7th April 2013
2013 Marathon de Paris
It was probably about a year ago when my friend Naomi and I started brain storming potential plans to travel to France to run the Paris Marathon in 2013. Naomi’s Mum lives and works in Paris, direct flights from Aberdeen with Air France are relatively cheap…it all seemed far too convenient an opportunity to pass up. Fast forward 6 months and one marathon each later, and on the 17th of October 2012 along with thousands of other eager runners we were parked in front of our computers hammering ctrl+F5, desperate to get the website to load to buy a place.
€80 for entry and £250 for a return flight later, it was a done deal. The 4th – 8th of April was circled in my calendar with P-A-R-I-S written all over it but since it was so far away I ended up giving it little thought over the months to come. The early weeks of 2013 ticked by and my training for the D33 and Highland Fling Ultras was in full swing, week after week of 40 – 50 miles were smashed out and I was rewarded with a storming 30 minute PB at the D33. A season’s best run at the RunGarioch Half Marathon at the end of March only 40 seconds off my my PB in horrific conditions on a hilly course further solidified my belief in my training. This Winter has been the making of me as a runner so far – I am stronger than I’ve ever been and I wanted to hit Paris as hard as I could. What had originally been earmarked as my last long training run for the Fling had turned into a battlefield – I knew I had the potential to go sub-4; all I needed was the balls to go out at the right pace at the start and run like I stole something ’til the finish.
I spent the night before the race visualising how I was going to tackle it. I did this for the D33 and I think it helped greatly with my nerves. I reminded myself of how I was going to feel, what was going to hurt and how I was going to deal with it. My big talk to myself was based around the fact that this race was my pinnacle of training for a 53 mile race; if someone put me outside Milngavie Station the next morning and told me to run to Tyndrum I could do it. That wasn’t going to happen – the distance I had to run in the morning was less than half of that so it was absolutely nothing to worry about at all. I loaded up Spirit Of The Marathon on my laptop and fell asleep dreaming of marathon glory around 1am.
0545 came and I hopped right out of bed to commence the race morning ritual and make some coffee. I always have two strong cups which is usually enough to get my digestive system on the move. This was particularly important for me on this occasion as the previous days of Parisian eating and traveling had, let’s say, disturbed my natural rhythms somewhat; so I was concerned that I might encounter some difficulties.
Breakfast was weetabix with banana and a High5 carb drink. I was wary not to drink too much even though I wanted to as I knew I would be in a situation without easy access to facilities before long. Rachel arrived and the three of us quietly went about our own race morning preparations, there was an air of quiet focus in the apartment as we each stayed well within our own head-space and dealt with our nerves in our own way.
The streets of Paris were deserted and cold. Any self-respecting Parisian would not dream of being up and about at this time on a Sunday; there was not a single sign of the race as we made the 30 minute walk to the start.
When the Arc de Triomphe came into sight however, familiar sights were moving in the shadows. Flashes of neon, knee-high socks on skinny legs, the curious outer attire of a large white plastic sack…
Thousands of runners and their supporters were scattered around like excitable ants, dwarfed by the huge monument. Only in France would they keep a major intersection like this open during a mass-participation event, and the drivers of the cars could clearly not care less about the happy runners as they swerved dangerously around them without reducing their speed at all.
Our first stop was the portaloos for one last attempt to empty the bladder. We shivered in line for 10 minutes before finally reaching the front of a queue, and then took some final pictures before departing for the corrals.
It really was dreadfully cold, but we were encouraged by the sun gradually warming things up and could tell that it was going to be a beautiful day for running. The previous day we had purchased some cheap long sleeve t-shirts to wear as a throwaway layer at the start – in the pictures above we had wriggled out of them quickly to get nice pictures and wasted no time getting them straight back on afterwards.
It was a short walk down the Champs Elysees to reach the corrals, and in our case the 4hr15 one where we had seeded ourselves when we registered all those months ago. For me this was a bit slow for my planned pace so I needed to get right to the front, Rachel and Naomi had decided to stick to the rear and start off at more like 4hr30 pace. We took a last photo or two, wished each other good luck and went our separate ways.
