The striders of Gois

There are all there, our 29 runners, on the starting line. Look at them well. And I can tell you that it is only a matter of seconds now. Be careful, they are about to start. Be careful, they’re off! Let’s cheer them on, everyone cheer them on! Let’s applaud every one of them! There they are! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Now there they are, they are going into the water, look the leaders, already in the water, already in the water. Ah, I can tell you that they went off at full speed. Oh they are going quickly, Michel, they are going quickly!

The island of Noirmoutier in the west of France has a very special geographical characteristic. At high tide, it is a real island, separated from the mainland by the Atlantic Ocean. It is necessary to do four kilometers by boat to land on the Pays de la Loire [1], at Beauvoir-sur-mer. But when the tide is low you can see appearing amidst the waves, a paved way: the road to Gois.

Gois is in fact a natural track joining the mainland and the island of Noirmoutier and starting there we have a submerged road which gets covered by the tide.

Starting with this special geographical feature, Jo Cesbron and his “Friends of Gois” thought up “The Striders of Gois”, an athletic competition which is perhaps unique in the world: it takes place on a rising tide.

It is man against the sea. There are athletes, they are… it is limited to thirty for safety reasons, to thirty high class athletes who are internationals. They must absolutely cross on a rising tide, that is they are going to beat the sea which is coming in.

Look at the speed at which Patrick Samba started. What a lead, what a lead! Oh Michel, it’s a furious pace. Look, well, well, well. He is 60 metres in the lead now. What ease, what ease. He has such style, such style!

Yes it is great to watch these athletes in amazing physical condition who are running in the ocean, in waves up to their knees, while the sun is setting on the horizon. It is a test which rewards thase who take the lead early: those in the lead have fewer waves to deal with:

They are coming in very, very quickly and there are two runners competing with one another, if you wish, they are coming in at right angles to one another on the way and that makes part of the difficulty of the race.

But there are also special ways of running in water. Frederic de Smet is a specialist in these:

The best runners tell you, you must be supple, relax the shoulders and work very relaxed at the level of the legs, but lift the knees however correctly, and stab, stab the foot into the water and don’t stamp them down. Because when you stamp them in the water your leg comes out, when you stab, it is like a knife that you stab into the water. It makes all the difference. You have to run a bit like are on your toes.

In earlier times, the road to Gois was an umbilical cord for the 8500 residents of Noirmoutier. The construction of a bridge between the island and the mainland in 1971 stole its economic importance and so it is to keep the memory of this historic road and to have a good reason to maintain it in service that the “Striders of Gois” was started in 1987.

About twenty years ago, the bridge was built to link the island of Noirmoutier to the mainland. That… let’s say that unique road in the world, quite remarkable, it was a bit neglected and no one was bothered about it, so it’s a… it’s… as you can see, it is fabulous!

Today the race has become a big event in the calendar for the region, with 20,000 spectators. For the residents, it is a time to remember when you absolutely had not drag your heels when you were going home…

Well there were always some who stayed here, there was no problem!
If the people were mistaken about the time, well…
Carts, there were carts…
There was a gentleman in 60…
yes, who stayed…
who was drowned because coincidently when he got here…
it was out.
You see, it was out, and so he went right ahead and as the sea was coming in, well, he was drowned. He got off his horse, they recovered his horse, and him, they found him six months later.
Yes, that is sure that… but well, that’s fine, that’s folklore!

During the Second World War, the geographical assets of Noirmoutier did not escape the occupying Germans who made it a luxury rest place for their officers:

Well, there were not unhappy, the Germans here.
They were fine. they were quiet. There was no one who could surprise them.
Oh no, oh yes, the Germans, they stayed all of the war. They left in ’45.
Ah yes, I remember when they left. There were some all along the Gois. We watched them leaving. We were happy to see them going. We were, I was twelve years old. I was twelve when they went.
When they went, they went in carts, in ’45.
Well, they had taken everything from the people, the horses, the carts, the bicycles, the lot. They had not borrowed everything, but they had… requisitioned everything. That’s for sure.
Saying that, there were a lot of ranks here who used to come to have a rest. Well, they used to come to recover when they had been to the front. They used to come afterwards to rest. So well… no I do not have any bad memories, because, well I was girl.

As for the bridge, it is with ambivalence that they welcome its convenience, even if they recognize that the time of the road was not always rosy:

There were times, when someone was ill, well they had to wait till the Gois was open to cross. Otherwise there was a little boat which used to cross between Fromentine, and La Fosse, but that was all. But the bridge, of course, it’s good, for sure now… but it’s not so good now I think, it is no longer an island, you see.
Oh but it is, I think that we remained an island, I know that I stayed on an island however.
– Ah yes, but well… it’s no longer the same… when you are from a place, when we were far…
– But, in the end, it is annoying, especially for sick people, things like that. It wasn’t only for someone bedridden that it wasn’t good. Personally I said that it is safer having the bridge.

Coming back to the race of 2004 where we have three big favourites, Jean-Michel Coutant with his two victories, winner of last year’s race, a local from the area and so the darling of the crowd; Omar Bekkali of Morocco and Frederic De Smet from Belgium also, two victories. When the athletes are coming out of the water and arriving at the finishing line, De Smet and Bekkali are in the lead:

It is going to finish in a sprint, De Smet and Bekkali for the final prize, ah who is going to get it? So Frederic De Smet is of course a runner in the 1500 [metres].

Michel, Frederic De Smet is off. Oh he’s off; he’s off for this third win.
Oh Bekkali looks like giving up behind.

Frederic De Smet for the third time, Frederic De Smet, go on Frederic, win! There you are, Frederic De Smet.

De Smet is the happy winner:

For me, it is one of my best wins today, because it was necessary to run with something to spare, not going off too spirited at the start but overtaking people one at a time, watching the path, paying attention to right and left for the waves and so on, and that worked perfectly, I really looked for a way to run easily.

The good lead of Patrick Samba at the beginning of the race didn’t frighten him:

I have experience too; here at Gois the leads can be big but they reduce and when you have not done half of the Gois, there is still everything to go for, and today that was the case, at the time when the gap was closed, it was before the halfway mark, so it was then that I switched on the turbo, and I said good, this is it, it is now that I make an effort.

To the great disappointment of his supporters, Coutant was only able to come in fifth. But he blames bad luck, and shows good spirit to the day’s champion:

For me, I would say that there was not enough water, it was… we went off with very little water and well with the big names of the athletes that there were in a very, very, very fast race, I had to wait quite a long time till there was enough water so that I could use my power and then my strong points so that I could win as usual in this race. And it is true that when there was much more water I was able to move up… I must have been twelfth, thirteenth, I was able to move up to third place. And then when we started to come out of the water, I was squeezed out a bit on the path and I ran on the rocks and so I must have put my had on the ground to be able to get myself going again and then the fourth went past me and I was able to get off again behind him but I never succeeded in passing ahead and the after that on the dry land and well there was someone who came from behind then… But well, very happy… My objective was… I said to myself, well if I am in the first five, I’ll be happy, three, very good, and then of course, victory, we run it for that, so… but next year, that’s fine, I’ll put it behind me over a year and then hopefully there will be, there will be a lot more water. But I am very happy for Frederic, I was following that from afar, I was coming, I was coming but I know that on the dry land after that I said fine, Frederic ought to enjoy the end and well I’m very happy for him.

[1] Pays de la Loire – one of the 22 regions of France. It covers the departments of Vendee, Loire-Atlantique, Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, and Sarthe.

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