There are races you dream about, races you plan for…and races that pop into your life relatively unexpectedly. And, of course, each one is special in its own way.
My thirtieth birthday present consisted of a weekend in Paris. I guess it was logical then that, a decade later, my fortieth birthday present also involved a weekend in Paris. The difference between these two events, however, is a lesson in how our priorities can change over time. While the 2008 weekend was spent fine dining, going to the theatre and drinking champagne in a fancy Parisian hotel, its 2018 corollary involved a pull-out couch, an early morning alarm, a lot of mud and possibly the closest I’ve ever come to hyperthermia (as well as a stay with our good friends Franck and Mylène, a babysitter to look after our collective brood and a good bistro meal nevertheless).
If asked to choose between the two, I’d hands down take forty over thirty any day!
We live in the mountains and most of the trails I run are, logically, on mountain routes, with a relatively good amount of vertical climb. I’m a pretty good climber, which means that although I’m not especially fast on the flat, I can often outclimb competitors and as such make up for my slower overall pace (while constantly working to improve said overall pace, n’est-ce pas…).
So, when I learned that my birthday present was a bib in the 45km Eco Trail de Paris event, I suspected the terrain would not be in my favour. Paris is not known for its mountains. Plus, the event is kind of poo-pooed in some trail running circles as a bit of a faux-trail for trail-thirsty urbanites… And my race schedule for the year was already set and did not include a 45km race in March.
But all that was before I learned that I would be running with my good friend Franck (a freshly hatched, trail-thirsty urbanite) and that changed everything.
Along with Gaël, Franck was pretty much the first French person I met when I set foot in France back in 2002. I had come to volunteer on an international youth project in the Pyrenees – and Franck and Gaël were the project leaders. About a week into the three-week adventure, I met Mylène for the first time, too. She and Franck had been dating for about a month. Little did I know that over fifteen years, sixty kilometres on snowshoes and four children (mostly theirs!) later we’d still all jump at the occasion to spend a weekend together.
And being offered the chance to accompany Franck on his first trail race (possibly his first trail run altogether), was an opportunity I was not prepared to pass up. After Mylène gave birth to their first child in 2007, Franck trained for and ran a marathon as he had read somewhere that the effort required in giving birth was similar to the effort required in a road marathon (I’d argue it’s more like a hundred miler, but I digress…). Ever since, he’d dabbled in the occasional Sunday jog but not seriously trained for any races – until now.
I followed Franck’s lead-up to the Eco Trail on Strava and he committed himself with admirable regularity to training three times a week, increasing his distances and being consistent. We spoke the week before the race and Franck was nervous. I told him we would take things slowly and tried to reassure him that we’d have a good time.
We arrived at Franck and Mylène’s by train the night before the race and discussed our plan over some sparkling water and mac and cheese (okay, and a glass of wine, too – this was not a goal race for me so I threw the no alcohol rule to the wind – but Mylène had been alone with their 3 kids all week and she clearly needed the wine more than Franck and I anyhow). I was a bit nervous that Franck was going to want to go out too fast but I managed to convince him that we needed to pace ourselves if he wanted to enjoy his time on the trails. Based on his training, I suggested we aim to run between 5’30 and 6’30 per kilometre, which would get us in in just under five and a half hours. We had a plan.
The next morning, we awoke to cool temperatures and heavy grey skies. The weather was calling for rain and possibly some snow flurries, so cool and grey looked good to us.
We packed our bags and headed towards the commuter train (cue the trail runner cracks about taking public transit to a trail race). The race departed from the Château de Versailles, so we had about an hour-long commute to get there. The train was filled with racers, some heading to the start of our race, others heading to other stops to partake in the 18km or 80km options. It soon began to rain and I quickly made my smartest decision of the day and changed out of my running tights and into my waterproof Uglow rain paints (yes, right at my seat on the train).
Before we knew it, we’d arrived, dropped our bags, had a pee and were toeing the line for the 10:45am start. And
we were off. The race began as a tour around the Versailles gardens – certainly not a mountain vista, but not bad for a morning run either. The first ten kilometres were relatively flat, mostly on gravel paths, and run in a nice misty rain that was perfect for ensuring we didn’t overheat.
