This had the sorry smell of deja vu. Just over 2 years ago in the days before my first 50 mile race I got food poisoning from some nasty chicken place in London after a night out. Thursday and Friday I battled to rid my body of whatever evil that passes as chicken in West London had entered it but to no avail. I started the Rotherham 50 on the Saturday and on swallowing my 12th immodium of the day I decided it would be a good idea to pull out at 17 miles.
The same thing happened again. I had not learned from the past and on Thursday I was lying in bed with what felt like really bad stitch. I had been sent home from work for vomiting and could not hold in any fluid. I lay in bed all day and only got up to get rid of the water I had just drank. I was determined to make it to the start line regardless.
The Eco Trail De Paris promised to be a great race and I would have been very disappointed to miss it. It was certainly one of the biggest ultras I had never heard of, with 1500 starters for the 80k and 1200 for the 50k. The route ambles through some lovely countryside point to point from way out west and finishing in the Eiffel Tower. Not a huge number of international competitors, it was a very French race. I only knew Ian and Helen from the UK.
A short and confusing train ride then a coach transported us quite quickly to the start in St Quentin. We got there a bit early which left me with some time to try and eat more food. I had 2 meals in 2 days and was mindful of the task of running 50 miles empty. Still, I know a lot of ultra-runners who swear by not eating the day before so maybe I was about to learn something new. Ian went off to the front and I deliberately stayed near the back, happy to follow a slow pace that was just going to see me to the end of the race.
The first few miles for me were stop-start is some parks. 1500 runners crowding through some narrow paths meant there was a lot of stopping early on. After a few miles the congestion eased (as I hoped my own would increase) and we could all settle into a jog. It was still very slow going and it was quite warm (16 degrees) and I was thankful of the many parts of the route that were under the trees.
This would be described as a "hilly" course. Certainly not mountainous but with probably 20 odd short sharp inclines (think parliament hill but twice as steep). They would be walked by most and on another day I would have made more effort to run up them but did not feel the energy to today. In fact after the very first one I was feeling a bit giddy and wondered how I will cope with the others that were going to come. I put these thoughts out of my mind quite well by recalling some parts of "survival of the Fittest" that I had recently read. It is a must read for any endurance runner. In it there are tales of how the human body and do extraordinary things in dim circumstances such as extreme heat, cold or starvation. I decided to stop being such a pussy about the whole throwing up thing and not eating and just get on and do the race. It was only 50 miles ffs.
The checkpoints near the start are quite sparse. The first at 13 miles then the second at 33. Those 20 miles can be tricky without enough water and we were warned as such in the briefing. There was a lot of kit to carry in the race which seemed excessive but in the end seemed sensible. 2 litres of fluid, food, coat, trousers (or corset?), TWO headtorches, reflective armband and some other stuff. I was struggling to ration my drink for the warm 20 miles to the second checkpoint and was looking around for a shop to buy something. Luckily at an observatory 25 miles in there was a water pump with a crowd of runners drinking and hosing themselves. I stuck my mug in a few times to neck some cold water and then no longer worried about having enough, the checkpoints were all closer together after that.
It was in the observatory that we first got a look at the Eiffel Tower. I can't think of another race I have done where I can see the finish from 25 miles away. It was a really nice sight and there were lots of planet displays that I would normally have spent time looking at. However I had to press on, I didn't want to leave Mr Sharman waiting too long, particularly as he had the key to the hotel room.
The second checkpoint came finally and was a brilliant display of Frenchness as all of them were. Cheese, meat and bread and lots of cake bars. All I craved for the entire race was a few cups of coke which I took. I would have loved to have stuffed my face with all of it but resisted in case my body rejected it. In fact the sickness had all but gone. I felt a bit weak but my stomach was fine. Could it be that stuffing your face with meaty food is bad for you in these things? Perhaps.
I tried not to stay in the checkpoints too much but some degree of faffing was required to fill up my bladder and empty my shoes. There was a funny sight of people sat down taking a significant break, lying down or getting medical attention. All felt a bit much for 50 country miles but was an amazing scene.
