Thursday, May 3, 2012

Race Day

I’m not a runner, never will be and surviving a marathon was not on my bucket list. I love to walk long distances and hiking for miles on end is one of my favorite pastimes, but a runner I’ll never be. We’d set our sights on the Paris race simply as a motivator for maintaining a workout program as we ate our way through Europe and attempted to stay in reasonable shape through the winter. Joe has long enjoyed running and ran two previous marathons (the 2009 Marine Corps in DC and the 2010 New York City race), while I’d done two half marathons in the past few years just to see what they were like with no training at all (and my times and race-wrecked body confirmed my lack of preparation).

The big day finally arrived after seven long months of arduous training. We ran at least twice a week until January, between three and eight miles each time out, and then in the new year started a three run a week ASICS training plan we found on the Paris Marathon web site. All proceeded as recommended until a painful bout of bursitis in my hip erupted in mid-March on a 17.5-mile run in Vienna. Once I’d made an Internet diagnosis, I followed the recommended prescription for recovery: no more running for at least a month. My hopes for completing the marathon were promptly dashed and my plan for Paris took a dramatic turn; after several weeks of rest, I would start the race and simply run whatever piece my body allowed me. We went to pick up our race packets while the children slept off their arrival jetlag, but I felt like a fraud at the running expo. There I was with my official number and bright blue Paris Marathon tote, but I was sure I wouldn’t be able to finish the course. I hadn’t run in just over three weeks in an attempt to heal my sore hip and I knew that if the bursitis flared up during the race, I’d never make it more than a mile or two after the pain erupted. Rather than start the race cold turkey, I finally decided to test my beleaguered joint with a short, comfortable three-mile run with Caroline around the Champs de Mars and along the Seine on Friday, two days before the marathon, just to see how I felt. I was amazed that the jog yielded absolutely no pain and I allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe, I’d be okay. But I found it impossible to believe that the excruciating pain I’d felt just three weeks earlier would have disappeared so thoroughly and wouldn’t return.  

The alarm rang on race day at 6:00 AM sharp. The skies were overcast with threatening clouds and the temperatures were chilly, in the upper 30s with the low 40s forecast by midday. Except for the winds, which kicked up some strong gusts, it was perfect marathon weather. We had organized our gear the night before, safety-pinned our race numbers to our shirts and set out our Garmin GPS running watches, ready to go. We took hot showers, donned all our layers, including our “throwaway clothes” that would keep us warm as we waited in the cold for the race to begin. Joe looked the part of the quintessential runner in his standard attire: black compression shorts, red singlet, white long-sleeved jersey as a throwaway shirt and his favorite white visor. Much more concerned about warding off the elements, I, on the other hand, looked like “Nanook of the North,” a marathon ringer if ever there was one. My multiple layers included black shorts, a black long sleeved running shirt, a turquoise short-sleeved shirt and a light blue fleece, the warmest piece of clothing I own. On my head was the Paris Marathon-sponsored do-rag, which I found perfect for keeping my hair out of my face, especially if it was going to be windy. But the pièce de résistance, and what got Joe laughing out loud was my disposable layer: a set of baby blue cotton pajamas that I managed to pull on over everything else and planned to jettison once the starting gun sounded. My PJs had served their cold weather purpose on our trip but I would no longer need their warmth once we headed south, so I thought why not? I’ll put them on for one good final use. I figured that I was about to attempt a marathon and could wear whatever get-up made me most comfortable. Joe called me his Arctic warrior but I just called myself cozy.

