Falling in Love with Paris Marathon

Paris is known as the ‘City of Love’ and I certainly fell deeply in love there in April this year – with the French capital’s marathon, that is.

The 41st Schneider Electric Paris Marathon – one of the biggest in the world – was held on 9 April 2017 and marked number seven in my marathon kit bag (including one ultra) and my second international 41.95 kilometre event, following my debut Virgin Money London Marathon in 2016.

For me, Paris goes down as a favourite; perhaps surprisingly, as, for the first time, the lead up was seriously marred by a debilitating IT Band (ITB) injury which saw me sidelined from serious training for more than a month and hobbling painfully (and tearfully) a short 11 days out from the start gun.

Assuming I could actually run – and that was in serious doubt at several points – I would need to do so very conservatively; while any thoughts of personal records flew off into the ‘Never Never’ as I adjusted to a less ambitious goal of simply crossing the finish line and collecting that precious medal.

But my love affair with the Paris race perhaps blossomed because of that very reason: I could just relax and enjoy the amazing sights and incredible atmosphere of one of the great cities of the world.

How could anyone not fall head-over-heels in love with a race, on the cobblestones of the French capital’s most famous avenues and plazas, that offers at the same time the opportunity to discover up-close-and-personal, such a beautiful city?

A happy TRR runner on the Place de la Concorde.

London Marathon doubtless has some memorable highpoints – such as running over Tower Bridge; through Greenwich Village; and finishing at Westminster; Buckingham Palace and the Mall – but otherwise tracks modern city roads.

The Paris route trumps London for me, through offering a continuous and incomparable backdrop of spectacular landmarks and vistas.  Think: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, The Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, palaces, famous boulevards and the sparkling Seine River, with its many romantic bridges.

Paris Marathon commences at the foot of the imposing Arc de Triomphe, about a third of the way down the elegant Champs Elysées, with high-end boutiques, stores, restaurants and cafes to either side.

With a total of 57,000 others registrants, comprising 74 per cent men and 26 per cent women, and representing some 145 countries, I joined the packed ‘pen’ for those of us aiming for a 3hr:30min finish (the time I had self-seeded pre-injury), with an 8.35am start.

The race has a staggered start spanning more than an hour and a half, allowing for the earliest commencement for wheelchair and elite athletes, to a leisurely first foot strike at a civilised 9.50am for those anticipating a finish in more than four and a half hours.

With the entire country remaining on high security alert following a series of terrorist attacks and incidents over the past two years, I knew the police and military force would be significant on such a big day, but, it seemed subtle, and, thankfully, nothing distracted from the main game of athletes doing what they love.

To stand among the huge number of other runners, on that famous French avenue, on what promised to be a stunning – though unseasonably hot – spring day in Paris; and then to hear my first footfalls on the cobblestones as I started to run, was an indescribable experience.

Add to that, the fact that I was sporting my carefully chosen running outfit, including my green and gold ‘We Run the World’ TRR singlet; green and white cap and temporary tattoos, well, I doubt you would find a more proud marathoner anywhere, anytime!

I was equally delighted when, during the race, at least a handful of other runners – locals, as well as foreigners like me – ran alongside and inquired about Tasmania and my running club, with the French athletes incredulous that I had come so far to see their beautiful city and participate in ‘their’ marathon.

After the spectacular start, runners head slightly downhill towards the expansive Place de la Concorde; then continue to sweep through the historic Place de la Bastille, all-the-while cheered on by growing numbers of a total quarter million spectators lining the course.

It’s then a very pleasant section through the Bois de Vincennes woodland, which, in hindsight, turns out to be a welcome stretch of leafy shade and refreshing coolness before we emerge into the rapidly rising heat of the day.

The Seine River to the left now, barges and tourist vessels plying its glistening waters, provides a happy distraction as I come to the 21 kilometre point and make the usual mental (and physical) adjustment that, after all this effort, I am only half done and still a long way from the infamous Fat Lady striking up a tune!

Some uneven, and therefore challenging, cobblestones from this point require extra attention, but it’s difficult for the eye not to rove to the incredible cityscape views of the Ile de la Cite, Ile St-Louis, the Pont Neuf and dominating Notre Dame.

