Flyers Go to Paris – Marathon de Paris 2016
A report by Lloyd Richardson.
Think of a spring marathon and you probably think of London marathon or else a particular favourite with Flyers Southend is Brighton marathon. Both of these are popular home races but what if you fancy a big city race somewhere a bit further afield on a scale even bigger than these two.
Paris definitely ticks the box. This was my first marathon event two years ago in 2014 and Scotty Brenton flew the orange banner in 2015. Having both hugely enjoyed this event in one of the world’s most famous cities we agreed to sign up for the 2016 event. It didn’t take long before Richard Farr and Samantha & Andrew Coombes had also signed up.
As luck would have it, flights direct to Paris from Southend were announced just as we were about to book our travels and plans were made, partners jumped on board, and we were all booked up for an exciting trip to Paris in the Spring with a little race thrown in too.
Fast forward about 7 or 8 months, with the winter training done, and everyone excited for the weekend adventure we met up at London Southend Airport. Everything was on time, beers and wine were flowing at the airport bar and Andrew had also brought along his sister and her partner for the trip too. By this time Scotty had also become fluent in French and could order a croissant and coffee without the need for Google translate. All he needed was the opportunity.
Transfer to central Paris was pretty easy once we had figured out how to buy tickets from the machines and we split into two groups – Richard, Rebecca, Andrew and Sam were staying to the north of central Paris, while me, Donna, Holly and Scotty were in a hotel just east of the Eiffel Tower. As we arrived in central Paris we had to change from the main trainline to the Metro and this involved a few automated gates. Scotty went through first closely followed by Holly but she was too quick and the gates closed shut on her. She stepped back, tripped over her suitcase and fell over in a heap with her legs entwined in the luggage handles. I looked on in horror and saw her head trembling – but was it because she was laughing or because she was sobbing? Thankfully Holly saw the funny side and was giggling but she was trapped in the exit and couldn’t free herself from her luggage … she was quickly rescued by Donna. Scotty just shook his head and raised his eyes to the ceiling. I wish I had a picture!
Once at the hotel Scotty used his fluent French to book in. But after some time looking for a booking for Mon-sewer Prenton the receptionist reverted to English and we found our rooms. We then headed out to a lovely nearby restaurant where Scotty ordered for us in perfect French from the English menu. He was most upset that they didn’t serve l’escargot so that he could blend in as a local (while wearing his Essex cricket jersey).
Saturday morning arrived and that means parkrun!
There are three parkruns in France. As luck would have it one of these is in Paris and it started up just a few weeks ago. It was a couple of kilometres from our hotel and we agreed to meet the other Flyers at a Metro station halfway there and then walk together. We were also joined by Phoenix Strider Pip Pipperdy who is part of the Basildon parkrun team. The other Flyers were delayed so we went to the start without them and watched the Bois de Boulogne parkrun #10 briefing announced in French to an audience of probably 95% UK nationals visiting for the marathon. At the start we bumped into Georgina McMasters who is a LoSS runner and has run 36 times at Southend parkrun.
The course was in a large wooded park and we ran 1.5 laps of a figure of 8 course. About two thirds of the way round the missing Flyers arrived just as we were passing and finished the course with us. We were saving our legs for the race so it was a gentle jog round. There were 173 finishers this week, a new event record since they had 41 at event #1. Last week they had 23. Not sure they will get a new attendance record in a hurry.
With parkrun done we dropped Donna back at the hotel and headed off to the expo to pick up our running numbers. The Metro journey involved changing lines and about 30 stops and looking at the map we saw it was about 2km to the expo so we walked it instead. Here is my first ever group selfie taken on the river on the way to the expo:
On the way we stopped at a patisserie for breakfast. The lady behind the counter didn’t know any English so Scotty masterfully ordered croissants, pain au chocolat and café for the whole group to make sure we were all carb-loaded and hydrated.
