The Paris Marathon 2016 began down the Champs Elysee under a stunning blue sky with cheering crowds and excited optimism.
Over forty-one thousand people ran 26.2 miles through one of the most beautiful cities in the world taking in the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral and Le Louvre before ending next to the Arc Du Triumphe.
This was my third marathon, my second on foreign soil and having run from London to Brighton last year (100k), I fell headfirst into the complacency trap.
Like most people, my girlfriend and I had a 16 week marathon training plan which meant that it would start on the 21st December 2015.
And like most people we over-indulged a little during Christmas and New Year so thought “I’ll start the training in January”.
And then I decided to quit my job and move country.
And then my girlfriend decided to get into an altercation with a mountain that was only going to end one way.
At this point no travel or accommodation had been booked so the logical thing would be to cut our losses but instead I waited until the week before the race and then decided to book the two hotels, two ferries and two trains necessary to get to Paris from Jersey and back.
So on Saturday morning at 9.15, I was stood on the deck of the Condor ferry wishing I was at parkrun rather than embarking on a six hour trip across northern France.
Actually, the journey was a really smooth, relaxing sojourn through the countryside while I watched inspirational videos from Kilian Jornet (A Fine Line and Langtang), Anton Krupicka (In the High Country) and Jenn Shelton (Outside Voices).
I wonder what ever happened to the golden age of trains where arriving at a station was a real occasion?
After a 15 minute walk past a shopping mall, Japanese restaurants and a couple of corner shops, I arrived at the Hotel Apollon Montparnasse and unpacked.
The room was awkwardly shaped but contained everything I would need for one night and had the added bonus of a view onto a lively crossroads which kept me entertained when I should have been trying to rest.
I’ve decided that I hate marathon expos.
They lure you in with free nuts and a timing bracelet but in reality these are just a façade for a shopping mall preying on insecure runners picking up last minute accessories that they shouldn’t be using.
Remember seeing all those articles that said “don’t use anything on race day that you haven’t used in training”?
You’ll notice none of the experts said “don’t use anything on race day that you haven’t used in training apart from some exotic looking gels which may be lube or may be caffeine but I don’t speak French so we’ll just wait and see”.
I then headed back to the hotel where I thought I would continue my carb-loading with a mini-Spanish omelette, a pot of pasta with pesto, a bar of chocolate and a half bottle of red wine from the local shop.
While this would’ve been a winning shop on Supermarket Sweep, it was nowhere close to what I needed or wanted.
“At least breakfast was included,” I thought as I headed downstairs at 7am the next day.
A pain au chocolate, a baguette with jam and coffee darker than the combined armies of Hades greeted me from the table.
It was lovely and I finished everything, aware that I needed energy for later.
Usually I go for a peanut butter bagel followed by porridge before a race but this would be alright?
Now here is a science lesson I wish I didn’t have to give: coffee contains caffeine which can…speed up digestive transit.
The coffee I had just ingested was stronger than Mark Strong strong-arming an Extra Strong Mint which meant my insides were moving quicker than the TGV on which I’d arrived.
This continued until about 30 minutes before the marathon was due to start. At least I would be lighter.
Despite this, I enjoyed making my way to the start line.
I love the different ways everyone prepares, the supporters that they bring along and the look nervousness or excitement in their faces.
Alighting the Metro, I joined the swarms heading for the exit where we were greeting by golden early-morning light emanating from behind the Arc de Triomphe.
I was taken aback by how big it was, expecting it to be similar in scale to Hyde Park Corner.
Although it was a still a spectacle and I was internally enjoying myself, not having anyone to share it with really did dampen my excitement.
Running can be a solitary sport but is much better shared.
C’est la vie
I walked slowly past the Arc, making a conscious effort to take everything in.
I’d forgotten to bring my running vest and didn’t have a phone armband which meant I wasn’t going to be able to take pictures or selfies in front of the Bastille.
