The Marathon de Paris was my ninth marathon overall since I traded smoking for running on 12/1/06, and my first marathon outside the United States. It was my second of three marathons in 2012, following Miami in January and leading up to this November's New York City Marathon. I finished in 5:38:15, my best since 2008 (NYC, 5:13, and STL, 5:21). The highlight this time, besides the scenery, was my overall health. Eleven physical therapy sessions have defeated the I.T. Band syndrome that plagued me in Miami. Cold and driving wind knocked me back by a good 15 minutes but I felt like William the Conquerer, whose ancient Tower of London I saw on this trip in all its regal majesty. I did this as a result of not being accepted in the London Marathon Lottery, and I highly recommend to anyone that they put Paris on their marathon bucket list.
PART 1: Seeing Europe
We took a 3-hour EAST COAST train ride down England to London and spent Thursday night and Friday there with Uncle John and Aunt Mary, taking a tour on top of a red double-decker, and I saw Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey and all the must-sees.
12 Burgundy Snails, duck breast, wine. We went to the Louvre and gazed at Leonard da Vinci's Monna Lisa, who gazed right back forever. To the right here is my picture of her. It was hard to leave her room. You can take pictures, just not flash (some did). We hunted down Venus de Milo, the Goddess of Love who was discovered in Greece in 1820, sculptor unknown. Running Expo was at Port de Versailles, my first time on the Metro, which is very well-kept and fun to travel.
I did not know: Tour d'Eiffel sparkles. This was possibly the biggest (literally) wow factor of the trip. We visited the iconic tower on Saturday night, photographing it to the hilt, and were on our way to find a taxi back to the hotel. As we were waiting at dusk, we looked back and suddenly it was alit in gold. But that was not the coolest part. At exactly 9 p.m., the Eiffel Tower sparkled. It looked like a million fireflies, making you giggle, and I videotaped it. That lasted for five minutes. We were so privileged to have been standing there that very moment. Watch a snippet of that unforgettable scene right here.
PART 2: Bienvenue de la Marathon de Paris!
I wore a new ASICS one-bottle belt I had bought at the Expo, because I knew the fuel stations were only each 5K (3.1 miles), and I did not want to run 26.2 carrying with my handheld. That is the only real problem I have with the Paris Marathon; if you run this one, carry water and sport drink. A world-class marathon should never go more than two miles without stations, IMHO. At least their stations rocked, though. They were stocked with raisins, orange slices, bananas and water (Powerade at mile 20), and sometimes buckets of water to dip sponges.
ElementsI mention this prominently because this was by far the worst weather conditions of any marathon or half-marathon I have run. It was even worse than the 2009 New Jersey Marathon, which I ran in rain from start to finish. That is because it was a strong and cold wind all 26.2 miles, seemingly always head-on for the longest straightaways. If there is one thing I hate most as a runner it is wind, and we unfortunately drew the wind card on this day, worth a good 15 or 20 minutes. Running a marathon is hard enough!
DeparteStart corrals were on the southeast side of Arc de Triomphe. I had arranged two bags the night before, one for bag check and one a disposable with items needed at the start such as 4 GUs, earphones, salt packets. I was immediately greeted by cold wind. Most of us wore the sleeveless disposable pullovers given at the Running Expo, a lifesaver for this race. Watch this video to see:
I ducked into a tent with other runners and huddled in there from 7:45 to 8:10. Then I handed over my bag in the frigid Paris air and entered my corral in a surreal scene that even the NYC Marathon start cannot capture: 43,000 runners crammed into Av. Des Champs-Elysses, prodded on by bouncy aerobicize types cheering us from atop platforms.
Immediately on the side of those platforms facing the start line, one thing became clear. Runners put the "P" in Paris. I saw countless ripped-off disposable pullovers lying on the cobblestones and women squatting to pee on them. Everywhere I would go on this day, people would relieve themselves as freely as you will find anywhere, men or women. Porta-potties were never more optional.
We heard the countdown over the speakers, at the start line far, far in front of me. "Quatre ... trois ... deux ... un" .... gun. That was about 8:45 a.m. I kept looking back behind me at the greatest Arch other than the one in St. Louis. Finally I officially crossed the start at 9:25. I was off for my first international marathon. Ahead of me was the City of Lights. Paris.
I had two glitches at the start. One, a man grabbed me and told me I had lost my water bottle. Indeed, it had slipped out of my new fuel belt, so I had to dart through packed runners to snag it. Two, my iTunes music on the iPhone was set to loop mode, so every song would just repeat instead of shuffle. I had turned on Tony Bennett's "Duets" before the start, and it just occurred to me that I was listening to the one with Willie Nelson, one I definitely do not like, so picture this: Starting the race of a lifetime, at the Arc de Triomphe, City of Lights, 43,000 runners, and Willie Nelson over and over. I couldn't do anything about it so I just got the start out of the way and then dealt with it.
I ran with the 4:30 pace group for most of the first half. I knew that I never would stay up with them, but I was going with my 5K-at-a-time gameplan and I was running 11 minute miles tops. We ran past the Place de la Concorde in mile 1, past the Louvre and our hotel in the second mile, and then by the Bastille in mile 3. The crowds on the course were unbelievable, rivaling NYC.