After some more walking we got to the expo, went through the checks for ID, medical certificates and registration and picked up our running bibs. The goody bag was a bright green backpack. Being the day before the race it was pretty busy and we were forced to pigeon-step through the entire exhibition past all the usual retailers with merchandise and services on display. This exhibition was pretty massive and was a bit tiring.
Finally back at the hotel after the walk to parkrun, running the parkrun, walking to the expo, slogging around the expo, and back to the hotel we were looking to take the rest of the day easy. But uh-oh, Donna and Holly weren’t having any of that. They were in Paris. They wanted to see some of it and didn’t want to be stuck in a hotel. How could we be so selfish?
So instead of resting our legs we ventured out to a restaurant with views of the Eiffel Tower and had some lunch. The second Flyers group were also off around Paris on their own mini-tour.
Somewhere in Paris at the same time was Gareth Davies who was also running Paris marathon as a Flyer but had made his way over in his camper van. We didn’t get to see him at all over the weekend but he was there somewhere.
In the evening we struck up a compromise. We agreed to do a river boat cruise – that way we could all get to see some of the Paris sights and do it all in the comfort of a seat. So after a load more walking to meet up with everyone we got to the ticket office just as it started to rain. There were several coachloads of teenagers and oriental tourists ahead of us in the queue and they took up all the seats inside so we went on the top deck and wiped the rain off the seats (actually Scotty wiped the rain off the seats and then I stole his seat).
This was fine for the first 20 minutes. The Eiffel Tower was lit up splendidly and the route up the river showed off the amazing Paris architecture and many beautiful old buildings and bridges. After 20 minutes the rain started to get heavier and we were all cold and wet so went down to the lower deck where half of the group had to stand as there were no seats left. Add that to the noisy teenagers and constant flashes from the oriental group’s cameras and we all had a headache. After an hour we were all itching to get off the boat and back to our hotels to get ready for the race.
After a long day we were all a bit tired and weary but we were all dead excited for the marathon the next day. Running kits were laid out, numbers pinned to shirts, gels and food were packed for the morning start.
The first time I did Paris I met up with a virtual running group. They are called the Bristol Convocations Running Club (BCRC) and number maybe 60 people spread around the world but mostly from the UK. It is a running forum and the group takes part in many events but was formed around the Paris marathon and this is far and away the biggest event on the group’s calendar. I set my alarm for 5:50am to get to the start early for a group meet-up and this year there was a group shot by the Runners World photographer for a story that is expected to be published in the magazine at a later date. This meant that I went to the start early and Scotty, Richard and Andrew met up at the start a bit later. By this time Samantha had taken the decision to drop out of the race as she didn’t feel that she had trained enough. Probably a wise decision as there is no hiding place in the marathon – you can’t take shortcuts without getting found out.
The start is pretty magnificent. The huge monument that is the Arc de Triomph sits at the head of the famous Champs-Elysees, a huge and wide, cobbled and tree-lined boulevard. The starting pens are in the centre of the Champs-Elysees and stretch from the Arc all the way to halfway down this famous street.
57,000 runners had registered for the 2016 event and the place was awash with people in bright running kit and expensive shoes. As usual there were never enough toilets for the people needing them and there were huge queues. Adjacent to the Arc is Avenue Foch and this is where the baggage drop was and is also where the finish line sits. This area is pretty huge and was quite a walk from the Arc de Triomph and then huge queues as security checks were carried out. Due to events in Paris last November the police presence was notable and most were armed. There were also military troops at several points of the city keeping a close eye on the event to keep a watch out for trouble. Thankfully I’m not aware of any terrorist activities on the day.
Baggage dropped, I made my way to my start pen. These are based on predicted finish time and after the elite start, then preferentials, the pens start from 3 hours and are colour coded in 15 minutes bands up to 4 hours 30 minutes or later. I was in the blue pen for 3 hour 30 minutes. This was based on a hoped for PB time when I registered in 2015 but I knew I wasn’t going to challenge my PB this time around. However, I was hopeful that an ‘almost’ PB might be possible and was aiming for 3:45.
