Take part in the Paris Marathon and see the capital city’s most famous sites at top speed. Ben Lerwill provides a running commentary…
Take part in the Paris Marathon and see the capital city’s most famous sites at top speed. Ben Lerwill provides a running commentary…The Champs-�lys�es wears its charms well on clear April mornings; horsechestnuts trees in bloom, caf�s full of life, sunshine flowing down onto the Arc de Triomphe. It’s all very Parisian and all very svernal, a combination that means it doesn’t really qualify as much of a travel secret. Even so, the old avenue rarely sees crowds like this. The place is heaving with people – around 37,000 of us, if you’re counting – and there’s barely enough room to stretch out your arms, let alone swagger along � la Jean-Paul Belmondo. Clouds of Deep Heat spray waft above the famous cobbles. It is approaching 9am, and it is marathon day.There’s scarcely a capital city on the planet without a marathon these days, but the timeless destinational pull of Paris means its race is one of the most heavily subscribed. It is a global event, as evidenced by the gabble of different languages in the starting pens. As well as the thousands of domestic runners, there are Spaniards, Japanese, Americans, Brazilians, Greeks, Australians and a lycra-clad cornucopia of other nationalities. The world is here in its trainers. Naturally, there are busloads of British. We’re the ones with white legs saying “sorry” when other runners push in front of us.The very first Paris Marathon took place way back in 1896, but I’m taking part in the 32nd race in its modern format, making it older than London’s by five years. As with its UK counterpart, places are snapped up well in advance. The field is made up of elite athletes, assorted serious’ participants and a great army of novices, fun-runners and experience junkies. On the start-line, there’s a disparity between those looking to get a good time and those looking to have a good time (or at least, as good a time as pounding 26.2 miles allows). It means there are contrasts. Somewhere way in front of me are willowy Kenyans with world rankings on their mind. A man to my right is on stilts and facing the wrong way.But for all 37,000 of us scoffing last-minute energy bars and shifting impatiently in the morning sun, today’s marathon is – or at least should be – the culmination of months of training. Personally speaking, I’d found it hard to knuckle down to it. My regime involved eating too much pasta arrabiata and running around Clapham Common until dizziness set in. I don’t feel overly prepared. It’s true what they say about the adrenalin of the day though. There’s a buzz in the Paris air and a general bounciness among the waiting masses. Twenty-six miles? Oh, go on then. When the gun finally sounds and the body of runners shifts from a gridlock to a waddle to a shuffle to, eventually, a jog, it feels good to be underway.And so it begins, with tens of thousands of us pouring down the Champs-�lys�es at an hour more commonly given over to coffee and croissants. The morning is blue-skied without being too hot – more or less ideal for long-distance running, according to those who know these things. The route cuts an enticing path through the city, and in its earliest stages – across Place de la Concorde and into the arcaded glam of Rue de Rivoli – it’s a novelty to be jogging down the middle of roads usually clogged with scooters and honking taxis. And after 15 minutes or so, being a part of this tide of human traffic feels perfectly natural. Today, mesdames, messieurs, these are our streets. The atmosphere helps the momentum. Spectator numbers are healthy rather than overwhelmingly huge, but there’s a more or less constant stream of cheers and applause. What really makes the mood, however, is the music. Live bands are stationed along the entire course, and there’s barely enough time for one to pass out of earshot before another drifts into hearing. By the time the curves of Op�ra Bastille loom into view there are vaudeville show tunes, military marches and African drummers. The soundtrack of Paris is part-techno, part-jazz, part-Chariots of Fire.The gentle slopes of the 12th arrondissement arrive before I’ve really had time to think about the distance covered so far. I find that this is a good thing. By focussing on the ambience, the architecture and the quirks of street-level Paris, it doesn’t seem so pressing that there’s still a preposterously long way to go. This being France, there are kilometre markers as well as the more Anglo-friendly mile posts, and the fact that there are, by definition, more of