Grand Trail des Templiers is one of Europe’s most famous trail races. An astounding 13,000 runners take part in one of 15 races over three days at the close of October. Based out of the city of Millau, in the south of France, the region is filled with ancient villages, castles, and plenty of great woods roads and single track that pass around and through cliffs, canyons and caves.
Run the Alps is pleased to share this story from UK fell and mountain runner George Foster, who lives in the Lake District of northwest England. In Le Grand Trail des Templiers, George finished 12th amid a highly competitive field in the 80 km event.
George is one of the UK’s strongest mountain runners, with podium results throughout the country. In 2020, he finished second at Matterhorn Ultraks, and now has the fastest English time, 13 hours and 44 minutes, for the legendary Bob Graham Round. George divides his time between his work as a firefighter and the trail running world. He has been running competitively for four years and will be racing for Great Britain at the upcoming World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Thailand this February. — Editor
It’s mid-October and I’m in my van at nearly 2000 meter elevation in the Alps on the Switzerland – France border. I’m freezing my butt off. The milk I left outside last night to stay cool has frozen solid. There will be no morning brew for me. Tea without milk is the reserve of Americans.
I am not an alpinist. I am not a skier. I run. I am a runner. “Why am I here?,” is the thought going through my mind. I didn’t want to be here. My head is banging and I feel ill. The 21-hour journey from my home in the mountains of northwest England to this damn dam between Chamonix, France and Martigny, Switzerland was only completed two days ago. I’ve had consecutive days of the athlete’s diet of a tuna-egg-rice melange.
Yesterday, I did what all running-tourists from low-lying countries do when first arriving at altitude in a beautiful part of the world and went for a trot. But moss grew at the rate of my effort. It was abysmal.
Today? Well, I won’t be running today.
That moment was two weeks and a season ago. The frigid cold of the mountains was replaced by the dry warmth of the Aveyron Department in the south of France.
I was here to compete in a race that bills itself as, “The reference spot for the discipline.”
But wait. It’s October. Isn’t the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in… August?
Now, I consider myself a true nerd for all things running, especially off-road running, and yet until this past August I had no idea that “the greatest trail running festival in France” wasn’t UTMB.
Shame on me.
The postponement of the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships, initially due to be held in Thailand in mid-November, necessitated a response to my exclamation of, “Shit, what now?”
Both Google and a knowledgeable coach pointed me towards the Festival des Templiers and, more specifically, Le Grand Trail des Templiers, an 80km trail race with 3690 meters of climbing and descending, that weaves its way among the majestic limestone plateaus of the Grands Causses in the south of France. The festival shares one similarity with the UTMB circus: it attracts the world’s best mountain ultra runners.
The myopic tendencies of my previous visits to run and race on the European continent led me to the ignorant presumption that “unless it was in the Alps, it wasn’t worth running,” and so Occitanie, this quiet region of southern France, remained off limits in my thoughts.
Oh, how silly I was.
The area is relatively low-lying compared to its grander siblings further north and east, meaning altitude acclimatization is negated. Similarly, being so relaxed about its own altitude means it’s also generally pretty warm and dry in October. There are no fewer than fifteen races to choose between, from a 7km “Templar” trail exclusively for women up to the 108 km “Endurance” trail, and the showpiece 80km “Grand Trail des Templiers.” All races start and finish in the picturesque city of Millau with its famous viaduct, making logistics and race administration easier. In short, there’s a lot of reasons to be thankful for this race series.
“Templiers” is a more local affair, free of big-time, in-your-face sponsors whose list of logos and slogans reads longer than a Scout’s badged sleeve*. It focuses on the “festiv(e)” in festival. It’s a joyous, colorful celebration of the sport that respects the traditions of the people and landscape of the area. Templiers is a symmetry of both new and old.
If Templiers were a letter sponsored by Sesame Street it would be the letter “F:” fast, fun, festive and French. And oh, so very French. It is a contradiction of a festival, organized like a well-oiled military operation but with always a hint of elan, a flair for the unconventional teetering on the brink of something maybe, possibly going awry.
The courses are true to the area and showcase the cultural history of this unique place: twisting, turning, tumbling through the landscape, fast running punctuated by steep, sinuous climbs. The “long” races start during the pre-dawn hours and trace a route through ancient settlements, secluded churches and long abandoned farmsteads on the plateaus high above Millau.
In my very recent experience of the races here, I discovered that it pays to be conservative at the start. There is a heck of a lot of running to be done. Courses are quick underfoot, luring you into the belief that the pace you are running after the initial long climb out of the gorge is sustainable, the climbs thereafter surely manageable, the kilometres ticking by in a comfortable, inexorable succession.
Therein lies the trap. To borrow from cycling’s parlance, the fabled “Man with the Hammer” is never far away. I found myself cruising along at a comfortable, steady effort and then I was gone, drifting and deflating like a child’s balloon released into the sky. The ‘long’ courses at the festival are ‘back-loaded’, saving their particularly savage, steep and difficult climbs and descents until the final 20- or 30-kilometers. Sounds fun, right?
Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes you are the nail.
Roll the dice.
Aside from the beauty of the area, the relative technicality of the climbs, and the general speed of the overall running, this festival is notable for its volunteers. The most joyous sound, after being alone with your ragged, laboured breathing in the early hours of the morning, is that of a cheery “Allez, Allez” accompanied by a percussive section of cow bells; the Templars orchestra in full flight. You feel like a rockstar, the surge of goodwill coming from the party of crowds lining the random forest paths in near-forgotten corners of the Causses putting zip in your legs and strength in your heart; more of the festiv(e) in ‘festival.’. This is French racing at its crazy, passionate and alluring best.
Is Templiers worth your time? I urge you to travel to visit this incredible venue and give back to the people that give so much to the runners. Bring the family. There’s 15 races after all, surely there is something to tickle everyone’s fancy?
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*Well, kind of. It is a race in continental Europe after all and can’t escape the pressures of the ‘bottom line’.