Every June since my freshman year of high school I’ve run the Tacoma Sound to Narrows. It’s a 12-kilometer road race through Tacoma’s Ruston neighborhood and Point Defiance Park and this would have been my seventh year in a row. Along with Thanksgiving and my little brother’s high school graduation, the Sound to Narrows was one of the things I was pretty bummed about missing this year, so I decided to find myself a replacement on this side of the pond.
Searching through websites like Active Europe and Courir en France, I was able to find a race in Paris scheduled for the same weekend as the Sound to Narrows back home. La Francilienne was only 10 kilometers long, but with a course that wound through the hills of Montmartre, I had a feeling this race would be able to challenge the S2N’s reputation as having one of the hilliest courses around. I paid and registered through Active Europe and excitedly circled June 10th on my calendar, but on June 9th I began to realize that if this race was indeed going to be my Sound to Narrows, it was going to be the horribly disorganized, very French version.
Looking up directions the night before the run, I found a notice on the sponsor’s website – because of the first round of legislative elections (to take place June 10th as well), the race would be postponed until June 24th. That’s odd, I thought, Isn’t the second round of elections happening on June 24th? Sure enough a few days later a new notice appeared on the website – La Francilienne would in fact not be taking place until July 8th – this morning.
Since my goals for the S2N are usually along the lines of Don’t die and don’t walk, I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation for my French fun run. Rachael and I got home late last night from visiting a Science Po friend at his home near Lyon and had a dinner of sandwiches on the TGV in lieu of the optimal pre-race carb load. I woke up at 8h30 this morning, got dressed in my yoga pants and a tee shirt and grabbed a Balance Bar (mailed from home) to eat on the metro ride up to Porte de la Chappelle.
I had no idea where to go when I exited the metro, so I found a sporty-looking man and followed him to a tiny parking lot next to the Stade des Fillettes. This was apparently the place, though I could hardly believe it. In Tacoma, the S2N is an event. Roads are shut down for the runners, sponsors set up huge tents of giveaways near the start line in Vassault park and upwards of 10,000 people run it every year. In this tiny parking lot were maybe 10 runners milling around two tables. At the first were two women (who seemed to be the only organizers) checking people in for the race and passing out tee shirts. At the other table were neon curly shoelaces on sale for 10 euro a pair (I don’t know why).
In Tacoma all you need to register for the S2N is a check for 25 dollars – in France, you can’t participate in any physical activity without a note from your doctor certifying that you are physically able. Luckily I knew about this rule from taking hip-hop classes at different studios all year, so I was ready to exchange my certificat médical for a race number when asked for it. With the help of four safety pins, I became number 85, though if there were actually 85 runners there, I’ll eat my running shoes.
As the runners who were already there began stretching in anticipation of the 11h départ of the race, more and more extremely fit people in spandex jogged into the parking lot and pinned on their race numbers. There I was in my scrubbiest work-out clothes in the middle of about 30 people wearing various marathons de Paris tee shirts and one apparently homeless man who ran in a trench coat, frantically changing my race goals from Don’t die to Don’t lose, don’t lose, don’t lose.
In a race of thousands (or of any number in the U.S.) I’d generally fit in at the middle of the pack, but as I was surrounded by more and more spandex it hit me once again that this was France. It’s hard enough to find people who like to run here, let alone sign up for races. It made perfect sense that the only people who would even consider running a road race would be the fittest of the fittest Parisians. In the middle of my process of completely psyching myself out, a sweaty man jogged into the parking lot and sat down for a drink of water. He was apparently the winner of the 5k, but for his efforts there was no finish line, no cheers, no nothing. All he had to do was jog back into the parking lot and pick up his trophy (and change race numbers, as he was also scheduled to run the 10k).
Once the rest of the 5k finishers had arrived, we moved out to the sidewalk to wait for our départ. (Keep in mind that this was a group of 40 people at the absolute maximum.) At ten past 11h the third organizer wandered into our midst and asked what time it was. Oh! Il est parti! Allez-y. (Oh, it’s started! Okay you can go). With no arrows to guide us, we started off following a teenager on a bicycle.
I shouldn’t have been so worried about my speed – even in a race of the fittest French people in Paris, I still found myself smack in the middle of the pack with a nice group of evenly-paced people to run with. Once I got over my fear of completely losing the race, I realized we had something else to worry about – the fact that there was nothing anywhere telling us where to run except for three teenagers on bicycles riding back and forth along the line of runners. For the first few kilometers we were fine – everyone was still close enough together that we always had someone to follow, but as the fastest runners began to fade into the distance and the slowest runners began to peel off behind us, we found ourselves with nothing to lead us.
Somewhere around Gare de l’Est, my racing goal changed yet again. Don’t get lost. Once we lost sight of the last runner ahead of us and the nearest cyclist, my group’s new strategy became Ask people sitting in cafés which way the runners had gone at every large intersection. It worked fine because we were all running for fun – if any of us had time goals in mind this might have been a problem, but we had one couple with a pedometer telling us how far we’d gone and plenty of Parisians willing to guide us.
We spent the last few kilometers of the race running up and down various hills and staircases around Sacre Coeur. At one point we stopped to ask a group of bicyclists if they’d seen any number-wearing runners go by – arms raised immediately to point in about three different directions, so we just chose the least hilly and kept on. At the 9-kilometer mark (provided for us by the pedometer) we spied a group of racers standing halfway up a set of stairs. Il est parti où? (Which direction?) we shouted up to them. After giving us a rather confused look, one of the women pointed up to the top of the stairs. C’est l’arrivée là (That’s the finish line). We stared skeptically up at the lone man with a camera, but jogged up and were greeted with quick congratulations before being sent around the corner to a park for drinks and the race results. I’m not quite sure how we cut an entire kilometer out of our race, but we weren’t fast enough to place anyway so I suppose our inadvertent cheat doesn’t really matter.
In true French fashion, the S2N’s typical fare of orange slices, sliced bread and water from Costco and Roman Meal was replaced by a snack of San Pellegrino sparkling water, apricots, madeleines and brioches. The winners received their trophies, we each received a pile of goodies and all 40 of us headed back down the buttes Montmartres. Being the only American, I was the only one who seemed to notice the total lack of organization, but even I wasn’t really surprised. This is France after all, and what would my experience here be if not baffling and disorganized?