This past weekend, I finally got to race my goal HM in Annecy in the French Alps. The whole weekend was absolutely nothing like I’d anticipated. Get a cup of a tea and settle back for the tale.
I have always felt that Annecy was my dream town. It’s in France – I did a French degree and have loved that country since I was young. Because it’s in France, there are, as a result: baguettes; pains au chocolat; a sexy language; good, cheap wine; interesting architecture; clever literature; fabulous people-watching. Annecy is in the mountains. There’s a beautiful, sparkling lake. From Annecy, you can ski in the winter and in the summer you can run, cycle, hike, kayak, paddle-board. I’ve always felt that it was where our family would be happiest and, in fact, we did nearly move there before settling back in the UK. So when I found that the Half Marathon was at the end of April, when I was looking to race, and that it was fast and flat, I signed the Husband and I up immediately.
This weekend was also to be our very first ‘romantic mini-break’ for years. I can’t remember the last time we had a whole weekend away together. It may not have happened actually since we had the Dude. My parents were lined up to have the Dude all weekend. I was beside myself with excitement. I was going to my dream town with my dream man to do my dream race.
Expectations were high.
Then the weather forecast showed that it would be extremely hot for the race. So I sensibly adjusted my goals. I signed up for another HM the following weekend in the rainy UK and decided to run Annecy for joy. Stoke Levels continued to rage unbated. This would be so great.
The Husband and I arrived at Heathrow at 5.30 on Saturday morning, ready for our 7am flight to Geneva. Out came the passports that I’d carefully packed. I scanned mine. Check. The Husband scanned his. Nope. Not working. I’d packed his old passport. His new one was 60 miles away.
I was pretty distraught. We checked our options. The Husband could get a later flight. He’d need to drive home (1 1/2 hours), get his passport and drive back (1 1/2 hours). He’d need to repay for airport parking (￡65). He’d need to pay for a change of flight (￡260). He’d need to pay for a new coach ticket from Geneva to Annecy (￡10). More significantly really, he’d arrive in Annecy late in the evening and we’d be leaving early on Monday morning. All that money and hassle for one day and a race he hadn’t trained for.
We made the wise decision. He headed home and I headed disconsolately to my gate.
Now I love travelling alone. I genuinely relish it. It reminds me of my Europe-wandering early-20s where I lived abroad and travelled alone. Those experiences gave me such self-confidence and self-reliance. They fostered curiosity and courage. They made me comfortable and happy in my own company. There’s nothing I don’t love about travelling alone. But I’ll be honest – not having the Husband here this weekend took a lot of the joy out of it. I wasn’t lonely, I wasn’t ‘sad’, I had a great time. But I honestly missed him all the time. As I discovered this beautiful town, I was sad he wasn’t there discovering it with me. I guess the good thing is that 15 years on, I still love that man and my life is still much happier when he’s with me.
Before I went to Annecy, a friend had wondered if it might be everything I wanted it to be, or if it would somehow be a let down. It was a valid point! But in the end, it was every bit as gorgeous as I’d hoped for. It’s freaking beautiful.
There’s the lake. It’s the cleanest lake in Europe. The water sparkles green and blue; it’s so clean you can see right to the bottom and it’s surrounded by gorgeous snow-capped mountains. It reminded me a LOT of Tahoe, but with more dramatic mountains. It was stunning. I got a sandwich, sat on a bench and just gazed!
The town is gorgeous too. The newer sections look like any other French provincial town but the old town is fairy-tale beautiful. There are canals and a river that run through it, so there’s the constant sound of running water. The narrow streets are lined with cafés and on Sunday there was a market. It was all I could do to NOT burst into Beauty and the Beast.
And THEN I discovered that it’s full of redwoods. Full of redwoods. There are so many of them. I had a little freak-out from joy.
(Actually, they’re giant sequoias but I’m not picky about my subspecies. Sequoias are basically the Springer Spaniel to my favourite Coastal Redwood’s Cocker Spaniel. They’re all
So Annecy? Not a let down. Utterly beautiful. New favourite European place. Cannot wait to go back.
Anyway. Let’s stop gushing and talk the race.
