Twelve days ago I sat cross-legged in the middle of the Champs Elysées, feeling strangely calm as the sun warmed the cobblestones and I waited for the start of my first marathon. I regarded the sea of running shoes and bare legs--many of the 52,000 marathon runners had chosen to wear shorts because of the predicted warmth. A friend who'd run this marathon years earlier had warned me about the low number of porta-potties here at the start, and now I was grateful not to need to join the ranks of worried-looking runners currently queuing at significant lengths from the occasional toilet.
Music was pumping from central speakers and at last the hyped-up announcers urged us forward toward the starting line. "Faites la Tour Eiffel!" they cried, and I laughed as everyone put their hands in the air and formed a triangle with their touching thumbs and index fingers. "Don't run. FLY." said the announcer suddenly in English, and laughter rippled through the crowd. We'd been reading this slogan in the Asics ads plastered all over Paris the past week.
The right chute of runners was released, and I was relieved to be taking my first jogging steps at last. We swarmed down the Champs towards the white morning light, past Place de la Concorde, and the gold of the Egyptian obelisk glinted across to the enormous ferris wheel in the Jardin des Tuileries. We turned right onto Rue St. Honoré, reminding me of my favorite French bakery back in Portland. I was overtaking a short, salt-and-pepper-haired man chugging along in a Mario costume, and I laughed with delight at his slipping suspenders and bushy mustache. "Bravo, Mario!" I smirked, but he seemed to be struggling with the heat already.
At Hotel de Ville a sign marked two miles and I checked my watch. I was running about ten-minute mile pace, which was great, since starting too fast would be an exhausting mistake. We flowed around the roundabout at Nation and I tried to maintain my slower speed, though I caught up with the 4h30 flag bearer. I remembered a French friend's humorous words about how demoralizing it is to watch the timing flag move off into the distance later in the race, but after a bit of slow jogging, I ran past the flag anyhow. 4h15 pace seemed more fitting.
Approaching the Chateau de Vincennes, I saw that the tower was getting a facelift. Here there were refreshments--oranges, quartered bananas, sugar cubes, golden raisins, bottled water. I knew to expect fewer aid stations than at U.S. races, appearing only every 5K here, but they seemed adequate. I jogged alongside a group pushing a teen in a jogging wheelchair, and it made me happy just to hear them joking in French.
In the Vincennes woods, runners began dropping back with the heat, but I was feeling fine. About every few miles there was a small but boisterous band--a group of French horn players, or serious cheerleaders, or wild-wigged men feigning to be cheerleaders. I pressed on. Passing runners was quick but took concentration. I was grateful for the raisins and water. Ahead were two guys wearing French speedos. One was carrying an inflatable shark and wore a shirt that said, "Plus mordant que le maraTHON, c'est le maREQUIN." (More biting than the mara-tuna is the mara-shark." It doesn't translate so well!)
After Bastille, the course led down to the banks of the Seine, and it was hotter there with the crowds and pre-noon sun. I passed a collapsed runner being attended by paramedics, and another worn-out runner being driven away on the back of an ATV. But the bells of Notre Dame were tolling, and I remembered that it was Palm Sunday. What joy to hear the bells! We ran through increasingly long tunnels under the roadways, and I was grateful for the cool darkness. Several tunnels had neon lights and electronic music to keep the energy flowing. I pretended that the neon acceleration marks sprayed on the pavement gave me faster speed. "On your left," I shouted, translating for the few runners who hadn't understood the French shouts behind us, telling us to make way for an ambulance coming through.
Emerging from the long "spa" tunnel with new age music (wasn't that the tunnel where Princess Diana died?), the Tour Eiffel was visible on our left, and the crowds were thick here. I had hoped to see my friend from Texas, but saw no familiar face among the crowds. I couldn't believe I was feeling this good 17 miles into the race. It was work, but it was joy. I might not ever have another race where I felt so good, and I was exceedingly grateful to God.
At mile 20 we turned sharply away from the Tour Eiffel and towards the Bois de Boulogne, where we would eventually pass the modernist Foundation Louis Vuitton. One of my left toes seemed to be rubbing uncomfortably. At least I'd made it this far with minimal pain. Somewhere along this nondescript street of mile 21 my toe caught a minuscule lump in the asphalt and I stumbled forward, nearly careening into the runners a few paces ahead of me as runners behind me gasped. "Pardon, pardon," I breathed. "Je ne cours pas--je vole," I thought to myself with a giggle as I recovered my stride. "I'm not running, I'm flying." Somehow that near-fall pushed me into a quicker pace.
The course narrowed outside the forest around mile 22 and I began to think about my time. If I was feeling this good I could try for a good finish time rather than simply aiming to finish. Maybe I could even qualify for something! Not Boston, maybe, but . . . something. Then I passed a timing panel that said I was running at 4h38 pace. Definitely not a qualifying time! But still I tried to push my pace. Only a few miles to go.
The bright green of the forest seemed endless. Shouldn't we be there by now? I passed a parked ambulance with a runner stretched out inside. What a disappointment for someone to have made it this far and then succumbed to exhaustion. As a matter of fact, the closer I got to the last mile, the more people were walking. But occasionally an onlooker would catch the lettering on my race bib and encourage me by name. "Vas-y Michele! Ne lache pas!" (Go! Don't drop back!) I saw silly posters like "Smile if you're not wearing underwear" (held by a serious-looking French woman). The Fondation Louis Vuitton was reminiscent of the Experience Music Project in Seattle but I was just as impressed by the firehose being sprayed into the air shortly thereafter. Yes please!
I peered into the distance. This must be the home stretch! I tried to power my stride to the finish. Nope--another turn at the end. A 2km sign. One mile to go! (Didn't I already run that much?) So many turns now. Then out of the woods and onto cobblestones and a wide avenue again. It's there--the inflatable finish line arch and grandstands full of spectators. I dart around two men who seem to be walking just ten feet from the line. I point to the sky, smiling. It's all Him--I could not have done this without Him. No way. I am grateful for my friends' and family's prayers. I get my silly faux-gold medal and plastic blanket (it's 77 degrees--I will later give the unopened blanket to the Roma boy outside my apartment), and I walk to La Sueur street to wait for my Texan friend. Sweat street. It seems appropriate.