After a quick breakfast in the apartment, we donned the plastic, thermal Paris Marathon sheaths we received in our race packets, kissed the kids goodbye, confirmed the mile markers where they hoped to cheer us on and headed out the door at 7:30 AM looking like a couple of Parisian bag people. When we reached La Motte-Picquet metro stop on the Boulevard de Grenelle, we were the only ones on the platform but were soon joined by about a dozen other runners on their way to the Place Charles de Gaulle-Étoile. The train soon arrived, and before we knew it, we were at the base of the Arc de Triomphe with tens of thousands of other runners. Joe dropped off his post-race dry clothes at the baggage storage area (Caroline had mine since I feared officials might not give me easy access to the storage bags if I failed to finish the race), took advantage of the porta-johns where I lined up cheek to cheek, so to speak, with a gentleman using one of the open-air, molded blue plastic portable pissoirs that lined the usually grand Avenue Foch. We got a kick out of doing what we would never dare attempt on any other day of the year: we walked across the Place de l’Étoile to the Arc de Triomphe and on down the middle of the Champs Elysées. We were able to squeeze our way into the 4:15 starting corral (the result of some inexplicable error, I was assigned to the same corral as fleet-of-foot Joe). It was 8:30 AM and we had about 15 minutes before the gun went off at 8:45 to officially start 32,000 competitors running through the streets of Paris. Emotions run high at marathons for all sorts of reasons (nerves, excitement, fear and the exhilaration of the challenge) and I reflected on the fact that every one of the competitors had a personal reason for being there that day. While hopping from one foot to the other to stay warm while waiting for the start, we met Linda from Colorado who had the noblest of reasons for running the marathon and had me on the verge of bursting into tears. She and her French husband, Air Force Major Philip Ambard, a naturalized American citizen and recipient of both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, had planned to run the 2012 Paris Marathon together when he was on leave. But those plans evaporated in an instant when he was killed in Afghanistan last April; Linda would be running for both of them on her own. Linda’s story helped me let go of all the nerves and anxiety I was feeling to embrace what I was doing and enjoy the experience; my children would be cheering us on and we were all together in Paris. Nothing else was needed and nothing else mattered.

Once the starting gun sounded, I discarded the security blanket of my protective pajamas and we slowly inched up to the starting line as successive corrals of runners were released. We walked over piles of discarded clothing, food wrappers, orange peels, trash bags and water bottles filled with urine (men sure do have it easy when nature calls). Just before the arc of bright balloons indicating the start of the race and next to the announcer’s platform, the final opportunity for bladder emptying overpowered any personal reticence. The men peeing in the middle of the Champs Elysées was expected, but the fact that women joined them was a surprise. One woman scooted up to a barrier, squatted and let it go. Apparently, she broke the ice because there were soon five lily-white derrières clustered around the divider. Only in Paris and just the sight we needed to lighten any remaining tension. It was 9:20, at long last, by the time our group crossed the starting line. Joe and I kissed each other goodbye, wished each other bonne chance et bon courage and started our running adventure through Paris.

The course was amazing, as I knew it would be. I felt like a million bucks as I ran down the magnificent Champs Elysées, through the Place de la Concorde and along the Rue de Rivoli with the Tuileries along the right. The gardens soon gave way to the Louvre, Châtelet, the Hôtel de Ville and Le Marais. All my nervousness had vanished; I was in the zone, simply running, taking in the sights and having fun. Just before the Place de la Bastille was the three-mile mark where my former colleague and 20-marathon veteran, Neil (he and his girlfriend were in Paris as part of a two-week trip to Europe), had promised to join me as my Sherpa. He had given Joe a training plan for his first marathon and had run the final 10 miles of the race with him for moral support. Right at mile 3, there he was, with fresh legs and enough enthusiasm to keep me and a whole crew of runners going. Just after Neil joined me, we saw the kids: Chris, Caroline and my nephew Pat were there as my personal cheerleaders. We quickly traded hugs on the sidelines at La Bastille as planned.

I generally like to run alone. I set and then adjust my pace according to how I’m feeling and I never want to think I’m holding someone back, but having Neil at my side as my own cheering squad was a godsend. We had agreed that he would stay with me for perhaps six miles in deference to my lone-runner mindset so I took advantage of his selfless support for as long as I could. He grabbed and held water bottles for me, got me banana slices when I needed them, gave me running strategy pointers and encouraged me every step of the way. We made it through the long 6.5-mile stretch in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern flank of Paris, which was convenient for stopping to lighten my bladder’s load in the au natural facilities.

For several miles I was actually able to speak while running, to tell Neil about the monuments we were seeing and the neighborhoods we were passing through. He was still there next to me as we headed back into the heart of the city and approached the critical halfway mark, an important psychological threshold since I’d been convinced that by then my hip would be screaming, I’d have run what I could and would call it a day. But miraculously, none of that happened, the pain never materialized and I just kept going. A three-week running abstention must have been the right course of action. My hip was fine, my legs were fine and my lungs were fine, although I’d suddenly become very quiet. I’d lost the ability to do any more talking and left that task to my Sherpa who did his best to pump me up and I did my best to listen. We continued to run along the Seine and I was still able to smile and enjoy the sights that came into view -- Notre Dame, La Conciergerie and then the Louvre, some of the most beautiful architecture in Paris. By this time it was clear that Neil was in for the long haul; he was sticking with me and going the distance at my side. When mile 15 rolled around, I was indulging in frequent walking breaks (many more than my run six minutes, walk one training plan called for) but the kids reappeared at mile 16 with shouts of, “Go Maman!” I was so happy to see their enthusiastic faces because I desperately needed encouragement and an emotional lift. Soon thereafter, we found ourselves in the eerily quiet darkness of a tunnel along the river (the one in which Princess Diana was killed) and emerged to see La Tour Eiffel to our left ­– a stunning sight on any day, but a particularly inspiring one for those in the throes of a marathon. It was at about that point that I learned that sharing a name with the symbol of the French Republic has its advantages. The generally subdued French spectators started shouting in response to the name printed on my race bib, “Marianne, bravo – vous êtes l’esprit de France,” combined with “Allez, allez!” It gave me such a unique psychological boost.

