Normandy Marathon (6. October 2002)
Down on the South Coast we have the luxury, to a certain extent, of being able to easily enter ‘foreign’ races, as though they were almost local races. Nevertheless, I have always assumed that the cost of a medical certificate (as required by a recent French law) was a major barrier to be considered when planning to run a race in France. This year I had a small amount of money left over from the sum I had allocated for my holidays and I am actively trying to learn French, so I thought I would actually enter myself for the Normandy Marathon.
Being quoted a price of 60-80 pounds when I made my appointment at the surgery, it turned out that the doctor was surprised she hadn't seen me for ages, gave me a quick examination, said I was probably one of the fittest people in her practise, and gave me a medical certificate for 10 pounds.
Furthermore, the round ferry trip to Le Havre, complete with cabin on the outward journey, only cost 23.50 pounds.
So on the Sunday morning, it was straight off the ferry and on to one of the buses taking runners to Honfleur (actually the other side of Honfleur, right on the Seine Estuary). First problem cropped up straightaway when collecting my number - the organizers had no safety pins. So I had to scrounge some 'epingles' - not straightforward, but good practise in speaking French. The weather was very threatening at this stage – it was beginning to rain, while we were still in the morning darkness. As it happens, the weather turned out to be OK in the end.
Disturbingly (I thought), you can actually see Le Havre from the Start, although I couldn't go as far as actually making out the 74-meter-high tower of the Town Hall which is adjacent to the Finish.. I carried out my warm-up routine by running along the seashore, before joining the start line, had a few words with a runner from Lordshill in Southampton who came over for a quick chat, and we were off.
We threaded our way thru Honfleur itself and out onto country roads. After about 8 kms., we approached another town – which turned out to be Honfleur again ! At around 13 kms. (refreshingly, there was never any mention of these quaint, outdated 'miles'), we reached the Seine, running South along the bank for a fair distance - this was the run-up to the Normandy Bridge. Obviously we weren't approaching the bridge directly - we had to run alongside the pillars of the approach road before climbing up to road level.
Surprisingly, there was no relief here because there was then a quite nasty climb up to the crown of the bridge (good views though). This climb must have lasted for about a kilometre, since I now know that the bridge is 2.141 kilometers long
By 25 we were definitely getting close to Le Havre, and by 28 we were within the docks area. Towards the end, as fatigue set in, it was very hard-going trying to compare the exact distance yet to cover with my previous experience in Britain – yet another reason (if another one is needed) to institute the immediate introduction of the metric system into British long-distance running.
The town center is approached by running along the dock adjacent to the main Railway Station, then along the Bassin du Commerce (another dock), before looping around, past the ‘Elephant’s Foot’ (an arts complex designed by Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia, which is officially called the Volcano), and heading off in the general direction of the ferry port.
The center of Le Havre was completely destroyed during the war – to be truthful it was destroyed by the British Air Force as part of their desperate struggle to dislodge the Germans, Paris being liberated before Le Havre. The job of reconstruction was given to Auguste Perret – the ‘wizard of reinforced concrete’. It is while you are in the area of the Bassin du Commerce that you first encounter Perret’s buildings, built in a uniform style, and you meet them again in the run-in to the Finish.
After heading in the general direction of the ferry-port, you turn off onto the 'coast road'. Just before the turn-off, on your left you have the district of St. Francois, the pre-war red-light district, much frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre. It too has been re-build in a uniform style, although more traditional. Nevertheless it has no doubt lost a lot of the character that Sartre knew of.
Those with a cultural bent will know that while running alongside the Outer Bassin, you are experiencing a view almost identical to that portrayed by Monet in his seminal painting 'Impression, Sunrise', which gave the art movement its name. On your right-hand side is the Malraux Art Gallery, containing many Impressionist paintings, which has a glass wall facing the Bassin, presumably to reproduce this said view.
Next we approach the 'seaside', and pass first the pleasure marina, and then as we reach the beach itself, we encounter the 40 km. marker.
Actually having a 40 km marker is a direct reminder that this was the original marathon distance before it was lengthened in 1908. Recently, I have learnt that the Olympics were moved to London from Italy because of problems caused by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. If it hadn't been for that volcano, the length of the marathon would probably have stayed at 40 kilometers to this very day.
Anyway, the 40 km marker was almost in line with the Avenue Foch which was the finishing stretch. To get the extra 2 kilometers in, we had to run along the beach, adjacent to all the cafes with customers consuming cool beer etc. (this was quite a warm day by now), and then back along the parallel road. As indicated, the run-in was along the Avenue Foch until the finish at the Town Hall.
The weather by now was sunny and quite pleasant as I lay in front of the Town hall - quite a contrast with my remembrance of London when I was fully wrapped up against the cold, and some feat for an October day. Showers afterwards were fairly 'basic', but at least this facility was available.
Loosely speaking, spectator support was good, as long as you are not expecting something similar to the likes of London. Towards the end there weren't many stretches where I felt I could take a 'brief walk' without someone shouting at me from the sidelines. The stretches between 20 and 30 were a bit of an exception, involving routes seemingly 'in the middle of nowhere', and with at least one which seemed to go on for ever – a rock group in the distance eventually reviving my ‘enthusiasm’ .
Of the race itself, about 1500 started and about 1300 finished. It was won by Andrei Gladishev of Russia (2:20:44) and Celine Cormerau of France (2:41:35). Since the race was also designated as the French Championships, the men’s title went to Samir Baala, who finished two seconds behind Gladishev. Samir is the brother of Mehdi Baala, the current European champion at 1500 meters. Last year’s winner, Patrick Tambwe, had to withdraw at about 30 kms..
My medical certificate is valid for one year, so maybe the Caen Marathon on 15. June 2003 could be my next French run - has anyone any experience of this race ?