This race is listed in the top 10 most beautiful marathons in the world. And rightly so. This isn’t your big city marathon; there are no crowds, no push from runners needing to pass you, no need to weave and constantly go up and down the kerbs to find a way through.
Like all races in France it is beautifully understated. It seemed more simple than races in the UK, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredibly well organised. It’s relaxed and with about 5,000 people there’s enough runners around you that you never come adrift, plus you still get the buzz and atmosphere of a big event.
Many runners choose the option of getting a shuttle from the finish to the start, as this is a point to point marathon. With the last bus leaving at about 6.45am, this means an early start on race day. It’s an easy option and the coach will take you to Cancale, where the start is located. On several parts of your journey you can glance across to the ocean and see Mont St Michel. It gradually gets further and further away so that when you arrive at the start it’s just a dot on the horizon. The further we got from it the more daunted I felt – which I hadn’t expected. I’d had a busy few weeks leading up to the race, I rolled on my ankle the week before at parkrun, then only managed a whole two hours sleep on race night. I felt liked I’d run a marathon before I took the first step of the race!
As you work your way back along the coast during the race MSM comes in and out of view, slowly getting bigger as you get closer to the finish.
The start was buzzing, there were plenty of loos and baggage drop was seamless. Cancale is a beautiful town and the small harbour is idyllic. The sun was just breaking through the clouds at 8.30am, which I was hoping it wouldn’t as temperatures in the high 20s were predicted. There was no breeze, either, brilliant for those aiming for a fast run, but it meant we were in for some hot running. At least our tans would benefit!
The first mile or so is uphill, but it’s gentle, and with the rest of the course being almost flat this is a great PB course.
It was exciting to get underway, knowing that every mile travelled would bring MSM closer in to view.
Just having this island commune (a world heritage site) as a backdrop earns this race it’s place in the top 10 most beautiful marathons in the world. But the beauty doesn’t just lie in the spectacle of the finish. Soon you are running through quiet countryside (the whole race is closed roads) and you get an overwhelming sense of peacefulness. The fields surrounding us were already bursting with crops, and periodically we wound our way back to the coast to see how much we had progressed.
There were plenty of aid stations and nearly all runners made use of the sponges as well as grabbing water and nutrition, and of course all along the course locals come out, shouting ‘Allez Allez, bravo!’ You work your way through a few small villages where the support along the road side increased, encouraging those who had stopped to walk to keep going.
I noticed people walking quite early for a marathon – by about 10 miles runners were already having to pace themselves, and I knew before race day there was no way I’d be able to keep running the whole way in the heat. My phone said it was 28 degrees, but when you’re running and your body is working it always feels so much hotter. Like your head is going to explode. I had halfway as my target to keep running up to. I’ve done some really hot half marathons before, but never a full as I know how hard they are when it’s both hot and humid. By 10 miles I wasn’t exactly skipping along.
As I got further into the race I promised myself I would do proper walks – and the views were stunning, so I wasn’t frustrated or upset; it felt like a long walk in the countryside. By about 17 miles I started to do blocks of about five minutes walking, then running the rest of the mile I was in, but even that felt hard. I was already too hot and even though I took on water at every aid station, and threw it over myself, I was feeling sick and felt crampy all over. Every time I started to jog I felt really sick again, so I didn’t overdo it. With the gentle sound of runners overtaking me I felt peaceful and happy. Well as happy as you during a marathon when you have miles to walk/jog.
From about mile 20 the Mont reappears, is much closer and you know you are almost home. Lots of runners were walking in, all chatting to each other, encouraging one another. It was quite hard to run past my hotel to do the last mile to the finish!
And what a spectacular finish this race gives you. It’s just haunting looking out to the Abbey. The French are incredibly proud of their heritage and were marvelling in awe at the Mont as much as us foreigners. If you’re a local runner what an incredible race to look forward to every year! This race is almost the serene, older cousin to Paris Marathon. Fanfare, crowds, noise… it needs none of these; the simple route that weaves it’s way towards the finish is a completely different experience yet incredibly unique. It has a beguiling magic, more of an ancient heart that welcomes you, takes you on a mysterious journey and then leaves you wondering just exactly what has happened.
The difference in the feel of this race must come from the people. Whether it’s one of the biggest marathons in the world running through the streets of Paris, or a much smaller affair, winding through the French countryside, you don’t find anyone telling you what you can’t do; where you can’t go, which barriers you can’t go past, which line you have to be in. It’s so relaxed it reminds me of similar races in the Caribbean, known for their easy-going attitude. However, you have a massive organisation behind the event, ensuring that your needs are considered, met and – importantly for brining you back every year – even being anticipated before you have them.
What will i remember about this race? I was really struck as I ran through the fields at the frequent borders of poppies. Since my school day history lessons I’ve associated Normandy and the D-Day landings with the huge loss of life that occurred in the Second World War. On your way into Mont St Michel you pass signposts to war cemeteries. Throughout the race the poppies made me think of the huge loss of life that happened in the World Wars and the deep connection we, as a nation, have with France, and how few from those times now survive.
How that connection could be easily lost. That we should never forget. Running in the week of the Manchester bombing, in our era when warfare has such a different profile using such contrasting weapons, I felt really emotional. And just sad. People at home in the UK were running on behalf of the families and victims of the Manchester bombings in the Great Manchester Run. Every footfall made me feel thankful.
There are so many incredible marathons all round the world, each one a unique experience. But I think this is one all of us should put on our bucket list. Not just because it’s a beautiful route – the whole 26.2 – and has an unrivalled backdrop for a finish that will stay with you forever. I think the simplicity of the terrain gives you 26.2miles, or probably about four hours, to really appreciate the planet, life, to be present with your thoughts and just feel the beauty of the open road.
I felt like I was travelling back in time for just a short part of one day of my life, but it’s long enough to profoundly affect you and realise however far, fast or slow, each race you do is another opportunity to connect with new people, new places, new adventures, as well as yourself. It was incredibly hot but yesterday, as I travelled home after the race, I felt refreshed – even ready to go for a run. This is the biggest positive of the Marathon Mont St Michel.