“Welcome to the Champs-Élysées, the most beautiful avenue in the world, for the start of the Paris Marathon 2007”. If French sensibilities were ruffled by the exclusion of Paris from the World Marathon Majors, or by London grabbing the 2012 Olympics from under the nose of hot favourites Paris two years earlier, you wouldn’t know from the warm and multilingual welcome. In an international field, British runners made up the second largest group by some margin.
I had come to Paris with outstanding support: my wife Debbie and our daughters Rachel and Alice, Debbie’s brother Craig and his wife Sue, her other brother Tim, with his sons Theodore and Ulysse, and my father, Aelwyn.
Standing in the morning sun with the Arc de Triomphe at our backs, it was hard to disagree with the commentator. The generous width of the avenue made it possible for the entire field of over 31,000 to start together. Soon we were off, and to the strains of Chariots of Fire (associated with Paris through the film based on the 1924 Olympics) the mass field shuffled heroically to the start line.
This spring marathon, one week before London, is an attractive alternative for British runners. The trip by Eurostar is relaxed, and brings you to one of the most romantic cities in the world at the loveliest time of year. But habitual London rejects should be warned: Paris might call your bluff and let you in. Registrations start in September on a first-come first-served basis, with early applicants benefitting from a lower entry fee: however, Paris soon fills up once it is hit by a wave of runners rejected by London. After securing your place online, you need a doctor’s letter confirming your fitness to run.
The course is fairly flat: a rough barbell shape, heading east to the Bois de Vincennes, then back west following the Seine with a final loop through the Bois de Boulogne. This gives the course a surprisingly rural feel. On the day the shade of the trees and buildings was very welcome, as temperatures reached 28°C by the time the slower runners approached the finish.
The water stations were at 5k intervals, and also offered orange slices and banana chunks (still in their skins!) which made the road very hazardous after the first few thousand runners. The first station at Place de la Bastille was particularly chaotic, with several runners coming to grief on the slippery cobbles. Unsurprisingly, the bottled water at the later stations was lukewarm and unappetising, but we had to drink it to keep dehydration at bay.
The crowd was noticeably thinner than in London, but no less enthusiastic, and the entertainment included seventy acts from brass bands to belly dancers. As the latter came at twenty-three miles, most runners managed no more than a passing glance. The African drummers were particularly welcome, adjusting their rhythm to the current crop of runners.
At one point late in the race we entered a long underpass, where, suddenly deprived of spectator support, the runners took up their own chant of “allez!” and “plus vite!”. The echoes swirled round the tunnel, adding to the sense of disorientation for runners already becoming light-headed with effort.
The end of the race was spectacular: we had barely emerged from the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne when the approaching finish line was heralded by the Arc de Triomphe, whose significance was not lost on the exhausted runners.
Through the finish, and the usual shuffle for medals, water, more water, shared congratulations and the slightly dazed search for friends and relatives.
Mubarak Shami of Qatar won the men’s race in 2:07:19, which was 22 seconds faster than Martin Lel’s winning time in London. Tafa Magarsa of Ethiopia won the women’s race in 2:25:07, which would have earned her sixth place in London.
Later we learned that the Rotterdam Marathon on the same day had been suspended after 31/2 hours due to the heat and the large number of runners needing medical attention. Runners still on the course at this stage didn’t even get a time. If I’d slogged round seven eighths of the course in the heat to be told I wasn’t allowed to finish the race, I would not be happy.
On the day I was disappointed with my performance: having run the Finchley 20 in under 2:40, I cherished a hope of breaching 3:30. But as every marathon runner knows, those last 6.2 miles are a different matter, and a feverish cold two weeks earlier had blown a hole in my training. After four miles battling through heavy traffic at the start, I was on an 81/2 minute pace, already two minutes behind my target. I realised the lost time wasn’t coming back to me, so I settled down to aim for 3:45.
But before long, plan B foundered too: the missed training and the heat took their toll: without ever hitting an obvious “wall”, I slowed steadily until I realised I was in danger of going over four hours. This spurred me to dig deep, and I managed to finish all of six seconds inside the four hour mark, thanks to a desperate dash to the finish line.
Looking back, though, my memory is not of disappointment, but of a lovely day in a beautiful city, with enthusiastic family support. Any misgivings about my time were outweighed by the thrill and satisfaction of completing another marathon in reasonable shape. This was a holiday, after all. I might as well enjoy it.