Why Ogilvy's Thibault Loué Ran the Paris Marathon Blindfolded

'Invisibles' raises awareness for the visually impaired

Thibault Loué completed October's Paris Marathon in 4 hours and 31 minutes. That's an exceptional feat, given the circumstances. He ran while blindfolded and tethered to his friend Cédric Dubourg, who guided him along the 26-mile course.

Their odyssey began 22 months earlier, in December 2019, when Loué—a commercial director and consultant who now works at Ogilvy Paris—helped a blind man navigate the crowded platform of a Metro station. The other subway patrons appeared oblivious to his struggle. To them, he was invisible, a cruel irony that shook Loué to the core.

"He wasn't able to find his way," Loué  recalls. "So, I helped him walk to the right train, took it with him, and got out with him at his stop. I really connected with the guy."

That day, he decided to enter the 2020 marathon to raise awareness for the visually impaired, and enlisted Dubourg, a freelance director, to serve as his eyes. The pair, both seasoned runners, endured a raft of challenges in their quest. These included lockdowns and the postponement of the 2020 event, along with a lengthy bout of Covid-19 for Loué, and a knee injury for Dubourg just days before the starting gun fired.

The duo chronicled their harrowing and ultimately inspiring saga in a 20-minute documentary called "Invisibles." Here's the trailer. And you can watch the full doc below:

Loué and Dubourg trained with two visually impaired athletes, Mériam Amara and Thibault Rigaudeau, and received support from nonprofit sports group A2C Mieux. But nothing truly prepared them for the challenges they faced while jostling among 65,000 participants, with added distractions from onlookers, traffic and their own churning emotions.

Through it all, however, "I never thought of giving up anything, not the project, not the race, nothing," Loué says. The grueling experience—from initial prep to post-race reflection—profoundly moved and changed both men.

In our conversation, Loué, 29, and Dubourg, 36, recount their amazing journey and explain what they learned along the way:

Muse: What was the hardest part of your prep?

Thibault Loué: The first trap we fell into was overconfidence in our "running abilities." At the beginning of 2020, Cédric and I were in excellent physical condition. The marathon distance was a training distance that we did on weekends, and I had just come back from an 80-kilometer race in Saudi Arabia, where I finished 10th. We didn't really understand what being blindfolded while running meant.

During the first training session, when I put on the mask, we realized it was going to be more complicated than expected. The mask feels very different than closing your eyes for a while. You don't have a choice with it. It's scary. Then I had to deal with the nausea. The longest training we did blindfolded was 5 kilometers. I had to sit down for 10 minutes to keep from throwing up.

The hardest thing was trusting. The only way to succeed in running blindfolded was to have absolute trust in your guide. It's all about letting go.

Despite all that, you knew you'd succeed?

Thibault Loué: I had the "click" during a training session in the Jardin des Tuileries. After 4 kilometers, I told him, "OK, I've got it. We'll make it." I was absolutely convinced I could do 42 kilometers (26 miles). Cédric is completely different. He does everything wisely and gradually. He really didn't believe I would make it until the morning of the marathon.

Which piece of guidance from your trainers helped most?

Thibault Loué: I figured it was mostly about practicing and becoming more and more comfortable. But training with Thibaut Rigaudeau was quite revealing. As he’s visually impaired, and not completely blind ... he can perceive the lines of the track, but he can't see what's in front of him. We trained together for an hour doing splits at more than 22 kilometers per hour. He asked me to warn him what was in front of him. At that speed, hitting someone can be quite dramatic. When I saw the confidence he put in me in a few seconds, I told myself that was the key: to trust.

Cédric Dubourg: The best piece of advice I got from Meriam Amara was to be sharp with all the indications I had to give to Thibault. During the first trainings, I wanted to describe too much about what I saw, which took a lot of time and energy, and he felt overwhelmed by that much information. Meriam helped me a lot by telling me to be very brief in my explanations: "Step up. Step down. Turn left, 90 degrees. Right, 45 degrees. Slow down. Speed up."

So, you never considered quitting, but surely something shook your resolve?

Thibault Loué: The real blow was the pandemic and containment in March 2020. This meant that a lot of things would stop for an unknown period, and we didn't know when or if we would live normally again. So, the project we planned to complete in two months was potentially going to take several months or years to complete, or maybe it would never see the light of day. That was difficult to swallow when you put so much heart and energy into something.

And then Thibault got Covid...

Thibault Loué: Yes, in October 2020, but I was ultimately fine. We were just coming out of the confinements, and I was starting to get back into decent shape to race again. But I knew I had a year before the Paris Marathon postponement date—October 2021.

I didn't have any violent symptoms. It was mainly the aftermath that was tricky. I had a respiratory blockage that dragged on for months, until the summer of 2021, and chronic toe inflammation. I lost a lot of muscle mass and endurance. And I gained weight, which forced me to lose 6 kilos (13 pounds) and then start running again (after a months-long layoff) shortly before the marathon.

But I took advantage of this period of total stoppage to watch dozens of documentaries, to be able to make this one ("Invisibles"), which was my first real film, my first time leading a full team of people. So, I became a worse runner, but a much better director. That was a win.

With all that adversity, including your illness, why not run the Paris Marathon next year instead?

Thibault Loué: There was absolutely no question of postponing it until 2022. I had this project in mind for too long. I needed to bring it to life. Those who had followed us since the beginning needed to move on. I tell myself that it was rather a good decision, since I had Covid a second time, 10 days after the marathon, which directly affected my lungs, and put me at a complete stop for weeks.

Cédric, how did your knee injury affect the project?

