Dégustation – My Médoc

The last time I mixed alcohol with athleticism it almost landed me a £2000 fine. Following a night out with my best man and unwilling to wait twelve minutes I raced a departing Metrolink tram from Shudehill to Victoria Station. I emerged victorious but wasn’t permitted to board said beaten tram because apparently you can’t go through the tram entrance to the station. So to paraphrase Kipling “Oh alcohol is alcohol, and running is running, and never the twain shall meet.”

Yet one chilly February evening I sat in the Same Yet Inn listening to three Marathon Des Châteaux du Médoc veterans, T-Dog, Massage Hands and Be Nice, harp on about their annual running jaunt around the Bordeaux vineyards. The ‘Wine Marathon’ starts in Pauillac and the course meanders in and around the Médoc vineyards along the left bank of the Gironde Estuary near Bordeaux. It is the standard 26.2 miles (42.2km) in length but with twenty plus wine stops! Furthermore it is ran in themed fancy dress. Initially sceptical I was eventually drawn in and by night’s end my flights to Bordeaux were booked.

It would be my first Médoc but T-Dog’s 5th, Massage Hands’ 4th and Be Nice’s 3rd trips and every year they always dressed the same irrespective of theme. They wore mid 1990s France or Man Utd replica football jerseys together with Eric Cantona face masks. The Three Cantonas of Médoc. In 2019 Superheroes was the theme so I, with my 1992-94 Newton Heath inspired shirt, would join them as Le Quatrième Cantona. Eric, the superhero for the red half of Manchester.

Following a couple of eventful days in the beautiful city of Bordeaux race day finally arrived. We were up bright (well dark actually) and early for the 0630 shuttle bus to Pauillac. The weather did not bode well as it poured down nearly all journey. I, being the newbie, was immediately classed a jinx and christened ‘Rain Man’. Fortunately the rain cleared up and the sun came out just as we arrived in Pauillac.

The start area was thronged with excited athletic wine aficionados in Super Mario, Spiderman, Captain America, Wonderwoman and more costumes. We were treated to an aerial performance on high wires suspended above us then just before the starting gun two French Air Force Alphajets screeched overhead. We were a Cantona down as Massage Hands was ‘otherwise engaged’ so T-Dog, Be Nice and I set off with the principle objective of just beating the 6:30 sweeper cart. If we failed in that there’d be no medal or bottle of wine at the end.

Be Nice’s race strategy was clear, bypass the winestops up until half way then imbibe thereafter. The remaining three Cantonas would adopt the Jonathan Swift ‘better the belly burst than good liquor be lost‘ strategy and hit them all from the first at Château Haut-Batailley until the last at Château Montrose.

The first 6km was just like any old marathon. T-Dog restrained my natural instincts to settle into my usual marathon pace. ‘It’s not about time Mike, relax’. It all changed upon reaching Château Haut-Batailley when a fine Bordeaux was thrusted into our welcoming hands. Be Nice clattered on whilst we savoured the glorious Claret.

Standing waiting for Massage Hands provided time to observe the passing mass of dressed up runners. It was obvious some had preloaded given their already tottering gaits. T-Dog greeted those dressed in highly restrictive costumes with a ‘they clearly haven’t thought that through’ and those dressed in standard running gear with ‘they obviously didn’t get the email’.

Massage Hands finally caught up to us 10km in whilst at Château Gruaud-Larose. It was the third stop and the first to serve in wine glasses rather than plastic cups. Jesus it tasted divine and waiting around was no problem as we enjoyed a second and third glass. I had finally settled into Médoc pace.

The chateau wine stops rattled by on average every three kilometres. From the grandioseness of Châteaux Pichon-Baron and Lafite-Rothschild to the little one by the side of the road in Pauillac each one had their uniqueness and the quality of the wines was outstanding. Running through the dusty roads amongst the rolling vineyards was majestic however the amount of people seeking urinary relief amongst the vines was a tad off putting. I was advised to venture at least 30 metres in if I wanted to pinch a grape (btw that is not a euphemism).

The support along the route was incredible. Obviously given our get up we got many ‘oh ah Cantona’ and ‘allez Canto’ chants throughout from spectators and runners. One runner sidled up beside me and recited the famous ‘when the seagulls follow the trawler’ quote. Fair play to the lad. I only noticed one other runner dressed as their footballing icon, a Finnish FKW in a Norwich City away kit with Fantasy Football’s man of the moment Teemu Pukki on the back.

