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Paris Marathon: Race report

April 15, 2010

The start of the Paris Marathon 201011 April 2010

Sunny, around 7°C with gusts of wind around 15kmph

Paris in the springtime is something to behold on a beautiful-but-crisp Sunday morning. Cherry blossom, bulbs in flower, the grooves of classical architecture thrown into contrast through sharp shadows and bright highlights, and innumerable men in lycra peeing against more or less any tree you can see.

I arrived on the Champs Élysées via a crowded Metro train, loaded with runners variously dressed in tracksuits, shorts and vests, or the Paris Marathon-branded disposable bin bag. The roundabout itself was still flowing with traffic, but Avenue Foch had been shut to become the runner’s village. Walking round the barriers (feeling that we were beginning to cut it a tad fine), marveling at the queues for the portaloos – and the ingenuity of various men creeping between barriers to water trees, bushes and tents – I realised that actually this might just be a very well orchestrated race.

Bag deposited, branded bin bag donned and bladder emptied (portaloo, since you ask) I ran towards the start line. Normally I like to make some time for some plyrometric drills to get my muscles loosened, but trotting around looking for a reasonable place to enter the starting pen seemed the best I was going to get.

Prepared for the start line, wearing a mighty fetching branded bin liner

Finally, my induction into the leagues of bin-bag runners

On the day, 31,566 people started the race. 40,000 had registered, and I guess it’s one of the perils of marathon running that there is a relatively high risk of not making it to the start line (although I suspect at least some of the no-shows would have been related to the mandatory medical certificate). While the gun went off and the front runners surged forward, spurred on by the rousing tones of the Black Eyed Peas, adrenaline pumping through their veins, I waited. Gently shuffling forward, kicking away discarded bin liners and clothing, it took more than three minutes to cross the start line.

The night before the race, having a particularly restless night’s sleep (partly due to a slightly too warm hotel room, and partly due to pre-race jitters), I’d started thinking about my race strategy. I was confident I could make 3:15. I’d told people I was aiming for 3:15, and there would be no shame in just going for that time. But 6:52 a mile – the split I’d need to run consistently in order to hit the magical 3-hour threshold – could I do it? All those weeks and months of training, running at around 7:30 pace, always finding my legs like concrete after 20 miles and struggling through the last seven miles in pain, hemorrhaging speed.

The economics of running a marathon are simple: Go too fast, burn out and struggle through the remaining miles, losing any advantage you might have gained. Consistent pacing is key to a good marathon. The last thing you want to do is throw away months of training.

Passing the start line, trying to discern the reassuring ‘meep’ of my timing chip being registered, I steeled myself for the 26.2 miles that lay before me. And I threw caution to the wind. Having lost sight already of the 3:15 pace maker due to stationing myself a little too far back, I had a job to do and set off to the edges of the course to dart through gaps in the multitudinous runners and variously cut on to the pavement, behind the spectators, when the course got tight.

Given that there were so many portaloos scattered about the runners’ village, and even in the starting area (while runners were waiting for the start gun, men were huddled around the portaurinals getting rid of any excess baggage), it came as a surprise to see people darting off-course at the 4km marker to pee behind a tree, or on a street corner. However, it became a recurring feature of the course, with barely a kilometer passing without at least one peeing man.

The weather had been dry since we arrived in Paris on Friday, so it came as something of a surprise when I stepped into a deep puddle at around the six mile mark, thoroughly soaking my left foot. I’d been making good speed, with several sub-6:40 miles under my belt, so I dismissed the wet foot as just one of those things. However, come the 13-mile mark, when I’d kept consistently around 6:40 (dipping once to 6:20), I felt a distinctive and unpleasant tingling sensation on the sole of my left foot. My water-logged shoe and sock (both of which were still wet at this point), were rubbing and forming what felt like the beginnings of the mother of all blisters.

Steeling myself, I pushed on. By this point I had passed the 3:15 pacemaker. In fact, at this point I had also recently passed the 3:00 pacemaker. I was in pain, but I was flying.

The Eiffel Tower, the day after the race

On a race past so many well-known landmarks, few are more iconic than the Eiffel Tower

The next section of the course brought ups and downs, even plunging us into a tunnel for a kilometer or so. Pumping my arms through the ascents and leaning into the descents, I felt like I was making comparatively light work of heavy terrain. I’d been taking a carb gel every 9km, and was focusing on getting to the Powerade station as the next significant milestone.

