Ah Paris. It was hot. There were a lot of people. And after building up to that one event for over six months, it didn’t go how I wanted. I was semi-secretly aiming to run sub-3:30 which I know I am capable of, but on that particular day I just couldn’t pull it off.
I woke up at 6am on the day of the race to a text message from Paris Marathon saying ‘get up’! Hilarious! While I got changed and ready Sye cooked me a huge bowl of oats on our AirBnB stovetop (no microwave) and thankfully didn’t grumble about how early it was. He understood how important this was to me.
Left on time to be at the race nice and early and took the Metro into town. I had read beforehand that it would be busy and a bit chaotic, so I wanted to leave plenty of time for eventualities. The people at the Metro were a bit odd add that time of morning, and I was glad to meet another Australian and his friend with whom I navigated the unsavoury types loitering on the trains.
Unfortunately though, they decided to switch lines at a different station to where I had planned to change – but I went with them anyway rather that be left on the train alone. This meant though that we first had to walk the whole way through a ginormous train station to switch lines (think Bank-Monument), and then the station we exited at was entirely at the wrong end of the start section. The organisers had said that Franklin D Roosevelt station would get you to the start line (which it did), but it was another 15-20min walk pas the whole start funnel, around the Arc du Triomphe and down the Avenue Fochs to drop off my bag. Entirely too much walking and stress already.
I had read that the toilet situation at the start is fairly awful and had taken some emergency toilet paper along just in case I had to pop a squat at the side of the Champs-Elysées! Somehow though I found a short portaloo queue and was spared the embarrassment of showing my butt to the world. Success!
That did mean that it was now a bit tight with timing to get into my pen (8:40am supposed cutoff), particularly because there was a huge pile up of people trying to squeeze their way through a very narrow gate. I pushed my way through and in, but once inside was still squashed in amongst a throng of nervous runners. I was glad that I hadn’t had to jump the fence though as some other runners were now doing, because given how uncoordinated I am, I surely would have fallen on my face.
The 3:30 pen in front cleared out and we were released towards the start line, meaning I could finally breathe again. I was nervous but also very excited, spurred on by ‘Uptown Funk’ which they were blasting over the loudspeakers. I said a few words of hope and luck to the sky and this Italian guy behind me says (in a thick accent) ‘Ah Julia, numero uno?’. I responded (in a strange mix of languages) with ‘non, numero acht!’, which wiped the smile off his face. He had no clue what to say next!
Our pen was split down the middle and of course the other side was let out first. Finally though, at 9:05am I crossed the line to start my Parisian adventure.
I had a grand plan; to run 3:30 or below by first running a more conservative first half before taking my foot off the pedal for the next 10km, then hoping I wouldn’t slow down too much in the last section. That meant 10kms of 52′, 50′, 48′, 50′ and sprint to the end. I had turned my watch off auto-lap, and after 2km would turn it to the clock face so that I could judge speed/distance from the markers and not dodgy GPS signal.
I was starting in the 3:45 section, and knew that while I would be overtaking people a lot, it was unlikely that I would ever reach the 3:30 runners who had left 30mins before me. Theoretically though it should work in my favour because I really enjoy overtaking people!
The first part of the Paris Marathon course sees you fly down the Champs-Elysées and run straight through the middle of the city, turning only to avoid running into obelisks and monuments. There were already crowds along this section calling out my name, mixed in with several Asian tourists who had no idea what they had landed themselves in the middle of!
As planned at 2km I changed my watch-face to the clock, confident that I had found the 5:00/km pace I was going to try and sit at for the next 3.5 hours. At 3.5km I passed the set of 3:45 pacers I had seen in front of me in the pen, and then at 5.5km passed another set. Running well, overtaking people. Bit warm, but manageable.
But there were so many runners. I completely missed the first water station at 5km because it was entirely hidden behind the crush of runners grabbing for bottles. This did concern me, as I knew the stations were further apart than I’d like at ever 5km, and the temperatures would be increasing quickly.
I had thought the course could be a little boring as it was very straight with not many turns, but there was plenty to keep my occupied – the sights of Paris, the many people around, and my watch ticking off the kilometres in nice 5-minute intervals. I crused through 10km in 50:18 which was a solid start (although not quite 52″), then managed to get my hands on water at the next station (11km, not 10km) which brought much needed relief.
The mental dragons probably started stirring at the 14km mark. By then we had turned into a park at the west of the city, and despite my legs churning along my brain was saying ‘how long will this last? What if you can’t keep it up?’. I took a gel and made them shut up, but knew it wouldn’t be an easy, flowing run.
The course turned back towards the Seine and in kilometres 19 and 20 my legs picked up and I managed a few faster kms to knock off a few seconds. That meant that I crossed under the halfway arch at 1:44:55, probably the closest to goal I’ve ever been with my pacing. Impressed!