The event includes a marathon, a nordic walking marathon, a kids race and the half-marathon. The first three events take place in the morning, the HM starts at 2.30pm. That’s an ‘interesting time’ for a HM. There was much I liked about it – relaxed morning, plenty of time to poo and I actually really enjoyed the experience of racing in the afternoon. However, apparently the temperature can swing from 12 degrees to 26 degrees. Guess which extreme I got this year.
Packet Pick-Up was easy…if you spoke French. It takes place at a gymnasium just off the lake. There was absolutely no signage in English, which is fine because you’re in France, but it helps to know the key words in French. (I foresee a blog-post coming on). There were compostable portaloos which I got excited about…
…and then I got my number. It was a smooth process. I handed over my expensive medical certificate which the lady gratifyingly checked. I got my race t-shirt (cute, snug-fitting) and checked out the 10 or so stands there. There was a race boutique with souvenir t-shirts, hats etc. I desperately wanted a souvenir but the range was a bit rubbish so I kept my euros. But basically, packet pick-up was easy. It was open all day Saturday and then on Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, I went to watch the marathon start. The air was cool and beautiful, perfect for marathon running (at least at the start). The elites flew past and then the masses. It was fab.
A few hours later, I went back to watch the elites and the speedsters finish. They looked increasingly hot as the morning went on. This boded poorly.
I left my Airbnb at 2pm and walked to the staging area next to the lake. It was really hot. Like REALLY hot. It was not a great time to be running. I wouldn’t have run in these temperatures in California, let alone after a winter in the UK. Having watched, with horror, the collapse of Callum Hawkins in Australia last week, I set myself one race goal.
- Do not end up in the Medic tent.
I had nothing to gain by running too hard. With my heart condition, I could potentially die. In any case, I could end up unconscious in a country where no-one knew me. And next week, I was going to run another HM where I wanted to really race hard. I needed to save everything I could for next week and run a really wise, sensible race here. So I decided to run the wisest race I possibly could.
I smothered myself in sunscreen. One of the downsides of racing alone is that there’s no-one to do your back so I had to ask a very nice lady if she’d mind!! I got to the corrals 10 minutes before the start. If I’d been hoping to race, that would have been too late as they were full. I ended up at the back of my corral but knew that was a good thing as the crowds would keep me from going out too fast. There was a lot of hype and energy in the corral but I zoned out and stayed as calm and cool as I could. It was hot. And somehow we started running.
It was hot. That’s basically the story of the entire run.
It was also beautiful. The course snakes down the west shore of the lake. It’s utterly gorgeous. You run mainly on a paved bike path – it’s a little narrow in places but it’s spectacularly beautiful. It’s a flat course with very few inclines – in cool weather, it would be a PR magnet. But I was out to be wise. And I WAS flipping wise. I stopped at every single water station. I took two cups of water, drank some, tipped the rest over my head and my body. I ran through every hose-pipe that every local kindly had running for us. I got some sponges and stuffed them down my sports bra. I ran in the shade at every opportunity. I made total peace with the fact that this would be my slowest HM. At one point, the 2.15 pacer passed me. Fleetingly I wanted to stay with him, but when he kept running through the next water stop, I put my ego on hold and stopped to cool myself down. I kept checking in with myself. ‘How do you feel?’. ‘Good’. ‘Okay, slow down’.
The people dropped like flies around me. A girl was collapsed in the shade of a bush in Mile 2, a medic attending her. And every single mile brought more runners collapsed at the side of the course with medics. Three ambulances carried people off in stretchers as I passed. I heard two more sirens as they whizzed people to hospital. Some runners were unconscious as I passed. (They had medics with them). It was a little scary and very sobering.
I’m not in the photos below but they show the lack of joy in everyone’s running today.
The organisers did an excellent job with the aid stations. They were at least every 1.5 miles. There was plenty of water (that I saw – see below) and the volunteers were kind, patient and generous.
