Monday, 9 February 2015

Halfway across Belgium to run a half

Sunday morning my alarm beeped chirpily at 6am and I begrudgingly opened my eyes into the darkness of a February morning. The night before had been a panic of packing food into my rucksack, making sure all my running clothes were clean, dry and ready to go.

I slept strangely, constantly waking up every few hours, as if I didn’t quite trust my phone to annoy me to wake.

At 6:15am I pulled on an outfit, which two years ago I would never have worn in public. Tight black running leggings, grey sweat pants, black long sleeved running top, grey hoodie, and a black waterproof jacket – finally finished off with my pair of battered running trainers.

I couldn’t work out if I looked sporty, or homeless – either way, I pulled myself out of the door after gobbling down a bowlful of porridge.

I was on my way to run my second half marathon. Something I had signed up for before Christmas and had almost forgotten about until two weeks ago. It was taking place in a town near the edge of Belgium called Genk – a 1 hour and 40 minute train ride away.

As I stumbled towards the station, I realised the last time I had seen 6am on a Sunday morning – encountering a group of drunken 20-somethings on their way home. I avoided their eye, as I made my way to the platform. Today I was the crazy girl who woke up early to go running, rather than the one who stayed up to see the sunrise.

A train ride later I arrived in Genk. It is unlikely tourists will visit the town of Genk, as unlike the famous cities of Ghent, Bruges and Brussels – Genk is pretty much just a normal town.

As my mind contemplated every possible scenario that could go wrong: no one speaking English, not being registered, not being able to find it in time, finishing last behind a 80 year woman, not finishing at all.

Finally I made it to the start. All my fears were unfounded. They spoke perfect English, in fact, I heard a ton of English and American people wandering around – strange for a race in the back end and beyond of Belgium.

I nervously wandered around in the cafeteria, only going outside to drop off my bag and watch the marathon runners set off.

There were four races that day: marathon, half marathon, 12k and a 6k.

I had packed myself a huge picnic before I left, so I nervously ate a banana, followed by a jam and peanut butter sandwich. I guzzled as much water as I could and soon it was time to start.

This was a strange race, it brought back memories of doing the 5 mile Greggs run as a child. It was in a forest, there were maybe only 150 people competing, and the refreshment table included items such as gingerbread, coca cola and warm tea.

We set off at 11am.

I stood, jumping up and down trying to warm up. Despite forcing some friends to send me encouragement, thank god for smart phones, I could feel the nerves swelling inside me. It was just me; and the race ahead.

The gun went and I started running.

Now I haven’t run a race on my own for a while. This led to possibly one of my better, if slightly stranger decisions, which was to just tag behind people, follow their pace and treat them like silent running partners.

First it was a girl in a full black running gear, just like mine, I looked at my watch and we were doing a 9:45 pace. Great, I thought.

This is me; and my new running buddy. Maybe we’ll run the race together and high five at the end. But, I found my legs wanted to go faster. So I ran ahead.

Next it was another lady in black, she was incredibly popular. Every third or forth runner would wave at her, or give her a high five.

Soon, however, I was ahead of her too.

There was the lady in pink; who I ran miles 4 and 5 with and passed.

There was a woman who overtook me as we were running down a hill, but stayed ahead of me in
sight for the whole race until I lost all my energy at mile 12 and she sped ahead.

I ran my fastest mile chasing a man in the blue running jersey with long grey hair who was at least 50, probably 60 years old.

There was the couple who were playing music from a loudspeaker, I followed them maybe too closely, as I enjoyed listening to the music. I could feel the confusion radiating from the girl; and I moved ahead past them.

I found myself in a battle of wills with a boy (I say boy, he was probably in his mid-20s) in what looked like board shorts. He kept running past me, then slipping back when he would need to walk again.

I will not lose to a boy in board shorts. I took him over.

As I fled through the race, feeling better than I ever thought I would. It was only at mile 10 that my energy suddenly dipped. I felt my legs begin to cramp and my previously happy mood begin to sullen.

The runners’ high is always what people talk about, but no one really prepares you for the runners’ low. The feeling that all the energy has been sucked from the bottom of your feet, and the constant rhythm of insanity that plays in your head.

I spent a good 10 minutes singing various songs based on the mileage left on the course. Mostly it involved lyrics such as: there are only three miles to go, or we’re runnnning in the rain.

Finally I hit 12.5 miles, and I had slowed down. My calves were screaming at me. I heard the faint music coming from behind me, as I realised the couple I had passed at mile 5 were back.

I refused to let them beat me. I ran silently behind them, close ahead, as the music calmed the muscles in my legs.

We rounded the corner and I saw the finish line – I ran, fast, past the couple and through the finish line.

I had ran my second half marathon at a reasonable time of 2:03:20

I downed two cups of water. Felt the sweat dripping on my forehead and felt bloody fantastic.

I knew there was a good reason to wake up at 6am to come to some remote Belgium town, and that feeling was it.

The race was the LOUIS PERSOONS MEMORIAL race and I would recommed it, it was great fun. 


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