Running the Canal du Midi

The beginning goes back to finishing the endure24 twenty four hour race in Belfast last year.A track race that saw me break the 100 mile in twenty four hours.That day I decided I wanted to try do something different the following year.Not necessarily anything more challenging but something that would bring me out of my comfort zone.Finding the balance between training and retaining a reasonable balance in life is also important.I liked the idea of a journey rather than a race,journey here in the least profound way.I wasn’t looking to find myself or lose myself for that matter!Doing this on a modest budget was also a big consideration.The Canal du midi surfaced as an option on a trip to Paris,the  inflight magazine featured the Canal du midi as a holiday destination ,they were suggesting by barge!)The canal is 150 miles long its construction was copied and replicated worldwide,It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site.

I got a book called cycling the midi by Declan Lyons on eBay,What could possibly go wrong ? The planning for my trip was pretty straight forward,I did originally have a romantic notion of running down the canal,meeting Mairead in Sete and cruising back up the canal in August..Pickeling myself in red wine and gorging on cheese and baguettes like a cross between father jack and Eric Cantona

 The plan hit a snag however on my midweek fun run with Runlogic . I was able to discuss the plan with someone from the region.(thanks Alex).it could be 40 degrees in summer you know (it sounds better in a French accent)…there goes the leisurely cruise home ,I liked the idea of cruising in forty degrees but not running.A schedule change from August to March!Great I’m behind schedule already !

On a frequent trip into http://www.runlogic.com..Ireland’s finest running store  I had bounced the various numbers around with Ash and so I now had a schedule 

Day  1 Toulousse to Castlenaudray (approximately 65km)

Day 2 Castlenaudray  to Homps (approximately 80km)

Day 3 Homps to Beziers (approximately 60 km)

Day 4 Beziers to Sete (approximately 50 kilometres)

The numbers are reasonably accurate but don’t include detours ,sightseeing or going for a pee!In ultra running terms these numbers aren’t that big and there were no mountains or deserts…but this was a holiday meets ultra kind of thing !If I ran overnight I’d miss the scenery ….for those of you who fancy it though it’s perfect to race in the early part of the year !Flights to Toulouse can be good value too if booked early.


 Splitting my runs into even days to allow for some sightseeing,or to facilitate any unforeseen circumstances.Non Swimming Non French speaking non navigating first time multi day runner…What could possibly go wrong!?I actually felt quite confident but there are so many hazards in running long distances.My first hotel facing Toulouse train station was perched on the canal so that helped me get a good first nights sleep!Another inspiration the legendary Rick Stein had barged this route before…no energy gels on this run!The food plan was a bit loose but as it was France I figured I’d be O.K.



 An early start on my first day saw me leave the city behind and start my journey.The weather almost immediately proved a welcome distraction,no baselayers,no hats no sunscreen … Quick stop apply sunscreen!Its been a relatively mild winter in Ireland but lengthy..a few days in short sleeves was most welcome!On my restart a cyclist gestured for me to stop.What rules had I broken?ah jaysus here we go the first test of my French phrase book.As it turned out the cyclist had only one arm…(no this isn’t a subtle Buddhist reference) the strap on his helmet had come loose,cycling with one arm is dangerous eneogh I’d imagine! not the type of conversation I had been practicing for but that’s life on the open road,we exchanged pleasentries  and continued on our way.The first leg of the journey was planned to take me from Toulouse  to Castlenaudray.I was going well but hadn’t figured out Easter Monday would leave most shops closed….an early test when fuel was low.A detour for fuel brought me to a pub…all those pub runs had me confident this was going to be a good trip….a beer and a packet of crisps and I was ready to run again!

 Next stop Castlenaudray,the home of Cassoulet!A very famous French dish ..perfect for runners.The manager of the hotel I was staying at booked me into a restraunt he recommended….after 40 odd miles on a gel and breakfast I think I boosted his weekly takings by 30 percent!Duck salad,cassoulet desert and a little drinks 23 quid!Happy days.