I started to focus on kilometers rather than miles since their markers were much more prominent and they ticked away so much more quickly. Making it into the Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of Paris and through the final leg of the race is somewhat of a blur. All I could do was concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, most of them at a race-walking pace with occasional spurts of 30-yard jogs, but once we were in the park, I knew I could finish the thing. I kept repeating to myself what I’d heard Joe declare that morning, “Once you get into the Bois, you’re basically home free.” When we finally emerged from the interminable woods, I knew the end was near and did my best to pick up my pace. If I was going to complete a marathon, I was going to run the final stretch in style. As we turned the cobblestoned corner onto the Avenue Foch with the Arc de Triomphe looming majestically in the distance, a race official yanked Neil off the course since he wasn’t wearing a number. I would have to run the last leg alone. In any race, anywhere in the world, the finish line is a lovely sight to behold, but the end of the Paris Marathon has to be the most beautiful finale in the world. I dug as deeply as I could to force my broken-down and now shaking body to keep functioning for just a bit longer as the tears started to flow. I had been running on empty for many miles and had to concentrate on fixing my stare on the dramatic sight of the Arc at the end of the boulevard and the fact that I was about to complete the race. I gave it all I had for the last many yards and crossed the line at 5:44. I was in a total state of dreamlike shock. Had I actually done the Paris Marathon? I truly couldn't believe it. I surely hadn’t started the day believing I would complete the race, but there I was on the Avenue Foch after 26.2 miles. I leaned over, hands on my knees, caught my breath and savored the moment. 

Trembling uncontrollably from the dual triggers of exertion and emotion, I immediately pulled the bright yellow marathon tee and the blue insulating poncho provided to all runners over my head, grabbed some water and a Powerade, downed a banana and went to meet up with Neil. As my loyal sidekick and I made the short two-block walk (hobble, in my case) from the Avenue Foche to our appointed meeting place, the Brasserie Le XVI at the corner of the Rue Rude and the Avenue de la Grande Armée, I told him that it was my “one and done” marathon. He then assured me that I'd actually run two: my first and my last! At that point, no truer words were spoken as I remembered thinking as we gutted through the final miles in the Bois de Boulogne, I'd rather go through labor again than run another marathon. I did my best to make sure Neil knew how much I appreciated his help in getting me over the finish line. It was friendship above and beyond the call that provided me with unbelievable assistance for a full 23 miles!

The best moment of the day was when we walked into the celebratory, party atmosphere at the brasserie where the whole gang from the night before was waiting for us. For the second time in 15 minutes, I was overcome with emotion as Joe, Chris and Caroline jumped up to greet me. I was astounded when the rest of the patrons in the restaurant spontaneously started applauding along with my family. Joe later told me that I looked quite surprised, but with a smile on my face, and that I gave the crowd a “cute” merci curtsy. I don’t even remember that exchange, but I will say that I felt awfully pleased to have been able to complete a marathon with my family cheering me on in my favorite city in the world. I’m always incredibly proud of our children but it was a wonderful turn of events to be on the receiving end of their support and to see how genuinely happy they were that I had finished the race. I was definitely pleased with my own effort but I was also so proud of Joe; he’d run a terrific race with a personal best time of 4:15. “That’s my guy!” I told my handsome husband with tears in my eyes as I hugged him and couldn’t quite let go.

I never understand runners who say they’re not hungry at the end of a race since I always feel like I could eat the proverbial horse. And this time was no different. Joe and I shared a generous serving of creamy steak tartare and salty frites and I had a delicious glass of ice cold Sancerre. I’m not sure a glass of my favorite white wine had ever tasted better or that I’d ever enjoyed one so thoroughly! The laughing, drinking and eating continued for some time at Le XVI, which turned out to be the perfect spot for our post-marathon festivities. We had plenty of room, an adorable, super-sympa young waiter and delicious food. I was able to sit back, relax and beam with indescribable joy at my husband and two children after a monumental day that ended nothing like I’d anticipated. I’d become a marathoner.

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