What follows is everything you’d conceivably want to know about my 2016 Paris Marathon.
For those who just want the low down and dirty:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Literally.
2016 Paris Marathon Race Report
Though I’ve run 24 marathons, I’d never done an international one before. Crewing for my friends Claire and Russ Secker as they ran across Germany didn’t really count (though I did ride my bicycle along the entire five-day Baltic Run course) and the two-day Round the Island Isle of Wight Multistage Ultra trail race was a DNF (I still haven’t written up that race report…).
Claire encouraged me to sign up for Paris when neither of us got accepted into the London Marathon. To be honest, I will go anywhere with Claire and Russ, even less exotic locations such as Tulsa, OK (Post Oak Lodge Trail Marathon). Hubby and I had never been to Paris, so we conspired to make a fun vacation trip around fun running, with two sightseeing days bookending both sides of Sunday’s marathon.
My training was minimal — and that description is probably generous. Longest run was 20 miles, which I did once. No training group, just me plodding along in a gradual distance build to avoid injury and ensure a comfortable run. I figured I’d finish around 5:30, with a really good day being closer to 5 and a quite sucky day meaning 6 hours on my feet.
The overarching goals: finish without negatively impacting the tourist fun we’d be experiencing with our friends in the days following the marathon.
We arrived at our hotel Friday around midmorning. Hotel Galileo was so conveniently located that everything, including the marathon expo, was a simple Metro ride and stroll away. The Seckers took the train from England that afternoon, and we went to packet pick-up as soon as we were all in town to avoid the huge crowds that go with huge marathon expos. The secondary goal was to keep me and Hubby actively awake so we’d acclimate to Paris time.
At the expo, the important thing was turning in medical clearance. Race officials require a stamped doctor’s form that certifies the participant’s health. I’d simply gone to a doc in the box for a quick sports physical ($40).
I also needed to present a photo ID, my passport. The U.S. State Department had recommended that American tourists keep their passports with them at all times – and yes, I did run with mine, as well as with my phone.
The expo was large and well organized, with tons of good stuff. Claire and I were drawn to several of the various race booths, especially some cool looking races. Despite all the tempting merchandise and very little crowding, we moved rapidly through the floor without stopping. We wanted to spend any time on our feet out in the city.
I’ve never been able to sleep so late before a marathon. I woke up at 7:30 a.m. to the sounds of people heading to the start. Again, our hotel was in the perfect location; we could see the start corrals just a mere two blocks away.
Ironically, we could even watch the wheelchair and elite athletes set off on the course – it was being broadcast live on TV.
However, the race coverage really made me nervous, so we turned it off. It had been 6 years since I’d done a road marathon (2010 White Rock Marathon) and even more since I’d run a world-class one (2008 New York City Marathon), and I’d forgotten just how amped up the helicopters, announcers, and crowds could make me.
Plus, I had that whole “minimal training” thing going for me.
Claire and I walked to the corrals together, though hers went off before mine. I didn’t mind, as I’d always prefer to be set and ready, and race officials had asked that runners be in their corrals 45 minutes prior to start. I was in the last corral, the 4:30 and above group, which was due to set out at 10:15 a.m. We said our goodbyes to our men, hugged and wished each other luck, and entered our corrals.
Mine was still somewhat uncrowded, so I snapped a photo or two and looked around. That’s when I noticed the incredible port-a-potty lines. Here and there, single cans dotted the fenced landscape, lines doubling back on themselves. There was no wait at the circular open air urinal, but that wasn’t my option. So I got in line.
The day was warm but lots of people were in tights, jackets, and gloves. I’d opted for shorts, short sleeved shirt, and a hat as well as my Nathan vest and bladder with 60-ounces of water (see “Carrying Water on Your Run” for more details on this decision).
When the horn sounded for Claire’s 4:15 wave, I looked at the people in front of me in the bathroom line and gulped. By now, I needed that pitstop, so leaving wasn’t an option.
When the horn sounded for our wave, 10 women remained in front of me. I laughed out loud, realizing how the universe was not-so-subtly reinforcing my stated goals: I was here for fun.
My time didn’t matter, so why worry about when I started?
Even with waiting and doing my business, I still managed to catch my wave before the last runners crossed the mat. The only other marathon where I’ve started back with the emergency vehicles was 2005 Pikes Peak – we’d opted to power walk through town rather than run uphill to the start of the trail. That turned out to be an amazing race, so maybe my late start was a lucky omen.
Paris Marathon Miles 1–13
The sun was shining and it was very bright. I tried to focus on running easy and having fun. And when I saw that the 7K water stop was already out of water, I was very glad I’d carried my own.
I knew I was undertrained, and it seemed to take a long time to cover the first 11 miles, especially when the Microsoft fitness band I was wearing showed 14 miles (clearly, it was malfunctioning. It died shortly thereafter, leaving me with no idea of timing for electrolytes and food past the halfway mark). So I looked at people and surroundings to take pleasure in touring Paris. I gave high fives to every kid with a hand out, clapped for bands, and danced.
