“You have prepared for this; you can do this”. The motivational words of the announcer rang out and Chariots of Fire blared from the speakers on the Champs Elysées. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and a lump in my throat as I stood on the start line of the Paris Marathon surrounded by other excited runners. 6 months of training and preparation had brought me to this moment; now it was time to see whether I could take on this challenge of a lifetime.
The idea had grown quickly in the autumn, when I decided that I wanted to take on a big personal challenge and adventure for charity. I initially considered linking the Paris and London marathons by running between them, and then found a more meaningful way of doing so by following the Western Front to commemorate this year’s centenary of the end of the First World War.
The plan gradually developed and I decided that I would start with the Paris Marathon, before running north from Paris to Amiens (the Battle of Amiens marked the start of the Hundred Days Offensive that ultimately ended the war). From here I would follow the line of the Western Front, visiting many of the main battlefields and memorials, as far as Ypres. I would then head to Dunkirk to take the ferry back to the UK, before running from Dover to London, ready to finish my journey at the London Marathon. It would ultimately involve a route of around 390 miles, or the equivalent of 15 marathons in 15 days. I would carry all my own kit and would camp for most nights, buying food along the way.
The First World War was billed as the “War to end all Wars” and yet 100 years on our Army continues to be active all over the world. As a former Army officer the welfare of our soldiers and veterans is a subject that is very close to my heart and so I decided to use this personal challenge to raise money for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, the British Army’s national charity, who provide lifelong support to soldiers, veterans and their families.
After all the hard work and preparation, my journey to Paris did not go smoothly. My extremely full and carefully packed rucksack was pulled to be searched by Eurostar security. After emptying the entire bag, we eventually came to the cause of the problem – I hadn’t thought about the fact that they wouldn’t let me take my mini camping gas canister on the Eurostar train! Gas duly confiscated, I repacked my bag as quickly as I could and made my way through the rest of security, only to discover that I had left my water bottles behind in the security tray. Thankfully a lovely lady from Eurostar managed to retrieve them for me and I was finally able to head onto the train and relax. An extra job of buying a gas canister in Paris now added to the ‘to do’ list, I hoped that this would be the one and only major hiccup of the trip!
Day 1 – Paris Marathon
Paris was as beautiful as ever in the spring sunshine, with soft pink blossom everywhere. It was lovely to meet up with my friend Tors, who was running her very first marathon, but it was soon time to wave goodbye to her and to my husband Neil (who had come out to Paris to see me off), head to the start and focus on the challenge to come. I have run plenty of marathons before, but Paris was my first big city marathon and I enjoyed the buzz of the crowd as we waited in the start pen and the great atmosphere generated by the announcer. We shook hands with those around us, before the music blared and we set off down the Champs Elysées towards Place de la Concorde.
There was plenty of room on Paris’s wide avenues and it was tempting to set off too fast in the electric atmosphere, but I held back and stuck to my plan to take it nice and steady. I wanted to run within myself throughout the race, keeping plenty of energy in reserve for the long days to come. This was even more important as the day was very warm, a massive contrast to my last long training run at the Brightlingsea Marathon, which had taken place in the snow! Plenty of people were suffering in the heat and the paramedics were kept busy looking after them.
The Paris Marathon has an incredibly scenic course and the tour of the city helped the miles fly by as we passed sights such as the Louvre, Bastille, Chateau de Vincennes, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. I particularly enjoyed the support from the Paris firemen who were providing showers using their firehoses and dishing out lots of cheers and high fives! The underpasses along the Seine became a bit of a slog, although one very long tunnel had been enhanced by ghostly illuminations, noises and artwork, courtesy of a nearby museum. Heading through the Bois de Boulogne for the last few miles of the course I was tempted to push on for a sub 5 hour finish, but by now I was feeling very hot and stuck to my steady pace, knowing I needed to get up and do this all over again the following day!
The run down to the finish was really enjoyable and I was happy to cross the line and have ticked off one marathon in 5 hours and 4 minutes. However, I still had another 3.5 miles to go to reach the hotel I was staying in that night, so couldn’t rest on my laurels! I had a lie down in the shade to cool off, before setting out back to the hotel. I was really craving an ice cream in the heat, but despite plenty of cafés ice creams were not easily available in this part of Paris and to Neil’s amusement we ended up eating an ice cream in McDonalds (not normally my establishment of choice!). By the time I had got back to the hotel and packed my full kit for the following day I was ready for an early night.
Day 2 – Paris to Asnières sur Oise
I set out in the morning picking my way through Paris’s busy suburbs as I headed north out of the city. It was a strange experience passing the rush hour commuters as I began my adventure and my running kit and large rucksack drew a few confused looks. The tarmac jarred on legs that were still feeling the effects of the previous day’s exertions and so I kept to a steady pace with a mix of jogging and walking. By late morning I hadn’t passed a single public toilet and was getting pretty desperate, so it was a relief to spot a traditional French tabac, where I could stop for a café crème and make use of their facilities. The network of small village tabacs would become immensely valuable over the next few days as an opportunity for a cup of coffee, human contact and a chance to top up my water bottles.
In the afternoon I reached the forests north of Paris. Here I was in my element as my legs relished the softer trails and I positively skipped along some glorious narrow tracks. At one point I had to take a slight detour as my planned track was blocked, but thankfully the alternative added less than a mile. Amazingly, this was to be the only time I had to deviate from my planned route in nearly 400 miles of running, which made the many hours of route planning and pouring over maps, satellite images and Google Streetview worthwhile! There was now not a soul to be seen; a pleasant change from the hubbub of Paris. As the afternoon progressed the trails became hillier and a light drizzle began to fall. The drizzle became gradually more persistent, and by the time I reached my campsite I was rather damp.
