13.1 Miles of Norway in New York, By Way of France

Balesta, France

A number of things flashed through my mind in the moments after I crossed the finish line of Grete’s Great Gallop, an annual half-marathon in Central Park named after the iron woman that was Grete Waitz, a Norwegian runner who won the New York City Marathon an astounding nine times between 1978 and 1988. (She passed away earlier this year at age 57 after a long fight with cancer.)

I of course thought about my finish time and the grueling, always-feels-like-you’re-going-uphill course I’d just (barely) conquered. I’ve done Grete’s Great Gallop three times now, and while this wasn’t my fastest time, I met my modest goal of finishing in less than 1:45.

I thought about my wife who cheered me on near the end, and how, in a demented end-of-half-marathon state of mind best described as “desperate and bordering on lunacy”, I responded to her clapping and encouragement by unwittingly making the “cut it” motion across my neck. I actually meant that I was physically drained and had nothing left; she thought I had totally lost it (which I had) and was telling her to stop cheering.

Note to self: next time, force a smile and better convey how much you appreciate your wife schlepping to Central Park from Brooklyn on a Saturday morning to cheer you on, even if you’re temporarily batshit insane at the 13.05-mile mark.

I thought about our celebration plans that evening in Williamsburg: dinner at Fornino Pizza and cold beers somewhere, anywhere, in the ‘hood. If there’s ever a time one can rip through an entire pizza and put down a few pints without feeling (too) guilty, it’s after running a half-marathon.

I also thought about Bélesta, a tiny village (population: 200) in France’s Midi-Pyrénées surrounded by rolling hills and craggy vineyards.

Bélesta? Why Bélesta?

An open spot on a short press trip to southern France popped up at the last minute the week before the race in Central Park. I of course couldn’t refuse, but was concerned that all the training I’d done to that point would be for naught. The week before the week of a half is a crucial one, when runners usually sandwich a long 12-mile run in between two or three shorter ones of 5 – 7 miles (at least that’s how I do it).

Instead of busting ass in Brooklyn like a good little half-marathoner, though, I’d now be in France on a wine-themed press trip, working through an itinerary that basically consisted of stuffing my face three times daily and washing it all down with glasses of wine. Not a bad thing, of course, nor a complaint or lament of a spoiled-silly travel writer–just a fact.

I packed my running shoes, swearing that no matter what I’d squeeze in at least one long-ish run, and I did, in the pre-dawn blackness and absolute silence that engulfed Balesta at 6am. The stars were the only thing lighting my way down the only road that ran threw the village and out into the countryside. All I could hear was the sound of my feet pounding the pavement and the rustle of leaves when a faint breeze blew through the vineyards lining both sides of the road.

Balesta, France

I pictured myself on a world map, running on the outskirts of a small village most people have never heard of, in a country I first stepped foot in three days previously. I was bound for the turning-around point of Chateau de Caladroy, an idyllic 12th-century fortress-turned-winery located a few miles from “downtown” Bélesta and 5 kilometers from where some of the oldest remains of man, dating back some 80,000 years, had been found.

That lingering moment of zen, spurred by the thrill of place and time and travel, as well as by the therapeutic feeling of running well at an ungodly hour of the day, was broken by the snarling bark of two dogs I couldn’t see but could hear running towards the road. Towards me. Holy shit.

I didn’t know what else to do other than sprint as fast as I could when the dogs bounded into the road, barking even louder, and scampered after me. At that moment I thought about a lot of things: what it would feel like to punch and/or kick two attack dogs; whether or not I could outrun the dogs long enough for them to lose interest; what it would feel like to have one’s neck, leg, and/or arm torn open by two attack dogs.

I kept sprinting, and the dogs did lose interest and trot back to their lookout posts. I made it to the chateau, watched the sun rise over the Catalonia Pyrenees, and on the way back again sprinted until my lungs burned with fire and the dogs once again retreated.

Ill-timed week of wining and dining in France be damned, I met my goals at Grete’s Great Gallop despite just one short run in a crucial training week… and I’m fairly certain those terrifying wind sprints were the catalysts.

Bélesta Photos Copyright Brian Spencer

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for the purpose of review by Atout France and the Pyrenees Orientales Departmental Tourism Office. While it has not influenced this review, Perceptive Travel believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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