The Chunnel Challenge – Paris and London Marathons, April 6 and 13, 2014

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Three days after our return from Europe the effects of jet lag and fuzzy marathon brain are starting to dissipate. Life is beginning get back to normal. I can begin to see above the stacks of newspapers and mail, most of the crucial bills have been paid, and the laundry is washed and put away. I’d better start writing about my trip before this whole experience becomes a wonderful but hazy blur.

It really doesn’t get much better than the Chunnel Challenge for a marathon addict who loves to travel. The Challenge doesn’t really involve running through the actual tunnel that connects southern England to northern France under the English Channel (although that does sound like it might be fun). Rather, it refers to the challenge put together by Marathon Tours for people who want to do the Paris Marathon on the first weekend in April followed by the London Marathon on the next. To get from France to England, participants would take the Eurostar train through the Chunnel.

I have been to England several times for sightseeing and hikes (see my reports on hiking along the Thames last June and in Cornwall last September) but France has always been off my radar. The idea of completing two marathons in two foreign countries, especially in one I had never visited before, seemed ideal. I signed up. Since my birthday falls at the beginning of April, I reassured my husband that this could be his birthday present to me this year – no card or other gifts required!

The Journey to Europe
So it was that on the morning of my 67th birthday, we left our local airport for Charles de Gaulle via Atlanta. Our flights were uneventful, and we even got an upgrade on the new slightly larger airplanes that Delta had begun using for the very short flight to Hartsfield-Jackson. However, I didn’t really get much sleep on our overnight flight to Paris and on our arrival both Darcy and I were exhausted and blurry-eyed. I had used Viator, the online travel booking resource, to set up a transfer from the airport to our hotel, several tours in Paris, and the transfer from our London hotel to Heathrow at the other end of our trip. We had used Viator in Dublin for our Guinness Brewery tour and were impressed with the ease we had in accessing the tour. One major advantage of using Viator to book tours and transfers is the ability to pay in advance in US dollars. The Paris airport transfer did not work out, unfortunately, despite several calls to the local contact over the course of an hour, so we ended up taking a taxi at a cost of 60 Euros. We were exhausted and just wanted to get to our hotel. Our taxi driver was very kind and managed to circumvent traffic and roadblocks to get us to the Chateau Frontenac in about 45 minutes.

All Chunnel Challenge participants were grouped together in two hotels, the Chateau Frontenac in Paris and the Park Plaza Westminster in London. It was too early to check in to our room, but we left our luggage with the concierge and decided to walk around the area to familiarize ourselves with the neighborhood. We discovered a small grocery store nearby as well as several bakeries and confectionaries. Despite our fatigue, we managed to find our way to the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides Museum and burial place of Napoleon, the Ecole Militaire, and several museums. After crossing the Seine on the Alexander Bridge, we headed back to our hotel. It was now close to 3 pm and we were desperate for some relaxation and rest. We had selected an upgrade option in Paris (heck, it would probably be our only time here so we wanted to live it up); it turned out to be a great idea. Our junior suite was like a small apartment without the kitchen. We had a large bedroom with several sitting areas, a large closet, television, and desk, plus a smaller room with couch and television and of course shower and toilet facilities en suite. It was bright and airy, with large windows that actually opened so we could get fresh air. It turned out to be a perfect place to spend 6 nights.

It was tempting to keep on exploring the city on this, our first day in Paris, but once we checked into our room, we really wanted to get some sleep. We took a two hour nap, walked to the shopping area we had discovered on our earlier foray, bought some bread, wine, cheese, cold cuts, and water. We went back to our room, ate, drank, and slept.

Our Week in Paris
Since the purpose of this blog is to discuss and report on races that are fun for walkers, I won’t spend an outrageous amount of time on our sightseeing adventures. Instead, I will simply describe our itinerary and then highlight what we most enjoyed.

After breakfast at our hotel, we spent the morning of our second day in Paris on a motor coach tour of the major Paris landmarks and avenues: Place de la Concorde, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, the grounds of the Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sorbonne campus of the University of Paris, Place de la Bastille, the Latin Quarter and Left Bank, Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower. In the afternoon, we took the Metro to the Expo at the Convention Centre where I picked up my race packet. I’ll expand more about the Expo in the section on the race itself. Then we returned to our hotel, stopping for more bread, cheese, and wine as well as some huge almond meringues.

