I started my Paris marathon training with only one thing in mind, breaking 2h45. I had failed so many times trying that I started to wonder if I could actually do it. The quest for 2h45 was gradually becoming an obsession. When late 2008 I put my training plan together it looked achievable. The issue was that it always did and yet I kept coming short of the goal. Would this time finally be the time? I had some reasons to be upbeat. I had run a fast 15K in 53’50 two weeks before Paris and I had also run a strong 23-miler two weeks prior to the 15K. I could run fast and I could last. What else do I need for a Marathon?
The past had taught me that I also needed a strong mileage base, a good race strategy as well as the discipline to follow it and that I finally needed to be in a good day. Unfortunately, my mileage base was not extraordinary high (58 miles a week in average), my race strategy had never been impressive (my second halves had systematically been much slower) and arriving at the race in a good day had been a science that completely eluded me. In addition to these three limitations, I had also suffered many setbacks during my training. A laundry list of sickness and injuries not to mention a heavy work load and traveling schedule had taken away mileage, regularity and quality from my preparation. If all that was not enough, there was the big one, the real problem. Lately, my heart had not been in it.
Lately, my heart had been with Margo in her fight against cancer. My heart had been with Olivier, his wife Patricia and their younger daughter Floriane. The last time I had stayed with them for a race, it had been the weekend of the Ice-Trail in January. Back then, their family house had been perfection. I actually told Olivier, “My friend, you have it all!” For me who has not had the chance to build a family of my own, this was just how I always imagined it would be. Since then, we have learned of Margo’s brain tumor and the ground vanished under our feet. There is no need dwelling on how unfair such a disease is. It just is. I would rather talk about how everybody came together to support Margo and how courageous she is in her fight. It is really impressive to see how much love there is around her, around them.
The news had left me standing there, dizzy, heartbroken, powerless. There was not much I could do but I had to do my part. I thought that “running for Margo” and breaking that damn 2h45 barrier could help. Her battle against cancer will be long and there will be ups and downs. I am convinced she will win but I also know that it will be hard. It will be hard on her and it will be hard on her family. This is going to be a battle and like all the battles of life it won’t be won easily. Along the way, when doubts will show their ugly heads, they will have to be crushed simply because there could be no doubts. There could be no giving up. There could be no failing. Margo will win this fight. I know.
Fighting for Margo
My battle for 2h45 is certainly not as worthy and heroic as hers but it is a battle she witnessed first hand. Margo was at the finish line of the 2008 Paris Marathon and she saw me fail at what was then my 3rd attempt. She was at the 2008 NY Marathon and she saw me fail again. She saw me hopeful and she saw me disappointed. She also saw me dusting my pants, rolling up my sleeves and going at it again and again. She will be at the 2009 Paris Marathon and I want her to see me succeed this time. This race is for her and I will have a T-shirt with her name on it to let the world know.
Now, back to the race…
Friday April 3rd: Race weekend
It is now tradition for me to stay at Olivier’s for Marathon weekend and in fact, for any other weekends that involve a lot of pain in the Paris area. Invariably, I arrive at Olivier’s house happy, enjoy a great weekend and go home limping. You think I would have understood by now but again, I was on my way to Olivier’s. I showed up Friday evening as it had been negotiated the week before with Floriane. Floriane is the most interesting 9 year old I have ever seen. Out of her many qualities, I am always fascinated by how seriously she takes her homework and how concerned she is about the future. I had conversations with her I wish I could have had with some grownups. As the cab was zipping through the streets of Saint Germain, I was wandering how many times I would have to chase her around the living room table this time, she is 9 after all. I was also thinking of Margo. I had seen her the week before and she looked terrific. She has gotten tall quickly. She is like a little woman now but still with her angel face. In her quiet way, she radiates kindness. Although she had lost some weight, her eyes were a display of strength and determination. Soon I would be hugging her. The cab pulled into the driveway. I felt I was arriving home.
The weekend was simple, relaxing and heartwarming. I spent time with the girls and with Olivier. We ran a little. We talked about life. We talked about Margo. He told me how he would give his own life for her in a second. I told him I knew he would. I am sure he would. Olivier is a heck of a guy. We went to the Marathon expo where we met with Alain, his wife Laure and 2 of their 3 kids. We talked some more. We laughed a little. On the way back, Olivier and I discussed music. Contrary to my previous races I just couldn’t get my mind into this one the same way. One last dinner, one last night, one last breakfast and it was finally there, the day I had to break 2h45 for Margo.