At first I was annoyed but then realised that it would be a rare occasion to run a full marathon with no headphones, running partners or other distractions – it would be just me, Paris and forty thousand other runners.
The aerobics dancers on the podium in front of me began a countdown and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to count backwards in another language so I just chimed in at “Deux, Unnnnnnnnn, Allllez”.
When we actually go going, there were a number of different paced runners all bobbing and weaving to get into position which made running in a straight line tough work but I kept an even pace and literally rolled up my sleeves as the temperature was continuing to rise.
The streets reminded me of Inception and all of the buildings looked impressively ornate.
I don’t know Paris as well as I thought so was unable to spot any particular landmarks but kept plodding along looking up at the shops and apartments.
Quickly it seemed we had left the city centre and entered Parisian suburbia followed by a large park.
I was running at a consistent pace and was well on track for 4 hours overall as we turned at the far end of the course to head back.
My Garmin buzzed and I saw that I had covered the first half marathon in just under two hours, perfect pacing.
This was all the more surprising as I spotted the halfway arch about 500m up the road – I wasn’t going to make it on time.
I then made a rookie mistake and began to sprint to the halfway point and just scraped in at 1.59 and seconds.
Cursing myself, I dropped the speed and cadence back down to normal and allowed myself to get swept along with masses as we turned towards the River Seine and the final miles.
My favourite parts of the course were where the crowds narrowed and it felt like I was part of the Tour de France on the final day, with people cheering and cow bells ringing.
My least favourite part was tunnel.
I’d been told that it was long and came at around 30k so watch out for the disco lights and music.
When I actually got to it, it was cold, long and filled with soothing music and pictures of tropical islands.
WTF???? I don’t need to be chilled out with 10k left to go! I need pumping, pumping techno music and European happy hardcore.
There was then a series of undulating underpasses and this was where the wheels really fell off.
I passed the Eiffel Tower and tried to let the image sink in but by this point I was really struggling and just wanted to focus on putting one foot in front of another.
So all of the amazing sights of central Paris passed by in a painful blur and I tried to follow my own advice of ticking off each kilometre as the route started to head up hill and through another park, past Roland Garros.
By this point, I was chanting to myself to keep going and fantasising about the free banana and slices of orange at the finish line.
I was already resigned to missing out on the four hour mark but I was just elated to cross the finish line in 4.10.37 (you can check out my run on Strava).
I was swaying, struggling to stay upright, my eyesight was fuzzing up and I felt like I was going to be sick but I’d finished.
I needed to catch a train so I got the Metro back to Pernety where the concerned Hotel Receptionist bought me a coke and let me rest on the sofa and then finally, in the cool of the lobby and with the sugar from the Coke, I began to feel normal again.
This was a real lesson in how much you should respect the marathon distance and a mistake I won’t be making again.
Aside from cramping up in the back of a St Malo taxi, my return journey was blissfully uneventful.
On Monday, my body even felt good enough to run two slow miles along the waterfront.
This was a classic case of “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. If you want to avoid a similar fate, here are my tips:
- Race day actually begins two days before the gun starter’s pistol. Make sure you have plans for food, travel and accommodation including back-ups (I wish I’d taken a bowl of homemade pasta)
- Don’t get carried away at the Expo. It’s fun to see new stuff and try it out but it can be tiring, expensive and you really should have everything you need.
- If you drank coffee before your training, keep doing it. Otherwise, DON’T DO IT!!
- Alcohol before a race is bad, even if you’re just trying to relax and feel Parisian. Avoid. Drink water and lots of it, especially the day before.
- Finally, enjoy it! Don’t get caught up on some arbitrary time barrier – enjoy your surroundings, the atmosphere and the people who are running with you.
How was it for you?
As more time passes, I find myself looking back more favourably on the whole experience.
I even bought the official photographs as a reminder that it was fun and I did smile!
I’d love to hear more positive stories about the event. It was a beautiful day and an amazing city but I just wasn’t in the right place physically or mentally to run the marathon so please feel free to convince me I should do it again!