Raid Des Bogomiles: Do I get the prize for the most amusing race name? You have to admit that coming from a country where the word ‘boggin’ is common parlance and where you frequently run through miles of bog it has a certain amusement value.
Did the Grand Raid Des Bogomiles, (one of three races held within the Grand Raid Des Cathars), provide miles of bog? No, but there was an ascent up vertical mud slide which left me fairly boggin.
What are Bogomiles? Are they even a thing? The Bogomiles were a thirteenth century religious sect originating in Bulgaria. They rejected wealth and feudal exploitation by the church and state choosing to live simple and ascetic lives. The movement spread through the Balkans and into central Europe and was the root of the Cathar religion in France (and Carcassonne the race location was a Cathar stronghold – hence the event name). Persecuted by the Catholic Church the movement died out in the seventeenth century.
There is always something to learn on our ultra-marathon adventures and not necessarily sport related. I was to learn a few things on this trip.
We arrived in Carcassonne a couple of days before the race which is quite unusual for me. Often, getting to the start line is a frenzied affair with me working up to the last moment and screaming up to the start barely getting a chance to draw breath. Amazingly, for Scotland, there was a direct flight from Glasgow which was followed by an easy ten minute bus ride into the city. Our AirBnB apartment was conveniently located at the foot of the citadel, just a five minute walk from both the citadel and the new town, and more importantly the race start and finish areas. We settled in, found our bearings and had a relaxed dinner in one of the many restaurants in the citadel.
Next day we woke to rain. What? Typical, the Scots bring the rain with them: but it was at least mild.
We spent the day gently exploring the new town dodging the showers, visiting the indoor market and indulging my interest in church architecture, and of course the cafes.
Early evening I went to register for the race, apart from the long queue it was an efficient and slick process. I quickly established during the kit check that when it comes to running not knowing the language is only a minor problem. It’s amazing what can be communicated using a combination of pidgin and sign language. There was a gasp of surprise at the quantity of food that I had, but it was beyond my linguistic skills to explain that some of it was going in my drop bag, and that no I was not going to grunt and snuffle my way along the route. I realised later why they were so surprised. The check-points were wonderfully well stocked with all manner of goodies. I could have got away with carry a couple jelly babies.
The race number had the course profile, checkpoints and cut-offs on.
‘That looks a lot of hills’ pipes up Alasdair. Yes, what did you not get about me saying it was going to be equivalent to five times up Ben Nevis.
The race route was loop through the countryside of the Aude. It went over forest and woodland tracks, paths with a few short sections on quiet roads coming in and out of checkpoints. There was not a single flat kilometre as it followed a series of climbs from gently undulations to serious slogs. Rather ironically, the technical terrain of short sharp climbs over narrow rocky root strewn paths was mainly in the overnight sections. It passed through vineyards, woodland, over rocky massifs typical of the region and through rolling farmland. A bit of everything.
The day dawned dull, misty and humid. It felt just like home. The race start was a civilised 9:00 AM. Whilst that meant there was no horribly early start, it did mean that there was going to a long overnight haul. The start was outsider the magnificent Narbonne Gate. We gathered for the race briefing, a field of just over 300 lean mean running machines and me. Since the entry was 99.9% French and I was the only Brit, the briefing was in French only. I worked on the assumption that race briefs were universal: the route would be clearly marked and look for reflective tape and signs, take care crossing roads and on road sections, obey the marshals, be nice to the marshals, look out for your fellow runners, phone race HQ if you drop out. A quiet lull as we shuffled forward and we were off.
That humidity was a killer; within about 10 minutes I was absolutely dripping with sweat. Note to self, take plenty of fluids. It was just 6k through vineyards and woodland to the first check point then into more woodland, narrow paths and the start of the climbing. I was quickly overtaken by a number of runners and was left with two breathing down my neck. My offers to let them pass politely refused. Finally, I realised they were the sweepers. Lantern rouge so early on was disappointing, but with my energy levels all over the place (no idea why) this was all the pace I could muster.
The terrain and landscape was beautiful even in the dampness and mist; similar but different to here in Scotland. Suddenly I realised what was different; it was the smell. Yes, there was the autumnal earthiness but mingled with it was the fragrance of wild lavender, verbena and thyme.
Photographers were strategically placed on a couple of the climbs and I got photo bombed by a knight!
My chasers were getting impatient, glancing at watches and showing slight frustration with my photo stops as I was playing fast and loose with the cut-offs. After the drop down off the first big climb I made it into the second check-point with thirteen minutes to spare: tight. It was a gorgeous little hamlet and the check point was being run out of someone’s garage. I took some salty snacks to deal with the cramp I was getting, guzzled a lot of coke and mixed up another bottle of Active Root sports drink: it’s gingery, sharp goodness was going down well.
Mentally, I was not great. This was too hard too soon and being hounded by the sweepers was not helping. This is where the language barrier was a problem. There was no chat or banter and I had not been able to communicate that I wanted them to hang back.
New sweepers for the next section, who spoke a little English, meaning a bit of welcome chat. Remember that vertical mud slide? Well here it was. I honestly thought this was game over. It felt like I had zero energy as I heaved myself up it through the trees and humidity, frequently grinding to a halt and slipping backwards. Was it never going to end? Any hope of making the cut off dashed.