Whilst in the grounds of Château le Haye, bedecked in large multicoloured helium balloons, at 32km I got myself into and out of a little bind. My daughter was born in the late 2000s and she enjoyed an Icelandic show popular on CBBC called Lazy Town. I bumped into a group of Icelanders dressed as the lead character.

“You’re dressed as Sportacus aren’t you? From Lazy Town. Such a shame the lad died recently.”

“No he didn’t.”

“Yes he did. I saw it on the news.”

“No he didn’t. The guy’s a personal friend of ours. We saw him last week.”

“Are you sure? Really? Ah yes you’re right. It was the guy that played Robbie Rotten.”

Thankfully they laughed and we parted in good form.

Like all marathons the last 10km are the real tester. My feet were aching and my right abductor muscle was giving me some jip. The mind started at me and the nagging doubt about finishing tried to sow its ugly seed however the camaraderie eased me through it.

The last 5km was a long straight road back into Pauillac that could have been mind numbingly boring but for the pièce de résistance. As if the race had not given enough en route what with the fine wine and delectable aid stations we were treated to oysters, cheese, entrecôte steak and ice cream. How my stomach stood it all I’ll never know.

The finish arrived not long after the ice cream and as we approached the Three Cantonas spread out, clasped hands in the air, put our Eric masks back on, turned up our collars and sang ‘oh ah Cantona’ to the tune of La Marseillaise. 6:12:47, a marathon personal worst by multiple hours but as a wise man said ‘it’s not about time.’ We were handed our finishers medals and bottle of wine and then hobbled to the free bar, yes free bar, to rendezvous with Be Nice.

It’s hard to pick a favourite wine from the twenty but if I had to it would be the 2015 Frank Phélan at Château Phélan-Segur. An Irish name, his ancestor was a Wild Goose, but very much a delightful Bordeaux wine. My least favourite? A bullshit dessert wine I was tricked into drinking somewhere near halfway.

Médoc was terrific fun with so many hazy memories banked for the rest of my life. Although it is an epic moving piss up it is also a wonderful showcase of all that Médoc and then Bordeaux region has to offer. As Be Nice said “they know what they’re doing, they’re no fools.” Marathon des Châteaux du Médoc ensures that those that participate go forth and become vocal ambassadors for the region and its produce. No more will I ask for an Argentine Malbec or a Californian Pinot Noir in bars or restaurants. I’m an old world wine convert and from now on it’ll be ‘what do you have from Bordeaux?’

(L-R) Be Nice, Massage Hands, yours truly, T-Dog

Full Tour Runner

“Hello part-timer.”

The reaction of fellow PACs when I rocked up to Hell on the Fell 2018. They were doing all four stages in the annual Tour of Tameside series whereas I was only running the two on our club championship list. An air of athletic superiority exuded from those with ‘Full Tour Runner’ written upon their race numbers, I resented the ‘part-timer’ slight but also had severe run envy. Fast forward twelve months and I was about to embark on my Full Tour.

The Tour of Tameside was the idea of iconic marathon runner and running kit designer Ron Hill. Originally 6 events over 7 days it has since been whittled down to a more manageable four over four, or four over 62/63 hours to be precise-ish.

First up was the X-Trail 10k on Thursday evening. I arrived at Oldham RUFC, race HQ, in forgetful mood having left my watch back at home so I’d have to go at this one naked. The race itself was set amongst the grounds of Daisy Nook and Park Bridge Country Parks. It started off with a few nasty inclines and declines but then settled into a flatish out and back until a final 1km of slaloming and rollercoastering through a tight wooded trail. I crossed the finish line situated in an Endor-like setting in just under 45 minutes, a full 2.5 minutes under target pace but running by feel felt good.

Is it Endor or is it Daisy Nook?

Next up was Hell on the Fell 6 mile race in Stalybridge, or Staly Vegas as the locals call it, on Friday evening. Having ran without a watch the evening before I opted for a half way house and put a bit of electrician’s insulation tape over the watch face. I’m a notorious watch lookeraterer but my discipline held for the entire series.

Following a fast downhill start we turned on to Stocks Lane and after exchanging greetings with a spectating Tamesider whom I hadn’t seen for a while we commenced a four mile ascent. It was very hard going. At three miles we turned off Mottram Moor Rd and were met by two fantastically placed PAC marshals in Louise and Rob. It was then along country roads, up a grassy field that had it been wheat would’ve sent Theresa May into orgasmic convulsions and then it was onto the Fell. In 2018 I got to the top of the Fell within touching distance of Duncan, the Heaton parkrun scribe, but my fell descent was so abysmal I ultimately finished two minutes behind him. This year I threw caution to the West Pennine winds and attacked the one mile sharp descent like a Little House on the Priareer overdosed on EPO. Unlike last year not one person passed me and I overtook numerous runners on the way down. Exhilarating!

