Marathons – Paris

Paris – my first marathon

Day before: Unintentional speedy run to the start of United Nations Friendship pre-marathon run (the start was further from my hotel than I thought). The UN Friendship run is a great way to get into the atmosphere and to shake out some of the fears of a first marathon. Ended up running about 7 miles which is obviously not recommended – 3 or 4 is sufficient. Felt bouncy and ready for a marathon but the actual run was at a very relaxed pace and reigned in the desire to race so I just soaked up the route and atmosphere and smiled a lot as I tried to imagine how I would be feeling tomorrow.

Clothing: Cotton shorts (designed more for holidays than marathons but they worked for me) with pockets for my hotel key and hankies, white running vest, M & S socks and undies (including a ‘substantial’ pair of knickers to keep my glutes warm), Asics Gel Nimbus running shoes, sunglasses.

Fuel: Night before – squid ink pasta with seafood sauce, salad, chocolate mousse; breakfast – cereal with extra banana and raisins plus cup of black coffee; during marathon – water which I carried to keep warm (cold water gives me tummy ache); afterwards – rare steak and glass of red wine.

Pain: (Not for the squeamish) At around mile 20 I had a searing pain in one of my right toes, it was so bad I thought about stopping but carried on. A few minutes later the pain eased. It was only later back at my hotel I realised that one of my toe-nails had pushed down out of its bed and through the skin of my toe about a centimetre down. I was amazed that the pain wasn’t worse and that I could still walk let alone run.

I had absolutely no concept of what 37,000 runners crammed into Avenue Des Champs Elysee would be like and when I first saw the ocean of people I was completely horrified. Images of school assemblies and feelings of claustrophobia flooded over me and inside the tightness in my throat threatened to strangle me. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the throng of runners as a smaller group of individuals.

It had never entered my head that I needed to arrive early, I thought 15 minutes or so before the start was plenty of time – had I missed something in the pack with my chip and number? I’d imagined I’d pop to the loo and then line up with the other runners, just as I had in shorter races – it was the sheer number that sent me into a panic. Metal fences held the runners in place and for a few moments I wondered how I was going to get to run, then I saw that every 25 metres or so there were ‘gates’ and by showing my number by the appropriate corral I could gain entry into the pressing crowd.

There were huge queues by every open coffee shop for the toilets but I decided I wasn’t going to waste six months training and miss the start so zoomed off up a side street, out of sight. I felt a horrible guilt which was not calmed by signs saying that I could be arrested. Within moments I squeezed back into the crush of runners and then we seemed to be moving. I don’t remember hearing a gun or hooter just the sound of softly shuffling feet and shouts of ‘allez, allez’.

It took five minutes to get to the start line and chip mats, then the crowd of runners thinned leaving space to run and the early downward slope made it easy to get into a comfortable stride and rhythm. This was it, I was actually running a marathon – the very thing I’d trained and planned for months and held a secret wish to do ever since that first London marathon back in 1981. The initial panic and fear were replaced with a tingle of excitement at this journey into the unknown aware now only of my own breathing and footsteps and those runners within my immediate vision – I must focus.

The cobbles around Place de Concorde were a test of concentration and running past the first water station, a test of nerve and pain threshold as I was elbowed, kicked and pushed from every angle. Fortunately I had my own water so resolved that at all other drinks stations I would hold a middle line, or at least as far as possible from the tables.  

From starting in Des Champs Elysee the Paris marathon winds along into Rue de Rivoli and Rue St. Antoine. I think it was here that a family decided to form a chain, punctuated with suitcases on wheels, across the road causing a near pile up of runners as we all concertinaed into each other. A few moments later and we were back moving and continued heading South East into the Bois de Vincennes, the 9K mark and the sun shone. The route through the woods felt comfortable and the dusty road easy to run on, this soaked up another 10K. One section was lined with portaloos but by this stage my mind was set on keeping one foot in front of the other and I didn’t want to break the rhythm. As we started the 24K we moved close to the Seine passed the Ile de Cite   and Ile St Louis and headed towards the Eiffel Tower. All the bridges were lined with cheering, waving crowds and I couldn’t stop smiling at the joy of it all.

In one of the underpasses I checked my watch and, turning on the light, accidently switched off the timer. When I next compared my time with the kilometre counter on the roadside, I thought I was comfortably ahead of schedule. I think around this time I also thought I saw my travelling companion and waved frantically but it wasn’t him. A slight confusion kicked in when I realised both errors but fortunately my legs kept turning over. Away from the Seine, at around 33K we ran into Bois de Boulogne. The perfect day for running was beginning to feel much warmer and I was alarmed to see several runners struggling with cramp and many more jogging with near rigid limps – the complete opposite to the bouncy fluidity of the early miles. I felt relatively fine and was strangely confident that my training would pay off. 

There were not many women in this marathon so whenever the crowd spotted one the word would go round ‘une femme, une femme’ and everyone cheered – what a fantastic boost.

My calculations took a further hit when I reached the 40K mark which I’d originally thought was equivalent to 26.2 miles only to register there were another 2K to go. Preventing that awful sinking feeling was incredibly tough and I was tempted to down a glass of wine to see me through the last section – different regions had their wines available in the last section, the French interpretation of energy drinks!

Along by the northern tip of the lake and suddenly the finish line was visible. I could see the clock and realised that my time was so much more than I hoped and planned for, it was quick enough to give me a ‘good for age’ time for the New York Marathon! With the substantial medal dangling around my neck I chatted with anyone and everyone that was around – I was so thrilled and excited to have completed my first marathon. The time: 3:35:54.

Walking back down Des Champs Elysee in my finishers black cape* I thought, ‘this must be the chicest outfit in Paris today and certainly the most hard fought for’.

*A year later I ran the Boston Marathon – the weather was atrocious and I wore my Paris Marathon cape to the start, handing it to the parents of a young women who was also running. I asked that she pass the cape on at her next marathon. I often wonder if she did and where that cape is now.


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