Brian Pendreigh

Paris, that most elegant of cities… and I am dressed in an old pair of beige chinos, a tee-shirt from the Bupa Great Caledonian Run of 2002, one of the newer items in my ensemble, and a paint-stained blue jumper with a Royal Mail crest on it. It was a raffle prize at a charity dinner about 20 years ago. It came with some golf balls and it was supposedly a Royal Mail golf set… yeah right, that is a surplus postie’s jersey.

I am not heading for the latest chic nightclub, which is probably closing right about now. It is still dark, as I step out of the hotel, to run round the city as part of the annual Paris Marathon. But first things first, and breakfast at the one café on the Place de la Nation that is open at 6 am, Le Dalou, and that tasty Parisian serving of croissant, buttered baguette, fresh orange juice and rich coffee.

Place de la Nation is one of the great hubs, a wide open space, with around a dozen streets leading off it. They chopped a lot of heads off here back in the 18th Century, including the Martyrs of Compiègne, 11 nuns, three lay sisters and two associates, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the revolutionary government over the church.

They ranged in age from 29 to 79 and sang hymns as they were led to the guillotine, just days before the fall of Maximilien Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror. They are buried in a mass grave in Picpus Cemetery, a few minutes walk from Place de la Nation. It is the final resting place of around 1300 victims of a glorious six-week head-chopping spree. Paris is full of stories.

Revolution and civil unrest have been a favourite pastime for Parisians for centuries. More recently Place de la Nation has been an assembly point for the gilets jaunes, monitored by police with machine guns and body armour. Paris is famous now for its wide boulevards, but planners were motivated not only by aesthetics, they also wanted to make it easier for police and military to move about the city and make it more difficult for protestors to block off streets, which previously were often no more than four meters wide. That will make sense to anyone who has seen Les Miserables.

The descendants of Inspector Javert look more like actors in RoboCop than Les Mis. But who am I to criticise the wardrobe of others? I forgot my outfit also has a martial touch, a quilted green waistcoat, designed to be worn beneath a combat jacket, the last remnant of my Territorial Army uniform from the 1970s, now worn on top of the postie’s jersey. I am dressed to keep off the chill rather than as a fashion statement. It can be quite warm in Paris in April, but right now the thermometer is only very tentatively creeping into the plus numbers.

In three hours I will have dumped all these clothes. They will be collected for recycling and charity. Perhaps some kid in Senegal will be the envy of his peers in that vintage Bupa Great Caledonian Run tee-shirt. In vest and shorts I will be running down the wide, tree-lined expanse of the Champs-Elysees at the start of a journey that will take me over 26.2 miles of Parisian streets and woods and almost four hours to complete. It is a great way to see the city.

Place de la Nation is an excellent base for any Paris adventure. It is two or three miles beyond the tourist centre of the city – but close enough to see the smoke rising from Notre Dame the day after my race. I stayed in a modest, little, old hotel on Avenue Philippe Auguste. There are cafes and bistros right round the Place de la Nation and it is served by buses, Metro underground trains and RER express trains that run underground and overground all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The RER runs every few minutes from Place de la Nation and takes just ten minutes to the Arc de Triomphe, one of Paris’s most iconic monuments, and effectively the start point of the marathon, with the bag drop down one street and the start in another. It was just as well we were so early. The Paris marathon is a unique sporting occasion in that it combines running with rugby, with a mass scrum for entry to the baggage drop area, followed by line-out practice, with much pushing, lifting and jumping in order to get into the designated pens for the race.

Marathons have different pens for runners of different speeds, but the front of one tends to merge into the back of the previous one as runners walk towards the timing mat at the start. But with Paris, which has around 50,000 runners, there are big gaps between starting times for different groups, with the elite runners going off at 8 am and the slower runners not starting till after 10, by which time the Kenyans and Ethiopians will be finished. It is like a series of different races. I set off at 8.40 down the Champs-Elysees.

There are five times as many spectators as runners, who all have their names on their bibs, so I get numerous shouts of “Allez Bree-ann” and one “Allez Papa”. The course is as flat as any 26-mile route in the centre of a city can be and spectacularly scenic, as we run across Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre, though we do not get to see IM Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the courtyard of the former royal palace, now possibly the most famous art gallery in the world. Parisians did not like the pyramid at first, which presents such a vivid contrast with the imposing stone buildings around it, but they seem to like it now.

At each extremity of the marathon is five miles through a wood. At the eastern end it is the Bois de Vincennes, before heading back towards the city, along the River Seine, which is perhaps the hardest part of the course, with cobbles and a series of tunnels, including the one in which Princess Diana died. There is one particularly long one, where basically you are running uphill, with no spectators, no natural light and no GPS, so you lose track of pacing.

Outside the tunnels you have great views over the river to the Ile de la Cite, where Paris’s oldest public clock was erected supposedly because the authorities thought the populace would be less likely to commit crimes if they knew the correct time, and to Notre Dame Cathedral, which would catch fire so spectacularly next day. But the towers survived, despite early fears that the whole building would collapse, and to be honest I did not even know it had a spire, which was added years after Quasimodo was swinging about on the end of a bell rope.

“Paris wept as Notre Dame burned,” the papers said, but Parisians did not always feel quite such affection for the cathedral. Motivated by revolutionary fervour, it was proposed to demolish the building and use the stone elsewhere. But they seem to like it now, appreciating it more now that they almost lost it.

Beyond Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower comes into view. I have been concentrating on the cobbles and not tripping up and then suddenly there it is, on the other side of the river, a giant metal finger poking the sky. It was finished in 1889, after Gustave Eiffel won a competition to design a structure to serve as the entrance to the World’s Fair. A rival suggested visitors all walk beneath a giant guillotine, but that was considered a little macabre.

The Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world when it opened. It was only meant to be temporary and Parisians did not like it much at first. But it is still there and they seem to like it now.

After more than five miles running along the banks of the Seine we turn into the Bois de Boulogne that will take us back to the Arc de Triomphe. I was told this would be tough, with fewer spectators and so much mileage in my legs. But I have run through one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I just need to speed up slightly for a PB and soon I will get a beer (8 Euros a pint!) and a minimalist medal that looks like it came off the top of a jam jar. I did not much like it at first, but I seem to like it now. Somehow it suits Paris.

FACTBOX: It is surprisingly easy to get a place in the Paris marathon, without running a qualifying time, entering a ballot or buying an expensive package. Entries for this year are closed but next year will be opening shortly. There are numerous flight options from Scotland to Paris, with prices varying wildly depending on airport, day and time. I flew with hand baggage only from Edinburgh to Orly Airport on a Friday with Transavia for £42 and flew back from Charles de Gaulle on a Tuesday afternoon with FlyBe for £120. I stayed in the Camelia Pestige hotel, which cost about £70 a night. It has no lift and I was five flights up, not easy after a marathon.