Two weeks ago, I did a 19km (11.9mi) trail race as a training run—the Trail des Forts de Besançon. The
name of the race is a cute play on words, as “fort” in French means both the adjective “strong” and the noun “fort.” Besançon is known for its citadel (la Citadelle), a historic fort overlooking the city. The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is now home to a zoo and several museums. We ran through the fort in the last couple miles of the race, and the view was lovely (though the stairs not as much haha)
The event actually offers 4 distances: the 10km, 19km, 28km, and 48km. There’s also a 48km two-leg relay and the 10km is also offered as an untimed hike. The 10km races were held on Saturday this year, and the others on Sunday. The 19km the historically the largest race, with 1700 participants this year (2000 registered).
I initially wanted to do the 28km (17.5mi), but I came down with food poisoning the week before (I had the nastiest fish in Montenegro, and I also ate some unrefrigerated leftovers…). I don’t think I’ve ever felt so awful in my life—and I’ve had pneumonia before too. The fever, nausea, and diarrhea kept me out of commission for a few days, so I figured I’d better run a shorter race.
Here’s what I thought about the event:
Packet pickup / Swag:
Packet pickup and the start line were at La Friche Artistique de la Rodia on the outskirts of Besançon. You had to bring your confirmation email with your QR code, an ID, and your medical certificate (if not already uploaded online and approved). Pickup itself was quick—I arrived Saturday afternoon and there was no line. There were a handful of vendors, most notably sponsor Hoka One One, Tiger Balm (the French are obsessed with it haha), and a local cheese stand.
Race entry came with a shirt that was nice quality, but the women’s small was a little tight in the shoulders when most smalls fit me fine. Be sure to try the shirts on before you take them home.
All races get the same medal, which was super stylish this year. Both the shirt and the medal were much nicer than those of the Paris Marathon, which is way more expensive than this local race.
There was some conflicting information about the course—the online description listed 700m elevation gain, but the maps at packet pickup said there was only 500m of gain. I joked to my friend that there was maybe 600m, right in-between the two. I wasn’t too far off—according to my Garmin, there was actually 580m (1900ft) of gain.
I found the first 7-8km of the course the most challenging, as that’s where we saw the largest hills. I actually sped up throughout the race because of my slower start—I walked all hills, so the first half took more time.
Unfortunately, there were also several traffic jams in the first 10km since the trail was too tight, only allowing room for one person. We had a staggered start with 4+ waves, but they weren’t super effective—the waves weren’t based on expected finish time and were also only a few minutes apart. It would be helpful if future editions spread the waves out and organized them by expected pace.
Another bummer was that it had rained the day before—so it was mud galore (they did have a special station to wash your shoes at the finish, though). The mud wasn’t too much of an obstacle except at a steep downhill around kilometer 12.
Overall, the terrain wasn’t too technical, but there were a lot of roots and rocks embedded in the dirt. There was also about 3km (2mi) of pavement over the course of the race, mostly near the start and finish. We did have to traverse several flights of stairs at the Citadelle, though most of them were going down.
There were two fuel stations during the race—one around 7km and the other around 15km. Each station
had orange slices, bananas, pain d’épices (gingerbread), chocolate, cookies, pretzels, crackers, peanuts, water, and soda.
The finish line had similar fare, but also cheese cubes, cheese and meat sandwiches, and beer (you got one for free as a finisher).
Tips + Summary:
- The elevation gain estimates can be inaccurate by over 100m. The 19km had 120m less of gain than advertised online and 80m more than listed on course maps.
- There might be some traffic jams due to the narrow trails, so get to the start line at least 30 minutes early if you want to run fast.
- Try on the race shirt before taking it home; the sizes might run small in the shoulders.
Overall, I’d recommend this trail race, especially as a training run. The views are lovely, the course is a good challenge, and the event is well-organized. If you want to race your event, try to get into the front of the starting corral. The friend who did the race with me was irked that he had to stop so much in the first 10km because of the trail traffic. I was a little annoyed, but didn’t mind as much since it was a chance to catch my breath haha.
In any case, Besançon is a charming city, and I’d definitely recommend visiting–whether for the race or just for fun. If you do this race, consider adding an extra day or staying the afternoon to explore and loosen up your sore legs (just remember that a lot of shops are closed on Sunday, the day of the 19km, 28km, and 48km).
If you also want to get a preview of the course, the event organizers often hold a couple runs (one in February and one in March) to let you explore sections of the trails. These events are free and are listed on the website (I didn’t go, but I would’ve had I known about them sooner).