Forests and Beaches in Aquitaine – The French 5 Days

130703_0519.jpgI’m back! After a highly enjoyable week in south west France, at the biennual ‘5-Jour de France’ festival of orienteering, on this year’s Oxford Uni OC club tour.

I didn’t do particularly well at the event, much to do with my poor level of fitness as to the exceptional heat (up to 35 degrees celsius on the last day!) but it was a great experience, with the sandy forests proving to have a distinctive style.

I’m hoping to write a couple of more technical articles in the next couple of days analysing particular legs of courses (with map extracts.) And hopefully some of the many photos I took will be online in due course too. For now, here’s a summary of the week:

Sunday – after crashing on Martin’s floor in North Oxford, with my mum taking away four years of junk accumulated in college, I jumped on the last bus to Stansted and flew with the 10 or so other OUOC orienteers and some JOKers (the alumni club) to Biarritz. There were superb views of the huge forest in the Landes region that we would be in, from the plane – unfortuantly I ended up deleting all these pics… After hiring cars at Biarritz we headed to the campsite, a simple but pleasant one set in attractive pine woodland, a couple of hours north at Lit et Mixe. 15 tents, and one hammock, were pitched in a rough circle. We received our exclusive tour kit – the tricolor design would later on manage to confuse some competitors into thinking we were the French national team…

Monday – Etage 1. This was only a few minutes from the campsite, although a 2km along the “car park” road in a sweltering, dusty atmosphere was a taste of things to come. I was running H21A despite having done little recent
orienteering, and how I paid for it on the first day. A silly route choice, five minutes into the race, led me to get trapped in three metre high bracken and gorse. I reached up to wipe the sweat off my forehead, only to see my
hands covered in blood – a nasty gash to the head and I was leaking claret all over the place. Panicking slightly, I eventually escaped and then wandered all over the place, dazed, trying to find the control – wasting 45 minutes in the process and exhausting myself for the latter stages of the race. There was another serious mistake later on caused by exhaustion, and I found myself running from drinks point to drinks point, via as many trees as possible.
Eventually I slunk in nearly three hours after I had started, finishing 158th out of 159 finishers (there were a lot of retirals) – and I really feel sorry for the guy I beat! It was by far my worst ever result. After showers, we transferred to the local beach – Plage de l’Homy – to do some serious sun bathing. I had naively forgotten trunks and flip flops, so avoided a much needed dip in the Atlantic. Despite downing several litres of water I still dehydrated and got a headache. The evening finished up with a hearty pasta meal bought in a somewhat surreal supermarché (entirely surrounded by a forest – like most things in Landes) and cooked at the campsite.

Tuesday – Etage 2. This was in the same area, with a different start. The weather was once again hot, with blue skies all around. This was my latest start (12.35) and after yesterday’s nightmare I was playing it very defensively indeed, forcing myself to go slow and keep welll away from any ground vegetation. In the event, I had a much better run, having learnt a lot of tactics from the previous day – drink absolutely loads before and after the
race, avoid paths as you just slip on the sand, plan your route to use drinks points sensibly, and be cautious. I finished 139th out of 168 finishers, and missed out on my 100 minute target by 40 seconds – by foolishly switching off just before the end and heading for an incorrect flag 200m south of where I should have been. Everyone was too hot and tired so we went straight to the beach – I had by now purloined trunks so was able to do a bit of swimming and wave-dodging/breaking in the ocean, which was great fun – it’s an excellent beach. Then it was back to the campsite for a well earned rest.

(The picture, by the way, is of Pippa (OUOC) and Tim (JOKer) posing with our hired surfboard at the beach on Day 4.)

250703_507france.jpg The third day was the earliest start for myself and my compatriots. Each club member is allocated roughly similar start times each day – Oxford’s for Day 2 were around midday, but for today, we had 8am starts! Incredible as it may seem, we were actually delighted about this – OK, the early start meant the previous evening’s trip to the wine bar had to be shorter than normal, but running at 8am was so much more pleasant temperature rise. The day also started quite cloudly, and really, it was the most pleasant of all the days. I improved again on my previous day’s result, and in fact this was my best day position-wise. My run was virtually error free, with only the long run to the beach finish proving to be morale-sapping.

Day four was a (yet another) hot day. My start was pretty early, and on picking up the map 1 minute before race start, a pleasant surprise was quickly apparent – the course had been shortened by 30% compared with what we were expected and what had indeed been indicated on the pre-race information. Not every one realised this in fact. My feet were really hurting from previous days and I wasn’t able to up the pace sufficiently, bearing in mind that at
under 8km, it was a sprint race really. Still, I had a great fun, until just before the end when I switched off and made an extremely embarrasing error – see my next article for the full details.

After the gift on Day 4, we were expecting a monster for the finish, and oh yes we got one. The race was the toughest physically without a doubt, with large areas of felled open – slow to run in and painful in the heat. A couple of big map errors, and only one drinks point, conspired to annoy, but by now most people were conditioned to the weather and I was able to sustain my run through the heat, to finish well. The final 300m sprint around the stadium, with the crowds cheering on, was agony, but I made it in the end! At the finish, my red-white-blue top was once again mistaken for the French national team, and a sponsor asked me to pose with the provided, branded water bottles. The pose was easy and lovely – I poured water all other my exhausted face. Celebrations afterwards included another trip to the beach – absolutely packed this time with holidaymakers, although a swim in the sea revealed specks of oil from a recent big shipwreck – and crazy golf, which was especially crazy considering the temperature in the park there.

What kept me going during the long run in on the final day were the shouts of ‘Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!’ – sadly I realised they weren’t shouting for me, but rather ‘Allez! Allez! Allez!’ is French for ‘Go! Go! Go!’ – presumably directed at all the internationals and true French competitors surrounding me. Still, it lifted my spirits when it needed to!

All in all, a fun week, it was good to push myself and experience the distinctly French terrain of Landes, and it was great to get some traditional holidaying in too.

And finally, here’s how orienteering events in France (or, at least, the 5-days events) compare to those in Blighty (apart from the obvious, like legends written in French…)

* The portaloos are worse, much worse. No plumbing. No water anywhere. I won’t go there!
* Water at the start. What a great idea in the heat!
* You don’t get control descriptions until 2 minutes before the start.
* You get the map 1 minute before starting off – but have to bag it yourself.
* A proper finish ‘tunnel’ like in other sporting events, and the finishes were always good for spectators – this was nice to see.

London Prints

2 Comments

  1. Luke W
    1 August 2004

    well you probably did better than I would have! 😉

  2. […] was my summer orienteering holiday. I last went to the French back in 2003. This time, the races were on the Larzac Plateau, in the Massif Central in south central France. It […]

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