For the first three of my eight years in Paris I lived in Asnières, pronounced “Annie-air”, a cosy satellite town just across the river from the north-west of the city.
Aside from its community of north African descent, not many foreigners chose Asnières to live in over Paris. My accent, overheard when I was ordering in the neighbourhood shops, marked me out as a blow-in, a novelty.
But it seems that the locals had also seen me on evenings when I was sprinting home at the end of my regular training run along the Seine.
And so one Saturday morning when I was coming out of the bakery on my street I heard three teenagers speculating about my origins.
“He’s American,” one of them assured the other two. “He goes running.”
Perhaps they associated running with TV shows from the US where joggers shuffled around Central Park or bounded along the beachfronts of California. The running boom of the English-speaking world hadn’t reached the greater Paris area by then. (This would change; in my last month before I moved home to Ireland, a running store opened in my neighbourhood.)
If those lads had wanted to see a real American runner, they should have taken the 15-minute metro ride into the centre of Paris and gone to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Bordered by the traditional expat areas of Montparnasse, Saint Michel and the Latin Quarter, it’s a park where the Americans of Paris were said to go running. And in fairness, whatever hour or day you passed by there, you would see one or two runners in t-shirts or hoodies bearing the name of a U.S. university, probably gap-year students at the nearby Sorbonne.
Even though I lived near the Jardin du Luxembourg for two years after I left Asnières, I never ran there. I would have liked to, because at a mile and a quarter to the lap it makes for a handy 5-mile run in only four circuits. And the sandy, gravelly paths provide a forgiving surface for your joints.
But the Jardin du Luxembourg is always full of tourists, dog-walkers, students, groups of schoolchildren, families wheeling infants, and more – all strolling idly and unwittingly in front of runners. How could you get in a relaxing, uninterrupted run in such a setting?
One time, though, I ran around the outside of the Jardin du Luxembourg – at the crack of dawn, while the park gates were still locked. I can’t remember if this was during my ill-fated 2009 Paris Marathon training, or ahead of my unhappy 2010 run in the same event. Either way, this run was a short-lived experiment in early-morning, city-centre, pre-work training – it did not live to see a second day. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any Americans there either.
But I continued to be an American by association – I was a member of the American Library in Paris, where every weekend I stocked up on English-language books and DVDs. And in that fine institution I found two books on running that continue to exert a strong influence on me.
Roger Bannister’s autobiography, The First Four Minutes, charmed me with its blend of elegant prose and gripping detail. It made me realise that you could write about running in a more engaging way than merely listing your workouts and injuries. (The American Library copy was a hardback 1955 second edition with the title a 25% snappier ‘First Four Minutes’.)
And Danny Dreyer’s book on ChiRunning intrigued me so much that on my next visit home to Ireland I attended Catherina McKiernan’s ChiRunning workshop, which wrought lasting improvements in my running and fitness.
So, I’m happy to have once been an honorary U.S. runner in Paris. God bless America!