Paris Marathon: Conclusion
I have three pieces in this series, subtitled Part 1, Bon Courage, and now finally Conclusion. Needless to say, I did not plan things out too well. But here we are, a day after the marathon.
Yesterday, I completed the marathon. It’s done. I came a little more than ten minutes behind my goal, a little more than twenty-five minutes behind my training partners, and a whole two hours after the winner. For the rest of the sunlit hours afterwards, my head was in a perpetual cloud, as though I had too much alcohol to drink the night prior. Today, I woke up, had three pain au chocolat, took the metro for an hour, and flew back home. My legs are weaker than they have been after a run in a while and my shins hurt more than they should, but my knees are importantly unharmed. Despite the physical discomfort, the mental soreness of not having achieved my goal, and the trials of yesterday, I feel fulfilled.
I arrived in Paris four days prior to the race, which was just enough time to adjust to the time difference, but the amount of time and energy I spent enjoying Paris left me a little less than a hundred-percent ready. I walked and drank a little more than I should have, and the hotel I was staying at played loud music audible in my room until the wee hours of the morning. During the carb-loading process for the marathon, I ate perhaps a little more than I should have too, and my stomach wasn’t the most happy.
I arrived at the corral with my training partners five minutes before our group closed, and prepared myself to run. It was a cold day, but it was warm in the corral, crowded with runners. We moved up the ranks to music, and discussed strategies. I knew that I was the weakest runner of the group, but had decided to keep pace with my friends with the hope that they would encourage me, and that I was simply built different. Our block started, and the three of us soon overtook the four-hour pacer. We ran through Place de La Concorde, around the old opera house, and by the Louvre.
I arrived at the five-kilometer mark going at a 5:16 minutes per kilometer pace time. I was more tired than I wanted to be, but still convinced that it was possible to complete the marathon at this pace. I had seen my parents in the crowd several times now, and their cheering encouraged me to continue moving forwards at the same clip. I lost my friends soon after we made our way around the Bastille monument and headed into the Bois de Vicennes. This stretch was more challenging as all the trees started looking the same, and there were no familiar landmarks to give me a sense of how far I had traveled. I could only count the kilometer signs as I passed them, hoping that we’d be out of the woods soon.
I arrived at the halfway mark a little after exiting the Bois de Vicennes. Even though I had lost my friends and the pacer, I knew that she was behind me, and this kept me motivated. I tried to pace myself against people who looked like they knew what they were doing, usually younger runners wearing their old finisher shirts or Nike Alphaflys. I also took solace in that I was passing more people than were passing me. I was doing well. My knee was becoming stiffer, especially after I tripped over a speedbump, but I still felt good. Being back in the city felt good too. I had a better gauge of how far I ran when I saw the remains of the Notre Dame de Paris and the clock of the d’Orsay along the banks of the Seine. Just as I was thinking that I hadn’t seen my parents in a while, I saw my girlfriend and another friend unexpectedly. I felt good. This marathon was going well.
I arrived at the thirty-kilometer mark worse for the wear, the slopes catching me off-guard. Paris was mostly flat, but a part of the course involved down dark passages meant for cars and hills on the way up. After the first two or three, I started walking back up the tunnels. Just a small break, I told myself, just a small break. The rest of the course was unrelenting. I felt my legs start to give out underneath me, and mixed up running and walking, telling myself I’d run to the next distance marker or water station, then take a small break. But these were still in the streets of Paris, the streets of a city I called home. Even though I hadn’t seen anyone I knew for a while, the locals would read my name of the bib as I passed, and each time they did, I would start running if I was walking.
I arrived at a water station unsure of exactly how I was doing, though certainly worse. More people were passing me than I was passing them, but I hadn’t seen a pacer since passing one at the kilometer mark, and didn’t know how much my fast start had helped me. Then, I heard loud cheers from behind me. It was my four-hour pacer. I took my last energy gel, and grit my teeth, and ran for all I was worth. My goal was hot on my heels, and if I fell behind now, I’d just resign myself to a marathon finisher instead of reaching my target. My training partners were nearing completion now. This was the most painful leg of my run. I left everything on the course trying to stay ahead of the pacer, even giving a few attempts at catching up after they had passed, but it was futile. I watched the green flag disappear around a bend and never saw it again.
