Set lofty goals. Like, really lofty goals and then don’t work towards towards them. That’s the secret sauce to being an inconsistent runner. Like the time I ran a marathon having never run more than 26km, or the time I did a 25km night time trail run in the snow having a: never run in snow, b: never run trails at night, c: not trained. You see where this is going.
But it’s also immensely exciting, because you’re pushing the unknown. My tactic is to put myself in a position where there are only two options. Finish. Or die. Like leaving your keys and mobile at the finish line. There’s simply no way back other than to keep on going. If it doesn’t exactly do your legs and muscles any favours, at least it makes you pretty self-reliant.
With that preamble out of the way, my latest hare-brained scheme this year was a 38km trail run in the Belgian Ardennes. the Trappist trail (trappist, as in.. beer). Well suffice it to say, that my previous experiences seem to have worked, this time I showed up on race morning with a twinge in my knee, so I changed down to the 28km race. And with the magnificence of hind-sight that was a very, very good idea. I held fast until 25km in, and that’s where I really started to struggle. the two river crossings were surprisingly pleasant on the leg muscles.
Nevertheless, the Ardennes are absolutely beautiful, as is the Orval monastery where, of course, I stocked up on beer (post-race of course).
But most importantly, being a Trappist race, there was free beer at the finish line! And non of that alcohol-free rubbish. Real, Belgian beer!
In other good fun news, The Color Run (Colour spelt wrong) came to amsterdam a few weeks back. Whilst most people treated it as a fashion show for various hippie outfits (which made it quite fun), we actually ran the whole thing, in the company of Matt and Helen. No sports commentary here though… A colour run is a colour run.
After much waiting and little practicing, the running race Catherine signed us up for was upon us.
At three o’clock we convened at our apartment with Helen and Matthijs for pasta (fuel of champions), before hitting the (longer than expected) road to Gasselte, which is practically in Groningen, about 200km from Amsterdam.
Thankfully, the weather was very pleasant, clear and fresh. We wouldn’t be having any problems with rain that evening. And on cue at 18:19, the sun dipped below the horizon just as we were arriving, in time for sign in.
Race numbers allocated, we made our way to the errr, bar to get changed into our race clothes and decide on what configuration of clothing we would wear. That sorted, final adjustments to head straps for the torches and action-cam strapped into place, we waited for 19:20, our official start time.
Though of course, it wouldn’t be right without a picture first.
And with that, off to the start-line!
We went off into the woods, and quickly the group of 50-60 or so runners formed a single-file line, with a lot of dodging and weaving to avoid patches of deep boggy mud. It was pitch black in the forest and very very quiet. Not unlike the conditions I experienced with Matt here.
As you can see in the picture above, I did take the action cam with me, but apart from very few sections, it looks like a film made from the point of view of a blind person. I’ll cobble something together later on.
Nevertheless, running through the forest and at night is entirely magical. Unlike road-running, which you can pretty much do with your eyes shut, the forest floor is completely uneven, slippery and full of surprises. To get through it, a lot of concentration is required. This is easy in a pack, because the multitude of head-torches lights up the majority of the path. But when the pack thins out, you’re forced to look everywhere and really pay attention to what you’re running over. I actually found the experience really engaging. Loath as I am to claim I was “at one with nature”, I was definitely close to it. And when I say close to it, I almost mean that literally. When I let my attention slip, or looked at my watch, or tried to look at the scenery (or lack thereof) or see the night sky, I almost fell flat on my face. This happened more than once, until I learnt my lesson and just concentrated on where my feet were going.
After 7-8km through the woods, we opened up on what was once a sand quarry, and is now a lake surrounded by mountain bike trails. This is where things got really interesting, as the tracks weave about to make the most use of the space, and sometimes double back, meaning you’re actually running towards people until they veer off in another direction and you realise that they were on another track. This is also the section where the “hills” come into it.
