Isle of Man Centurion Tony Mackintosh produced a good qualifying time at the Bourges 24 hour race early March and was handed his invitation on the spot to participate in the 2017 Paris Alsace Ribeauville.
Not the most auspicious of starts as the Isle of Man ferry carrying Tony, Lisa and the camper van, broke down an hour out of Douglas. The 3 hour plus delay had a knock on effect as Kathy was due to be picked up at Ashford International station around 9pm. So a quick decision to travel to Leicester instead to Lee and Kerry's house where Tony was due to collect them later... ! Slightly bizarre route but it worked. It also meant we had to re-book the Tunnel. But by Sunday lunchtime we finally arrived at the camp site in Chalons en Champagne in the searing heat (34 degrees). On Monday, Lee and Kerry collected the hire car needed to pick up Dave from the airport the next day and again to collect Karen much later on in the week. We all then regrouped at the campsite in Neuilly sur Marne ready for race day. But a bit (well a lot) of shopping to do first!
Registration and race start..
A bit of a lie in on Wednesday morning then move the camper van and car to the designated race area: the boules pitch. Where the locals just ignored us, as usual, and carried on playing around us. Tony and Kathy went off to register (Kathy had to sign off the form as the "responsible" person....?) Numbers, log book and GPS gadget to collect and all the other bits and pieces that go with the Paris Alsace - name and number of athlete to put on front of van, warning stickers on the back..., photo taken and medical to attend. Back to the camper van and time to make lunch. And find some shade (it was still hot).
Next came the vehicle inspection:
flashing light on top of van working.. tick;
brake lights working... tick;
bicycle lights at front and back working...tick;
All signed off. Phew!
As usual, lots of hanging around at the start up at the Mairie. All athletes were presented to the gathering and lots of photos taken and then suddenly it was time to line up for the 1830 start. Two small loops of 350m and then off to St Thibault des Vignes. Brave Lisa followed Tony on the bike (saddle a bit uncomfortable...?) whilst the camper van and car took the mandatory separate route. Time penalties were to be imposed on an athlete where support vehicles did not conform to the rules. Ouch!
Enough of this - let's get to the race...
The prologue, Neuilly sur Marne to St Thibault des Vignes is a hilly 14.6km and Tony was very conscious of the (reverse) handicap system - fastest off first at the start of the second stage. So Tony set off a steady but determined pace. The support vehicles met him at St Thiabult and whisked him off to Chateau Thierry for the grand start. Six times winner Dmitriy Osipov was the first to finish the prologue, in a time of 1:26:02, an average of 10.182 km/h, but the field closely followed.
Le Grand Depart: Luckily, Tony's handicap on this start was only 8 minutes. Through the sports hall and then off to Bar le Duc - some 117.7 miles down the road.
The route has control points along the course and if a walker arrives too late - then game over.
One of Kathy's jobs was to record start and finish times at the control points and work out timings for the following section along with a timetable of Tony's food and drink consumed. Also updating Facebook to let everyone at home know what was happening real time... Kept her busy...
However, everyone pitched in with the jobs that needed doing: driving the camper van (mostly Dave and Kerry), doing the bike bit (Lisa, Karen and Lee), walking with Tony (Karen and Lee), preparing food for Tony and crew (everyone). It worked a dream. And we had fun!
Tony arrived in Bar le Duc in the early hours of Friday morning (01:39) for the mandatory 2 hours rest at the Ibis hotel. By the time feet were re-dressed, muscles massaged and kit changed - there wasn't much rest time left. In the meantime Dave, Lee and Kerry went off to fill up the camper van with fuel and water. Oh, did I mention the fuel shortage? Due to the on-going tanker drivers strike most petrol stations around Paris and all points east had run out of fuel. Never mind the walker not reaching the control points, we did think that the race vehiicles wouldn't. Images of pushing the camper van along the route ....
In the mean time... we followed the race via the tracking system. What was going on??? The leaders were chopping and changing and dropping like flies... The heat and injuries were certainly taking their toll. The lead alternated as the stage progressed. Alexandre Forestieri led for the first 96km before Cédric Varain took over and held the lead until the final kilometres into Bar-le-Duc, when Osipov caught him. After surviving the first night on the road, Thursday was once again hot and sunny with the temperature around 30C. Not ideal walking conditions. Osipov reached Bar-le-Duc at 10:58PM (189.4km in 24h28m), followed by Varain at 11pm, Pascal Biebuyck at 11:05pm and Florian Letourneau at 11:14pm. Just 16 minutes in total separating the first four.
