12 weeks of running crazy distances on my own through cold temperatures, driving rain and unbelievably strong winds. 12 weeks of tough Metafit classes filled with planks, tuck jumps and burpees. 12 weeks of training and recovery that quite simply worked, and it was all for this day. The day I would run the Paris Marathon and begin my 2014 triple marathon challenge.
Whenever someone announces that they are going to run a marathon (or two, or three…) they are immediately asked about their goal for the race and what time they have in mind. Despite what some people might say, EVERY marathoner has a goal in mind, ranging from the first timer just wanting to get round, to the faster club/elite runners chasing a specific time goal. But you may have noticed in the weeks leading up to this race that I was being quite cagey about my goal. Publicly, all I would say was that I wanted a new PB since my previous PB of 4:32:17 had stood since the Edinburgh marathon in 2011 and I just KNEW I could do better than that. In 2012 I had hoped to run a PB at Lochaber as my training suggested I could run somewhere in the region of 4:10-4:20, but injury put paid to those plans and I ended up limping to the finish in 4:35:08 (still 20 seconds faster than the 2011 London Marathon!). Not only that, but when I ran my first ever marathon it was in Paris in 2010 and I was, to put it mildly, undertrained due to an injury but doggedly went for it anyway and surprised everyone by “only” taking 5 hours! To say I had unfinished business in Paris would be an understatement – I wanted to prove myself as a marathon runner and finish the race not just with a course PB, but by knocking a chunk of time off my marathon PB.
My goal? As close as I could get to 4 hours, with the possibility of sub-4 in the right conditions. My training, as in 2012, suggested that I could do this, but of course that was based on 20 mile training runs and every marathoner knows that the race doesn’t really begin until 20 miles when you have 10k still to run and not a shred of energy left in your body! Could I hold my pace after 20 miles, or would the wheels come off entirely and see me dragging myself in with another 4:3X finish? Only time would tell…
Surprisingly, I slept fairly well on Saturday night then leapt out of bed as soon as my alarm went off to start getting ready. I had laid out my kit the night before and organised my bag so that everything would be easy. Since we are fundraising for Macmillan this year, my charity running vest was all ready with my name on the front and my race number attached:
I also opted for my black Nike running skirt, 2XU calf sleeves, my arm warmers to keep the chill off at the start and then be rolled down to act as sweatbands, and my trusty pink Brooks Pure Flows which would retire as soon as they (and I!) crossed the finish line. I was swinging between nervous and calm, but actually putting my kit on was very settling as it felt a step closer to starting to run.
We had organised an early breakfast and so went downstairs to meet Graeme. The dining room was just filled with rather quiet people in running kit, all steadfastly chewing on an assortment of pastries and swigging coffee. I ate as much as I could persuade my nervy stomach to accept, then it was time to make our final preparations and make use of the lovely hotel toilet for the last time before being faced with the pre-race portaloos!
Just like the previous morning, we walked up to Avenue Foch which was serving as the race HQ. I was quite surprised to see a few people about who were obviously not involved in the race and was rather curious to know what they were doing up and about so early on a Sunday. As we got closer to the Arc de Triomphe, however, we encountered more and more nervous/excited runners emerging from all the various streets that connect to the Place Charles de Gaulle and joined the throng making its way towards the baggage drop. 50,000 people had originally registered for the race and around 40,000 had collected their packs at the expo – it was going to be a busy race!
The forecast had been consistently suggesting that the weather would be overcast, but as we got ourselves organised it was clear that it was going to be a warm and sunny start to the race – I even opted not to wear my pre-race plastic poncho (fancy bin bag!) as I was warm enough without it and happy to head to the start wearing just the kit I would run in.
After the requisite toilet stop, Steve headed off to join his starting corral, leaving Graeme and I to fight our way towards ours. We soon found that there were so many runners that we actually couldn’t get inside the start area just yet. With less marathon experience, this would probably have stressed me out, but the scrum seemed very typically French and since my timing chip wouldn’t start until I actually crossed the start line, I saw no reason to get worked up about it. Somewhat ridiculously, we did climb over a barrier to get ourselves into a better position, then once actually through the gates and in the start area, we gave each other a final thumbs up and went our separate ways.
