As Paris is a week away thought it would be worth recap of my experiences from last year to help any runners.
I’d fancied a go at Paris for a number of years and having never visited the city itself it seemed an ideal excuse to immerse the kids in some culture, and then a few days at Disneyland Paris to erase any essence of culture. Having not managed to get in to London for 2016 this became THE spring marathon for me.
Having had some great results in the winter from higher mileage I took the decision to target around 50 miles per week, with goal of 200 miles per month. Keen to avoid ‘junk’ miles I aimed to never run slower than planned ‘fall back’ marathon pace of 8min/miles with exception of some long runs. This is against the typical “long runs should be at marathon pace +1 min” approach but I’ve never been one to follow instructions.
Medical Cert –
For anyone that’s not run in France, they don’t use the UK “promise I won’t sue if I die” medical waiver but instead insist on a doctors note declaring there is “no known reason” why you can’t run. This isn’t too arduous if you have regular interaction with the doctor. For the typical “if it’s not fallen off it’ll fix itself” runner, you may not even be registered to a GP or if you are, then handing in your registration form 7 years ago is likely the only time you’ve stepped foot in the surgery.
Having read up online I downloaded the pro-forma example letter from the Paris Marathon website and dropped off to the doctors as instructed by the receptionist. Then followed weeks of chasing as I was told it was progressing. Arduously it moved from ‘received’, through ‘allocated to practice manager’ and finally the week before we were due to fly out I was invited in for a check up. By this point panic had taken over and I had an expertly forged letter as a fall back plan signed by a fictitious MD. The bemused actual doctor asked how many marathons I’d run before (72 by this point), laughed, said he might as well check pulse and blood pressure for the look of it and signed it off for a £15 fee. Doctor said he didn’t want to see me again unless I won so pressure was on.
The original plan for Paris had been sub 3:20. Given I’d managed a 3:15 in the previous month I felt the pressure was off a little having beaten my spring target. If it all went wrong I’d decided to let the 3:15 pacer go, drop back to a more leisurely 3:30 target and enjoy the event.
We arrived in Paris on the Friday and after the usual delay due to French air traffic control and nightmare queue to buy train tickets to get into Paris, dropped stuff at hotel and went off to explore. The wife and I had signed up for the accompanying ‘Breakfast Run’ on Saturday morning, a non-timed 5k fun run through the streets of Paris taking in the sights and ending with coffee and croissants in a local square. Cynically it’s an overpriced parkrun (and the same time as the Paris parkrun only a few miles away) but is a great start to the weekend and more like a running carnival as everyone waved their national flags and wound through the streets.
The downside of the breakfast run is I had to make it to the expo before it closed on Friday to get race numbers for the marathon and the breakfast run. True to form this was on the outskirts of the city in a pretty uninspiring industrial and conference park and not that conveniently located for public transport, especially when the metro line was closed due to an impossible to translate issue. Fellow passengers sat on the stationary train, most headed to the expo and aware that time was ticking before it closed. If you were only interested in the marathon then you could simply return tomorrow and fight the crowds. Those like me needing the breakfast run race packs took a random variety of alternative tube routes and a long walk to get there just before closing. Nothing says welcome to the city like spending hours travelling on graffiti ridden, piss smelling public transport to pick up a small piece of paper before repeating the journey back. It’s confirmed my belief that expos are unnecessary and a money making opportunity to sell floor space to suppliers eager to fleece a captive audience of runners.
Fortunately arriving late cut down on the crowds and I rocked up to the first of registration tables. Expecting a deep and thorough checking of my medical note I was disappointed to find my £15 letter having little more than a cursory glance to confirm name and thrown in a box for filing. In hindsight I’m pretty sure Mickey Mouse himself could have signed the letter off. A point to bear in mind for future.
After grabbing the marathon bib, a rather fetching rucksack for the drop bag and the breakfast numbers I fled the expo before being talked into wasting Euros on stuff I didn’t need and went to meet the family for dinner wondering how many more beggars and unsavoury individuals I’d encounter on the way back.
Race Day –
I woke up on race day after a slightly interrupted sleep. Figuring I’d not drunk enough whilst sighseeing I’d overdone the fluids before bed once again and spent too much of the night weeing. Making the best I could of the hotel continental breakfast I took the metro to the start, feeling relaxed and ready for the race. This feeling lasted until I walked out of the station onto the Champs-Elysées into a seething mass of people all coming the other way. My lack of preparation had seen me arrive at George V station, ideally located for the start pens. Not ideally located for the bag drop in Avenue Foch. I had no idea how far the bag drop was but it was already 8:30 and my pen was due to leave at 8:50 after closing at 8:40.
After ruling out dumping my bag by the side of the road I decided I’d just have to run for it, pushing my way through oncoming hoards as politely as possible and hurdling Parisians and their dogs out for a Sunday stroll. Whilst in the queue to drop my bag the large display screens showed the elite start going off at 8:45. The erupting cheers as one plucky club runner managed to briefly lead the elite cheered me up a little and took the edge off what a total mess up I was making of my Spring marathon. The day was already looking like being one of the hottest of the year which wasn’t helping my panicked and sweaty demeanour. One further warm up sprint (this time going with the flow) and I made it to my pen in time to see the back of the final runner setting off and the next pen about to be released. Fortunately, a marshal took pity on me, squeezed me through the barrier and I was able to set off chasing them down the iconic street. I’d run nearly 10 metres of the marathon and I was already a sweaty tired mess. The casual observer would struggle to believe this was my 73rd attempt.