The next day was Saturday and time for our all-day tour to Versailles. Our English-speaking guide showed us all around the palace, including the majestic Hall of Mirrors, Marie-Antoinette’s smaller palace (the Petit Trianon), and the musical fountains show in the gardens. All in all, it was a remarkable experience. Sunday was race day, described in detail below. On Monday, Darcy and I went on a pre- arranged 3 hour tour of the Louvre and had a thorough, if somewhat whirlwind, tour of this museum. We hit most of the major ‘hot spots’ – Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, the coronation of Napoleon, and the Mona Lisa. Tuesday was our day to relax in the morning. For lunch that day, we walked to O Chateau, a wine tasting bar where we enjoyed an informative 2 hour wine, cheese, bread, and charcuterie lunch in an intimate and gracious setting. Our lunch companions included visitors from Kansas, Canada, Brazil, and Russia; everyone was in a jolly mood as we ate, drank and chatted.

The Paris Marathon
But the real reason for being in Paris was to do the race. I was excited but very nervous because I had heard such scary stories about the strict time limit. Some of the literature I came across said the time limit was really 5:40, not 6 hours. I have managed to do races in under that time limit (just barely) but not recently. My philosophy was to do the best I could and if it turned out I couldn’t complete the race and get an official time – well, it would be my first DNF – and where better to have a Did Not Finish than in Paris? It would make for a great story though I know I would be very disappointed. So, I was determined to try. When I checked past results, I did notice that some people came in much later than 6 hours. I would give it my best shot.

We went to the Expo on Friday. Packet pickup was extremely efficient and well-organized. First, we had to turn in our medical certificate. Paris, like Rome, requires that all participants have their physicians certify that they are healthy enough to run a marathon. Once these are turned in, we are allowed to proceed to the counters to get our bib and goody ‘backpack.’ Inside was a headlamp (the main sponsor was Schneider Electric, so I guess that made sense – it was certainly a nice bonus gift), samples, a map of Paris, and a booklet of information for racers. The bib had the chip on the back and our name on the front. There were lots of vendors and booths with race items and paraphernalia.

Race day was Sunday and the weather turned out to be perfect. When Darcy walked me to the start line around 8:30 am, the temperature was around 55 degrees. I entered my corral on the Champs-Élysée and realized it was already getting warmer, so I discarded my handwarmers and tied my jacket around my waist. I had decided to wear a short-sleeve shirt and that turned out to be a good decision because the afternoon temperature reached 70 degrees. This was fine for me, although some people complained it was too warm. Only a few porta-potties were set up in each corral and lines were extremely long. Corrals were arranged by color (a neat French touch) and my coral was rose.

Wheelchairs started at 8:35 but my corral didn’t begin until around 1 ½ hours later. For a race with around 45000 runners, the start was amazingly well-coordinated. There was very little pushing and shoving and the roads were wide enough to allow people to pass as needed. The course was outstanding! We passed by all the iconic Paris landmarks; I got chills as I hit mile 18 right by the Eiffel Tower. In addition to the great monuments and cathedrals, we also went through several parks (bois in French) that were peaceful and serene. Spectators lined the more populated areas and were cheerful and encouraging (even if I didn’t understand what they were saying).

The course itself was marked by a blue line on the route, similar to the line marking the Marathon to Athens route in Greece. The blue line cuts all the tangents and so is great to follow to avoid extra mileage. Also on the course were plenty of bands and entertainment, everything from classical to rock to bagpipes to school bands. Aid stations were set up about every 2-3 miles. Instead of paper cups, volunteers handed out bottles of water as well as banana quarters and oranges. I would grab a bottle and hold onto it until I needed a new one, though most runners seemed to drink a few gulps and then throw the bottles away. This occurred in the London race as well and seemed pretty wasteful to me. It also made for tripping hazards in both races. The area around the aid stations could also be precarious because of slippery cobblestones and orange peels; however, volunteers tried their best to keep the course clean.