The racecourse was beautiful. Though there were many people, I never felt crowded and enjoyed having fellow runners to watch, and I got to pass lots of people throughout the run, some of whom weren’t doing that well. There were many people receiving medical attention, especially one scary instance I saw around the 10 or 11-mile point. With the temperature some 20 degrees warmer than expected and continuing to climb, I knew the second half was going to be problematic. That’s why I even ran back a few times to stand underneath firefighters’ hoses. They were spraying the crowd with cold water. By this point, I was wearing as much water as I was drinking.
- Sights to see: Place de la Concorde, Chatalet, Hotel deVille, Place de la Bastille, Porte Doree, and Chateau de Vincennes (spectacular!). I loved running miles 6 through 12 through the Bois de Vincennes, the large metropolitan park in the city. It was built by Napoleon III and has multiple lakes, beautiful gardens, and all sorts of other features we really couldn’t see. Except the zoo – we ran right by the Asian elephant exhibit.
- Good to know: Claire had warned me that cobblestones plus runners plus oranges, bananas, and water equaled slippery, and this was quite true. After some 40,000 people had stomped through ahead of me, the ground was quite sloppy well into the first half. So even though I’d carried my own water and food, I still walked through these danger zones; I saw two different people fall, and many others bore grimy streaks that said they’d taken a spill. Though cobblestones were not as bumpy as I’d thought they’d be, I was glad to have new shoes with cushioning.
- Favorite moments: Yes, I’m in another country, running by myself, when somewhere around 5K, I hear, “I know you!” I got a fly-by hug from a fellow Austinite who I knew through Women on the Trails. And though I was a foreigner, I never felt it – bibs had first names plus country of origin printed on them, and French spectators were fabulous. They called out my name and made a big point of cheering “USA!” as well as tossing out support in French. Russ had told me that “tops!” for the French was equivalent to “brilliant!” for Brits, and I heard many call out, “Tops, Leah, tops!” along with “Bon courage!”
Paris Marathon Miles 13–26.2
Things got a lot more, well, French in the second half.
After the park, we moved into a more residential area. Because it was getting later in the day, citizens were a bit testier. Unlike U.S. marathons, many intersections were manned by volunteers and there was a lot less blockades and cones to section off the course. Roads were closed, but this seemed less mandatory than respected.
Between 20K and 30K was a low spot for me. There was very little shade and fewer firefighters. Because my fitness band had died, I had no idea of splits or time until I saw a race clock – and I wasn’t sure what my start time differential was (somewhere around 1:45 to 2 hours). So I looked to the kilometer signs for help, simply eating and drinking by 5K intervals. (Have I mentioned I LOVE having a marathon marked in kilometers? Man, distance just ticks by!)
I needed to make a quick bathroom stop and was amazed to arrive at a bank of port-o-potties with no line of waiting runners. As I got closer, I realized the first three cans were padlocked shut. WTF?!? But the next one was open. I gratefully stepped in, and that’s when I realized why the others had been locked. This bathroom was pristine and stocked with toilet paper. Clearly, race officials had kept the first set open until trashed and foul and then unlocked the next fresh set for us slower runners. Those French are amazing!
As we came back along the Seine, the racecourse moved onto the pedestrian promenade edging the waterway. This was the primary place where I noticed beefed up security, as there were boats full of police, patrolling the river. The sun was now fully overhead, we were on concrete, and shade was nonexistent, so I began sinking fast. People out enjoying the day worked their way around the marathoners, pleasantly cheering as they went. We diverged when the marathon course dipped into several different highway tunnels (I think there were three, two shorter and one that seemed quite long). Emergency vehicles driving through added stinky car exhaust, but I was so thankful for the cool darkness that I happily sucked it up. Thank goodness for that underground shade!
We ran through the Pont de l’ alma Tunnel (commonly, perhaps infamously, called “the Diana Tunnel”):
When we emerged from the final tunnel, the 30K mark (18.6 miles), along with my dear hubby, was close by. He’d promised to be there with my miracle elixir, some flat Coke. And there he was! We walked a bit together and talked about the hot day while I drank the Coke. He told me that they’d seen Claire, who was having some cramping issues but otherwise doing well, before he and Russ separated. With renewed energy and a kiss, I headed off to wrap it up.
Now, I was far enough back that aid stations began to close up and streets open to more traffic. Though I had seen nothing about course closings in the race literature and had no clue as to my time, this was not particularly worrisome –a green line marked the route so I couldn’t get lost, and I had my own water.
That is, until I didn’t.
Just shortly past 30K, in the middle of the frickin afternoon, with no shade to be found, I sucked the last drop of those 60 ounces. The temperature had to be close to 80 degrees F. As we moved into the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park originally designed as hunting grounds for the King of France, any sort of crowd support disappeared. As a solitary trail runner, this didn’t bother me. However, aid stations also disappeared and I desperately needed some water. At 38K, I spied a half-full plastic bottle at the curb and quickly snagged it, splashing most in my hat but also pouring a bit into my hand to wet my lips.
