Five years ago today I ran the Paris marathon.
In many ways, I still see that day as the culmination of my time living in Paris. Since I trained for the entire marathon while living there, it felt like a (very long) run through my backyard- a sweaty love letter to the city I now called home.
I wake up in our small apartment in the 15th arrondissement, wash my face, chug some Gatorade (which feels like a victory in and of itself, after having to hop a few neighborhoods over before finding a shop still selling sugary imported sports drinks the night before), plug in my headphones, then hop on Line 6 at Montparnasse-Bienvenue, watching the sunrise beyond the iconic Tower in a moment that felt like Gustave Eiffel had surely orchestrated just for me in his 1889 design.
If you’ve seen videos of influencers admiring the Eiffel Tower from the Paris metro then you know Line 6. Part of the line runs above ground, connecting the 15th and 16th arrondissements over the Seine, hurling you past a truly magnificent waterfront view of the Lady Eiffel. It is also the line that ended at Charles de Gaulle–Étoile by the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Élysées. The famous shopping boulevard doubles as the race’s starting line- wide enough to form runner corrals and iconic enough to make every participant feel like they got their money’s worth well before the start gun sounds.
Energy is high as runners swarm the streets. The Paris marathon is the second largest in the world, following New York, and while people travel from all over the world to run it, you could spot the French (or in my case, French residing) participants by the beads of perspiration already beginning to form on their pasty skin. When Ella and Louis sang about April in Paris, they almost nailed it, just leaving out the part about the very fickle weather. Generally I am not complaining, April in Paris is beautiful- whether it feels like winter or spring- and you will share it with almost every Parisian, as the whole city flocks to parks and public spaces in full appreciation of every gorgeous day the month allows.
Today is one of those beautiful, shockingly spring days (great news for my cheering squad, which included a friend visiting from the states). The problem for those of us who had trained for the marathon IN Paris was that it was almost 20 degrees warmer than what we had last run in. It had been a particularly cold winter, and I had completed my final long run less than 2 weeks earlier while it was spitting snow.
My legs move me from the start line, through Place de la Concorde, and along Rue de Rivoli, still in utter shock to be adorning shorts rather than fleece lined leggings- I am sweating profusely by mile 2. The race route changes a bit each year, but participants generally spend large portions of the 26.2 miles running through the city center past iconic landmarks along the Right Bank, with stretches in Paris’s two largest parks on either side of the city, Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Bologne.
Leading up to the race, I really enjoyed telling my French colleagues that I was training for the marathon and seeing their varying reactions. Many were impressed or intrigued and some wanted to hear how I structured my training routes in the busy city. My long runs over the last 7 months led me to discover many pockets of Paris less frequented by visitors, so these conversations gave me an opportunity to prove that when I said I loved living in Paris, I was talking about more than the Louvre or Le Marais. Others thought I was crazy (l’entraînement est foo!) or just lame for limiting my wine and cocktail intake on a Friday night out together for fear of feeling it during next morning’s run.
I found out after the marathon that my most committed office mate decided the night before she wanted to cheer me on, but waiting on the side of the route sounded boring. She found a seat on the terrace of a cafe along the Bois de Vincennes, ordered breakfast, and cheered when the tracker on her iPad notified her that I’d run past her street, all with a coffee in hand. I found this equally hilarious and sweet.
I was also kind of relieved that she hadn’t been directly on the side lines for that stretch of the race, as I hit a low point. This is a packed race, and coming around a curve in the route within the Vincennes forest, someone tried to cut through the crowd and ended up taking me out. My side and back get a little scratched up, but mostly I am just shaken and disappointed that my finish goal time no longer feels attainable. First aid in France is NO JOKE (picture multiple volunteers vying to strap me to a stretcher), but eventually I convince them of my ability to keep running and set back off.
I am hot. I am disappointed. I am not even halfway there.
Oh, and by the way, 26.2 miles is 42 in kilometers and I am kicking myself for not training in kms because marathons are a mental game and that just makes the whole damn thing feel longer.
But then someone says my name: Allez, Emma! On y va! Actually, a lot of people are saying my name, and I don’t know any of them. The race bibs include your name and country, but up to that point in the race, I’d mostly heard French spectators cheering for countries (Go USA! Allez, Monsieur Sweden!), but my name is pretty common in French too, and they are using it to cheer me on. “They” being an entire crowd of Parisians.
And just like that, my heart bursts.
Maybe it’s the heat stroke I am inevitably running myself into. Maybe it’s the residual adrenaline from the wipeout. But I think it’s mostly the fact that all year, despite trying really hard to understand and respect the cultural differences that can lead to Parisians being labeled as cold or unfriendly, I am still very American in my need for warmth and affirmation. And here, in a crowded race of delirium, I’d found some. These Parisians were cheering for ME!!
So I’d like to end this story by saying I find superhuman strength to make up for my lost time and run the race like a champ. I don’t. In fact, my final race time is a whole hour longer than my original goal time that I trained so long and hard for. But boy do I have fun!
At mile 14 I stop and take in the crowd of runners from around the world, filling the Parc Rives de Seine that I have been so incredibly lucky to run along almost every day this past year. At mile 18 I stop and take pictures with friends while running past the Eiffel Tower. I high five every kid extending their hand, I thank every volunteer that hands me water, and I make my way to the finish line smiling. How could I do otherwise with this many Parisian strangers cheering for me on this beautiful April day?