Sunday, 13 March 2011

Race Report - Paris Marathon 2009

The 2011 Paris Marathon is four weeks today, and for the benefit of those of you who are tackling France's biggest marathon this year I thought I would publish my race report from the day I ran my first 26.2... This is a version of my original write-up, reviewed and revised for your reading pleasure. I ran this race with my good friend and personal running guru Alex Gnanapragasam, who was good enough to look after me on our circuitous trip around Paris. Here goes.

We were early for the 8:45am start thanks to our hotel being just a short walk from the start/finish area around the Arc de Triomphe (a walk which later wouldn't seem so short...). Alex was registered to start in the 3:45 pen, but I was less ambitious back when I registered in October 2008 and had put myself in the 4h slot. But my training had gone supremely well - or so I thought - and I was confident that 3:45 was achievable so I did my best to sneak into Alex's pen with him. The marshalls were quite rightly having none of it, and after some deliberation we did as we were told and both started in the 4h pen, surrounded primarily by American women in designer sunglasses. Odd.

The gun fired and a mere 8 minutes later we crossed the start line, weaving in and out of a million people as we nervously tried to find our pace going down the Champs-Elysees. The race never really thinned out, and at one point early on came to a complete standstill because it was so congested. Many complained, I was not one of them.

My brother Nick and his then-girlfriend-now-fiancée Erin had decided that a weekend in Paris would be lovely, and if there happened to be a race on at the same time then that would be OK. Their masterful supporting was rewarded with them spotting us around mile 3. Unfortunately Nick hadn't thought to shout anything more inspiring than 'DAVE!!' so we took this as an expression of support and carried on heading east out of the city and into the Bois de Vincennes.

Nick later told me that the stream of runners passing him were mesmerisingly identical, but the entrants who stood out were a woman running with a wicker shopping basket that appeared to be full of her daily market purchases, and another man reading the day's newspaper as he ran. Everyone else was steeled and focussed on the task ahead. This is indicative of the Paris Marathon and French running in general - there are few costumed fun runners here, rather a huge number of very serious, overwhelmingly male club runners. Spot anyone in a bright vest or a modest costume or even a half-decent smile and chances are they're English!

Pretty cracking course! Click to enlarge.
The first half of the marathon passed in a blur, and before we knew it we had reached 13.1 miles just 30 seconds behind our planned pace. Reading this back I realise what I'm saying here - running for almost two hours non-stop passed in a blur. Funny how your perception shifts as your goals change. I remember saying to Alex that six months ago I would have been delighted with finishing a half marathon, but that I hadn't come to Paris to run half a race. 

By now the course had looped back into the centre and soon we were running westwards alongside the Seine, dipping in and out of tunnels, including the one where Princess Di's car crashed. There was little time for reflection because the French runners seemed fascinated by echoes and were shouting to each other like a group of feral football hooligans. Just not cricket. Around mile 16 Nick and Erin's Jedi powers led them to see us yet again; this time Nick had thought for slightly longer about his supporting technique and opted for shouting 'DAVE!' slightly quieter and proffering a bottle of water, which was gratefully received.

Nearing the end.
At mile 18, climbing out of yet another sodding tunnel, Alex dropped back and I slowed down to stick with him. He fell back again, and I tried to slow to stay with Yoda, but the crowd was still so thick that my efforts were quashed and looking back just seconds later I had already lost sight of him. After the first lonely half mile I was resigned to solo running and thought it would be wise to get my head down and get on with it...

At 19 miles I had reached the furthest that I had ever run in my entire life, and as 20 approached I was aching like hell but still smiling and still ready for more. Then, out of nowhere, the world ended. I tripped and stumbled over one of the thousands of discarded water bottles just before the 20 mile marker which sent unholy cramp up first my right thigh, then my left, which forced me to slow to walk it off. Imagine the worst pain ever, and now compound it with the feeling that you did it to yourself. My legs are twinging even now at the memory. (Yes, still in 2011!)

The next 10k was bizarre. When my pace was disrupted by the trip, I more or less instantly hit the wall. Sapped of energy and furious at the banality of tripping over some loose recycling, I had slowed right down to 'only-just-running' pace. I couldn't think, couldn't focus and was quite confused, but decided to try and zone everything out except the blue line painted on the roads to mark the official route. By now I was in the Bois de Boulogne, and here the 26.2 mile buffet that is the Marathon de Paris came into its own. Beyond the offerings available throughout the race (water, energy drinks, bananas, oranges, dried apricots, dates, raisins, sultanas and sugar cubes) stands had been set up by a series of mentalists offering wine, cake, baguette, more wine, cider, grapes and haribo. I chose the cider, cake and haribo, thinking (rightly) that I couldn't feel any worse and some booze would probably cheer me up, which it did!

Somehow I reached mile 25, and my oh my was that a sweet sign. Sadly I hadn't realised that there were THREE more signs to go: 41k, 42k and 26 miles. All very depressing. As I reached 41k I sped up, trying to regain my earlier pace. I had lost a lot of time in the fall-out from the fall-over, and the 4 hour barrier had passed between 25 and 26 miles, but I didn't really mourn its passing. This was about survival.

I crossed the péripherique back into the city and onto Avenue Foch without seeing my parents or my sister, who also failed to see me. Probably wise, I can't have been much to look at. (They had left Kent a little before the race started, speeding through northern French countryside on the Eurostar whilst receiving automated text messages updating them on my progress. Their plans went slightly awry and we only managed to see each other after the race was over. Such is life.) Then suddenly, there it was. The 'Arrivée' sign, framed by the Arc de Triomphe. It seemed utterly impossible. I crossed the line in a daze, hands in the air, mind somewhere else, and feet screaming for mercy. 4:06:43.

Alex crossed the line around 8 minutes later, having been knocked over by another runner during the race! He never did properly explain that story. Maybe he will now. The comment box is down there, mate!

Happy running


2011 to date - miles: 248.56, parkruns: 3, races: 1

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