Scotty, Richard and Andrew had each registered different times but had agreed to start together and I think they all started in the 4 hour pen. I didn’t see any of them before the race. Scotty and Rich were wearing Flyers orange as was Gareth and Andrew wanted to wear his Southend AC colours. For this race only I had changed my normal orange for the purple of the BCRC. On the back it has the slogan “Where the Foch is the finish?” This drew a few comments from fellow runners due to the finish line being on Avenue Foch, geddit?
The elites started the race at 8:45am and then each pen would be called forward in waves. After quite a wait and at the back of my pen I eventually crossed the line at 9:13am. The last wave wouldn’t be starting until after 10am.
The route is pretty magnificent and especially the start. You are already on the Champs-Elysees which is lined by fantastic architecture and beautiful buildings and you run away from the Arc until you get to the Place de la Concorde. You then run onto the Rue de Rivoli past many more spectacular buildings including the Louvre until you reach Place de la Bastille. That is the first 5k and possibly the best 5k anyone will run.
This first stretch is all downhill and together with the adrenalin and excitement of race day it takes all of your effort not to go galloping off at speed and use up all of your energy. My strategy was to stick to 8min 30sec mile pace and keep going as long as I can. In my training I had used this as marathon pace and all signals showed that this was achievable. Every marathon I have done I have gone out a bit too quick and paid for it later so I was determined to hold back.
But at the start line I wasn’t feeling that great. I had a new ache in my legs and my shoulder was hurting. Where had this come from? Maybe it was from all the walking and exploring around Paris the day before and lack of sleep? Anyway, after the start I kept to the 8:30 pace and this was easier than usual as I didn’t have the full of beans bouncy energy that I’m used to at the start of the race.
After a mile or so the pains in my legs and shoulders disappeared. I had warmed up and loosened up and I was running one of the world’s biggest marathons in amazing surroundings. This is what I had been so looking forward to. The route continues right through the centre of the city from west to east and then out to a green and less built up area. After about 8 miles the route circles around and heads back towards the centre. The route is mostly flat but not quite flat at the same time. There is nothing that you can call a hill but pretty much all of the roads are either a gentle climb or slow decline. And this can play tricks with your pacing.
After 8 miles I started to feel tired. By mile 9 my head was telling me it was going to be a bad run and I was finding it harder to keep even pace. The course was busy with runners, this was true all the way round, but never too much apart from a couple of places where the road narrowed and bunching occurred. This was one of those points and I was stuck next to a guy with really bad body odour. So I wrestled with my mind a little and told myself to smarten up and stop being a wimp. How often do you get to run the Paris marathon and I was lucky enough to be doing it for the second time. The next few miles bring you back towards the centre of Paris and I reached halfway in 1hour 53, bang on track for my 3:45 target. Other Flyers did the first half in similar times. So far so good.
By this time it was past 11 o’clock. In contrast to the day before, the skies were clear blue and the sun had been shining since dawn. It was starting to warm up and none of the recent training had been in warm conditions.
After 14 miles we were back at the Bastille and a left turn took us to the riverfront. The next 5 miles then followed the River Seine with fantastic views across the water and sights including the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower was almost ever-present on our left. This part of the course includes a couple of long tunnels, one of about 1k and the other about 800m. The last time I did Paris one of the tunnels had been turned into a disco. The streetlights had been turned off and in their place were flashing disco lights accompanied by the theme to Saturday Night Fever. This time the disco was gone and instead there was relaxing music, pictures of relaxing views (tropical beaches, forests, waterpools, etc.) and scents were being pumped into the tunnel. It was a bit like running through a Lush store. All very peculiar but at least it masked the smell of hot, sweaty runners.
By mile 17 I was starting to slow. Not sure if it was the warmer temperature, or lack of rest, or whatever, but it was getting harder to turn the legs over at the same speed. In the first half of the race I had a couple of shouts of support from the BCRC group along the course. Over the next couple of miles my pace had dropped further and by mile 19 it was a minute slower than target.
