Paris Marathon 2014: The Race

As I shuffled my way into the starting pen, I started feeling overwhelmed. It was rammed with runners, and I felt like I’d somehow cheated my way in with all these “real runners”. It wasn’t a dissimilar feeling to that I had on my first Half Marathon. I was apprehensive – I’d never tackled this distance before. It wasn’t helped by the people all around me chatting about how many marathons they’d completed. But I looked around and saw all the people behind me in front of the Arc de Triomphe. I resisted taking a selfie!

1904090_10154007410260634_331061369_nThe only thing that really got me past the nerves was the wait. it seemed to take forever to get going. They were releasing a wave at a time. Every now and then we’d shuffle forward another hundred yards as the next pen got released. All the false starts actually really helped. By the time I got to the start I was raring to go. I had heard stories about people needing to use the loo in the start pens and them being notorious places for actually getting to go (Unless you go on the floor or in a bottle) but I have to say, once the first few pens moved forward it was urinals-a-plenty! By the time I reached the line my bladder was empty.

I crossed the start line about 50 minutes after I’d said my farewells to the missus. She’d gone ahead to try and catch a photo of me near the start. And here it is. She later said she was hanging onto a lamppost for 40 minutes waiting for me! So I’m glad she managed to capture it 🙂

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You can see from the broad smile on my face that I was already loving it. Once I got started, the adrenaline kicked in. The crowd were brilliant shouting “allez, allez” and it was a real party atmosphere. I had two tactics that were going to deliver me my sub-4 time.

Firstly: Cadence. Tricky Dicky on the RW forum had been advising me about cadence after seeing some of my Garmin traces. The idea was to shorten my stride, increase my footfall and conserve energy. I’d done it in my training runs with fantastic results, so I used my watch to keep an eye on it. I tried to stay above 170 all the way round. I nearly managed it!

Secondly: Pacing. To get Sub-4 thats 9:09 a mile. There was no way I was trusting GPS to be fully accurate, so I used it as a guide only to hold level 9:00 mile pace. I was backed up with a pace band I’d printed off. As I passed each mile marker I could check my time against the pace band to see how much deviation there was compared to the watch. In the end it was about 0.4 miles! But thats a tale for another day.

Thirdly: Nutrition. I had practiced taking a gel every 4 miles in my long run training, so that was the plan here too. I had 8 on my Gel belt just in case of an emergency, but the plan was to take them every 4 miles like clockwork. This also helped break the race into smaller chunks, psychologically.

So I settled into my pace and cadence and the first 5 miles literally flew by. I’d run down the Champs Elysees, around Concorde, past the Louvre and managed to get to Bastille relatively unscathed, on pace feeling good. The plan was for the missus to be around every 6 miles, so at 5miles on my watch I was keeping a keen eye out for her. Not long after Bastille, I saw her and she got a brilliant pic.

10265648_10154035552345075_3938878966522699550_oThis was one of the places where it was congested! For some reason the crowd wanted to get closer and closer, but it did create some bottlenecks on the course. There were 2 occasions when I had to walk as I literally couldn’t run. Seeing her was a great boost but I still felt good anyway. The next 6 miles took a while longer as we went around Bois de Vincennes. The crowd was a little sparser, but the aid stations were good here, including some spray water over you!

It was here I learned the significance of the sponges in the goody bag – the aid stations had bowls of water for you to soak the sponge in so you can cool down! The aid stations also had plenty of fruit, but as I hadn’t trained with them, I didn’t try them. I think this official photo was taken around this point, and is one of my favourites from the whole race.

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Approaching the 12 mile mark and the second opportunity to see her indoors, I kept looking for her. It was tough to spot her because the crowd were just amazing. So much support for the British vest, and so many people cheering me on by name. It really does make such a difference, and recommend having your name on your vest for EVERYONE. It is BRILLIANT! Just like being a professional, having someone shout for you! I eventually saw her and it gave me another boost!

After I saw her I took on my 3rd gel. As I was using SiS gels they didn’t need water, but I was taking water with me from every aid station. Whenever a bottle was offered I’d take it and sip it for the next mile or two. I hoped it would stop me needing the loo. It turned into a lucky coincidence that I’d always have a water at around the same time as a gel, which did make them easier to stomach.

Crossing the halfway gantry was a welcome relief. Whenever I am doing any run, I always look forward to the halfway point as it’s almost like you just have to run home afterwards! It was after halfway that I started comparing my watch paces with the pace band. I noticed there was some slippage, but I was still ahead of pace by a minute or so. This was really good news, as I know I would have some time to play with for that crucial last few miles. Mentally and physically I was still feeling good.

At around 14 miles you reach the seine, and I knew the next 5 miles or so were along its banks. We passed Notre Dame cathedral and as we rounded it I spotted the Eiffel Tower – apparently some runners complete the marathon without even seeing it! Unbelievable I know. This picture was taken by someone along the seine, I think at about 16 miles.

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There are a lot of tunnels along this section of the course. Including the one that Princess Diana died in. In one of the tunnels they had a full fledged disco, complete with laser lights! But the tunnels were so hot and humid. The sun had this far stayed out and the temperature was rising, just at the wrong time for me.