About halfway, I met up with another walker, Rebekah from northern England, and since we were keeping about the same pace, we ended up walking the rest of the race together. It was fun to have someone to talk to; while I usually keep to myself at the beginning of a race, once I find my pace, having company is enjoyable. I crossed the finish line in 5:56:09, just under 6 hours, and it turned out there were around 500 people behind me. What a relief! A volunteer placed a gold medal around my neck and another volunteer handed me a black tech short-sleeve finisher’s shirt (size small – it even fits). Darcy met me at the finish line and we made what seemed like an extraordinary long walk back to our hotel. I was ecstatic and ready for a shower and nap.

The Chunnel
On Wednesday, all of the Chunnel Challenge participants met in the lobby of our hotel to board the motor coaches that would take us to the Gare du Nord station where we waited for our Eurostar train to arrive. The train arrived right on time and we entered pleasant compartments with comfy seats. Our large luggage was put in a compartment at one end of each car and we kept our smaller bags with us. The landscape we viewed from the train was mostly pastoral, with meadows and cows and pastures. Right before Calais, France, we entered the tunnel that took us under the English Channel (how neat), until we reached St. Pancras Station in England. There another motor coach took us to the Park Plaza Westminster. Since it was around 2:30, we could check in to our room; this time we had a small suite, roomy and attractive, though not as large and luxurious as our Paris suite.

Our First Night in London
Once settled in our room, Darcy and I decided to go to the Expo that afternoon. Because the Expo was a fair distance from our hotel, we didn’t want waste to a valuable sightseeing day making the long trip. The Waterloo tube station was close to our hotel so we each bought an Oyster card (for ease in making multiple trips on the Underground) and made our way to the ExCel Exhibition Centre, site of the Expo. We picked up my bib, IPICO chip, and a goody bag with a couple of samples and a spectator guide. There were vendors selling clothes, shoes, and other race-related items and lots of booths advertising other races.

There was also a booth selling ale and offering free samples. I selected a small Dixie-cup size of ale and took a taste. It was lukewarm. Some warning bell went off in my head; I remembered drinking room-temperature ale on my 2nd night in Cornwall and getting terribly sick as a result. It was just a tiny cup and I downed it before I thought much about it. We made our way back to the hotel and searched for a place to eat. All the local pubs were filled and we could not find a seat anywhere. We tried a nearby Italian restaurant but they had a long waiting list. Finally we ate a hamburger in our hotel and went to bed.

Oh To Be In England
I woke early on Thursday and began reading my guidebook on London, selecting the places I wanted to visit each day. Breakfast opened at 6:30 and Darcy and I were there ready to go. Suddenly I felt ill and had to return to the room to lie down. Our first stop was to be the British Museum and since it didn’t open until 10, Darcy suggested I remain in bed until then. It didn’t really help but I was willing to try and stick to our schedule. We took the tube to the Museum but the rocking motion of the train made me queasy. Entry to the Museum is free and we tried to hit the highlights, including the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, and Egyptian mummies, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of that morning. We went back to the hotel and I went to bed, not to arise until the next morning. So much for our first day of sightseeing. My guess is that I have a strong sensitivity to unpasteurized ale.

On Friday I was much better. After I ate a light breakfast, I was ready to go. We decided to walk instead of taking public transportation, just to minimize the chances of another bout of nausea. We toured the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Soho, Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Horse Guards, Scotland Yard, and Westminster Abbey. At Westminster, we had cream tea in the Cellarium Café and then stayed for Evensong. It was a delightful day.

I was up for trying the Tube again, so on Saturday we journeyed to the British Library and spent several glorious hours there, examining the Magna Carta, Shakespearean folios, Gutenberg bibles, Beatles lyrics, rare stamps, and other treasures. Then we walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral, took the audio tour, had a bite to eat in the restaurant, and walked back to our hotel, passing the London Eye and several other sights. I wanted to visit the Imperial War Museum but it turned out to be under renovation until July 2014. Instead we went to the Florence Nightingale Museum right behind our hotel. After a light dinner we turned in for the night.

The next day was Sunday and it was time to get ready for the race.

The London Marathon
I was not worried at all about this race. There was a 7 hour time limit and the finish line would be open for 8 hours. The course was marked with blue lines as in Paris and Athens. There were lots of racers and I knew I would not get lost. I felt a few twinges in my right calf and ankle but nothing to worry about.