   Cassoulet the perfect ultra running snack…confit duck,sausage ,grains …delicious ,but you will need to run 40 miles after it ,it’s a feast!

  


   Day 2 Target Castlenaudray to Hohms via Carcassonne  

  
  There are two parts to Carcassonne ,the more modern town of cafes and shopping but the old city provides a spectacular backdrop as the castle with fairytale like turret towers sits majestically on high,I took some time out here to take it in.It was one of those images which was so much more impressive in person.The guidebook didn’t do it justice.I stopped to have lunch .Steak and chips and a beer was proving to be my favorite dish to maximise calories and quench the thirst,perhaps not the more conservative nutrition strategy but hey ho.. It’s a holiday right!Carcassonne brought the first big challenge after lunch… The canal bank and road was entirely closed off!The attendant had no English but 

I recognised the words river …..so off I went ,the canal often crossed rivers via various aqueducts so I figured I’d spot it eventually,as I had strolled around the city I knew where to go to begin my search!As luck would have it I met a school trip on river who gave me wonderful directions in perfect..French !Voitures And some hand gestures translated as follow the cars!off I went following cars,just what you need when you’re on foot ..thankfully my stunning grip of linguistics proved correct as yet again the canal came into view.A quick chat with some fishermen and off I go again!The detours are caused by the felling of the famous plane trees which line the canal .The trees caught a virus from the boxes carrying munitions in World War Two,sadly they will soon no longest be there.The sound of the chainsaw ,heavy diggers and smoking embers reminiscent of a funeral for the historical timber sales.


 I knew to get the job done I’d need one big day ,the detour put a little pressure on,also not knowing whether there’d be more was a cause of some concern….time to put the head down and keep going. The canal was a big eneogh landmark to eventually return too but I could have lived without the extra distance!The canal often moved more like a river than a sedate waterway,the locks are all fully functioning .

Some stretches were punishing on the head I tried to start early to avoid the warmer days. mostly the canal was vibrant and changed with every turn,It hasn’t quite come to life as it does in the summer.The quiet was nice.

  
  

 I was told that the hotter months would see a surge in numbers invade the tranquil waters.. Perhaps my timing was good at last!This was one of my favorite stretches,despite falling twice!

  

 

Leaving Homs I passed this statue of wars past.It put France’s current troubles in mind.The peace of a canal bank seem to just magnify the madness of the extremists who are now a threat to humanity,I try not to imagine the pain of those who lost family and friends in Paris.Sometimes it’s good to be alone.


  

On the toughest day the scenery came to my rescue,the languedoc region hadn’t fully exploded but it teased the senses all the same.  



I did meet one or two dogs on route too ! The French love their dogs!

 
       

I met the Irish setter on the beach in Sete ……there’s probably a fancy literary term for that !
    
  

Some friendlier than others!  
  
    
    
 

   

I think the break away was actually really good for the head,literally the only thing I had to do was run,eat sleep and repeat!It’s not that complicated.Keeping hydrated was maybe the hardest test,I’d load up on calories when the opportunity arose.I lost my water bottle out of my bag …..so I had to rely on shops and careful rationing …ten miles on a dusty hot path and I was dreaming of the iced tea!

And ice cream……
The dusty paths were hard work on low fuel supplies but there’s always room for an espresso !


The nature reserves aproaching Sete.

The home straight to Sete was a little testing ….soft sand or deathly straight cycle lanes!It was a a long slog to the finish!As the guide book I was following was a few years old I Figured I’d play it safe and stick to this path 

I met this Korean couple couple cycling around France on their Honeymoon!Romance eh…!We were on the last leg to Sete and met in a lay-by,my Korean is up there with my French to be honest but we were happy to share a selfie !Its a small world !Sete was near spirits were high ,I had made it to the Mediterranean !

I had made it to the end ,no medals no finish line celebrations.Full circle had been achieved,from wanting a reason to run to not needing any…For a journey that took a few days and a little planning ,the train back turned a 150 mile trip into 2.5 hours.Not so impressive after all!Best start planning the next one.

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