The pandemic has provided everyone with many learnings and experiences, both good and bad, resetting ideas and expectations. Personally, I used running in 2020 to try and remain sane and with the promise of travel restrictions lifting in 2021, I looked outside of the UK for running events. I have a preference for trail terrain so set my sights on destinations that really would challenge my own ability while in the meantime I threw my name into ballots for city marathons. My plan was to fill 2021 with many choices and backup plans in the event restrictions wouldn’t ease. As it turned out, it was a good plan and 2021 saw many events for me, some of which I’ve written up on this blog. So here I am in 2022 fuelled with the same mindset of just booking events and here’s how it started for me.
The Paris Marathon
A road marathon like no other and while I’ve only run a few city marathons it has a class all of its own. The architecture, the supporters, the percussion bands, and the cobblestone sections – oh those cobblestone sections, they’re hard on tired feet.
I was nervous in the lead-up to this one as I’d been changing my running form further to a coaching lesson at the beginning of the year. Things were going pretty well but a niggling pain in my left calf muscle wouldn’t go away but did fortunately subside. I’d been on holiday a few weeks before and quite frankly the notion of physical preparation had fallen down the pecking order of priority. Every run I do I learn something new, an experience that prepares me for the next. In 2021 I learned a lot about my ability, my approach, and my preparation. And I genuinely didn’t feel like I’d positioned myself with the best start.
Getting into the city was straightforward with an abundance of trains from the airport. I had toyed with the notion of keeping it simple and getting a taxi but the train took only 35 minutes for €10. While walking from Gare de Nord to my hotel I observed the city streets with their congestion so I think I made the right choice. An odd flurry of snow accompanied my short walk to the hotel and I hoped that’s all I would see for the weekend. The forecast suggested numbers just above freezing with a windchill scything digits off.
The next morning my alarm chimed at sunrise. I threw on my running gear and headed out the door of the hotel into a deserted city, such a huge contrast to my arrival only 10 hours previous. It was cold and after some rather rushed stretching I headed off for my pre-marathon 5km leg loosening. It wasn’t long before I reached the grounds of the Louvre. It was peaceful with a golden glow from the sun cresting the tops of buildings. Spying the Eiffel Tower in the distance I checked exactly how far away it was on my phone. Well within my ability but too for a warm-up run.
City breaks are great and typically exhausting as bouncing in and out within 72-96 hours isn’t long enough to see everything. I wanted to see more of the city I began the day with but I knew I had to reign in any ideas of sight-seeing and spending too much time on the legs. A mistake I’d made running in Berlin. I grabbed the Metro from outside my hotel directly to the Paris Marathon Expo at the Ports de Versailles leaving myself only a 10-minute walk from the other end.
The Expo was lively and packed with sponsors, trade stands, food, artwork, and pop-up stands from other countries enticing you to visit them and enter their city marathons. With my race number in hand, a commemorative backpack, and numerous freebies I departed an hour later having saved myself €360 on not buying the things I had my eye on!
There were lots of these running themed pictures along one of the walkways, two that I really liked.
I did allow myself one deviation on the return Metro to see the Eiffel Tower but I didn’t see any harm in a 20-minute walk.
As far as I was concerned I’d done enough to ready myself for the next day so after an obligatory pasta dinner, I grabbed an early night.
In a slight error of judgment, I’d not exactly planned out the distance from my accommodation to the start line. Well, there’s nothing like a brisk early morning 35-minute walk to wake the legs up. Again, a beautifully clear start to the day with low temperatures and a wind to make things more fun. The streets were quiet which meant I could easily hop from one side of the road to the other to remain in the sun.
Arriving at the Arc de Triomphe I waited with the crowds. I grabbed a few photos of the iconic architecture when the traffic subsided, watched people wishing each other good luck, and listened to the buzz and excitement of all who were gathered. The entire Champs-Elysees had been converted into one long starting grid divided up into smaller pens with expected completion times marked on each. After a while of basking in the rays, I headed off weaving my way to the starting wave gate marked 4 hours. More standing around and general shuffling continued for the next 25 minutes as the waves of people moved forward to the starting area. The energy was definitely building. There was much chatter, exercising, stretching and selfies being taken everywhere I looked. The speakers boomed uplifting music with the sort of music you’d expect to hear at any sporting event, all the classics were played.
