With so many training now for the Boston Marathon or heading into triathlon season, I thought now would be the right time to discuss on-course fueling. My favorite race for on-course fueling is the Paris Marathon or Marathon de Paris. The aid stations are only set-up every 5K, which means they are more spread out than US marathons, but what really makes these water stops unique are the food items available and the expected behaviors/etiquette of the participants. Being able to successfully navigate both of these factors should be required training for any competitive racer.
So let’s begin with the selection of items. Throughout the route the Paris Marathon supplies 8,500 kg of bananas, 14,250 kg of oranges, 2,750 kg of lemons, 1,935 kg of dried fruit, 2,00 kg of sugar cubes, 400,000 bottles of Vittel water, 11,400 litres of Amino Vital sports replacement drink and 30,000 energy tablets.
When I first ran this course, I remember that at the first mile marker (yes they actually have mile markers as well as kilometer markers) I wondered where the water would be, at mile two I began to think l I had missed it, and then around mile 3 just before making a right-hand turn there it was in a plaza and a freak’n Vegas-style smÃ¶rgÃ¥sbord of food. There was food everywhere. For those that have done a well-supported Century bike ride, like the Montauk Century, it was just like that without the bikes or the friendly people. I remember thinking to myself that the French had made up during the marathon for all of the portion control I experienced at the previous nights’ dinners in Paris.
It also made for one of the most dangerous running experiences of my life. On the slick cobblestone, there were banana peels everywhere, okay not so bad but then mix banana peels with sugar cubes and water and, well, you can figure out the rest. The most dangerous by far are the orange peels, avoid them like the plague as they absolutely make it seem like you are running on ice.
Lastly, if you avoid all of that, you’ll then be dodging and jumping over the 400,000 plastic water bottles and water bottle caps laid out along the course. That’s right boys and girls. The French provide you with 30cl bottles of water and most of those bottles wind up on the ground in front of you, either empty or partially filled. I hope you’re getting a proper image of how treacherous these stops can be, which is why I figure they only place these stops every 5K apart. The body count would simply be too large if they placed them any closer together. The nature of these stations almost demands that you slow down, stop, get what you need and then carry on.
Ordinarily, this is a technique that I recommend for most marathoners unless you are shooting for a PR qualifying time, where seconds count. For the majority of runners, however, slowing to a shuffle or a walk, during the aid stations, is not only okay, it is preferable as it provides your leg muscles an opportunity to lengthen and flush. It also means that whatever you eat or drink may actually wind up inside you instead of all over your face and clothes. Lastly, it helps to lesson the air that gets swallowed along with the fluid which can become problematic as your GI system is progressively taxed throughout the race as more and more muscles compete for scarce and valuable oxygenated blood. Being bloated and gassy during a race can be uncomfortable at best and debilitating at worst.
If you are running with friends, or in a pace group, an easy way to keep the group together at water stops is to do the following. First, check with your group members before you get there to discern who needs to to hydrate or fuel so you’ll know if you even need to stop in the first place. If you do, assign someone as the pace group leader, with the very important task of holding his or her arm up high in the air so the rest of the group can see it and regroup. Agree to swing wide around the first set of tables and also agree which side of the street you’ll be getting fuel from as in some races like Chicago and New York, there are aid stations on both sides of the road. Additionally, you should know in advance how they lay out their tables. New York, for example lays out their water on the first tables and Gatorade Endurance at the next set of tables. Knowing this means that you can avoid dipping in between other runners, only to not find what you are looking for. I always instruct my runners to go to the last tables where water or sports drinks are available as by doing this, they can avoid the majority of the congestion that occurs inevitably at the first few tables of each stop. As for walking through, you lose very little time and if you have a complete goal, rather than a compete goal, the break is well worth it. Quite frankly even if you have a compete goal, if you aren’t trying for anything less than 3:45, it doesn’t pay to try and bust through these stations in full stride.