The race had, by this time, already started (on time at 8:45am) but I knew that my corral was not due to start until 9:15 as we were being sent out in waves. By this point I was feeling calm and ready to get underway. I spent what seemed like ages shuffling along towards the start as the different waves were released then at last, almost an hour after the starting gun, it was finally my turn. I started my Garmin, laughed to myself as I realised the race leader would already be half way round the course, and started running.
A key part of my race plan was to make sure I kept my pace in check over the first 5k, particularly since the first mile or so on the Champs Elysées is downhill, but since it was so crowded, there was little chance that I would set off too quickly. I tried to settle into a pace and just went with it. Before I knew it, I was at the Place de la Bastille, the 5k point and location of the first Macmillan cheer point. I heard Rob from Macmillan bellow my name and grinned and waved as I went past. 5k split – 28:16/position 25051
The next 10k was fairly nondescript as the course stretched towards the Bois de Vincennes. The 5k water stop had been really crowded and since I had plenty of High 5 Zero with me, I hadn’t picked up any water. I had my first gel at the 5 mile point and resolved to take water at the next aid station, even if it was just to pour down my back! By now, I was feeling warm so it was brilliant to see that the Paris firemen continue to be really supportive of the race and had hoses set up for runners to pass through. The cold shower was a bit of a shock, but so refreshing. Then around the 9k mark we entered the Bois de Vincennes, which made for an interesting change from the city streets, but there was a bit less crowd support. 10k split – 57:09/position 25713
The stretch through the Bois de Vincennes was approximately 10k, bringing us back out onto the Paris streets around the 19k mark. Despite the thinner crowd support, running through the Bois was lovely. We passed the beautiful Château de Vincennes as well as lots of wide open spaces and, intriguingly, a giant climbing wall! I was keeping an eye on my Garmin and pace band and knew 1) I was pretty much on track for around 4 hours and 2) thanks to the crowds I was already measuring long and was therefore going to run well beyond 26.2 miles before I reached the finish. Just one of the perils of a huge city marathon! 15k split – 1:25:00/position 23951
At 10 miles/16k I knew it was time for my second gel. My strategy is to take these every 5 miles/45 minutes as this is what works best for me. I have also learned that I am best to walk whilst I take the gel so that I can take it properly and have a drink before running on. This, for me, is actually faster than trying to juggle gels and things whilst running! I moved to the side of the course, took the gel and as I had my water I was aware of a spectator beside me saying, “allez Allison!” to encourage me since I was walking. I smiled, said merci and got on with the job in hand. It was at this point that my iPod Shuffle decided I should hear the BBC London marathon theme! This STILL makes me feel really emotional and, combined with the emotions of the day, I did for a moment think I might shed a tear or two. Instead, I zipped up my mansuit (I couldn’t cry in the first half for goodness sake!) and ran on, enjoying the last stretch through the Bois de Vincennes and emerging back onto the city streets. 20k split – 1:52:57/position 23151
As we approached the halfway point, I was aware that there was now someone on the course on rollerblades! I think he was bringing water to some friends, but there were still some good-natured shouts about how he was cheating. The attitude in France seems to be very different and people seemed to frequently be running out onto the course to cross the road even if it meant getting in the way of runners. I certainly would be in no hurry to cross a road if there were upwards of 30,000 people barrelling towards me! Still, I reached halfway still on track for a 4 hour-ish finish and grabbed a refreshing cup of Powerade which was available at this point. I love Powerade and often have it if I feel a bit dehydrated following a long run/race so this was lovely. I also spoke to a guy who I seemed to constantly be running beside. He was interested in my “objectif” (target time). I’m not sure if this was because he had realised we were running at a similar pace or if it was because I was a female in a male-dominated field (79% male, 21% female which I’m sure goes against recent trends in marathon running). Thankfully my French was still up to the job and we were able to exchange a few words. Half marathon split – 1:59:24/position 22839
Just beyond halfway we passed by the other side of the Place de la Bastille and the second Macmillan cheer point. I spotted all the green banners among the crowd and when the supporters saw me they leapt up to start shouting and waving. Again I smiled, waved and kept on going with an added spring in my step from seeing people who were there to cheer me on. After this, we reached one of my favourite parts of the race as the route took runners along the banks of the Seine and we saw some of the most famous Parisian sights – Notre Dame Cathedral, the Musée d’Orsay and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. The tower can be seen for a good part of this section and I felt like I was fixed on it, using it to pull me along the route. The tower was my beacon and I remember silently asking her to stay with me and help me reach my goal – a bit weird I know, but strange things go on in your head when you’re running 26.2 miles! I was still warm so was continuing to run through hoses when I could and taking water every 5k then pouring some of it down my back. I was also a bit frustrated at how crowded the course was and wishing that people would move to the side if they were going to slow down rather than getting in my way. Despite that, I was still holding my pace comfortably, even if I couldn’t get into the rhythm I wanted, and enjoying the very vocal crowd support on this section of the route. There were people on all the bridges we ran under and at one point one of the tourist boats was alongside me and the occupants were all waving. Runners were still in good spirits and were responding to all the shouts and cheers as they went. At some point along here I had my photo taken and seem to be enjoying myself (even if I am a little bedraggled from all the water!) 25k split – 2:22:24/position 227854
