Sunday, July 08, 2007

Lyon Marathon: My first ever marathon - barefoot!

Yes, It has been a while since I updated my blog. Since my last 5k, I have run the Roding Valley 1/2 Marathon and the Greenwich Meridian 10k, as a build up to the Lyon Marathon in at the start of the Summer.

The Lyon Marathon turned out to be a great choice for a first
marathon, outstanding provision of on-coarse refreshments, great
organisation and small number of competitors, compared to the big city
marathons such as London, Paris or New York, where the sheer numbers
can become overwhelming.

Since it was my first marathon, I had some pretty clear goals: To
have fun, to run within my capabilities, not stressing my body too
much, and to do my best, weather permitting, to run the marathon in
less than 4 hours.

Having trained through the winter, I had no experience of running in
the heat. The few really long runs done in ideal running
temperatures of around 10 C.

So, I was aware that I had to err on the side of caution, and listen
to my body and drink water more often than I usually do. With the
temperature at about 20C when we left the house at 7:30am, it seemed
that the forecast of 26C was going to be accurate, so I decided to
take it extra slow to start with. Indeed, the weather did get hotter.

When lining up, wearing the logo on my back,
several people came up and said to me in French "Are you really going
to run the marathon barefoot"? I explained in my broken French that I
had run many half marathons and that this was my first marathon. I
said that a marathon is difficult for everybody, regardless of choice
of footwear. Many people said "Bon courage, pieds-nus!" to which I
replied the same and "Bob chance" or "Bon courage" back, or, "Merci"
if they were spectators. I realised that "Pieds nus"was the French
for barefoot. Repetition is a great teacher, so I'll never forget
what "pieds-nus" means, I heard it over and over during the marathon.

To avoid going out too fast at the start, I had in mind the Aesops
fable about the hare and the tortoise. A marathon is a long way for
me, so I wasn't about to rush from place to place like a hare. I was
going to start like a tortoise and keep it slow!
Also, the tortoise, by taking his time can appreciate the journey more
than the destination, instead of rushing from place to place.

Well, I started slow, right at the very back at the line-up for the
start. For the first few kilometres, I ran along very slowly,
overtaking people whenever I could, but without weaving and wasting
energy. I chatted to a few other runners in my limited French, and
all were friendly.

Many have said that Lyon is the food capitol of France, in a country
that is world famous for it's tradition for cuisine. Well, let me say
that the Lyonaise didn't disappoint in this respect for the Lyon
Marathon! When I arrived at the first refreshment station, which were
placed at 5km intervals throughout the course, I was truly amazed by
the buffet of natural food available. There was plate after plate
containing slices of peeled fresh bananas, slices of fresh oranges,
bottled water, dried bananas, dried apricots, raisins, prunes, dates
and sugar cubes (brown and white) and more I am sure!

After experiencing first-hand this array of food, there was much
temptation scrap my plan of being the tortoise and to sprint
(hare-like) between each 5km "buffet", and eating my fill at each
buffet table to recover between each sprint. In my view, it was just
perfect light food for eating on the run. Maybe next year, I will try
out a this novel marathon strategy - a series of 5km "buffet" intervals!

There are many famous preserved meat sausages in Lyon, and I was
hoping these would not be served on the run. I was right. These were
available at the end, for those who prefer to re-establish their
salt-equilibrium after loosing so much though sweating.

Personally speaking, since gradually adopting a low salt diet I don't
seem to excrete much salt in my sweat as I used to after sport. So
for me, the last thing I felt like was eating a plate-full of salty
food that was served to the runners at the runners village at the end
of the race. I was however, most impressed by this thinking, since
most endurance athletes do prefer to re-saltify themselves - it is
the current wisdom amongst the sport scientists, and many people drink
isotonic drinks that are supposed to do this. I really liked the
Lyonaise approach to this problem involving serving their traditional
preserved meats, instead of some kind of pseudo-scientific chemical
cocktail. Personally though, at the end, I had little appetite since
I had eaten enough light and digestible food. I had a good drink though!

Anyhow, back to the race. Despite the fine food, I stuck to my
original plan and kept moving slowly, tortoise-like. Instead of
walking through these early refreshment stages, I filled my large
expandable cheeks with enough food so to store for later on when I
was really hungry. OK, I made that bit up somewhere around the 30km
stage when my imagination started to wander into surreal mode. In
reality, I stuffed my short pockets with dried bananas, raisins and
sugar cubes.

Many people carried back-packs containing lots of fluids, and many
also seemed to have what looked like heavy looking army-style belts.
Goodness, they must have felt hot lugging around so much stuff! They
were kitted up to the hilt with an ammunition of every type of snacks
and drinks. Maybe they didn't realise there would be such an amazing
buffet available at every 5km mark.

There were also plenty of water-sponging stations to help cool off.
Towards the end, I tended to just ask a volunteer to spray me all over
with a hose, instead instead of grabbing a sponge for my head!

