It was on. For sure. I was all alone in the City of Romance. But I’d quit drinking for nearly a week, I’d eaten well, I’d lost 4 kg since the hideous peak of 2015. The weather was nice. The Zone beckoned: ‘come and hang out with me for a while,’ she said.
I love Paris in the springtime. The light on the stone and all that stuff. I have happy memories of running intervals around the Jardin du Luxembourg to the scornful gaze of children with ice creams; I have happy memories of running along the Seine at dawn, over cobbles and up and down the stairs where the water-level path broke, to the early sounds of a city that refuses to wake; I have happy memories of silently racing against contemptuous footballers training up and down the loop around Buttes Chaumont.
And now I’ve run pretty much everywhere else too. The Paris Marathon starts near the Arc de Triomphe, one of northern Europe’s more notable four-lane roundabouts, heads east down the Champs-Élysées, to the Bois de Vincennes, then back west along the Seine, into the Bois de Boulogne, round a bit, then back to the Arc de Triomphe.
And it was on, for sure. I was staying with my friend near Buttes Chaumont, and to get to the start all I had to do was take the number 2 metro to l’Arc. I slept and rose in a cloud of peaceful resolution. Adrenaline, fine; glycogen stores, fine; frame of mind, perfect. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. Kit on, porridge, banana, metro.
The metro is empty. I sit and scan the platform, legs stretched out. I am reading City of God by Paulo Lins. I board a half empty train and read for the 20 minute ride as the train soon fills with runners wearing frequently inadvisable and often poorly-washed outfits. My legs have that serene pre-race heaviness. I am calm, yawning. It is on, for sure. What could possibly go wrong?
L’Arc is a zoo, the entrance to the bag deposit a good walk away. I walk quickly, absorbing the rising temperature. A vest was the right call, and there will be no gloves. But what unimagined hell is this? An unruly scrum of people, the damned of the earth, cluster thickly around a narrow gate, shouting their sins and their penances in all the languages of babel. This is the entrance to the baggage drop area. Twenty minutes later I am close enough to see two or three uniformed Frenchmen inspecting each bag. Bags come in all shapes and sizes, and each is a wonder to these officials, with so many unexpected pockets and unfamiliar fastenings. They may as well be en grève for all of their efficiency. Twenty minutes later and I have exchanged a few words with and given my bag to a kindly volunteer, which actually takes about fifteen seconds. They have worked out the perfect system for the deposit and retrieval of bags, which is to base the section and the subsection on the two final digits of the running number, thus ensuring that there will be no bottlenecks. Are you listening Budapest?
Then I jog to my start. At the front. The race will soon start, and I am in jeopardy of missing the window within which I can enter my privileged, based on predicted time, start pen. I am far from alone. The toned limbs of faster men than me jog alongside me, stuffing gels in pockets, armwarmers and gloves.
We arrive at the entry. It is closed. An eastern European man with a predicted finish time of 2:45 wrenches it open. A hefty uniformed official tells him to fuck off, and wrenches the gate shut. We are a minute late, and the gate closes at 9:45. We explain in many languages why it’s essential we are allowed into the pen. He doesn’t seem to understand the principle of a staggered start. It’s proper that this gate is shut, and impossible to credit that anyone would wish it to be open at 9:46, any more than anyone might possibly mistake an aubergine for a male vegetable, or expect a reference to un aubergine to be intelligible to a Frenchman. (‘Vous voulez une aubergine? Pourquoi avez-vous pas demandé? Non, bien sûr, nous n’avons pas les aubergines. C’est vendredi.’)
There is much in common between French race organisation and French grammar.
There is a moment when it’s possible that a pan-European assault force will strike and incapacitate this man, but in the moment of hesitation when we look at each other and weigh the loss of adrenaline and strength that this will entail he flourishes from his pocket – from his pocket, mind – a strip of cable ties, and seals the gate. None of us has a penknife in his lycra shorts.
We have to go back. We walk back half a kilometre, and enter a pen of runners who have 4+ hours predicted finish times, many of them optimistically so. I don’t think the woman who started some distance in front of me, and who, after only 200 metres, squatted in the gutter, in front of the crowd barriers, to pee, was likely to run finish before teatime. That’s just an example. I’m saying nothing about body types on this blog, because it’s wrong for all kinds of reasons.
So, I wedge myself in a web of sweaty lycra, hemmed in on all sides by spiritual foie gras, and wait. And wait. And wait. It’s a staggered start. Not only a segregated, seeded start, but a staggered start. Because we wouldn’t want the 4+ hour runners passing the 3+ hour runners would we? And what on earth is une kumquat?
I stand for half an hour in the rising sun.
And eventually it starts. And I dodge, and duck, and dodge, and weave, and dodge, and circumnavigate a continent of slowish-to-middling runners.
And then we arrive at the first drinks station. There is no sign announcing its imminence. It is on a single side of the road. The inevitable consequence: a writhing pile of bodies. Because of course when someone offers you a drink you stop in order to take it. I walk for two or three minutes. And then I start running, and I run and weave and zigzag, until the next drinks station.
The fact is I run quite well, but it’s a very long route around my fellow humanity. And after nearly three hours, while traipsing around the Bois de Boulogne, I give up on running anything like a good time, and canter through the finish line and on to my bag. The woman who gives me a medal is lovely (the medal itself heavy and garish, as though some might be persuaded that it really was gold). The man at the bag stall is chatty again, and we switch between French and English without a single complaint on his part about my deplorable and quite depraved prepositions and articles. And I jog off to a bistro on Canal St Martin, where I eat steak with my Parisian friends, and no one complains about my tracksuit or comments on my goldie-looking medal or the gender of my food.
Now, scarcely more than three months later (I am the world’s worst, most erratic blogger), one of the infinitude of things upon which we might look back in sadness is the European camaraderie taken for granted by any fondista, Langstreckenläufer, coureur – or cyclist for that matter: who is more European than the cyclist? – who thinks it’s a fun weekend to race 42.195 k around a foreign city, eat its food and torture its grammar. The spirit of separation is bad for politics, the economy, the law – but as much as anything it’s bad for the heart.