So said Tyler. We’ve tried this approach to foreign outdoor adventuring in the past, with dubious results. And we only had one weekend where we could get out of Paris together, ideally into the mountains, before Tyler flew home. Me, I’m staying on in the hopes of mastering French.
“I want to do a proper race,” I insisted stubbornly. Like most people, I try harder when someone else is actually keeping track of my time and whereabouts. Plus, what’s the point of being in Europe if not to sign up for some kind of organized athletic event. You will never feel like more of a foreigner than you will during the warm-up aerobics for a European race, or when you are in the starting corrals, eyeballing the people around you. In every other way, your fellow athletes might be your siblings or your friends, except that half of them are wearing clothing that looks to have been stolen from the original Star Trek movie set and a handful are taking frantic last gasps of their e-cigarettes.
Five years ago, Tyler and I ran the Prague marathon and got passed by a man wearing a 1970s-era external frame pack onto which he’d duct-taped a whole grove’s worth of bananas. In the Medoc Marathon in Bordeaux, we could barely keep pace with a crew of seven men dressed as Roman gladiators in full regalia, carrying a gilded chariot the whole 42km. They took turns climbing into the chariot for a snooze. In the Edinburgh Half, I spotted a woman in the starting section reserved for those with an anticipated finishing time 30 minutes faster than me, wearing a lace bra. I will bury you, I vowed as I walked past her to find my section further back. I never came close. So many people travel to Europe for the food and the history. I think I mostly come here so I can be surprised and charmed by how other cultures sweat.
Back in January, my Euro trail-race research consisted of angling an invite onto a semi-private Facebook group of French trail-running enthusiasts. Deciphering their posts and ogling at their photos these past few months has confirmed for me that I feel a kinship with folks who like to push themselves physically, outdoors, almost as much as they like eating. These are my people. After a few months, I got up the courage to post a question—in French—asking for recommendations for a trail race the April 12/13 weekend and from the deluge of enthusiastic responses, I selected the Trail des Reculées in the Jura mountains.
“What does ‘ Reculées’ even mean,” Tyler wanted to know when our train from Paris deposited us in the village of Lons-le-Saunier last weekend.
Another thing I should have checked: our hotel location. It turned out to be a stiff 4km uphill from the train station. So much for keeping off our feet. Postponing plans to drop off our packs, we wandered into the quaint centre-ville and saw the tents and tables being set up for the race. “Est-ce que je peux vous aider?” someone asked. He was smiling and looked official. It turned out he was Bertrand, the race director.
“Is this where we can obtain our dossards?” I asked in my best French, because there was a sign above him that said Dossards. “À quelle heure can we obtain our dossards?”
Bertrand looked delighted. “You are the Canadiens!” He all but clapped his hands. “Fantastique!” He addressed anyone within earshot and pointed at us. “Les Canadiens sont arrivés!”
“Oh,” I said. “There are only two Canadians?” In French, I strive to ask all questions in the present tense.
“Oui-oui-oui,” Bertrand said. In fact, he blazed on, you are the only foreigners. “There are a few Swiss”—he waved his hand dismissively eastwards—”but they live right over there. Really, it is only French people who do this race.”
We could pick up our packages at 2pm, he continued. “Maybe at that time, you could speak into the microphone?” I was hoping I had misunderstood so opted for just blinking and smiling. “But you must!” he proclaimed. “Everyone will want to meet the visiting Canadians.”
It took us an hour to walk, uphill, to our Ibis Budget hotel where we were met with locked doors and a self check-in kiosk that spat out a long code we needed to use to access our room. Clearly “budget,” in France, means dispensing with superfluous frills, such as shampoo and humans. To save our legs, we tracked down a chambermaid and asked her if she could call us a taxi; we had no phone in our room. To the best of my knowledge, “taxi” means “taxi” in French, but here in the Jura I figured it must mean something different because she looked at me liked I’d just asked if she would mind calling around to find me an exorcist.
Eventually a cab was summoned and we were soon back in the village prompting fresh excitement from the volunteers over les étrangers. We were picking up our race shirts when I clued into the fact that all of the smiles and tittering in the queue behind us were directly related to the voice thundering over the loudspeakers giving a play-by-play of our efforts to get the right shirt size.
“Is Madame the Canadienne a medium? What do you think? She herself is not sure! She may be a large? What is she going to do?”
In fact, I’d been plucking up the hem of my long-sleeve with the aim of stripping down to my bra and trying on the T-shirt, so that was good timing. I glanced around the crowd for the man with the microphone and realized he was standing right beside me. Beaming.
“Madame, voulez-vous dire quelque chose à Lons-le-Saunier?”
No escape. Everyone was nodding at me reassuringly. I leaned in.
I’ve tried to describe my French elsewhere. My accent is not too bad, but getting me to put together a decent sentence is like asking me to make something on a Rainbow Loom. Messy, but colourful. I tend to swap out the words I’d prefer for the few I already know.
