Marathon de Paris - Stars ... In Their Multitudes

Posted on: 14 Apr 2015

Scarce To Be Counted ...

A year ago I wrote "And now the curtain comes down on Keith’s Marathon Dream ... ". But had you read the small print of the contract you would have known that this wasn't strictly true. You would have seen that it clearly stated "... and to run a marathon in under four hours". Me and the marathon had some unfinished business and I had come to Paris to put the record straight. It was reading Phil Hewitt's book "Keep On Running - The Highs And Lows Of A Marathon Addict" that planted the Paris seed in my mind and I prepared the night before by re-reading the Paris chapter in his book. And the Runners World Marathon Training Guide that ex workmate Tim lent / gave me had a "beat 4 hours" plan which had been my running bible since Christmas.

Sunday April 12th 2015 and I was up at 6:15 after a far better sleep than I had any right to expect. I was staying in a 24th floor private apartment along with daughter Madeleine. I had my pre-planned breakfast of porridge with milk, banana and honey, fresh from the microwave, with a Nespresso coffee, and made every effort to ensure as little risk as possible of unscheduled "comfort stops" later in the day before setting off for Plaisance metro station at 7:15. Sadly without glasses I'm unable to read the tube map nowadays, and was unsure where to change. We got to a station which I'm sure I remembered from the day before and hopped off the train, slightly perplexed that all the other people obviously heading for the start remained on the train. Taking my glasses out, I soon realised we had had a little visit from "Mr Cockup", hopped on the next train, change at Champs-Élysées - Clemenceau, thence to Charles de Gaulle - Étoile, and exit to the interestingly named Avenue Foch, where we would (God willing) be finishing later on, and for now home to baggage storage.

Walking down Avenue Foch a major chuckle, earwigging two young English women in front, as one talked about the reaction of (non running) friends to the news that she was going to Paris to run a marathon. "Oh – is that a long one? - is that as long as the London marathon?". I knew exactly what she meant. C'mon what part of fecking "MARATHON" do you not understand?!? David from the realbuzz community had warned me that the toileting in Paris might not be all that I expected it to be! I took advantage of one of the open four person carousel type male urinals. Strangely the other three berths simultaneously cleared and I was left in splendid isolation reflecting that these clearly work better if sited on level ground. I stored my bag and back up the Avenue to Étoile and the Arc de Triomphe. It was by now a beautiful, sunny spring morning. There was ample scope to engage my newest hobby, photobombing, then I stopped off to (non-selfie) photograph this stunning lamdmark and promptly burst into tears.

Now head down the Champs-Élysées to look for the violet (3 hrs 45 mins) start. And then suddenly a young (compared to me) man greets me "hello Keith". Well I didn't recognise him, but a quick compute tells me this must be Laurence from the CLIC Sargent Training Day. "You don't recognise me do you?" he says "it's Laurence from the CLIC Sargent Training Day!". Clearly I'm running ahead of Laurence in more ways than one, because he is seeking the baggage area. And although he ran a blisteringly fast half marathon in Richmond recently (one thirty something) his training has not gone smoothly and he is in the 4hrs 30 cage. As a hypnotherapist he quickly works his magic on me, and is on his way, as I walk down to find the violet pen.

According to Phil you risk serious injury inside the starting pens. I decided to head for the rear of the 3:45 pen. But it was still quite a crush. And the cream of the 4:00 wave were right behind me. I presumed these boys were out to kick some serious ass. Big Ben representing France looked particularly imposing. Throw these boys raw meat and it would be stripped bare in no time, and surely they'd be looking to shoot down the violet wave rear gunners at the earliest opportunity. I ditched my CLIC Sargent T shirt and at 9:15 on the dot the violet wave was released and as we started walking gently forward, space opened up and I was more than happy to be at the back. And the presence of "facilities" within the start pen meant I could take time out one last time before crossing the start line.

Start garmin and away down the Champs-Élysées. Phil's advice was to not get carried away on this lovely downhill start. I throttled back as we headed down to Place de la Concorde, and a left turn into the Rue de Rivoli. My plan was to try and keep to about 5:30 per km. I soon realised we were passing the Tuileries and made sure to look out for daughter Madeleine together with my (soon to be ex) wife Marion and partner Paul. Madeleine had made a "Go Keith" banner :-). It was clear that Paris is a very different marathon from London. For the French this appears to be simply a marathon for runners that want to run a marathon, with the bonus of bringing in thousands of international tourists. It is clearly not the big charity fund raising bonanza that is London. I was not running alongside fridges or men in thongs. I was one of the few runners displaying their name. The course is not fenced off so we had to deal with pedestrians crossing at inopportune times. And the support is nothing like it is in London. But I was enjoying it. Vive la différence! I took Phil's advice and soaked up as much of the glorious scenery as I could.

But Place de la Bastille was different again. Suddenly it was packed and the noise from the crowds was deafing. Madeleine warned me there would be shouts of come on Keess – come on Keess - and there were a few. I passed Madeleine and team again, and soon it was parkrun time as we headed into the Bois de Vincennes for 10k or so. In Weymouth we were delighted to get 277 at a recent parkrun. But here I was doing it with 40,000 or so! As we passed a public convenience I was struck by the irony as gents headed off there and starting peeing up the wall! We must have been climbing imperceptibly because as we came to the end of the park section we had a great view down. I am passing a young lady whose shirt reads "Where The Foch Is The Finish". Time to inject a bit of observational humour. "A long Foching way away" I tell her. And at that moment a sudden hump in the road and I am staggering, but manage to save myself with the (involuntary) assistance of the bloke in front. In an instant I risk becoming the sort of person I rejoice in looking down upon ;-) But other than that I'm feeling good and my pace was starting to creep below 5:30 and I make a concious decision to put in a couple of faster km's as we headed downhill, just to get some time in the bank. Past Madeleine and team again as we exit the park and we are striking west again towards the halfway point, which I hit in 1:55:58. I knew I'd run half a marathon but I knew this was not going to be like London last year. No need to turn it down a notch just yet :-)

