I admit it. I love the big races. Tens of thousands of runners, festival atmosphere, spectators all along the way - that is my type of marathon. I have checked a few of the biggest US marathons off the list over the past several years, but traveling abroad for a marathon was not anywhere near the top of my to do list.
Somehow, a wide-ranging conversation with a long time coaching client last fall coincided with a time when we both needed new goals and the narrow window for Paris Marathon registration was open. Next thing I knew, I was headed to the City of Lights for a running adventure.
Most of my weekends include coaching or participation in sort of running competition, but with all the quirks of the American running culture baked in. Many of these details I had taken for granted and had expected Paris to conform. To my surprise, I had the opportunity to wean myself out of the comfort zone, and experience a few things I look forward to having inform my running and coaching.
1. These people are serious!
In the United States, the growth of running as a participatory (vs. competitive) sport has been well documented, and the expansion of the field has generally widened the spectrum of finishing times. In Paris, however, the very last corral offered at the Paris Marathon by finishing time was 4:30! My two traveling companions found that aid stations were being packed up as they arrived not too far behind that pace. At six hours, little remained of the finishing area, and the police presence had been lifted, leaving the last remaining few to navigate their own version of the final half mile around traffic. Amazing for a race of over 30,000 finishers.
2. Women’s running has plenty of room for growth
In the wake of the explosive growth of women’s only events, women’s running has grown by leaps and bounds in the United States. While the Paris Marathon had a ton of men running 3-4 hours, a yawning gap of depth remained after the elite field on the women’s side. For myself, that was a plus – I’ll freely admit that a cool spot in the results was a draw. However, it spoke volumes of how much we take for granted the middle class American women’s fitness culture taking root in our neighborhoods. That “casually serious” athlete population remains a much smaller sisterhood in other parts of the world.
3. Who needs waves?
With a stroke of good fortune to find lodging between the start and finish, our little group had the opportunity to head to the race directly from our place. 45 minutes before, we set out, my companions to their end of the corrals, me to my end. So much for 4:30 am wakeups and long bus rides to the start! In a situation that I will likely never enjoy again and haven’t enjoyed before, I actually returned to our hotel to use the facilities in comfort, and had plenty of time to spare. A miracle. As the race time counted down, the handcycles were started early, but beyond that, each corral was just let through sequentially after the starting horn sounded. Nearly 35,000 people in one wave on a single street.
Myriad traffic islands, various bumps and signs loomed unmarked in the center of the road, with a few pretty rough 90 degree turns early on. Only the goodwill of the person pointing to it in front of you spared you from disaster. Merely the hint of the insurance liability involved in just these factors would have caused change and precautions in American races of this size. Here? No problem. Just watch your step.
4. Sports drink every mile? Pshaw.
In the US, many of our bigger marathons provide water and sports drink every mile or two miles. At this race, we received only water and fruit every 5K, and many times on what felt like variable sides of the road, causing some harrowing navigational challenges. Interestingly, the water was served in small bottles and returned in small dumpsters (great for bank shots)! With each water bottle, I grabbed a huge handful of oranges with my gloved hands (it was chilly) and stuffed my face into each for the next several hundred meters. Very messy, but these and gel packets got me to mile 18, where the sole Powerade station waited. Once, I would have laughed at myself for caring so much about sports drink, but by accustoming myself so much to it over the years, it tasted like liquid gold. Flourescent blue gold, but gold just the same.
5. No barricades? No problem!
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable, yet jarring elements of the race were the lack of barricades during much of the course. Having watched the Tour de France on television, where cyclists climb narrow roads with crazy crowds just barely stepping back in time as the bicycles part the sea of people, It was slightly surreal to be barely avoiding people who had spilled on to the streets, off the curbs, cheering and stepping back milliseconds before the outermost person crashed into them.
Around mile 8, a boy on a scooter, accompanied by what appeared to be his father, also on a scooter, pushed along side us for at least a mile, on the street, until a fellow runner started yelling at him in French to get out of the way. Sunday long runners showed the minimal interest in making way, sometimes running the opposite direction along the route or leaving the tiniest fraction of a second while crossing the course. Absolutely, most marathons do not have barricades along the majority of the course, but if you have ever run down 1st avenue in the New York City Marathon and can picture that scene with no barricades or controlling police presence, then you can imagine the crazy vibe at a few points.
Will my Paris Marathon experience help me run faster next time out? Successful adaptation to the unexpected does breed confidence. The low key approach to many of the things American race directors might stress about definitely contributed to my own relaxed approach as a runner, and I believe that helped. More importantly, I gained a new appreciation for all of the little things we take for granted – what race directors do to ensure our safety, increase the chance we’ll have an enjoyable time, and have the ability to do our best. I learned I can survive without them, but I’m glad I usually don’t have to!