Le Marathon des Gorges de l’Ardeche
There’s only a small number of paddlesports events that are truly revered. Once such event is the “Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardeche” in southeast France. When I first read stories of this event decades ago I promised myself I would one day attend. That decision was reinforced time and time again by stories, video and images over the intervening years between then and finally getting to participate this November. Having now participated, I can tell you that the Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardeche lived up to every bit of its hype and reputation.
Rising from the Massif Central in central France, the Ardeche river carves thru the Ardeche Gorges on its way towards its confluence with the the Rhone. The 20 mile Ardeche Gorges features vertical limestone cliffs over 1000ft high, including its most famous feature, the 200ft Pont d’Arc, a natural limestone arch under which the river flows. This ancient gorge has played a pivotal roll in the areas cultural and economic development for thousands of years. Not far from the river the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave was found in 1984 containing the earliest known and best preserved cave paintings in the world, as well as other evidence of Paleolithic life dating back at least 30,000 years. In more recent history, Neolithic dolmen tombs dating back to 3000BC are erected through out the gorge and the river also flows past the ruins of the leper colony of the Knights Templar dating back to the 12th Century and the Crusades. A paddle thru the Ardeche Gorges is truly a paddle thru history. The Ardeche River itself is a beautiful class 2 wilderness run with pristine water quality and dozens of springs cascading into the river. The rapids are characterized by the iconic limestone cliffs that touch the waters edge to create boil lines, undercuts and typical wave trains with strong eddy lines. No wonder the gorges are a hugely popular tourist attraction during the Summer months.
The mass start Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardeche marks the start of the new season for most paddlesports competitors. Consequently many countries use the event to kick start their training and the event brought teams from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, USA, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium, Great Britain, Portugal, Holland, Spain and Croatia to participate in hundreds of boats ranging from 9 man canoes and OC-6’s, ICF K1’s and surf skis all the way to recreational whitewater boats, making the total participation approach 1500 or more. In attendance were Olympic Gold medalists, World Champions, National Champions and many more legends across multiple disciplines most of whom where competing in K2’s, making it the most competitive class.
Arriving at the river just a few days before the race, I grabbed all the borrowed equipment we’d rounded up and jumped on the river in the late afternoon with a couple of the best French K2’s. The river was high and right at race cut off levels, but was expected to drop over the coming days. I was assured that I didn’t need to know where the take out was as the K2’s would catch me up in short order. So I pushed off into the gorge alone to explore the unknown in the rapidly fading light. An hour in and the K2’s hadn’t caught up and gorge was being rapidly enveloped in complete darkness. Thankfully I had seen a couple of YouTube edits and knew that there was a bridge somewhere downstream. 30 minutes later and it was completely dark, cold and I was running into whitewater I was having to run blind in my tippy borrowed racing kayak. As soon as I saw the first signs of civilization I pulled over and waited and waited and finally the K2’s floated by explaining that they had had technical difficulties themselves and that we were just a kilometer above the take out. I didn’t get to see much of the gorge that first paddle but found a great deal of humor in the situation now that I was warm and dry. Over the next few days we banged out additional training runs as the levels continued to drop and the gorge took on a different feel with every run.
Race morning and there were hundreds and hundreds of boats warming up above the start. Turning around and avoiding collisions where real concerns. Then the countdown began and seemed to go from “trois minutes” (3 minutes) to “allez” (go) in just seconds. My high school French had failed me as I totally missed the start finding myself several hundred meters behind the start line. It was total chaos behind the line with everyone trying to get going. It was hip to hip with the throngs of racers and to make matters worse, some competitors found themselves flipping, turning and even facing upstream as the mass pushed downstream. The once placid pool at the start turned into a sloshing mess of moving waves bouncing us around as we tried to get going. In these situations you need to be the aggressor and push forwards thru the mess and that was the story of the rest of my race and I moved thru the field over the next 20 miles, only getting passed by a couple of folks. It was hard to take in the splendor of the gorge under these circumstances but as the race unfolded it became easier to look around and enjoy the circumstances. About 15 minutes from the finish I even thought about slowing down to maximize my time in the gorge as I was having so much fun chasing people down.
The Marathon International des Gorges de l’Ardeche lived up to its hype. The combination of scenery and beauty wrapped up in one of the largest mass start river races in the World in a social and fun atmosphere was hard to beat. This race is truly iconic.
It would not have been possible to have pulled this week off without the support of several friends on he ground in France. The Beauchard family (Francois, Maria and Emmanuel) where invaluable resources setting this up and helping us thru some language road blocks with the race organizers. Their hospitality in Vallon Pont d’Arc and Lyon was amazing and I owe then a huge debt of gratitude. Thanks to Canoe & Kayak Lyon and World Champion, Quentin Bonnetain for the equipment we borrowed to race. And finally, thanks to the international paddling community that opened their arms and welcomed us to come play with them in this incredible location.