I’m told by brides that, at the end of your wedding day, your cheeks are sore from smiling for virtually the entire day! Well that’s exactly how I felt a few weeks ago, on Sunday, 9 April to be exact. But before you get excited, it wasn’t my wedding day (alas) but was rather the day I was running through the streets of Paris, drinking in the sights, experiencing the most exhilarating atmosphere and fulfilling a dream by running and completing the Paris Marathon.
You may recall that I previously shared some of my running journey (In it for the long run…) when one of the items contributed to The List was to run another half marathon or marathon. I duly did the half marathon on The List and wrote about getting back into running, some of the challenges I’ve faced in running and shared my experience of running my first and only marathon back in 2011, which I did for the sole purpose of proving to myself that I could do it (in the context of my physical limitations with my club foot). At the time of writing that post about a year ago, I never dreamed that I would ever take on another marathon and my view was that I had completed that item on The List, in that I had run a half marathon. But the universe (and my brother) had other thoughts, with the result that for my 40th birthday I received my entry and race number for the 2017 Paris marathon as a gift from Craig! Wow wow wow!! A marathon in my favourite city in the world! I couldn’t think of a more amazing gift!
It didn’t take too long for reality to hit though…and while running the Paris marathon sounds super glamorous, I soon realised it would involve months (and months) of training, hard work, commitment… all the stuff that sounds so noble, but is often hard to follow through with. I won’t bore you with all the details of my training, and how I went about slowly building up my endurance and distance – suffice to say that it didn’t initially go according to plan. My plan was to train and build up sufficient distance so that I could run the Kaapsehoop marathon in the first weekend of November (thereby giving me the confidence for Paris a few months later). As happens with many runners when increasing distance though, I suffered an injury, which resulted in about six weeks of little to no training leading up to November, and ultimately realizing that I just wouldn’t be sufficiently trained in time for the Kaapsehoop marathon. I had my accommodation booked and arrangements made for the weekend in Mpumalanga, though, so I decided I would still drive down, and just do the half marathon and use it as a training run.
Cue another thing that didn’t go according to plan – in the week of the race, a relationship unexpectedly and abruptly ended, leaving me overwhelmed by a storm of emotions – betrayal, anger, hurt, disappointment. And so, on the four hour drive to Kaapsehoop for the weekend, with lots of time to think and process, I decided to channel the sadness and negative emotions into something worthwhile – to rather convert the emotions (if possible) into physical energy and to try and push myself over the marathon distance, just starting and seeing how far I could go on the day. Foolish? Maybe. Probably. But that’s what I did. Met up (and surprised) Coach Jeannie at the start line (who virtually shed tears of joy at seeing me there, so determined to put my mental strength to the test), and headed off on a beautiful run (with about two thousand other people) in the early morning from Kaapsehoop. After an awesome run, through the mist in the early morning, through the forests alongside wild horses, I ultimately called it a day at about the 34km mark – very very happy with the distance I’d achieved and the mental strength that got me there – taking negative emotion and using it to my benefit.
Although my injury before Kaapsehoop interfered with my carefully planned training programme, and another (different) back injury in December threatened to again derail my progress, as we know the universe works in mysterious ways, and these injuries ultimately resulted in one of my current greatest blessings. When I first got injured, Coach Jeannie referred me to her physio, Jacqui, and, from the moment I first walked into Jacqui’s physio practice and met the bubbly, loving, caring, amazing woman that is Jacqui Gallagher, I knew I was in good hands. More than Jacqui being a phenomenal physio, she has become a close friend and confidante, and she played an enormous role in preparing me for the Paris marathon. My weekly physio treatments in the months leading up to Paris not only kept me injury-free and ready for the race physically, but were times filled with chats, laughter (and tears occasionally), race discussions (as Jacqui is training for her second Comrades this year), encouragement, story-sharing and so much more. Jax – clearly my injuries were part of a greater plan to ensure you and I met – you’re amazing, thank you for everything! I love you dearly and you are SO ready for Comrades, it’s in the bag, you go girl!
