Peaking in the Pyrenees

Ultra-running enthusiast Alecsa Stewart has recently relocated to the Pyrenees in the South of France. Battling pain and vertigo, she shares her first experience of exploring 30 miles of French hills, history and finish-line food.

The Trails Cathares races are organised in the Corbières region in the South of France. Inspired by the Cathar knights, the run takes on their old trails, once allowing them to smuggle goods between forts. The remains of their castles, Peyrepertuse, Quéribus and Padern, are now the three checkpoints of the race. Starting in Cucugnan, the course loops through bushy hills, three picturesque villages, and savagely steep declines!

I had decided to acclimatise with my surroundings after moving to France a few months earlier and take on the 30-mile Trail des Seigneurs. Ahead of the CCC – a 60-mile race in August and part of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc events, I thought I would test my training. I’d seen it advertised at the local running club and it didn’t seem too challenging. But sure enough, my 70-year old neighbours shook their heads in disbelief when I told them where I was heading for the weekend.

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 Now, eight miles into the race, I hear voices mumble, “Well, this is taking it to the next level!”. I couldn’t disagree, finding myself scrambling up the hills, glad of my gloves. The extremely steep hillside leading to Château de Peyrepertuse certainly was “next level” – with places at over 50% incline!

 After leaving the lovely village of Cucugnan and its vineyards, the path already climbs up with grim determination to rocky ridge, and then the roller coaster begins. Without a hint of sympathy for us, we sped down scree slopes and then straight up rock faces – ticking off fortresses as we went.

With scraped shins and bruised ankles from the vertical shocks, I finally made it into the Peyrepertuse citadel, midway through the course. Relief washed over me - only to be told I had to climb to the top of its highest tower to have my bib number scanned! However, I enjoyed the following descent, as you’re basically running up and down castle towers, with footsteps echoing down deserted corridors.

At the next aid station, it was time for food and water. I then had to climb up a jagged ridge, which looked like an upturned saw blade. Getting into a rhythm, I began powering up, cheered on by supporters offering much-needed encouragement.

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After the steady climb I emerged from the wood and onto the ridge. Between the rocks, I found myself in a wild meadow at 930m high, the highest point in the race. I brushed past herbs and wild lavender, releasing a wonderful fragrance and startling butterflies that had settled there. But, there was no time to stop and enjoy the vegetation, with another citadel appearing above. I was close to the finish and starting to fantasise about a spit-roasting pig soon awaiting me.

The final station at Padern left me only slightly disappointed. It only offered bread and cheese, but there was no tower to climb this time, which made up for it. The last “sting in the tail” climb then lead to the last descent back to Cucugnan.

Crossing the finish line in 10:58:19, I was greeted by a large crowd and an even larger marquee – full of tables laden with food. Much to my delight, I sat down to a well-deserved beer, three-course meal and a glass of local wine. I can confirm that the rumours are true – the French are great at aid stations and finish-line food! After what had been like a baptism of fire to trail running, I was ready for a good night’s sleep.

The Trails Cathares races are held in May with events from 10km to 68 km, all in the fortresses and technical terrain. Find out more and register at:    

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