From Bar le Duc, Tony started off steadily - it was another 101 miles to the stage finish at Epinal. This second day of this longest stage was indeed long and hot, with the temperature once again rising to 30C. Only 5 of the original 12 men would make it to Epinal and it was no surprise to see Osipov the first to arrive.
The heat, sore legs and blistered feet were taking it's toll on Tony. After 52 miles, Tony had a 15 minute stop at Neufchateau and then slowly walked on. By this time his "time in hand:" to get to the next control point had dwindled to just 20 minutes. The distance from Neufchateau to Gironcourt sur Vraine was 18.5 miles and it became clear when one and a half hours later with still some 14 miles to go, Tony would miss the control point cut off time. The "broom wagon" was actually taking down the route markers as we approached each turn in the road. Not a good sign.
This was indeed a very difficult moment for everyone. Tony decided that this was the time to stop, despite various "pep" talks from his team... are you sure? can you live wtih this? .. etc, etc.
So, 301km from the start, Tony retired. The support team were obviously very sad, but Tony knows his own body and with over 100 miles yet to walk to Ribeauville, it was a hard call.
What happened next....
Well, organiser Jean Cecillon met us shortly after and we pinpointed on the map wehre we had stopped. He was very sympathetic (he is a Centurion after all!)
We then decided to drive on to Plainfaing which was the start of the final stage to Ribeauville the next morning (Saturday).
Now this was not without a certain adventure as Tony's sat nav decided to take us via a very unusual route over the mountains and then down a rather narrow mountain track. It became clear that there was no reversing back up the steep track when we got stuck; Lee, Kerry and Kathy (quickly) abandoned the camper van to see what was ahead ... but eventually we made it down to valley bottom and safety...phew!
The final stage: Plainfaing to Ribeauville
The last stage kicked off at 9am. The leading man and woman were supposed to lead out. But where was Dimtriy Osipov? Tatania Maslova had a lonely start as Ospiov missed his start time! Well, I guess it happens. The remaining athletes started at 10am - up the legendary Col du Bonhomme and then down to Orbey, Kaisersburg and through the vineyards to Ribeauville -some 30 plus miles away. The weather actually took a turn for the worst on this stage with torrential downpours and thunderstorms throughout the afternoon and early evening..
Osipov reached the finish line first at 4:43pm for his seventh win. Florian Letourneau come in second at 5:49pm followed by Serge Georgelin at 6:54pm,next finisher was Yves-Michel Kerlau and finally Alexandre Forestieri. Sadly, only 5 finishers.
However, Team Tony had sped on to the camp site at Ribeauville, checked in, showered and walked back down to the finish to welcome the finishers (and had a few beers in between...)
Sunday - presentation time
The nicest "thing" about the Paris Alsace is that all starters are recognised - no matter how far they walked. Tony walked 301km and was on the podium at the finish. Nice touch!
Everyone who started and walked is a hero. Tony received a rousing cheer from his support team and quite rightly too. 301km in 48 hours is an achievement. Can you do this????
All in all, an amazing experience.
The Paris - Alsace is indeed a very tough race - probably one of the toughest race walks ever. But it is do-able!
With a lot of training and preparation and talking to those who have walked it and supported it, then you are half way there and yes, you really do need to talk to them!
Obviously it is more expensive getting over to France from the UK - but do get in touch if you want to have a go!!
And yes, there are qualifying races to complete (but only one for overseas athletes - although I would recommend doing at least two).
Finally, well done to Tony - an amazing achievement. 7th overall... not bad!
For the last few years, the Paris-Colmar/Alsace has developed into a stage race with a prologue then a transfer to vehicles and drive to the start of the next stage.
Apart from the prologue and final stage - the race for men and ladies are two distinct separate races, but the route merges at Vitry le Francois on Thursday (2017).
The 2017 race sees the usual prologue and then both races restart the next stage later in the evening at Chateau Thierry.
Each competitor must have an official vehicle (inspected by the organisers) decorated with the competitor's name, sponsor banners and flashing lights.
Along the route are control points with a closing time; just to complicate matters, the start of stage 2 and 3 are done in order of classification ie the lead man and woman go first and the rest follow depending how many minutes they completed the previous stage behind the winner.....
Of course, it also means that the slower walkers have less time to complete that section....
Prologue (all) Wednesday
Neuilly sur Marne to St Thibault des Vignes: 14.6km
transfer to vehicles
Stage 2 (men) Wednesday - Saturday
Chateau Thierry to Epinal: 352.8 km (with compulsory 2 hour rest stop at Bar le Duc)