Running the Paris Marathon
SPOILER ALERT: I did it! I ran a marathon!
Here's my race recap of the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris 2018; my first ever marathon after beginning my love affair with running two years ago. It's a long one, so grab yourself a cup of tea and find a comfy seat...
I sprang out of bed after a fitful night's sleep, following this text message from the event organisers:
They weren't kidding. Rays of sunshine were already beaming through the voile blinds in the hotel room, illuminating my race attire that I'd painstakingly laid out the night before. I pulled on my kit, necked a Berocca and double espresso then James and I headed upstairs to meet our friends in their room for breakfast. An entire baguette slathered in peanut butter and jam had been lovingly prepared for me by Gemma, but as it turned out I could only manage a couple of mouthfuls as my stomach was in knots. After much deliberation over whether I would need one bum bag or two for my in-race snacks (I had enough fuel for the four of us to probably run an ultra marathon...!) I eventually decided upon just the one.
We weren't sure how the metro would be affected by the scheduled French rail strikes that day, so we set off to walk the half hour to the Arc de Triomphe. I'm glad we did this as it transpired to be a great way to gently stretch the legs before the long run ahead. What could have been a very sombre stroll / death march actually turned out to be full of banter and good chat amongst the four of us, excitement building with every step we took closer to the start. We posed for selfies en route and then I hotfooted it to the McCafé at the top of the Champs Élysées to steady the nerves with a cup of tea and a banana.
Quick toilet stop and then it was already time to walk the boys further down the Champs Élysées to the corral for their scheduled time (55,000 runners meant the start was in waves; the boys were in the speedy 3h30 pen, with Gemma and I in the 4h00 wave). Gemma had spotted that somebody had dumped their entire race pack in the bin and it really hit home what a mental, as well as physical, journey we were all going to be on during that day. Imagine making it all the way to the start line, after months of training and preparation, and throwing in the towel just before you are due to start?
We wished the boys luck and waved farewell before making our way to our own corral. We had our bibs and chips inspected before being let into the pen, which at that point was eerily calm and relaxed. Most people seemed to be queuing for the portaloos or stretching, although there was a group having a crafty cigarette in the corner!
Our corral filled up pretty quickly and the pungent stench of Deep Heat pervaded the air. It had become quickly apparent after leaving the hotel that I would not need my jumper - it was already warm before 9am - but I was thankful to have it to use as a cushion so I could sit comfortably on the cobbles whilst we waited for the race to start. Music was blaring; 'Elastic Heart' by Sia and Foster The People's 'Pumped Up Kicks' blasting out, helping to build the atmosphere.
After what seemed like an eternity, we shuffled forwards to begin the warm up (apologies to the lone, energetic, French aerobic instructor who was trying to encourage us to jump up and down and clap. Gemma and I just stood and scowled at her; we wanted to get started already!) and then promptly, we shuffled some more, pressed our Garmins and were off! The race was on.
Straight off the bat, I found it easy to find my own space and get into my rhythm and pace. The cobbles from the Champs Élysées continued around the Place de la Concorde, but by the time we hit Rue de Rivoli it was onto more familiar tarmac. Past the Tuileries and the Louvre, as we ran towards the Hôtel de Ville and the shopping areas of Paris, the spectators began to appear... as did the heat. With direct sun overhead, I became very thirsty, very quickly. The first water stop wasn't until the 5km point, so I decided (wisely or not, I don't know!) to pick up the pace. I was parched by the time I saw the red Vittel signs advertising that water was just 200m ahead. Well, I don't know who measured that 200m, but the actual water station was past the Bastille and closer to 6km than it was 5km! It was torturous. Nevertheless, I grabbed two bottles of water and downed one straight away whilst pouring the other into my hydration bladder which I'd preloaded with a sachet of Tailwind. The plan was to start sipping Tailwind from 3 miles onwards, with a top up sachet every six miles during the race.
From Bastille, there was a gentle hill upwards in the direction of the Bois de Vincennes. About 5 miles in, I began to feel the tell tale signs of needing the toilet. I'd forgotten to check where the portaloos were located along the route, so I just clenched my bumcheeks and powered on whilst praying that the next water stop had toilets available too. Entering the Bois de Vincennes, I popped my first gel of the race. I didn't actually feel I needed the extra energy at that point, but I thought it best to stick to the nutrition strategy I'd practised in training.
Well. That was mistake numero uno. Gut bomb, ahoy! This just intensified my desperate need for the loo. By the time the red signs came advertising water (and toilets!) up ahead, just by the beautiful Chateau de Vincennes, I was more than ready. And here came rookie error numero deux: I stopped to queue for the toilets.
