Paris Marathon

On 11th April 2013 by Rachael Woolston

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Bongs, boulevards, and a bouncy wig at the Marathon de Paris…

Sun rise over the Arc de Triomphe set the scene for the start of the Marathon de Paris on Sunday 7th April. Now in its 37th year, the French capital’s marathon is known as a ‘runner’s race’ because it is flat and brings with it the promise of a personal best. Not to mention spectacular sights along the route, from the Eiffel Tour in the East to Bastille in the West.

This was my third marathon in six months, and by far my biggest with over 39,687 runners compared to 4000 runners in my last two races. Thankfully, because I had booked my trip with SportsToursInternational, who organise trips to races all over the world, I didn’t have to go the race start alone.

The tour leader met a group of us at the Novotel Paris Eiffel and took us to the start, avoiding all the crowds and leaving us plenty of time to drop our bags and walk to the spectacular Arc De Triomphe, bathed in the first sunshine in a fortnight.

From there, while other runners were hurriedly skirting the wire boundary fence and heading in the opposite direction to drop their bags, I was able to calmly head down to the start pens on the Champs Elysée.

Sunny it might have been but it was still freezing as I waited for the start with two other runners, Elly and Sally, both first time marathon runners who I’d met that morning.

I was grateful for the company and we bonded over our need to go to the toilet (again), and the fact that it was never going to happen, with a queue 50 people deep for the two toilets in each pen.

I was in the 3hrs 45minute pen and there were no fancy dress runners, although many of the French runners were wearing disposable carpenters’ overalls to shield them from the cold. I was envious. With a traffic light system to release the pens in stages, it wasn’t until 15 minutes after the 9am official start that I finally crossed the start line.IMG_9551[1]

By then, my feet were like blocks of ice but I was distracted by the heart-soaring experience of running through the centre of Paris towards Place de La Concorde, the streets lined with some of the xxx spectators.

The start heads downhill and I had to force myself to slow down from a 7 minute mile pace or risk hitting the wall. From the Place de La Concorde the route heads past the Louvre, the world’s largest museum before heading up towards Bastille and out to the city’s biggest park, carved out of former Royal Hunting Ground, Bois De Vincennes.

One of the great things about this race is that it takes you past familiar sights so invocative of Paris, as well as landmarks you may never have visited before, such as the imposing Château De Vincennes where Henry IV died.

As impressive a sight as this was, it was matched a few moments later by a runner wearing an 8 ft Eiffel Tour, which pinned his arms to his side so he could only shuffle along. It was the only fancy dress runner I saw during the entire race.

For the first 20kms, the avenues are wide and it was easy to run but on the return back into the city, where the route flanks the River Seine, sometimes dipping underground through tunnels, it narrowed significantly in places.

Getting past runners and not tripping took concentration, which was not always managed by some tired runners in the final stages, and I witnessed several horrible pile ups (don’t try to push through narrow spaces runners). Refreshment stalls were another hazardous area.

While there was plenty of refreshments from water to sugar cubes, slices of oranges and chunks of bananas, there was always a pile up at the tables as most runners targeted the first table they saw.

And forget banana skins, oranges are lethal.

Although I’d entered the race back in February with the intention of getting 3hours 45minutes, I’d discounted my target after picking up a few injuries in Mumbai. But during the last third, I began running with one of the four official pace makers that they provide in each pen.

I’ve never ran with a pace maker and it made a huge difference. With shouts of ‘allez‘, along with several other things that I didn’t understand, the pace maker, or rabbit as they’re known, helped focus my mind.

Added to which, the spectators all cheered more loudly when the he, particularly as he was wearing a purple Ronald McDonald style wig.

That said, it was often difficult to run in the pack as so many other runners were sticking to his side like a pride of cubs. Instead, I ran slightly ahead, my ears attuned to the slight clink of his whistle.

Never would I have believed that a brightly coloured wig, and a tiny clink of metal against metal could make a difference in a race. But in those final stages of a marathon when the pain creeps in, it is amazing how such a constant can pull you through.

It meant that as the sun beat down and we passed Notre Dame, Musee Du Orsay and the Eiffel Tour on the other side of the river, I stayed focused.

Together with the huge crowds of spectators, not to mention the 90 bands along the route, each reflecting the cultural diversity of the city from brass bands to Brazilian samba and African drumming, it helped me pick up my feet and keep on track.

Of course, none of this, music, food, water or cheering makes the slightest bit of difference in the final four miles of a marathon. All that can keep you going then is will power. And in my case, the purple wig of the pace maker.

Alas, at the final refreshment point, 3miles from the finish at the city’s park in the east, Bois De Boulogne, it was like a rugby scrum. Runners didn’t slow their pace but sped in bumping and grabbing for bottles. (If you run next year, it might be worth having your own final drink on you to avoid this one).

As I fought my way out, my heart sank as I saw the purple wig bobbing up and down way ahead. In that split second when I thought, ‘there’s no way I’ll catch him,’ my legs went from leaden, to leaden in quick sand.

But my GPS showed that I was still on target, and I kept him in sight as I hit the final 2kms mark and a nasty cobble stoned section. But as the crowd roared, ‘allez, allez‘ I sprinted over the finish line at 3hours, 44minutes and 17 seconds.

After the huge atmosphere on the race circuit, it was a strangely anti-climactic in the finisher’s area, all the runners wearing a sea of blue plastic capes provided to keep them warm and a numbed expression.

I collected my winner’s medal, a finisher’s t-shirt, and a handful of orange segments and Pretzels and shuffled out. The worst thing about racing abroad on your own is the aftermath when you want to celebrate. But thankfully as I sat down at a pavement café to enjoy a beer and soak up the sun, and a few thousand calories, one of the girls I’d met that morning wandered past and joined me.

The Paris marathon is known as a ‘real runners’ marathon’ and for good reason. It is a fast course and while you don’t get any of the ‘extras’ you can expect at other races (the race pack contains your bib, race info and a packet of pistachios) you get an amazing atmosphere – and usually a personal best fitting of a race that finishes in sight of the Arc de Triomphe.

Is it one of the top 101 marathon or half marathon Race destinations in the world? Not sure yet. Still got Angkor Wat, Ladakh and more on my wish list.

(Box out) Insider tips

  • Sneaky pre-race toilet spot – head to the car parks along the Champ Elysée. There are toilets here that no one knows about

  • Head to the last water table to avoid the crowds

  • Head to Boissiere Metro and walk to the start from there

  • Train yourself for the cobbles at the end

  • Use the pacemakers – or stick a coloured wig on a fast runner in front

SportsToursInternational.co.uk Paris Marathon packages start form £364.This includes race entry and two nights bed and breakfast based on two sharing.

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