A bit beyond the 16 mile mark (about 26k) we began to run through some of the tunnels that run parallel to the river, including the Alma tunnel where Diana, Princess of Wales was tragically killed. My memory of the tunnels from 2010 was that they were long, dark, hot and dull. Not so this year. One of the first (and longest) tunnels can only be described as the “disco tunnel”. There were disco lights and loud music was being played (as I went past it was the Superman theme!). It was still warm, but the lights and music helped to keep the party atmosphere going – like a bizarre rave! It was a strange experience though as all the crowd noise suddenly stopped and all I could hear was the footsteps of other runners echoing through the tunnel interspersed with the beat from the music. There were also some odd moments when it felt like being in some kind of horror movie as the shadows of others flickered across the walls or I would suddenly be far too close to another runner that I hadn’t seen in the dark! Exciting, strange and just one of those marathon memories that will stay with me.
Emerging from the string of tunnels, we were back alongside the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro where I’d had such a lovely time on the Breakfast Run the day before. I knew that this was the point when it would all start to get much harder – not helped by some serious narrowing of the course around the 30k marker. There was nothing to hold the crowd back and at various points they seemed to be encroaching onto the route, drastically narrowing the running room. 30k split – 2:51:38/position 20728
After this the route veered away from the river and on towards the final section through the Bois de Boulogne. Despite my weary legs and feeling warm, I was still able to hold my pace but it was getting harder and harder to get into a rhythm as there were more narrow parts on the course and so many people stopping to walk. I knew exactly how they were feeling having been there myself in marathons before, but I still really wished that they would move to the side so that I could have room to run. At the 20 mile point I took my 4th gel, leaving me with one more to see me to the end. I decided that the best strategy would be to divide the last 10k in half so I planned to take my final gel at 23.1 miles then just go for it to the finish. There was a slight hill into the Bois de Boulogne then the welcome sight of the final Macmillan cheer point and Emma jumping up and down shouting my name. I had actually just about missed seeing her as I was so focussed on keeping on running, but the personal cheer gave me a boost to keep on going. 35k split – 3:21:56/position 19289
I later discovered that the stretch from 30-35k was my slowest 5k split of the race and given the narrowing of the course and slowing crowds, I’m not really surprised. Beyond the 35k point, though, the course actually had a slight downhill gradient which made it much easier to keep going. I was still having to go round slower runners/walkers, but I was still moving and although by now I really wanted to be done, I knew I could run to the finish. A sub-4 finish was long gone but that was really down to crowding and the “extra” distance I had run, but I also knew that I could certainly finish in under 4:10 which would be a massive PB. My legs were screaming at me to walk, but I gave myself a talking to: just how much of a PB do you want this to be? Keep moving! And the stubborn part of me won. One thing that kept going through my head was a comment that Kyla made to me – run your run. That simple phrase went round and round and I did, indeed, run my run. Thanks Kyla! 40k split – 3:51:34/position 17609
By now, I had finished the last of the sports drink I was carrying and knew I was going to have to grab a bottle of water at the 40k water station to see me to the end. This, like all the previous water stations, was crowded so I had to stop and push my way in to get a bottle. I had been very careful at all the water stops as they were also handing out bananas and orange segments, the remains of which were scattered all over the ground and I was really scared of slipping – I had NOT run all this way just to fall and hurt myself so close to the end! As I walked away, drinking my water, I realised that my legs really didn’t want to start running again and was preparing to give myself another talking to, when just at that moment I heard a voice say, “come on, keep going with me!” I turned to see the Frenchman I had spoken to earlier in the race with the same “objectif” as me. I had lost sight of him some time before and had assumed him to be ahead of me, but I must have run past him somewhere. That encouragement was all I needed. I said ok, and started running. Unfortunately, I lost sight of him again as I moved faster than him, but I like to think he kept me in his sights to help him keep going.