I was able to get right to the front where an extendable barrier was in place as a division. It was about 0815 and the corral seemed about half full. The main race was due to start at 0845 but I didn’t expect to get moving until at least 0915.
The corral slowly filled up as the sun rose and I welcomed its warmth on my shivering skin. There was music pumping and exercise leaders encouraging runners to follow their routines to keep warm, but the hard-nosed right at the front of the corral stayed still so I followed suit.
Looking around me there were people from all over the world. Within a five meter circumference around me I could be listening to 10 different languages being spoken, a theme which remained for the entire race. I spoke briefly to the man next to me who was of Indian descent but raised in California, but was now based in the Philippines. He was very cold and had never run in temperatures so low! Amongst others I can remember there were a group of excitable South Africans taking pictures, a large group of Japanese pensioners diligently following the warm-up routine en masse with not one smile cracked between them, and groups of young Brits wearing vests bearing familiar charity names.
The sense of shared experience was already remarkable. When you take one person’s months of preparation and nerves and excitement for a marathon and multiply that by 40,000, you might imagine how it felt to stand in that corral alongside my fellow runners from around the world. United by a love of an event which you don’t really get until you do it, with helicopters flying overhead and cameras beaming images of us on to TV screens all over the planet. About to commence a 26.2 mile journey in the footsteps of some of the greatest runners in the world who would be paving the way ahead of us. Supported by thousands of screaming fans lining the route through one of the most remarkable cities in the world. Welcomed into the finish line some time later by a long straight of cheering crowds. How did I ever think this wouldn’t be a big deal?
Some time later, they finally removed the barrier and contained us only by tape. The corral in front of us moved forward 100m and then stopped. People started slipping under the tape and running forward to join the 4hr group; should I join them? Would that be a bad thing to do? I decided against it, until the crowd behind me started surging and pushing. I felt a wave of panic and immediately slipped under the tape and trotted forward before I knew what I was doing – I really didn’t want to be in a situation with 20,000 people pushing out of control behind me.
So suddenly I was with the 4hr group and the start was in sight! I should have known better however – I would stand for a further 15 minutes before moving again.
The ground underneath our feet was littered with hazards. This was partly why we were being moved so slowly – as soon as a group moved forward 20 meters, stewards leaped out and gathered up the discarded ponchos and other clothing to make it as safe as possible. The closer you got to the finish, the corral became divided once more, this time down the middle so that the runners were released in two separate streams on to the course.
It felt amazing to finally be moving. My skin was chilly but in the sunlight Paris was warming up quickly. The first mile was on a wide open avenue down to Place de la Concorde where the crowds began and the first bands were playing. I was just riding along with the pack around me and cruising at around 9:00 pace. I knew I needed to maintain sub-9 miles throughout to hit a sub-4 finish but I also assumed I would be able to do my usual negative split and finish strong and fast. I had picked up a pace band at the expo which had the 5k split times I needed to hit – this was to be a very handy thing to have on my wrist as my brain went to mulch as the miles wore on.
The first 5k was probably the worst of the race for me. I was needing to pee just a bit more than was comfortable and there was no options to go at all. My knee started hurting by the first kilometer sign as well and my initial thoughts were along the lines of “Well this is going to suck. Looks like I’m in for a long day at the office today”.
5k: 28:40 – 5k Split: 28:40 – Position: 25,693
The food/water station at 5k was when the first crowds really appeared. Holy crap! All these people are here for us! It was overwhelming an a huge smile crept across my face as I soaked up the atmosphere. I didn’t take water or food at 5k as I didn’t feel like I needed anything at all but noted the utter chaos that ensued at the station. The road was covered in orange slices and banana peels – definitely something to watch out for.
Turning a corner I heard “GO RHONA, GO!!!” and turned my head to see Naomi’s Mum and Aunt waving excitedly to my right – I couldn’t believe they’d spotted me as the crowds were so thick. A few meters later I heard a Scottish voice exclaim “Oh my God! Stonehaven! Look; that girl’s from Stonehaven!!” and I grinned even more – this was amazing!
