Race Report: 2013 Paris Marathon

Its been a while since I’ve run a marathon on tarmac. 3 years in fact. London 2010 was my first and only road marathon which I managed in a respectably 3:35. I was a bit of a wreck at the end, but the crowd were amazing and the time was decent enough to encourage me that I had room for improvement.

But then I fell in love with trail running. I turned my back on road races and headed for the hills. The Greensand Marathon, Pilgrim Challenge, Ultra Trail du Vercors, Midsummer Munro, The Beast – all of these  were much more to my liking – hundreds, not thousands of runners, stunning locations, and lots of hills. The closest I came was a marathon in Richmond Park.

However as time went on, and my running in the hills improved, I was curious to see how this might affect my road running. Common running folklore says that ultra running, trail running, mountain running – all the offroad stuff – is not conducive to fast marathon times on the flats. So I got the itch to test myself again, and picked Paris.


Pre-marathon preparation is always difficult. As running lore and common sense dictates, there’s not much you can do in your final week to improve your race performance, but there’s a hell of a lot you can do to mess it up. With that in mind, during the week of the race I went out on the Tuesday evening to run a fast pace with full marathon kit, complete with carrying gels and running in the gear I would race in. I probably went  a little too hard but luckily had enough time to recover the sore quads in time for the race.

Marathon Expo

A quick run round the village on Saturday morning with the dog, and then it was on the TGV up to Paris. Our hotel was in the SW of the city which was quite convenient for the Marathon Expo at Porte de Versailles, where I went to pick up my race number and goody bag. Once I’d emptied all the flyers and other crap from my good bag, the only items of any discernible usefulness were a bar towel, and a bag of pistachios. Note to organisers: For 65 euros and upwards – could do better.
Running Expo

Anyway, I made my way through the expo as quickly as possible – it was full of people trying to sell running gear or get you to sign up to other marathons. There was a rice party for last minute carb-loaders but I’d brought my own pasta (taking no chances with restaurants and food poisoning) so I headed back to the hotel to stuff my face.

Race Day

I managed to get a reasonable sleep despite the rumble of the RER trains and trams right past the hotel, and was up at 6 to wolf down some porridge and get the Metro to the start line. When I surfaced at Place de Charles de Gaulle, the sun was up and the place was swarming around the Arc de Triomphe. It was damn cold though, so left it until the last minute to drop off my bag so that I could keep my tracksuit on for as long as possible.
The marathon route is basically a squashed loop, heading out from the Champs Elysee, down to the Louvre and heading east to the Bois de Vincennes park. It loops round before heading back west along the Seine, to the Bois de Bolougne, and then finishing on the Avenue Foch leading back to the Arc de Triomphe. This meant that logistically, our bag drop was at the finish (unlike say, London, where they transport your bags to the end).
Worst version of “Where’s Wally?” ever…
I was in with a predicted time of 3:15 so had to get to one of the start pens at the front. The Champs Elysee is a pretty wide avenue, and all of the road was penned for runners, with the side pavements used to get to the start gate. However it soon became a huge crush, as 50,000 runners tried to find their place. I managed to get into my start pen with seconds to spare, so no real time for a warm up and feeling pretty stressed. I really shouldn’t have left it so long until I dropped my bags.
The pace kicked off pretty quickly as usual, but the first 10km were pretty crowded. The weather was perfect, clear and cold with little wind and we soon warmed up. I chatted to ‘Richard from Portsmouth’ who was aiming for a 3 hour time so we made conversation as we passed our way alongside the Louvre, the Rue de Rivoli and out east.

Park Life

The course really was quite flat and fast, and being so straight we soon made it out to the Bois de Vincennes, a huge park just outside the Peripherique on the eastern side of Paris. The course looped through there from about KMs 12 to 19, and being so far out, the crowd support dropped a bit with a few gaps, but there were plenty of people around the KM markers, and lots of casual support from people out walking their dogs on a  Sunday morning.

Tunnel Vision

After the Bois de Vincennes, the route snaked back towards the centre of Paris, along the river Seine. We passed the halfway point and I was still feeling strong, averaging around 4.17min/km which I knew was a pace of just over 3 hours for the whole race – however I was aware that keeping that up for another half marathon was not going to be easy. My time at the halfway point was 1hr 29m 55sec – my first ever sub-90 minute half marathon – I was pleased, but a bit worried I was going too fast.
Coming back into town and the crowd support really increased. A beautiful, sunny day on the banks of the Seine, with the Eiffel tower in the background made it an amazing experience. But then came the tunnels. There were about 3 or 4 tunnels of varying length, each of which dipped very sharply, plunging us into a humid and bizarre dark world, before forcing an uphill run out back into daylight.

I really started to flag at the end, after the 35km mark I was getting the usual cramps pinging into my calf muscles whenever I ran too fast so my pace dropped.


40,108 runners left the Champs Elysee at the start, and 38,690 crossed the finishing line. I came 1,926th in total, with an official time of 03h08’12”. My best marathon to date, and tantalisingly close enough to the magic 3 hour mark that I’m tempted to have another go.
If you’re thinking of a marathon, you could do a lot worse than Paris. The organisation was pretty spot on considering the huge field of runners. The route was magnificent, crowd support was good and the fact that the start and end is pretty much in the same place is a big plus. Its much easier to get a place, not being as heavily subscribed as London, and also gives you a great excuse to visit Paris.

Etape 2012 – Albertville to La Toussuire

I signed up for L’Etape du Tour last year before we moved to the French Alps, full of enthusiasm that having the mountains on my doorstep would mean that I would get out on my bike often and be properly fit and aclimatised by the time 8th July 2012 rolled around.

Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way. With a combination of work commitments, getting a dog, and rennovating a house, and niggly injuries my cycle training prior to the Etape amounted to around 50km on the local roads, 30km of which were done in one ride last week! However, I’d entered with my ex-colleague Mike, who was making the trip out from England, and emboldened by a plucky British spirit and a stubborn reluctance to consider the facts I decided to do it anyway.

The profile of the route taking in some classic Alpine climbs

Well Acte 1 is a bit of a monster as you can see from the profile. One of the toughest stages of this year’s tour, it includes 2 Hors-category, a 2nd and first category climbs. Quite simply, after the first 16km rolling out Albertville there is hardly any flat section left on the course.

Anyhow, I drove up on Saturday afternoon, taking the car to the top of La Toussuire where the stage would finish. I made the mistake of driving the last 5km of the actual course, rather than taking the short cut to the ski resort and it seemed pretty viscious. After dropping the car and taking the shuttle bus to the Etape village which was set up in the Olympic park from when Albertville hosted the 1986 winter olympics. I met up with Mike and we picked up our race numbers and goody bags.

The temperature down in Albertville was in the low 30s, and we sat sweltering in a huge hanger type building eating our generous portions of pre-race pasta. After that it was a half hour drive to our Formule 1 motel – not the best accommodation in the world, and hot night with no a/c meant I wasn’t exactly rested when the alarm went off at 5.20 the next morning.

The heat of the previous day had disappeared and was replaced with the pouring rain. A quick breakfast of baguette, jam and bananas sat under the hotel awning with other riders and then a ride to the start of the race.

Rain clouds over Albertville

There were 9,000 entrants in this year’s event but having the Olympic Park in Albertville to start from meant that it all went pretty smoothly. The rain eased off to a steady drizzle with a promise of better weather to come in the afternoon.

Either way, it was rain jackets on as we rolled out of Albertville. Despite the crap weather and early hour there were quite a few people on the streets of the town centre cheering us on, and the flat roads and cool conditions meant we got a good warm up.

Pretty soon though we arrived at the foot of the climb to the Col de la Madelaine, and things started getting difficult. I’ve done a few of the local roads round our way but this was the first time I’ve ever climed a sustained 6-10% gradient for 20-odd kilometres, and it was a tough couple of hours in the saddle. I stopped at the feed station half way up which was probably a mistake, because getting going again was tough. However I seemed to manage to be able to sustain around 10kph and eventually made it to the top of the Col de la Madelaine.

The Col  de la Madelaine – definitely time for a break.

 By now it was around 11am and the sun had come out and the roads had dried up, so the upcoming 25km was less unnerving than I was originally expecting. However at over 2,000m at the start, it was quite chilly and hitting 60-70kph on the downhills (plenty fast enough for me) for 25 minutes was quite an effort (again the first time I’d ever done that kind of descent). Keeping on the breaks into the corners was very tough on the hands and arms, and my fingers and thumbs went numb on the way down with a combination of windchill and effort.

Getting down to the valley floor meant it was time to warm up and rest up – we used the separate feed station provided by the guys at La Fuga, so it was great to be able to top up with electrolytes, leave my rain jacket (it was forecast to be hot, even on the descents, for the rest of the day) and slather on some more factor 50 before heading out for the next climb, the Col du Glandon, and Croix de Fer.

The climb up to the Glandon – tough in its own right but a killer after the Madelaine

The Glandon was another monster, but after being softened up by the Madelaine climb, it was even harder. The day was getting very hot, and the hardest part of the climb, towards the top was above the tree line and so provided no shade. The final 3km also blew in some fierce headwinds which added to the misery. Throughout the whole ride the camaradarie had been excellent, with a lot of chatting and banter in the peleton, but on the upper slopes of the Glandon it was eerily quite as people dug deep to make it to the top.

The Col du Gladon in the top left of the picture. The last few kilometres kick up more steeply, and a fierce headwind really didn’t help.

I finally made it to the top – I teamed up with a French rider who was struggling too and we encouraged each other to the top. The Col de la Croix de Fer was next, but this was just another 2.5km and is not quite so steep, so felt a lot more straightforward. However things were complicated by several hundred sheep that were wandering across the road, and I had to do an emergency stop and unclip and a border collie wrangled a herd of goats straight towards me and engulfed me.

Almost run off the road by these guys

The view from the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, with another fast descent beckoning.


Feed station at the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer

It was much warmer on this descent and I was much more into my stride. The route soon kicked up again with a climb to the Col du Molland, and this was were a lot of people I think were starting to crack. Another big descent, and after 20 minutes of brake-pumping and ear-popping I was down at the valley floor, where the heat and humidty were hugely noticeable after the fresher conditions up high.

Another quick food stop at La Fuga and it was time to start the final climb of the day – 17km up to the ski resort of La Toussuire-Les Sybelles. Mike went on ahead of me as he was feeling stronger, but I was having my doubts as I was pretty close to exhaustion. I started the climb but after about 3-4 km of struggling, the gendarme at the back of the race passed, saying the broom wagon was approaching, and did I want to get on, or finish? Well I’d been riding for 11 hours, and was overheating and exhausted, so I took the option to get off my bike, sit in the shade and wait for the arrival of the broom wagon. I was only 15km from the end but I was under no illusion about how hard they would be and I was pleased to have made it as far as I did.

Made it to the top of the Col du Glandon

My Garmin GPS ran out of battery after 6.5 hours (just before the top of the Glandon, but you can see the data below for the times before that.

Despite the agony and hard work, it was a memorable day with great organisation and a fantastic spirit between the riders. I was amazed by how many British riders were there, and how many union jacks were flying on the roadside – maybe its the Cav/Wiggins effect but it was great to so many of us participating with the rest of the world.
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