From miles 6 to 12, I was thrown a little surprise. It was mostly forested terrain, the green Bois de Vincennes that you see on the extreme right of Paris on the map. It passed the Chateau de Vincennes. I actually did not mind this respite, for one important reason. When you run the Paris Marathon, there is a tradeoff if you are looking for the iconic landmarks. They come with adjacent cobblestone. For the most part the cobbles are worn down over centuries by foot traffic, flattened, but in some cases they are uneven and after a while, when your soles are already barking, they can make it rough. Not often.
We circled back after the long outward stretch, and along Avenue Daumesnil, I reached the 21K point, the half-marathon, and a second hello to Bastille. My time there was 2:30. Everything was going great.
The Paris Marathon is really two separate races. The second one is the half that runs along LA SEINE. The first time the course rolls you up against the deep green and romantic river, under all the quaint bridges, you are in love. I was running with no thought of my form or pain, just thinking to myself: "I AM RUNNING THE SEINE." Yes, this was really happening. A boat slid alongside me, racing me.
We encountered tunnels in this half, running beneath Seine overpasses, and while tunnels generally are unwelcomed solitude to a marathoner, in this case they were a respite from the wind. The wind was relentless. I can't even put into words in this post how hard the wind was. This entire half, the wind was a major issue, maybe even costing me a PR. I was always head-down, hat pulled as tight as possible, neck band pulled up over face, hunched over and stumble-running to knife through the 20mph+ gales.
The rest of the way was pretty, the Bois de Bologne, very similar to the Boise de Vincennes in that we ran for miles in forested terrain, but honestly it was survival from there on. Leg lift was gone. The Bois de Bologne is not a place you want to run if you need pick-me-up crowds, which I did. I thought I had it in me, the 5:00 pace group, but I would run as much as I could and then speed walk and then run and so on. It is the hardest thing. You are trying to will yourself forward. With three miles to go, I was alongside the 5:30 pace group, and I decided I would hang with them no matter what.
Now I had the finish line in front of me, and after passing the photographers, I maintained my own tradition of power-dancing over the timing mats, because I dance over finish lines. I have done that every marathon. I am not sure exactly what kind of dance it is, more like hop-skipping, but somehow there is a burst of energy for it.
WATCH VIDEO OF THE FINISH HERE.
VOILA. Paris Marathon, done. A woman put a medal around my neck. You can see it pictured at the very start of this blog post. At first, I thought it was a bit odd -- a yellow T-shirt, when it could be an Eiffel Tower spinner medal or a hanging Monna Lisa or anything that says "Paris."
Then it hit me: What is the greatest symbol of sporting success in France? Yes. The same sporting body that stages the Tour de France stages the Paris Marathon. I respect the yellow shirt. My ninth marathon, made official.
I ducked again into a tent, as I had hours earlier in the morning. The wind was stronger than ever. I was so cold. I retrieved my checked bag and put on my sweatshirt. The soles of my feet ached, but nothing else. Lisa joined up with me, and we stopped for a wonderful grilled sausage sandwich, then walked over to a cafe for a cafe, then thronged into the Metro with other runners and headed back to the Normandy.
Dinner after a marathon is a highlight. I can eat whatever I want. I feasted on steak with bearnaise sauce, and authentic onion soup (you don't say "French onion soup."), with 1664 draught beer made locally and bottles of sparkling water, finished off with rhubarb tart. We packed that night and then took a taxi the next morning to Orly, happy that we had 50 euros left because it cost 49.40!
Postscript and Thanks
I have run on the Great Wall of China and I have run in the rain in northern England and I have run past the Eiffel Tower and through the boroughs of New York and over the Golden Gate Bridge and through cornfields back home in Southern Indiana and on ice and on sandy Florida beaches. It is a life I highly recommend to anyone who wishes for great satisfaction in a lifetime that you only will be able to live one time. One day we will be all as gone as Napolean, as King Richard the Lionhearted, as all those who built magical Norman cathedrals that today dot the countrysides. Running just took me to a place of dreams, it was how I met my wife, and you can sparkle like the Eiffel Tower at 9 p.m. with all eyes upon you.
I feel like I have a whole cast of people to thank before saying a bientot, and I do.
Thanks to my wife Lisa and Rachmo for our adventures; Uncle John and Aunt Mary; Aunt Penny; Elsie; John IV and Berenger; Thomas; Jenny and Luke; Laura and Joel; Claire and Eddie; Julie and David (proprietors of BlueBird Cafe); Queen Elizabeth and the royal family for their generous time; King Pig Eye; London bus tour guides; pub bartenders; Gavril and the maid at Normandy; countless terrific restaurant staff; @MarathonParis operator; the man who made crepes; and many more who made the trip and this marathon adventure a dream. Back in New York, thanks to Penny and Liam and our neighbors for watching King Bingley after a grumpy dog named Bailey snubbed him on the first day he was supposed to stay with that family. Thanks to Steve and our local fire department for making sure our house did not burn to the ground after a hawk fell down our chimney and into the furnace, requiring 911 and major carbon monoxide release. Thanks as always to my boys Matt, Ben and Josh for always being an inspiration to their Dad.