Taking the scenic route: the Paris Marathon (Photo: Marc Caraveo / Wikimedia Commons
Paris is in the news these days for sombre reasons – fatal terrorist attacks and mass public gatherings in response.
For eight and a half years Paris was my home. I can’t say that this affords me any special or profound insight into those recent events, only that Paris was on my mind anyway; I moved there on 12 January 2005 – ten years ago today.
The previous October in Dublin I had completed my first marathon. This success, along with the structure brought by training and planning, gave me the confidence and impetus to try something new in my life, and to act on something I had been thinking and talking about for a while. (There is no truth in the rumour that events in that first marathon forced me to move abroad and lie low for a while.)
Strange as it may seem now, when I moved to Paris I didn’t pack any running gear. You can only fit so much stuff into a knotted handkerchief on the end of a stick. Also, maybe when I finished that marathon I thought I had ‘done’ running – ticked it off the list and moved on to the next item. But the bug would soon follow me to France, and eventually I had some great running experiences in Paris.
Apart from a two-year spell in the city centre, I lived most of my Paris days in its western suburbs. In Asnières, for my first four years, such was the novelty of seeing someone out running on the streets that local kids assumed I was American. (The American runners in Paris were mostly to be found doing laps of the Jardin de Luxembourg in the city centre.)
After that, for my two-year city-centre interlude when I briefly came in from the west, I was between the Boulevard Saint Germain and the Musée d’Orsay – fashionable for sure but not a running stronghold either. But Meudon, to the west again for my final two years, was more used to runners – the annual Paris-Versailles race passed through there, up its steep Route des Gardes.
Whatever my address in the Paris area, I always lived just a street away from the Seine, and so my running was focused on the river and its islands. My local route in Asnières during 2006 and 2007 brought me onto the Île de la Jatte, an island celebrated in art and also home at that time to another runner, a short and short-fused Frenchman called Nicolas Sarkozy. In the centre of Paris I found some running room along the right bank of the river, from the Louvre up to an island past the Eiffel Tower called the Île des Cygnes, to make perhaps the most spectacular running route in the world.
And Meudon also had a river island, the Île Saint-Germain, where I would do the occasional lap – or even fall in with runners on the Eco-Trail de Paris trail race, which followed Meudon’s riverbanks to finish at the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower itself is something of a focal point for running in Paris. The 20 Kilomètres de Paris race starts and ends there – I did this race twice, clocking just over 90 minutes on both occasions. Beside the tower are the Champs de Mars, an excellent spot for running, and the municipal running track at the Centre Emile Anthoine. (Caution: this track is 50 metres shorter than a standard track, so don’t get overexcited if you’re blasting out faster laps than usual.)
Speaking of which, that was another advantage of running in Paris – municipal running tracks that were free to use. When I lived in Meudon I was a warm-up jog away from two tracks in neighbouring Issy-Les-Moulineaux; in the spring of 2013 I loved to get up at sunrise for a Daniels threshold session with the track to myself.
In fact, I’m beginning to think that Meudon is the greatest running area in the Paris region. As well as the scenic riverbank routes, tough hills and public tracks, I lived near a huge forest that had traffic-free tarmac roads through it. I have fond memories of my long runs in Meudon.
So much for the training; what about my races in Paris?
Well, I ran the Paris Marathon three times. Two of those – in 2007 and 2012 – were among my best marathon performances. Alas, the 2010 edition was my worst marathon, due mainly to me not preparing properly. But at least I did better than Joe Strummer in the 1982 Paris Marathon, who apparently ran in it and finished nearly last.
In recent years the Paris Marathon has swelled to almost 50,000 runners and raised its profile through star-name competitors like Kenenisa Bekele in 2014. The crowds and atmosphere may not compare favourably to other city marathons, but it’s a great experience. Just don’t drink the free red wine at mile 22, unless you want to visit the bushes at mile 22.1.
As well as the Paris Marathon and 20 Kilometres de Paris, I ran the Semi Marathon de Paris twice, finishing in around 1 hour and 40 minutes both times. However, I never warmed to this race – literally in 2006 when it was a bitterly cold day, and metaphorically in 2010 when there was overcrowding at the start and finish areas.
But I have plenty of good running memories from my time in Paris. Running helped me to discover the city and make it feel more like my home. Paris mightn’t be the easiest place to live, but I made it a great place to run.