I put my name down for the Paris marathon at the end of December. I enjoy running. I like a challenge, and I also like to have something to motivate me. Signing up was the easy bit. The next three months were hard work, but I had a plan and stuck to it, and managed to run the marathon and by doing so I was able to tick off something that has been on my to-do list for years.
I first looked at the Berlin marathon which is run in September, but the allocated spaces were already taken. The Paris one was a little close for comfort in terms of the date (14 weeks away), but since I had been running in the month up to Christmas I thought this would be ok.
I found a marathon training schedule on the Runners World website which produced a bespoke schedule based on my maximum heart rate, 10km race time, and date of the race. It’s a 16 week plan. I only had 14 weeks, so I just ignored the first two weeks. I picked a plan that had five days of running per week – with Sunday being a long-run day and Monday and Friday being rest days.
The website also allowed me to download the schedule in a format which I was then able to import into the Garmin software on my computer:
The software enables me to view the schedule on a calendar, as well as import the training runs into my watch. So when I was training I can choose something like ‘Slow 6 miles’ and whilst I am running the watch will show me the distance left to run and will alert me if I am running too quickly (unlikely) or too slowly.
At the early stages it’s quite easy to fit the runs in, e.g. running to or from work instead of commuting by other means is quite pleasant. As the runs get longer I still used the commute for 5 of the miles but augmented the run e.g. with a lap or two of a park to get the right distance to fit with the training plan.
Running in the morning has advantages and disadvantages – there’s less traffic about so crossing roads becomes less of a hindrance, air quality is better and London looks great first thing, however it means I had to set my alarm clock for a silly time to wake up and eat a bowl of cereal, then go back to bed for an hour. I also find running in the morning feels less fluid.
Training for a Spring marathon also means you have to do a lot of training in the cold and dark. I found the cold not to be much of an issue – you just dress for it. Being at a comfortable temperature is key to enjoying the run. Running in the dark wasn’t an issue, although I imagine if you live in an area where there isn’t much lighting this poses a problem.
Jogging home across London during rush-hour was often hard work – contending with commuters, commuters with umbrellas, commuters on mobile phones, commuters with umbrellas AND mobile phones meandering across the pavement, crossing traffic-filled roads. It’s like playing frogger.
As part of my training plan I signed up for two half-marathons in February. These were really helpful in getting be accustomed to running in race conditions.
The first was in Deal, Kent organised by Deal Tri. I arrived late and had to run half a mile to make it in time to start the race. Not great. The organisers had someone reading out the time at the half-way point. Mine was something like 1 hour 1 minute. I figured if I put in a bit more effort I’d be able to get in under two hours. It was tough, but this was a race after all. I was really pleased with my finishing time. The event was well organised and not too crowded. Plenty of drink stations and only £14 to enter.
Two weeks later I ran the Tunbridge Wells half. This was a much bigger event and also well organised. It was a cold morning. It’s inevitable with big events that you do a lot of waiting around at the start line and with the temperature at 0°C and a bit of a wind I came prepared with a bin-bag gilet which meant things didn’t get too unpleasant before the race began. There were various bands along route and a huge amount of local support. I finished the race in a quicker time than the Deal course and was again pleased with how things were going. The race was £24 to enter and organised by Tunbridge Wells Harriers.
I ate reasonably healthily – fresh fruit and veg, fish twice a week and reasonable portions, and also moderated my alcohol intake with generally no drinking on training days. I drank plenty of water before, during and after running. Before the long runs I would have something along the lines of a bowl of porridge and a banana 1 to 2 hours ahead of setting out. For long runs I also used GU Energy Gels. I liked these because they were the smallest so I could carry them easily. These gels require you to drink water when you eat them, but I always made sure I ran circuits which passed fountains so topping up my water bottle en route was never an issue (except the time it was so cold the water in the pipes had frozen). The energy gels were pretty sickly (peanut butter was my favourite flavour) but made a noticeable difference. For runs over an hour and a half they are recommended so you don’t ‘hit the wall’ – something I’m glad I didn’t experience.
