If you’ve been keeping up with my training this year, then you’ll already know that after a promising start, things went a bit wrong in the final weeks. Preparing for a marathon with a strained quad muscle is hardly ideal, but I did everything I could to get my body ready for the race – I stretched, I strengthened and I maintained my fitness as well as I could with cycling and swimming. Arriving in Paris I was nervous, but a comfortable run in Saturday morning’s Breakfast Run gave me the confidence to know that I could finish the race without causing any damage, I just had to be sensible in my approach. At the beginning of the year I was aiming for a sub-4 hour time, now I was out to run comfortably, enjoy the race and reach the finish line in one piece!
With that new goal in mind, I actually slept quite well the night before the race and woke up ready to face the challenge ahead. I managed some breakfast at the hotel, but after that the familiar pre-marathon sick feeling made an appearance. A marathon may “just” be another long Sunday run, but on a regular Sunday I simply get up, hydrate, eat my porridge and head out the door just as soon as I’m ready. With a marathon, there’s the logistics of getting to the start, bag check, queuing for toilets and waiting to start to contend with as well. I knew I would feel much better once I was on my way so after double-checking my kit what seemed a million times, we set off to walk up to the Arc de Triomphe and the start of the race.
It was still reasonably early for a Sunday morning and at first the streets were quiet, but as we got nearer to the Arc de Triomphe it seemed like runners were appearing from every side street, converging on the same destination as us. I even saw one guy arriving on his bicycle, race number already attached to his top, and briefly wondered if he intended returning home in the same way. I’m not sure I’d be able to swing my leg around to get on my bike after a marathon, let alone pedal, so if he did then I’m really impressed!
By the time we reached the Place Charles de Gaulle, there were runners everywhere you looked: some excited, others nervous; some stopping to take photos, others really focused. We continued on down to Avenue Foch, which operates a “one-way” system for runners before the race, to drop off our bags. It was mobbed already and there was a big screen showing tv coverage of the race.
I parted with my bag, was wished “bonne course” by the cheerful volunteer, and headed off for the next most important stop: the toilet queue! The queues were moving very slowly in Avenue Foch, so we decided to join a queue at one of the banks of portaloos up by the Arc de Triomphe. Not often this is your view while queuing for a portaloo!
After that, it was time to join my start pen. My recollection from last year was that getting in was quite tricky since it was so crowded. People climb barriers and risk injury before even starting to run, just to get into their designated pen, but there’s really no need as the race is chip timed so where/when you start won’t make a huge difference. Last year I was in the 4 hour pen which was particularly difficult to get into, but this year I had oped for 3h45 and although a sub-4 time was no longer even imaginable for me, I didn’t change my pen and was pleased as I was able to get straight in and there was plenty of room. I still had to wait for a bit as the starts split in two lengthways and one side starts while the other is cleared of any debris such as throwaway clothing. I stood towards the left and the right hand side was started. Again, lots of people were impatient and started to move and switch sides, but with experience I knew to stay put and wait my turn. That gave me a chance to take a couple of photos:
While this was going on, the announcers were whipping everyone on the Champs Élysées into a frenzy, and before I knew it we were counting down (in French) to our start. Amid whoops, cheers, music and shouts of “Paris est à vous” (Paris is yours), we were off!
Official race photo
Down the Champs Élysées towards the Place de la Concorde, veer left and carry on along rue de Rivoli towards the Bastille. Streets I know well and now lined with supporters shouting out to all the runners. My quad felt fine, dimly tight, like a little whisper, but nothing to worry about. I wasn’t going to push it though as I knew the lack of running in the final weeks of training could be a problem in the later miles and didn’t want to use up all my energy early on. Instead, I focused on taking in the atmosphere and soaking up the shouts and cheers from the crowd. I also had one earphone in and had my iPod on shuffle. Sometimes I think that device is a bit too clever. I may have created the playlist, but the iPod decides when to play the tracks and as I passed the Louvre, home of the Mona Lisa, it chose this:
As I grabbed a bottle of water at 5k, a photographer wearing a pink “presse” tabard leapt in front of me and snapped a photo. Maybe I was in a French newspaper or something, who knows!