Then I heard a voice I recognised. I had drifted off into my own thoughts and hadn’t even noticed that we had left the waterfront and were now heading out to the west of Paris. I looked up and there were Donna, Sam, Rebecca and Holly at the side of the road. In a bit of a daze I cut across to where they were, gave Donna a kiss, muttered something about not expecting to see them so soon and then continued on my way. Their shouts and cheers definitely helped and it was great to see some friendly Flyer faces. I was now heading towards the 20 mile marker and at that point my pace quickened slightly so there was definitely a boost from seeing the supporters.
Pretty much every marathon I have run I have faded from about the 20 mile mark and this one was to be no different. Despite my plan to combat the fade it happened anyway. From mile 21 I struggled and whilst I kept running I was now at about 2 minutes per mile off my target pace. And the warmer weather was taking its toll. Water stops were every 5k and I was starting to walk as I went through these stops while I took on water. But otherwise I kept running and started counting down in kilometres as they were coming by quicker.
A couple of times I had to tell myself not to walk when my legs and my body were pleading for me to stop and I told myself that if I wanted something I had to take it, nobody was going to give it to me, I had to earn it. I had to call on my inner strength.
All this time my targets were getting further and further away. At the outset I gave myself three targets – Gold was the 3:45 target; Silver was to better my last Paris time of 3:55; and Bronze was anything under 4 hours.
At absolute minimum I was going to finish the course.
At the later stages it was obvious a lot of runners were not going to do even that. About half of the competitors were walking at this stage which meant quite a bit of weaving around them. Many people that were running were tired and dizzy and a few bumped into me. There is nothing worse than being brushed or scraped by a sweaty runner’s arm as they stumble into you. Yucko.
However, there were also many people crashing out of the race. Lots of runners had to stop to stretch their aching muscles, and others were sat by the road unable to continue. The course is on closed roads but many, many times we were ushered to one side to allow an ambulance or paramedic to pass to get to a runner in distress.
The last 5 miles go through the same woods as the parkrun we did the day before. They are pleasant but featureless and the roads are long and supporters here are few. So I’m counting down the meters towards the finish line and recalculating all the time as the clock ticks forward.
As I reached the 25 mile point I had about 12 minutes left to grab my bronze target. Gold and Silver were gone. I was running about 10:30 minute/mile pace and still had 1.2 miles to go. I summoned up everything I had to keep going forward. With half a mile to go I saw some friendly supporters from BCRC and was somehow able to up the pace back to 8:30 min/miles and turned the final corner into Avenue Foch with about 300m to go. I gave it everything I had left and with the Arc de Triomph standing solidly away in the distance directly ahead I staggered over the finish line and held a feeble arm aloft in victory. I had just managed to scrape in under 4 hours – something that seems so achievable when you’re doing the long hard training but so hard to do in actuality. Well that is the case for me anyway, I hadn’t hit my main target but there wasn’t a chance that I could be disappointed with this result.
As soon as I had crossed the line, collected my lovely medal and radioactive green finisher shirt I had to think about my getting back. Once I had cleared the finish area it was now about 1:30pm and my flight was due to close boarding at 4pm. I had a mad dash to meet Donna, get our luggage and get to the airport. In the end we got there on time, through security checks and to the departure gate, only for the flight to be delayed by an hour.
The rest of the Flyers all finished well and Scotty even managed a PB. Everyone found it tough and felt the warm conditions but were able to celebrate with some drinks into the evening.
Best banner that I saw on the course:
“Pain is just a French word for bread.”
Of the 57,000 that registered for the race only 43,520 started and crossed the start. Of these, 41,708 finished meaning that 1,812 didn’t make it to the end.
As tough and hard as it was, the Paris marathon is an absolutely amazing event and I would recommend it to everyone. If you have a bucket list of events to do – put this one on it!
The 2017 event takes place on Sunday 9 April and entries open on Wednesday 6 April 2016.