And then we hit Paris' embankment section (a good deal earlier than London's embankment section). It was warming up, and although it wasn't affecting me anything like it did in London, it was starting to be a bit of a struggle to keep up the pace. But I remember to take in the cathedral of Notre Dame. My running club friend Bev had warned me about "the tunnels" and how they would screw up your GPS. But I hadn't taken any other means of timing as I felt sure garmin would resolve it. After all it is straightforward. Interpolate stupid. And garmin duly did lose it in the first (longest) tunnel whch must be a good kilometres worth. And as I came out the other side it duly rewarded me with a 9 minute plus kilometre split – stupid garmin. But I learned from Jim (Gloshawk) last year that garmin will inevitably tell you you've done more mileage (or kilometrage) than you actually have in a marathon. Before the tunnel Garmin was beeping the k's off about 150 metres early. Now it was about 500 metres late. So what had been an optimistic view of my pace was now a pessimistic view and I quickly decided I rather liked this state of affairs. I was now being told that my average pace was 5:35 per km. Still well inside 4 hour pace. Just keep it there and you'll get a nice bonus at the end :-)

If I weren't far too old, I'd be tempted to describe the tunnel section as pretty cool with a band playing in one and a laser light show in another.The second and third tunnels were shorter. I figured the third must be the (in)famous Pont d'Alma and I genuinely took a few seconds out to pay my respects to the late Princess-of-Wales. The tunnel section behind us and I could see we were getting closer to the Eiffel Tower. The Jardins du Trocadéro was to be the next viewing point for the team and we duly saw each other there. Friends Jon and Rachel had now gotten over being tear-gassed the previous night (but that's another story) and were there too but that didn't see me (hardly surprising) nor me them. And we continued west towards the second parkrun section, about which Phil was most scathing ("it felt as if the organisers had fallen short on the overall distance they needed") in the Bois de Boulogne. Madeleine and team, now joined by Jon and Rachel see me as I enter the park.

I was managing to keep my splits up fairly well but around 35km I sensed an unwanted presence, a litted hornèd beast on my shoulder whispering "walk – walk". But we'd met before and last year he was bawling "WALK WALK" at the top of his voice whilst poking me with his little pointy thing! And we ignored him then. So you know just what to do because you've done this before. And you KNOW you can do it again. DON'T LISTEN. But I do tell myself "you really don't have to put your body through this again if you don't want to". I really should give you back that marathon guide Tim. At one point I notice Rafa's favourite Roland Garros on the right. And at this point the anorak in me is glad that I am able to tick off the official kilometres and the garmin kilometres at roughly 500m intervals because it's giving me more to think about. And, for the first time. I am really starting to believe. I know my km splits are going up, but garmin's average pace is creeping up oh so slowly. Time in the bank v fuel in the tank. Just keep at it and sub four is yours. And (from what I've heard) there is NO WAY I'm going to risk going anywhere off the straight and narrow in the Bois de Boulogne so won't be losing any time there.

Then with about 4km to go a funny thing happened to me. I suddenly felt like I'd been stung on the big toe of my left foot. It felt like a wasp or a bee had somehow got in (or perhaps it was the little hornèd character with his pointy thing!). What to do? I sort of changed my gait and ploughed on. And somehow it didn't really seem to be slow me down any more. Did I learn anything inspirational from Phil's book? What I remember is this. It's just time. Keep running and time will pass and inevitably you'll get there. I'm sure as hell not enjoying this but keep going. Remember the Little Engine That Could. "I Think I Can, I Think I Can – I Know I Can I Know I Can". And I know from Phil's book that we stay in the park right up 'til the turn into the finish in the Avenue Foch. Hit that and you'll be rewarded with the nicest of surprises. Towards the end of the day's second parkrun there are the support team again.

And suddenly we are crossing the Porte Dauphine ... and there is the finish right in front of us. Suddenly I am overcome with the most marvellous sense of elation. Because I KNOW I have done it. Walk it. Crawl it if you have to. Because NOTHING is going to stop me breaking that four hour barrier. As it happened I managed to drag up a very passable sprint finish from somewhere. Took off my hat ... threw my hand in the air .. and across the line (official time 3:56:14). The great Marathon God – "all our debts are paid". It's a funny thing but the moment you stop running you can barely walk. I struggle forward, collect my finishers shirt and designer medal, water and an apple, and then baggage reclaim, resort to a quick selfie of sub 4 marathon man which goes straight on fb, and after a short rest head out of the exit and back up Avenue Foch to Étoile to rendevouz with Madeleine and team.

It occurs to me that it was around this point last year that I glanced at my medal and started sobbing. So I glance down and there is this year's model. You've only gone and done it. Sub four hour marathon runner. And the tears started to flow again :-)

Back to the flat. Madeleine returns to London and there is no football available on any of the non-subscription TV channels. So get out the smartphone and play some music There is only one possible choice, and I spend an evening rejoicing in the Les Miserable 25th Anniversary Concert. And what next.. I could call it a day, but a tentative plan entitled "Berlin 2016" has also been burrowing into my head. I am reminded that the next page in the Runner's World guide is the "How To Break 3:30" plan. Sorry Tim – I might just be holding onto it a bit longer.

Stars – You are the sentinels, Silent and sure, Keeping watch in the night,


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