I kept plodding forwards. I didn’t check my watch once so I didn’t get either competitive or dismayed. And eventually we ran back into Annecy towards the finish line. A mile from the end, I heard my name and my friend H was there cheering – she and I used to work together years ago, it was so nice to see her face. Half a mile from the end, chills washed over me – the chills that tell you you’ve had too much sun and you need to stop. Perfect timing.I slowed it down a little more and jogged slowly to the finish line. People screamed my name from my bib (they screamed the French version of my name which was very thrilling). And before I knew it, I was crossing the finish line. I’d done it.
I felt remarkably decent but I still found water and a tiny patch of shade immediately and spent a good 20 minutes cooling down. A lady next to me started having some kind of attack – I’m assuming heat stroke – so I staggered over to the medic tent and yelled dramatically that we needed a doctor. Medics came swiftly over and I left them to it.
I found H and her Mum. We got ice-creams and then joined their friends in the shady park where her friends fed me herbal tea and delicious cake. It was all good.
My final time was 2.17. I think this was my second slowest HM ever but I honestly have absolutely no negative feelings about this. None. Nothing but pride. It was a day to run slowly and wisely and I did just that. I didn’t end up in the Medic tent. I ran a steady 13 mile training run and am ready and excited to race this coming weekend.
A few points on the race:
Race organisation got absolutely roasted on FB afterwards. This was primarily for the lack of shade and water at the end of the race, but also several runners mentioned a lack of water at the aid stations on the course. I never observed this and can’t imagine how scary it would be to be on the course with no water. I got both water and shade at the end of the race, but there was precious little shade!
The other thing they got taken down for was the medal. It was was dreadful. DREADFUL. Bought in packs of 100s off the internet. No personalisation. Cheap and nasty. FB comments from French runners made me snigger…words like ‘minable‘, ‘un vrai scandale‘, ‘not worthy of a children’s race’, ‘worthy of a village fair’, ‘a disgrace’. People were SCATHING about it.
Then, on Tuesday, race organisers put an apology on FB – they’d been let down by their supplier and wanted to give runners something at the end. Apparently medals will be mailed out to runners when they arrive. I look forward to getting mine. I think if they’d told runners this beforehand everyone would have been fine about it.
They also got strongly criticised for:
- The race t-shirt, which was cute, but women’s ran out early Saturday pm. Sizing is definitely more continental than Californian.
- There were very few aid stations with food – raisins, oranges etc. No gels. I only got electrolytes at the final aid station. Electrolytes and salted food would have been really good.
- Several runners failed to get adequate water at the end of the race. I got some (and some OJ which tasted like heaven) but there was NO food. Runners got goody bags with a cereal bar in it, but no-one handed me a bag and I was too knackered to hunt it out.
On the other hand, runners had nothing but good to say about:
- The volunteers, who were wonderful, as were the locals who went out their way to keep us cool. One family delightedly drenched runners with their super-soakers as we death-marched past.
- The Medical team who were plentiful, busy and fantastic.
- The course which was beauty incarnate.
I don’t know if I’d run this again. I’m really glad I did and the course was GORGEOUS but the 2.30pm start time is awful on a hot day. If this race had happened at 8am (or 10am) it would have been a very different experience.
This weekend, I’m running the Fleet HM in the non-descript English town of Fleet. It’s flat, the forecast is drizzle and chilly. I can’t wait. I just want to see what I have in me, after such a long training cycle.
In terms of Annecy…I’m plotting furiously for an August return. This time, I’ll bring my boys. This time, I’ll let the Husband pack his own passport.
The Practical Details
In case anyone’s reading this for practical tips on the race:
- Geneva is the closest airport.
- I got the shuttle coach (navette) from Geneva to Annecy. It was approx €15 per person each way and it took approx. 1 1/2 hours. The bus picks you up at the gare routière just outside the arrivals hall. It’s very easy. Buy your tickets here. You book onto a particular timed bus but your ticket is valid that entire day. On the way home, I got an earlier bus than I was booked onto with no issues.
- If you need a medical certificate, I paid a fortune for mine here.
- The local running shop is opposite the Tourist Info. It’s called 42KM195 and has everything you need in case you forget anything.
- I stayed in this wonderful little Airbnb. It was bliss. I wish I owned it.
Merci, Annecy. You were fab.
Now I’m off to be really nice to my husband.