I arrived at the forty-kilometer mark thoroughly beaten. I was walking more than I was running, and grabbed two water bottles from the last water station, drinking them slowly while limping towards the finish line. I didn’t even blink as the next four-hour pacer shot past. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d finish the race, but I felt defeated. Then, in the distance, I saw the red hat that my sister was wearing and suddenly, my mother appeared beside me. To my surprise, the two of them joined me on the course. For the final kilometer of the race, I gained a little spurt of energy as they jogged alongside me, encouraging me to keep on going, only falling off when the crowd grew too heavy once again.
I arrived at the finish line in what I thought was a medium-paced jog, but upon review of videos, seemed like a slow trot, my gait limited by my stiff knee. I teared up a little, but continued onward to water, bananas, my finisher t-shirt, and my medal. I had done it, with an average pace of just under six minutes, twenty seconds per kilometer longer than my goal. Everyone I came with gave me a warm congratulations, but at that moment, I felt relief and slight disappointment, not accomplishment.
Prior to the race, I was toying with the idea of turning running into a facet of my personality. Vancouver is at the beginning of May, the Montreal half Ironman is at the end of summer, and next year, Boston! I was well on my way to becoming a racing yuppie, a weekend warrior, and an insufferable money sink. I told everyone that after this marathon, there was a good chance I’d never run again, but secretly I hoped that perhaps that this race would unlock something hidden deep within me, that I was born to run, that I was built different. Fortunately, Paris kept me an honest man, and I no longer have any desire to run another forty kilometers next month, or to spend a couple thousand dollars in Quebec. I’m not confident enough in this assertation to leave it in writing without a disclaimer, so I’m leaving this here just I decide to run another race.
In the face of missing my goal, in face of the physical tribulations of the marathon, and in the face of the evaporation of my running fantasy, I would have thought that I would be disappointed, not accomplished. But that’s part of a marathon. So long as I’m not vying to become an elite road runner, the most important thing is that I completed the marathon. A couple of days prior to the race, I visited the Louvre and was reminded of the first marathon. It was a French Neo-Classical sculpture in the Richelieu courtyards entitled The Soldier of Marathon announcing the Victory. The runner is lying at a diagonal supporting himself up with one arm as the other hoists a torch. His eyes are cast upward as his cloak is falling off his body, his face a portrait of exhaustion.
The legends of the first marathon runner talk of a courier carrying a message from Marathon to Athens that the Persians had been defeated. The awkward forty-two kilometer race is based off the distance between the two cities, though there are varying accounts of the cause and distance. Regardless, the message was one of life or death, so he didn’t plan to finish the race at a certain time, he needed to do it as quickly as possible. He didn’t have a structured training plan or a regimented diet, nor did he have running shoes and energy gels. His only goal was to deliver the message. The only thing that all accounts of the legend agree on were that the message was successfully delivered, and the courier died upon receiption.
For the casual runner attempting a modern marathon, the goal can very much be the same, minus the dying. Having a target to work towards makes it more exciting since most able-bodied young people should be able to run one by the cutoff time, barring unforeseen accidents. Marathon signups that require an estimated finish time and training plans that factor in pace times certainly normalize target times, but they can remove people from the magnitude of the challenge. It’s not easy to run a marathon. Everyone runs for different reasons: for a cause, for a person, for themselves. In most of these cases, I suspect finishing the race an accomplishment in itself, like Rocky Balboa aiming to stay in the ring for eight rounds. They’ve trained for it. They’ve spent time, money, and other resources on it. They’ve pushed their bodies and their minds to the limit, they’ve left everything on the course, and they’ve gone the distance. If they’ve done that, then they can be happy with finishing a marathon. I know I am.