Here's me, on the Millau Viaduct.
To my knowledge, there is only one way for the general public to stand on the Millau Viaduct, as I write positioned at number 7 on my World Wonders list at approximately the half-way mark. And that way only comes up for a handful of hours every two years: run a race, that begins and ends in the lovely little town of Millau, with the Viaduct being the grand centrepiece. I decided to enter this race.
To give a little context to this, I had never run a race before in my life. I had no interest in doing so either. When I signed up, in a frenzy of excitement in June last year, I entirely failed to look at the details of the race. The viaduct is 2.5 kilometres: I assumed the race would be a straightforward 5k run, both ways across. No problem, even for a non-athlete like myself. A mere fun run. I immediately signed myself and Danielle up, and told a few other people about it. Soon after, a friend, French Claire (who was part of Francefest 2012) got in touch, with good and bad news. The good news was that she thought it was a great idea and had signed up herself. The bad news was that I should have checked the details. It was not a 5k run - it was 23.7 kilometres, with some steep uphill stretches. Oh. Oh dear.
This sentiment remained on a bright Sunday morning, standing on Millau's main street, just beyond its central fountain, surrounded by 14,999 other runners. Oh dear. With me were French Claire plus her brother and her father, both of whom had liked the sound of the race too, all of whom had done plenty of training. The sum extent of my training had been to jog twice last July, for about 6 kilometres, both times finishing exhausted. I'd quit training soon after that as my knee had started to hurt.
In fairness, I would have resumed the training but a few things got in the way, namely work, marriage, and travelling since December. I've got better things to do than jog for an hour every day while travelling, so I had effectively put thought of running 23.7 kilometres, which is 14.7 miles, or over half a marathon, to the side. Danielle tried to encourage me to exercise a little, but it simply wasn't practical. It was ok for her - besides injuring her foot in Peru, which still persists albeit lightly these days, she had another excuse. Her friend is getting married in June, and on the same weekend as the Millau race was her friend's hen night. In Scotland. She chose to forgo her place in the race to get drunk with a friend in Scotland. Well, how very convenient.
As number 9984, I'd been placed in the third or fourth wave, behind the first wave ("pros") and second wave (running club members). As we arrived a little later than some, it was the fourth wave we ended up in, leaving ten minutes after the third. Ten minutes, I assumed, we could not afford to lose.
You see, things weren't as simple as this being a 23.7 kilometre course. Even with uphill stretches, this is manageable, assuming you have all the time in the world. We didn't have all the time in the world: we had four hours. That was the limit put on the race, and to make it worse, it was split into stages. The first section had an 11am cut-off time, next was 11.50am, and finally 12.15pm, with no restrictions on the end. The later we set off, therefore, the less time we had. My aim wasn't particularly to finish the race, it was just to not die, and to get to stand on the Millau Viaduct in the process. As far as I was concerned, starting in fourth wave was a ten minute handicap.
I also felt less than professionally kitted up also. Around me, my fellow racers wore swanky sweat-absorbing racing tops, watches and smartphones measuring distances and heart rates, special performance-enhancing foot-moulded running shoes, and hyperhats that inject steroids into the brain every fifteen minutes. I, on the other hand, wore this:
Swimming shorts, a black T-shirt bought by Danielle last month, my trainers that Mark and Claire had kindly brought over from Scotland, a cap borrowed from Mark, and socks, that although you can't see in the picture, had a slightly awkward hole in the heel. I felt rather underdressed.
How did it go then? Well, the good news is, as you may have gathered from the opening photo, is that I got to the Viaduct. I broke the race down into various stages after some planning (i.e. I took a look at the route the day beforehand). The first 5 kilometres were flat and my intention was to just take it easy - I didn't want to tire myself out early. This turned out not to be a problem, I was in a gigantic pack of people when I began, and I just kept pace with them. Not too fast, but at a steady and respectable pace. We ran out of Millau, and soon the Viaduct was in sight.
The next 3 kilometres were the notorious part. As the above photo might suggest, the Viaduct was quite a bit higher up than we were. This meant a lot of uphill. And as planned, I walked. Running uphill can only be a bad idea, so I simply walked fast. It went pretty well, and I found myself at the level of the Viaduct well before the 11am cut-off time.
Next was a little road running, and then the big event - onto the Viaduct, which was on a gentle ascent to the other end. This was quite tiring, but suddenly it no longer mattered. I was standing on the Millau Viaduct!
Running back across the Viaduct the other way was a pleasure - it was on a gentle decline, and even my tiring legs found themselves into a smooth trot. There were a few curves and a cruel uphill afterwards, and then it was the finale - about 9 kilometres of downhill, back into Millau.
