Isabelle Dufour's RacingThePlanet: Georgia 2021 Race Report


Female champion Isabelle Dufour, from France, takes us through a culturally immersive account of her incredible experience of Georgia 2021.

Arrival at Camp

Here I am landing in Georgia, the former USSR, not that of the USA, sneakers on. Gamarjobat! Good morning! I'm spending the trip during the Covid period...

RacingThePlanet is organizing a 250km in stages there, which I am looking forward to. On the program, 6 days of racing, 4 x 40km, 80km, 10 small km to conclude and 5700m of vertical drop on the program, in the Little Caucasus where the peaks reach 3000m. It’s tantalizing! In fact, the region is called Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ah Ah! Excellent introduction to the pronunciation of Georgian.

Tbilisi, the capital, welcomes me 3 days before joining the race, enough to discover the area and local habits. I joined the troop on August 13 at the hotel in the early afternoon, it's a reunion atmosphere among the runners.

The organization is a little different from normal, we immediately embark for Camp 1 by bus, one person per row. 2 hours later we are in the Algeti National Park, and a small climb on foot later, we discover the camp, located at 1600m altitude, near the small lake of Gokhnaris, overlooking the valley. It's going to be cool tonight.

Arrival at Camp

We spend the whole day the next day at the camp, and we have free time in the morning. I'm going for a walk at the lake. There are plenty of birds, some of which run on the mats of aquatic plants. Unfortunately, I don't know them. There are also a lot of mushrooms that I would like to taste, young puffballs and small rosés of the meadows. A herd of cows led by their cowboys comes to drink. The kids have fun making their horse rear.

Georgian horse rider

Stage 1

After a good night's sleep on a cozy mattress and a good breakfast of local cheese muffins, the last meal before going “light” is the start for 38km. You just have to follow the little pink flags planted in the ground to find your way. I go in 1 ° line, avoiding as much as possible the points of the poles of the others. Really, I hate sticks. We start by going around the plateau slightly uphill.

Wearing a mask on Stage 1

We pass near a beautiful little chapel located at the top of the hill, before plunging into the valley. The descent crosses the mountain pastures, in the tall grass strewn with thistles which sting strongly. CP1 is in the valley, I don't stop there. I will do the same for all CP1s. We are not going to take it easy after 10km and I have enough water.

We start to go up the river, very slowly. I cross a few hamlets of stone houses. I pass a few people: a couple of hikers, a cart in branches pulled by a horse which trots briskly, a rider followed by a foal who is also gamboling briskly, another rider with a large gun. I give them a happy gamarjobat, people always like being spoken to in their language. However, the conversation ends there.

There are a few shepherds with their sheep and big dogs, and even a young boy who keeps a flock of turkeys. Before going down to the next valley, where I arrive in a village. Marc the German is stopped in the middle of the road. What's happening to him? He is waiting for me because he is afraid to walk alone in front of a big dog who barks loudly! Of course, local dogs do not have a good reputation for sympathy. They are sheepdogs and they guard their territory from intruders. I'm not scared at all, and we continue without a hitch.

The path winds through the fields along the river. I find Marc and Kim the Spaniard. Then I see the flags of the camp in front of me. Before reaching it, I have to cross the river again before a last small hill and pass in front of the drum which marks each arrival.

Banging a drum

I finish this 1st stage in 5:25, I am 9th in the general classification. I just have to harass Malo every night to follow the results.

The camp is on the edge of the village of Livadi, at an altitude of 1500m. The kids come to see us. In any case, I take advantage of the adjacent river for a chilly swim, but oh so invigorating, especially without the possibility of a shower.

Stage 2

We start the day well, we have to cross the river again, at the same place as yesterday. I want to keep my feet dry as long as possible. So I take the trouble to take off my shoes. I find myself in the mud. I feel like everyone walks past me as I get out of this quagmire and put my shoes back on. In fact it is not. Then we pass near Lake Barati.

The rest of the route is very wet. Besides, a little rain is coming, with thunderclaps in the background. I sing "I love the thunder, I love the rain" by Jackson Browne. It will be my song in every thunderstorm, which is sure to be. I avoid puddles as much as possible by zigzagging. Obviously, that slows down the pace.