Having done 53k the checkpoints were all only 9k apart now and I was looking forward to more coke. I was so pleased that I had gotten out of bed to do this and that it wasn't hurting much, or at all. My legs were in great shape. I had got twice as far as the 17 miserable miles I managed in Rotherham 2 years ago and I was going to finish. I started to do some good running, overtaking quite a few people as I did.
After not many more miles I was confused to see what looked like a checkpoint. I knew I had not just run 9k in 30 minutes. It was in fact an equipment check, and I failed. The one thing I didn't have was the one thing they asked for, the reflective armband. I did not put up much of a protest as they asked for it. I tried to say "umm, it fell off" but they did not buy it. A lady just took a note of my number and allowed me to go on. It made me laugh a little and I thought of what might happen. I hear of people getting pulled from the London Marathon right at the end for cheating, when they can see the finish line. I thought it would be a bit harsh to drag me from under the Eiffel Tower in this manner but the thought crossed my mind.
I was still in the woods when darkness fell. I have run in the dark many times before and always try to leave it till very last light before turning on my torch. When I did it was amazing, the trees had little yellow reflective strips on and all the other runners were dutifully wearing their armbands and reflective strips. I felt bad for not doing the same. It can be quite tricky running in the dark, you want to shine your torch on the floor so you can avoid things but then you can't see where you are going and risk taking a wrong turn. I think it's best to just let your instinct guide you and not worry about the floor too much. I had run 40 miles now without falling over so I was due a tumble anyway.
The last checkpoint was a beautiful sight. Set at some racecourse we ran across fields to get to it. Then on leaving we were treated to a spectacular view of Paris by night with the finish line glowing like a beacon across the whole city. I wish I took more photos during the race and didn't as my camera was low on battery but I did manage to get one last photo of how it looked 10k from the end of the race. It was pretty special.
There were a few more miles of woods as we descended into the city and then onto the river path. This is when the sky opened and unleashed some of the heaviest rain I have run in. It just came out of nowhere and soaked the path we ran on. All of a sudden I was ankle deep in water and absolutely loving it. I saw a few ahead of me trying to step over the puddles but there really was no point. I took charge and led everyone thought the middle of everything and laughing to myself as I did. I loved it, only 3 miles to the end and dwarfed by the now intimidating presence of the tower shining it's light over the streets searching out the runners to finish the race. It felt like a scene from War of the Worlds (except the tower was welcoming rather than trying to kill us).
I passed the Statue of Liberty (or whatever it is called here) and thought about how free I was feeling. Soaking wet and shivering I was running towards one of the worlds most iconic monuments with some other wet Frenchmen while others ran for cover under bridges. This is proper freedom.
The last mile involves some road crossings and all are very well marshalled by the police. I was amazed by the patience of the people and traffic of Paris for this race. By now the runners are very thinly spread and I had no one ahead of me to follow. The four enormous feet of the Eiffel Tower finally came into view and I was led across the road and into the expo marquee where everyone cheered as I ran behind the podium, a very odd feeling to be outside and in the rain to be all of a sudden indoors with a load of screaming people. I ran back out the other side then into the south entrance to the tower. The finish line was only 50m away, and I was right underneath it.
I didn't really appreciate before the race how great it would be to actually finishing INSIDE the Eiffel Tower. I was given a ticket at the bottom of the steps and then tried to haul myself up. There were a few tourists climbing the steps and not quite knowing why I seemed in such a rush. I saw a runner ahead and made no effort to catch him, even though I grew up in Leicester I have been taught that it's rude to overtake people on stairs. I was not sure at this point how many I would have to climb, it only goes to the first level and on getting there I displayed my ticket to the guards (it was a little sweaty by then) and then turned into the finish. 9 hours and 20ish.
There was not a lot in the tower other than beer and coke (I still went for the coke) and a group of us waited for the lift back down and into the marquee that I had just run through to be treated to yet more food. Again it was cheese and meat and normally I would have destroyed it but was still lacking in appetite.
This was a truly magnificent race and one I am so glad at making the effort to start. Getting to the start line was difficult (via a coach journey from London) but once I has started the finishing was easy. Seeing the finish line from 25 miles out, then again at night with 10k to go and then running to the tower and letting it swallow you is indescribable. One for next year definitely, with about 30 of you guys. Just don't let me go near a Chico-land in the week before the race, or indeed ever.