Many of you know I’ve changed up my training routine the past month or two in preparation for one of the huge local races here in Paris – simply named: Paris-Versailles. This 16km (~10mi) course goes from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to just in front of the Château de Versailles. The course is probably one of the more difficult 10-milers out there, with a substantial 1.5mi long climb in the middle ascending 600ft+ (200m+) – or slightly higher than the Space Needle in Seattle. That’s then followed up with further hills for the back-half of the course.
But, before we get into too many details, let’s dive into the day from the morning.
You know what I love about Parisian races? They don’t do early morning.
Nope, it’s always a 10AM or so start. Forget the bat-crap-crazy 7AM starts of many races in the morning. The Parisians know how to race at a proper time of day.
So, around 8:45AM we headed down to the subway to catch the RER about 4 stops over to the Eiffel Tower. Quick and easy.
Upon exiting the station we were a few hundred meters from the start line, but just in front of a local track that was being used as a staging and luggage dropoff area.
After taking care of business at the porta-potties (lines only took 3-4 minutes), we dropped off our bags. The bag drop-off process was a wee bit chaotic, but we’ve found that’s been a bit of the trend here. Everything else about races is highly organized, but somehow the bag-drop seems to be a challenging thing (I forgive them, remember, 10AM start).
In the middle of the field they were doing all sorts of group warm-up exercises:
Best of all though, was that there was a track right there:
This made it awesome to get in my warm-up. Per the schedule my warm-up was closer to 15 minutes, but given race-timing I shortened it to a mile. The first two laps just nice and easy, and then building up to race-pace (6:20/mile) for the last lap.
Now, this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of running on a track in Paris with others on the track at the same time (usually when I’ve gone, it’s empty). However, I must hold out hope that the track creatures who were there Sunday morning would not be present in future sessions where I’m in attendance. For example, I saw (and nearly felt) numerous instances of folks practicing the butterfly stroke while running. Why? I don’t know.
Or perhaps what appeared to be a dual-lane dribble practice of sorts. Sorta appearing like a drunk attempting to walk a police straight line. Except, jumping…while running. Not terribly cool. Stay in a lane, maintain your pace, and…again…stay in a lane. Sorta like they say at amusement park rides “Please keep all parts of your body in the vehicle at all times.”
Ok, with my warm-up feeling good and completed, I headed over to the start line. Along the way, we noticed that despite being only 7 minutes from the start of the race, there were racers hanging out in nearby café’s – clearly nowhere near ready to depart (see the yellow race shirts inside):
Nonetheless, into the masses we went. This took a bit of trickery, but thankfully both The Girl and I are suitably skinny enough to fit through some cracks. Unfortunately, despite the high level of pace-corral organization seen at both the Paris Marathon and Half-Marathon, here it was a literal free for all. Anyone went anywhere they liked, without any pace guidance.
As is usually the case around fall running races, people discard various clothes to the side of the course. Typically those clothes are then picked up by race organizers/volunteers and then distributed to various charities. In this case, that middleman was skipped entirely.
Instead, many of the local teenagers who normally wield distraction inducing clipboards before pickpocketing unknowing tourists were out in full force collecting the clothes (though, they still had their clipboards). It was impressive how much they were able to collect.
With everyone’s clothes coming off, it was time to get the race started. Here’s one last photo before the race. Obviously, that’s The Girl and me.
How the race started is a bit complex. I’d almost say it was highly disorganized yet highly organized at the same time. Let me try and explain. As I noted up above, it was literally a free-for-all when it came to placement within the crowd of 25,000 people.
To start, once your chunk of the crowd got within about 100y of the starting line, you went into a series of gates. Each gate was like being two steps away from the start. Where I’m standing at present, is waiting to go into the pre-on-deck circle. Next, you’d advance forward about 25y to the end of these rows of fences (roughly where the fence disappears in the frame). Someone there held you there.
Every 45-60 seconds or so, they’d release this group of people from the pre-on-deck holding area into the on-deck holding area. You can see the starting line is guarded by a string of kids. Beyond that you can see the wave that just had started, now off and running.
Here’s us, up against the kids, holding a fence across the line.
Then, they gave a 10 seconds count-down, and at about the 3 second mark the kids scurried away with moderately impressive speed. At which point, it was game on!
Now, this system worked somewhat well, in that you had clear space ahead of you for a short bit. Here I am off the front of this pack, but already settled into a nice pace of about 6:00-6:20/mile (3:43-3:56/km). Those looking carefully enough will notice The Girl in the frame behind my head. Pretty much complete luck there.
Now, when I say you had clear space ahead of you – it’s much like a triathlon wave swim start (non-Ironman). That only lasts a short time before you swim over the top of the previous waves. Here, about half a mile into the race, you can see what it looked like up ahead. Literally runners as far as you could see.
And because the runners weren’t grouped by expected finish times, you got a wide variety of people running at the same time. A simple look at this frame shows that – and that’s before even Mr. Sticky Note man.
Now, despite this – it actually sorta worked out. Just barely. I was generally able to run on the edges and keep a pretty clear and clean line. If you look at the below, you can see there’s room to run on both sides of the road. In fact, for me, the tunnel was the only place I ran into some congestion. Even though the road got skinnier later – by that point I had worked my way through the field ahead of many more runners.
Also, a reader today asked about the tunnel and my GPS watch. In my case I was wearing a footpod, so when I lost signal, the GPS watch automatically switched over to the footpod, and then resumed GPS at the other side of the tunnel.
Looking briefly at entertainment, there was plenty out on the course – mostly in the form of bands. Not rock-bands like you’d find in the US, but more along the lines of traditional brass and woodwind band music.