Next it was the Macmillan cheer point at the Bastille then on up the only real incline in the race towards the Bois de Vincennes where we run a roughly 10k loop. In the past I have enjoyed this section, but this year found it tough. My legs already felt a little weary and the temperature was creeping up. I needed crowds and sights to carry me along, and I had to wait until later in the loop, alongside the Chateau de Vincennes, for those crowds. Nevertheless, my race plan was to keep comfortable which meant stopping at the refreshment stands for water, walking to take a gel every 5 miles and taking additional walk breaks if needed. I actually stopped for a minute or so in the Bois de Vincennes to adjust my shoe as the lacing felt a little tight. In the past, a stop would have bothered me, but not this time.
Eventually, we emerged from the Bois and back onto the city streets. By now, I had it in mind that I really wanted to be at the 15 mile mark and heading onto the banks of the Seine. I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, hear the cheering of the crowds from the bridges above and be well on my way to the “disco tunnel” with single figure mileage left to run (I had been counting down the miles from the start – 7 miles is the first highlight as it’s the first time there are less than 20 miles to go, then 17 miles as there are only 9 left!). So fixated was I on the Eiffel Tower, that when I caught a distant glimpse of it through the buildings around the 12 mile mark, I just about wept. Marathons certainly are emotional events!
I ran on to the halfway mark (just the same again to go!) and decided to take a short walk break. It didn’t last long though as I got so much encouragement from the crowds and other runners to keep going. Reaching the other side of the Bastille at around the 14 mile mark, I ran wide to get a big cheer from the the Macmillan team who had moved to that part of the course now. A few minutes later, I got my wish and was heading down to the banks of the Seine. Notre Dame was to my left and I knew the Eiffel Tower would soon be in sight.
Once more, my iPod came up trumps just at the point when I needed a boost by choosing my favourite running track, the one that stayed with me through my 2010 Paris marathon training and never fails to make me feel strong:
Official race photo
Somewhere along here, the photographers were waiting and I was ready to pose!
Official race photo
I had reached the part of the race I was most looking forward to and next up was what is officially known as the Tuileries tunnel, but after last year, I think of as the “Disco Tunnel”. The crowds end and all you can hear is the heavy breathing and equally heavy steps of those around you. 10 miles left to go, the back of the race broken but still just a little bit too much left. This could be a terrible slog, but organisers do what they can to lift the mood in this half mile stretch. Last year, there were DJs and strobe lights, this year it was laser lights and big screens blaring music and showing some of the “animations” (mainly samba bands) out on the course. I was feeling warm so took advantage of the chance to walk a bit, get a good drink and try to cool down.
My iPod thought this would be an ideal time to play the iconic London marathon theme, music which to this day still fills me with emotion and brings a lump to my throat. Thanks iPod!
Once out of the tunnel, the noise is incredible as the crowds once more line the route. This is quite a popular place to watch the race from as we see the Luxor Obelisk and the Place de la Concorde off to the right, followed by the Grand Palais, while to the left it’s the banks of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower…at last! Remembering that the route got a little squeezed around here at the water station, I saw no harm in stopping for a quick mid-race selfie!
It was at this water station that I decided to start enjoying a “running buffet” and grabbed an orange quarter. I tried this after the finish last year and it was really refreshing so I sucked out the delicious juice and carefully discarded the rest (the water stations get really slippy thanks to all the oranges and bananas!).
From this point on, I knew I would likely need some more walk breaks in order to get round comfortably. No point in pushing my body into something it was not ideally conditioned for as this would have a detrimental effect on my recovery. Of course by now, everyone around me was fading fast and lots of others were slowing significantly or stopping to walk. We were approaching the 30km mark and The Wall:
Photo: Shirley Smith
But no wall for me. I was tired and undertrained, but I was moving and going to finish this marathon!