Okay, I digress….back to the journey to Paris. I continued training with Coach Jeannie, increasing my distance and endurance, and running four times a week as the time drew ever-nearer. I stayed accountable to both Jeannie and Craig, who were always available for advice and encouragement. And I put in the miles and the time on the road. I won’t lie and tell you I loved it all – I certainly didn’t! Hee hee – given a choice to go out after work for a glass of bubbles with a friend or to go and run, I would almost always have wanted to choose the friend and the bubbles. But I didn’t really have the choice – I had to stick to the training programme if I was to be ready for Paris. So yes, there were sacrifices, but I made them knowing (hoping?) they would be worth it in the end. I had to keep that end goal in mind constantly – and I often mentally pictured the finish on Avenue Foch in Paris, running over that line having achieved what I set out to do. It kept me going many a time, including those early Saturday and Sunday mornings when you have to get up at 3:45am (or, as Amanda calls it, at stupid o’clock) to be in time for a race starting at some little-known place in Pretoria or in the south of Joburg at 6am. (Those mornings were not pretty!)
I arrived in Paris a few days before the marathon, to be met by my bestie, Mands, who had decided just a few weeks earlier to join me in Paris to support me and cheer me along the way. (Wow, how blessed am I with friends like that?!!) I landed in Paris having discovered Mands had already created a closed Facebook group “Nicky’s Marathon le Paris” to keep my family updated (and to which I added only three or four people who wouldn’t be bored to tears by constant running updates 🙂 Like Jeannie, Jacqui, Christine and Dannean). And so our whirlwind time in Paris began… from being greeted at 7am with a carbo-loading breakfast (i.e. champagne and croissants :), to picnicking in the Champs de Mars gardens under the Eiffel Tower, to fulfilling (another) bucket list item by having a glass of bubbles in Bar Hemingway at The Ritz and then going to Salon du Running on the Friday for registration and to wander through the Expo. It all became VERY real at registration and the Expo – all of the 57000 entrants’ names were on a massive banner (and of course it was great fun to go searching for your name).
Before I knew it, the morning of Sunday, 9 April dawned. I had done the traditional “lay-out” of my gear the night before, packed everything that I needed and gotten a really great night’s sleep (because, unlike our South African races which start so early resulting in having to get up at stupid o’clock, the Paris marathon started at a respectable 08h30 (for the elite athletes) and, with a staggered start, my start time was only 09h50). Mands and I made our way to the top of the Champs Elysees and, after some mandatory photos and much nervous laughter, she gave me a final hug goodbye, with good luck wishes and promises to see me soon (at the spots we’d picked out where she would be) and I joined the masses in my seeding pen.
And pretty soon, we started moving slowly forward en masse – with music playing, adrenaline pumping and of course some tears of emotion seeping out. And that was when my smiling (no, GRINNING!) started for real and didn’t stop for the first 23km! In my brightly coloured SA flag running vest I headed out on the greatest run of my life, down the Champs Elysses (on one of only two days in the year when the Champs Elysses is closed to traffic), turning on to Place de la Concorde, running past the sidewalk cafes (where the locals were having their regular morning cafe and cigarette) and past the Louvre. I had my first “local” support at about 10km when I just heard “Go South Africa!! Jy lyk goed!!!” My grin only got bigger (if that was even possible).
We then headed into some of the most beautiful parklands that I didn’t even know existed in Paris, before turning back and running up alongside the Seine, past Notre Dame and over the halfway mark (smiling as I looked at my watch as it showed a PB half marathon). After what had seemed like only a few minutes since she’d left me at the start (but which was in reality about two hours and thirty seven minutes), I saw Mands on the side of the road, with her SA flag, waiting for me at the 23km point. My cheerleader!! With some snacks and some encouragement, and after exchanging big smiles and sweaty hugs, I headed off again…
It was unseasonably hot that day, which actually played to my advantage (relatively speaking) as those were conditions that I was used to running in and it really didn’t bother me, but the poor Europeans. Shame, they were just not used to running in that heat. It was only 25 degrees celsius, but for early April when the maximum should have been around 14 or 15, this was really hot for most of the field. There are some definite advantages to being African, and being used to the heat! (I confess, I wasn’t complaining when I ran past the cooling stations every 5km where the local firemen were cooling the runners down with the massive firehoses being sprayed over the street…you know what they say about men in uniform – nothing like a little bit of eye candy to help with the motivation 🙂 )
From that point, to be fair, it was hard work. And while I continued to smile during the hard work, my legs certainly felt it. But I had set my “mental markers” – and the next big one was the Eiffel Tower at 29km. Wow!! The Eiffel Tower!! Who has that as a marker in your Sunday run??!!! I grin just thinking about it!
