Trail du Bout du Monde
This is a review of the 2022 Trail du Bout du Monde, the trail race at “the end of the world”, as Finistère is affectionately known. The event offers three race distances – 20km, 37km, and 57km. I chose the 57km for reasons that I am now beginning to question. I’m thinking that for 2023, the 37km might be just fine. Regardless, all distances offer incredible scenery and impeccable organization.
Race check-in, bib pickup, logistics
Very smooth process. The organizers had communicated all necessary information via email the days preceding the race, and the bib pickup was seamless.
There was a shuttle for runners who wished to park at the finish line. For a race start at 8am, they had the shuttle buses running from 6am, a thirty minute ride from the race finish at Pointe St. Mathieu back to the start in Plouzané.
A unique race start
I’ve heard of plenty of races that incorporate a running track into either the race start or finish, but this is the first race I’ve seen that uses a vélodrome (bike track) for its start. Racers get to enter the track via a tunnel and do half a lap on the grass. Pretty cool experience. There’s something grandiose about the setting, and there was a decent spectator turnout as well.
Opening 10k: shady woods
During the week leading up to the race, the chatter was all about the heat. Coming from New England, where summer temps in the triple digits are not uncommon, I was unconcerned about forecasts showing a high of 80º F. Yes, heat would be a factor, but we’re not talking Badwater here. Thankfully, the first 10k was anything but hot. The air was nice and cool in the forest in the morning. After 10km we hit the coastal path, which was much more exposed.
10km – 37km: along the GR 34
The bulk of the first half of the race uses the beloved GR 34 trail. The scenery is magical, and every bluff brings a new perspective into view. You’re running along the coast that guards the entrance into Brest harbor. I always feel the history of this place. You can’t help it. The lighthouses, old forts, German bunkers, everything screams “This is where we scan the horizon for approaching invaders.” I love it.
The trails are fairly smooth, considering the constant ups and downs. Runners at the front were doing 7:00/mile pace along here, so fast running is definitely possible. Not many can hold that pace for four hours, but that’s why they get the big bucks. (Note: Jonathan Parisé is a local firefighter and runs as a hobby. He sometimes does laps around his fire station for workouts. I don’t think he makes big bucks.)
Top-notch aid stations
The race organization was prepared for heat, with copious water stops and four aid stations with food. These ran very smoothly, thanks to all the volunteers, and runners refilled bottles, doused themselves, and got on their way quickly.
37km – 57km: inland, then south on GR 34
The final 20km of the race does a loop just north of the finish line, which you have to run by at 37km. Inevitably you will contemplate how easy it would be to stop and jump in your car at that point. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a shower and put your feet up? You’ve already been running for well over three hours at this point. Why punish yourself?
Everyone has to find their own answer to that question. I can’t tell you mine because I don’t remember what I was thinking. I just know I pushed those thoughts away and headed up the trail into the baking sun warming up the fields and pastures that lie behind the coastline.
Finish line: La Pointe St. Mathieu
You can see the lighthouse at the finish line for most of the final 8km of the race. It beckons you toward the finish. The last few miles find you passing families out for a Sunday stroll and casual onlookers wondering why the people shuffling by them in lycra are so caked in salt. It’s an amusing juxtaposition and helps you avoid taking yourself too seriously.
The finishing area was more like a festival. There was a bouncy castle inside of an actual castle, a group of local musicians, plenty of food stands, beer stands, etc. They clearly made the effort to make families feel welcome and help the kids stay entertained for who knows how long while mom or dad finished up their race. There were showers, bathrooms, and free massages. It was impressive.
A family affair.
Crêpes and beer. Welcome to Brittany.
My personal race experience
My race went really well, until it didn’t. Everything came crashing down around mile 30 for me. I had been dismissive of all the panic about “extreme heat”, and probably didn’t consume enough electrolytes. There was plenty of water and soda along the course, but I think I needed more, because I started getting severe calf cramps by 48km. This left 9km of running/walking, which led to me losing a ton of places.
This is not the way you want your race to progress. At 25km I was in 100th, feeling good, relaxed, and in control. By 37km I had passed 8 people due to attrition, people coming back to me as they slowed down. I passed another 9 people by km 48. It was getting hot, but I was still moving well. During the last 9km I was passed by 63 people. My calves were cramping so bad I could only run for about a minute before stopping to walk.
Around the 50km mark we had to go up a stair set, and when I reached the top my inner hamstring muscles completely seized up. I couldn’t even walk, just leaned against a wall grimacing in pain. It was bad. Eventually it passed and I started moving again, but it was a snails’ pace compared to earlier in the day.
The death march is a humbling experience, and any ultra runner with a few races under their belt has likely been through it. You’re no longer running the race, you’re walking it. You wonder if you should just drop. You ask yourself if you’re a failure. You wonder if this still “counts”. People pass and ask how you’re doing. “Not great” is the honest answer, and there’s nothing you can do but keep moving forward, hoping the pain subsides enough to allow you to turn your walk into a shuffle, something at least resembling running. Regardless, you can’t help but be grateful for the chance to run through such an amazing location with a bunch of other lovers of endurance and nature.
My lasting memory of this race is a positive one, despite the suffering of the last five miles. I’m learning to let go of expectations for place, which prevents me from being too disappointed about a result. Yes I could have done better. I took a chance running with minimal gear (no pack with extra supplies), and the risk manifested itself in the form of cramps. Running an ultra is not very forgiving. Mistakes will be magnified. Coaches make mistakes, too. The point is to keep moving and keep learning.
I would recommend this race to anyone who wants to visit Finistère in July and be immersed in the history of the region. You’ll see a wide variety of different monuments and landscapes. You’ll be tempted to stop on one of the many white sandy beaches you run by and just hang out in the sun. Hopefully you’re staying in the area for a while, because this race will make you want to go explore even more.