By the time I reached the 20 mile mark, my quad felt marginally tighter so I decided to stretch it out, quite literally at the 20 mile mark as I used the marker for balance! This was also an ideal time for a gel while walking a little, but I was soon caught by a fellow Macmillan runner named Dave whom I had met the night before at the pasta party. He encouraged me to run with him and we kept each other going through the next 5k, past Roland Garros in the Bois de Boulogne towards the final Macmillan cheer point, however with 5k to go I needed one last gel while Dave knew that if he stopped, he’d never move again so I told him to go on. After all, there was just a parkrun left to go!
It was really warm by this point so I stopped at a refreshment table to dip my hands in the icy water. As I did so, a lovely volunteer with a powerful hose asked if I wanted my legs hosed down. I have to say, the impromptu ice bath was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever experienced whilst running. My legs genuinely felt refreshed and I was able to start running again straight away. That final 10k slog through the Bois de Boulogne has been described as a “death march” and it’s certainly not my favourite part of the race so keeping going is tough. The crowds tend to be a bit thinner and the scenery is not so gripping while you plod out those final miles on weary legs. Fortunately, there were a couple of things to entertain me now I was on my own again.
First of all, there were messages from one of the sponsors along the ground, in both French and English, saying things like we were all heroes and encouraging us to the finish. Second of all, there was the group handing out samples of wine towards the end of the race (I passed on this and stuck to my “running buffet” of orange segments!). Finally, there was a photo op.
In the weeks before the race, we were invited to sign up with one of the sponsors via Facebook. All runners would have their photo taken at 41km and this photo would be automatically posted to our Facebook pages. Immediately after signing up, I realised that this was potentially a mistake as I would likely end up with a hideous photo of me screwing up my face and looking awful, however the forthcoming cameras were well signposted and I made sure to be not only running, but posing, and by the time I returned to the hotel, all of my friends had been commenting on these 2 photos on my timeline:
Posing done, all that was left was to finish the race. Being familiar with the course, I knew that I wouldn’t see the Arc de Triomphe until I was just beyond the 26 mile marker, but still I was anxiously looking out for it as I emerged from the Bois de Boulogne, picking up the pace and enjoying the cheers and encouragement from the now abundant crowd. I mustered everything I had left, and “sprinted” to the line, arms aloft:
Official race photo
I had done it. And at 4:43:39, comfortably under 5 hours despite the injury. Having expected to be around 4:45 – 5 hours, I was definitely pleased with that!
I fought back the usual wave of emotions, trying not to cry whilst surrounded by strangers in a foreign country, and instead focused on gathering up all my post-race goodies: tech T-shirt, the all-important medal, water and some more orange segments from a veritable fruit salad on offer!
While I was shuffling through the finish area to met Steve, some friends were at the top of the Arc de Triomphe and snapped a photo of the scene below on Avenue Foch:
Photo: Shirley Smith
An incredible sight and the finish line is way off in the distance, not really visible unless you happen to know where it is.
Once reunited with Steve (and my bag which I’d run a 26.2 mile loop to retrieve!) it was time for the obligatory post-race photos and general posing (as far as our rapidly seizing up bodies would allow!):
After which it was time to shuffle back to the hotel where we had these beauties waiting for us:
We made a special trip to Bertie’s Cupcakery the day before as I was desperate to try the cupcakes after reading about them on the DC Rainmaker blog and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The two on the left are salted caramel, top right is Nutella and bottom right pistachio. I highly recommend a trip over there! These made for a wonderful post-race treat and helped keep us going until we were ready to go out and eat.
So that was marathon number seven. Perhaps not the performance I had hoped for, but the best I could ever have expected under the circumstances. I’m pleased that I was able to run, able to enjoy my time in Paris and able to finish in one piece. The Paris marathon remains very special to me for various reasons and I know this won’t be the last chance I ever have to run in Paris.
À bientôt Paris ❤