Finally, it was time to donate my old hoodie to charity and join the wave that was about to depart. The countdown began… a noticeable dip in the crowd chatter and then ‘boom’ we were off! As with all mass running events the starts don’t start immediately. I cautiously walked, then a little faster, then jogged, then picked up a little pace, and by the time the timing mats were underfoot I was on my way. Beeps and chimes from all manner of sports watches filled the air accompanied by cheers, hoots, and hollers from the crowd. This was it. My marathon had begun.
I concentrated on controlling my pace and steadying myself as it’s all too easy to blast out the start in the excitement. In only a few hundred metres I noticed the barriers for the supporters were no longer lining the route and people were crossing the road. The road that myself and the hundred or so others were heading down. This was something I’d not experienced before. London and Berlin marathons are tightly cordoned off. Valencia had fewer cordons in the outlying areas but in the main, the runners couldn’t be altercated with. In Paris, barriers were few and far between. Perplexed for the first kilometre or two I mused as people did their best to recreate the old arcade game Frogger. Bikes, pushchairs, and scooters were just some of what I can recall. Friends and family would jump out to cheer and in some cases run alongside the runner. My standout crossing moment had to be a lady sitting on her horse waiting patiently to cross over Boulevard Suchet, around the 34 KM waypoint. I’ve no idea how that panned out but would’ve loved to have taken a photo.
The course weaved through the city revealing more dramatic architecture. Occasionally the road surface was replaced with cobblestones which, are a danger zone for me, as I do have a habit of finding holes and rolling ankles. Plenty of people cheered us along our way. Percussion bands drummed their rhythms hyping up the runners and nearby supporters.
At the 7 KM distance, an aid station loomed. These can be dangerous areas for the inexperienced. People will cut across without giving anyone around them a second thought as they head to pick up a bottle of water and food. My previous learning is to remain firmly in the middle of the route leaving the people around to peel away. At this station, I got it badly wrong. The road had narrowed considerably and due to the volume of people, I found myself on the far left and heading toward one of the many large metal bins that people throw their bottles and rubbish in. When I say throw, I mean literally and from afar sometimes. The result is that not everything makes it to the intended destination. As I danced around the large bin I hadn’t seen a bottle on the floor in front of me and firmly placed my left foot on it, rolling over my ankle. The pain was immediate and I made it known to those around me that it hurt and followed it with profuse profanities and my run turned into a reduced stride hobble. I was so angry. Angry with myself in reality. The litter and dangers are always there and a lapse in judgment meant I was now in discomfort. I continued at a slightly slower pace debating what to do. The pain wasn’t subsiding. I was thinking about it too much. At this point, I realised I had nothing to lose so told myself to stop complaining and get on with this, think of something else that’s not my foot, and if I had to pull out I would.
I commonly find myself a ‘pacer’ when I’m out at an event. That someone who’s about my pace and can drag me along with them. This race was no different and a guy I was following until my incident wasn’t too far ahead in spite of my slowing down. So, there was my challenge. Keep up with him and see how things go. And I did until losing him at one of the aid stations further into the course. My distraction had worked and while my foot and ankle were a little tender it was something I could now push to the back of my mind. Of course, I found another pacer and named him Dave. Don’t ask me why, it just humoured me. And if you’re interested the first pacer I called Stefan because of the writing on the back of his top. From a distance, I misread it thinking it was his name and it wasn’t. When I drew close it was something to do with a running club and the font was slanted and hard to read. Thank you Stefan but Dave was now in play.
