17 Hoops ran the Paris Marathon last month. Instead of our usual race report format, with so many different stories to tell, we asked our runners for their most vivid memories about the race: before, during and after.
Six months ago
Richard Byrne: My road to Paris began, like many others, on that day in October, when fate cruelly informed us that we would not be running The London Marathon the following spring. What to do instead? Manchester, Brighton, Edinburgh were all considered. Then came the flurry of activity about Paris. A few signed up. Then more. Whatever the collective noun for Hoops is, that was us.
Why not I thought? A quick check of the diary showed the marathon fell during the Easter break. Perfect, we could turn it into a bit of a jolly! And before I knew it I too had entered the Paris Marathon 2019, and was a member of the ubiquitous WhatsApp group.
Fast forward to the Christmas party, and the air was heavy with Paris talk. Would we be allowed to enter France in the event of a no-deal Brexit (try and stop us)? But more importantly, what training plan were people following? Having followed Hanson's for a successful half in Cardiff a few months earlier I was tempted to follow their marathon plan, as others were, but was unsure about the 'long' 16 mile run not being sufficient, so I opted for a more traditional plan instead, with the good old Sunday 20-miler included.
Training went well until about 11 weeks in, when I developed a calf injury, followed by an infection and a course of antibiotics. The combination meant I stopped all pace work five weeks before race day, and had two weeks off from training all together. With just easy running in the last week before the race I was on a revised time, hoping to come in at 3:45 from my original 3:25 goal. I hoped the 30 seconds per km reduction in pace would compensate for my lack of form.
Race day morning
Gez Medinger: It’s not exactly like Christmas morning when you’re seven years old, but it’s not far off. That feeling of repeatedly waking up whilst it’s still dark and thinking ‘is it time yet?’.
At 5.30am I gave up and got up. Made a coffee, ate a banana. Had recently heard of the ‘shakeout run’ concept. So put some clothes on and went out for one. La Defense is strange place at 5.45am on a Sunday morning. Met a young lady coming in from a night out in the foyer. “Bon soir,” she said. “Ah non, BonJOUR,” I replied.
It was cold. I was confused by this shakeout concept, so jogged around pointlessly for five minutes then came back. Had my shake, got my stuff together, packed up my bags and headed out to the metro at 7am. The metro was rammed with serious looking marathon people. I had no idea where the bag drop was, but there was a couple of Britishers who said you should get off at Argentine and walk from there to the finish. Got to the finish, finally found a way in and realised that it was 7.30am, the start was still an hour away and it was BLOODY FREEZING. My clothes had to come off now and get banished.
Well, not much choice… time to get those legs out. And on balance, lets hang onto those gloves I was confidently not going to need… There’s also a peculiar feeling if you’re alone at the start of the marathon, at the point where you put your phone in your bag and drop it in bag drop. All that support, all that chat, all that connectedness…is gone. It’s just you now. You, your legs, and 26.2 miles ahead of you. Well, 26.2 plus the mile you’ve got to jog from here to get to the start.
Start to 10 miles
Sean Lightbown: After fighting through the crowds, Amelia, Melanie and I aimed for our four-hour pen, talking shop as the mass of runners drifted and eventually were sieved through the start line. We even bumped into someone from around the Queen's Park area, funnily enough, and had a nice chat. About anything other than what was about to happen, obviously.
I'd been fine before, but now the nerves were kicking in. I'd run a marathon before, about
seven years ago, and barely made it to the end. Since then I spent most of my twenties and early thirties smoking and drinking heavily, and while that's eased off in the main and I'm fitter now, I know there's more I need to do.
And you want to run a marathon?
Injury had cost me five weeks of training, and I'd come to grips with not having a firm target time. I kept remembering seven years ago. Manchester had been fine until the last 10k, when I hit the wall and my body gave in. I'd gone off too fast; I set my half pb in that race!
All three of us agreed that we were going to run our own races and not stick together, so when Amelia and Melanie went to make one last loo stop, I went ahead. Start line is getting close now. Cap on, backwards. Sunglasses on, deep breath...and go.
Richard: Crammed into the starting pen with a few thousand other people, it was miraculous that turning to my right Tim Lewin was just a few paces away. With a fellow Hoop to chat too my nerves instantly disappeared, and we chatted away until the off. A few kilometres in and Tim, who was unsure of his fitness, gave me his blessing to push on as I warmed into my race pace. The atmosphere and support of Paris can't be faulted.
The crowds are out, the fire brigade hand out sponges (and sit above the route on their ladders shouting support) and there is food aplenty at the water points. A few kilometres further in I joined two runners from Serpentine for a while, before my pacing took me on again.
