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A Race for Everybody: Festival des Templiers

runner festival templiers
Image: Alexis Berg

Every year 13,000 runners gather in the small town of Millau to participate in Festival des Templiers. Odile Baudrier and Gilles Bertrand are the couple behind one the most historical races in France and Europe. Since 1995, the event is a family business that pushed forward the sport and that doesn't need any introductions. We interviewed Odile and talked about her past, how the race started and became what it is today amd much more.

The first edition of the race was in 1995. Looking back to 30 years ago when Gilles and you started the race, how did the race evolve?

The event is much bigger because when we started in 1995, it was only 500 runners, and now we are 11,000. At the start, we only had one race, Grand Trail des Templiers, that at the time was called Course des Templiers and it wasn’t that well-known in Europe. Now, the event is well known in France, in Europe and around the world. We have bigger partners and sponsors.

Looking at the number of participants during the years, in 2013 there were 8,000 runners and 4 years later 13,000. What happened in that period?

The progression was very slow at the beginning because we limited the number of participants. Then, we decided to move the start line from Nant to Millau, the town where we live, to accommodate more runners and to extend to event to three days, from Friday to Sunday. Anyway, for each race we kept a maximum quota of runners allowed. Right now, we are at maximum capacity with 11,000 runners. For example, Grand Trail des Templiers has 2,500 runners but we have the same number of runners on the waiting list. So, we could organize a second Grand Trail des Templiers, but we don’t want to. For other races, we keep lower quotas to ensure the best experience for runners.

Templiers is known for its many races, but it wasn’t like this at the start. How did the races happen? Was this your intention from the beginning?

At the start it was only one race, the Course des Templiers 65k that then became 80k. But as a woman who runs a little, I noticed that we didn’t have many women in the race because it was long. In 1999, we started a shorter race for them, just 8k. In this way, they can come with their partners and have a good weekend of running. Then, through the years we started to add more distances to cover the needs of more people. Everyone can choose their distance.

We also got some complaints because people believe that trail running must be difficult and long. We have another approach. We believe that running is good for everybody. It is better to run a shorter race than not running at all. In a few years, these people can go from not running to running longer races. We don’t like people who are mere spectators. We want them to be runners. We have practised inclusion for a very long time.

gilles bertrand odile baudrier jim wamsley festival templierrs
Gilles and Odile at the finish line with the Hoka team in 2022. Image: Cyrille Quintard

How did the first edition of Templiers happen?

Bertrand, my husband, and I were journalists for a running magazine we created in 1989, VO2 Magazine. We went to the US to cover Western States and Leadville. There, we discovered trail running. In France and in Europe, running was very codified because it was strictly measured with a fixed number of aid stations. For example, in a marathon, you have aid stations every five kilometres. At Leadville, we saw the runners who started in the mountains alone with only their food. The aid stations were only every 20 kilometres. It was fantastic to see how free and engaged they were.

Then, we came back and thought we could do something similar here. We are in a beautiful natural environment in an area not very populated, just small villages. So, it was like Leadville in that sense. In 1995 we decided to create the race because we wanted to help an orphanage caritative association active in Africa. The race was the vehicle to do it.

Almost 30 years after, do you feel you achieved what you wanted back then?

It's much bigger because when we started, we were surprised to welcome 500 runners. We set it up in less than 6 months. The year after, it was already bigger. We were surprised. We didn’t have a business plan. We wanted to do it for free. Nobody was paid. For this reason, we feel we achieved something way bigger than we thought. We are always impressed when we travel around the world and people recognize our race. Everywhere, somebody knows the Templiers, has run it or wants to run it.

start line festival des templiers
Runners at the start line. Image: Cyrille Quintard

Looking at the participant's field, the number of internationals is low. 90% of runners are from France. What is the reason for this?

It's complicated because as you know, now there is a negative sentiment about airline travel. For example, in France, there is a big movement against carbon emissions. So, we don’t want to clash with that movement. We have runners coming from around the world, but our objective is to get people from Europe. You can come by train, you can come by car or eventually by plane. Another topic is accommodation. There are not many options in the area. Elite athletes are important too. Sometimes they come just for the race, or they are in Europe for a longer period because they live in the US or South Africa.

Where does the event fit into the local community?

For the towns is the biggest event and even further for Occitanie. It is important both for economic and social reasons. Runners travelling to the region need to sleep somewhere so they bring money. From a social point of view, we employ around 1,000 volunteers. People want to participate in the event, so it is not hard to find them.

runner festival des templiers
Image: Cyrille Quintard

A few years ago, you proposed a project of creating a Running Centre in the region, but it never became a reality. Is this something still in your mind?

It is tricky. We would like to create a centre for training for French athletes. We want to do it for the sport, not for us. But in the end, the organization of Templiers keeps us busy and we don’t have time for a big project like this one, right now.

In a previous interview from 2015, you mentioned that you were looking to sell the race and years later you are still here. What made you change your mind?

We created the race with our children, Kevin and Anais. Kevin was the first volunteer when he was 10 and Anais was just born at the time. Now, they work with us, and we decided to remain a family business. We received some offers from UTMB to sell our race, but we turned them down because it wasn’t our spirit. We think that the UTMB Series is an interesting project and generates a lot of mediatic interest around trail running. In France, newspapers talk about trail running. This is good. Simply, we don’t see Templiers being part of the series. We decided to stay independent and continue to produce an event, which cares about our natural environment and values. We want to keep the Templiers family.

Looking forward, how would you like to improve the event?

We want to create the Month of Templiers with a project every week during the month before Templiers. We also wanted to integrate more of the local aspect into the event, showcasing what the region has to offer. When the runners travel here should experience the atmosphere of the local community. Lastly, we want to remain focused on the environment.


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