Last year I ran the Paris marathon for the third time. After setting a mammoth PB the year before, I had lofty plans to shave a little more time off that PB and get a sub-4 hour time, but a strained quad muscle a few weeks before put paid to that notion and instead I had to take it easy, finishing in a much more leisurely 4:43. So when I was lucky enough to win a place in the 2016 event, I thought my luck was in – surely this would be my year! But the fates had other things in mind…
The 2016 Paris marathon was, for me, the marathon that almost wasn’t. I encountered obstacle after obstacle which prevented me training properly, from a stress fracture at the end of last year, to moving house and a number of other stressful situations. And yet the marathon was the one thing I didn’t feel stressed about. Whenever someone asked, “what about Paris?” my answer was the same: I’m booked to go to Paris on marathon weekend, I’ll either run or I won’t. With so many other things going on in my life, I saw no reason to make a decision about the marathon until much closer to the event. So despite knowing that I was woefully under-trained with a longest run of 10 miles (yes, you read that right!), I also knew that there was no way I wasn’t going to at least have a shot. A DNF was far preferable to a DNS as I was injury-free, had the green light from my podiatrist and knew I was able to run at least a half marathon. I also had the advantage of knowing the course and knowing what it’s like to run 26.2 miles, so while I wouldn’t recommend emulating me, I did make a reasoned and individual decision based on my circumstances and marathon experience. The outcome was placed in the lap of the Gods.
Gone was all notion of a new PB, instead I was simply looking to finish
comfortably in one piece. My plan was to run at a fairly easy pace, slower than my normal long run pace since this would be far further than I’ve been running recently, take walk breaks if I needed to and be prepared to hit the wall due to a lack of training. I had no time goal in mind at all, in fact I said to a number of people that I would be doing really well if I broke 5 hours. Yet I was ok with this because starting the race meant a scenic run around my favourite city in the world. For me, it doesn’t get much better!
And so the night before the marathon we followed the time-honoured tradition of a pasta meal and an early night, pausing only to lay out my “flat runner” by way of offering to the running gods to help me survive the following day:
Waking up on race day, we received a cheery text from marathon HQ. I was feeling pretty calm as I got dressed, it was only after breakfast that I experienced the traditional few minutes of feeling a bit sick and needing to relax before making the final preparations to set off.
It was a beautiful morning and fairly soon into our journey we were joined by other nervous-looking runners. I had my phone in a waterproof bag and couldn’t be bothered taking it out all the time, so some of my pictures are a little “soft focus”!
Again, we were aware of increased security as we had to go through a bag check to gain entry to the runners’ area and drop off our bags. We were also aware of plenty of security personnel in the area.
Safely into the runner zone, we dropped off our bags and did what any well-prepared marathoner does before the race…that’s right, we queued for the toilets!
And after we had walked up to the Arc de Triomphe, we queued again. Better to be safe than sorry and at least there was a nice view!
Then after a quick selfie, Steve and I went our separate ways to find our starting pens. We know from experience not to get too worked up about this as queueing outside of the pens is extremely likely, but the race is chip timed so there’s no need to panic, just relax and go with the flow.
I actually made it into my pen quite quickly, and had plenty of space to amble towards the start line listening to the announcements and taking a few quick snaps:
And then I was off, trotting down the Champs Elysées soaking up the atmosphere and trying not to go too fast. For once in my life I was going to try really hard to reign in the speed and save something for the tough miles at the end.
My day quickly settled into a routine: I wanted to take a gel at every 5 miles by my watch, water every 5km at the aid stations (mainly to pour down my back!) and having previously discovered the joys of an orange segment during a hot race, intended to include those as soon as I felt I needed to. In the end, I took an orange segment at every aid station from 15km onwards and supplemented them with sugar cubes for an extra boost in the latter stages of the race. A delicious and refreshing way to take on energy! This routine meant I kept myself occupied with lots of counting down to things, which was especially useful in the Bois de Vincennes at one end of the route and Bois de Boulogne at the other where the crowds tend to be a bit thinner and I tend to get a little fed up.
It was a very hot day, so I’m once more grateful to the Sapeurs-Pompiers who set up hoses at various points along the route. I ran through every single one, hence the need to have my phone in a waterproof bag. They were freezing cold and each time an involuntary noise escaped my lips, but it was oh so refreshing!
I also enjoyed the various bands and entertainment along the route, my favourite being the gentlemen of the Paris Frontrunners who turn out in drag to entertain the runners. And of course, there was the usually array of witty signs and plenty of people shouting my name to give me encouragement and generally make me feel like a rock star! I actually thought there were far more spectators lining the route than I’ve ever seen in Paris before, which is testament to the resilience of the Parisian people and spirit that won’t be dampened even in these times of high alert.
As for my running, I felt pretty comfortable. My legs began to feel a bit weary around 10 miles in and I was a little concerned about how that would progress, but the feeling remained pretty steady without getting any worse. I did feel I needed a break though, so decided to take a short walk at the halfway point and take a photo to prove I got there!
