The Morbihan area of Brittany is a quiet rural area of France, famous for cheese production and the legends of King Arthur. An area riddled with ancient and more modern history. A village where I regularly run through during training is only a few miles from this race and was the site where 4000 Breton Resistance fighters took on the might of the Nazi army in World War 2. They were led by Captain Pierre Marienne who parachuted into the secret base nearby as a member of the Free French SAS. They harassed and tied down the occupying force after D-Day before Captain Marienne was eventually captured executed and laid to rest near Plumelec Church, the same village where my race would finish.
This route was my first international race back in 2011. Twenty minutes drive from my French in-laws home, it was long overdue that I show my European credentials and contributed to what was one of the most diverse and challenging races I have ever been involved in.
In 2011 my preparation could not have been worse with weeks in Paris and associated holiday distractions getting squarely in the way of training. This time I was not about to make the same school boy error. This was very much part of the marathon training plan and was on the back of an 11 day run streak.
The concept of the Trois Clochers –the three Steeples, is that you run past the landmarks of the three village churches. Many a direction in France is given via a certain church, whereas in the UK it tends to be given by a certain pub. An amusing and telling cultural difference. This was the 15th year of this particular race and I was more than happy to be involved.
I soon discovered they had changed and lengthened what was already a tricky course. It’s an exceptionally undulating course rising from 80 to 160 metres. This may not sound like a lot but it’s the ups and downs, the associated change of pace and terrain that are the killers. Starting at the beautiful turreted chateau of Callac and down into the village, along a thoroughly hilly 7 km and up to the Church at St Aubin. Running from there the route takes you on an undulating experience through village, field, track and woodland ending at the Plumelec sports centre. This was where previously I had been awarded with my ‘Saucisse frites’ dinner and was I looking forward to repeating that part of the race more than the running itself.
After my registration armed with a certain friendly doctors medical certificate the free bus took us from the number pickup at Plumelec to the start back at the chateau. I knew French races were well organised and popular and this was no exception. With around 250 participants squeezed into the courtyard of 150 year old manor house it was striking to see how the majority of the participants were mostly my age. The younger age group who are normally my torment on every Park Run seemed absent. Not that I had any illusions of winning anything they all looked a dammed sight fitter then me. They were clearly immune to the temptations of salted butter, cheese and baguette. I on the other hand, was not. However this was strictly part of the bigger training plan and I was there to do my best with a focus on the end goal, sausage and chips rather than on a new PB.
Ce Parti. We were off out of the chateau and into some woodland. Happily very soft foliage underfoot to ease my aging knees into. I tried pacing with a few likely looking people and hooked onto some of the older runners from my adoptive French town of Malestroit. However I lost them turning into Callac village on the rise past the first spire. Then the famous sudden drop down and out of the village to the small shrine to the Virgin Mary and up the hill. I wasn’t averse to asking for a bit of divine intervention at this point as I saw the forthcoming climb. It was a generous hill, you know, the type that keeps giving, giving and giving. Just as you thought the generosity would end the hill would give you some more. Finally after about a 2.5 KM things started to level out as we passed the road junction on the approaches to St Aubin.
As I passed through the village I found myself unable to keep pace with 2 grannies. They were very fit grannies clearly from that local village. Only on the slightest of closer inspection of these two characters was it apparent they had dressed to impress in old lady drag outfits complete with pop out boobs. Which they popped out at every occasion!
Climbing again out of the village we took a steady downhill onto a grassy farm track. I looked across the rolling Brittany hills. The sun was descending and the scene picturesque with tiny fields separated by mini woodlands. It was then I realised what goes down will likely go up again. I wasn’t wrong and I didn’t wait long. Twists and turns, grass and gravel, tarmac and torment would it ever end? I was finding it tough going despite weeks of tempo, distance and hill training.
Then on the final rise the church spire of Plumelec rose above the a- maize-ing popcorn fields on either side of me and I waited patiently to be drawn in by the aroma of a barbecue sausage.
1 mile to go! Yet the course hadn’t finished with me yet. The final phase before the village run in was through woodland. However this was like Houghall wood on steroids. Half a mile of twists, turns, jumps, roots, rocks and many other joys before we hit tarmac.
I was happy to pick up some speed rising through the village to the final steeple. Plumelec church was now in view and my thoughts turned briefly to the grave of Captain Pierre Marianne as I sped past the bar where my wife had patiently waited, drink in hand, to snap my photo as I ran by. I turned the corner to the final run in where I sprinted the last 200m with one thought in mind.
Vive La France! Vive la ‘Saucisse frites!’