The Monte Cristo ChallengeThe romantic inspiration for Marseille's annual Défi de Monte Cristo (Monte Cristo Challenge) is, as the name hints, Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.

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Its hero, Edmond Dantès, escapes from the impregnable Château d'If - where he has been unjustly sentenced to life imprisonment - by swimming to freedom.

Hundreds of swimmers flock to Marseille every year to pay homage to him in an annual swimming race from the island-fortress to the shore. Created in 1999, it has become one of the most important sea swimming events in the annual calendar. The dates for the 2014 Monte Cristo Challenge were 21 and 22 June.

However, the race doesn't replicate the exact conditions of Dantès' swim in the book. He makes for the islands of Tiboulen and Maïre - having first struggled his way out of a body bag (you'll have to read The Count of Monte Cristo to find out just why).

Thankfully, contestants in the Monte Cristo Challenge aren't required to perform the same feat.

The route, too, is different from that in the novel. It begins on the northern shore of the If island, goes towards the Soudaras lighthouse and continues towards Endoume point.

It then passes for 300 metres / 328 yards along the Corniche JF Kennedy, in front of the Anse de la Fausse Monnaie and La Plage du Prophète.

Map of the route for the Monte Cristo ChallengeThe race ends at the Plage du Grand Roucas Blanc in the Prado beach park just south of Marseille, which is probably the best spot to watch the race as a spectator.

The race is five km / three miles long, but there are shorter races too throughout the weekend. A purse of 3,000 €uros awaits the male and female winners of the main race and each entrant gets a souvenir T-shirt.

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How to Enter the Monte Cristo Challenge

You can enrol for the race in early February on the Monte Cristo Challenge website (the form can be downloaded on the site). You can swim either with or without flippers: until recently there was a single race with a handicap for flipper-wearers but now, in order to accommodate more swimmers, the Challenge consists of two separate races.

Alexandre Dumas pereStill, it's highly advisable not to delay, as places are very limited and in the past these have been snapped up quickly. In fact such was the demand in 2014 that the website crashed, forcing the organisers to extend the enrolment period. And even so, all the spots were subscribed to within a few hours.

Taking up the Monte Cristo Challenge costs 35€; the shorter races are cheaper and are limited to 300 entrants. The Junior Challenge, open to swimmers aged 12-15, is free.

This being France, all contestants must be in possession of a recent medical certificate attesting to their fitness. 

In 2014 the two winners were Laurent Sanchez from Vitrolles (with flippers) and Vivien Fraysse from Montpellier (without flippers). Sadly in 2013 the Monte Cristo Challenge had to be cancelled because of very high winds. 

Find further reading and viewing on Amazon

The Count of Monte Cristo image!by Alexandre Dumas père, pictured.

The Count of Monte Cristo (films) image!

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