The Paris Marathon marked one year from the start of my attempt to complete the Marathon des Sables so I’m glad it didn’t go to plan. I’m glad the heat buckled me at the knees and my emotions got the better of me because it showed that when things don’t go my way, I still struggle on.
Paris is one of my favourite places on the planet so when I began this marathon globetrotting addiction the Paris Marathon was pretty much top of the list. It definitely boasts the best starting point of any marathon I’ve done so far. Stood in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe with an epic view down the Champs-Élysées and the 40,000 other runners psyching themselves up you can’t help but shudder at the size of the undertaking. Before the countdown and the release of tens of thousands of lycra clad runners the Chariots of Fire echoed down the avenue and my whole body quivered with nerve jangling anticipation. I felt prepared, hydrated and well rested yet something didn’t feel quite right. I don’t know if it is down to the 5 weeks I had off during my training thanks to the snow and travelling in India or my own self doubt crawling it’s way back in. I know I can run a marathon, Paris would be my 12th in less than two years but regardless of that my mind can play tricks; casting clouds over confidence. As we were released I finally began to truly think about next year and my attempt to run the world’s toughest footrace.
Since signing up for Marathon des Sables I’ve been riding on a high of people being amazed at the event I had signed myself up for. Through the haze of high fives and dropped jaws I hadn’t taken much time to consider the task I was setting myself. That was until mile 11. The heat had been creeping up since the start and with having trained in the Game of Thrones style winter that the UK has been stuck in I had done no warm weather running. I could feel the sun’s glorious warmth burrowing through my training from the very early stages and with very little in the way of shade there was no escaping it. By mile 11 I knew it was affecting my race, I was already ten minutes off my target pace and feeling more exhausted then I should have been at the point.
As a lot of you marathon runner readers will know there are six blockbuster races known as the majors; Berlin, Chicago, New York, London, Boston and Tokyo. Paris is billed by a lot of runners as the seventh major and having run three of them I would agree except for one key and in my mind semi dangerous thing: lack of electrolyte drinks. Most marathons I have run have them and when I researched this race it certainly gave the impression it had them on route but they didn’t and while I don’t like using external excuse, my race certainly suffered because of it.
As we ran along the River Seine I was worn out mentally and physically, the dam inside me broke and my negatives thoughts surged in like the rushing waters beside me. I cursed my self confidence for making me believe I could finally cross the 4:30 barrier, the Paris weather for not being perfect and my stupidity for signing up for Marathon des Sables in the first place. I went in to the long, darkening tunnel at mile 16 broken and demoralised. I began to walk. I turned my body off and let my mind do the steering taking myself somewhere, anywhere, but here. It’s a trick I use when everything seems a bit bleak and I can feel the walls closing in around me. I closed my eyes firmly and I was in the Marathon des Sables: I felt the hot sand slipping under my feet and the hot dry air against my skin. I could picture myself staggering, unrelentingly up the dunes. I was slow but strong. When I opened my eyes again I realised that the self awareness of my limitations I was cursing only moments ago is actually a real strength. When I’m struggling through the long stage of 80km+ having already run days of the hardest running I’ll have ever done I know I won’t push beyond my limits into a place of risk and danger. I run slow but I run smart.
As I finally returned into the light of the Parisian day my mood had improved as shown by this little video:
For the remainder of the race I flitted between running and walking. Soaking up the atmosphere and reminding myself that this wasn’t the end: “This finish line isn’t the end, Marathon des Sables isn’t even the end, we have so much ahead of us James”. As the final mile finally came into view I kicked into a sprint and let those emotions flood my mind and body. I finished smiling and strong as shown by the photo at the start of this post.
People often say that because I’ve run so many marathons surely the emotional journey that running 26.2 miles must have faded. Not even close. Every race throws up different roadblocks to smash through and forks in the road you must choose.
I liken it to buying a book and then reading the last page. Sure you know how it’s going to end but the glorious, fantastical mystery of the in between is what makes a book worth reading and a marathon worth running. You know that eventually you’ll end up with a medal round your neck, chaffing in horrific places and a banana in your hand but the struggle and beauty of the in between is what makes running that far and that fast the best thing in the world. I realise that like some books you won’t finish some races and that’s ok too, every experience is a teachable moment in running.
Paris was a huge turning point for my running, I turned what some might consider a failure, missing my PB aim by 30+ minutes, into a success. I showed myself and hopefully others that it’s not all about the time you finish in but what you learn in the miles and the way you feel finishing that truly count.
London Marathon is only a week away and I cannot wait to see what it has in store for me…