What could possibly convince four Parisians to spend a Sunday in Le Mans? A love of the local pâté? Unceasing support for the politician François Fillon? A passion for endurance races? Third time lucky with the guesses – but we’re not talking about motorised races here, and they are a lot shorter than 24 hours.
The town of Le Mans is also known for the cross country race that is organised there. And it was after a conversation with Max, the patisserie maker in my neighbourhood who is from Le Mans and a member of Paris Running Club, that I became interested in the idea of taking a few friends along to this mythical meet.

While both trail and road are currently experiencing runaway success, it is difficult to say the same about cross country. Cross country is a thankless discipline that brings together the best (or the worst, depending on your point of view), of races on the road or in the mountains. Intense, violent, effort like in a 10km, but on rugged terrain, and with sharp kickers and logs to make things tougher. Many people are repelled by the sport at the youngest age, traumatised by the cross country races organised by their primary school in the local park. The cold, the mud, the humiliation inflicted during a PE lesson – it’s easy to see why some never want to come back.

Gathering 15,000 people in the Epau Wood for the Cross Ouest France (West France Cross Country) therefore is something of a success. Also known as the Cross du Mans, it has been, since its creation in 1981, a festival for the community and the sport, with an atmosphere and a mix of people that only happen in running. In the chill air of early morning, hardened competitors in lightweight running gear come to retrieve their race numbers, pass by the *charcuterie* stand (with rillettes – the local pâté – of course, since this is the Sarthe region), and sharpen their spikes on the back of a truck.

All race entries at the Cross du Mans are free of charge – a rarity in the world of running where everything is becoming more and more expensive. From the “Canicross” (running with your dog) to the elite race, you only have to present a medical certificate, and have either the requisite guts or foolhardiness, to line up at the event of your choice.

After two hours in the car from Paris, we got ourselves ready to run in the 2018 edition of the largest cross country in France; and though the weak sun did little to lift the cold, the conditions were pretty good – disappointing for the purists who cannot imagine a real cross country race without mud and slip-slides. It was on good, if greasy, ground, then, that we began, at 10AM, our first and only cross country race of the year – the short course, which would be quite enough. After general clapping in the crowd, the stated 4.6km were extended to 5.4km of Suffering.

A sprint start, and the rest of the race through gritted teeth. Not even 20 minutes of stressful, more-than-sustained effort, but demanding enough to make you want to throw up your breakfast at the end of the final straight.

But that didn’t matter – since we’d finished in the top 30, we were invited to lunch together while admiring the As taking on the long race. Job done.

With stars looking on, including local hero and marathon grand fromage Dominique Chauvelier, and the two-time Olympic steeplechase silver medallist Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, the cream of French and international cross country-men and -women battled it out over a longer, more vicious course.

From our roost above the most leg-breaking climb we had prime view from which to admire the efficient strides of the Ethiopians and watch Hawi Feysa in the women’s race, and Aweke Ayalew in the mens, as they almost strolled to victory.

Light, graceful ditch jumps, powerful kicks and an infernal cadence on the uphills were enough for the east Africans to beat the best of French cross country by a good length.

Sophie Duarte and James Theury were the top French woman and man, finishing top 10 in their respective races.

The grimaces and the drawn features on their faces told us we’d done well not to upgrade from the short distance. Confetti at the finish line, a last-gasp fight for third place in the men’s race and the last encouragements for the courageous stragglers, and it was already time to go home, to shower and wash off the mud stuck to our calves.

Join Strava for Free:

By signing up for Strava, you agree to the Terms of Service. View our Privacy Policy.