I passed over the 5k sensor mat and thought about the text message hopefully arriving with Kynon and all the other friends back home following me on the marathon tracker app. Hitting 5k in 28:40 meant I was 10 seconds faster than I needed to be so I was well on target so far. I had been keeping the 4hr Pacer in my sights but the narrowing of the course around here let him get further ahead of me and closer to being out of sight on the twisty streets.
By 10k we were in a park and the crowds had thinned out a little but there were still bands every half kilometer – samba, jazz, flute choirs, rock – every type of music was on offer. I took a little water to freshen up with but I didn’t want to drink any as I was still needing the toilet quite badly. I had thought it would go away after I got going but I could feel that I would need to make a stop at some point as the discomfort was going to affect my pace. Since we were in a park I was looking out for a good bush or tree, but every one had people peeing in/on them! I held on a little longer…
10k: 57:58 – 5k Split: 29:50 – Position: 25,855 (+162)
The best thing so far about the race was the on course support. Many people complain about lack of support but for someone who is used to running races with no support whatsoever I was finding it wonderful. I had already come across several Scottish people running – the outfit I was wearing was rather patriotic so it attracted the attention of my fellow Scottish runners, especially since I was wearing my club vest. I spoke to runners from Aberdeen, Aboyne, Banchory, Elgin and Arbroath – all towns in the North East of Scotland where I’m from. There were plenty of vocal Scots supporting as well and hearing a thick accent braying ” C’Moooaaaaannnn SCOAT’LANNNNNNN!!!!” at me every so often was such a lift. They would cheer at me and I would cheer back – same with the Welsh and Irish supporters. Poor show from many of the English though; frequently I’d cheer and smile seeing a Union Jack or St George’s Cross as I passed and the bearer of said flag would sort of smile thinly and awkwardly like I was the drunk Aunt at a wedding trying to get their attention from the dancefloor.
15k: 1hr 26. 28 – 5k Split: 28:50 – Position: 25,748 (+107)
At the 15k water and food station I passed some port-a-loos and decided now was the chance to void my bladder. I pulled open a cubicle and was greeted with the kind of shartocalypse you hear about on day five of Glastonbury, not 15k into a race. There was diarrhea EVERYWHERE. All over the floor, seat and walls. Who are these people and what the HELL are they eating that is doing this to their guts?! It was too late; I was in the cubicle and had to go, so I just prayed to the porcelain gods that my quad muscles would allow me to complete a perfect hovering squat over the soiled facility until I was done. Mouth-breathing like my life depended on it (it probably did), I finished up and exploded out of that cubicle like a bat out of hell and tried desperately to repress the memory of what I’d just seen. Sometimes what has been seen, cannot be unseen…
Another thing I had been thinking about was my knee. It was really starting to hurt, and I really didn’t want to slow my pace or for it to get any sorer. I decided to take some painkillers and hope for the best.
Closing in on 20k and we had left the park and were running through an area of nondescript suburbia. It was starting to get really warm for me now with the sun blazing from a cloudless sky; it was probably only about 8C but given I’ve been training for months in sub-zero wind chill and snow it was a bit of a shock to the system.
The route was as busy as ever and I had realised it was not going to get any less crowded. I was constantly having to think about my ‘racing line’ and where I was going to put my feet next. I had lost the 4 hour pacer completely and many of the people around me were running slightly slower than I’d like which was frustrating. The support crowds were building again and I tried to remember the shape of the route. We had doubled back on ourselves by now and were heading back to the city centre.
At 20k the crowds became riotous – they had obviously had a good warm up and a decent cup of coffee and were really giving it laldy. My favourite were the group of Kiwis who I saw on a couple of occasions who had a couple of huge flags and a loudspeaker. They alternated playing music through it with broadcasting encouraging friendly abuse, as only a crowd of antipodeans drinking lager at 10am on a Sunday morning can. They really liked my kilt!
20k: 1hr 55m 20s – 5k split: 28:50 – Position: 25,490 (+258)
There was a powerade station at half way which a drank from hungrily. Blue powerade remains one of my favourite things to drink when I’m working hard and it tasted like heaven. I passed half way in 2:01 easily – a time which this time last year would have been a big PB and unfathomable at this point in a marathon.