10 to 13.1 miles
Gez : I love finding a marathon buddy; those friendly people who you start chatting too en route and realise are aiming for the same time as you. It makes the whole experience that much richer to share it with someone. It is inevitably a friendship that has a limited lifespan—sooner one or other of you will blow up or decide to push on—but there’s moral support over those joyful first kilometres, or the inevitable dark nights of the soul.
My first dark moment of the marathon came around 15k. The right hamstring was tightening, both quads were getting heavy and the left ankle was hurting. I was starting to doubt my whole plan. I’d barely managed a third of the distance and already the pain had started. But on the start line I’d happened upon one-time Gladstone parkrun frequenter Sam Barrell. Both of us had merrily chatted up to this point, me helping him manage his pace—and now was his turn. He reminded me of Desiree Linden, who in last year’s Boston Marathon at a similar stage, had been waiting for training partners to use the portaloos. She was acting as a sacrificial windbreak for them because she just didn’t feel like she had it that day and would be lucky to even finish. She ended up winning.
A marathon isn’t just one experience, it’s many—you have to push through each of them to get to the next. At this point, we were about 10 seconds ahead of schedule. I was pretty happy with that. I wanted to go through half way at bang on half the target time, so 10 seconds in the bank was fine. I took a gel, the legs started to feel better. 18k/19k/20k down. Just half way now, at the bottom of this hill…But what’s this my watch says? Half way and 47 seconds ahead of schedule? Nooooo! Gildas will be shaking his head and tutting furiously when he sees this on the app! Zut Alors! This could have brought that wall a mile earlier and torpedoed the whole thing. At this point, the real race is only just beginning.
16 to 20 miles
Gabby Smart: This was first marathon, and by this point it was not easy but it was enjoyable. We had been taking it at easy/chatting pace, and although I wasn't feeling super fresh, I feel okay.
We hit the long, stuffy, hot tunnel and Trevor held back a bit. Susan stayed with him. I started to go off ahead while remembering Gildas comment from the day before :'You never know if it's a good race until the 30km mark!'
Going slowly, I see the Eiffel tower and high five the crowds (getting my name on my vest was a such a good move as people cheer me on). 30km comes and goes—I've worked out I wont make my ideal time of 4:30, but I'm not too far off.
I start to speed up a tiny bit and by 32km I'm thinking: "Wow, looks like marathons are my distance. I've always wanted to be naturally talented at something and this is IT. What a pro, I'm not even tired and I'm speeding past super exhausted runners who have hit The Wall.
Not me amigos..."
Sean: The first 16 miles or so were relatively comfortable at target pace, but if Manchester taught me anything it was that the first 16 miles mean the square root of sod all. I'm enjoying the atmosphere, but also cognisant that at any moment it could go off the rails.
I got through the tunnel, and the annoying undulations in and out of them, and things started to get a little harder. Keep pushing. Back on track. If i can keep this going I can break four hours...
But as I approached the 30km barrier I knew it was over. My head is starting to waver, not much, but just like it did in Manchester. Back then, I ran through it and eventually had to stop a kilometre later and drag what remained of myself for six more miles, unable to do anything other than roll my head and whimper in pain. I'm not doing that here. Marathons come and go, and this is only my second ever, and I want positive memories of it. So I ease off the throttle, pop a smile on my face and look to saunter around the rest of it. Sub-four can wait for now.
20 to 23 miles
Susan Kennedy: I had made a deal with Trevor that we would stick together until about 18-to-20 miles—we were not pushing it, but running comfortably and enjoying it. After 18/20 miles my experience tells me all bets are off -who know what may happen and indeed as it turned out Trevor had really had enough of me and my chat and decided to take a quick walk break. Not sure exactly where we were but between 19 and 21 miles I think? (you lose track). I ran on feeling remarkably okay - the temperature was very good and some clouds had even come over - very helpful for me—my mind is forever scared from the blue skies and hot sun from Paris in 2007 and 2018 London Marathons—both hideous.
Richard: At mile 18, where I had blown in my last marathon, I felt ok, but by mile 19 I was
tiring. A stretch of cobbles on tired legs felt like some kind of antiquated form of torture. That's ok I thought, you know you can cover 20 miles, you've got this...
And then came the long drag up to the Bois de Boulogne.
My legs deserted me, and very quickly I was reduced to a depressing 7:00/k pace. Tim and the Serpies drifted back past me as they pushed on to the finish. I was utterly spent both physically and mentally.