So let’s get back to Paris. Wasn’t Remember Paris a movie with Billy Crystal as a NBA basketball referee? Oh wait that was Forget Paris, which is probably something you’ll never do if only because of the behavior of the runners at these water stations because they are anything but water stops. If you’ve already run a marathon on US domestic soil, you’ve probably experienced the water stop, where the person on your right, suddenly realizes that there is water to their left and they cut across in front of you in delirium to refuel, annoyingly forcing you to adjust your stride a bit to avoid running into them. In most cases, they realize what they’ve done, and mumble a quick apology, hoping you realize that in their lowered blood sugar state, they are not responsible for involuntary directional changes. You get over it, go get your own cup of water or Endurance Formula Gatorade, and step to the side of the street to drink it while walking or jogging, to allow the runners to pass through unobstructed.
Not so in Paris. In Paris, runners run like they drive, very aggressively. These guys (and they are mostly guys) are there for a purpose, a reason, and that is to run their race, and they are quite annoyed that you are even in their race to begin with. At the start of the marathon (which touts the greatest percentage of sub three-hour marathoners of any marathon in the world) these very serious runners stand around smoking Gauloises or Gitanes cigarettes before tossing them aside without regard to who they hit just as the gun goes off to start the race. At the water stations, they carry on this attitude by physically pushing, shoving and wrestling their way through anyone and everyone to get what they want.
Now I come from a basketball background, so I have no problem mixing it up with a bunch of skinny frogs. It’s just that at Mile 3 of the race I just wasn’t expecting it, so in that instance, I get shoved off balance and wound up running into three other people in front of me. With a few brief “pardons” from me, not anyone else, and thinking it was an anomaly, I carried on, only to be shoved yet again which is when this brilliant American looked around to see what was really going on. And what was going on was the push-shove-grab-and-go behavior that was endemic to this race. There is no slowing down to stop and politely take what you need; there is no walking while you drink, and there certainly is no stopping unless you ned medical attention – and are willing to admit it.
The goal is very simple, to run as fast as you can or to slow down as little as necessary at each of these stops while still getting what you need to carry on. It’s quite the experience, and I admit that I had some fun with the frenchies who were not used to someone throwing out a quick elbow into their unsuspecting ribs sucking the precious air out of them for just a minute, making them slow down and of course then becoming the victim to the shoving of all of those behind them. Fun times! In retrospect, it’s also what prepared me for the swim portion of Ironman – my apologies to my friend Dave who tapped me on my shoulder coming out of the water on the first loop at IMLP in 2005 to say hi, only to have me wield on him and almost punch him in the face because I thought he was the same jerk that was using me as a pontoon throughout the first loop of the swim course. Yes, I believe that those of us who come from a contact sport background find these experiences quite amusing and we, or I guess I should say I, tend to revert back to my natural instincts of athletic battle first and run second.
So now that you have the picture of what is necessary to successfully navigate the water stops at the Paris Marathon, let’s turn our attention to Boston or another upcoming race you might have where you are there to compete for a PR or a qualifying time, a race where every second matters.
For years as a coach, I’ve been looking for a workout with that perfect mixture of speed, technique, power and enthusiasm to help train our runners how to effectively eat and drink while still maintaining pace. Wouldn’t you know it but the Japanese have discovered a way to do just that. In this video, they have created an event that incorporates 100 meter finishing speed on the run, requires improvement in technique, challenges the athlete to learn how to effectively fuel and throws in the useful task of a beach start open water swim at the end. This is just absolutely priceless.
Thinking about Boston and also about triathlon season, I analyzed the technique of these athletes and my first observation is that these guys transitioned to the run while still wearing the bike helmets. That’s a social faux pas if there ever was one. But I can overlook that for the amazing information provided by the runners themselves. Look at the differences in the foot strike and recovery mechanics between those that fared the best to those that didn’t.
Clearly those that tended to over-stride or held a more upright form could not generate sufficient speed or increase their turnover as much as those with a slight forward lean of 7-10% and those more importantly who kept their foot strike under their center of balance.
Lastly, one of the athletes reminds us that trying to change your top before entering the transition area in an effort to save time can be done, but requires practice so as not to become distracted from the task at hand.
All in all this is a great training tool and I highly recommend incorporating it into your program. Like all things, max speed work should not be included more that one to two times in any week and should be part of an overall build period focused on speed with adequate recovery before and afterwards to insure appropriate muscular adaptations. Oh yeah, and squeeze the mouth of your cup when drinking from it while on the run to ensure the maximum amount of fluid winds up inside your mouth and not on your face, up your nose or on the person running on the treadmill next to you.