EUrunner - Calanques 2017
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Calanques, France: January 2017

I usually plan my runs so that they take place before or after a business trip, and this one was no exception. I had to participate in a meeting taking place in Paris on Monday. I decided to take one day off on Friday, which together with the weekend provided me with three days in a row. And since it is usually freezing cold in central France in the middle of January, I had the urge to soak in some sunlight in the Mediterranean. I want to stress that I already knew Cassis from past experience. That is precisely why I decided to go there, because I knew this was a great place for running.

Running through Cassis port

I arrived on Friday afternoon. I didn't want to run too long after sunset, even though I had packed a head torch, hence on that day I was limited to a mere two-hour run. For such a short period of time, it seemed to be reasonable to just climb up to the summit of a hill rising to the east of the town. It was right in the opposite direction to where most of the people in the area tend to go. However, I had never been up there before and I wanted to explore the area. I'm glad to say it was a nice afternoon run. I ran approximately 16 km in rocky terrain. I spotted some caves and some pretty climbing areas. As I was returning, I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the sunset over the sea. This initial run gave me at least an idea of what to expect on the following day.

My “real” run took place on Saturday. At half past nine I was ready, having almost eight and a half hours of daylight to enjoy. I planned my route so as to view all the so-called Calanques, steep-walled inlets along the coast, and then to get back using the straightest path to Cassis. As it turned out later, it was not the most appropriate way, but I will get to that later. For the first two hours or so I was just enjoying the run. It was pleasantly warm, about 12 degrees Celsius, the sun was shining, and as soon as the town was behind me, the scenery became simply beautiful. An inexpressibly blue sea was hemmed by bleached limestone bluffs. Here and there sprouted a tiny evergreen tree or even a blossoming bush. Several times I lost my way and had to turn back, but I didn't care because I had plenty of time.

trail above Port Miou calanque

After two hours I reached the most photogenic Calanque - “En Vau”. I stopped for a while, allowed myself a snack, and took some pictures of the breathtaking view. From En Vau my Garmin led me up to the ridge to the left side of the canyon. At first sight, it had seemed there was a clearly defined path up there, but the higher I climbed, the less the path became obvious. Finally, at the foot of a tall and narrow wall, it disappeared completely. There was now no doubt that the way which I had carefully planned unintentionally involved a bit of real climbing. I tried to scramble a few meters upwards, only to realize that without climbing shoes I was unable to proceed. I gave it up and descended to the bottom of the canyon again in order to follow a marked hiking path.

This whole up and down detour took me approximately one hour. I had to climb up again to cross a peak separating the Calanques from each other. This time I took a well-marked trail, and after an initial steep ascent the trail leveled. The view again became simply astonishing. I was high enough to overlook a large portion of the coast. At one moment I crossed a ridge and even had the opportunity to behold the entire city of Marseille. The path was not too technical, mostly consisting of crushed stones and gravel, so this section was quite pleasant to run through. Towards the end the path began descending to Calanque Sormiou. According to Google Maps there was supposed to be a restaurant there, so I expected that at the least, I would be allowed to refill my water canteens when I got there.

Calanques running

And once again, I lost my way, this time when descending to the inlet. The path gradually disappeared into a crushed-stone carpet. I didn't want to climb up again and besides I saw the small village of Sormiou below, so I enjoyed myself by sliding downhill in the loose gravel. Every now and then I had to pour little stones out of my shoes, but otherwise the descent was lots of fun. Once near the village houses, I had to break through a stretch of bushes (and even by the end of the day, I wasn't able to pull all the tiny thorns out of my hip), but I had made it. I was surprised to see that the village was empty. I mean completely empty, I did not see any living creature at all. There were some cars in a parking lot next to the port, but not a single person.

Now this was the situation: I had been running for almost five hours, which was one and a half hours more than I had estimated. Thus far I had tracked approximately 26 kilometers, and the pace was rather slow. I had about one liter of water left (having started with three liters of water), but there was still approximately the same distance ahead of me, and I knew that with increasing distance I usually drink more than at the beginning of a run. So I had enough water for about two hours of running, maybe a little more. At that moment I decided to run straight to Marseille, because I would not make it back to Cassis.

However, a few moments later I spotted a man coming out of one of the houses. I asked him if there was a restaurant nearby. He replied that indeed there was a restaurant next to the marina, but that it was closed. My heart sank. Then he told me he was visiting his friend and in fact they were the only two people staying in the village at that time. He also offered to ask his friend if she could give me some water. We walked to the house and the woman filled one of my canteens with sparkling water and the other one with ice tea. She explained that during the winter season there is no drinking water available from the taps at all, yet she was generous enough to share her personal supplies with me. Thank you, kind lady!

Running in the Calanque Sormiou

Having enough liquids, I rethought my decision to go to Marseille and started to run towards Cassis again. In any case, from the sea level there was only one direction in which to run – upwards. Even though I took a different route than on my way down, I could not avoid crushed stone. Honestly, this was probably the worst part of the entire run. Not only could I not run properly at all, but it was almost impossible to even walk up the slope. It took ages to attain the ridge. With each step, I slid at least a half-step back again. Every now and then I had to use both hands just to advance further. When I finally scrambled up to the top, I was completely exhausted, which was probably the cause of my next mistake. As soon as I scanned the next inlet far below me, Calanque de Morgiou, I decided to avoid having to descend and then climb up again. I took a detour, which was more than four times longer than the direct line through the Calanque. Need I say it? In the end I didn't avoid descending and climbing again.

The rest of the run was decidedly less exhilarating than the beginning. I was worried whether my supply of liquids would be sufficient. And even though exhausted, I was gradually increasing pace on the way back to make sure I would make it to some solid surface before dusk. In short, I drank my last droplet of water about twenty minutes from Cassis. By that time it was already dark, but I made it there just soon enough to avoid stumbling over loose stones in the darkness. In all, the run was 10 kilometers longer and took me 3 hours more than I initially expected. I ran almost 50 kilometers with a little less than 3 km elevation gain in almost nine hours. Yet despite the ordeal at the end, this run was one of my best ever.

For Sunday I had planned to run another thirty or so kilometers, but finally I decided to go to Marseille to see some of the sights instead. In the gallery you will find a few pictures from that trip.

start - finish distance climb / descent duration difficulty route.gpx rating
day #1 Cassis - loop 16.69 km 780m / 780m 2:15 30% download ★★★★
day #2 Cassis - loop 47.72 km 2630m / 2639m 9:00 70% download ★★★★★