The quiet village of Hadfield, aka Royston Vasey, was the venue for the third stage on Saturday morning, the Hero Half Marathon. The race commenced following a charity run in memory of Nicola Hughes, one of the police officers murdered by Dale Creggan in nearby Hattersley in 2012. After a one mile loop around Hadfield it was on to the Longdendale Trail for nearly twelve miles. I love half marathons, they’re my ideal distance generally, but this out and backer on top of a hard race the night before was going to be a headfecker alright.

The trail had a mixture of densely wooded sections broken up by open areas with dramatic backdrops. The West Pennine Moors accompanied us to either side together with Bottoms, Torside and Woodhead Reservoirs. The unmistakable sound of gunfire after about five miles may have alarmed some however I knew it was from the Boar Clay shooting range, a place that I once frequented.

Up the Longdendale Trail

On the way back down the trail I got involved in a wee stramash with another runner. If there’s one thing that gets my goat it’s littering so when the runner in front of me took a gel pack from his gaping pocket, consumed the contents and then whizzed the empty packet into the grass verge I couldn’t remain silent. After a heated exchange I was bluntly told to ‘fuck off!’ My blood boiled but I kept focused and a mile later I eased past him so I suppose there’s my justice but there’s still a discarded gel packet out on that trail.

Just before the thirteen mile marker we were motioned off the trail to the right and up a nasty little incline and then downhill to a storming finish. It was an arduous race that practically nobody enjoyed but my 1:40 target was bang on and so it was on to fourth and final stage on Sunday morning.

Hyde was the location for the Dr Ron Hill 7 mile race and the centre of town was alive with runners early on Sunday morning. Male and female tour leaders Mohammed Abdurezeq and Kirstie Longley looked fresh as daisies warming up and full tourers were excited about getting a hold of the fourth medal and finishers tee however a tough road race lay ahead first. Starting opposite the Town Hall the route led uphill toward Hattersley followed by a bit of a mooch around the estate then a long mostly down hill run back to Hyde finishing where we had started. My legs were tired as we started off but after about a kilometre they came to life. I remembered most of the route from last year but the uphill section on Hattersley Road West took me by surprise, it seemed never ending. The one mile dash down Mottram Rd was very welcome and following a short but sapping uphill section we were brought around to the fantastic, support-filled finish straight down Market St (closed since 0600).

Seconds to go in the Tour and leaving nothing behind in Tameside

Crossing the line my first feeling was relief that it was over closely followed by a sense of accomplishment of completing a tough 32.3 mile race series. Receiving the final medal and full tour finishers tee felt fantastic.

I loved every part of the Tour of Tameside. It was superbly organised and marshalled and the support out on the testing race routes was wonderful. The best thing about it though was the camaraderie.

There was quite a PAC contingent of Full Tourers so we organised ourselves into car sharing groups for the daily commutes down the M60/M67 to Tameside. I got in with the Nutts, Mike G and Dr Jenn and the journeys certainly took on a life of their own. The topics of conversation (some unrepeatable) varied as much as our individual musical tastes picked from Spotify (there’s nothing wrong with Belgian rap!).

Meeting up with a our club mates, plus other runners, at the various locations set in motion an almost gallows-like humour about the activity that we were involved in. There was definitely a ‘once more unto the breach’ atmosphere amongst us. Thankfully Hayley kept us nourished with rich baked treats, me more than most as to paraphrase the song from Oklahoma ‘I’m just a guy who can’t say no’ when offered cakey buns.

PAC Tourers.

I have to give special mention to a number of PAC Full Tourers. Firstly Steph that recorded back to back category (F65+) wins, Matt for being first PAC home and to Stu and Dr Jenn that completed the Norden Race Series and Tour of Tameside over successive weekends. Also recognition of a non-PAC in Rob F with his tenth position overall finish.

I think now looking back we did not race others, we raced ourselves and the battle was within us. The Tour of Tameside is over for me now but it will always be there for the rest of my days… Shut up Mike, you shouldn’t have rewatched Platoon last night.

