From the Champs Elysees to Woolwich

Paris has sights, London has people. Julie Welch runs the rule on both races
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The Independent Online

Today I will line up at the start of a marathon for what is, literally, a second Sunday running. A strange urge for punishment will have me shuffling impatiently in Greenwich Park, fetchingly clad in a binliner to ward off the cold, exactly seven days after the same chilly, edgy wait in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Today I will line up at the start of a marathon for what is, literally, a second Sunday running. A strange urge for punishment will have me shuffling impatiently in Greenwich Park, fetchingly clad in a binliner to ward off the cold, exactly seven days after the same chilly, edgy wait in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Actually, it won't be quite the same. Then, the 30,000-person juggernaut of which I was part headed off down the Champs Elysées through the Jardins des Tuileries. We ran along handsome boulevards, past shops displaying strawberries, quail and asparagus, and restaurants from which in less health-conscious times I used to stagger out on a tide of Beaujolais. Today we will set off down Charlton Way and past Safeway, which as usual will be having an Exhibition of Empty Cardboard Boxes. Paris has the Rue de Rivoli and the bridges of the Seine. London has the dual carriageway out of Woolwich and the underpass beneath the Blackwall Tunnel Approach.

I'd better explain. I had always wanted to run Paris, my favourite of all the world's cities, but on the other hand I'm a South Londoner and today's race is our local sports day. We do our training round the heath and on the park where it starts, and become as excited at the sighting of the first blue line of portable loos on Blackheath as letter-writers to the Times do upon hearing the first cuckoo. No way do I want to miss a fourth successive year of elbowing back the opposition in the crush round the Cutty Sark, coming over all emotional at the sight of Tower Bridge and experiencing a dark night of the soul in the Blackfriars underpass when I have given my all for 22 miles and it is not enough to prevent me from being outsprinted by some bastard dressed as a rhino. The answer has been to go for both.

With the effects of Paris still in my legs, I don't expect to be running for long today. I'll be moving at a sedate jog by Surrey Quays and prophesy a survival shuffle by Canary Wharf. I am particularly not looking forward to The Highway, which, since the course was changed to cut out Cable Street, requires you to run it in both directions. Sub-three-hour marathoners near the front of the pack have the thrill of seeing the race leaders come roaring back up towards them like the head of a fire-breathing dragon. Those who are on for something closer to sub-five can expect a more disconcerting experience as a wave of mid-pack runners bear down on them wild-eyed, gasping and plastered in sweat and the remains of horrible sticky carbohydrate drinks. This is when you think, "They're seven miles ahead of me. If they look bad, what on earth must I look like?"

At least we will have the London crowd to encourage us through the remaining, draining miles when niggling aches and pains are magnified into extreme discomforts. The Paris Marathon has sights, but London has the people. I know, because it has happened every year since the first time I ran it, that somewhere along this gruelling trudge someone will bellow out my name and I will forget that my feet feel as if they are attached to cannonballs and force myself back into a run. So will a hundred other women in the pack called Julie.

In contrast, the most memorable thing about last week was not the dramatic tolling of the bells of Notre Dame as we thundered past, or the sudden looming of the Eiffel Tower on our left, but the fact that the majority of Parisians appeared so completely unmoved by 30,000 people in shorts charging through their city. Old men turned their backs on us and stomped up the steps to church, shoppers blanked us as they ambled home with fresh baguettes, well-dressed couples in restaurants stuck their noses in menus. The only sizeable number of spectators was at the Bastille - but that always did draw a good crowd.

In London the crowd are part of the carnival, its selfappointed rescue service. Although we will not be speeding alongside the Seine, via road tunnels underneath sepia-toned bridges where the acoustics and the narrowness of the road make you feel as if you are in the middle of the beating heart of the monster, few venues can boast so many citizens prepared to lurk in all weathers for the best part of a day not just to get a glimpse of the world's finest long-distance athletes but to shower life-restoring sweets on the stragglers, dodderers and walking wounded.

Every year an old girl waits on us at the 18-mile mark with a plateful of chocolate biscuits. If things get really rough this year, it might only be Notre Dame des Hobnobs that keeps me going.

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