Paris Marathon Race Report: The Good, The Bad, and The Meh

First, let me say that the 2016 Paris Marathon was not my best marathon. My goal pre-race was to BQ (3h 37m) and that’s what the pace band on my wrist spelled out. Although I was within one minute of my target time at the 1/2 marathon mark, by mile 15 I’d come to grips that a BQ was not in the cards and my new goal was to finish in less than 4 hours and not embarrass myself.  By mile 21, my new, new goal was to finish before I collapsed into a quivering blob of protoplasm on the side of the road. My point is that this race report might be slightly biased.


The dark red mile markers show definite evidence of protoplasmic degeneration at splits 23-25

The Good

The Paris Marathon has been on my bucket list ever since I lived in France as an expat seven years ago. I was registered in 2014, but couldn’t run due to an injury. This year the stars finally aligned: I was registered, I was healthy, and I was in Paris at the right time. 

It's the largest marathon that I’ve run and the second largest marathon in the world.  This year  the 40th anniversary  there were 57,000 entrants, 43,317 starters, and 41,708 finishers. 

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57,000 runners on the wall of names at the Expo

I thought the race was very well organized. The Expo (which is enormous — bigger than Boston’s, it seemed) was open for three days. I went to the Expo the first day it opened (Thursday) and the crowds were quite manageable. I’ve heard it’s a zoo by Saturday, though, and I believe it. Barriers had already been set up at the entrance of the Salle de Running anticipating long queues just to get into the building. 

Crowd control heading into the Salle de Running

All races in France require athletes to have a doctor’s written permission to enter. There’s a blank form on the Paris Marathon website which basically says, in French, “It’s no skin off my butt if so-and-so runs a marathon.” I printed the blank, faxed it to my physician who signed it, and faxed it back. 

There’s a box on the form for a “doctor’s stamp”. I imagined something like a fancy embossed seal with a caduceus in the middle surrounded by the Latin phrase for “In medical insurance we trust”. My doctor used his rubber ink stamp for his office’s mailing address. (Shrug.)

Once in the Expo I took my medical certificate to the first row of tables where a volunteer accepted it. Neither he nor I said anything about the sad state of medical stamping in the US. He checked off the “medical certificate” box on my entry form and I moved to the next set of tables to collect my bib.

Once I had my bib and runner’s swag I went to find my name on the Wall. Then I wandered the booths. 

The names on the Wall are almost in alphabetical order

I was pleasantly surprised to find a Gatorade booth! (I think it’s the first time I’ve seen an entire booth dedicated to Gatorade at a running Expo.) I’d been regretting my decision not to bring some energy drink for my hand held water bottle and was not looking forward to experimenting with strange European sports drinks with flavors like “elderberry-dandelion-flax”. Instead I got to stick with traditional USA, 100% natural flavors like “cool blue” or (my favorite) “fierce grape”.

The great organization continued on race day. The Paris Marathon uses a seeded start. You predict your finish time when you register and your bib is color coded. There are six massive corrals set up on the Champs-Elysées. Race officials check your bib to make sure that you get in the correct corral. (I saw some poor piker get turned away at the 3h45m corral. He hung his head in shame. Last I saw him, he was headed back towards the 6h+ runners.) 

Corrals close 15 minutes before their assigned start times so expect plenty of the obligatory stand-around-waiting pre-marathon ritual. Fortunately, we had entertainment to pass the time: a dancing flamingo on a stage.

Disco flamingo!

The race course itself is pretty awesome overall. You start on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triumph, run past the Place De La Concorde, down the Rue de Rivoli past the Louvre, past the Place De La Bastille, loop around the Bois de Vincennes, run back along the Seine, past Notre Dame, past the Eiffel Tower, loop through the Bois de Boulogne, and end up back at the Arc de Triumph. You run past some iconic features of Paris, in some public parks, and along the river. It’s interesting and relatively flat.

I thought the crowds were plentiful and supportive. There were lots of shouts of “Allez, allez” all through out the course and I got lots of personal encouragement when I was walking “You can do it, Phil”!* (Your name and nationality is printed on your bib.) I was wearing a Texas flag tech shirt and a red, white, and blue cowboy hat and during the run I counted 17 shout outs of “Go Texas!” (or something along those lines) … and 11 shouts outs of “Go Chile!”. 