And there were these awesome, quaint little bands along the route – I reckon every 1.5km so – a whole variety…some drumming groups, some singers, some brass bands, some folk bands, you name it.. .they were there. And I made a (mental) deal with myself that I would not walk past a band! Because yes, there was quite a bit of walking in the second half. So I experienced a mixture of thrill when I saw or heard the next band, and a half a second of dread, knowing that it meant that if I was walking at that stage when I heard or saw them, I had to pick up those legs, and get them running 🙂 Was my own little game!
And then, before I knew it, there was Mands with her SA flag, big smile, bag of snacks (and attempting to get in a whole conversation with me in 30 seconds) at the 32km mark (while she even took a live Facebook video for the Nicky’s Marathon le Paris group). I found out afterwards that the race app had not been working at all (much to the frustration of all supporters, especially my brother who runs a race timing business and could not contain his frustration at a simple thing like an app not working for such a big event). So I think the live Facebook video was more just to serve as a ‘proof of life’ for my family and friends 😉
Those of you that know a little bit about my running, know that I am not a fast runner and so the six-hour cutoff time was always going to be a challenge for me. But I was determined. And in my long training runs during the preceding months, I would try and contextualise them as to how they would translate into ultimate marathon time – would I make it?
My training (under the guidance of Jeannie and Craig) showed that I should (hopefully) make it under six hours, and get that sought-after medal, but it was by no means a sure thing. But to be honest, at no point after lining up at the start line, did I have even a second’s doubt that I would finish within the allowed time. The last ten kilometres (after seeing Mands) were tough – they really were. But I just carried on… still smiling, still plodding, still making sure there was no walking when I could hear or see the various bands… which ultimately, after about 41.5 kilometres, led me around a corner and on to the Avenue Foch. (And now… rather than just smiling as I write this, I actually have goosebumps and a lump in my throat). The crowds were all along the sides of the road, banging on the advertising boards, and cheering madly, “Allez, Allez!”and I was drinking it all in, really experiencing the moment, THAT moment that I had dreamed of, and worked for… and so, with tears in my eyes, looking all around me all the time to try and take in as much as possible (which is why there is no photo of me at the Finish where I’m looking front-on, hee hee), I crossed that Finish Line. I did it! 42,195km in 05:49:00! I finished the most beautiful marathon I could have ever dreamed of…the culmination of a year of planning, training, saving, training, treating injuries, training, running races at stupid o’clock, training, crying, training, laughing, training… always knowing, that Paris is ALWAYS a good idea!
Postscript: there are a couple of people who need to be singled out here, in addition to what I may have said about them above.
Craig – you are my hero. Without you, I would have never run my first race back in 2007. And without your constant encouragement and belief in me, I would never have made it to Paris. Oh, and of course, thanks for my amazing priceless 40th birthday gift!
Jeannie – I still wonder at how you manage to put in so much love and enthusiasm into coaching me, as a slow, amateur, social runner – when you are used to being surrounded by elite runners and are, yourself, on your way to a Silver at Comrades this year. You are far more than my coach, you are one of my best friends, and I love you!
Mom and Dad – thank you for showing me that I’m special, no matter what I do… and for always ALWAYS loving me. Every journey I take, is with you in my heart. (And Mom – your additional contribution to making sure I was loved and supported in Paris, is priceless. You know what I’m referring to).
Mands – the absolute BEST friend, supporter, cheerleader, looker-afterer (yes, I make up words!), bubbles supplier EVER! There is no way that my Paris experience would have been anywhere near as magical without you. And thank you for keeping in constant contact with my family on race day and keeping them calm 🙂 You are one in a million. Love you bestie!
And yes, I know there will always be more people who I have left out, and who played a part in this journey… so thank you to each and every one of you for the part that you played. (And, before you ask, in my Facebook LIVE feed video at the finish, when Mands asked me whether I’m ready for Comrades, you should know that my answer contained too many expletives to make it suitable to be reproduced here 🙂 )