Cédric Dubourg: I was preparing for a long-distance race (113 kilometers) and injured myself during a training session. The pain was worrying, and I had to stop for 10 days. I started running again three days before the marathon. This is the only training we did with Thibault before the race [in 2020, owing to lockdowns, illness and injury].

During the race, I was so focused on Thibault and the external elements that I forgot about the pain. At the start, we told ourselves that we would finish no matter what. It was this determination that gave us the strength.

In the film, you note that the "supply points"—tables laden with water, juice and snacks—caused you particular problems. Why was that?

Thibault Loué: Cédric had to manage the change of speed, the change of direction, the camera position sometimes, [monitor] the people coming from behind, from the sides [toward the tables]. He was really stressed and angry. I kept feeling it, and it was hard to remain calm. I got tripped, pushed. I hurt my arm badly when I almost fell at the 15 kilometers mark. But that's the game in racing, the part where everyone gets a little selfish to get food and drink, and it was hard to be helpless and feel unseen.

Cédric Dubourg: It was hell! Supplies were often placed on the left side of the road, Thibault's side. So, I couldn't protect him from people coming up behind him and sneaking between him and the table. It's a mess, as everyone rushes in without caring about each other. When you're in the middle of all these people, you can shout as much as you want, but they just don't pay attention. These are clearly the moments where I had the most difficulty protecting Thibault, and I think they reflect the daily life of blind people who are often lost in a mass of humanity.

Any stretches prove especially stressful?

Thibault Loué: The return to Paris at mid-course is quite tricky because the road narrows a lot, and the runners start to get tired, so they pay less attention to others. It's kind of like a constant supply point! The last 8 kilometers are also difficult. It is kind of a psychological torture when you have nothing left to move forward.

Being blindfolded, I didn't know where I was, where I was going, I didn't even know if I was standing or falling. I had absolutely no bearings. I couldn't count the number of times Cédric pulled on the rope to catch me. We tend to forget how much the view can save us in this kind of case, to help us keep our balance in a moment when our legs give out, but also to hold on to landmarks, distances, the look of support in people's eyes.

Thibault, why’d you keep the mask on after crossing the finish line?

Thibault Loué: I imagined crossing that line without the option of taking the mask off. Being actually blind. Having to make it home by taking the subway and potentially ending up like the young man I helped two years earlier, lost in the middle of careless people. I imagined eating, showering, resting, waking up like that. Then having to live like that, every day. It really touched me.

At the end, I didn't feel any joy, except for the relief of the physical effort. I just understood what he felt. And it's heartbreaking. I don't consider it a feat or an achievement at all. I’m just a random guy that did what thousands of blind people do much better than me, sometimes without a guide, sometimes with a dog, and nobody talks about it. That's the essence of this whole film. They are the heroes.

Cédric, what were you feeling when you finished?

Cédric Dubourg: I was very proud to see Thibault crossing that line. Proud to have succeeded in this challenge together, and proud to have been able to see this project through to the end after so many obstacles. When I saw Thibault finishing after having given everything he had. I'm very proud to have been the guy who ran beside him.

What life lessons did you learn? How did this experience change you?

Thibault Loué: Bad is never good until it gets worse.

Can you explain that?

Thibault Loué: All of this gave me perspective ... I remember the reaction I had when I learned that the 2020 Paris Marathon was going to be canceled. I was disappointed, even angry, because it broke the momentum of my plans. I had a selfish reaction, when people were actually dying [of Covid], which I didn't really realize at this point. And I was light years away from imagining that the world would come to a standstill for a year, that I would contract this disease myself, that I wouldn't be able to run for nine months. Not to mention getting Covid again after the race.

When I look back on all these events, it makes me wiser. Now, when a hard blow hits, I take it philosophically. I won't forget that things could get worse. This makes life easier to live.

Cédric Dubourg: I didn't think I would have so much responsibility for Thibault's race. I didn't realize how much he would need me during the marathon. I really loved that role, and I felt so much more emotional being by Thibault's side than running the marathon alone. I think I learned to be less selfish, and I realized how amazing it was to share a race with someone.

Would either of you do it again? Maybe Cédric would like to run blindfolded in the next Paris Marathon, with Thibault as guide?

Thibault Loué: I don't think I'll do it again. It was hard to carry this project to the end and to do the race this way. But I would gladly do it in the service of something or someone if I were asked to do it. I think I would rather be a guide and bring people to the finish line than the other way around.  

On the other hand, I would be happy to swap roles if Cédric wanted to try it, but I think that carrying me for 42 kilometers has traumatized him too much to even think about it!

Cédric Dubourg: I tried to run blindfolded during our training, and I really don't want to go through that again! But I would love to guide blind people in other races.

CREDITS

Directors: Thibault LOUÉ & Cédric DUBOURG
Executive producer - Julie PELOSO
Production manager - Mégane GHETTA
Director of photography - Titi MOUTH
Camera - Emmanuel BERNARD
Stadium training camera - Lucas POMMIER
On-board camera 1 - Cédric DUBOURG
On-board camera 2 - Adèle WYDOUW
On-board camera 3 - Guillaume SAEZ
1st assistant training 1 - Yacine SAADI
Editor - Nassim GOUAINI
Head of Sound & Mix - Arthaud VERSAVEAUD
Sound engineer - Victor PIERRE
Assistant perchman - Jimmy MOUTH
Music - Thibault LOUÉ
Color grading - Rodérick VAZQUEZ
Illustrator - Clément PRASLIN
Motion Designer - Julien BON
Set Photographer - Albin DURAND

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