The city soon sprawled out and country parks replaced the buildings. All in all, I was really getting into a rhythm and finding a comfortable pace. It was at this point, about the first third of the distance completed, I realised I’d lost Dave as he was just that little bit too quick for me but instead I’d caught up with the 4-hour pacer. This was good as I’d left the starting gate from around the mid-pack so was making good time on my intended 4-hour completion. I found it impressive to watch the pacer, she and her buddy were shouting out loud when people bunched or weren’t paying attention to ensure they had a path of least resistance. I was doing my best to simply breathe let alone holler out every few minutes. I continued on and very slowly put a little distance between her.
The route soon found its way along the River Seine which offered cooling tunnels as the road we followed passed beneath road junctions above. While it wasn’t hot perse it was good to have a break from the sun. The tunnels weren’t well lit which came as a surprise, I expect that the vehicles are using their lights so there’s no need to illuminate them. Entering the tunnels my eyes were taking time to adjust and I had to have my wits about me to stop running into others as no one was really very visible.
There were two tunnel highlights for me. The first came at exactly the 26 KM waymarker. A percussion band was situated just outside the entrance and as I passed they were building up to a crescendo. Entering the tunnel the sound echoed while their volume increased, nothing else could be heard, and then it peaked and thundered making my hairs stand on end and forcing a chill over my body. It was electric and while writing this now it’s rekindling that same feeling. Later, another tunnel had a pop-up DJ and light show which lifted the energy, it seemed so well placed. A dark tunnel, the underground vibe with people cheering as they passed.
Approaching 30 KM the pacer caught me up, I was in need of fuelling as clearly I’d begun fading. Flapjack in hand I slowly chewed and mushed up the oats, sugar, and fruit. It’s all too easy to throw food down you but it’s an unnecessary strain on the stomach as it has more work to do in breaking food down and likely will cause problems. Plus, sugar absorption happens quicker in the mouth so keeping food and gels in the mouth for longer helps a lot.
I pressed on keeping the pacer on my right in my periphery vision. This real pacer became my new pacer and someone I really needed to work hard with. I didn’t know how much of a buffer of time I had from their departure and catching her up so I knew she needed to remain in my sight. After a short time, I managed to lose her behind me which boosted my mental and physical state.
The country parks and undulating hills continued with occasional dashes of pebblestones. Pop-up rock bands were singing their hearts out filling us with classic baselines that stuck in your head. It became more apparent that people were dropping back and moving to the roadsides. Stretching, fixing cramps, and stopping for a refuel. I find it hard to look at these people as I then worry about myself being in that situation. It’s a battle of the mind. “Wouldn’t it be great to take a rest for a moment?”. When your body is getting fatigued these are the demons you have to work with.
While I don’t want to see anyone needing medical assistance in an event it’s inevitable with thousands on foot. I was pleased to say I only saw one person seeking medical attention in the last stage of the route, unlike in Berlin and London where there were many that had fallen and collapsed.
By the time I passed the 38 KM waypoint I was on (another) seemingly very long straight road and ahead I could see runners veering back to me. I welcomed this as it meant the course was meandering needing more decisions and position changing, it’s a good distractor.
The pacer had returned and she was dropping me at 40 KM, and I was pushing now to keep up. I kept her within my sight and as I turned the final corner with the end within my grasp I dug in more. I genuinely had no idea about my timing but I knew I’d be under 4 hours and that was perfect for me. The final couple of hundred metres emotions began washing over me, I fought back tears. I crossed the line, clicked my watch, and walked slowly to receive my medal, a poncho, and food. My watch read 3h 50m 54s. I’d smashed my PB by 5 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Emotion washed back over me. My wife was following my run via Garmin tracking so with messages from her and the reality of what I’d just achieved I battled off tears a further 3 times by the arrival at the exit at the Arc de Triomphe.
Later that afternoon my official time came through, it was 3h 50m 51s placing 13231 out of 34358.
I rang my wife and babbled at her about everything I could recall and the random things I saw along the way, things like this:
- A man running with a pineapple balanced on his head
- Two young children, one holding a sign with an arrow pointing to her brother saying he’s doing division next year – his sign must have said you’re half way as we were very close at the time
- Two men with Flamingos wrapped around them
This was a marathon that I will always have very fond memories of. Thank you Paris.