4 years is a long time. I can barely even imagine what I was like back then. Back then I was a young Serpie in Paris and a bit nervous about the start of a marathon. The pressure of having to "perform" in the next 3 and so hours was making me feel a little sick. I didn't tell anyone at the time because there was no such thing as Facebook (imagine that?). It was 5 months since my last marathon and I had forgotten what it felt like to start. I hoped that all those boring nights running around a track doing something or other with my lactate threshold would manifest itself in a finish time that would then be plotted on a bouncy red graph on the clubs website to demonstrate to those that were slower that I was "better" than them and to those that are faster that I was coming to get them. There I was, about to start the ultimate race, 26.2 miles of road. No human has ever run further than that. I'd love to go back and visit that boy, and slap him.
So why would I line up here again with 35000 other runners who will heave through a city on some tarmac? I'm not entirely sure, but I had entered the race for some reason and didn't want to waste the place. There might be a nice medal.
The first part of such an endurance event takes place at a vile exhibition called an "Expo". This typically takes place way out of town and no where near the start and is at the insistence of the race sponsors. It would be much easier just to post peoples race numbers out but the opportunity to have 30000 mostly men 35-45 AB demographic with too much disposable income exposed to a load of needless crap in an oversized basketball court was just too lucrative.
Upon exiting the station I am immediately pushed back by young people in branded tops while they thrust flyers in my face. It was as if they were flown in from Tottenham Court Road to taunt me. However they are not peddling anything useful like some Subway vouchers or a cereal bar. Instead it's a flyer for some gadget that if I attach it to my foot it will tell me how many times I bang it on the floor.
Having spent ages in a long queue choking on the cigarette smoke of other runners I am prodded wheezing to a desk where I am asked to produce a medical certificate which tells the organisers in no uncertain terms that I maybe will perhaps probably not die whilst doing things with my feet. I irony of getting this certificate is hilarious. You have to expose yourself to all manner of diseases from the great unwashed in a waiting room of a doctors surgery and wait for a person who you have never met before to tell you (for £15) that you definitely probably wont die too much while running in a race with your feet. You go into such a place in the shape of your life, you leave with a piece of paper that you could have produced yourself and swine flu.
I then pick up my number and am then directed to the point in the hall which is furthest away from the exit in order to maximise my opportunities to buy shit I don't need. It is a tactic employed to great effect by IKEA and leaves me wading though a sea of energy gels that will make me 5.7% faster, running tops that go really well with my shoes and invitations to repeat this awful experience at other cities around the world. I think I fared quite well, emerging only with a Raidlight bottle belt and a Billy bookcase. I could have got more but someone gouged my eye out with a flyer.
I have spent 3 hours on my feet so far, mooching in queues and bottlenecks. The "How to run marathons" textbook tells me I should be resting at home, revising my split times and laying out my kit. Luckily those textbooks are full of shit.
The morning of the marathon sees many experienced runners following the same ritual. Wake up 3 hours before the start, have a shit, eat some food, have a cup of coffee, have another shit, take some imodium, drink lots of water and if you are lucky have another shit. This ritual was ruined in Paris though by 2 things, first that nowhere opens before noon and you can't even get a coffee and second the organisers decided that 12 toilets for 35000 runners was adequate. There was actually a couple of places open where you could sit around and watch waitresses ignore you and serve other people coffee. Luckily there was a McDonalds nearby where you could just go up to a counter and say "I would like a coffee, here is some money" and then you get a coffee. Why has globalisation not even reached France yet?
Being an ultrarunner I have become very tolerant of the need to go to the toilet in public. In bushes or at the side of streets is fine. It is not fine to practically do it on other peoples feet, or shit in urinals. It was a a ghastly site watching a great city get violated worse than when the Third Reich marched here in 1940.
The start was equally horrific. I was quite near the front in the 3.15 pen. The idea is that the faster people go at the front so that everyone ends up getting off quite quickly. In reality those who can push in the hardest are the ones who get to the front and they tend to be fatter. About a minute after I squeezed into the cage the entranced closed and people would have to climb over a 6 foot fence to be able to start the race. I felt like a battery hen and was not too worried about anyone laying an egg on me, more about shitting on me.
I heard a countdown from 10 in French (I remember that at least from school, I forgot what the French was for "please can you refrain from urinating on me") and then a loud horn sounded, and then..... Nothing. Unless you are at the front you are not going to start until several minutes after the actual start. The first mile is down the very famous Avenue De Champs-Elysees which the French like to call "The most beautiful avenue in the world". Today the most beautiful avenue in the world has been transformed into a latrine. Runners are heading off in all directions to empty their bladders, a job made more difficult by the presence of spectators with kids and prams. It's a shame the Mona Lisa isn't here somewhere, that would be perfect to wipe my arse on.