Living up to the quintessential British stereotype of politely queuing up for anything and everything, I dutifully joined the line for a bank of about 8 portaloos. Except every time a loo became available, a runner would nip off the course and speedily jump in, which meant my queueing efforts were rather futile! In the end, I picked an occupied portaloo and guarded it with my life, willing the occupant to evacuate so I could, er, evacuate in a different manner. You know that old running adage of "never trust a fart"? Yeah, that. Too much information, perhaps, but self-dignity appears to go out the window when you run a marathon! (side note: Gemma told me later on that she had seen somebody taking a dump actually ON THE COURSE - Paula Radcliffe must have been a pioneer!). Anyway, that modus operandi eventually paid off and I was back onto the route again, albeit having lost ten minutes in the debacle.
I topped up my water bottle at the station and cracked on.
This part of the race was largely through the Bois de Vincennes. What could have been quite a dull stretch was livened up with numerous bands playing and families picnicking, cheering on the runners as they passed by. I was hoping for some shade amongst the trees, but alas, that was not meant to be. Just before the 12 mile marker, we crossed the Péripherique and popped back out into Paris.
The crowds were swelling and French firefighters were on hand to hose down the hot, sweaty runners. They were very handsome from what I was told, but I didn't notice - shame on me! By this point, I had rather annoyingly started to need the loo, again! Determined not to make the same portaloo mistake again, I slowed down and started to scan the thoroughfares for open restaurants or cafes that I could pop into, instead. Unfortunately, it seemed the only premises open at noon in that area of Paris were tabacs, resplendent with old men sat outside nursing a beer and smoking Gauloises whilst idly spectating.
I carried on, but unfortunately the sense of urgency didn't translate to me running faster. I frantically began looking down all the side streets, praying that I'd see an opportunity for a toilet stop soon. Then the eureka moment came and I detoured off to a rather fancy restaurant near the Gare de Lyons. The waiter took one look at me, smiled, then pointed towards the back of the restaurant. I bounded down the stairs and joined yet another queue for the loos, although at least this time they were rather more salubrious!
First of all, I'm pleased to report that I didn't stop again in the race, so there are no further tales of gut bombs and toilet adventures! ;)
Rejoining the course after my pitstop, I could see the Half Marathon point up ahead. This first half had flown by, and the thought of running the same distance again didn't actually seem overwhelming! The sun was shining, the crowds were building, and I was still smiling.
Looping back round Bastille, I saw my first casualty of the course; a poor guy had collapsed on the sidelines. Shortly after, we had to move to the sides for an ambulance to get through to another injured man - something that happened ever more frequently as the race went on.
Around 14 miles, we dropped down to the Seine and followed the riverbank. I’ve got to say, this was my favourite part of the entire race. There were people sat on picnic rugs drinking red wine, children requesting high-fives and others shouting motivation: “ALLEZ, ALLEZ, ALLEZ CARLY!” The sun was glistening on the river, I could see Notre Dame and the Musée D'Orsay on the other bank and before long, the Eiffel Tower was on the horizon. It suddenly hit me that I was doing it - I was running a marathon! In Paris! I had an epiphany moment that I would never experience this lack of pressure if I ran another marathon - where the goal is to simply complete, not compete. I was really enjoying it! I decided to not even look at my watch from that point on, to take my time and just soak up the experience. I started to high five every child I saw, bobbing and weaving if I had to.
Orange segments at the refreshment stations were a divine food sent directly from God, I'd decided by this point. The sweet, juicy nectar provided a refreshing antidote to the sticky gels I'd been downing every four miles or so.
We'd arrived back in central Paris and were running through the subterranean tunnels. At the entrance to the first tunnel, we were shouted to move to the sides by a team of four soldiers carrying a cancer patient, wired to machines, on a stretcher. I started walking and eating my sweets, taking notice of the other runners around me. Why were they running, I wondered?
There was a little Peruvian lady in front of me, like a real-life Dora the Explorer with her backpack on, running and dancing along not much faster than I was walking. Her smile was infectious and she looked to be having the time of her life! I paid attention to the bibs and took in all the different nationalities - Brazilians, Turks, Americans, Japanese. This really was the most incredible experience!
Another tunnel had an art installation - welcome to hell, or something, and I took it all in, looking at the pictures and pinching myself that it was for real. The penultimate tunnel had a mobile disco with a man set up in his transit van pumping out tunes, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I stopped and actually started dancing to Chaka Khan. My Dad was live tracking me back in the UK and was worried about why I’d been in the tunnel so long… erm, I was having a boogy. As you do, when you run a marathon! ;)
I started running again and by mile 18, I’d reached the Eiffel Tower and was on a massive high. This was the furthest distance I’d ran in training and any footstep past this would be uncharted territory for me. I realised I could actually do this, I could run the marathon and it was SO MUCH FUN! Perhaps I was delirious, but that feeling stayed with me until I eventually did reach the finish line! (spoiler - ha).