I end up catching up with Marie-Paule, who is in fact the only girl in front of me, in a particularly muddy village. It goes down to CP1, which is in an abandoned building. There are many in Georgia, including in the open countryside. These are the remains of the Russian era.

An abandoned building on Stage 2

I quickly find myself in an alpine landscape, the farmers scythe hay, the shepherds watch the sheep. Too bad, a high voltage line follows me. But the villages must have electricity. The summits are rounded and approach 3000m in the corner.

Raking hay

Simone hugs me at CP3. We go a long way together. A rocket passes us, Israeli flag on the sleeve. It's Alfonso. We will meet again often. Near the Javakheti pass at an altitude of 2000m, Simone ends up passing in front. Then the camp flags appear, fluttering in the wind.

A flock of sheep on the course

The camp is on a small plateau below the summit and overlooks Tabatskuri Lake in the distance. It is very beautiful. The area is volcanic. But what a wind! At least the shoes will dry out quickly. Impossible to stay outside, we stay protected in the tent, enough to rest and chat.

At the end of the afternoon, Simone sticks her head out with each beat of the drum to watch for Sunanda's arrival. She ends up appearing at the time limit. But in what state! Exhausted, refrigerated, soaked. She collapses. We have to mother her. She will eventually capitulate and leave us for good the next morning. We are the tent of the first and the last, Sunanda is all the same the first to laugh about it.

Stage 3

We descend towards the lake, which we follow, winding between the puddles. The rain stops, an undressing operation is required. We branch off for a long climb of 600m of vertical drop over 10km after CP1. The slope of the track is not very steep, I can run easily most of the time.

I meet a flock of sheep which takes up all the space, each pushing as best he can. A particularly noisy machine tries to overtake me. It is a tractor that looks very antique, a Russian brand. He struggles with each steepening of the slope and has to stop often to gain momentum. We go a long way together. I arrive on a sort of undulating plateau, surrounded by rounded peaks at an altitude of 3000m. There are people there to mow the hay. All means are used, from the scythe through the brush cutter, to the mower pulled by a horse or by a tractor.

The ground flattens out and I arrive in the middle of the potato fields. I don't relax, I still have a long way to go before camp. I take a quick glance behind me 500m from the tents, there is no one in sight. The villagers encourage me. I cross a footbridge over the river, and that's it, it's the finish after 4:43 of effort.

camp adjoins the Armenian village of Bozhano

The camp adjoins the Armenian village of Bozhano, at an altitude of 1300m. The children visit us, and a game of soccer is improvised in the middle of the tents with the Georgians of the organization and a few runners. There are some who still have legs!

Stage 4

Departure for the 4th stage of 40km. It is announced difficult, with 1000m of vertical drop. This is perfect for me.

The climb begins quickly, at first light and then more and more steep. I find myself in the middle of the herds of cows in the pastures, always very flowery. The summer houses of the shepherds look rather precarious, covered with plastic sheeting. The children are playing outside.

The valley is approaching with great strides. I walk along several small lakes, very cute, before seeing a large village. The arrival is in the middle of the street at the level of the first houses. The site is nothing fancy. The only pleasant point is the presence of a fountain, as it is very hot. In fact it is there that I discover that it is not the planned arrival and that it has been changed for fear of stormy weather on the summits.

I barely have time to cool off when they put us in a vehicle to go to the camp, where we should have arrived on foot. We finally arrive on the shores of the large Lake Paravani, which we go around by a track that leads to the village of Tambovka, inhabited by Russians of the Dukhobor ethnic group, at an altitude of 2000m. Ah! Yes, it's cold, and I don't have dropbag # 2 handy. This is clever! Especially since we are installed in a field which has just been mown, the haystacks are there and it is very windy, we will not have a campfire for safety.

Camp is next to Lake Paravani

The site is superb, by the lake. I take the opportunity to wash myself with plenty of water, even if it curdles. Access is not so easy in large rocks. I am going to visit the village. There are a lot of ruined houses, and there are only 17 families left. The school accommodates 9 children. The roofs of the houses are curiously planted with grass. It must be a good insulator. I pass a group of mountain bikers crossing Georgia. It must be good too!

Stage 5

The next morning, the departure is given at 9 am. It's very late, but at least it's not too cold. A fisherman is at work in his small boat in front of the camp, the "port" being right next to it. It houses 2 boats pulled on the shore between the rocks.