As I emerged from the trees at the top gasping and exhausted I spotted a guy lying on the grass. His race number was flipped over: odd to have sponsor advertising on the back of a number I thought. That lying down thing looked like a good idea. I flopped down and curled up while the sweepers checked him out. After a couple of minutes lolling around my fighting spirit returned, gave me a swift kick and I was off again no longer in last place. The sweepers had to stay with the sleeping guy. The views opened out and I could see the rolling and varied countryside for miles. Views like this make the effort worthwhile. Of course sleeping guy caught me and I was back with the sweepers.
My energy and strength returned and I was coping better mentally and physically with the relentless climbs making it into the next checkpoint with an hour to spare, and there were four runners still there. The next section was long and had the biggest climb that would take me to the highest point. Time to get some food in and a bowl of chicken noodle soup was just the thing. I was the last to leave and there was no sweeper with me: having surprised everyone by making up an hour.
I am a bear of little of brain. It took two electric shocks – doh - to realise that I was trying to rest my poles on an electric fence when I stopped to answer a call of nature. As I got going again I realised that the dramatic looking massif ahead, that I was having to tip my head back to see the top of, was where I was going: yikes. OK don’t over think it, perpetual motion was going to be the key, step by step. Keep climbing. Think contractions: each one is getting you closer to the finish. A twisty trail through woods disguised the first section of the arduous climb, and then it was onto rolling open hills (think Ochils) and trying to not look too often at what lay ahead. Just to mix it up a bit I found myself negotiating a step ladder over another electric fence: that was a first. This was to be a recurring feature. The sweeper appeared and he could speak some English. The chat was welcome although criticising the weight of my pack, my lightweight shoes and my lack of training were perhaps not the most diplomatic topics. I started to leap frog another runner taking him on the ascents but then he took me on the descents.
It was a great morale boost when I realised that I was unexpectedly going to make the halfway checkpoint in daylight. There was a long decent down to the village and views opened revealing the Chateau d’Arques (the check point) against the sunset. Still last but within two hours of the cut-off. The old tortoise was doing fine.
Cue a comic running diva code red fingernail emergency. At some point a fingernail had got caught, broken and started to rip away right at the quick. If it caught and ripped again it would be painful and bleed. Biting was not working, so, ever resourceful, I went to first aid to borrow scissors. I think they must have been bored because I got the full first aid treatment and an entry into the log! The shame!
With time to spare I decided to take a longer break, eat, change my socks and t-shirt and get set for overnight. Why were they asking me if I wanted to sleep? Why would I want to sleep? Why wouldn’t I want to sleep was their response. How strange. Apparently people sleep during these events. Remember that ‘advert’ on the back of the bib? Nope, it was a very helpful ‘Je dors’ with a little snoring emoji. You flip the bib to let people know you are having a kip. By not sleeping here or at the other checkpoints I got an advantage and tagged as the hard core Ecossais.
Twelve hours of night time running lay ahead for the runner who hates the dark. It was the dark phase of the moon and so very dark. During the first hours there was still the hum of the cicadas and a lot noises from the bushes and trees as the wildlife settled for the night and I tried to keep my imagination under control. As it got into the small hours though: silence. I don’t know which was most creepy. I am sure that the countryside I was passing through was beautiful if the villages and the narrow, gnarly paths were anything to go by. The climbs kept coming too; albeit shorter but sharper and technical requiring much concentration. I just kept telling myself that the overall profile was now down.
We all know the tale of the hare and the tortoise. Throughout the night I picked off other runners, five, nine, eleven and then thirteen behind me. Steady perpetual motion and short stops at the checkpoints. It was not all plain sailing and there was a rough patch at the last but one checkpoint where I thought I was going to pass out. Everyone else thought that too and the guys could not believe it when I powered past them a short time later.
That last checkpoint was a welcome thing. I ditched as much as I could from my pack, tended some chafing and topped up my fluids. The landscape was changing as it dropped down into the valley and started to follow the river Aude back towards Carcassonne. The dawn was slow to come and those first hints of light were most welcome. After one last hill I popped out of a wood to see vineyards spread below and the citadel in the distance bathed in the warm morning light. A welcome sight indeed. Over the last few kilometres I continued to pick runners off. The final stretch went into the citadel, along the ramparts to the Aude Gate, down past our apartment onto the Pont Vieux where I have to say I totally showboated the finish. My saltire held high I ran across the bridge to shouts of ‘Bravo! Bravo Ecosse!
My finish time? Astonishingly I finished in 23.39.55. My expectations had been low after my training schedule had been decimated by injury: if I did not get timed out I would be happy with the 27:30 cut-off. If I could get close to 24 hours I would be ecstatic. If you had asked if I could do it under 24 hours I would have said no.
What did I want? A beer. Yes, I had been up for over 24 hours and had survived on coke and chicken noodle soup (yes, it is possible), but I wanted beer for breakfast.
Whilst sitting drinking it there was a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the first sweepers. She congratulated me, so happy that I had finished and finished so well. She could hardly believe it.
The French are as liberal with their distances as the Scottish race directors. I clocked up 109k somewhat longer than the advertised 103, but what’s 6k between friends.
Another break from the norm; we were not rushing back home and straight back to work. We had another four days in Carcassonne for some much needed recovery and gentle, if painful, exploration of the castle and ramparts; not mention time to scoff croissants, crepes and cassoulet.
The added bonus: I declare the Global Odyssey 100 Europe leg complete.