Think big, go small
I recently celebrated a birthday and what I asked for was in keeping with my preference for experiences over objects. I just wanted to do a multi-day run.
I have written about my love for the GR34 trail, which traces the perimeter of Brittany. I’m on a mission to run as many sections of it as possible, so what better gift than a two-day reprieve of fatherly duties to go out and explore.
I’ve often daydreamed of fast-packing all 2,200 km, and fantasized about having a crew out there to support me on a long multi-day challenge. I can see myself grinding out 50-mile days, pulling into the campsite in the evening where the camper van awaits with my happy family, a tasty meal and a comfy bed. Those dreams are huge, logistically challenging, and totally unlikely to happen. So I thought about how I could get just a little taste of that experience, without imposing too much on my family.
The solution was a very simple two-day run, with one night in an AirBNB conveniently located right by the trail.
The joys of traveling light
It’s almost summer here in Northern Europe, and the days are long and mild. Since I had booked lodging for one night, the only things I needed to carry were water, some food, a rain jacket, a change of clothes, toiletries, a phone and my wallet.
This setup, with a 15-liter day pack and a handheld water bottle, turned out to be perfect. Carrying only 22 ounces of water was a bit of a risk, but I knew from experience that I would pass public restrooms and drinking water about every hour to hour and a half, so this worked like a charm. I just filled up the bottle at each stop, and went merrily on my way. I also scouted the location of a few grocery stores, convenience stores and bakeries, so that I only needed to carry a few small snacks to tide me over between stops.
It was a cool feeling being dropped off in Le Conquet by my wife and daughters, with only a backpack and the shirt on my back (and shorts and shoes).
Day 1 : Le Conquet to Porspoder (29 miles)
I started the run at 12h30, going at an easy pace for most of the start. I watched the rain clouds forming all day off shore, wondering if they would hit land. They finally did, about 3 hours into my run. It drizzled and gusted for about an hour, then it let up and left only the fresh smell of rain drying on the warm ground.
There were some cool historical sights along the route, like an old quarry in the Aber Lildut. Also the place where they took the stone for the base of the obelisk in Place de la Concorde in Paris. I took the time to read other historical markers, like the ones describing the process of drying and burning seaweed to make iodide bricks. That practice disappeared in the 1950’s.
In Porspoder I remembered a visit last summer when I swam in crystal clear (cold) water, floating over white sand. Today it was low tide, cloudy skies, almost dreary. The look and feel of places here change so fast with the weather.
I found my AirBNB around 6:30 pm, checked in, got showered, and drank a beer while taking in the beach view off the balcony. I may have poured out a sip for my American peers who undertake long FKT efforts in the wilderness, only to spend the night on the dirt, eating freeze dried rice and beans from a pouch. I love the hardcore efforts, but this is pretty nice.
By 8pm I was ready to walk the 2km back to the town of Porspoder for dinner at an Italian place, but the skies had darkened and it started raining. As I was contemplating whether an extra 2km in a downpour was worth the pasta dinner I hoped to acquire, the AirBNB host graciously offered to drive me there. Salvation. I had a very satisfying solo dinner, and by the time I left the restaurant the sun was just starting to set, the skies had cleared, and there were rainbows. It was a very Breton mix of weather conditions.
Day 2 : Porspoder to Lanilis (25 miles)
Day 2 started lazily, around 8:00am, with some reheated coffee left by the AirBNB host, who had left early for work. I was in no rush, knowing I had all day to cover around 25 miles. I got my gear ready, said goodbye to the cats, threw on my pack, and jogged over to the bakery. For some reason I was craving savory rather than sweet, so I indulged in a cheesy bread with bacon pieces (lardons). It was greasy and hit the spot. I ate half while contemplating the view, then stashed the rest and started the run.
The trail mostly hugged the coast, going by a bunch of small villages. This section is known as la côte sauvage, the wild coast, because it’s quite undeveloped. There are lots of long sandy beaches and even sand dunes. If it weren’t for the scattered boulders and WWII-era German bunkers, you would think you were on my native Cape Cod. The trail alternated between packed sand behind the dunes to actual sandy beach running. I loved the variety.
The Germans weren’t the only ones to leave a stony trace on the landscape here. In the quaint harbor town of Portsall, there is a neolithic burial structure that dates back to ~3000 BC.
During the first fifteen miles of the run I had expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean on my left. When the GR34 runs into the fishing port of Saint-Pabu and the Aber Benoît, though, it takes a detour inland. Aber means estuary, where a tidal river flows into the sea. The whole coastline of Finistère is sliced up by estuaries, and the Aber Benoît leads many miles inland. It’s famous for clear turquoise water, mills, oysters, and on the day I was there, picnic spots for retirees.
The trail was beautiful, and the weather stayed pleasant, although I was again periodically scanning the sky to see if the grey clouds were turning darker and getting closer. Eventually they did, and I took refuge under a particularly robust chestnut tree for a ten-minute downpour. It stopped as quickly as it had started, and I was back to comfortable t-shirt weather and that fresh rain smell. No complaints here.
The last ten miles flowed by through fields, forests, and marshes. Before I knew it I had hit the bridge across the Aber, which is where I would jump off the GR34 and head north for a few km into the town of Lanilis. I found a café, got a torsade au chocolat and espresso, and waited for my ride.
I didn’t set an FKT. I didn’t run some mind-blowing distance. I didn’t get sleep-deprived, hallucinate, lose any toenails, get blisters, have stomach distress, or even any muscle cramps. Does this even count as ultra running?!
I don’t know, but I got to see 54 miles of French coastline in two days and pick up some historical nuggets whilst practicing moving meditation. I completed a considerable back to back workout, which will no doubt have fitness benefits for my upcoming race in July. I chatted with the AirBNB host and got to hear her perspective on living on Finistère’s “wild coast”. I got to run 85 km on the GR34, most of which I had never seen before. I stayed true to the goals I set this year, especially running locally and stopping to smell the roses along the way.
One of the things I love most in MUT running is the creativity in route choice and challenges. It can be completely individual, and context-specific. FKTs, OKTs, backyard challenges, or running across America, it all counts. It counts for us because we care. We pick our own journey.
What’s in your backyard?
I believe the future is local. We have so many amazing places to explore near our homes, why pay crazy money and use crazy resources to get to the other side of the world, when adventure awaits nearby? Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel, but slowly. Very slowly. I count in months and years, not days and weeks.
What routes and challenges have you done close to home? Which ones are fueling your imagination?