The campsite reception should have been open, but there was no one to be seen. After asking various campsite residents who happened to be passing, it emerged that Madame was delivering the post to the mobile home section of the campsite and would be back soon. ‘Back soon’ turned out to be 45 minutes later, by which time I was rather cold and damp and very glad to eventually be ushered into the warm reception. I was quickly sorted out with a pitch for the night and after a trip to the local supermarket for supplies, retreated into my tent to hide from the rain.
Day 3 – Asnières sur Oise to La Neuville en Hez
The morning dawned fresh and clear, although unfortunately I didn’t have time to allow the rising sun to dry my sopping wet tent. I packed everything away quickly and set out while most of the campsite was still sleeping. I had to cross a busy road to leave the village, but was soon following quiet tracks through peaceful dewy fields.
I reached the River Oise and followed its banks, picking up one of the network of well marked Grande Randonnée (GR) long distance walking routes that criss-cross France. This made the navigation easy and I made good progress, crossing the Oise and then following well maintained tracks until I reached the next forested ridge.
Here the GR trail made a rather long and winding detour around the edge of the forest, but my map showed a direct track straight through the middle which I decided to follow instead. Big mistake! Clearly the GR had taken the long route for a reason, as my track gradually deteriorated into a smelly, swampy bog. By the time I had realised how bad it really was I had gone too far to turn back, so picked my way through carefully, concentrating hard to avoid losing a shoe in the sucking mud. It was difficult to avoid as the boggy path was bordered on both sides by vicious brambles, so by the time I had fought my way through I had picked up some angry looking scratches, as well as plenty of stinking mud. At least I still had all my kit, both shoes and no serious harm done!
After all this I was rather tired and hungry, and running low on food, so it was a massive relief to find a fantastic boulangerie in the village of Cires-lès-Mello, where I could buy an enormous filled baguette, cold drink and choose from an amazing selection of cakes, all for the princely sum of 6 euros. I sat eating my lunch in the village square, being wished ‘Bon appetit’ by passing locals and soon got some energy back. I also checked my phone and picked up a lovely video message from my children, Isaac and Emma, which further lifted my spirits.
This buoyant mood meant that the rest of the day flew by and as evening approached I looked for a spot to wild camp in one of the large forests that cover this part of France. I was a little bit early for a discreet wild camp and there were still a few dog walkers around on the main paths of the forest, so I headed well off the main routes and soon found myself a nice spot deeper into the forest. It was a glorious evening and I pitched my tent and enjoyed a dehydrated meal sitting in the sunshine while drying my damp socks and shoes. It was wonderful to camp in such a truly wild location; I went off to sleep listening to a cuckoo calling nearby and woke in the middle of the night to the sound of foxes shrieking as they called to each other around my tent (they went away when I shouted at them!).
Day 4 – La Neuville en Hez to Sourdon
I awoke to a misty morning with the promise of a warm day to come. I was feeling very hungry, so it was a joy to find another village bakery only a couple of miles into my run and be able to have a second breakfast, as well as topping up with fresh supplies for lunch. I knew that this day would take me through some very rural areas, with little opportunity to stock up on food or water.
The morning went well and I felt full of energy, but by the afternoon I was struggling. The day’s route was mostly on roads and the combination of the heat and the constant pounding was causing my feet to swell with the result that my trainers were rubbing badly on the top of my toes. There were tractors everywhere and every time I ventured off road onto a farm track I worried that I was about to be shouted at by a French farmer! For the last few miles I had to take a break every two miles to sit down and take the pressure off my sore feet.
That evening drastic measures were required; there was no way I would manage another 11 marathons like this. I spoke to my family at home and made arrangements for them to send out a different pair of trainers, and in the meantime I took a knife to my shoes in an attempt to relieve the pressure across my toes and allow me to carry on.
Day 5 – Sourdon to Corbie
The following morning I set out with my toes taped and padded, holes cut in my trainers and the lacing altered to only the top 3 holes of each shoe. I was relieved to discover that this helped considerably, as did the fact that today I was mostly running on trails. I was also following the GR 124 route for most of the day, which removed any worries about angry farmers! My body was still struggling with the constant calorie deficit and I knew I needed to try to eat more. I stopped at a supermarket after about 6 miles and bought a basketful of food, then surprised myself by managing to eat about half of it on the spot before packing the rest away for later!
I spent the morning following good tracks through undulating farmland and woods; I could really have been back home in Suffolk as the scenery was very similar. Around lunchtime I arrived in the village of Boves on the outskirts of Amiens. With a long high street I was hoping for an opportunity to stop at a café or boulangerie as I was running low on water, but every shop had closed for the classic long French lunch break and I had to keep going straight through.
I continued to follow the GR towards my overnight stop of Corbie, which meant negotiating my way across the network of main roads heading into the city of Amiens. The motorway was easy to cross safely via a tunnel, but I also had to negotiate two major roads; dashing across a gap in fast moving traffic was not much fun on tired legs.
It was around this section that I also had a slightly uneasy experience, encountering a couple of cars hanging around in a suspicious manner on a remote track on the edge of a wood. I have no idea what they were up to and I certainly wasn’t hanging around to find out!
Corbie is situated on the banks of the Somme and it seemed somehow appropriate that literally as I arrived on the Somme it began to pour with rain. I had now reached the Western Front and was excited to embark on the next section which was the main focus of my journey.
Read about my journey along the Western Front here.