Soon, I knew that the finish line was near. The supporters were stacked up around the course shouting “allez courage” and “allez les filles!” which helped spur me on. I remembered that the finish in Paris is very deceptive and you don’t actually see the Arc de Triomphe ahead of you until the very last moment. As I saw the 26 mile sign, I began to speed up, rounded the final bend and FINALLY saw the Arc de Triomphe and the even more welcome sight of the finish gantry ahead of me. I had done it! And I had not only run a PB but utterly smashed it, finishing well within 4:10! I raced as hard as I could to the finish then had to stop rather abruptly as I joined the mass of finishers to shuffle on and collect that well-earned medal and T-shirt! I looked around me for the gallant Frenchman who had spurred me on at the water station as I wanted to shake his hand, but there was no sign of him amid the seething mass of sweaty, exhausted bodies. Instead, I fought the growing urge to either cry or laugh out loud (thankfully I did neither) as the enormity of what I had just achieved really hit me.
I was very impressed with the finish area this year, which I recall being a bit shambolic in 2010. A lovely volunteer beckoned me by name to collect my finishers’ top and congratulate me then another hung my medal ceremonially around my neck. I was able to collect water and Powerade and there were the same refreshments on offer as at the aid stations throughout the race – bananas, oranges, raisins and sugar lumps. I took an orange segment and it was, in all honesty, the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten. After hours of sports drink and energy gels, finally a new flavour and lots of lovely, thirst-quenching juice. Delicious!
After collecting my bag and having my recovery shake (and inexplicably managing to converse in French with another finisher) I eventually emerged from the finish area to find Steve and Graeme who were waiting for me along with Graeme’s wife Fiona. We made our way (slowly) over to the Arc de Triomphe to take some photos to mark the occasion before walking back to the hotel:
It was only when we returned to the hotel that I was able to log in and get my official finish time of 4:05:07. I was thrilled! A PB by over 27 minutes is not to be sniffed at! I was also able to get some other stats which are really encouraging: 17440th out of 39115 finishers, 1840th out of 8025 women and 963rd out of 3746 in my category. All the hard work in training really paid off and the signs are that in different conditions, the sub-4 could happen. In the end, I ran almost 26.6 miles and when I uploaded my stats to Fetcheveryone, I learned that I had run 26.2 in 4:01:34 – so close!!!
This was my 5th marathon and the one I’m most pleased with, not just because of the massive PB (although that helps!) but because I got my training and race strategy right. I was able to hold a fairly even pace throughout and didn’t hit the wall so I know my nutrition and hydration worked. I’ll be using the same strategy in Edinburgh in a few weeks and hopefully I’ll be able to run strongly there too, ideally just a little faster and my mind is already turning to what I’ll need to do to make that happen – bring it on!!
If you’ve stuck with me to the end of this epic post, then you may very well feel like you ran the race with me (what can I say, a long race needs a long post!) however I’m going to finish with this video from the organisers to help give you an idea of the atmosphere (and the disco tunnel is in there a couple of times!). A wonderful reminder of a wonderful day.
Bravo Paris et bravo aux arrivants!