Nowadays with road marathons I know at least that passing the start line means I'm near the end. In less than 4 hours I'll be in a pub somewhere, there will be no running into sunset, or sunrise or from city to city. Pretty boring really.
I settled into a 3.15 pace and was feeling quite comfortable. I had been suffering with a cough for the previous week and was not able to give my lungs a proper workout but was not struggling to breathe as much as I feared. My legs felt a little achy as always but that usually goes away after 30 miles.
I was quickly exposed to more of the things I hate about road marathons. The beeping heart rate monitors of the runners who have not only followed a spreadsheet for 6 months getting to the start line but are going to follow an annoying beep for their whole race. They must get as much pleasure from finishing as a dog does from fetching a stick. I am also being subjected to the rabid screams and taunts from a heaving crowd telling me to "Go go go" as opposed to "Yeah just stop and piss off". This year the race numbers included our names. 4 years ago it would have been really welcome to have people shouting out my name, now I was just feeling really claustrophobic as a sea of strangers engulfed the course screaming at me and standing on the blue line. The blue line represents the "racing line" of the marathon and is what the front runners follow to ensure that they do not step a stride over 26.195 miles. This route is now unavailable to me as I weave around the course created by the swelling of people waiting for the coffee shops to open and the random people crossing the road.
The Paris Marathon is actually a really nice route and the city is perfect for sight seeing. I think there are much better ways of doing this that following a line of people drowning in the smell of their own sweat and faeces. You do get to pass a lot of the parks and buildings of the historic city. I remembered from the last time how great it was running along the Seign and under the bridges just after half way. It was around then that my knee started to trouble me, I've never had any bother with my knee before. I subscribe to the view that running slowly over trails for 24 hours is not damaging to your body at all whereas trying to nail yourself for 3 hours or more on tarmac wearing large pieces of foam.
The temperature hit a tropical 15 degrees and I am starting to choke on other peoples body odour. The long tunnels offer some shelter from the sun and many people slow to a walk since the crowd can't see their humiliation now. I am determined to carry on running as the crowd I am in will be worse further back. I made better progress through the long tunnel than Diana did many years ago and emerge to be blown back by the screaming rabid masses. The knee continues to hurt but I just want to get it over with as soon as possible, not normally a feeling I get less than 3 hours into a race.
At least I saw the Eiffel tower and to my knowledge no one had shat on it yet. Just 3 weeks ago I was doing a race where I would end running inside that and up the steps to the finish line. The thought of doing that again was quite thrilling and I even considered doing it. However I had factored into my clothes packing that I was going to gain an extra T-shirt this weekend and had to finish this bloody race to do so. Damn it.
The last few miles are though a park with very narrow paths that reduces us to a very slow stutter again. I feel bad because I am holding people up with my slow hobbling. I hate to think I prolonged this ordeal for others. Soon enough the finish line came but I was unable to run across it because there was a queue. The pile up of people was caused by everyone stopping their watches and swerving to the side as they did so. Their cherished finish photo (40 euros) would forever capture the moment where they looked down and panicked about their watches showing a few more seconds than they actually ran it in. I put the watch in my pocket after around 10 miles, I felt the need to look at it every kilometre and it was further sapping what little enjoyment I was going to get from this race.
But the marathon wasn't over..... There was then a massive bottleneck to actually get out of the pen that they force you in to get your bags. It took 45 minutes of been made to stand and not being clear as to why. Eventually we escaped and Dan and I found a pub to drink a well earned pint of Guinness (9 euros).
OK- I admit that was a bit more moany than was necessary and Paris does represent perfectly what I hate about these events. It still is a pretty poorly organised farce, London is far better organised in comparison without the start mess and finish travesties. I still am not sure why I went for such a marahton, perhaps it was the company, it was great being in the pub afterwards seeing a couple of Serpies fly past me during the run.
The whole experience confirmed to me that road marathons are not my thing. I have no desire to train or hurt myself on tarmac to achieve a time to post against others. 4 years ago that was very different but then I guess so was I. I had not experienced just how fun running for the sake of it can be. I don't need people watching me or people all around me to enjoy a run. But who knows? I am sure as I approach my 40's and start to suffer the mid-life crisis I may feel that the only way to show that I've done anything with my life is to try and smash myself over the streets of Paris. Hopefully they will have more Starbucks by then.