I ran round the corner at mile 20 to massive cheers from the UK cheer squad. After the French, us Brits made up the largest contingency of runners by nationality. From this point, the course started heading uphill slightly and I noticed that people were beginning to walk all around me. A trio of ambulances came rushing past, which worried me as I had my husband and two friends ahead of me and I hoped they were okay. I saw one man badly hit the infamous 'wall' at about mile 21, staggering like he was drunk before his legs just buckled and he collapsed on the road.
At the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne I started a power walk / jog hybrid - I knew by this point I could complete the marathon, with only a 10km left to go. My legs felt okay, considering, and my head was in a good place so I decided not to push it by forcing myself to run. But let me tell you - that last 10km felt longer than the entire previous 20 miles. Not for nothing do they say that a marathon is a 20 mile warm up then a 10km race - it was n e v e r - e n d i n g!
From mile 22 my Garmin started flashing with a flurry of notifications from our group chat. Charles and Gemma had finished and were heading back to the hotel for a shower before coming back to the finish line. James messaged me to say he’d finished and was waiting for me when I was at mile 23 and I felt so overwhelmed with pride and relief for him. Last time he’d seen me finish a half marathon (read about that here), it was like a car crash so I made sure to text him that I was BUZZING in case he was unsure what to expect!
At mile 24, I stopped to help a British man in a Parkrun t-shirt who had cramped up and could barely limp, offering him an electrolyte tablet and motivating him to get moving again. After this, I had no spring in my step anymore and the next two miles were barely a shuffle, just willing myself to edge closer to the finish line, like a sun-baked sloth. I admired the Louis Vuitton building and was then slightly disheartened to see the other runners ahead looping back towards the finish. It was hard work, but I was determined - and oddly, still smiling.
I knew the finish line must be imminent, but couldn’t see it. Finally, there it was in front of me and I decided on a ‘sprint’ finish as there was no way I wasn’t RUNNING across that finish line. I gave it all I had (which wasn’t much at this point) and crossed the line with a chip time of 5:55. I grabbed my medal, finisher’s tee and a banana and headed out to find James. I spotted him almost immediately and he heard me before he could see me, I was literally whooping with pure joy! I’d done it. We all had.
Gemma and Charles had returned from the hotel, bringing my pre-packed rucksack of essentials for me and looking a damn sight fresher for a shower than James and I did! We gingerly walked over to the Champs Élysées for a celebratory post-marathon beer. This was the most restorative, sweetest tasting nectar EVER (even better than the NHS tea and toast you get after giving birth!). I swapped my trainers for flip-flops and after bidding farewell to our friends who were heading off to the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar home, James and I stumbled along to carb Mecca: Five Guys. We had the biggest, fully loaded burger and a huge portion of hot, salty fries.
We walked back to catch the metro to our hotel in Levallois-Perret and a lady giving up her seat on the crowded train for me made me cry at her kindness. I hopped straight in the shower at the hotel to freshen up and inspect my trotters. The damage? Lots of blisters and I’d lost two toenails entirely. High on endorphins, they didn’t feel painful though. Collapsed into bed, expecting to fall asleep instantly as I was beyond exhausted and I’d clocked up 65,000 steps. Strangely, I couldn’t sleep! Not sure if I was still buzzing from the euphoria of the race, but when the alarm went the next morning at 6 it felt like I’d barely slept.
I wore all my merch home, basking in the glory - finisher’s tshirt, the backpack we'd got at the expo, official marathon hoody and of course, the medal. In the days following, I was surprisingly okay muscle-wise, it was more the pure exhaustion that floored me. Going down stairs was not as difficult as I’d expected it to be - I didn't have to mimic a crab, anyway - and my appetite returned a few days later.
Would I do it again? IN A HEARTBEAT. It was the most exhilirating, life-affirming experience I’ve ever had. I smiled all the way round and I think that sense of pride and achievement will stay with me for as long as I live!
I rested for a few days before going out for what I thought was a recovery jog, but actually turned out to be quite a speedy run. My legs have rediscovered (relative) speed again since the marathon and I’ve rediscovered my love of running. Within a week I was already champing at the bit to get my next race booked, to see what time I am really capable of. If I only run one marathon in my life, I’m so glad it was in Paris. But that is only Chapter One - my mission now is to get faster and do it all over again.
Let’s see what Chapter 2 holds…!