I did need a few more walk breaks in the second half, but was reasonably firm with myself about how long I could walk for as I knew that starting again can be the hardest thing. I would decide when I would walk e.g. the next mile marker, then check my watch and give myself a time limit, that way I couldn’t get drawn into too much unnecessary walking.
This year, the long tunnel (known in 2014 as the “Disco Tunnel”) was set up as a kind of meditation tunnel. There was soothing music and the kind of pictures you would see in a spa – sandy beaches, flower petals, pretty candles, that kind of thing. It was also much cooler than in the open and I actually felt my pace increase in the more comfortable conditions. This seemed strange as I remember finding this section of the race quite tough last year.
For me, the toughest part of the race was around the 18 mile mark. Part of me had been looking forward to this point as there’s an aid station alongside the Eiffel Tower. When I got there I was feeling pretty hot and tired, so I took the chance to take a couple of photos, enjoy an orange segment and regroup a bit ready to carry on. I messed around a bit for about the next mile or so, but was happy to break through “the wall” and keep going towards the Bois de Boulogne! Steve and I had joked about taking an “orange segment selfie” so I did just that. Even with the soft focus of my phone being in the waterproof bag, it’s still not one of my more flattering pictures!
A little beyond “the wall” there is an aid station distributing small cups of an energy drink called Isostar. I took a cup of this pink liquid and downed it, looking for a little extra energy. I’ve no idea what was in that stuff, but I shot out of there feeling refreshed and able to keep running, although I was giggling a bit at how sticky the ground was as I listened to the squelchy noises of everyone’s shoes round about me!
By this point I knew beyond a doubt I would finish, even if I had to crawl. I had 10km (or 2 parkruns) to go and I still felt ok. I had expected to feel terrible by this point of the race, but I wasn’t feeling any more weariness than I would normally expect to feel at this stage in a marathon. If anything, I was feeling better than I had at the same point the year before. I was still doing lots of counting down and runner maths, and now realised that I could not only break 5 hours, but do so by a pretty decent margin. This was the motivation I needed to keep on going.
With 5km left (just a parkrun to go!) I was still feeling ok. I had walked through the aid stations in order to take on oranges and water, but other than that was still managing something akin to running. The Bois de Boulogne seemed as never-ending as always, but I had expected it to be that way and that probably helped. I had also worked out that my watch was about 0.2 of a mile beyond the mile markers, so I was aiming for 26.4 miles rather than 26.2 before I would get to the finish. Again, pre-empting a potential psychological difficulty really helped.
Like last year, there were cameras set up at the 41km mark to take our photos and automatically post them to Facebook. It’s a bit of a gamble to get a decent photo so deep into a marathon, but I was willing to take the chance. I remembered that I had signed up to this, but there were plenty of signs and the cameras were on a huge rig so we couldn’t miss them. I stuck my arms in the air, grinned and looked straight at the cameras. The photos were a bit slow to appear compared to last year, but mine wasn’t too bad:
From this point on, the crowds lining the route got bigger and bigger. I had coaxed my legs into a consistent run and was adamant that I wasn’t stopping again. I kept it nice and steady until I rounded that final bend and saw the finish line before me. Digging deep for the last bit of energy to see me over the line, I stepped up the pace and adopted my best finisher’s pose. And for once in my life, I nailed it!
I crossed the line feeling all kinds of emotions: happiness that I could stop running, elation that I had done it and utter disbelief at my finish time. Despite being convinced that I would take 5+ hours, I had realised in the last 5km that I could actually finish in under 4:40, hence my determination to keep going at the end. And I did it! Official time 4:38:38. I have absolutely no idea how I did it and know that with my poor preparations I deserved to be much slower, yet here I was finishing 5 minutes quicker than last year when despite the remnants of a strained muscle, I had actually put in far more training. It just doesn’t make sense, but then the marathon always is a mysterious beast!
I made my way through the finish area to collect my T-shirt, medal, poncho, water and refreshments. I picked up a banana (not normally a fan, but I rather like the Bananes de Guadaloupe that sponsor the marathon), passed on an apple as it seemed like too much effort to eat, then spotted…you guessed it, more oranges! They had been so tasty and refreshing that I had to have another segment.
With everything in hand, I collected my bag (which took mere seconds as the setup is really smooth) then joined Steve. I took the opportunity to sit down for a minute, drink my recovery shake and try to process everything that had happened before taking a few pictures to celebrate our achievement.
We even got one more text from marathon HQ:
And we took them exactly at their word. We shuffled back to our hotel and had a good rest before venturing out later for some food.
As ever, Paris didn’t disappoint. It will always hold a special place in my heart as my first marathon back in 2010. I’ve now run this race 4 times and will happily return in future. I love the location, the route and the support of the Parisian people. Despite the huge numbers (41,708 finishers this year), it never feels cramped on those wide Parisian boulevards and the atmosphere is always fantastic. Yes, I’d love to run the London marathon again some day, but for me Paris is more than an alternative, it’s a preference. After all, who wouldn’t want a weekend away in Paris? But don’t just take my word for it, check out these stirring highlights:
Merci encore Paris. A bientôt.