I signed up for the Semi de Paris (Paris Half Marathon) on the day it opened. I was still on my runner’s high from Dam tot Dam and thinking that since my ten-miler had gone so well, I needed to get a half on the calendar. Amsterdam was right around the corner, by date and geography, but it was sold out (I later got a bib). By chance, I discovered the Semi at the lowest price tier (€40), and I enlisted.
As the new year turned and it became certain that we were moving, I went ahead and booked everything else that meant I couldn’t back down. This included a new (to me) fine point of racing in France: the medical certificate. When I signed up, I saw a note that to pick up your bib, you had to present a doctor’s form stating that you were fit to run in an athletic competition. There was a simple form to download and get your doctor’s stamp on. I’ve raced in the US, the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands, and generally you tick a box absolving the race of liability if you have a heart attack while participating. Not in France. Nevertheless, I knew I was fit and figured it couldn’t be a big deal.
This was incorrect, as I discovered when I called my huisarts and was told that I would have to pay between 90-150 Euros for a doctor to attest to my fitness, not reimbursable by my insurance because I wasn’t sick. (“But if you know I’m not sick,” I argued, “can’t you just sign it?”) The unfairness of this form was not, to my mind, that it had to be done—but how non-standard the fulfillment of it is, dependent on where you live. I scoured runners’ message boards and read that in the UK and US, people mostly found that their doctors (or their doctors’ receptionists) would smack a stamp on there for $5, free, or maybe $20 if they did a quick exam. In France, a friend explained, your family doctor would know you so intimately from your regular check-ups, that they would also sign away. But the Dutch approach was not confined to my own doctor; I confirmed this. I also confirmed that the French were serious about the certificate—no form, no bib. (“You could bandit,” my sister said. “You paid for the race.”)
Everyone offered to forge to form for me. Several of my husband’s colleagues, who are in fact “doctors,” if not of medicine. “The volunteer who has to take that form from you cannot check 35,000 forms to confirm their authenticity,” more than one person pointed out. And I knew they were correct. But all I could think of was somehow that forged form coming back to haunt me, or having my bib taken away after I suffered through one of my last long runs on a stormy Dutch day with 25mph winds.
And so two weeks before the race I went to the doctor. It was insult to injury from this point on. The doctor lamented the entire time (all ten minutes): “WHY would you want to run a marathon? Isn’t it enough to run to the bus? I am tired just thinking it!”
“Half marathon,” I corrected her several times. And aren’t you a doctor?
To verify my very expensive health, she asked me questions such as: Do you smoke? and: Has anyone in your family died of a heart condition? She weighed me (“You’re not the biggest person, but, I guess you are running a lot.”). She asked if I had any allergies. In the spirit of truthfulness, I declared that I am lactose intolerant. She then asked if I had considered how this would affect my food consumption during the race (at the water stops). I told her that I had considered it.
She poked me in a few different places and said that my vital organs felt normal, and informed me that I have low blood pressure. She never asked about my training, or any of my previous races. She charged me €95. And as all of my friends had said, the fifteen-year-old girl who stamped my form at the Expo on Friday looked at it for all of about two seconds.
Between that form and the delightful but last-minute decision that Tim would accompany me to Paris for the weekend and needed train tickets—Paris was becoming an expensive race. I became a little nervous that if I didn’t “do well,” it wouldn’t all have been worth the cost.
On Sunday morning I was up early and on the metro from Cadet all the way out to the end of the no. 1 line, Chateau de Vincennes, and the start of the race. The metro was full of runners, which is always a race-day sight I enjoy. There were food trucks in the start area, including a vendor advertising hot wine at 9 a.m. I love France, I thought.
On some of the runners’ forums where I’d read about the medical form, I’d also read that the start area for this race could be disorganized, and to allow extra time. I was glad I did. I didn’t wait long to check my bag, and I was able to use one of the really, really inadequate quantity of toilets. Of course, I was so early I wanted to use the toilet again about a half hour later, and then I had to get on one of the ridiculous lines. (It was like they didn’t know 35,000+ people were coming.) I found my way into the 2:00 starting corral, and MAN. We waited there forever. There were so many people doing this race; the corrals were massive. I wasn’t even in the last one (AND I DIDN’T FAKE MY ESTIMATED TIME! This is exciting because in the past I’ve been pretty consistently in the back corral, which is demoralizing.).
After between 45-60 minutes in the corral with all of my thousands of new friends, I was ready to go, and we finally did. As we funneled toward the starting arch, I looked back and was amazed by how many people were still behind me. “So many people!” I said to the closest person nearby. She turned out to be a Parisian girl running her first half marathon. She told me how nervous she was, and squeezed my arm a couple times as we began. (I didn’t see her after that, but, Alicia, I hope you did well!) The instant we went under the starting arch, dozens of men peeled off to pee on the side of the road—I guess that’s what happens after too long in the corral. I had to laugh.
Mentally, the first few miles of a long race are always the hardest for me. It’s when you’re asking: “Do you have it in you?” “Do you feel good enough today?” It was—I should have mentioned—an absolutely gorgeous day. Earlier in the week I’d told a runner who had fond memories of a spring run in Paris that we were too early for that “touch of spring.” I was totally wrong. We had sunshine, and it was around 50 degrees. I couldn’t have been happier, and Paris couldn’t have looked prettier. I saw Tim at our arranged spot right around 10k, and just afterward the course came to the first part where you could really see the Seine, the skyline, and Notre Dame. It was beautiful.
After a slow first mile (congested start), I started cruising, warning myself that I needed to back off a little, but continuing on. This was, mentally, the fastest a race had ever gone for me. I saw Tim at 10k, 11k, and 15k (he said I looked “a bit tired” at 15k, prompting him to say something like: “Only five more!”). It was true—by the back end I was feeling how fast I’d gone earlier. My goal had been 2:05, and around 8-9 miles I started to wonder if 2:00 was in reach; the 2:00 pacer was always just in my field of vision. There may have been some hope for 2:00, until I got to the long, gradual incline around mile 11. Holy goodness. I wasn’t the only person that incline wrecked; people were walking all around me. Don’t walk, don’t walk, I kept urging myself. 2:05 became the goal once again.
Around mile 12 (?) a police convoy came up behind us, blowing sirens and waving all the runners to one side of the course. It didn’t change my stride, but many of us exchanged nervous glances. Boston, I thought; and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one. I said a prayer. As far ahead as I could see, the pack was moving, so it seemed that the course wasn’t being halted. This was encouraging. A few minutes later, we passed what I’m pretty certain was the cause for the police convoy—a medical emergency on the course, and a runner in a heat blanket being lifted into an ambulance.
Then we hit the point where you’re close enough to the finish that you start seeing runners going the other way, in their medals and plastic ponchos, because they’re already done. And you so want to be them. They cheer for you, which is really nice. After twelve miles, I was looking at every click on my Garmin, until I finally crossed at 2:03:56 (new PR!). And then I stood basically still in the giant end-funnel trying not to pitch a fit about how badly I wanted water and how long it took to get it.
Ah, Paris. We rode the metro all the way back to other parts of the city where there weren’t as many people wearing the unfashionable, blue finishers’ poncho. I showered and hustled faster than anyone who has just run a half marathon should, so that we could have a great, long lunch with two French friends. There is no better city in which to replenish your calories than Paris.