Semi de Paris

This training cycle leading up to Boston Marathon is the first in a long while that I’ve done ‘properly’ – by which I mean not running several marathons in the months before my target race. Instead I’ve been knuckling down and stringing together solid weeks of training, and generally doing all the things you ‘should’ do in a marathon training cycle.

In a typical build-up, it’s a good idea to race a half-marathon 5-8 weeks out from the race as a gauge of how your training is going. I’ve found it really odd to be putting in the work without seeing any actual results outside of slight improvements in interval splits. Which is why I was really excited to pin on my first bib for 2019 at the Semi de Paris.

Last year I was on the sidelines for this race, cheering on some of my London friends who had flown out for the event. This year I was the one who would be running through the streets of Paris, along with two of the friends I have made here: Pippa and Simon. We’d been chatting about the race and route for weeks beforehand, and when the day finally arrived we managed to meet up beforehand, which made everything feel a lot more normal.

Casually I had a few goals in mind. First and foremost it was my opportunity to ‘celebrate the past months of training’ as Coach Ben had put it. I’d been waiting long enough to line up for a race, so now I was going to make the most of my opportunity. I knew I should be in with a good chance of improving on my PB from the Semi de Vincennes last year (1:38:52), but also wanted to see if I could sneak under the 1:35 mark. The last one was going to be a stretch, but I decided I may as well try.

Race morning was wet, grey and cold, and we waited as long as possible before pulling off our cosy layers and going for a short jog to warm up. Immediately I realised that my priorities were more for finding a portaloo than moving my body, but thankfully the queues were short and we still had plenty of time to get to the pens. Despite the 40,000 people due to take part in the race, the organisers had staggered the start-times well so that it didn’t feel too busy. I was in the second ‘yellow’ wave, set to go off at 9:05am.

Pippa was in the same start pen, so we chattered a bit and came to the conclusion that we’re honestly mad for deciding to undertake these challenges, but also that we wouldn’t change it for the world. There were four 1:35 pacers in front of me but I held back, gave Pippa a wave and we were off.

21.1km in 1hour 35mins means an average pace of 4:30/km. My race plan was to start off ‘steady, just on the edge of uncomfortable’ (4:35-4:30) for the first 10km, then get to threshold pace (4:30) until 16km before hammering it home. The negative-split strategy has served me well in other races, and so tends to be the one we go with.

‘Pedestrian’ – that’s how I described the first kilometre to myself. At 4:42/km that was a brilliant start, because it meant I hadn’t gone off too hard and yet had pretty much found the pace I wanted from the get-go. Unfortunately in endurance races a pace which feels easy to begin with will never stay that way, but I focussed on locking into this feeling and not letting myself get swept up with the other runners.

In the early miles I could see the yellow flag of the 1:35 pacer bopping away just ahead, and let myself follow it from a comfortable distance behind. As tempting as it was to chase him down, I wanted to wait until 10km before I made my moves.

The first ~12km of the race was undulating, with some of the most significant hills from 7-9km. Surprisingly I was able to keep pace on the inclines and didn’t feel like I was expending a lot of energy as I made my way up and over them. The one at ~7km required more focus though, and somewhere in those next few kilometres I firstly missed the 8km sign, and then lost sight of my pacer up ahead. I’m not sure if he put on a burst of speed, lost his flag or if I just couldn’t see him thanks to some corners, but I was concerned that he had disappeared.

Sye was waiting for me just past the 9km mark, so I smiled/grimaced/said something to him as I went past (wonderfully captured on camera…) but couldn’t stop & say thanks for coming out to support. That’s one bummer of trying to run faster and faster: you really get boosted by the support of your loved ones but you just can’t stop to acknowledge them! The kilometres were ticking away nicely and it would soon be time to take it up a notch.

I cleared 10km in 46:09, which I was pretty happy with, but did mean I’d have some work ahead of me in the second half if I wanted to hit 1:35. I kicked it up a gear and peered out ahead of me to try and spot the flag – was that it waving in the distance? Time to chase.

My burst of speed didn’t last too long before I felt like I was back into the same rhythm as before, but admittedly felt a lot better than I had at this point in my last half- and in many other races. I took that as a good sign and kept chugging towards my flag man. Coming up to 14km I thought I had him – and then realised that it was another guy with a white flag, and the yellow one was still off in the distance, too far away for me to reach. I knew as well that I had no gears left to switch up into for the last 5km, and that the best I could do was just to keep moving at this same level of effort.

Looking at my Strava splits my time dropped to ~4:45/km from 15-20km, but I didn’t feel this change. That’s mostly because we started running into an insane headwind from around-about where Sye was cheering at the 17km mark until the penultimate turn. It was strong enough that at times I felt like I was barely moving forward, then I’d hit a sheltered patch and find my speed again, and two seconds later the wind was back. Everyone that I talked to/saw on Instagram afterwards complained about how difficult it was to run in that wind, so I’m pretty happy that my speed didn’t actually suffer enormously.

20km done and the wind was finally behind us – I picked it up along the final stretch, wondering where this energy had been half an hour earlier. We’d had decent support during the race with some bands and a drum squad playing at various points, but this last section was by far the best. In the last hundred metres people were slapping their hands against boards covering the barricades and making one hell of a noise – it was fantastic, and took the edge off seeing 1:36 slip into 1:37 (damnit).

But the best thing of the whole race was that when I crossed that finish line, I felt totally fine. There was no hands-on-hips doubled-over struggling-to-breathe, I could just keep walking like I’d just been for a light jog. YES! Could this mean that maybe I could keep up that pace for… say… twice the distance?!

I missed out on my 1:35 but I came away with a PB and that is great. The windy conditions were tough, but I enjoyed being out there racing and finally feel like all the hard weeks of training have actually made a difference to my running. The work has not yet finished, but it’s great to know that I’m on track.

32 days until Boston Marathon.

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