One of the conditions for entry to the Paris marathon is you need to get a medical certificate. I went to my local GP within the first month of training. She gave me a quick medical examination and wrote me out a certificate with the required wording. I had to pay £15 for the certificate.
My first injury came after I was training after it had snowed and about 6″ of snow had settled. I didn’t want to miss out any of my training runs for fear of slipping behind. I wasn’t a member of a gym at the time so the only option was to get out there and run in the snow. I decided to run in my trail running shoes which are quite a tight fit, and also wore waterproof socks. Unfortunately the combination of big socks and small shoes put a huge amount of pressure on my toes. I didn’t think too much of it during the run itself as running was painful enough, however two of my toes soon developed a very large painful swelling at the front which subsequently turned into the famous runner’s black toenails. When the toe was swollen it was incredibly painful and I had to skip one training session. I also bought new, bigger shoes. Once the swelling went down it was manageable. The black toenails lasted a couple of months after the marathon.
The second injury occurred just two weeks ahead of the day of the marathon. I was on my long Sunday run and after about 8 miles (about 1/3 way into the run) I had a sudden pain on the outside of my left knee. I had to stop and do some stretches before I was able to walk, then waited a bit before completing the run at a much slowed pace – the knee continued to hurt but with a nagging pain rather than sharp pain. This was a serious problem with the marathon so close. The staff in the running shop advised me this was likely to be iliotibial band syndrome. In the subsequent days leading up to the marathon I continued doing the full length training runs, but reduced the intensity of the runs to keep the pain at bay. I also took the marathon itself at a much more easy pace than I would have otherwise for fear it would flare up again during the race and prevent me from finishing. The knee continued to have problems for months after the race. I think it was caused by overdoing the training and in retrospect if I was doing this again I would reduce running training from five days per week to four days per week with one day cross-training.
Training in the winter requires layers and you also often need to cover up from the rain and snow.
For cold days I would wear Ronhill tights with Nike shorts over Nike compression shorts – compression shorts are an awesome invention. On top I would typically wear a long sleeve warm baselayer and a technical t-shirt on top. If it was particularly cold I would also wear a thermal top or a shell jacket. I’d wear a woolly hat for cold days. For bright mornings and races I’d wear a running cap and some cheap O’Neill style sunglasses.
For the long-runs and races where I had to carry a lot of gels, my keys etc. I used a batman-style utility belt. I usually wore this between my base layer and t-shirt to prevent chafing. It was actually so comfortable that I would sometimes have to check I was still wearing it.
I started training in some Nike shoes that were absolutely the wrong kind of shoes for me as they offered lots of cushioning but no support. I went to Runners Need and got a proper fitting, gait analysis, and advice on what shoe I should be wearing for marathon training and they advised on several pairs of shoes. I tried them all out on the treadmill in the shop and chose a pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 13. They sound like some kind of hot hatch and looked similar, but the important thing was they felt comfortable after a long run and caused no blisters or foot trouble.
For socks I would either wear a couple of pairs of cotton socks, or would wear these Smartwool socks – which are really, really comfy. I’m a big fan of wool.
I used to have an Osprey Talon 11 rucksack but found it wasn’t large enough to carry everything I needed, e.g. when running to or form work, so I switched it for an OMM Adventure Light 20L. The Osprey had more features and was more comfortable to wear. The OMM is pretty good – lightweight, strong and reasonably waterproof. I find the compression sack style opener on the OMM a little bit strange, and if I needed another rucksack I’d probably splash the cash and buy the 22L Osprey which I reckon is the Rolls Royce of rucksacks for runners. Try saying that Jonathan Ross.
I did try using a Kathmandu water bladder in the rucksack, but it sloshed around a lot and the noise alone was really annoying. For water on the go, my preferred solution was a large runner’s water bottle – I even took this during the races so that I could top it up from the water at the stands and drink when I wanted.