them is a boon. I can kid myself I’m motoring along.We are snaking gradually east, towards the Bois de Vincennes. In the promotional material, the marathon organisers call the body of runners “un long serpent multicolor�, dansant et chantant”. There aren’t nearly as many wacky costumes as you might expect – although special mention should go to the man dressed as a bottle of London Pride, doing a fine job of puzzling spectators (“Maman, pourquoi est-il une bouteille de bi�re?”) – but there’s still a rainbow feel to the stream of different bibs, wigs and flags making their way along the route, given added colour by the April sunshine. The Bois de Vincennes is here now.A few miles of green to complement the chichi streets of the centre: oak trees, a ch�teau, dog walkers and baby buggies. After a circuit of the park, the route heads out and west. We have reached halfway and, miraculously, I feel sort of OK. Every few kilometres comes a welcome boost for flagging energy levels, in the form of trestle tables stacked with bottles of water and great mounds of fruit: bananas, raisins, oranges and apricots.It’s brilliant, like stumbling upon a vast free greengrocers’ every time you’re in need of a pick-me-up. Being British, I’d been concerned at how I would ever get round the course without Jelly Babies. More fool me. If you’ve never run past �le de la Cit� while stuffing down fistfuls of raisins and wiping orange juice off your chin, I can heartily recommend it.Much of the marathon’s second half follows the north bank of the Seine. Despite the fact that my leg muscles are starting to feel entirely numb, the river views and the crowds leaning off the balustrades make this one of the most enjoyable stretches of the course.The Eiffel Tower appears, small at first then growing bigger and bigger as the kilometres tick by. Paris in its pomp. Brigades of dapper firemen sit on ladders stretched over the roads. Red-faced drunks jive along to blues bands. There are long underpasses too, and the overground-underground effect seems an almost-neat metaphor for the city itself – on the one hand there’s the stately grandeur of the bridges and civic buildings, on the other there’s the grime of subterranean Paris. Well, it made sense at the time.Things start getting a bit hazy at around kilometre 35. I am vaguely aware of sunshine and elegant boulevards, but only vaguely. The music is still there too, but it’s harder to focus on now. I keep alternating between exhaustion and a kind of dizzy elation. Every time I start enjoying myself and trying to drink in the moment, to wallow in the day and ooh-look-at-Trocad�ro, my feet remind me that, actually, they’d really quite like to stop now. And an odd thing has happened too. The organisers have begun lengthening the distance between kilometre markers. Disgraceful really, when you think about it. Into the last few kilometres, and there is salvation in the Bois de Boulogne. I had heard interesting things about the alternative food and drink stops here, and voil�! Red wine and cheese, cider and sausage-meat. Bon app�tit. It’s a little unlikely that the Olympic hopefuls at the front stopped for a cheeky Beaujolais, but I – and no shortage of others – consider it a duty to the cause.It brings a surreal but far from unpleasant flavour to the final 15 minutes or so, tossing back cider and gazing out at rowing boats on the lakes. When the Avenue Foch finish-line finally appears – and with it the Arc de Triomphe again – I’m wearing a grin that’s honestly as much about enjoyment as it is relief. The avenue is a mel�e of hugs, medals and bodies. The sun has gone in now. My knees are screaming and my feet are angry, but I’m glowing. It has been four hours and 15 minutes of colour, bananas and hard effort. Covering Paris without the aid of a M�tro ticket isn’t something you generally get the chance to do and, all soppiness aside, it brings a huge sense of achievement. Was it worth it? Was it ever. Back again in the future? Just try and stop me. The next Paris Marathon takes place on 11 April 2010. For further details and registration forms, visit www.parismarathon.com. Marathons in France require by law that each runner supply a medical certificate, signed by a GP.Nice Work (www.nice-work.org.uk) organises group trips to the Paris Marathon each year, in addition to a number of other running events in places such as Montreuil and Le Touquet. The price includes travel, accommodation and a pre-marathon meal, as well as the chance to meet fellow participants. Nice Work also arranges walking trips in France.
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