When you think of Paris, the City of Light, what do you think of? The Eiffel Tower? The café culture? The fashions? It’s unlikely that your first thought is of the marathon, yet for me that’s just one more reason why Paris is my favourite city of them all.
Paris is a very special place: it’s romantic, it’s chic and it’s so, well, Parisian, that for me no other world city can ever measure up. If you want a cultural experience of museums and art galleries, Paris has plenty to offer; if you want to indulge your inner tourist and wander about with a camera draped around your neck, Paris is ready for you; if you want to max out your credit card with some serious shopping, Paris caters for all budgets. Within minutes of arriving in the city I want to quit everything, move to Paris and spend my days sitting in cafés reading Voltaire in the original French – I even toy with investing in a poodle and some seriously high heels! I’m crazy about Paris in the same way that other people are about New York or London and have been ever since my first visit there as part of a study trip when I was in my final year at secondary school. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to return to Paris several times and never grow tired of it. I even still get the chance to go there as part of school trips (but as a teacher now!) and just last week spent 3 fantastic days there visiting museums and art galleries, taking touristy photos and indulging in some retail therapy (all in the name of a cultural experience for the pupils, of course!)
With my mind already beginning to turn to my marathon plans for next year and the pre-conditioning my body needs to withstand the rigours of marathon training, it was inevitable that my time in Paris would cause me to reflect on my experience of running 26.2 miles in my favourite city. Since both colleagues and pupils alike know that I run, I was asked a number of questions about my Paris Marathon experience, leaving my head buzzing over the last few days with two of my favourite things in life: running and Paris. What better topic, then, for this week’s blog post?
It was as I worked on building my mileage towards the Aviemore Half Marathon in 2009 that the idea of the Paris Marathon was first mooted. Earlier that year I had watched Steve running in the London Marathon and been inspired by what I had seen, leading me to believe that, given the right training, I too could complete a marathon (just one though, just to have the experience!). Why Paris? Simple. Whereas the London Marathon requires entry into a ballot system with only a slim chance of success, Paris operates a first come first served system and is therefore quite straightforward to enter. Flying to Paris is no harder than flying to London, so the decision was made. The only slight complication is that under French law competitors are required to have a medical certificate signed by a doctor, but that’s easy enough to sort out.
And so as 2010 began, so did my marathon training. I remember finding the whole thing very exciting. Getting up early on a Sunday morning to go for a run didn’t really bother me because I had a goal in mind, nor was I bothered by the self-imposed restrictions on my diet – as far as I was concerned, food was now fuel and my body needed the right fuel in order to perform at its peak. My training plan included a long run on a Sunday, club run on a Tuesday, hill/speed work on a Thursday and a couple of gym sessions in between. I loved it, probably because I love having so much structure in my life, and during one of the busiest times of the year at work it was comforting to know that I had a run or workout ahead of me to help me de-stress at the end of the day. Until disaster struck…
In early February I reached what was my longest training run to date – 14 miles. It was a good training session but in the week afterwards I suffered from a lot of muscle tightness. This didn’t appear to be a big issue though, so the following weekend I set out for a 16 mile training run. And that’s where it all went wrong. Within the first couple of miles I could feel the muscles getting tighter and tighter, becoming very uncomfortable around my right ankle. I stopped and stretched but trying to start running again was even worse and I realised that I would need to stop and head home. It soon became apparent that I had developed a “cankle” which, although funny now, was very painful and I struggled to even walk on it properly. What was worse than the injury though, was the doubt over whether or not I could manage enough training to complete the marathon.
I saw a physio who diagnosed tendinitis. He gave me some exercises to do and some ultrasound treatment. He also gave me the ok to do any other kind of training I wanted…except running! Many people would probably have given up at this point, but since I’m a stubborn kind of girl, I simply came up with an alternative training plan that would, in theory, mean I could complete 26.2 miles (with a little adjustment to my time goal!) – the cross trainer.