The Longer Than Planned Good Friday

I was brought up a Roman Catholic and Good Friday mornings used to entail attending Mass, feeling guilty about the Passion, uncomfortably having to kiss a big crucifix and refraining from eating meat. These days it involves dodging dog shite and traffic and being directed by signs on scrap white goods whilst trying to bag a PB at the Salford 10k Road Race.

It’s all about the coaster

Lower Kersal and Agecroft, on opposing banks of the River Irwell, are the race setting and refreshingly it doesn’t paint itself to be anything other than what it is. No bullshit, no dressing up with frilly descriptions. It’s a 10k race along Salford roads in two of the city’s less salubrious wards. The route is simple enough. A two lapper that starts on Littleton Rd near Salford Sports Village and is a circuit ran mostly on Littleton and Langley Roads that crosses the Irwell twice. It’s flat so should be a PBer and is littered with cracking club runners. The types that see 3s rather than 4s or 5s beginning their 10k times and taking it easy usually means running at a quicker pace than I can belt out a 1500m. Seeing them warming up with their fantastic running form just breeds my runner envy.

Whenever I run along Littleton Road I’m brought back to a priceless childhood memory of a cold January morning 32 years ago. My uncle (Big) Brendan surprised my cousin (Little) Brendan and I with a quite special trip. We were both Man Utd daft and he brought us to The Cliff training complex in Higher Broughton. After meeting players arriving in we were told that the squad would be training on playing fields that bordered Littleton Road so we got back in Big Brendan’s maroon Ford Escort Ghia and headed over. All the talk was about the new manager that had done so well at Aberdeen and his decent start. A group of supporters though told us of his unfriendly manner toward fans and how he was nothing like Big Ron whom he’d replaced two months previous.

We happened upon a good spot that bordered the playing field and watched on with a few others. Midway through a man approached us in a Utd bobble hat and training jacket. As the figure grew closer we realised it was Alex Ferguson, the new guy at the helm. Based on what we’d heard earlier we feared the worst however our worries couldn’t have been more misplaced. The future Utd legend spent time chatting and joking with us and made my 8 year old self and 12 year old Brendan feel on top of the world. Fergie was an absolute gent and polar opposite to Captain Marvel who, together with the World Cup’s youngest player, raced past us not bothering to stop for a photograph or autograph despite our forlorn cries when they arrived to training. Football in sunshine and shadow as Eduardo Galeano put it. I’m not still bitter, honest.

MC, Fergie and Little Brendan

And so race day came and by God the temperature dial had been turned up a bit. Arriving I was reminded of Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, when he dished out the weather forecast. It was ‘hot!’ In fact Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, the film’s location, could pass for the area we were to run through if more in spirit than architecture especially since the demolition of Kersal flats.

I absolutely love the start of this race. The organisers, Salford Harriers, must have the most minimal of road closure permits. Runners border each side of the road until at the last minute traffic is stopped, the timing matt is set and the runners are beckoned on to the tarmac by the marshals. Then it’s go. After about 800m the duration of the race is ran more on the footpath than the road.

Starting imminently

I had notions of putting in a good showing, perhaps a PB, this year and I set off slightly quick alongside Pete, an evenly matched clubmate. My expectations went out the window by 3km and Pete bounded off in front of me as my body just failed to respond. My subsequent km splits tumbled and as the clock approached 45:50 I stuttered across the line a sweaty and semi-delirious mess thoroughly relieved to be finished. I was 3 minutes slower than 2018 and nearly 5 minutes off PB time set at Wilmslow back in November. I felt that bad that I almost pulled in at the end of the first lap but pride, fantastic support and the lure of the all important finish coaster kept me out on the course. I commented later that I felt better on the last 10k of the Greater Manchester Marathon two weeks previously than the entirety of this 10k.

Not withstanding my performance I really enjoy this expertly organised and marshalled race and, as I’ve said previously in the Coniston blog, it’s cemented in my athletic calendar. It’s as proletarian as they come and that’s what endears it to me. It holds no pretensions and is all the better for it. It stands in stark contrast to the more sanitised event later in the year at the Quays. If I was in charge of setting the motif it would be ‘This is Salford, get use to it and run fast whilst you’re at it.’

All in all it wasn’t the best of Good Friday mornings for me, maybe I should’ve opted for the crucifix kissing. I could trot out a number of excuses as to why but ultimately they’re all worthless. It was a bad day, move on and do better next time. At least that’s what Fergie would’ve said albeit with a little barbed moan aimed at the timer.