Sunday April 5th: Before the Start
Olivier and I drove to Paris talking about the weather and the race. Olivier parked his car on La Place de L’etoile, just 300 yards from the starting line. We called Alain and told him we would be waiting for him at the Fouquet’s. We walked down the Champs Elysées. Already tens of thousands of runners were crowding the world famous avenue. We unexpectedly met Arnaud and asked him to join us at the Fouquet’s for a coffee. We entered the renowned restaurant located just 50 yards from the starting line. We sat at a table and enjoyed an espresso and the use of the bathroom for a mere 8 euros a cup. This was a real upgrade from the wait of the NY Marathon. What was not an upgrade though, was my positioning on the starting line. Instead of being at the front of the pack, I would be starting from the 3h start with thousands of runners in front of me. I was not happy about that. Although I had the qualifying time to be in the Elite corridor I could not register as such on line. I would have had to actually send a letter with my track record and the famous “certificat medical” you can only get in France. The alternative would have been to try to sort this out at the expo where a few overwhelmed people were trying to deal with hundreds of complaints that ran the gamut. To register for the 3h start, on the other hand, you need, well, nothing at all, go figure. Alain did not show up at the Café and as the start time was coming we decided to go line up. Olivier and I entered the 3 hour coral. We did our best to be as upfront as possible. Still the first few kilometers were bound to be very frustrating.
On the starting line
We did not wait long before the start. Contrary to NY where they use a serious cannon to signal the start, in Paris they use a tiny pistol. I barely heard the noise but there was no mistaking the gigantic push coming from behind. I slowly moved forward, squeezed from all directions, fighting to keep my balance. After 30 seconds of baby steps, I walked on the timing mat with still little room to move. The clock was already ticking and I was not running. A few more steps and I finally managed to start my race. It was still very dense and many runners just did not belong there. Many guys like me were trying to fight there way through with very little room to maneuver. It was a mess.
After a slow yet energy intense start down the Champs Elysées, I got into the groove. I was monitoring my time at every kilometer and I was reasonably satisfied with what I was seeing. I was not in a great day but I was moving rather well. My first 5K was done in 19’03 including the time lost at the start. This was a 2h41 Marathon pace (6’08 per mile) done with relative ease. I reached the first water station, took a bottle, slowed down and guzzled half of it. It was hot and I had decided to make every water break to prevent dehydration.
Change of Strategy
I threw the bottle on the side and resumed my progression. I kept on monitoring my every kilometer. I began to be systematically a little short of my target pace. The second 5K was done in 19’10. My pace had slowed and I did not like the way things were going. I was not breathing hard and I was not pushing the pace but I was not feeling easy enough. In my previous Marathons, I always decided to maintain the pace. This time, I made a different call. I decided to stop monitoring my progress K by K and decided to rely on my sensations. It was a tough decision to make as it usually meant for me that I was throwing the race. Nevertheless, I sensed that I was not in a good enough day to take the chance of pushing through that early. For the first time of the race, I thought of Margo. Although it was early in the race and I thought I was doing the right thing, I sort of felt like I was letting her down. I kept on going with mixed feelings but stuck to my decision. I was entering the Bois de Vincennes. It was beautiful, green and quiet. I relaxed and let my sensations take the wheel.
Before long, I saw the next 5K mark coming. I was anxious to see the time. I looked at my watch and saw 19’24. I was slower but not that much slower. It surprised me. I had been worried to be completely off pace and I wasn’t. I had relaxed, let my sensations take the driver seat and I had not been punished too severely. I felt a weight being taken off my chest. Maybe I was not letting Margo down after all. My time for the 15K was 57’37. I could not help but remember my 15K in the Central Park two weeks earlier. I had finished nearly 4’ faster and I had felt fresher than I was feeling now. “One day” I thought, “may be one day, I will have a great day on Marathon day”.
Worried at the half way mark
I maintained my strategy, trusting my sensations and ignoring my watch. I kept on logging my every K by pressing the big red button on my watch but I would not look at the times. I was nearing the half way mark and as always the excitement was pushing everybody’s pace a little. I did not go with the flow but actually slowed down to take my first energy gel. I passed through the inflated gate marking 21.1K in 1h21 and change. This was 2 minutes behind last year’s split. I can’t say that I was overly tired but I was still not feeling any better. On the positive side, I was doing a great job maintain my pace steady. My 4th 5K had been done in 19’19’’ or a 6’13 pace per mile. Nonetheless, I was worried. I knew what was coming ahead. I needed a sub 1h24 for the second half to break 2h45. I tried to convince myself that I could do a 1h24 any day of the week, that it was a pace I was comfortable with and that I should trust my training. Still, I was haunted by my last 3 Marathons; NY 2007, first half in 1h20 before calling it off at mile 20; NY 2008, first half in 1h21 and second half in 1h28 and of course, Paris 2008, first half in 1h19 and a second half in a dismal 1h43. I left the half way mark behind me with a clouded mind, not optimistic on my chances to succeed.