Most of which I coped with, albeit by now feeling pretty knackered. Right up until the last 2 kilometres - when my legs went. Went in a way I've never felt before. A little earlier, a searing, ripping pain up my right leg had forced me to stop and pull over, I felt like a muscle had torn but it was just a cramp and I was able to run it off. At around the 22 kilometre mark, the same pain rippled up my left leg. I could see the muscle tense and rigid. I tried to run it off, and realised my right leg was also in great pain, but a different kind of pain. It felt about to give way at any moment. It was a true legs-to-jelly moment, and although my body felt ok, my legs had just given up. By this point, the streets were becoming increasingly lined with well-wishers, mostly Millau residents cheering, shouting "Allez!" and handing out water. It might sound a cliche, but their cheer and support really made a difference. So close to the end, I had to keep going. There was nothing left in my legs except pain, but I kept up a shuffle, keeping my legs as rigid as possible as any kind of bending saw them sieze up in agony. I must have looked pretty weird.
I've been told that seeing the finish line inspires a last-ditch burst of effort, a final shot of adrenalin. Not for me. Keeping up a shuffle - as a hobble seemed just too pathetic in front of a fairly thick finish-line crowd - I crossed the line and stopped. No sense of triumph, not even relief, just crippling leg pain. It was an anti-climax. Nobody there to greet me (Mark later said he'd been at the line but had somehow completely missed me) and nobody even to hand out water. It was early afternoon and roasting hot and I needed water - but nobody wass handing out water. I needed shade. I took a few invalid steps into the side, my legs gave way, and I collapsed into a heap, all my leg muscles exploding, flesh bursting from my body.
I realise now that I had actually experienced a last burst of adrenalin - it had been what had kept me going on until the finish line. Without it, I would have fallen in a heap by the side of the road. After five minutes. I cautiously picked myself up from the side and stumbled about twenty metres to where children were dishing out water, which I drank with relish, and passed through the next channel, being awarded a medal, a T-shirt, and a small bag of goodies.
The sense of triumph slowly grew from there. I'd finished the race. Even better, I'd finished with a semi-respectable time, given my absolute lack of training - 3 hours 10 minutes. If not for my legs giving way, I believe I'd have dipped under 3 hours. I'll be honest - I'm pretty proud of this. When I later texted Danielle with the time, she simply replied "Wow". It kind of sums up how I feel. Wow.
Standing on the Millau Viaduct was amazing. So far in my Wonder mission, it has been the big surprise, the dark horse from nowhere. Even within France, it's not particularly known or heralded - except by people who've been there. There is no doubt it has star attraction. Everybody wanted a photo on it, or many photos. As with my last visit, I was blessed with perfect, gorgeous weather, and the Viaduct had the supreme position allowing for views across the Tarn Valley. But the best views are from within the valley, looking up at the Viaduct. I was slightly concered that the honeymoon romance of my first visit might have faded - what if it had become "just another bridge?" No fear of that. The Millau Viaduct remains the most beautiful bridge, and one of the most beautiful structures, I have ever seen. Clean, subtle, elegant, powerful, I can already confidently state that even if it doesn't end up as a Top 7 World Wonder, it is still one of the World's Wonders.
It has a touch of cruelty too though. There are seven giant pylons, each with the multiple cables spanning from them. When running across the Viaduct and looking ahead, it seemed to taunt me as I looked on and thought "What? Still four more to pass?"
The remainder of the weekend, pre and post-race, was spent in the countryside, about an hour or so away from Millau, staying in a gite, a French countryside holiday home, with Mark, Claire, and Claire's parents. For meals both nights, we were invited to the nearby family home of Claire's brother's friend, also running, who treated us to huge amounts of fresh food, including a chicken taken from their garden. Their garden, I should mention, also had a peacock strutting around, but I assume that's only fed to people who run a full marathon.
Some perspective was given on my Wonder quest also. I tend not to mention the Wonder quest to people very often, unless it's directly relevant to the conversation in hand, but Claire decided to tell the table of about ten all about it. They all nodded and hummed with appreciation, especially when the point was made that currently three of the top Seven are French. A little later, for some reason, I mentioned my mother's cat, who was acquired from a rescue centre and weighed 12.7 kilograms at his peak, making it what she believes was the second heaviest cat in Britain at the time (she'd just watched a TV program about the nation's heaviest). Well, the table came alive: they were fascinated by my mother's fat cat, who, I should add for those interested, got that way because the previous owner had fed it a fry-up every day. After over a year of strict dieting under my mother's watch, he is now down to a respectable 7.5 kilograms.
That was my Millau weekend - a race surrounded by French people and French meals. As I write (the day after), my legs are aching and my right leg still feels as though it's been hit with a sledgehammer, but I can walk. I have a colossal blister on my heel. But I'm also experiencing a form of post-race glow. I did it. I ran the race. And I did it much faster than I expected. It's even on the website (type in 9844 and click on Rechercher).
Hmm. Just 10,935 of 15,000. But, wait - I'm a female! And the 3213th best placed one at that! Result.