Based on the training marathons I held the pace back with a halfway goal of 1:37, something I’d reached multiple times over the past dozen or so races. The 3:15 pacer was only just ahead and I tried to force the doubts from my mind and sweat from my eyes and settle in, trying not to notice how hot it already was.
At around 5 miles the course breaks out of the picturesque streets and enters the Bois De Vincennes park. It’s beautiful and largely flat but I was starting to notice the inclines. The doubting voice in my head reminded me I’d probably covered a decent paced parkrun in the process of getting to the start pen and kept reminding me how tired my legs must be feeling already. At times it also declared how bright the sun was and inquired if I could feel it beating down on me. Yes I could. Each water stop I grabbed a bottle to drink and one for my head. Until the later stages they provided only water so I had some sports tablets ready to drop in. As the race progressed my bottle turned all the colours of the rainbow as I dropped various tablets in.
Halfway came just after re-entering the city and I’d kept sight of the 3:15 pacer. My splits were on target although not feeling as comfortable as I would have hoped. All I needed to do was maintain the pace. 25k marker came and went and I’d dropped a little. I would have murdered someone for a Red Bull or a Coke at that point. In desperation I tried one of the weird French energy tubes from the aid stations. They looked like travel sized toothpaste and tasted like the bizarre offspring of cake icing and Haribo. The locals seems to like them, but didn’t sit well with me and I started to slow, losing the pacer and had a ‘why do I bother’ spell. Through one of the underpasses, away from the crowds and spectators I slowed to a walk. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one struggling and despite a massive drop in pace I was still passing people. Taking comfort from their misery (I felt awful but not as bad as they looked) I resolved to salvage what I could. Some rough sums told me if I could hold the final 10 miles at under 9 minute pace I would come in just over 3:30. Every mile under that would pull it back.
My efforts to progress were hampered by seemingly every aid station having someone decide to stop dead in front of me and peruse the selection on offer like he was in his local supermarché. My French isn’t good enough to convey my thoughts (“For fucks sake it’s the same bloody stuff as the last 10 stations, if you’ve not decided in the intervening 3 miles what you want then you don’t deserve anything.”) so I stuck to the particularly British approach of tutting loudly every time someone brought me to a stop whilst they did their weekly food shop at the aid table.
Checking back on my watch at every distance marker I was just about holding it together. The shortest route on the course was marked with a green line and I doggedly stuck to it, bearing down on runners in front and largely intimidating them to one side. For the final 5 or so miles the course again left the bustling Paris streets and wound through Bois De Boulogne, home of the Paris parkrun. It was a beautiful area but largely devoid of supporters. The few people we did pass were other runners out for a leisurely Sunday run in the dappled shade of the trees. Normally when I’m on a training run and happen upon runners in a race I get terrible envy watching them storm past onwards to glory and a medal whilst I’m running for no rewards. Right then I would have happily swapped places and had a relaxed social run along the shaded soft trails rather than pounding tired legs over the concrete.
I was brought back from my daydreaming by sirens. Lots of them. Subconsciously I probably registered there were a lot of ambulances and rapid response bikes on the course. This was the first time I really noticed how many fellow runners were struggling with the heat or the pace and being tended to at the side of the road or lifted into emergency vehicles. One runner up ahead succumbed to the heat and as he fell was caught by passing runners and gently laid down on the road as he clearly was in no fit state to look after himself. It was heart-warming to see strangers jeopardise their race to help someone else, but also hilarious to watch the fallen runner slowly raise his arm over his chest, bring them together as if to pray to his chosen deity for recovery, but actually to pause his Garmin before laying back down for a little rest. You can imagine his tale to his mates “Look at my awesome splits for 22 miles, I was on way to a massive PB right up until I woke up in the First Aid tent.”
Whilst doing my best not to join the stricken runners I continued dumping water on my head whenever able, and focused on the green line. I was keeping under the 9min pace and with each passing mile was getting further under the 3:30. As the crowds started to build again in the final miles I started to relax and try to enjoy the atmosphere. The crowds were chanting “Alle, alle” for us to go. In that curious mental fog you get at the end of the race I wondered who this runner called Ali was and whether it was an Alison or an Alistair, hoping that I’d manage to keep ahead of him or her if possible.
Finally exiting the park the finish line was in sight, I crossed the line in 3:27:52. The final stages had been a painful grind but had got me under the 3:30. I felt I’d ‘done’ Paris so wouldn’t need to return.
After collecting my (disappointing plastic looking) medal, I did a quick change in the portaloo, consumed my body weight in orange segments and made my way to the Metro and the hotel to meet up with family for our transfer to Disneyland. After all nothing is better marathon recovery than meeting Mickey and his mates. In total I covered 37 miles that day including the afternoon at the theme park. No wonder my legs were complaining as I squeezed into bed.