The nice weather had encouraged the Parisians to come out and to cheer the runners. I was continuously reminded of my purpose. “Allez! Margo, Allez!”. “Allez Pascal! pour Margo, Allez!”. Pushed by the crowd and driven by a mission much bigger than myself, there could be no doubts. There could be no giving up. There could be no failing. The way to victory was straight ahead. I told myself “Allez! Pascal, pour Margo, Allez!”.
K25, a hint of hope
I was back in Paris and helped by a slight downhill, I was moving well. The kilometers were still passing fast. The next check would by at K25. I was drinking at every water station. I was still refusing to adopt other runners pace. It felt good to know that I was already more than half way through. The crowd of runners around me had thinned dramatically compare to the first 10K. I was trading positions with the ones who started feeling the accumulation of miles and the ones attempting negative splits. I could now see Notre Dame on my left. It meant that before long I would be on Les Quais and that K25 was literally around the corner. Minutes later I looked at my watch and found out that the last 5K had been done in 19’20. At that stage in the race, I started to believe that it could still be done. I did the math and indeed, it could be done. It would not be easy but it could be done.
K30: Pressure’s up
The trick was not to get excited too early. We were in the middle of Paris. The weather was perfect, the sight breathtaking. To top it off, the crowd of supporters was dense, close by and loud. My Margo T-shirt was a hit and was winning me constant cheers. It took discipline to maintain the pace. I was enjoying myself and the kilometers were flying by.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that K30 was already in sight. I was doing my best to remain calm but the pressure of the clock had become palpable. I looked at my watch. 1h56, last 5K in 19’28, slightly slower, probably because of the ups and downs of the underpasses. I did the math again and only felt more pressure. The scenario that was taking shape was simply crazy. I was flirting with the possible. 5K after 5K, the window of opportunity was shrinking but it was not closing. With 30 kilometers weighing on me, 12 kilometers still to go and no margin for error, I knew it was about to get seriously tough.
K30-35: The dark alley
I passed in front of the Eiffel Tower, left the Trocadero behind me and started to feel it. It had to come. It is not a Marathon without a rough patch. Mine began a little after K30. I started to lose steam. I was not running well anymore. I was not as loose as I had been before. I became worried that my legs would start hurting and that I would break like I had broken in 2008. I could feel that I had slowed down. The finish line was still a long way. I was physically and mentally worn-out. I was not enjoying myself anymore and the next kilometers became a drag. Also, the streets were not as pleasant and the crowd not as dense. I was in a funk and I had to do something about it. I passed K31 looking forward to K32 or mile 20. Some say that there are 2 races in a Marathon, the first 20 miles and the last 10K. Once you reached the last 10K it is OK to start digging in. The one kilometer felt more like a mile but I eventually reached K32. I was just under 2h04. The math was simple, 10K in 4’ per K (15Km/hour) plus 1’ for the last 195 meters. It could be done but it would not happen at the pace I was going. I took a deep breath and though of Margo. “OK, Pascal” I thought “this is what this is all about”.
K35: Fighting back
I took my second energy gel and I started to dig in. I don’t know if the gel or if the pushing harder did it, but I slowly got out of my funk and restored a better pace. I was moving again and K35 was in sight. K35 and I had some unfinished business. I just could not wait. I reached it in 2h16. I was fine on my legs. Last years, I had walked there. My legs had hurt and my spirit had broken. Last year, I had walked and I had felt pain, anger and disappointment. This time, I was not walking and I was not about to. As I passed the 35K line, I pounded my chest twice with my right fist. It was my way to say that it would not get me today. That Pascal 2009 was stronger and would not buckle. My spirit was restored. I could fell the end coming. I was ready for a fight to the finish.
2h16: Allez! Allez! Allez!
In a weird twist, I had done the last 5K in 20’16, exactly the same time I had done last year before I had walked. This year, this last 5K had been my slowest so far and the window of opportunity had shrank some more. It had been the slowest but not so slow as to completely compromise my race. I had 29 minutes left to pass the finish line. 7K in 4’ per Km plus 1’ for the last 195 meters, doable but I had to up the tempo. The pressure was increasingly on. Again, I told myself “Allez Pascal! Pour Margo” and then out loud “Allez! Allez! Allez!”
