can see," I said to her, "but sausage? And steak?"

She peeled off. The tortoise and the hare, I thought. Ten minutes later, she reappeared. "I stopped for a glass of wine," she explained. "And some steak. When in Rome."

I finished the race in four hours, 36 minutes and 41 seconds. I came in 2,126 out of 7,820, which was all right for a 54-year-old man who probably lost an hour at the start. Did the wine actually improve my time, while adding substantially to the pleasure of the experience? I know at least one researcher willing to put his health on the line in the interests of science to find out.

I had a medal draped around my neck, a bottle of 1997 Cuvée Du Marathon pressed into my hands. An official poured me a glass of "Oh là là" and saw to it that I was served a steak with stewed tomatoes. The woman seated to my left was a doctor, Martine Baspeyras. "Could all this wine be good for you?" I asked.

"Mais oui," she said and ticked off six reasons why an adult male must drink at least two glasses of red wine a day. Even if wine tasted like cod liver oil, the sensible man would be advised to drink it. Red wine, she explained, protects against heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's, plus it's good for the skin. There were two more reasons, but I was too drunk to remember them.

Giddy with hope and wine, I fired another question. "What about gin? Is gin good for you?"

"Yes," I was told. "Gin might be good for you. But only a tiny bit." And Dr. Baspeyras held up two fingers so close together that I could just make out the gap between them.

Still, I felt as triumphant as Pheidippides. I was coming home with some good news. Very good news.

In my haze of endorphins and Bordeaux, I tried to understand why wine and running now seemed such a splendid pairing. Wine may be good for your health. Running may be good for your health too. I've been an obsessive runner since 1978. But I'll let you in on a little secret. I don't run because it's good for my health. I run because it's fun. The same impulse led me to wine: the desire, the need, to escape into ecstasy.

Back home in Pleasantville, New York, I discovered a sort of chapel in the dark recesses of my local wine shop, Art of Wine, where wooden cubbies cradle bottles with the names of vineyards I had jogged through. The wine merchant in neighboring Chappaqua has a second, smaller room, almost like a humidor, set back in the store, and on one wall were displayed some wines from the Médoc.

These are pricey treasures. But then health has always been a precious commodity. When you have your health, you have just about everything. Who wouldn't take a glass of Château Lafite Rothschild over a chilled glass of Geritol?

Benjamin Cheever is the author of The Plagiarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death and, most recently, Selling Ben Cheever.

Published October 2003
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