That cross trainer became my nemesis. On a Sunday morning when I should have been out running, I was in the gym spending up to TWO HOURS on the cross trainer – I even took energy gels on there! As my ankle improved enough to allow me to run short distances I would follow my cross trainer session with up to an hour on the treadmill. I may not have been able to run for three hours, but I could still have a cardio workout of the same length and build my endurance without the impact on my ankle that running would bring.
About three weeks before the marathon I entered a half marathon. By this point I was allowed to run, there just wasn’t enough time left to complete the long training runs I would have done on my original training plan. Despite the fact that my legs were unused to running and it felt like I was wading through mud, I completed the race about 10seconds quicker than I had completed the Aviemore Half the previous autumn. Not an overly inspiring run, but I ran the whole thing, giving me a confidence boost and the knowledge that in Paris I would be able to run at least half the distance before I would consider walking (I understood that with so little training I would very likely be walking some of the race, but after everything I had been through, just getting round would be enough for me!)
Yes, I could have deferred my entry, but I was booked to go to Paris anyway since Steve was still running, as was a good friend of ours. I was able to run and my number was there waiting for me. The worst thing that could happen would be that I would have to pull out half way round. At least I would have tried, whereas if I didn’t even start the race I would always be wondering “what if…?” There were those who were quick to tell me that without the long training runs I had no chance of completing the race, others thought it would take me at least six hours. That negativity was enough to stoke the stubborn beast inside of me: who were these people to tell me what I couldn’t do? I was going to Paris, I was registering for the race and I was giving it my best shot!
And that’s exactly what I did. Similar to London, competitors in the Paris Marathon need to register at the race expo and collect their race pack. Once I had that number in my hand, I knew I was running the next day. I was nervous of course, not really knowing what to expect, but I knew that I was stubborn/determined/stupid enough to complete 26.2 miles even if I had to crawl them!
The Paris Marathon follows a route which begins on the Champs Élysées in front of the Arc de Triomphe. As I began my run down this iconic Parisian street I remember thinking, “I’m running a marathon! Me! Running a marathon! In Paris!” Surrounded by other runners with a similar goal and spurred on by the supporters along the way, I was loving it!
The route continues past all the familiar Paris landmarks: along the Rue de Rivoli past the Louvre and the Place de la Bastille and right out to the “turning point” at the Chateau de Vincennes. The return is along the banks of the Seine, through some of the tunnels, passing the Jardins des Tuileries and of course the Eiffel Tower. Finally runners make their way through the Bois de Boulogne to finish on Avenue Foch with the Arc de Triomphe in front of them. It was only when I returned to Paris on last October’s school trip that I realised you can see the entire route from the top of the Eiffel tower, and I can assure you that even from up there it’s a heck of a long way!
Bearing in mind that I was tackling all of this on little more than a 14 mile training run, some cross training and a “tune up” half marathon, how did I get on? Every marathon will have its ups and downs and I did have to walk some of it, but overall I loved (almost) every minute. I made it to about 17 miles before feeling I had to walk and that was partly due to mis-timing my energy gels when my Garmin lost its signal in the tunnels! I used a run-walk strategy from this point, mainly walking through the water stations, and even in the most difficult moments I knew I wanted to run another marathon. Not only was I enjoying the experience, but I wanted to “do it properly”, to complete my training plan and see what difference that made to my performance.
In the end I crossed the line in just over 5 hours (5:01:03) and surprised a lot of people by a) finishing and b) managing a respectable time. Crossing the line I felt that emotional rush familiar to all marathon runners: I wanted to cry and laugh at the same time, but since everyone around me was speaking French (my ability to remember anything other than my own name in any language had long since deserted me!) I focused instead on making my way through the finish area and to our meeting point (the only other thing I could remember!) with a medal proudly hanging from my neck. I had done it. I had run a marathon. And I had seen Paris in a new and unique way.
They say you can never have your first time again, and in marathon terms I’m glad my first time was in Paris. I’ve written previously of how much I enjoyed the London Marathon and how I fully intend to take part in that race again, but similarly I WILL run the Paris Marathon again. Paris is a very special place: the romance, the chicness, the cafés…and my first ever marathon! I don’t yet know where my marathon journey next year will take me, but for now nous aurons toujours Paris!