Wasting precious time
One last hill was awaiting me. As I engaged it, I immediately felt the weight of the past 2h20 spent running. I tried to maintain my form but the incline was taking a toll on me. I could feel myself slowing down but I just did not have the energy to keep up the pace. It was not that long of a hill, maybe 200 meters long, but it felt like an eternity. In my head I could see the precious seconds I could not lose being lost. When I was finally back on the flat, I saw K37 coming, 2h24’07. Despite my effort, I had lost 7 seconds. I felt weak on my knees. I just could not lose these seconds. Once more, I called on Margo. “Allez! Pascal, pour Margo”. There could be no doubts. There could be no giving up. There could be not failing. I had to win this battle, for Margo. “Allez! Allez! Allez!”.
With the help of a slight downhill, I resumed my fight. As I left K37 behind, I saw Armelle my ex-wife a little further ahead. Black stretched pants, leather jacket, oversized sunglasses; she looked like a star, as always. She was on a mountain bike and started riding alongside me. “Allez! Pascal” she said. “Just so you understand the situation here” I answered, “It is a question of seconds”. She respectfully, disappeared behind me but I could here from time to time her “Allez! Pascal” She would be my escort for the next few kilometers.
I was at the right pace and I was feeling good again. I had walked these last kilometers last year. I had dragged myself on these last miles in NY. This time I was the one running strong. I was the one finishing strong. I was holding nothing back and it showed. I was passing runners left and right. I had tunnel vision. I was only looking straight ahead. I was all business now. No more doubts, just me giving my best.
I had saved 1 second. My confidence was growing with every kilometer. I was in the Bois de Boulogne but I could have been anywhere else. I was not paying attention to my surrounding, only my pace and the guys ahead. I was the fastest around. No one could match my pace. It felt good to pass all these runners. I was trying not to get overexcited. The finish line was not far but those last kilometers have a way to last forever.
I had recovered the 7 seconds I had lost earlier in the hill. 2K in 4’ per K plus 1’ for the last 195 meters, it was getting real. Yet, I could not let my guard down. I had to remain focus. I remembered what Olivier had told me “Pascal, you have to stop and kiss Margo before you finish”. “Sorry Olivier” I thought but that won’t be possible. I will kiss Margo later. She will understand.
I had lost 5’. During the last K, things had changed again. My legs had tightened and my strides had shortened. I was not passing the guys around me as easily as before. I wasn’t running smooth any longer. All of a sudden, I felt the fear of failing. What if I miss it by a few seconds? I thought of the first kilometers and the people who had slowed me down. I hated them now. I had to stop that. I had to get my head under control. What I was doing was the sure way to fail. There could be no doubt. There could be no giving up. There could be no failing. “Allez! Pascal”, “Allez! putain Pascal, pour Margo”, “Allez! Allez! Allez!”
K42: All out
I did not look at my watch. What for? I was all out. There was nothing more I could do. I spotted Margo in the crowed. I touched my heart with my hand and pointed in her direction. “It is for you Margo. Today, I fought this battle for you. I gave my best for you.” One more turn and it was the home stretch. These few hundred meters lasted for ever. The small incline was making it so hard. Everybody around me was fighting to the finish. I did not care who I passed or who passed me. I just wanted my sub-2h45.
K42.195: The Finish Line
I passed the finish line and immediately looked at my watch, 2h44’52. I had done it. By the narrowest margin but I had done it, for Margo. In this end it had come down to 8 seconds. This represents 30 meters, barely 100 feet, 0.07% of the distance. Wow!!!
It had taken 5 attempts but this time had been the time. I had done it. It had been a hell of a fight. It had been tough. I still can’t believe that I had to fight the clock until the very end. Half way through, I really did not believe I would make it. I did not have great legs but my head saved the day. I ran smart, focused on the one goal that mattered most. I fought well, better than ever I would say. Under the pressure of the clock, I managed to control my emotions. Despite some moments of profound doubts, I managed to remain optimistic. During, the dark moments of K30-35, I did not give up and I managed to keep pushing forward and consequently I managed to keep the hope alive. Finally, when I needed the last push that made all the difference, my heart took over and carried me all the way to the finish. 2h44’52. I had done it, for Margo.
So! here it is; the story of the most important race of my life. It is dedicated to Margo and her family. I hope with all my heart that it will show you the way Margo. Fight it, my lovely, fight it with all your heart, fight it with all you got. There can be no doubt. There can be no giving up. There can be no failing. You will win, I know.