Running Paris and L.A.: My Mother's Fight, And Mine
A tale of two marathons and of loss averted
In this piece, I write about why I'm running the LA Marathon 2024 to raise money for Bowel Cancer UK. To go directly to my fundraising page, click here.
'Allez, allez, allez!' Already, just a few miles in, the yelling was epic. If you want gentle coos of encouragement from a crowd – reminiscent, say, of a Victorian ladies book club, where no one can really breathe through their corsets – don't come to France. French lungs are slingshots. I wouldn't be surprised if someday it turns out that thunderstorms the world over are God hammering on the floor, telling the French to shut up.
It was April 2nd. The Paris Marathon 2023 was underway, and, for the first time in my life, I was on the running side of the barrier.
I've been a runner my whole life and a pretty good one. In runs of between 6 and 10 miles, I might even edge into excellence. I certainly have the look of an intense runner. (A girlfriend once refused to accompany me on a training run because "my energy is too FBI." She demonstrated: grim bomb-on-this-bus face; arms swinging dangerously; general vibe of trying to outrun the demons of an unsolved case.)
The reality is, though, that slaying it in 10-mile runs and looking like a tortured undercover agent is of little relevance to the challenge of 26.2 miles. When I signed up for this marathon, some eight months before, I'd never run more than 16 miles. Whether I could actually do this was still very much an open question.
I was older now than I'd ever been. (Although hopefully not as old as I'll ever be.) Not so long ago, I'd crossed into my forties, which is when, according to all the magazines and dude movies, a woman's body promptly resembles a pile of sloppy tires.
Thankfully, I know this is bullshit. (Last year, a woman only a little younger than me won the relaunched Tour de France Femmes, leaving ladies half her age looking kind of tasered. And her ass, for the record, was incredible. No Gloopy Goodyear Effect in sight.)
What did trouble me was my history of running injuries. That this had nothing to do with my age was evident in all the other sports I do injury-free, including the not-exactly-knitting-is-it sport of boxing. It seemed there was something about running that, after a while, made my body flip out.
It was precisely because this didn't bode well for a marathon that I signed up for a marathon. To get it done, I would need to identify what the issues were and fix them.
I began by running up and down my driveway. This was smaller than an airfield but longer than a hyphen, so it would do. Ten repetitions. Fifteen. Twenty. I soon outgrew this and the squirrelly fascination of my neighbors. Time to hit the streets and run like a real boy, Pinocchio.
After then, I trained in: the Val d'Oise; the Côte d'Azur; Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles; a middle-school running track in Austin, Texas; Beverly Hills; and Santa Monica, where a little over two weeks before the Paris Marathon I completed a 22-mile rehearsal run, the longest distance I'd ever covered in my life.
For the last three miles of this rehearsal, I ran with white-hot needles of pain jabbed into my knees - guess I missed the memo that I'd become someone's voodoo doll. Afterward, my best friend pumped Jelly Bellys and pizza almost directly into my veins, while wincing, 'You okay?' in a hushed voice. I get it: it was a really weird and kind of traumatic thing to have just done, like spending the last four hours cutting my way out of the belly of a humpback whale.
'I think so,' I said, not entirely sure. The idea of the 22-mile rehearsal was to prove to myself that 26.2 miles was within my capabilities. It hadn't really done that. Instead it had unfolded a pain chart, with the readout just for those 22 miles already kind of off it.
The people there with me
And now here I was, in the thick of the real thing.
On my bib, instead of my name, were the words, "For Michael Wells." I met Mike through Siobhan and David, married military veterans of Irish descent (and humor) who entered my childhood as friends of my mother and have been part of my chosen family ever since. (Siobhan has served her country and also babysat myself and my three siblings in our pre-adolescence, when we were testing boundaries, including boundaries you might not even realize are testable. Of these two times in her life, I think she finds her military experiences an easier topic.) I got to know Mike during a pandemic-extended stay at Siobhan and David's home in England, with Mike living with his mother next door.
Mike was a gentle soul who probably found all the intellectual faddling I did a bit baffling. But he was fluent in the most important language there is: kindness. He was devoted to his mother's end-of-life care and was endlessly enthusiastic about helping Siobhan and David as a neighbor. In this photo, for example, he is installing a door in their hallway, a feat that various professional carpenters had pronounced too difficult. Pansies! Mike got it done.
After my stay with Siobhan and David ended, Mike was killed in a car crash on his way to work. He had buried his mother three years before and, with grief easing a little its stranglehold on the future, he was now thinking about selling the house and making plans for a new life elsewhere. The casual brutality of Mike's life ending just as he was about to center his own needs and potential was... well, it messed me up. I was running this marathon with his name on me to assert that his headstone would not be the only place it would appear. He had never seen Paris, and never would now. But Paris would see him.
So there were a lot of emotions in play that morning, presences I felt in my shoulders. (My best friend had bought my race outfit. My mum had filled me with pasta and sourced a tricolor headband. My sister had contributed gloves, a strategic walk-through of the route, and general patches to my confidence. My brother's relentlessly adorable kids had hugged the living crap out of me.)
I had a lot of reasons to get this done, to carry all those folks the full distance. I thought at first I had that down.
Then things got rocky. And I don't mean Rocky, eye of the tiger, not gonna stop type stuff. I mean plain darned rocky.
My sister, who has not merely done five marathons but smashed them like piñatas, had said: "Don't go out too fast from the start line. Find your own pace." I tried very hard to do exactly as advised. The thing is, it's not so easy to be this chill free-living creature when you're among hundreds of masochistic humans whose momentum would be surpassed only by teenage girls at a K-pop careers fair. Inevitably, I think, I got herded along for quite a ways without realizing it.
Around mile 12, I started to feel in my knees and my hips the mismatch between the pace that my body was capable of sustaining for 14 miles more, and this pace I was doing right now. I slowed down in the hope this would appease my grating joints. It did for a while, until it didn't. At mile 16, it hit me: there were still ten more actual adult miles left to run.
For the first time, I not only considered that I might not be able to do this, I believed it. I had arrived, fair to say, at a low point.
That's when my mum joined me in the marathon. Right there, among the runners immediately ahead of me: mum.
By this point, the course was following the river Seine along Right Bank and the Eiffel Tower was looming on my left, flaunting its wrought-iron abs. Whatever. All my attention was now on mum. Also known as: Nana B, Fuzzy, Mother Goose, GG (we have a thing for nutjob nicknames in my family).
It wasn't literally her. My mum is in her seventies, although the visuals this might put in your head are entirely wrong. A typical text from mum summarizing her day features tennis, combat class and ballroom dancing (that's not 'or' but 'and'), and the only time she has hobbled lately is from a trampoline injury. (Me to siblings: "Couldn't someone have stopped her getting on the trampoline???" Siblings: "😂" "Not a chance." "Unstoppable.") Mum also has a penchant for sharing a story end-first. (Recent text: "Delicious salmon at the wake." Me: "WHOSE WAKE????")
So, all things considered, if mum did suddenly show up in a marathon ahead of me, I wouldn't be too surprised. (Not even, if I'm honest, the ahead of me part.) But, no, the runner literally in front of me was a young man, gangly and with first-time vibes like me, wearing a charity t-shirt for Bowel Cancer UK.
Let me explain.