There is, thankfully, another brief respite from the heat as we plunge into a dark tunnel, which race organisers have thoughtfully decorated in the vein of a spa retreat, complete with ‘Zen’ music, presumably to encourage runners to chill and relax.

However, achieving any form of meditative bliss is completely elusive to me, as I gaze with envy at the swelling number of chic and cheering Parisians now just starting their day with al fresco croissants and espressos at the countless riverside cafes and bistros.

Along with being liberally sprayed with water from the hoses of the Sapeurs-pompiers (French fire fighters) along the route, I find myself looking forward with increasing longing to the ‘fuel’ stations.

Manned by some 3,000 volunteers, I find a veritable French feast of:

  • 24 tonnes of bananas;
  • 19 tonnes of oranges;
  • 7 tonnes of apples;
  • 2.2 tonnes of dried fruit and nuts;
  • 440,000 sugar cubes;
  • 24,000 energy bars;
  • 11,000 gels;
  • 7,000 litres of energy drink, and
  • 560,000 bottles of water!

However, the many thousands of discarded water bottles, on top of slippery orange peels, banana skins, and all that surface water from the fire hoses, introduce a hitherto unanticipated hazard with which to contend!

The trifecta of kilometres 26, 27 and 28 is where the rubber hits the road for me, and the stunning architecture of the Musee d Orsay and the Grand Palais, is now insufficient to divert my mind from the heaviness and tiredness in my legs and a dry and sticky mouth (despite my vigilance in rehydrating at each drink station).

At this point I have an interim goal that I’m putting heavy store in to get me home, and that is to see my darling husband, Dave, at our agreed ‘meeting’ point – the Eiffel Tower, at the 29 kilometre mark.

And there he is! Sporting his custom-made ‘Team Robson Paris Marathon 2017’ T-shirt and holding the inflatable Aussie boxing kangaroo aloft in the sunlight.

He beams from ear to ear, claps and cheers, clearly relieved and delighted that my troublesome ITB injury has not brought me undone.  And our eye contact seems to convey a silent message that I’m going to be alright from here.  I’m going to get this done and bring my medal home.

Others look to be not-so-fortunate . I witness a good many runners begin to slow dramatically, some to a zombie-like shuffle or even to a complete walk.

And, a few more kilometres on, as we enter the parklands of the Bois de Boulogne, things take an even more dramatic turn south for some, as an increasing number of shrill ambulance sirens bear testimony to runners in more serious distress.

But then, more suddenly than I had anticipated, the crowd of onlookers thickens to10-deep and I look up to see the home strait of the long and elegant Avenue Foch and the finish line, with the stand out  Arc de Triomphe that I seem to have left an eternity ago, in the distance.

With another group of euphoric – and some tearful – runners, I finally cross that finish line with my own private mix of elation and deep emotion.

The sweetest moment of all comes as a volunteer hangs that beautiful, golden medal – so perfectly and appropriately set off by its ribbon in the TRR signature green – around my neck.

The route of the Schneider Electric Paris Marathon reads like a tourist guide book to the French capital.

I collect my finishers’ T-shirt; bottle of refreshing water; and the most delicious, thirst-quenching orange I have eaten in my life, and proceed to make my way through the crowds of other exhausted and limping runners.

I exit the official race finish precinct and my heart soars for the second time that day as I again spot my dear husband and run to him to be swept off my aching feet in what has become our traditional end-of-marathon, twirl-around and bear hug.

Above all else, it is that which I look forward to the most, and that which makes all my training and race pain, so worthwhile.

Then, we are all smiles and stories as Dave takes me, as promised, to a super-stylish cafe in the heart of the still-buzzing Champs Elysées for the much anticipated ice cream dessert, which has been tantalising me like a dangling carrot in my mind from the marathon 10 km mark!

Note: The Salon du Running fair at Porte de Versailles, taking place over three days before Paris Marathon, is also an occasion not to be missed – a gathering of over 80,000 visitors, with more than 200 professionals from the running world.

Event profile: Annie Robson

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