And in those cases where bands were lacking coverage – fear not, runners made up for it:
The above is the first waterstop, roughly after/around the 3-mile marker. When folks ask what I’ve seen as the biggest differences between US races and French races – thus far it’s the difference in water/food stops. In all the running races I’ve done here (including a marathon), it’s never been any more frequent than every 3 miles. Whereas in the US, it’s usually closer to every 1-2 miles depending on the course.
Switching gears to race strategy – the plan my coach put together was reasonably simple: Over the first mile settle into a 175bpm HR (+/- 2bpm), and then just hold. The hope was this would put me at about 6:20/mile on the flats, and indeed, it was virtually spot on.
Of course, 4 miles of flats were really the easy part. It was the well-known hill that was the tricky part. This climb lasted a touch under 2-miles long (3KM) and ascended a crapton of height given the short distance.
The race-plan for this was to simply hold the 175bpm and focus on my turnover a bit. Because this came at the middle portion of the race, I couldn’t blow-out effort here, as the second half of the race still had some tough rollers and climbs in it. Plus running 4-5 more miles.
Below, the start of the hill. Right at the stoplight it turns to the left under the train tracks and begins heading up.
The hill can be divided into three main chunks, each with a turn off of it. Below is the first chunk on the wider streets. It’s the first and last thirds that are the steepest.
Despite my HR limiter on this section (which I stayed pretty close to), I was still making good ground. I had run this hill a ton over the past 6 weeks, and knew it really well. I knew where the incline got steeper and shallower, and could adjust effort accordingly.
In fact, about the only thing that was making better time up this hill than me was the motorcycle camera crew:
I was further grateful I wasn’t one of these firefighters dragging their hose reel up the hill:
The second chunk of the hill hits the cobbles. Normally you notice these things, but by this point in the hill it’s all sucky. So adding cobbles doesn’t increase the level of suck much more.
Then you get the last chunk of the hill. This is probably the steepest section, quickly climbing up to what is on a sunny day a great view of Paris.
While no view today, I did find a bunch of noise makers at the top:
As expected, the hill put a dent in my average pace. You can see this in my splits (on Strava), showing Miles 4/5 being the slowest as I climbed. While this directly cost me about 3 minutes of time, in reality it puts a solid dent in you, slowing me about 15-20/secs/mile for the remainder, especially when you add in the further rollers.
Once up top the road is down to a simple two-lane affair. It’s also where I found my second water stop.
While hard to see in my fuzzy photo (look, running with water at 6:20/mile and taking a photo in the rain in the woods is occasionally challenging), they had put out giant tarps along the side, to make it easier to collect garbage from the water-stop.
At this point in the race we were up in a park area. It’s here that the road went from paved to unpaved and back to barely paved. Luckily the rains weren’t horrendous yet, and further lucky that I was towards the start of the field by then. I’d hate to see what the mud looked like 25,000 runners later.
The exit from the trees a mile and a half later included a nice quick downhill section. I was screaming through here – moving along at about 5:35-5:45/mile. About as fast as I could controllably run on the wet leaf-filled surface dodging other runners.
After leaving the woods there were a couple of rollers – a few of which were brutally short.
Soon I found myself on the long and wide avenue leading up to the Château de Versailles. It’s here that I carefully plotted my route across the multitude of lanes to minimize running distances.
I’d find the most direct point between any two corners – just like how they measure courses – and run that line. I’ve talked about this in the past with CSI-style diagrams and photos, but it’s really critical in longer distance racing – otherwise you’re just giving away time and energy.
Oh, and in case it’s not obvious – it was pouring out.
Finally – the finish line in sight! Now, despite how this whole street looks, the last mile is actually all uphill. It’s also the same point (the last mile) that my race plan has me increase intensity to pretty darn hard. So while my pace here was about the same at the start, I was making up for it by running uphill.
Here’s me, seconds before crossing the finish line:
And seconds afterwards – my HR still cooking along at 183bpm. It was a few BPM higher before I got around to taking the photo.
Total time was 1:07:12 for an official distance of 16km puts me at 6:45/mile (4:12/km). Not too shabby given the hills. Overall I had no specific time goal (much easier that way), and simply went out to run it according to plan. And within that goal – things went very well. I nailed the plan, and my paces were good (especially considering all the travel I’ve been doing).
Looking at the overall run, I stayed about 6:20-6:30/mile on the flats – and I felt pretty good at those paces. Had there not been a small mountain in the way, I feel like I could have sustained those paces for some time at a reasonable HR level.
I’m looking at doing a marathon in another 45-60 days – though still picking that out. There’s some in Spain that are appealing. With The Girl already picking up a Boston slot for next year (from her race last spring that I ran with her), I’m tempted to secure a charity slot for Boston – but only if I have a valid time on the books again with a BQ time. Of course, you don’t need a BQ time for a Boston charity slot, but it’s just a little mental thing of mine.
After finishing up at the finish line I made my way through the finish line pickup areas. There were excited kids handing out water bottles:
As well as the pickup of the finishers medals:
These ones had some weight to them!
They were just starting the awards ceremony as well. Unfortunately, I finished just off the podium.
I decided to go back and catch The Girl finishing. She figured she’d be about 10-15 minutes behind me.
And yes, again, it was still pouring out:
Sure enough, just a minute or so after I got to the fence, she went flying on by:
Somewhere in the below photo she’s there as well:
We then braved the rest of the rain, picked up our bags (astoundingly quick this time), and walked the 3/4ths of a mile over to the Versailles train station and grabbed a ride home. It’d take about 35-40 minutes on the train back to the city.
With that – race day complete! We spent the remainder of the day catching up on NCIS episodes from last year, and eating noddle soup. It seemed appropriate for a rainy day.
Thanks for reading! And thanks to all those DCR readers who said hello before/during/after the race! Great to see you!