My bag is happily lightened as the meals have been consumed since the start of the race.

Like every morning, I do the first 500m with Jane, the American. But she can't follow me any longer. She will have a good race since she will finish 3rd for her honeymoon!

We walk along the lake before climbing into the mountain. I quickly arrive at a small pass, followed by a descent to the next valley. I cut the trail whenever I can. The race photographer is enjoying it.

Isabelle on Stage 5

We go around the mountain, there is no longer a path. The small pink flags lead us straight to the pass in the middle of the mountain pastures. All that I love. There is a large scree to cross. Jumping from rock to rock, still all that I love. Besides, I do not go where the photographer expected. He calls me to go to him. Oh no, it's too high. The pass is reached shortly after, at an altitude of 2500m, overlooked by the ruins of the Abuli fortress.

I cut a river, which becomes very deep in a magnificent canyon. I run with my head turned to the left to admire it as long as possible. I walk along another, before crossing it on a very beautiful stone bridge from the 13th century, at the exit of a village. I have to cut the highway. It will be passing through a tunnel under the track, where a river flows. I meet the boys there.

beautiful stone bridge from the 13th century

We are at the end of the afternoon and it is time to go home for the geese. They fend for themselves and a small troop waddles on the road. Alfonso motioned for me to turn around. A magnificent rainbow stands out against the black mountains.

It is 7:30 p.m., it is still daylight, and a heavy rain falls on the camp just after. The tent is welcome. I put 10:22 am on this step. It is Thursday evening and now I have rest until Saturday morning. The camp is at an altitude of 1700 m and we will have dropbag n ° 2 very cold the next day.

All night long the drums will beat each time a runner arrives, which does not prevent me from sleeping. And yet at one point I no longer hear them. The last ones went by at 3 a.m., which isn't bad at all. Suddenly everyone will be entitled to a full day of relaxation.

The flag of Georgia

Rest Day

The next day I discovered the surroundings. The camp is erected next to a beautiful little church, the door of which is closed with a simple stone. A visit is essential. I take a walk in the village of Apnia, which overlooks a deep valley. Opposite in the hillside, you can see the entrances to the Vardzia troglodyte site. It is grandiose. And that will be our final goal for tomorrow. For now I will greet the pigs, chickens, horses, cows and so on, and the villagers who take care of their vegetables. As in all the villages in the area, the blue metallic prefabricated school stands out among the stone houses.

The Georgians cook up a delicious barbecue for us in no time at all: meat and vegetable skewers, katchapouris, the famous breads filled with cheese or beans, kinkhalis that I am discovering, round breads filled with meat and cooked in water, very juicy, and delicious. Watermelon and melon for dessert. Local beer and wine are flowing freely. I'll just have a beer and taste the wine, of which Georgia is a big producer.

Stage 6 – The Final Footsteps!

We are off for the last 10 km of the race. A great descent of 600m of vertical drop on a beautiful track brings us to the bottom of the valley, with a succession of hairpin bends. It must be said that the bird's eye view of the Vardzia caves is unique. I do not miss a crumb, while looking at my feet among the stones of the path.

I cross the river, on a bridge for today, and I happily tackle the short and steep final climb. I run fast, with a lot of pleasure, I am full of energy. I pass the entry barrier of the troglodyte site towards the arch of the finish line, a big smile on my lips. A huge medal greets me.

Isabelle crosses the final finish line

Now it's time for tourism, while the other runners will arrive. We have the site to ourselves, before it opens to the public. I take advantage of it. Vardzia was a cave town 1000 years ago, with all the amenities of the time. There is in particular an underground church, which is accessed by a long impressive hollowed staircase. It is lit, but I imagine it without light for the inhabitants. It is a real maze to access the entrances to the cave houses, and I find it difficult to orient myself towards the exit.

1000-year-old cave town at Vardzia

We all meet at the site restaurant near the river. It is a beautiful place for the presentation of the race rewards. Winner, I collect a large plate as a trophy and a Georgian cookbook. Something to eat! The last one also receives a cookbook, it's nice.

So I ran these 250km with 5600m of vertical drop in 34:08, I finished 9th in the general classification. I would realize after the fact that I am the oldest girl!


Read the full account of Isabelle’s experience HERE.