I reached 18 miles and was in front of the eiffel tower. Here the crowd was thick. Some how I managed to spot the missus up on a wall by one of the tunnels. How I saw or heard her is beyond me, but she was just what I needed – It was coming into the final section and needed to see her cheer me on.

At 20 miles we reached Roland Garros and the start of the Bois de Bologne. Notoriously sparsely populated when it comes to marathon support, I knew this was the final leg. Just 10k to go now. If only it were that simple! I chatted with a lovely guy for a mile or so, exchanging pleasantries. It was his first marathon too, and he had also heard this was the hardest part. For the next mile or so I felt good. I’d taken on a gel, and some water too. The sun had gone in and we weaved our way around.

I’d started struggling with the pace now though. I was finding it really difficult to keep to the 9m/m and drifted out to about 9.15m/m. And as I turned a corner at about 22miles it was clear I wasn’t the only one struggling. The park was like a graveyard. people walking, people sitting down, people vomiting at the sides. They’d all hit the wall. I hoped I wouldn’t be one of them. I was telling myself “Just one more mile at this pace then you can ease up for the end”, “Just one foot in front of the other”. It had gotten so tough though, with the number of walkers, I was doing even more weaving in and out. I was starting to become really laboured. By mile 23 I was glad I’d taken extra gels as I felt I needed one. I’m not sure how much of an effect it really had, but psychologically it really helped and I thought I had an extra spring in my step! Then I spotted an official photographer and felt the need to pose. Needless to say I did NOT feel like Usain Bolt!

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It was just down to grit and determination now. I knew I had only 3 miles left. I nervously looked at my watch, and saw myself getting slower and slower. I started to despair – I had done so well and I had come so close – I couldn’t have beared it if I missed my target! I crossed mile 24 and checked my pace band. I was still about 90 seconds ahead of target with 3.2 miles to go. My watch pace had dropped to close to 9.30m/m – that would have just scraped me under but I HAD to maintain pace.

My legs were burning, my chest felt ok, but my legs were just so weary. At around 24.5 miles I made an emergency decision to take on an extra gel. The last one had a big boost and with just a mile and a half to go I hoped this would do the same.

I saw the 25 mile marker and by the time I’d crossed it I finished the gel. The watch beeped and it was a 9.30m/m. Further despair. But the gel kicked in just in time. Mentally I knew I had just 9 minutes left of this epic journey I’d worked so hard for for the last 4 months.

And no matter how the last 4 hours had gone, how I would remember the Paris Marathon all rested on this last mile in the Bologne. I focussed on my cadence and stride. One step in front of the other. And it was along here that an official photographer got my favourite photo of the whole day.

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If you look closely you can see the anguish in my eyes.

I could see the 26 mile post. The crown now were going berserk! In my head it was all for me, it was as if they knew my journey and knew how close I was – I looked at my watch and I had 3 minutes to cross the line. As you pass the 26 mile marker you take a left and an almost immediate right turn, and all of a sudden, its Avenue Foch – the finishing straight! I looked up and saw the finish line, the Arc de Triomphe the spectacular backdrop. I looked at my watch and I had about 90 seconds to get there. It looked so far away! The crowd kept cheering magnificently and from somewhere, I was able to pick up the pace. I’d stop short of calling it a sprint finish, but it was faster than I’d run any of the previous 26 miles! The avenue was wide and I was going for it. I looked at my watch – I was going to do it! I didn’t know it but the missus managed to capture that very moment in a somewhat blurry photo.

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Knowing there was a video camera at the finishing line I pulled a Mobot and stopped my watch. I daren’t look at it! But when I did, I nearly broke down.

3:59:12

I’d cut it close, but I had done it! It took a few moments to sink in, and then I cried. I put my hands on my knees in sheer exhaustion, stood back up and the tears were just rolling down my face.

I cant even put into words how good it felt.

I worked my way through the finish funnel to get my “Winnings” but before I got anywhere I heard the missus shouting my name. Somehow, despite all the people and the noise I picker her out straight away. I think she was crying, I think I was too. I collected my medal and my tee shirt, then grabbed as many bottles of water and Powerade as I could do rehydrate.

I exited the funnel and found her. I hugged her. I cried some more. I cried quite a lot to be fair.

My body was broken and battered, but it was worth it.

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We bimbled around the finish area taking it all in. It was such a strange feeling being surrounded by all of these people who had accomplished the same thing, all for their own reasons, and it was all special to them in their own way.

After a quick snap under the Arc, we started to head back to the hotel so i could start to recover and really take it in.

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Once we got back we checked the official stats using the app. Somehow I’d overtaken 9000 odd people during the race. But on the whole I was delighted with the splits. They showed great consistency at a pace that during training I doubted I could to.

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And the Garmin activity shows just how the race went down in minute detail, if you like that sort of thing.

The race was brilliantly organised, and the people of Paris were just phenomenal. The course was picturesque and flat, and aside from some bottlenecks, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

When I finished, I swore I’d never run a marathon again. But 3 months on I know I was lying to myself. Can my second marathon top my 1st? Probably not. But it will still be a great achievement. It’s a distance to be respected, but you deserve all the good vibes you get afterwards, as everyone knows just what hard work it really is.

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