But at the same time, I didn’t feel like I could pick up the pace much to run that faster 3rd 10km section. I took another gel at 22km to give a boost, but even when it felt I was speeding along my watch still read 5:00s. My effort was yielding less and less results.
However, I was at least still overtaking people. I had passed a 3rd group of 3:45 pacers at the half-marathon point, which just goes to show how large this group of runners were and how far they spread. I thought I may have caught up to some 3:30 stragglers by now, but every bib I checked placed its runner in the same start pen as me.
The main thing to look forward to now was seeing Sye somewhere between 27 and 28km. We were running along the Seine at this point, which was pretty and had a lot of spectators cheering on the bridges and along the sides of the road. I frequently heard ‘Allez Julia!’ along with cheers in a variety of different languages and accents. Along with the thought of Sye, each one was a little boost to keep going.
This section of the course takes runners through a series of tunnels, many short but also one very long one. I’d read that people found the long tunnel draining because it has no spectators, but I loved it. To me, it was relief from the sun which was now beating down constantly. Instead of having to squash into a tiny patch of shade along the side of the road with many other runners going slower than me, in the tunnel I felt I could give a bit of gas. For the first time in a while I felt I was running strong.
But I also wasn’t cooling down. It wasn’t just the sun, it was me who was hot. No matter how many showers I ran through or bottles of water I poured on my head it all felt like it evaporated immediately. I was drinking water, but my belly felt full and uncomfortable. I wasn’t going so well anymore.
I made it to Sye still on pace and just behind a 4th group of 3:45 pacers. When I saw him I stopped for 30sec for a vital hug before setting off again. There was an aid station just ahead and I decided that I needed to stop there too and walk through it. I poured water on me and in me, ate some banana, delicious slices of orange and handfuls of pretzels. By he time I got to the other end I felt like maybe I could keep going at pace again.
That stop had taken two minutes though, and I was now 2:30 behind pace and sub-3:30 was no longer on the cards. I did a quick mental reset – OK, that’s fine, that’s why I had a B-goal. Sub-3:40 was now the aim. Just keep going.
I managed another mile or so at pace before it all started slowing down. My mental time calculations kept spitting out different results, which just shows how all over the place my brain was. I wasn’t coping. Everything was too much, too hot, too overwhelming.
At 10:50, 32km, I sent Sye the text of defeat. ‘It’s too hot. Plans abandoned. Just need to finish. 10km to go.’
I had run all I could manage.
But I still had to trudge out those last 10km. And they were so slow. Every kilometre took an aeon, particularly as I was stopping for any available water and dumping it over me. I couldn’t look at my watch, it was too depressing.
Sye popped up again at 34km and thankfully understood everything. I gave him more hugs and said two things worth noting: 1) ‘I don’t want to run anymore’ and 2) ‘but I still want champagne later!’
At the 35km mark I forced myself to run over the timing mat and then immediately stopped to walk. Unfortunately though, I didn’t realise where the video cameras were positioned and that was all caught on film! Oops!
I somehow got a second wind when I saw the 22mile marker and my pace picked up from a crawl to a shuffle. That immediately felt better and improved my mood. We were also running through the Bois de Boulogne park where I had run parkrun the day before, so could think back to that fun and forget about the struggle a little.
The park is stupidly large though and felt never-ending. I knew there was a loop coming up too which on the map seemed designed just to add a bit of distance. However, when I got there at 39km, it turned out that the loop ran us past the gorgeous Louis Vuitton museum! That was a nice surprise.
Finally the park was done and there really wasn’t far to go – although I couldn’t see the finish line until the absolute last few hundred metres. I pulled out one last sprint and crossed the line in 3:47:10 – a few minutes behind the same pacers I had passed 3.5km into the race.
I made it to the end. It was a relief, but I was also disappointed, angry and annoyed. The finish funnel was so long and there was no water until you had walked a few hundred metres, I was nearly at the point of screaming at someone because I was so thirsty and hot. I think I was probably slightly delirious – but I did get my medal and t-shirt. And the medal is gorgeous!
Paris Marathon was not what I had hoped for. I had not thought about the possibility of a heatwave, and didn’t acknowledge early enough into the race that I was unlikely to hit my goals because it was so warm. I didn’t expect so many runners, to the point where I never had a clear path and was dodging and weaving all over the course. I didn’t anticipate how haphazard the water stations would be, from them being nowhere near the x5/x0km markers, or that only one would have an electrolyte drink. I should have researched and thought more about all these possibilities before going into the event.
I’m not happy with the outcome, but I’m even less impressed by how little I let myself enjoy the experience. I barely spoke to anyone the whole time, and when I saw the Eiffel Tower in all its magnificence at 29km my only thought was ‘oh, that’s nice.’. When he saw me at 34km Sye told me I needed to try and enjoy the course and ignore the rest of the running, but I did a pathetic job then too.
I’m disappointed in myself. But I also have to accept what happened and move on. The heat was too much for me to reach my goal – today. That doesn’t mean I’m not capable of running sub-3:30. It will happen.