On race morning I rose early and had tea and a muffin. Marathon Tours had arranged for special buses to take us to the start in Greenwich, 26.2 miles away, and I boarded the first bus at 8 am. Half an hour later, we arrived at the start. It was extremely well-organized, with plenty of porta-potties (even volunteers to help you find an empty one), changing tents for men and women (these provided a good place to stay out of the wind and cold), and large colored blimps that designated the individual corrals. There was an information tent and one that provided runners with tea and coffee and fruit. There was even a large screen that showed the start line and bands. It seemed the organizers thought of everything. I was very impressed. I was also very cold. Temps were in the 40’s and the breeze made it seem even colder. I stayed inside the women’s changing tent until time to move to my corral.

The wheelchairs and elites began around 9 am but the mass start didn’t begin until 10 am. It took about 15 minutes for me to reach the starting line. The course is point to point, from Greenwich to the finish just past Buckingham Palace. It is flat and supposed to be fast, but right away I had problems. First I felt my muscles tighten up because of the cold and the long wait. Then my sore calf and ankle began to throb. I ignored the pain and pushed on regardless. After a couple of miles, I began to feel better but I never really was able to achieve a good pace.

Aid stations were plentiful, and after mile 3 seemed to be placed close to every mile marker. Once again, bottles of water and bottles of energy drink were given to runners, and volunteers handed out jelly bellies and other candies. The race seemed much more crowded than the Paris Marathon and I am not sure why, since the number of entrants was about the same.

There were several things that unsettled me about the London race. The noise from the crowds was overwhelming; huge numbers of spectators lined the course and created a general sense of pandemonium, whistling, ringing bells, screaming. The music from bands along the course was just LOUD rather than helpful. It all reminded me unpleasantly of the New York City Marathon. I realize that many people are energized by raucous spectators but I just get a headache.

Another thing I found annoying was that spectators cheered only for people who had their names on their clothes or costumes. Most people, probably veterans of this race, indeed had their names emblazoned on their shirts or placards. Had I realized this, I would have tried to print my name on my vest or I would have carried a funny sign that would have called attention to me. Our bibs really should have had our names imprinted on them. That seemed a major oversight.

Finally, I was very unimpressed with the course itself. There were only a few areas that were worth more than a glance – the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace. That meant that there were a number of very boring miles that ranged along storefronts and docks and housing projects. It was extremely boring and that, combined with the screaming crowds, made me eager for the race to end. You might think that the combination of boredom and noise would have pushed me to a faster finish, but my sore leg kept me from moving very fast. I was relieved to finally cross the finish line with a time of 6:11: 51.

A volunteer removed the chip from my shoe, another volunteer placed a heavy gold medal around my neck, and one more gave me a goody bag with a shirt, bottles of water and energy drink, and a granola bar. The shirt was a short sleeve cotton tee which would have been fine with me if it had fit. Unfortunately, the shirts were all one size – huge! This was another area where the race organizers could have made a better choice.

Despite my disappointment with the London race, I was glad I did it once, just as I was happy to do NYC once. The Challenge was indeed a challenge, true to its name, and one I felt I conquered.

Darcy met me in the finish line area and we pushed our way through hordes of people to finally reach our hotel. I was anxious to shower and rest before we attended our Challenge Celebration in the bar of the Park Plaza. There, the Marathon Tour organizers for this trip – Scott, Jacqui, and Jane – had a reception for us, with drinks and appetizers, a special medal, and a tee shirt. It was a great way to end a wonderful trip.

Overall Impressions of Both Races
I’m glad I had the chance to do both races but if I had to choose to do one of them again, Paris would be the one, hands down. Paris had the more interesting course, the best mix of spectators and entertainment, and a lot of extras – a bib which included my name, a nice medal, and a shirt that fits.

The Trip Home

We left for home the next morning. Our flight from Heathrow was on time but still it was a long flight to Atlanta and then home. Somewhere after going through Customs, Darcy lost his passport, and we spent awhile retracing our steps and visiting Delta’s lost and found. It never did show up, so we reported it the next day. Not surprisingly, the passport was eventually found but not until after we had already initiated the process to get a new one. We consider it lucky that the passport was lost after we had arrived back in the States. Otherwise, we might still be in Europe!