April 3rd: The sun beats down over the Champs-Elysees, where 43, 317 people of 160 nationalities are herded together in pens, waiting to start the Paris Marathon. It’s the 40th anniversary of the race and the street is festooned with green banners from top to bottom. Loud music pumps and throbs through the air. There is little obvious evidence of paranoia or fear in the wake of the recent terror attacks. However, a careful observer might notice the dark figures on top of the Arc de Triomphe, scanning the crowds for signs of trouble, and the occasional clusters of heavily-armed soldiers, patrolling watchfully. Otherwise, the sense of excitement and anticipation is almost tangible.
Caralyn and I arrived at this scene around 9 a.m., well in advance of our start time of 10.15 (reserved for the slowest group of runners). The sun already felt strong, which was a welcome relief after bitterly cold weather the day before. The rest of the Walk The Walk team had managed to register for earlier start times so we waited alone in our decorated bras. Having done this marathon before, Caralyn had warned me that this was usually a “serious” race in which very few people wore fancy dress. Sure enough, our strange attire attracted a lot of attention from other runners. Before long, we’d found ourselves the subjects of countless photos as people wanted to pose with us and to ask questions – like why we were dressed like that and wouldn’t it be better for us to wear proper sports bras? This was a great opportunity to practice French although some of the more technical questions defeated us.
We passed the time as we so often do before races: writing one another’s names on chests and backs with marker pens. At such times, I wish Caralyn was called something short like “Ann” as it would be so much easier to fit the letters in. For this event, she wanted a big “Walking for Lesley” on her back, in support of a friend who is recovering from breast cancer. This kept us busy for a while. As had happened in the New York marathon, a number of people with breast cancer stories came to chat with us, grateful for the fundraising and awareness-raising. Some of the stories were really moving. We met survivors who were running their first ever marathon because they’d promised themselves they would do it if they recovered. We were told about a man running a marathon for every year he’d been married to his wife, who’d died from breast cancer. I got a bit watery-eyed, though I put that down to the fact I’d had to take migraine medication overnight, which always makes me emotionally fragile. Well, that’s my excuse anyway!
Time passed quickly and before we knew it, the countdown had started and we were off. We set off at a good pace down the Champs-Elysees and had our first sighting of supporters Paul and Michael just after Place de La Concorde. We couldn’t miss them: despite Paul’s dislike of headgear, they were both wearing their fluorescent yellow Walk the Walk caps and waving enthusiastically. Their photos give you a sense of the crowds, the serious faces of the hardened runners and, in contrast, the two of us grinning and having a good time.
The route took us East down the Rue de Rivoli to La Bastille, then on to the Bois de Vincennes. We saw a couple of other walkers but everyone else was running, so this stretch was a long, slow process of being constantly overtaken due to our slower pace (although for walkers, we were managing a pretty good speed). We had hoped to see Paul and Michael again at La Bastille, but they were thwarted by crowds and metro station closures so it was not to be. From this early stage, there were live bands all the way along the route: African drums, steel drums, cheerleaders, disco, brass bands, samba bands, jazz bands, rock bands – you name it, we bounced/gyrated to it with big grins and waves. There were times when I just had to sing along, notably the Bridget Jones moment (“All by myself”), the Bowie moment (“Heroes”) and the Radiohead moment (“Creep”). I must say, I was rather surprised to hear Radiohead being used as motivational music, but it did the job.
As soon as we reached the Bois de Vincennes, pretty much all the male runners around us fled to the trees for calls of nature, while we strode on, averting our eyes. The sun was really beating down now and we could feel our shoulders burning. We walked through parkland and past the Chateau de Vincennes, then the route looped round and back towards the city centre. At this point, we had the exquisite pleasure of being showered with water from fire hoses, thanks to some thoughtful firemen who were stationed at the side of the road. This happened a number of times from then on. Some of the hoses were set to “fine mist” while others seemed to be more forceful and our lovely pink feather boas began to get quite bedraggled. Meanwhile, Caralyn’s hip-flexor injury began to niggle and nag so we dropped the pace. It was amazing she had got this far unscathed, as only two weeks before she had wondered if she’d be able to take part at all as she was in so much pain.
We had another encounter with Paul and Michael at the 14 mile stage. After a quick round of hugs, we carried on our way towards central Paris and they, likewise, headed off towards the Western extremity of the circuit for a later rendezvous. Soon, we were marching along the banks of the Seine with breathtaking landmarks on all sides: Notre Dame, the Musee d’Orsay, Les Invalides and, further ahead, the Eiffel Tower. We were cheered on all the way by people lining the street: some in bars and cafes and others leaning over bridges and parapets above us. We got a lot of double takes and “Ooh-la-la!“s on account of the bras. We also got a lot of “Go Sally!“‘s and “Go ..??…“‘s and sometimes a “Go Walking-for-Lesley!“. We resolved that next time (if there is a next time), Caralyn would have something simple, like “Caz”, on her chest.
Along this stretch, the route took us into a long, dark, grubby road tunnel. This would have been a dull slog except that someone had thoughtfully projected relaxing images on screens along the walls (palm trees, artfully piled stones, lotus blossoms etc) and a rose-scented fragrance was pumped through the air. While not quite the full “spa” atmosphere, it was a good attempt!
As the miles passed, Caralyn’s pain levels increased but she gamely continued, always smiling and waving. By this time, many of the runners had given up running and had dropped into walking/limping/staggering mode. These were the “hare and tortoise” miles: our steady pace enabled us to begin to overtake people, which made a change.
One of the things that kept us going through the tough moments, was the opportunity to chat to other runners. In particular, the wonderful Philippe – a man of mature years and unlikely build for marathons – who took great pleasure in bumping into us (not literally) again and again through the race. There was Colin too – who told us about his wife, who had survived breast cancer and had “fantastic help” from Walk the Walk. Then there were the awe-inspiring sights like medical teams running with patients on beds or in wheelchairs, parents running with babies in buggies and the young man whose sign “I’m running for my wife” made me feel tearful all over again.
Eventually, we found ourselves walking through the Bois de Boulogne, a sign that we were nearly at the end. Based on Caralyn’s previous experience, we had high hopes of a glass of Beaujolais in the final kilometre, but not a drop was in sight. So we powered on towards the finish line, where Paul and Michael were waiting to greet us. Taking injuries into account, we had hoped to finish under 6 hours so we were really pleased with a time of 5hrs 55 mins.
Here’s a photo of us at the end of it all – amid streets strewn with fruit and discarded water bottles. Someone was going to have a massive clean-up job.
Surrounded by crowds of people in a state of elation and festivity, we went in search of somewhere to sit. All the cafes and bars were full to the brim and we couldn’t find a space anywhere. Eventually, a kind (or financially astute) waiter took pity on us and produced from nowhere an extra set of table and chairs. There, on a bustling pavement, we collapsed in a heap, had a celebratory drink and shared memories of the day with Paul and Michael, our amazing support team.
So that was the Paris marathon, 2016 – an unforgettable experience. I’m very happy to have exceeded my fundraising target – £531 for Walk the Walk. In addition, Paul and I will be matching this with a donation to buy 25 mama packs for Rwandan Mums, so that’s 25 babies who will hopefully get a better, safer start in life. A huge “Thank you” to everyone who sponsored me!