At 20 meters high (and that’s me being generous), these hills were more a bump in the road than a major daunting force to be conquered. Still, they provided for some good scrambling, in the traditional trail running way, hands on knees to provide a bit of extra force. My usual cheeriness had me call out to my team-mates “UTMB here we come!!”, which was met by a resounding “F±*% you!”……I may have a bit more work ahead of me to convince them…..
The last three km or so plunged back into the woods, for the really soggy bit, where water seeps into your shoes, socks get really wet and the mud splashes commence. At this point I got separated from Matthijs and Catherine, so I upped the ante a bit to see how quickly I could plow through the terrain (turns out, not much faster than I was already going).
We rejoined the road, saw the marshall who told us we were at the end, but…surprise surprise, another marshall a bit further pointed us in the direction of the soggiest track yet, which had deep pools of cold water and squelchy mud do run through. Oh and a really slippery patch of mud on the final, sharp, corner which I think may have caught a fair few people out…
Finally, there was the finish, complete with drinks, sweets, crisps, and of course, liquorice (we are in the Netherlands after all). Final photo taken, breath caught up, and off to the most important part of any race, the bar for hot soup and beer.
I also made one crucial mistake. I left my normal shoes in the car, 700 metres away, and there was no way in hell I was putting my wet running shoes back on. So I did the only other thing I could do:
By the way, when it’s 0 degrees, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Thankfully, it was a very clear night and I could distract myself by looking for Big Bear and Little Bear, the only two constellations I know.
So trail running. Something for me?
Yes! 1000 times yes! It’s so much more exciting than road running! It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, you need to focus really hard and pay attention. Things that aren’t always a necessity in our automaton urban lives. A way to reconnect with nature? Definitely. An escape? Possibly. A great, healthy and fun way to spend your Saturday night? Absolutely. Will we be doing it again? Well…..
Thank you to Matt, for joining us in this endeavour. Congratulations to Catherine for completing her first ever foot race (not the first race I’d have chosen). And lastly, thank you Helen, for waiting, and doing all the driving, long after we’d fallen asleep!
PS: shame on you, McDonalds Hogeveen for not having a veggie burger, how were we supposed to feed our hardworking driver!?!?
Boom. You blink and another three weeks fly by. Must be having fun! Anyway, a quick update is due before what promises to be a slightly more interesting week than the norm.
The healthy living continues (within a reasonable degree), and as long as we make it past tomorrow, the most depressing day of the year, apparently we will be able to keep it up indefinitely! Regardless, last week I snagged a spot in a spinning class. This is not the usual manly aura I like to think I portray, but nevertheless, its a tough workout (I’ve got the heart rate data to back up that statement). Two reasons, firstly it’s actually pretty good fun, and two it’ll help get my legs bike fit again, which after a lot of running, they are no longer. I went cycling a couple weeks ago and it was not a pretty performance. I got some video from the handlebars but it’s pretty much the dullest footage I’ve ever seen, as literally nothing happens (except that I saw a cormorant and a pheasant).
This week also happened to be my 26th birthday. Cue some beers and a really good pizza at a small place in Amsterdam. Presents included some liquor, a decanter, a bench plane and something else, but more on that later in the week. I also happened to snap a complete cliché photo of Amsterdam. Here you go:
Like I said, the rest of the week unfolded without much ado. Though thank you to all those who sent their wishes on my Birthday. Always appreciated.
This weekend, Catherine was putting some finishing touches to her thesis so it stayed pretty quiet and domestic, including a full clean of the kitchen by yours truly (it needed it). But we also went for a meal at Matt and Helens, with the usual excuisite food. We also breaded the cat, which in hindsight was pretty mean. But he didn’t seem too bothered. In fact, he showed the bread who was the boss by ripping it to shreds and spreading it all over the appartment. We also played a game of exploding kittens (fear not, it had nothing to do with the actual cat…), which is quite amusing if you come across it.
Sunday was much like Saturday, though we went for a trail run around a pond/lake thing not far from here, though rather than ramble on, I put it all together in a short clip.