In a park, somewhere just before the 25km stage, I saw my supporters.
Firstly, my fiancée, who offered me a banana. But there was so
much food available on the course that I didn't need food, instead, I
had enough food with me in my pockets, I could have given my
supporters food instead! Her sister who lives in Lyon with her
Lyonaise partner and children were there to cheer me on, and cheer me
loudly they surely did. The younger one, who has just learned how to
walk, was overjoyed to see so many oversized "toddlers" and wanted to
join in.

Quite often during the course, people accompanied their friends on
bicycles and roller-skates. At the 32 kilometre stage, I even spotted
a car in front of me, driving along on the course! For a moment, I
though this was someone lazily supporting their partner by driving
alongside them, perhaps throughout the entire course? No. It was
some cheeky person driving their car through the coarse, for a short
period, rather to the disbelief of the other runners, one who was next
to me started muttering profanities to me in that seemed to my
schoolboy French to involve many different kinds of bodily functions!
The ignorant (and may I say young-looking and able-bodied) driver was
no doubt impatiently looking for a short-cut to drive their car to
their front door. I resisted the temptation to have a
rear-bumper-ride. Imagine the shame of being disqualified during my
first ever barefoot marathon for cheating!

Somewhere before kilometre 32, the course meandered through a park,
and headed along some rough stony trail tracks, for a couple of miles.
Some challenging barefoot running after running thus far! And I
realised I now had just 10 km to run, and that I had exactly an hour
to run it in to go sub 4h. I experienced some tenderfoot discomfort,
so I had to slow right down, and I tried when I could to run alongside
the grass, which was infrequent.

This caused me to loose my rhythm and started to feel a little tired,
and whilst previously I was pulling out a few 8 minute miles out of
the hat quite comfortably, it seemed that running "fast" at a pace of
8 and a half finite miles now seemed like hard work. I was still
overtaking people, as I had been throughout the course, having started
out right at the back. But, it almost felt as though my GPS was
malfunctioning. A brain malfunction, a shift in perception of time
and space was the far more likely explanation.

Somewhere after km 36, beside the river Soane, there was a nice but
very slippery marble-bottomed children's paddling pool, which
stretched along lengthwise beside the riverbank for about 50m. It
was a few centimetres deep at the sides, and towards the middle, there
was a "deep" part that was perhaps a foot deep. With so few children
using the paddling pool, I thought it would be a great way of soothing
my somewhat tender feet and I could cool off legs too by splashing
along. What a contrast from running on those stony trails! I had to
be very careful of my form to avoid slipping over. What a nice way to
practice form, by running on a surface that felt almost as slippery as

Towards the end of this long paddling pool, I cooled off by briefly
submersing as much of myself as I could in the "deep end", much to
the amusement of some spectators. But Oops, I had forgotten that I
had filled both pockets of my shorts with dried fruit and sugar cubes
for an emergency!

A few minutes later, I had to turn my short pockets inside-out and
into a bin, to empty the contents of the
sugary-dried-fruit-chlorinated-gloop into the bin. The English have a
bad reputation for our relationship with food over in here France, and
I no doubt reinforced this stereotype!

Somewhere just after the 41 km marker, I spotted my long-standing
French friend from Grenoble, who I lived with in London many years
ago. I'd previously arranged to meet with him and his new family at
the runner's village at the end, along with my other supporters. Much
to my disbelief, I thought he was running next to me. No. I must be
imagining it. How did he get there onto the course? I then realised
that yes, there he was, running right next to me! So I started to
strike up a conversation with my old friend. He put me straight:
"Stop talking: focus only on finishing strongly!" So, I took this
encouragement and headed off to the finish line, him running behind
me, shouting encouragement. "Well done, just 200m to go now!" He was
now really trying to push me: "Overtake those two in white". I then
turned the corner and saw a welcome site: the 42km marker on the road
and I then the finish line in the distance. My friend was politely
but firmly asked to leave the course. The security official then said
to him "Did you see that barefoot guy?" "Like you, he also didn't have
a race number, did he?". My friend explained that yes, I did have a
race number. Apparently the official simply couldn't believe that I
had run a whole marathon in bare feet: He had convinced himself that I
had joined in at the 41km mark like my friend had, just to sprint to
the finish!

I had something left in my legs to sprint past the two runners wearing
white shorts and vests. I spotted my friend again in the crowds right
at the finish line. Luckily he hadn't upset the security officials
too much, and they left him alone to meet up with me. I finished
feeling strong and well. Stronger in fact, than after my first half
marathon wearing shoes! To be fair, I was less fit overall than I am
now, but I am pleased that I finished so strongly compared many other
runners, the walking wounded and in such hot weather! It was around
26C when I finished. I had enough energy for the rest of the day to
catch up with my old friend and play "pass the baby" with all the
young children, all afternoon. Now, there's a a truly exhausting

First half: 1h54 second half 1h56
Overall marathon time: 3h50m58s