Pack your running shoes and head for the City of Light for a race you won’t forget, writes Sheila Ryan.
I’m standing beside the Eiffel Tower wearing my running gear. I’m not alone. I’m jostling for place with thousands of other runners who have come to Paris to run what’s known as “La Grande Classique”. Paris is host to a half-marathon in March and a marathon in April, but at 16k the Paris-Versailles race is that bit more accessible. Racing with me I have two friends who are new to running. Knowing they were interested in trying the sport, I dangled the prospect of a weekend in Paris without our husbands and children in front of them. Blinded by the promise of shopping, sightseeing and dining, they enthusiastically signed up for the race. In a few months they went from sofa to start line of their first race.
And what a start line: almost 20,000 runners amassed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, ready to begin the 16k course to the palace of the kings of France at Versailles. Paris is, of course, synonymous with style and chic, but it’s heartening to see that Parisian runners at the start of a race look very much like you and me. Having stowed jackets and bags in vans to be transported to the finish line, bin liners were very much à la mode, generally worn loose although some runners seemed to have modified theirs to a more figure-flattering fit. Those too stylish to wear a plastic bag kept the autumn chill at bay by sporting outmoded jumpers, which they discarded just before the start line. In fact the first challenge of the race was to pick our way across the debris of empty bottles, sacrificial geansais and bin bags.
It was no mean feat for the organisers to get thousands of runners across the start line in an orderly fashion. Cattle mart-style gates had been set up to funnel us into several small groups adding up to 350 people. Every minute the traps were opened and a group of runners was counted down: “Dix, neuf, huit …,” we joined in the countdown, “… trois, deux, un,” and we were off.
The course took us first along the banks of the Seine and through the André Citroën tunnel to enthusiastic cries of “echo”. Leaving the river
valley was the second challenge of the race. The website helpfully displayed a profile map describing a climb of more than 120m over 2k. Seeing it on screen was one thing, dragging ourselves up that hill was quite another. And since it’s a point-to-point run, what goes up doesn’t necessarily benefit from freewheeling down the other side. It would have all been hard work, but for the brass bands along the way and the first of three water stations at the top, where we grabbed bottles of water and handfuls of sugar cubes. There was plenty of support from crowds of onlookers shouting “Courage!” and “Bravo!” and little children holding up signs with messages such as “Aller Maman.”
The terrain was decidedly less urban as we turned on to the Route Royale and entered the forest that would take us most of the way to Versailles. The road was mostly paved, but became narrow at some points and the runners were crowded closer together. Runners had been asked to keep right and allow others to pass on the left, but on the day it was a free-for-all as those who passed the start line later jostled to get ahead of the pack.
My two friends and I opted for a leisurely pace, having unwisely spent most of the previous day walking around the delightful little shops of the Marais. We were conscious that we should have been saving our feet, but each quirky shop led to another, and drew us further into the winding streets of this trendy area of Paris. Want to buy a chandelier? Need a stuffed animal head to hang on your wall? Can’t live without a knitted telephone? The Marais has it all, and I haven’t even mentioned the endless clothes shops.
We knew we were on the home straight when we turned onto the broad, tree-lined Avenue de Paris that leads up to the Château de Versailles. I didn’t know which was the better feast for my eyes, the fabulous façade of the Château or the twin arches of the finish line. A final push over the finish line and we had done it.
In our weary state we were grateful for the efficiency that awaited us. We were swiftly awarded our medals and goodie bags and reunited with our bags and jackets. Meeting points had been designated under the names of various European cities, including Dublin; we were not the only
Irish people to run that day. Extra trains back to Paris had been laid on and we had pre-bought our tickets at the expo the previous day.
We received energy drinks in our goodie bags, but reasoned that a bottle of wine in a Paris café was the most appropriate recovery drink in the circumstances, after a shower and nap in our hotel of course. Fearing post-race indecision, I had reserved a table in a restaurant very close to our hotel near the trendy Bastille area. This was a good move as it was Sunday night, and many restaurants are closed. We dined on foie gras, prawns, scallops and rabbit, toasted our success, enjoyed the high and planned how to spend the next day before our flight home.
Paris is a compact city, and you can see a lot just by walking, but with race-weary legs we were keen to keep further exertion to a minimum. There is no shortage of open-top buses but we opted for a cruise on the Seine to see the main landmarks of Paris. To really see Paris up close while saving on leg work, City Segway Tours offers the chance to glide effortlessly through the parks and sidewalks of Paris on tours run by day or night. For short hops across the city we could have availed of a bike from one of the hundreds of Vélib’ stations across Paris. Vélib’ is a self-service bike hire scheme aimed to allow short journeys at a low price payable with a bank card. And with a station every 300 metres, delicate runners can at least look forward to taking the weight off their feet.
However, since you can’t take a boat, Segway or bike into Galeries Lafayette, we had to accept a certain amount of pain as we embarked on something of a recovery run through the enormous department store. We couldn’t leave Paris without paying homage at this vast cathedral of retail therapy, complete with twinkling stained glass dome towering over its central hall.
Paris may seem like a long way to go to run a race, but joining in with the thousands of other runners as a participant rather than looking on as a tourist was a memorable experience. As a race, La Grande Classique ticks many boxes; it’s scenic, atmospheric and well-organised. It also offers something special for the ladies I have found at no other race: souvenir running tops made to fit women. That’s right, a running t-shirt I actually want to wear. For someone who has a drawer full of race t-shirts designed for men, all box-shaped, high-necked and unflattering, it’s the answer to my prayers.
A word of warning for those who can’t switch off their competitive streak: Paris-Versailles is not personal best territory. Given the course’s steep and narrow sections, the huge number of participants and the fact that there is no priority given at the start line to faster runners, there’s no place for ambition here. The far better option is to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of a memorable day while looking forward to a leisurely recovery in a great city.
Paris – Versailles, La Grande Classique
Paris, 25 September 2011