This was of course rounded off with hot-cocoa, as you would expect. Not to mention a piece of Christmas cake (which, for those who arent English, is made for Christmas and then eaten for about 6 months because its so rich and stodgy, in fact I’ve always claimed that if I ever embark on some sort of expedition somewhere far-flung, it will be my emergency food as it’s pretty much indestructable and very dense….).
We have some weather-dependent plans next weekend and some stuff lined up for this week too which is quite out of the ordinary.
Why run? Why go through the pain and the misery that often accompanies long distance running?
I used to decry running as the dullest thing I could imagine. Just endlessly pounding pavement to end up back where I started. Some benefits are apparent. Weight loss, endorphins, feeling good about accomplishing something you couldn’t do previously.
Sure, getting in shape and working out was an immediate benefit for me. I recently found a picture from December 2011, where I was at my heaviest. A full 15 kilos heavier than I am now. Give or take, I’m now a mere 82% of the guy I was then.
But you could argue that now it’s done, through good food and an active lifestyle, there’s no need for me to continue, or at least there’s no need to work anywhere near as hard.
But is that human nature? When we accomplish something, don’t we want to accomplish more? Isn’t it enough that we do things simply because they are hard?
It took me four or five tries to become a runner. The first time, coincidentally in spring 2012, lasted about two sessions. That was that until autumn 2013, where I was seized by the necessity to do something, anything to break out of a slump. I kept it up for a month or so. Then there was a lull, before trying again, again for a month. And then nothing for a season and then again. And on and off it went.
It has never become a habit. It has always been an effort. It has always been demanding and its always required willpower.
But eventually it became worth the effort, worth enduring cold, rain, even snow. It became a fulfilling activity in its own right. Something I do because I learnt to genuinely enjoy it. Though that feeling comes and goes. As proven by this very blog. A blog set up to discuss sports and running which seemingly discusses everything but…
So what next? The marathon was an experience but I’m unsure it’s one I want to repeat (for now). Do I speed up? Do I aim to go further? Do I try something else?
Whatever the next challenge is. It has one criteria. One criteria which I think is at the basis of all human endeavour.
It cannot be easy.
If it were easy I would be able to do it already. And that’s how to add value to our own lives isn’t it? To be able to wake up in the morning and ask ourselves. “Am I a better human today than I was yesterday?”
After weeks of waiting (and not preparing), it was go time on the Amsterdam Marathon!
On Saturday, after a quick haircut at a great barber I found, I met Catherine at Run2Day, where Catherine gifted me a pair of compression socks for the upcoming ordeal. Following that, Andrew picked us up and we drove to the olympic park for packet pick-up. The queue was fairly long, but once in the main hall, it was fairly quick and painless to get the race numbers and the t-shirts (included in the €70 starting fee for marathon runners, optional for the shorter distances).
Following that, it was home for pasta! Carbs, carbs and more carbs! I debated at length what to wear, obviously wearing the actual race shirt wasn’t allowed, as per here. The next morning I got up at 6 for a hearty helping of porridge, before snoozing for another hour and drinking plenty of fluids. Then we made sure we had packed everything I needed, including all the energy gels and a bottle of water in my bum bag.
Off to the metro we went to meet Andrew. The closer to the start, and naturally the busier the metro got, until it was heaving with people in brightly coloured running gear. Andrew and I agree that women by far have a better selection of cool leggings when it comes to running gear! Interesting patterns, cool colour schemes and so on. Neither of us particularly want pink running clothes, but a bit more variety in the men’s section would be cool.
We began queueing to enter the starting blocks, until we figured out we could skip the queue if we went around the side. I admit that was cheeky, but the queue really was going nowhere. Eventually in the stadium, we didn’t hear the start, but all of a sudden it was time to go! Around the stadium we went and out on our way!
The first few kilometres were fined as we steadily cruised through Amsterdam. At kilometre 11 I caught sight of Tashi, who was marshalling. Unfortunately, just as we ran towards him, someone asked him a question and stood in front of him with her umbrella. So as I ran past I tapped him on the shoulder. I don’t know what I did, but I managed to trip myself up. Thankfully, I trained in Judo when I was younger, so instinctively rolling when I fall comes naturally. However, I managed to hit my head on the road, hard, and bruised my shoulder pretty badly. I couldn’t quite roll perfectly because of the water bottle tied around my waist, but I managed to get back up in one smooth action, pick up the energy gel I dropped and get on with the business of running. As I told Andrew, on the upside, my legs weren’t the most painful thing anymore!