At the start of my training I used a Garmin Forerunner 405 watch, which I’d been using for a couple of years. This is a GPS watch which also pairs up with a heart rate monitor chest strap. You can view you distance, pace, heart rate etc on the go and also set interval programmes so the watch will alert you when to change pace and to what. Pretty good, but the touch-sensitive dial on the watch would go haywire when it rained which was really annoying. So after a few weeks of training I decided to upgrade to the Garmin Forerunner 610 which is much easier to control and doesn’t have an issue in the rain. The watches also sync wirelessly to your PC when you get in, so your run data gets uploaded automatically to the Garmin website so you can geek out over the data. The main problem with the watches is the battery life – I would not expect the battery to last more than about 8 hours before needing a recharge, although the 610 does have a decent ‘standby’ battery life. So you need to remember to keep them charged up. Also, sometimes it can take an age to pick up a GPS signal. You might have stepped outside and be ready to run but you have to wait 5 minutes or longer for the watch to pick up the satellites. This has always been an issue for me – it might be better if you live out in a wide open area with lots of visible sky, but in London it’s a pain.
The race was on Sunday morning, but I decided to make the most of it and spend a long weekend in Paris from Friday to Monday. Ideally Friday and Saturday would have been spent resting up and Monday would have been spent recovering, but instead I spent the days being a tourist doing a lot of walking.
On Friday I went to the running expo to pick up the race number and associated info. This was a big hall with lots of stands trying to sell running stuff and tell you about the other million marathons happening around the world that you can sign up for. Some of them sounded pretty tempting, but I maintained restraint. What was great about the expo was the Uncle Ben carbo loading zone where they were selling massive portions of either mushroom risotto or a curry, a banana and 2 litres of water for 5 euros. A bit of a bargain and the mushroom risotto was really good.
I didn’t get any sleep at all on Saturday night – none. Not ideal. When it was time to leave for the start on Sunday morning I was feeling very drousy and not in the mood to run the distance, but as we got closer to the start more and more runners were converging and this lifted my mood. I emerged from the Metro near the Arc de Triomphe, left my bag at the drop-off point and headed for the start on the Champs-Élysées. The area had been closed off to traffic but the Champs-Élysées was absolutely rammed with people. There was a lot of waiting around before the official start, and it was a whole hour after the official start before the group I was in went across the start line. It was crowded but I’ve raced in a lot worse crowds so wasn’t too bothered. The other runners were generally polite and in a good mood (considering we’d all been waiting so long), so the atmosphere was nice.
The best part of the race for me was between 10km and 20km. This is where the course goes through the Bois de Vincennes park in the East of Paris. The paths were wide and it’s a really nice place to go for a jog.
My support team managed to see me at four points along the route – great going! The welcome pack had included a guide for supporters that said where to go, how to make the connections and when to expect the runners to come through.
The weather was cold but bright and sunny. I’m really glad I wore a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes – my number one cause of headaches when running. Training had paid off!
Due to my knee injury I took the race fairly easily. I maintained a steady pace and ran the whole way – just pausing long enough to top up with water at the feed stations on the way.
The last 10km really hurt but I just kept on plodding along. Putting in all those miles during the training really paid off here. I saw so many people walking in agony with blisters or stretching at the sides of the roads trying to get rid of muscle cramp. There were many people in tears being forced to retire out of the race through injury. It was pretty emotional. I found during the last 10km I was actually spending most of my time overtaking people. I felt like a good runner! That was nice.
Coming into the final corner before the finish line I once again saw my support team, “Are you going to come back to meet us here?” my Mum shouted as I past them in a final burst of hobbled speed. “No!” And once I made it over the finish line and stopped running I could barely walk.
A couple of restorative pints then a shower and I once again felt human. It was my Dad’s birthday – he was exactly twice my age on that day, We went out to a nice restaurant and had steak chips and wine. A good day.
Paris was a well-organised event, but now I’ve done it I don’t see a reason to run it again, when there are so many marathons to run. It seems to me it is a pretty good excuse to travel to different places and a good way to stay in shape, so I’m not yet ruling out the possibility of running another. Watch this space.