Though someone’s leftover water was refreshing, I’d already hit that uncomfortable zone where what’s wrong is more dominant than what’s right. I became a bit lightheaded, so I leisurely strolled for about 2K (or as much as 1.2 miles), attempting to ignore the hot spot developing on my left foot. I snapped a photo of one of the big groups of Red Cross volunteers that had worked so hard to help people (and still were – there was a lot of cramping going on out there).
It’s well known that some runners cut the course in this park. There’s a small inner loop in the Bois du Boulogne where it’s quite easy to jump from just before 34K to 38K, and I did see some people doing this — though, at the time, what was going on didn’t exactly register. I also saw running groups out doing drills workouts, and I thought how lovely it would be to have these gorgeous public park areas for training.
FYI: Marathon = 42K / 26.2 miles. Any other distance isn’t a marathon.
Like an oasis, a fully stocked aid station appeared at 40K. Normally, I don’t stop for anything so close to the finish line, but I happily waited for a plastic bottle of water here. There was just 2K left and my thirst slaked, I was ready to get her done. Girding my loins, I dove into the incredibly busy and predestrian unfriendly Porte Dauphine, where French drivers whizzed around the traffic circle as staggering marathoners dodged and weaved toward the finish. Over the last 26 miles, I had perfected that uniquely French gesture of disgusted resignation and could throw both my hands up at asshole motorists like a native.
Glad to be alive, I moved onto Avenue Foch (several British runners sported shirts that read, “Where the Foch is the finish?”). The Arc de Triomphe was somewhere ahead!
While I don’t remember if my name was called, I do remember hearing the announcers say they’d be leaving shortly. I laughed – that joyous, well-what-the-hell explosion was truly my motto for the day – before crossing the mat and collecting my finisher’s shirt (they still had mediums!), medal, water bottle, and plastic poncho. I chatted with a Team Red White and Blue member from San Antonio who’d finished near me; unlike me, he had to get on a plane first thing the next morning (ouch).
The finish area looked a bit like an abandoned refugee camp. Most vendors had packed up, drop bags been collected, and finisher photos taken. Volunteers were still handing out champagne grapes, bananas, and a few other items, but I didn’t need anything. I just wanted to find my sweet hubby and get back to the hotel for a cool shower.
There he was, patiently waiting at the exit gate to guide me the, oh, half a mile or so back to our hotel. I had absolutely no idea what my finishing time was, nor did I care. I was so happy to have travelled Paris by foot and experienced a world class race.
- Sights to see: Notre Dame cathedral, Musee d’Orsay, Seine promenade, Eiffel Tower, Trocadero gardens, Bois de Boulogne lakes, Porte Dauphine, Arc de Triomphe. Some differing cultural ideas on marathon music: a really lovely natural French horn ensemble in period costume serenaded runners as we wended our way through the park.
- Good to know: A prolonged wave start plus slower runners means that back of the pack runners deal with traffic more than might be expected. People are out enjoying the public parks, so there are kids on bikes, roller bladers, and families out wandering the paths to be dodged. Drivers are tired of waiting for runners to pass. Proper expectations and a pleasant attitude help make those final miles enjoyable.
- Favorite moments: As we entered the neighborhood section slightly past the half way mark, a sleek sedan with darkly tinted windows and an SUV turned onto the course. The gentleman running near me took exception and stood in front of the lead car, both hands gesturing in the air while he spat out rapid fire French. The sedan’s driver took umbrage and honked, yelling out the window. The runner then used his water bottle to spray water all over the hood and windshield. This prompted the drivers of both cars to open their doors, yell, and gesture more. At which point, the runner banged his fist solidly first on the hood, then the roof, and the trunk as he ran by – so the sedan driver took off after him. Somehow, I lost sight of the men and, sadly, have no idea how this resolved. But I channeled that French guy when some lady blew through an intersection and I headed into the Death Circle at Porte Dauphine. It’s really all about puffing the chest out and flinging the arms up.
Celebrating Our Marathon Finish
We had a special post-marathon activity planned for the evening: a romantic dinner boat cruise down the Seine.
After a shower, some stretching, and a bit of rest (plus some celebratory wine), we leisurely strolled a few blocks to the port which, ironically, Claire and I had run by hours earlier. On board the Bateaux Mouches river cruise boat, we started with champagne and nibbles, followed by a three course meal and accompanying wines. A lovely combo played background music. We talked while the city rolled by, punctuated by lovers sitting along the river bank and the Eiffel tower bursting into sparkles. On the way back, we moved up top for a fabulous open air view of Paris’ sister Statue of Liberty.
It was a magical night with friends, capping a lovely, lengthy stroll through an amazing city. The perfect end to an extraordinary day.