The man was clearly hoping for more than a hello. “Thanks to all the world,” I managed. “We are [sexually] excited to be here to make the groceries of jogging tomorrow.”
This was enough to set the announcer going full-steam ahead, like he was trying to auction me off. I couldn’t keep up. As far as I could tell he was asking me where I was from in Canada.
The West Coast, I replied. Near Vancouver.
“Vancouver!!!” he boomed. This clearly awakened in him a more profound interest in Canada, generally. “And how many people are there in your country of Canada?” he continued.
What the—? I’d barely trained adequately for the race let alone boned up on Canadian trivia for a pop quiz, in public, in French. Tyler, I noted, was grinning like a chimp and retreating slowly to the other side of the square.
“Um, 33 thousand,” I hazarded. His eyes bugged. “No!” I hastened to correct myself. “33 million, 33 million.” Damn, I always confuse thousand and million in French.
The man with the microphone loved this even more. “33 million!” he cried. “Incroyable! Mesdames et Messieurs, are you hearing this? There are 33 million Canadiens here in Lons-le-Saunier, running the Trail des Reculées demain!” He made a show of spinning around on the spot. “But where are they, Madame? Where are all the Canadiens?”
I could have melted into the cobblestones. “Non, non, je m’excuse! J’ai malcompris. La population du Canada est 33 million. Um. Il y a seulement deux Canadiens ici, moi et mon mari.” I gestured vainly in the direction of Tyler who had more or less vanished.
The announcer let me take my mortification and go. People clapped, which was kind.
Rather than hike back to our hotel, we spent the rest of the day loitering in town, hydrating (NOT!) and waiting for a restaurant to open for dinner. When we eventually finished our delicious meal, we asked our waitress to call us a taxi and she bustled off, clearly understanding me, which was rewarding. Ten minutes later she returned to tell us, as best as I could make out, that all taxi drivers went on vacation on weekends. “But don’t worry, don’t worry. We have found a cook in the kitchen who has a car who will drive you to your hotel.”
* * *
We didn’t have the courage to ask Thierry, the cook, to come and fetch us the next morning so we had to walk the 3.3km into town for the start of the race on Sunday. No biggie, really. We weren’t exactly serious competitors. Once there, the high-octane, warm-up aerobics, lead in part by Yeti, a blue elephant, and the red cow from La Vache Qui Rit cheese (apparently manufactured nearby), did not disappoint and tout à coup, we were off.
The first climb was at the 3km mark: mixed stones and mud as slippery as over-ripe brie—the trail too tight and steep to pass or be passed. After the hilltop town of Montagiu, we plummeted down again sharply in what must have been a stream bed, allowing me to confirm two things I already knew to be true. One, that I truly shine going uphill, and two, French trail runners are complètement fous when it comes to gravitational pull, and have a different, more resilient type of ankle joint than Canadians.
The second major climb at 7km was a doozie, but wide enough to start to thin out the race, and the route emptied onto a beautiful wooded section that arched around the side of the mountain before undulating through a mix of rough, forested single track, mountain road, and a second village. At one point we passed an old, monkish structure that I assume was the “L’Ermitage,” and my thundering heart leapt: Beer! But alas, no.
All in all, the L’Ermitage route on the Trail des Reculées was lovely, but it wasn’t the most spectacular scenery I’d ever paid to run through, although I know I’m spoiled as a Canadienne. Our 19km course lacked the breathtaking views and soaring peaks that I presumed we earned, several times. I’d need to tackle the 42km course to truly appreciate the beauty of this region. But the race itself was superbly well-run, the people warm, and the mood lively. For just 20 Euros, we got the race entry, T-shirt, a free hot-lunch and cheap artisan beer at the finish line. Most of all, to be out in the green hush of the mountains after two weeks in the rush and honk of Paris was a true treat.
As for our race time, we did just fine, especially since our last two weeks of ‘training’ consisted of cheese, gelato, baguette, and wine. According to my Garmin, the true distance was in fact 20.5km, not including the walk from the hotel. So that’s satisfying. Tyler, bless him, ran at my pace (no matter what I write about him, he’s a keeper and I miss him already) so who knows what time he could have done it in, running solo.
* * *
“Did you sign the guest book?” It was Bertrand calling after us as we were heading with our packs to the train station after lunch, beers, and warm-down cheese. “Oui,” I assured him. We’d found the guest-book beneath a sapling cowed under the weight of people’s old sneakers “If you read it, please excuse my terrible French. I’m even worse writing in French than I am speaking.”
Bertrand looked crestfallen and his eyes flickered over to Tyler, his last hope. “But you should write in English!” he said. “It would be good if you wrote in English.” By which he might have been trying to say, because we’re Canadian and came all the way to Lons-le-Saunier to run the Trail des Reculées, we should make it clear we’re foreign rather than merely illiterate. Leave it to everybody else to sign the guest-book in French.