For the first time in well over a decade a British walker took part in the classic Paris Colmar race. Karen Davies from Birchfield Harriers qualified with her performace of 149k in the Bourges 24 hours earlier this year. Her support crew were John Constandinou along with Centurions Kathy Crilley C933 and Mick Barnbrook.
The start list had some of the best in Europe competing: 21 men and 15 women who had all qualified during the 2012-2013 racing season. This year, the mens' race was a total of 436.2 km and the womens' was 308km. It was not without it's upsets as favourites, last year's winners, and no-hopers all played their part.
The format of the race has changed dramatically since the 1990s and for the last few years the race format is more of a stage race than the point to point of yesteryear. The starting point is now at Neuilly sur Marne - a suburb east of Paris (not much to recommend it) with registration at the Hotel de Ville on Wednesday morning. Quickly followed by the Prologue in Paris.
The Prologue is a fast and furious 5.3km- starting near the Champs Elysees (at 14.30) and finishing south of the Seine underneath (almost) of the Eiffel Tower. Then it's back on the bus for the walkers and the metro/RER for supporters to base camp at Neuilly sur Marne with only a couple of hours before the start of Stage 2.
Stage 2: Neuilly sur Marne to St Thibauld des Vignes. After some rather long speeches by everyone, the start of this stage eventually kicked off just after 7pm, As this was a suburb with lots of traffic, camping vans were not allowed to follow the race. This is where a bicycle comes in handy. The route is quite hilly and even though it is only 20km - sustenance is still needed. The finish was in a park in St Thibauld des Vignes - the men doing one lap and the women three laps. Not sure why - to make up the distance maybe. Camper vans were sent to a "space" within the park, but no mention that this would be blocked off at 11pm - fortunately for the GB support team, they left in search of food. This is where a hotel comes in handy.
Stage 3 - Men: After finishing at St Thibauld, the men then have to drive to Chateau Thierry for a 10pm start for the "Big Stage" to Vittel. Non quite non-stop as there is a 2 hour stop at Bar le Duc, the men have a long hard slog in front of them. It rained heavily. Whlst the GB team were parked up somewhere in St Thibault with the rain pounding on the roof - our thoughts were with the men racing in the rain....
Stage 3 - Women: Thursday was a 100 mile drive in the pouring rain to the women's start of Stage 3 at Vitry le Francois. This was a 214 km stage to Vittel. Along the way are plenty of check points with closing times that needed a careful eye on walking speeds. Calculator to the ready! Once again, it was bicycle support for the first few kilometres before the van could slot in behind Karen.
There are now strict rules as to the appropriate advertising stickers on the camping van, the appropriate flashing lights, hi viz vests to be worn by the walker and supporters, and where the supporter must walk - alongside on the inside of the walker - never in front and the camping van must follow at all times. Each competitor has to wear a GPS tracker as well. The supporting vehicle is also inspected at the start and an official "approved" sticker placed on the windscreen.
Back to the race..... after a couple of hours the rain eventually stopped and the evening turned out to be perfect for walking. After a "relatively" flat first 50km or so, the going got hilly. At least in the dark they weren't so noticable, but in daylight ... (a frequent comment was "...not another***hill"...)
After 24 hours, Karen had covered 138.5km, averaging around 5.5km per hour. It was, however, touch and go for the final leg to Vittel with only 8 minutes to spare before the checkpoint closed.
Stage 4: After a drive of 93km, the next stage was Plainfaing (Vosges) to Colmar. With only 3 hours to the start (11am) it was another case of "touch and go" with only 2 minutes before the gun went off. This stage started with a 10km loop before heading off to the mountains - the Col du Louschbach, then the final climb to the Col du Calvaire. As this road was the "route de forestiere" camper vans were once again not allowed, so Kathy Crilley accompanied Karen up the mountain for the next 10km with a rucsac full of food and water. Whilst most of the route from Vitry was very scenic - this was now beginning to be spectacular. Once out of the trees, the heat was very noticable! The next leg was downhill all the way to the chocolate box town of Kaysersberg where Centurions Richard and Sandra Brown walked with us for a few kilometers. From there, the route was very flat all the way to Colmar. Karen finished this stage with 40 minutes before the cut off with an overall time of 50 hours 39 mins 06 seconds.