The following few kilometres went by without particular hiccup. A little tired towards the halfway mark, we thought we might have gone out a little too fast.
We continued and got progressively more tired. That’s when strange stuff started happening. Including having bursts of energy followed by moments of utter devastating fatigue. But the weirdest ones were emotions. At one point I said to Andrew, “it’s very strange but I really feel like crying right now”, to which he answered “dude me too!”
The last 15 kilometres got pretty tough. It was blatantly clear that our sub-4hr goal was long gone. At this point the mere thought of eating more energy gel repulsed me. So I managed to choke down some water, chunks of banana and the odd energy drink at aid stations.
Unfortunately by this point Andrew had opted to visit the medic to have his knee checked out, so we were no longer running together. My pace crashed, I was cold, and was loosing the will to keep going. Only the problem was, I didn’t have my transport card nor the key to my house, they were both st the finish line with Catherine! So the choice was made for me, I had to go on!
With about 10km to go I saw Matthijs cycling along. What a relief to see a familiar face. Don’t get me wrong, the support along the way was tremendous! With my name on my race bib several people were encouraging me including the one English girl who told me to “smash it Benjamin, smash it!” And people holding up signs such as “smile if you’re not wearing any underpants”, which even though I was, made me grin anyway.
Eventually both Matt and Helen were lining the course at various intervals to take pictures and shout encouragement! And this made me smile. And it’s hard to feel miserable when you’re smiling.
When the 4:30 pace group caught up with me I managed to dig deep and hold on to them. Right behind the pacer was a little old lady, hunchbacked who had obviously spent the entire race glued to the pacing team. Big respect. Though I admit, if she could finish then I sure as hell could (she still beat me, there’s no space for ego in this sport). I managed to hold on to the group until the last kilometre or so, when I just let them go and hobbled to the finish. The last 500 metres seemed endless.
As I crossed back into the stadium with half a lap of the track to go, I was very much on the brink of tears, but the elation at having dragged myself through it buoyed my spirits and had me grinning like some disturbed maniac. Until I finally crossed the line, 4 hours 33 minutes after setting off. I initially thought there was something wrong with me, I couldn’t swallow my water, but it was just the lump in my throat.
I filtered through to get my medal and found myself in a queue where some grumpy old woman was just giving them to people, so I changed queue in favour of the one where a much prettier lady was actually putting them around our necks (and actually smiling, it’s the small things in life). I got my plastic sheet to wrap around my shoulders and hobbled out of the stadium, where I was given a tiny bottle of iso-drink (yuck), a cup of water and half a banana (stingy). I walked thorough the crowd to the point where I’d arranged to meet Catherine. And from then on, a quick change of clothes, had my medal engraved, caught up with Matt and Helen and Andrew, hydrated and then ate chips, croquet, and had a beer.
Then it was home time for a shower and a well-earned sit-down. (And more chips, a rib eye steak, more beer and eventually, some sleep!).
Monday evening Catherine and I went to the climbing hall again. Slightly more crowded than last week, but I followed one of the “routes” this time. The purple one, averaging a level 5 with the odd foray into 6.
Wednesday marked an important day! Catherine and I celebrated being together for five years! We met in Amsterdam for a dinner date at an Ethiopian restaurant. The food was absolutely delicious, and as an added bonus we ate with our hands! Surprisingly, we wolfed it all down very quickly.