This picture really shows how busy the race was; it was like this from start to finish. But that’s not the point of the picture! The route went by several fire stations who had stationed their trucks over the course and bedecked the extended ladders with firefighters. One of them had a banner declaring “Good luck! The Firemen are with you!” which I thought was adorable. Like most women, I have a large soft spot for firemen so this lovely addition to the course was highly relevant to my interests.
Other notable sights were a disabled girl being pushed along the course in a kart by a team of people taking turns. they had a website on their shirts which I wish I could remember, but I think they were doing some kind of charity around the world marathon tour. There was also a man in an Eiffel Tower costume, naturally.
There were very few costumed runners actually; a drastic contrast to London where you are quite likely to be beaten by someone dressed as a combine harvester or something equally bizarre.
At about 14.5 miles the course goes down to the Banks of the Seine and follows it for miles. This is when my memories start to fade into one blurry mess. I was hot and tired, and there were people in my way. I couldn’t just switch off – I had to think about every step I was taking and bob and weave around people slowing down. At 16 miles there is a the first of a few long tunnels – long, dark, hot and loud. People were shrieking, singing, blowing whistles etc and this was all magnified by the echoing mile-long tunnel. I was quite glad to get out of it as I began to feel quite claustrophic towards the end.
These were my tough miles when I had to give myself a good talking to. I was still completely on pace for a 4 hour-ish finish and I was refusing to let go of it. Thankfully my knee seemed to be responding to the painkillers and had calmed down, but maybe that was because everything else was starting to hurt as well? I was pleased that my dodgy back muscle was not giving me any trouble, nor was I getting anything from my ITB. I could feel my feet swelling in the heat however and they were becoming quite uncomfortable. With under 10 miles to go the end was very firmly in sight however so it was time to keep the foot on the gas despite any discomfort.
25k: 2hr 24m 30s – 5k Split: 29:10 – Position: 24,740 (+444)
After what seemed like forever (actually: 5 miles) we moved away from the Seine. I’m struggling to recall much other than the course narrowing ridiculously at places due to supporters encroaching past the barriers on the route. This made my pace drop a little which was incredibly frustrating. So were all the people stopping to walk in the middle of the route which you had to rapidly dodge around. My garmin signal had been disturbed by the underpasses and I was reading about half a mile long at 20 miles, but from the amount of bobbing and weaving I had had to do it could have easily been legitimate distance logged. Examining the garmin trace on my computer reveals some very squiggling lines on the map where I ought to have been running straight up a street.
The crowd were really doing their job well and shouts for Scotland and Stonehaven were keeping me going every time I felt like I was flagging. Crossing the timing mats became something I looked forward to as thinking about the messages going out to my loved ones made them feel closer to me. It sounds daft and sentimental, but it’s silly little things like that which keep your head in the right place in a marathon.
I was grabbing orange slices at every food station – these must be the nectar of the running gods. I have never experienced such delights whilst running before and am seriously considering putting some in my drop bags for the Fling. I had been taking my usual gels every 45 minutes which were tiding me over but the extra refreshing oranges were heaven. I read that 20 tonnes of oranges were out on the course, alongside 2.2 tonnes of dried fruit, 6 tonnes of apples and 2.5 tonnes of sugar cubes.
35k: 3hr 23m 42s – 10k Split: 59:13 – Position 21,265 (+3475!!!)
Despite having some tough miles, the statistics show that I was killing it. I climbed 3,475 places between 25k and 35k and was fighting hard to maintain my pace. Whilst I couldn’t lock into a pace like I did at the D33, I was able to access the ‘run fast and get it over with’ mentality which has been so helpful in tough races lately. I ducked and weaved around the walkers and the stumblers and ran as hard as I could. With under 10k to go I knew I’d finish but in what time? Could I scrape enough time back to get under 4 hours?
