One reason why I’m running this year’s Paris Marathon is because I wasn’t happy with how I performed the last (and second) time I ran it, in 2010.
Looking back, I see that I was badly prepared both physically and mentally – and my mental attitude was probably the root of my physical problems.
In early 2010 I was quite stressed. A few months earlier I had started a new job but I was still feeling overwhelmed by the scale of it. At home, I had no peace in my city centre apartment – the neighbours and street outside were often noisy. I reckon that training for that year’s Paris Marathon was a way of distracting myself from those worries.
However, this meant that I was not relaxed when I was running. And rather than helping me unwind, while out on my run I’d get even more wound up – any pedestrians or cyclists crossing my path or even looming ahead would annoy me. (Remember, I was running along the Seine and past the Eiffel Tower, the most popular tourist attraction in the world – hardly idylls of splendid isolation.) Running stressed is running badly – the physical tension puts great strain on your body, while the mental storms are clouding your capacity to focus and react.
What didn’t help either was my decision to run the marathon without having a finishing time as a goal. “I’ve done it faster than 3 hours 30 already,” I explained to myself and others, “so this time I’m just doing it for the trip.” I would just rock up to the starting line, cruise around for 26-and-a-bit miles, then saunter off home with my finisher’s medal and banana.
So, my training was unsatisfying and aimless. I had no real schedule, and I wasn’t pushing myself in any controlled or productive way. During the week I dragged myself out two or three times for seven miles or so. At the running track beside the Eiffel Tower I did a couple of speed sessions, and I did a few long Sunday morning runs along the riverside roads closed to traffic. And I don’t remember enjoying any of it.
On the morning of the race, the stress continued. The baggage tent to where I was assigned was the only one with a queue – the woman taking the bags insisted on carefully numbering and placing every bag in order, unlike her colleagues who were taking them quickly to sort out later during the race. The rate of productivity was around one bag per two minutes.
Eventually, attracted by the shouts and vibes from the increasingly prominent queue, an incredulous colleague of hers came across and, in no uncertain terms, told her to cop on and just take the bags so that the nice people could actually go and start the race. Bag deposited at last, I got to my start area with a couple of minutes to spare.
The day of the race was sunny but mild, a perfect day for running. Starting in the sub-3:30 section, I went off at a leisurely clip and the first half of the marathon went well. Just after 14 miles, as we left Bastille and turned down towards the river, I started to regret my lack of an objective – I realised that I was on course for a finishing time that would displease me. I got frustrated and probably as tense as I had been during my training runs. I was in for a hiding.
Mile 20 of the Paris Marathon, the beginning of serious business, comes around the entry to the Bois de Boulogne, the park that hosts the last section of the race. That day in 2010 its long, straight road seemed neverending. Did the bloody race have a finish at all? In short, the mind went. Getting to mile 25 was a mental ordeal. The 4-hour pacer with his black balloon went past me and I felt a light go out inside.
But then I saw the 26-mile marker and suddenly I got a surge of adrenaline. I tore around the final two bends and up the home straight to the finish. My time was around 4 hours and 11 minutes – almost 40 minutes slower than my 2007 performance.
I staggered through the finish area and towards the people giving out medals and finishers’ running tops. The lady to whom I had lurched hung the ribbon around my neck while I gaped vacantly at her – I was in a daze. After several painful seconds during which I remained in front of her without knowing what to do or say, the lady broke out in pity. She gave me a maternal kiss on the cheek and said ‘Bravo!’ before sending me on my way to a row of tables heaped with half-bananas and Golden Delicious apples.
Collecting my things from a perfectly-ordered baggage tent, I went home.
I don’t think much about that 2010 Paris Marathon – I didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t do myself justice. But the damage was done months earlier. The marathon includes the training; it demands proper planning, honest effort and a clear objective. Once those parts are in place, like in life, you can relax and maybe even do it well.