Six runners, one marathon

The main question I get asked after telling someone about my challenge to run 26.2 marathons by age 26.2 is ‘how do you run 0.2 of a marathon?’. Well, my friends – by running in a marathon relay! There are a few big-city marathons which offer the option to partake in a relay team, such as Manchester, Edinburgh and Munich. I was originally planning to tick off my point-2 at Hannover in April 2019, but logistically it was too difficult to organise. Instead I chose the local Ekiden de Paris and collected a team of friends and strangers new friends to run with me.

Ekiden* de Paris is run on a 5km loop course near the Eiffel Tower. The sections are split up as follows: 5km, 10km, 5km, 10km, 5km, 7.2km. I claimed the second 10km leg, as this would equate to slightly more than 2/10ths of a marathon (5.24mi / 8.44km) and therefore satisfy my 0.2 criteria. After some drop-outs due to injury the final team included Simon and Pippa who I met through parkrun, Gisele and Louise from Adidas Runners Odéon, Sye and myself. Kindly helping out with wrangling the team and handling communication in French was Guillaume (also from AR Odéon), who showed up to accompany us and cheer on race day.

I had been elected captain, which was a somewhat stressful job, particularly when I was attempting to do it all in French. Besides organising for replacement runners, convincing everyone to wear tutus (!!) and generally worrying about whether everyone would show up for the race, I also had to read and understand all the emails that were sent to us about the race. Mostly these were fine, however I certainly missed some key information. One was that the bib pick-up village which was supposedly at ‘Mail Branly’, was not actually at the place Google Maps sent me to, but rather 600m down and on the other side of road. I spent far too long wandering around aimlessly, but did finally meet Guillaume and get our big box of goodies, including personalized, oversized t-shirts.

7:45am was our agreed meeting time, which I’d planned early enough to account for all sorts of mishaps which may occur. By 8:15am 5/6ths of our team had assembled, and I had a message waiting on my phone: unfortunately Louise wasn’t going to be able to make the race! Panic! Graciously, Simon agreed to run her 5km section in addition to the 5km he was running to start us off, despite the fact that he’d ticked off 40km the day before ? Crisis averted.

We trekked to our bag-drop area at the other end of the race village, noting that Simon would have to allow a decent amount of time to make it back to the bridge where the race started. What was terribly unclear at this point was how the hand-over would work for each runner: I hadn’t read anything about where it would be, and assumed that it would be on that same bridge.

Turns out I was totally wrong. Instead, the handover point was conveniently next to our assigned bag-drop area, and also close to where created our ‘base’ at the halfway mark of the 5km loop. The handover points were spread along the last 500m of the course, with the ones closest to the 5km mark reserved for teams running in the French Ekiden Championships. Unlike them, our first runner (Simon) wouldn’t get to run a complete 5km, and instead Sye would have to run an extra section. That also could have been much clearer in the instructions!

Dressed in a snazzy blue tutu we sent Simon off to the start and soon after I headed to the handover pens (which I thankfully found!). After running into my friend Doug from parkrun I prepared myself for Simon’s arrival. He’s a very quick runner, and placed in the top 100 for that first section! I grabbed the bib-belt from him and clicked it around my tutu whilst simultaneously sprinting (too fast) off on my section.

Because Simon had run fast, I was now surrounded / being constantly overtaken by people aiming to complete the 10km in ~38-40mins as opposed to the 45min+ it was going to take me. That wasn’t the most fun situation, but as it turned out, that’s just what happens in an Ekiden. Unless your team is perfectly matched speed-wise (or you’re the first runner), you’re bound to be overtaken and overtaking throughout your section. By the time our 5th runner was on the course the winners had long finished, and there were runners on their 4th, 5th and 6th legs all running together. Each runner had a different coloured bib to identify their section, and it was interesting to see all the different paces being run simultaneously on this little loop.

I had no big expectations going into the Ekiden – I’d barely run for the past few weeks after some hard races, and wasn’t in the physical or mental state to make a PB attempt. I told my team that it would take 45-50mins, and focused on running happy! While I still wanted to run well and not just jog around, I promised myself I wouldn’t look at my watch and run on effort instead.

That plan worked out pretty well! After a blazing first kilometre thanks to the excitement of hand-over/being surrounded by super speedsters, I fell into a nice rhythm which felt steady but not red-lining. The first kilometres of the lap took a while to click by (there were markers every km on the course), but I reminded myself that these wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to me, due to the staggered start positions. Seeing my team at halfway gave me a great boost, as did spotting the AR Odéon captain just after 3km.

Snuck a cheeky watch-check at halfway to see I had run it in ~22:30, which was pretty decent. Second lap went much of the same – I kept expecting to run out of energy and crash but thankfully I had paced my effort well and that never came. I unclipped the belt with 300m to go and passed it back to Simon to complete lap 3, with 45:48 on my watch. Solid! Only a little bit slower than the first 10km of the Semi two weeks ago, and yet it felt much more controlled, I had smiled a lot more and overall it was a big success.

With my run done, I could now enjoy the rest of the race and cheer on my teammates. Simon smashed out another fantastic ~18:30 5km, followed by strong runs by Pippa (10km) and Gisèle (5km). Sye finished us off by coming in almost five minutes quicker than his predicted time! That was enough to sneak in at 3:14:52 – marathon complete!

If you get the chance to run a relay marathon, I highly recommend it – particularly if it’s on a looped course where you can easily spot and cheer on your team. The atmosphere was great, with support most of the way around the loop, and I think that the unusual format of running with people of different speeds offer a valuable lesson in locking into your inner pace.

Big thanks to my team for joining me to run my 0.2 marathon – I can’t believe that there are only three marathons to go until this challenge is done! I loved being able to share the experience with these wonderful people. Now that we know how it all works, we’ve already decided to sign up again for the Ekiden de Paris 2019 ?

*The ‘Ekiden’ format comes from Japan, where running teams will train for and participate in these relays in favour of the traditional marathon/half-marathon/10km races. While ours was a marathon in distance, an Ekiden can be of any length, and even take place over several days. For more information, I recommend reading The Way of the Runner by Adharanand Finn.

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