We took the train to Paris from the Normandy coast. It took two hours. The countryside looked like southern Wisconsin coming to season; spring green, flowers and trees in blossom. It was an easy train ride.
Paris was busy on Sunday morning under a sunny sky and rising temperatures. We took the Metro from the train station to the stop nearest our hotel and walked from there. The streets were crowded.
We walked south to the Seine River then turned on the sidewalk that paralleled the river. The sidewalk and street are well above the level of the water and midway between river and street was a one lane roadway along the river. It provides a pleasant diversion from the sidewalk, a place for a leisurely stroll in the evening. Grass borders hold picnickers and young couples with a bottle of wine.
On this day the narrow causeway was crowded with runners, a steady stream of them and I had a realization: it’s the Paris Marathon.
We watched the runners from above on the sidewalk.
I had no idea where on the race course we were. The runners below us looked slower than the race leaders, more like recreational runners out for a long day in one of the world’s best known marathons. Nearly 44-thousand runners started the race.
We walked on to a bridge over the Seine and stood again. A seemingly endless river of runners passed, a flowing stream of color and sound and motion. Most were happy. That told me they were midway in the race; by the end of a marathon nobody is talking much. By the end of the marathon things get very heavy and very quiet.
Then a runner fell.
It happens. Too many people running close together; easy to make a misstep and stumble, sometimes fall. A runner was down. The flow of runners swirled like water around a rock in the river bed. The runner did not move.
It was hot that day, unseasonably so. It would reach near 80 that day. Where the runners ran, below street level, was isolated from shade and breeze. It was direct sunlight; the heat was building.
You can get acclimated to heat over time. It just takes time. You do short, easy runs in the heat; build from there. You get used to it. Gradually. By the time a long race comes in the heat, maybe in June, July, you’re ready.
What can get you is early season heat, the kind that comes up unexpectedly, a spike from the norm. Temperatures as they had that day in Paris. Running long and hard in that heat can be a killer.
The runner lay motionless on the pavement.
A slim woman, a racer, stopped, knelt over the downed runner; looked up in alarm. Then she started CPR. The runner was dying. Stiff armed she pushed on his chest, paused, pushed again. Repeated it again and again. The runner did not move.
Another woman runner stopped, knelt. The two alternated CPR over the dying man. Minutes passed. There were distant sirens.
The stream of runners did not pause; nobody knew. There were just the two women over the prone man. Someone said, “Twenty minutes of CPR is the max.” How long had it been? Ten for sure. Fifteen?
Every ice cream stand in Paris had long lines that day. Cold ice cream cones on a hot day; what can be better? At Notre Dame Cathedral the line to visit stretched out across the courtyard like unspooled thread. It was Palm Sunday. There were no clouds; the sun shone and the temperature rose.
The fallen runner was not aware of this. He lay flat and did not move and the two women worked with urgency. Sirens; closer now.
“One should not die on the streets in the middle of the day with thousands of runners streaming past and spectators to a race all eyes to it all.”
It was difficult to get to the racers. The ramps from street level to runners’ lanes have concrete barricades. This is a country familiar with terrorist attacks. It was less than a year ago when the driver of the big truck mowed down over 80 people. Getting to the runners pathway was not easy. Two ambulances raced past on the street, looking for a way down.
A four-wheeler pulled up; two people jumped off. One had what looked to be paddles for heart defibrillation. That man on the ground had still not moved; it had to be 20 minutes.
Two men ran up, security; blue uniforms and stubby-barreled semi-automatic rifles. They stood, diverted the runners. The woman on the four-wheeler took her turn doing CPR.
Death should be a private affair. One should not die on the streets in the middle of the day with thousands of runners streaming past and spectators to a race all eyes to it all. Death should be private. We watched. We knew we should leave. It should be private.
Unexpectedly, an ambulance. Then two more. A flurry of activity as EMTs surrounded the man.
And then, against all odds, the two women who had been performing CPR lifted their heads and their eyes met. And then they raised their hands and slapped hands. High five! The man was alive.
The EMTs took over, white coats bending as penitents under the sun. IV bags raised, shining silver in the sun as chalices. The man still had not moved but now there was hope. Now there was life. Death had been pushed back.
The two women who’d first stopped stood and stepped back from the man. They hugged. Then they turned and began to walk, stretching some; long, willowy legs, runner’s legs. They began to run, slowly, then with more determination. They melded into the river of runners and were gone. Nobody got their names.
The runners continued to flow along the banks of the Seine on a hot spring day, Palm Sunday.
They loaded the man into the ambulance.
We walked across the bridge over the Seine River. It was a very warm day. An ice cream cone sounded wonderful.