Today, I finally get a support team for a long run. All summer I have asked my kids, nephews, nieces, guests, Odile and anyone else who cared to listen if they didn’t want to take a leisurely bike ride while I ran. No takers.
This is my last run in France. My son and my nephew finally agree to join me on the bikes.
A support team will be great. They can carry my water and Gu. I won’t need to drive around dropping re-filled Badoit bottles along the route before the run. It will be nice to have company. Most importantly, I can imagine that I am such an important runner-athlete that I have a support team.
Dreams like this rarely turn out as I expect.
I choose a particularly vicious 27km route for this last run. This time I will not shy away from the hills. If I go downhill, I will go uphill, meter for meter. Not one, but two hill climbs of about 300m each will come after the 15k mark. This run will be a bit longer than my training scheduled prescribes. But I can’t resist pushing the distance barrier out a bit further. It’s my last chance to run in France.
The boys are 16 and fit. The only problem I anticipate is that they will get bored with the running pace and cycle ahead with my water and Gu. But they don’t know the way. In the worst case, I figure they will have to wait for me at junctions where a turning decision has to be made. These come every 4 or 5 kilometers.
It never occurred to me that they could get bored and find strange ways to amuse themselves behind me. Twice I had to reverse course and find them. I was at turning points that I did not want them to miss. They were behind me.
At about 5k I point out an extravagant camouflaged palombière hunting-hide I had noted a few days earlier. It is a three story tower-like steel affair hidden in a copse next to a small patch of vineyard tucked away in a forested area.
A palombière is used to hunt the palombe, a delicious migratory game bird that is related to the pigeon. It’s just bigger, gamier and tastier than a pigeon. The palombes live in northern Europe in the summers and Spain in the winter. To get to Spain they have to cross over the Pyrenées. I feel for the palombes. They dislike big hills as much as I do. Whether you are flying or running, a big hill is a big hill and gaining altitude does not come without effort.
One palombe, centuries ago, must have decided that it was best to rest in the forests of the Aquitaine and Gascogne before taking on the Pyrenées. Very sensible, I say. Word spread and DNA coding passed it down the generations. Now, all palombes stop for a few weeks in the forests near here during the Fall. I imagine they rest, enjoy the Indian summer sunsets of southwest France and exchange tips on the best places to eat, drink and pick up chicks in the Costa del Sol with anticipation and delight. In this way, the palombes are very much like the English.
Over those same centuries the men of Gascogne have perfected another tradition. It’s a tradition that is shared amongst male cultures all around the world. Guys need an excuse to hang out in tribes, drink, eat, tell outrageous stories or outright lies and generally make fools of ourselves out of view of our spouses and off-spring.
The Gascons do this very well. It’s been a tough summer. Ankle biting kids are not in school. Obligatory trips to the crowded beach are required. Cold rice salad dusted with sand must be eaten. After resisting the urge to shoot fellow travelers in grid-locked holiday traffic on the way home, they head off to their elaborately constructed palombières for a week or two in the Fall. Now they can hang with their buddies and finally shoot something.
I dreamt with my brothers of building the ultimate tree houses, forts and command centers. We once started digging holes in a wooded public park with a complicated bomb shelter in mind. The cold war was still going on in those days. Progress was good until a policeman with no sense of humor shattered our grand architectural plans with threats of fines and prison.
If you ever shared such a dream you will love a palombière. They have command posts, bunkers, camouflaged corridors with shooting ports, net traps and wires strung about on pulleys for the ‘bait’ birds. The best palombières also have ovens, stoves, refrigerators, bunks and, I suspect, wine cellars. In the forts of our childhood the only thing we were truly missing was an enemy. The Gascons only have the palombes now that they can longer shoot English who are still around planning forays to the Costa del Sol.
The hunting methods aren’t terribly sporting. But I don’t think hunting is the real point of palombières. A few unsuspecting birds are captured live in the spring loaded net traps. These are tied to wires run through pulleys back to the command center. As the wire is pulled the bird gets agitated. The palombes, as a species, appear to have a bit of the Good Samaritan in them. When seeing a fellow in distress will fly down to help. That’s when they get shot, cleaned, cooked and eaten by grown, unshaven, unwashed men with a skin-full of Armagnac.
Its bad form to intentionally shoot the bait bird on the wire. But I am sure that a few are executed at the end of the week. When Armagnac and the DTs have permanently ruined your aim, you still need to come home with some profit from a week of hunting.
I am not a hunter but I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week with the guys at a palombière.
About a kilometer (downhill) past this particularly grand palombière where I left the boys, I am waiting at the next turn. And waiting and waiting. Finally, I run back uphill to find the boys. We meet half the way back. The tires, spokes, chains and seats of the bikes are caked in mud. There is a fair distribution on shorts, T-shirts and behind a few ears as well. I don’t ask what happened. Clearly it’s something between guys that is meant to take place out of view of girlfriends and parents. Trespass laws may have been broken. Add another kilometer to the run.
I’ve crossed the 12k mark. I am on the canals but there is a turn. I must cross a lock/bridge to the other side although the path on this side continues. They will miss the turn. So I am waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s not good to stop running for this long. So I start running back. I find them casually cycling and chatting. This time I am thirsty and a little bit angry. I take a quick drink and demand an explanation. It’s been flat for the last 5k after all.
Tadhg, my son, has thrown our only 10 euros into a thorn bush and could not retrieve it. Scratches on his arms and legs and neck are proof of something. I don’t want to know any more. Add another kilometer plus plus to the run.
I run on, the first hill will come after another 3k. It starts at the massive and somewhat creepy Chateau of Buzet.
18k mark. That hill was big. Very big. At the top is a turning decision. And I am waiting and waiting and waiting. There is no chance I am running back down that hill to find them only to run back up again. I’ll walk home and call in a ‘Missing Persons Report’ before I run that hill again. There is still one more hill to go. So I wait. They arrive. This time with a good excuse. They tell me it’s much harder to ride a bike uphill than it is to run one. I have to believe them. I don’t ride bikes.
We climb part of the next hill and get to another turn decision. I am now in an area that I don’t know except from Google Earth. I know there is a 2K gentle climb to Xaintrailles from here then a nice 3k downhill to Montplaisir, our finish line. Straight feels correct but it looks like a farming road that might dead-end. Right could work. It’s a bigger road and those show up on Google Earth.
This time I make the mistake. I choose right. It’s flat for 500m. It looks promising. Then with a shudder I see that it drops steeply ahead of me where my support team is racing down the hill. For the first time all day my support team is ahead of me. Figures. I can’t abandon them and turn around to the correct road. But the thought does cross my mind. So its down, turn left and start climbing again. Add another one or two kilometers and another hill to the run.
Finally we are at Xaintrailles and we are all in familiar territory. My ipod says; “Congratulations you have accomplished you goal”. But there is another 3k to go to Montplaisir. At least it’s all downhill. Arthur, my nephew, knows the way. Off they go, with permission this time.
I wouldn’t trade that support team for any other today. They carried my water and Gu and provided company, as well as plenty of entertainment, some good laughs and a bit of mystery.
The boys arrive to all the glory and congratulations twenty minutes before I come plodding in. I get a cool glass of water, a pastis and the satisfaction that I have run nearly 31 kilometers, four of them by accident.
I also realize with some shock that I could easily have run the rest of the way back to Espiens. For the very first time I feel that running a full marathon is not out of my reach.