Flag Confusion: Chile (est. 1817) vs. Texas (est. 1839)

*Of course, they said it in French: “You can do eet, Phil.

The Bad

So why was it such a bad marathon for me? Honestly, I have no idea. It was warm, around 70 degrees by 11 AM, but while that’s not ideal, it's not crazy hot either. I’d done two 18 milers and one 20 mile training run as per my training schedule so in theory I was fit. I had been in Paris for 2 weeks for business prior to the race so I can't blame jet lag. I bonked badly despite eating my gels on schedule and drinking my Gatorade. I didn’t sprint off the start. I was on target at the halfway point. 

I really have no clue what went wrong. It just wasn’t my race.**

But Im not eager to sign up and try it again, mostly because of the extremely crowded field. Yes, you run past one historic location after another in Paris, but its not like you can enjoy the scenery. At no point during the race could I have taken a jump rope, swung it around my head, and not hit another runner. (And there were a couple of times when I wished I’d had a jump rope with me for some judicious naughty-runner whacking.) There were many, many times when runners would randomly come together and form a temporary moving logjam in front of me. That would either force me to slow down until I could pas them or start dodging and weaving. (This happened for the entire 26.2 miles. I actually got elbowed by a fellow runner in the last two tenths of a mile of the race.)

I was able to run my pace — most of the time — but I never knew when I’d suddenly have to make an adjustment. So I was constantly watching the other runners — not enjoying the scenery. I remember looking up at one point and thinking “Yup, that’s Notre Dame” and then going back immediately to DefCon 2.

I didn’t get to enjoy the scenery, I didn’t get to watch the crowds and see what kind of unusual French signs they were holding up , and I didn’t get to “hang out” with my fellow runners — you know, that group of 30 people who are all running your pace and form that amorphous group that surrounds you for an hour in the middle of the race.

The Meh

If you read reviews of the Paris Marathon and you’ll find people complaining about French men urinating in public during the race. Its true; they do. On the other hand, every time Ive run the Twin Cities Marathon, invariably at least a dozen guys would peel off to pee in the shrubs on Lyndale Avenue  before we even got to mile 2. So it’s not like public urination is completely unknown in the US. It seems that if we Americans run 25 steps away from the crowd to pee, Frenchmen are quite comfortable only running 12 steps away in the same situation. We think, “They’re urinating in public!”. In fact, they are merely urinating in public closer. It’s a matter of degree.

Another thing that other reviewers seem to perseverate on are the cobblestones. (The course follows the streets. Some sections of some streets are paved with cobblestones.) These are not the cobblestones that were laid by the Romans 2000 years ago that were designed to knock the loose teeth from your jaw as you drove to market in your cart. These are modern cobblestones. They are about as treacherous as trail running on a well-worn path. Just as you’d keep your eyes open for the occasional root or half buried rock, if you watch your footing on the cobblestones you won’t have any issues.

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The not-so-awful cobblestones

And my final “meh” observation of the Paris Marathon: the finisher medal. Previous year’s designs were awesome. This year, it was the antithesis of awesome. My theory is that this year, the designer — whose name is actually proudly (?) marked on the back — went on strike. It is the Paris Marathon after all. 

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“So what if it’s boring? No one will notice. It’s not like we’re giving these away to 40,000 people, right? Oh, wait…"

The wall of what could have been. These are the designs of past finisher medals. The medal from 2014 is awesome. Actually, they’re all awesome. What were they thinking this year?


Image courtesy of Trek And Run

**I wasn’t the only one. People were dropping like flies in the Bois de Boulogne… or so it seemed. I saw around eight people lying on the grass in those couple of miles. Some were lying on their backs taking a much needed rest. I saw at least two runners curled into fetal balls. (They did not look good.) And about four runners were being treated by paramedics — one on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance.

Sadly, ambulance sirens were almost a constant backdrop in the Bois de Boulogne. And I missed a fantastic opportunity to make a recording of a dog howling in perfect sync with the sirens. I passed a couple with their pet German Shepard sitting on his haunches, nose in the air, and howling away. I was so out of it that I was about 50 yards past them when it clicked, “OMG, that’d make an awesome video!” but by then there was nothing in the world that was going to persuade me to turn around. 

Oh well. If I ever do run the Paris Marathon again, it will be to find… that… dog.

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At the start


Allez Chile, Allez!

 © Phil Miller 2014, 2015, 2016