Passing the Eiffel Tower, allowing myself a look round to admire its magnificence in the spring sunshine, I pushed on.

Finally reaching the Powerade station, I grabbed a plastic cup of what looked like lemonade and poured it liberally over my face. Of course, I hadn’t meant to do that, but there’s little controlling fatigued limbs after 20 miles. Fortunately the drinks station was long and I was able to snatch a blue bottle of Powerade. Struggling with sweaty hands, I forced the bottle open and squeezed it into my mouth, beginning to feel the need for more energy to push myself onwards.

Now, this is purely my subjective opinion, and I was clearly a little beyond that much rational comprehension by this point of the course. But my first thought was ‘Eugh, this is disgusting.’ I stomached a few gulps before attempting to toss the half-finished bottle to one side of the road (in the event, startling a young family as the projectile whistled past them with deadly speed).

My left foot was beginning to be more painful. I could feel plates of skin rubbing against each other, and had started to subconsciously change my footfall so I was bashing my toes against the front of the shoe. ‘Pain is temporary,’ I mutter to coax myself along.

At some point I became aware that a man with a flag tucked into his underpants was running alongside me. It was the 3:00 pace maker. Nothing against the man, but I had hoped that I’d seen the last of him. My pace was flagging; I’d run mile 22 at 7:01, which was going to start eating into the gains I’d made. Now was the time for the final push, but whether I could make the final push last another four and a bit miles…

I kept pace with the pacemaker for a while, but he seemed to have reached the consensus that hitting the 3-hour pace was one thing, but driving below it was his key objective for the final miles. Slowly, painfully, inexorably, he starting to slip from my grasp. I was still passing runners, some had started walking, people were still peeing against trees, but still I was losing pace and feeling the familiar pain from my training runs.

Mile 24 was tough, mile 26 was the hardest with my pace slipping down to 7:38. Tantalisingly close to the finish, running on empty, knowing that a 3-hour marathon debut was becoming ever more hit and miss I adopted the athlete’s last resort. I started shouting at myself to ‘c’mon’. Proud moment. (Actually, can I just apologise to anyone coming to the end of the Paris Marathon who was running near some guttural-sounding English chap barking at himself?)

The finish line finally sailed into sight, followed by the calls of ‘Lewis’ from my family spectators (and some random French people who kindly picked up the name-shouting). Pumping my arms, leaning, caring little about how much I was destroying my foot, I ploughed over the finish line as the clock ticked over to 3:02:34.

The final sprint for the finish

One last push for the finish line in the final few metres of the Paris Marathon

Over the line, fumbling with both my Garmin and my rather low-tech stopwatch – both of which I had started as I crossed the start line – I wanted an early indication of my chip time. In big events, it can take an age to pass the start line, so while the winner’s time is based on the time from when the gun went off (and let’s face it, it’s more or less the same as their chip time because they are invariably at the front of the starting pack), running clubs take your personal best as your chip time – the time from when you crossed the start line.

Rehydrated and hurting like hell at the end of the Paris Marathon

Rehydrated and hurting like hell at the end of the Paris Marathon

It looked close, perhaps too close to call. I went to eat a few quarters of oranges, have some water and perhaps some Powerade – which was still tasting rank.

Knowing I had raised – and justified – over £1000 for The Stroke Association through running the Paris Marathon was one thing I could be proud of, I thought. However, later, when we were able to check the website, I was gratified to see that my chip time was recorded as 2:59:17. Just under the 3-hour mark, having exceeded my fundraising target, it was time for a well-earned beer. And a big meal. I mean, a really big meal. I was famished!

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, you can see my splits and the course here:

Paris Marathon by lewisbirchon at Garmin Connect – Details.

And, in case you’ve not yet sponsored me, it’s not too late. My JustGiving page is open for another few weeks, so you can make donations here. And if you’ve already sponsored me – thanks, the weight of your generosity helped me through those dark miles at the end of the marathon.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Wazza permalink
    April 16, 2010 8:15 am

    Well done on the sub 3 hours Lewis. I also achieved my goal of a sub 3 45. My story was similar to yours apart from the blister – nearly losing my little time bank between kms 35 and 39 and having to really lift when the pacer came by. Anyway I got home with a minute to spare and am really happy. Great blog- well done.

    • April 18, 2010 9:43 am

      Hi Warren,

      I’m glad your race went well – was it just me, or did the headwind on the final couple of miles feel fierce?! Well done on beating your time, and I hope you’re having a well-deserved break on the continent.

      Now, on to the next challenge!

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