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Special guest writer Susan Gebelein, founder and CEO of Savannah Consulting, an entrepreneurial business leader, executive coach and business advisor, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Tour Eiffel, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Tour Eiffel, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

I first went to Paris at age sixteen and fell in love… with the city. Many years later on a work trip to Paris, I overheard a woman say that she had run the Paris Marathon, beginning at the Arc de Triomphe and running down the Champs-Élysées. I was intrigued. Little did I know that it would take me 10 years to fulfill that dream.

This year, if you are in Paris on April 10th at 8:45a.m. around the Arc de Triomphe, you’ll experience a unique treat – 40,000 people fulfilling their dream of running the Paris Marathon.

After years of training and planning, the moment had arrived. I wait nervously just below the Arc for the race to begin. Music from Black Eyed Peas pulsates, revving up the crowd of 35,000. I meet four delightful British women, all in their 70’s, having run hundreds of marathons and half marathons all over the world ― so much for being impressed with myself.

Paris Marathon, April 2011 Paris Marathon, April 2011

Paris Marathon, April 2010

Large marathons are weird; they begin and you do not go anywhere for several minutes because it takes so long for the runners ahead to get through the starting gate. But soon enough, I’m running down the Champs-Élysées, past the high-end shops and restaurants, past the Grand Palais, pouring into Place de la Concorde (cobble stones ― what a joy to run!). We run down the rue de Rivoli, past the Mayfair, the Inter-Continental, Le Meurice, the Tuileries, the Louvre, Hôtel de Ville and on to Place de la Bastille.

Marathons are supposed to be free of obstacles, but it is nearly impossible to remove the beautiful ironwork marking off lanes on Rivoli, or convince the Parisian drivers to get their cars off the streets. Instead, runners sense and respond to the group dynamic ― as thousands of people race down the street, you hear “voiture,” a gasp from the runners, and you feel the ocean of people move to the right, so that no one runs into a car or the ironwork. The pack works together when it needs to.

The elites are far out in front, looking like gazelles with their long strides and efficient movements. What’s great about a marathon is that you run the same race as the elites, just slower. People line the streets, shouting encouragement to their favorite runners and for all of the runners. “Aller,” you hear throughout the course, especially if you look particularly tired. We’re now into the 12th arrondissement, more neighborhoods and small shops.

I look up ahead and see the 4:15 pacer just front of me ― what a great time. I had planned to be thrilled with any time from 4:30 to 4:45. I need to watch my speed so that I do not tire myself out too early. Now into Bois de Vincennes, a beautiful park on the east side of the city, complete with the Château de Vincennes on the small hill to the right. Running the park, with its greenery, dogs, and families out for a stroll on paths is invigorating.

During the Twin Cities Marathon I count breeds of dogs, the New York Marathon the different ethnic musical bands, but at the Paris Marathon it is the different kinds of fresh fruit for the runners. And the water comes in small bottles, not the small paper cups that you have to train to drink from without spilling. Trust the environmentally conscious Europeans; of course they provided recycling bins for the plastic bottles.

I dash out of the park and into neighborhoods where the smell of bread and coffee was overwhelming. I hit the half marathon mark on Avenue Daumesnil, at the fastest time I have ever run a half. I’m thrilled things are going so well, but after fifteen marathons, I’m respectful of the fact that you can never safely predict a race’s final result.

Now we’re on what is essentially the frontage road for the Seine. We’re back to sightseeing: Notre Dame, the other side of the Louvre and Tuileries. Down into the tunnels and up out into the sunshine. Coming out of one tunnel, we are greeted by French cabaret music from a local group. So charming, the musicians bring smiles and cheers from the runners. And, oh ― there is the Eiffel Tower, off to my left.

Mile 20 is just off Avenue President Kennedy, going into Bois de Boulogne, which to me is Paris’ version of Central Park. Trails, walkways, lakes, ballparks, children’s parks and lots of green. I’m tired, my legs hurt and I’ve lost my last goo packet. Then seeing a water stop, I’m greeted by my favorite energy fruit ― golden raisins! I burst out laughing, thinking of the impossibility of this happening in the U.S. as I grab a handful of raisins from the huge box on the table. U.S. lawyers would have a field day with that.

The raisins are just what I need to run the last five miles in the park to Avenue Foch.  Before the marathon I had tried to find out specifically where the marathon ended, so I could visualize it. But, no success. Paris visibly prepared for the marathon only the night before ― no banners, no barriers waiting to be set up, no indication on the streets that thousands of people would be here the next day.

On to Avenue Foch, running the boulevard, past beautiful old homes, and there it is ― the finish line at 26.2 miles or 42K. I glance at the time on my watch and realize I could come in close to my personal best of 4:30. Energized, I race to the end, coming in at 4:34:12, just short of qualifying for the Boston Marathon (the only marathon other than the Olympics for which you have to qualify) I am thrilled! My dream surpassed!

Exhausted, my legs aching, and my thoughts whirling from the elation of the run, my time, and my usual thoughts of never running a marathon again, I look for my patient husband. Together, we watch runners cross the finish line and listen to their supporters cheering. I think back to my first visit to Paris as a teenager ― the thrill and romance of the city has not waned. What will be my next adventure in this enchanting place?

Susan Gebelein ran the Barcelona Marathon on March 6, 2011. Susan is founder and CEO of Savannah Consulting, is an entrepreneurial business leader and executive coach and business advisor to leaders in the Global 1000, national and local businesses and educational organizations. She specializes in executive coaching, developing global mindset for leaders who need to influence people from cultures different from their own, business vision and strategy building, executive team alignment and strategic human resources.

Susan was an executive at PDI, a global consulting firm for over 25 years. She has worked and run all over the world. She is the primary author and editor of  The Successful Manager’s Handbook and The Successful Executive’s Handbook, selling over one million copies world-wide.

Vocabulary: French to English Translations

Aller: To go.
Arrondissement: The 100 French departments are divided into 342 arrondissements, which may be translated into English as districts.
Voiture: Carriage, wagon, or other wheeled vehicle.

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Text copyright ©2011 Susan Gebelein
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.