Over the next fifteen kilometres we ran along some nice trails and single-track, through forests I’d never dreamed existed less than fifty kilometres from central Paris. The rain was now coming down hard and temperatures were dropping. Soon enough it was snowing…not just flurries, but real, big flakes. But Franck and I were having fun. We chatted and laughed. We talked to fellow runners. We began to realize how truly muddy the day was going to be.
The hot soup at the first aid station at kilometre 25 was possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Honestly, Parisians appear to have dehydrated vegetables and noodles down to an art form, or so it felt as we shivered briefly under a covered pergola. Some people were starting to complain about the conditions – mud, snow and cold – but Franck and I were still having a blast as we set out for the next 10km section towards the second aid station.
More mud, single-track, forest and park. More snow and sleet, too. But we were in our groove, moving along at our target pace. Two more bowls of soup at kilometre 35 and we knew that most of the mud was behind us. People appeared to be dropping like flies – those who set out in shorts or who failed to bring a waterproof jacket were clearly not enjoying themselves very much at all. But we were now 10 kilometres from the Eifel Tower and only one last 2km slippery downhill away from regaining civilization.
The last eight kilometres follow the Seine River. Franck was quite excited at the prospect of finishing on a paved surface, me slightly less so, but the end was in sight and we were still on target to reach our goal. I’d been forewarned that the end is brutal as you come out of the forest and have to run through 8km of not particularly attractive cityscape. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, although the prospect of finding more soup at the finish line was what was truly driving me, I think. In normal years, you can see the Eifel Tower in the distance the whole last stretch of the race, but between the snow, cloud and fog, we didn’t really get a glimpse of it until we were practically at its base.
One last bridge to cross and there it was. Franck and I bounded to the finish line, slightly chilled but thoroughly pleased. We collected our finisher shirts (the only swag despite the hefty entry fee for this race – too bad for all those DNFs, over 30% this year!) and headed towards the bag check trucks.
This is where things started to go downhill. It’s one thing to run through cold, snow and mud; it’s quite another to wait soaking wet at red lights having just run 45km. The bags were about a half mile down the road, but it seemed like an eternity (plus the lady couldn’t find mine, so it took an extra ten minutes before we could head the half-mile back to the sports centre to finally get changed). By that point, my hands were red, swollen and no longer working (my gloves were the only non-waterproof item and I cannot possibly imagine those whose whole bodies were as cold and wet as my hands!).
When we finally got to the sports centre, the sight was dire: hundreds of chattering teeth, dozens of blank stares wrapped in heat sheet emergency blankets, a few medical teams helping athletes in distress from the cold. Other than my hands, I was fine, and Franck was too. Franck helped me out of my hydration vest and a random woman helped me out of my shirt (sausages for fingers would be a gross understatement!). Then, after a short moment assessing the scene, we headed to the tent next door for one (okay, two) last bowls of soup.
Then, like normal city dwellers, we caught the commuter train back to Franck and Mylène’s where we had about forty minutes to get showered, changed and ready for a surprise night out in Paris.
All in all, and despite the conditions, I was impressed with the Eco Trail de Paris. It was certainly not mountainous, but the course was hilly (900 metres of vertical, mostly over a 25km stretch in the middle of the race) and was far less urban than I had expected. I never imagined there was so much single-track and forest right in the backyard of Paris! Franck was a rock star, too, and proved once again how much fun you can have running with friends. He certainly got an intense introduction to the fine art of trail running – and I think he might be hooked.
While I once would have jumped at the prospect of in-room champagne, these days a post-race beer is far more appealing – and it’s even better when you earn it with a good friend!
2018 Eco Trail de Paris Gear list
- Uglow Waterproof Rain Pants (these are the bees knees!)
- Uglow Ultra Rain Jacket
- Uglow Zip Membrane long-sleeved shirt (not visible on any photos since the jacket never came off!)
- Kalenji running gloves
- Salomon Advanced Skin Hydro 5L hydration pack
- La Sportiva Akasha shoes (perfect for the terrain)