Ever dreamt of running at the Olympic Games? I certainly have, but it has been something so far out of the reach of a hobby runner like myself that it has always remained just a fantasy. Until a few weeks ago, that is! For the first time in history, the Paris 2024 organisers announced that the Olympic Marathon race would be opened up to be a mass participation event. Lucky amateur runners would have several chances over the following couple of years to earn an Olympic place by taking part in special events and competitions. I instantly knew that I wanted to be involved, but there was more exciting news to come!
The first event to win an Olympic place was coming up soon and would take part in Paris on 31st October 2021. There would be a very special 5km race along the famous boulevard of the Champs-Elysees in Paris, against none other than the marathon World Record holder, and personal hero of mine, Eliud Kipchoge. This was definitely an opportunity not to be missed, and I duly signed up for a ticket straight away!
Travel from my home in London to Paris was straightforward via Eurostar, the high speed train service meaning the journey took less time than travelling to many UK-based race destinations. COVID restrictions are also quite low right now, meaning no isolation or PCR testing was needed, but there was plenty of checking of my ‘Pass-sanitaire’ vaccination record, even to get food from Burger King. As I arrived at the Arc-de-Triomphe on the Saturday evening to collect my race number and shirt, I began to contemplate how the race would work.
All runners who managed to complete the 5km course ahead of Eliud Kipchoge would win their Olympic Games entry ticket. But how could I possibly beat this legendary marathon runner who can knock out a 5km in 14 minutes or so? My best time of late was more like 26 minutes. Luckily, there was a plan. To give us mere mortals a fair chance, we would be given a head start! We had been pre-assigned into starting groups according to our 5km ability, with the slowest group starting first, and Eliud right at the back of the field after some delay. We had no information about exactly how long the head start was likely to be, so it was incredibly hard to predict my chances of success. Had I come all this way for nothing?
The atmosphere on the Sunday morning was electric, as around 3000 of us gathered at the start line wearing our colour coordinated t-shirts corresponding to our pace groups. I had been assigned the 30 minute 5km pen, and instructed that we were not allowed to overtake the line of pacemakers at the start of our group. I felt confident of being able to keep up with the 30 minute pace, so thought it would just be down to the logistics of the race timings as to whether I would win my Olympic ticket. Eliud Kipchoge arrived to much excitement and applause as he ran alongside our starting pens to warm up. He was looking in great shape!
At 10 am the first wave started with the slowest group of runners. A 5 minute pause went by, and then my group were off! I was rather surprised to see my line of pacemakers shooting off down the boulevard at a blistering pace, significantly faster than I had expected. Had I gone into the wrong group? Had I misunderstood the race instructions which were all in French? I crossed the first km mark in 5 minutes, already a couple of hundred metres behind the leaders and started to panic slightly. I was surprised again at the 2km mark to see the pacers all now stopped at the side of the Pont Alexandre bridge, merrily waving us on ahead. Looking back, I believe this was a deliberate strategy from the pacers to thin out the crowds, but at the time I was quite confused and running at a much quicker pace than I had planned. We reached the turnaround point at 2.5km and doubled back towards the bridge. I saw a tidal wave of the third group of faster runners in light blue T-shirts hurtling over the bridge towards us about to catch us up, shortly followed by the super-fast fourth group (15-20 minute 5km runners) in their royal blue. My black-shirted gang became swallowed up in the stampede as the different speeds of runners all mingled together.
I scanned the opposite side of the road in an attempt to spot the sole white t-shirt of Kipchoge who would be making his way through the field, but to no avail. Where was he? Perhaps already close behind, ready to overtake? We finally turned back onto the Champs Elysees and I saw the finishing arch gleaming at the top of the hill, agonisingly far in the distance. The last km was a desperate slog uphill. My lungs were crying out to slow down and every time I looked up, the red archway seemed no closer. Only the thought of Olympic glory (ok, Olympic participation) kept my legs turning over.
Finally the finishing line arrived, and I stopped my watch at 25:26, a very fast (for me) time reflecting the huge effort put in. I could barely breathe but cobbled together a few words of French to ask the runners around me ‘Did we win? Is Kipchoge here yet?’ Nobody seemed to know, until suddenly there he was, the legend himself, crossing the line behind me to great applause, instantly swept up by assistants and the camera crew. I couldn’t believe it. I had actually beaten him!
I left the race area in a bit of a daze and walked down to the river to sit down and reflect. A text message pinged up onto my watch confirming that I would be running in the Paris 2024 Olympic marathon, and I finally let myself believe that it had really happened. What a day! I was very lucky to have been successful, as there were thousands of runners behind me in the race who did not make it round in time. Many were slower runners than me, but there were also many fast runners for whom the head start timing system didn’t quite work out in their favour. This video from Kipchoge’s team showed that he certainly didn’t pull his punches on the day, effortlessly striding past hordes of runners powerless to keep up with his sub-15 minute run.
So that’s it! I now have just under 1000 days to get ready for my Olympic debut. Would you like to join me? The Kipchoge event may be over but there will be many more ways to earn yourself a place over the next couple of years. Make yourself an account over at Club Paris 2024 (use the translate webpage function if you need!), connect your activity tracker and you can be in the next draw for places too. Hope to see some of you on the starting line.