Run for the Border: The Quebec Marathon
by Frank Mungeam
Jim Spain was just looking for an early-fall marathon to qualify for Boston. It was August, 1998 and Quebec City was about to host its first-ever marathon. Spain knew Quebec was a French-speaking province, and he didn't know the language. "I planned to go up, do the race, not speak to anyone and just come back," he admits. "I've been going back ever since!"
Spain, who lives in Columbus, Ohio and is a veteran of 43 marathons, was won over by the city and its people. "There is lots of crowd support in the small French towns along the route," he says. "You're not sure what they're saying, but it all sounds quite pleasant!"
For Tina and Michael Pratico of Falmouth, Maine, a trip to Quebec was a chance to blend fitness and fun in a single celebration. "It was our 12th anniversary weekend," explains Tina. "My husband likes to combine vacations with races. He's more of a runner, so he did the half-marathon and I did the 10K."
Tina enjoyed the run, and loved the host city. "Quebec is spectacular," she says. "You can't find another city in North America with that much culture."
Twice the size of Texas, Quebec is Canada's largest province. Founded in 1608, Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in the New World. Host to one of Canada's best known annual marathons, it also gives Americans who enjoy fitness travel ample reason to make a run for the border. On top of that, Quebec's four centuries of French and English history and architecture produce an old-world atmosphere that takes you back in time without the risk, time and expense of overseas travel. Plus, those U.S. dollars buy more up north, thanks to favorable exchange rates.
History Under Foot
Quebec is a city meant to be savored on foot. Tina and Michael Pratico went for a long walk through the Plains of Abraham, once the site of great battles between the English and French, now a park and memorial. Known officially as Battlefield Park, the Plains offer 10 kilometers of walking and jogging paths.
In Old Quebec, restaurants and shops line narrow streets, beckoning visitors. The marathon concludes here, in the shadows of the massive and mesmerizing historic hotel Chateau Frontenac.
High above the St. Lawrence River looms the largest fortification in North America, La Citadelle. Also known as the "Gibraltar of America," La Citadelle is an imposing walled fortress. Enclosing 37 acres, the structure is more than 150 years old and took 30 years to complete.
More discoveries await those who follow the St. Lawrence as it winds north and east of Quebec City. Seven miles away, the Montmorency Falls cascade 272 feet down to the river below. Tourists may ride the cable car, but fit travelers enjoy hiking 487 steps to the Manoir Montmorency. At the top, you're rewarded with a delicious dinner and an even more delightful view from the top of the falls, nearly 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls.
Further north and east is the basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupr. Built in 1658, it's the oldest pilgrimage site in North America and known for miracles reportedly performed there. If your chances for a Boston-qualifying time are slim, you may want to pay a visit before the marathon. On a side trip to the basilica, marathoner Rich Shiptoski swears he spied abandoned crutches outside the church!
In between these two historic sights is a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated entirely to honeybees, the Musee de l'Abeille. Shiptoski happened upon it on his way to the basilica and stopped by. "They make wine with honey," he discovered. "The wine and candy are both wonderful!"
Marathon participants ride a ferry to reach the starting line. From there, the race weaves the city's roots and history within its route, following the St. Lawrence away from and then back toward town. Midway through, runners cross the Pont du Quebec, the world's largest cantilevered bridge. All Quebec Marathon events (marathon, half-marathon and 10K) finish in the heart of Old Quebec.
For Tina Pratico, a casual runner, the finish area was thrilling. "Running in, with a crowd of people cheering, the St. Lawrence River below and the Chateau Frontenac above - it's a great race for people of all running levels."
Dash and Dine
Runners need to refuel after a big race. Of course, they also need to carbo-load in advance. Heck, runners just like to eat! Shiptoski came all the way from Shickshinny, Pennsylvania for the race, but left raving about the food. "It was a good place to run, but a great place to eat!" he remembers. "Everything was fantastic, no matter what you ordered." Rich's favorite discovery? "Sugar Cream Pie!" he says. "I went to the supermarket and bought five to bring back. I have one in my freezer right now."
The Praticos had no problem celebrating their anniversary in style. "We had great meals," says Tina. "In old Quebec, we found tons of different types of food, along with very traditional French cuisine. We ate at a wonderful little Italian restaurant whose owner was from Italy."
Shiptoski's trip cost him much less than he expected. He felt as though he'd enjoyed an overseas vacation for a weekend getaway price. "It feels like you're in France," he says. "It's very European, different from the USA and even from other parts of Canada."
One reason, of course, is that French is the primary language for 95% of the local population. Spain always tried to use his minimal French. "The first question they'd ask me is, 'Where are you from?' It must be part of their forgiving nature - upon hearing I was from the States, they seemed to have no trouble switching to English," he says. "People appreciate that you make the effort to communicate, and then they meet you half way."
Spain looks forward to returning again for another Quebec Marathon. "It's like people who play golf and have their favorite courses," he explains. "The marathon has its special qualities - and, more than that, it's the whole experience of a place so old that it feels like a faraway country, yet it's surprisingly close to our own back yard."
Running in Quebec
The Plains of Abraham: 10 kilometers of jogging trails on a former battlefield
St. Lawrence River: Multi-use trail, with great views, starting at the Old Port
St. Charles River: Through downtown Quebec for an urban tour
Trans Canada Trail: Set in the backcountry, part of a vast trail system that spans the Canadian Provinces
Sights to See
Plains of Abraham
Parc de la Chute-Montmorency (Falls)
For more information
"Please" and "thank you" are the magic words in any language. Since French is the official language of Quebec, try these phrases first, and bilingual Canadians will appreciate your effort and come to the rescue.
S'il vous plait? (see vooh PLAY) Please
Merci (Mare - SEE) Thank you
Bonjour (Bone-JHOOR) Hello
Excusez-moi (Ex-CUE-say-MWAH) Pardon me
And remember, the city is pronounced "Keh-BECK" not "Qweh-BECK."