22.5 miles saw us enter the Bois de Bologne and the last quiet section of the course. There was no sign of the mythical cheese and wine station I’d heard so much about, but even if I’d seen it I wouldn’t have stopped for anything. 3.7 miles seemed such a short distance and I could almost taste the finish but I couldn’t get my legs to move any faster. My hips were stiffening, my calfs were cramping and running over the cobbles was absolute agony for my feet but I was still running faster than everyone around me. I sneaked a look at their bibs and all I could see was 3hr 45 on them which pleased me greatly.
The support was patchy at best through the park and the avenue went on forever. I took my last gel and it boosted me for about 4 minutes before the dead-legged feeling returned – there was just nothing left. My pace felt like it was slipping and I kept seeing 10:XX on my watch. At 25 miles on my watch I pulled out my flag ready to carry, but forgot my watch was measuring long so I still had two miles until I would cross the line and I felt a bit daft in my moment of pre-emptive celebration. Two miles is a very long way at that point of a marathon…
40k – 3:52.56 – 5k spilt: 29.13 – Position: 19,443 (+1822)
The tree-lined avenue went on forever – where was this damn finish line?! I couldn’t hear it or see it but I knew it had to be soon. I was desperately looking out for landmarks that I’d seen the day before at the Breakfast run that would let me know it was close. I remembered a big roundabout – as soon as I reached that it was time to put on the flag and fly home.
I took a wide line around the slow crowd of people hugging the tangent and overtook them all, reveling in the crowd’s cheers and unashamedly milking every moment. I saw the finish arch and used my last ounce of energy to push as fast as I could; stomach churning and vision blurring, screaming at myself to keep going for just a few seconds more…
“Here comes Scotland The Brave!” declared the finish announcer “Allez Ecossaise! Scotland The Brave is finishing today, look at the kilt!” .
42k – 4:05:18 – Position: 19,003 (+440)
I stamped my foot down on the timing mat and stopped my watch. I hadn’t looked at it for a little while as I knew sub-4 was gone – I was watching it like a hawk til it passed 26.2 miles which I did at 4:01:23… so close. But still! 4:05! I shook my head in belief and then took a sharp right to stagger to hold on to a barrier and retch loudly as my body complained at the final push. Unlike several of my fellow runners who were doing the same thing, my stomach was completely empty so I just made a lot of noise…not a lot of mess.
When the gagging and retching ceased I stood up and fell into staggering pace with those around me; shuffling forward on stiffened legs like a team of extras from The Walking Dead. I had a bit of a sniffle to myself as I was in shock and awe at what I’d just achieved, but simultaneously so glad it was over.
We were issued with our green finisher’s t-shirt (in women’s sizes!), a blue poncho to keep warm in and our glorious medal. I felt so light-headed and sick and really needed some sugar so I collected some sugar cubes, banana, orange and pretzels from the feed station and found a kerb to put myself on whilst balancing my haul. I inhaled everything I had and went back for more and a bottle of powerade too. It didn’t take long to get back to normal and regain some brain function so I decided to try and call Kynon, but there was no phone signal. I managed to locate an exit and remove myself from the melee of the finishing area and spotted an available chunk of grass in the sun with my name on it. Just before I got there I heard someone calling my name and it was Rachel! She had finished in 4:18 and was in equal need of a sit down. We collapsed in the sun and decided to wait for the others to come to us.
It wasn’t long until we clocked Naomi in front of us having an emotional reunion with her family, after destroying her Moray Marathon time and coming in at 4:39.
picture: Ian Sharp
Three perfectly executed races, three new PBs and three proud runners.
Rachel – 4:18:40 – Race Report here
Naomi – 4:39:20 – Race Report here.
Before long we were enjoying champagne back in the apartment and getting ready for a lovely celebratory meal. I might not have hit the elusive sub-4, but with no specific training for that time, coming so close is to be considered a victory.
My legs were terribly stiff the next day, and my knee pain which must have been quietened by adrenaline or painkillers during the race, was back with a vengeance. Despite this I now feel 100% ready for the Fling both mentally and physically. I am receiving treatment for my knee (the problem has been diagnosed as bursitis) and I am confident that with the right recovery and proper rest, I will be there on the starting line on the 27th of April.
Merci beaucoup, Paris… you were wonderful.