Gabby: Of course, I hit The Wall. Every inch of ego drains from me and now I'm half sobbing thinking: "I wont even finish, everyone will be so disappointed, this race was bloomin' expensive and what a waste, everything hurts, maybe I'll never walk again..." I stop at the 35km water station, its cold, all the crowds have gone (there's a violin playing in the background) and I eat a bit of sad looking banana. I genuinely don't think I can start running again, my legs don't seem move and I wonder if this is as far as I'll get when I turn around and see a smiley Hoopster just behind me...
Susan: The next great Harrier moment was finding Gabby—who had run on ahead earlier—at the water station at about 21 to 22 miles. We were very pleased to see each other and egged each other on—smiling and making positive comments—so much so our last two miles were our fastest of the whole marathon. There was also much posing for the cameras—so nice to cross the line with a mate and share the moment.
Gabby: Susan jogs on past and as I try to tell her Its All Over, I have to start running to keep up with her. Looking like an actual Pro, Susan starts to tell me about how Trevor was doing, that they saw Charlie who was looking strong, clocking the best support team Sian and Sian again...and slowly I get back into a rhythm. It's not long before it's one parkrun to go and we are able to pick up the pace a tiny bit. Everything hurts but we pick up the pace again a tiny bit for the last mile and cross the line elated, in pain, half crying and holding hands.
Richard: When cramp set in and I was forced to stop briefly, I felt like I would use my last pockets of energy to firmly hurl my toys from the pram. But there was no way I was going to quit or walk this in. So off I set again, to cover the final kilometers, breaking them down into Gladstone Parkruns to visualise my progress. There was no glorious surge for the line or pose for the camera....I've never been so glad and disappointed finishing a race. In the end I came home in just over four hours.
Gez: I got to 40k and thought: ‘How could I have been so spectacularly foolish, to think that to reach 35k and lifting the pace was a good idea?!’ A mere parkrun later and every single one of my limbs was on fire, including my arms. Your whole being is consumed with the screaming, agonising refrain of ‘WHHHHYYYY?’
And then, after the glorious rolling downhill sections of the park, there’s that payback you were desperately hoping didn’t exist. THE HILL. Probably not much of a hill, but at this point a molehill becomes your own personal Everest. My sister and niece were waiting for me here though—and ran with me to the top, where the 41k marker offered some blessed relief that it really, really couldn’t be that far to go.
But by now you’re just trying to put one leg in front of the other. Don’t think about the end, just reaching the next lamppost, and the car after that, and the tree after that...another eternity lapses, and you see the green carpet and the crowds of the final straight. YES! Surely you’ve got a final sprint you. What? No? Some other jokers do though... Flying past like you’re standing still. But the finish line comes closer... and closer...until finally you make it. In my case, I stagger over the line and realise that my legs are no longer able to even walk, lift one foot after the other until there’s a kerb in sight and collapse onto it.
Sean: The last park is tough, and somehow seemingly always going uphill. My mind was still intact, which I was happy about. I was also quietly relieved that, on this occasion, it was me telling others to keep on going, not the other way around. Still, a marathon's a marathon, and my body bloody hurt.
So it was great to see Gildas and Martin when I did, with a couple of kilometres remaining. Those who don't believe in people power should really have the feeling of someone cheering your own name during a marathon injected into their veins, they'd soon change their mind. My legs felt invigorated, and I passed Gildas and Martin with a high-five before heading off again. I managed to finish in 4:10, but that didn't matter, the main thing was finishing under my own power and feeling great afterwards (Notwithstanding collapsing on James in the finishers' pen; I'm putting that down to an endorphin rush and forgetting to breathe!).
Gez: And breathe...you’ve done it. All the pain starts to slowly ebb away... replaced with a deep sense of satisfaction that will last for days or even weeks. It’s hard to explain this feeling to non-marathoners—you can only get it when you push yourself this hard for this long—some kind of madness perhaps?
Richard: Despite my disappointment, heading over to the restaurant was the best thing for me. Surrounded by friends for drink, food and more drink, the labours of the day didn't matter for a while. In the presence of the fellow runners of 'Team Paris', our support crew (how flash were we?), and a long haired restaurant cat (which seemed to critically judge us on our lack of stair descending ability), we wiled the afternoon away. So many of the team had achieved so much that day, it was great to be around their positive energy (and the pints helped too no doubt).
Will I do another marathon? I believe there might be something going on in Valencia this December...I might see what it's about..and I may just give that Hanson's marathon plan a go. Maybe I'll see you there...
Susan: The restaurant after was the icing on the proverbial gateaux—thanks Tim Lewin for that. 4 hours 38 is my fastest marathon since cancer. I definitely benefited from the Nick Anderson sessions especially the Q&A and the Yoga for runners and most of all being part of a supportive team.