If you were to be in Paris on any given Thursday night, ambling along the Champs-Elysees, odds are you would see and hear us, a stampede of 150 runners storming through the city to the beat of whatever playlist is being blared from within the fast-moving group.
Under the guidance of certified coaches who lead the runs and direct traffic, runners with the Nike Running France crew get a twilight tour of Paris every week, charging past major landmarks such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, thundering through the underground Metro tunnels and gliding past confused outdoor cafe patrons.
For locals, the group is a good way to take a traditionally solitary sport and turn it into a social one.
For visitors, the runs serve as a free, guided tour of Paris – and perhaps an excuse to tuck into another eclair.
After signing up for the event on Facebook, we meet at the flagship Nike store on the Champs-Elysees, where the group invariably attracts the curious looks of passers-by – and understandably so.
The runners make for an impressive and surprising presence on an avenue known more for its luxury brand names and well-heeled tourists than for sports attire and mud-splashed running shoes.
As the light begins to fall, we set off for a run set to music that spans three to a bit more than four miles (4.8 to 6.4km), punctuated with intense drills at major landmarks in the area led by the no-nonsense coaches.
After sweeping past a moon-washed Seine, for instance, runners may be commanded to drop to the ground in the courtyard of the Louvre for sets of sit-ups, to the amusement of tourists and locals alike.
Or runners may find themselves sprinting down the steps of Trocadero, attention divided between the lights of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and a coach’s command to fly faster, stronger down the stairs.
When I joined the Nike Running France group last September, I was a running dropout, having hit a wall of fatigue after completing several half marathons in my native Toronto.
But running through the streets of Paris, where I moved three years ago, has renewed my love for the sport.
And I am not alone:
My running companions are Parisians, expatriates, tourists and transients; we are pastry chefs, graphic designers, students, teachers, mothers and journalists.
As unlikely as it may seem, Paris seems to be developing a reputation as a runner’s paradise.
According to Mr Romain Boutevillain, company director of the timekeeping site Top Chrono, which organises runs throughout the city, registration numbers for a series of races called the Paris Running Tour have been climbing steadily by about 10 per cent every year since it began in 2007-2008.
Throughout the year, arrondissements in Paris map out 10km races designed to showcase their neighbourhoods.
This year, about 20,000 runners will compete in 14 runs.
Recently, about 780 runners explored the 19th arrondissement in a race that took them through hilly Buttes-Chaumont, arguably the prettiest park in the city, and the outer limits of the city’s north-east end, far from the usual tourist destinations.
The city has also started a programme called Top Chrono Timepoint, in partnership with Top Chrono, in which digital panels will be erected in three to five parks by the end of the year.
Panels were recently installed in Parc Suzanne Lenglen in the 15th arrondissement.
Runners who have purchased a personalised chip will be able to see their distance and progress displayed on the panels in real time.
The new system also is intended to build more of a community among the city’s runners with a Facebook page that encourages members to share their results, organise rendezvous at Timepoint parks and find friends who share a love of the sport, Mr Boutevillain said.
More occasional runners looking to befriend locals and stop for a beer or two along the way may want to consider a quirky group called Paris Hash House Harriers, which meets every other week.
Started in the 1930s in Malaysia by a group of British expatriates, Hash House Harriers has since grown into more than 2,000 groups around the world.
Here’s how it works:
A “hare” lays down the running course with a trail of flour from start to finish.
Runners follow the visible markings on the ground to complete the route.
To make things interesting, the hare will also lay down false trails with misleading arrows forcing the runners to backtrack if they are led astray.
Earlier this year, on a run with a Chinese New Year theme, runners were taken along a 12km course through underground parking lots, shopping malls and Chinatown in the south of Paris.
Near the end of the run, the marker the group had been chasing after made its appearance near Parc Montsouris – a beer stop.
Runners fanned out in search of the beverages and stopped for a respite, some biere and friendly banter.
Some of the most innovative runs in Paris this year have been organised by Nike.
At a Nike event last winter, this one with Paris rooftops as its theme, 150 nocturnal runners were illuminated by fluorescent glow sticks and garlands.
We stormed the uppermost floors of empty outdoor parking lots where we performed sprinting exercises; the upper deck of the Wanderlust nightclub along the Quai d’Austerlitz, where we dropped for rounds of ab work; and the rooftop of the Institut du Monde Arabe, where the climb to the top was rewarded with pulsing strobe lights, blaring tunes and sweeping views of the Seine and Notre Dame.
En route, coaches lighted purple flares to announce the group’s presence.
As we exited the Metro system, the stream of runners was showered with bags of confetti.
And as we crossed a bridge over the Seine, fireworks appeared on both sides of the group, to light up the Parisian sky.
By VIVIAN SONG
Source: New York Times