I had an interesting “African” beer (Mongozo, flavoured with mango), which turned out to be brewed in the Netherlands (I like beer, as evidenced by my Untappd profile). We topped it off with Ethiopian coffee, which was much milder than the coffee we’re used to here, but very fragrant. I thought I got some clove flavours out of it. Despite it being our “anniversary”, Catherine opted to sleep on the sofa-bed that evening because she needed to leave for work at 04:00 the next day!!! Being an intern at an air freight company, she got to go see a jumbo jet get unloaded , having flown in overnight from Africa full of fresh cargo (mostly flowers and mange-tout). Unfortunately for security reasons, I cannot share some of the cool pictures she took of the plane and surrounding apron during the unloading. She also got to climb into the plane for a good look around. Being a bit of a supply-chain kind of guy myself, I’m very disappointed I couldn’t have joined the field trip! This not being enough for Catherine, she went straight from the airfield to a job interview… (no, I don’t get it either).
As a result, Thursday evening was very quiet, and Catherine went to bed very early. To make up for the lack of interesting stories on Thursday, here is a picture of my bike, which I promised in a previous post.
Friday evening I declared I would quite enjoy a pasta bake for dinner. So we got the ingredients together after work. Unfortunately we hadn’t read the recipe in sufficient detail, and began what turned out to be a 2:30 process. Halfway through I cycled back to the supermarket for some pizza, as we were halfway through and it was getting close to nine o’clock. (To be continued).
Saturday was given over to finishing the pasta bake and just getting the usual household-y stuff done like shopping cleaning and the like. My shopping trip to buy a couple shirts was hi-jacked by Catherine as we went out, she dragged me into a different shop, and wouldn’t let me go until…..the shops closed. This was followed by a night out to catch up with Matt, Helen and Tashi. Turns out Helen has had a few cakes commissioned and we’re very pleased for her. I will include a link to her page as soon as she sets one up (fear not, we’re encouraging (nagging) her to do it).
Sunday lead to a bit of a lie-in, more chores and a long run in the afternoon. I pushed my furthest distance up to 27km (still a long way to go before Marathon-readiness), and experimented with SIS energy gels, which I think on balance will be my sport gel of choice come race time. Unfortunately Andrew had not yet gotten the all-clear from the physio, so I went solo. Here’s the link to the strava file. The last couple kms got very slow and shuffly, so there’s work to be done there. The plan is to break 30 next weekend, 35 the next and then bring it back down for October 18th.
Another week gone! (Where do they go, and how do they go by so fast????)
Continuing on from the background page. I had best explain how we get from February (pre-Brussels), to August (post-Brussels). A lot has happened, which I will attempt to break down into a few categories. In any case, consider this a big update post that spans several sections.
This blog originally started in February, I was looking for a release and a place to post my thoughts and share what I got up to in training and in life. I’m going to use the usual excuse here and claim that life got in the way of any sort of regular updating of the site. By life I mean the demands of studies. As I was finishing up my Master’s degree I needed to focus hard on writing my thesis as well as preparing for exams.
Training continued, but to some degree as an escape from the rest, which I guess it is for many people. Regardless, I had signed up for the race in Brussels and I needed to make damn sure it happened (as I was running it with my friend Andrew, I needed to be able to do it and not let him, or myself down).
The run up to Brussels was not strong. I had a backlog of work to do for school, and to top it all off, I was unwell and needed a cure of antibiotics the 10 days leading up to the race. The weekend of the race, we left for Brussels on Friday afternoon and checked into the Airbnb we had booked. After briefly scouting the neighbourhood in the pouring rain, we had a quick bite to eat and headed in for a rest and some sleep.
The next morning we went to check out the start line and pick up the starting packets.
After that we headed into town to check out Brussels. I quite fancied returning to the Musée de la BD (the comic strip museum), having been 9 years previously and remembering that it was quite good.
Later that afternoon we were joined by Andrew and we met up with another friend for some dinner (and unfortunately, no beer).
The next morning we woke very early (after entirely not enough sleep), to have breakfast sufficiently early as to not “review” it during the race. I stuck with classical porridge, but Andrew has a preference for microwaveable spaghetti bolognese (No, I don’t get it either)…
We got to the start line with time to spare, and proceeded to go for a last wee in the bushes, as the toilets were entirely too far from the start line, and not sufficient anyway. We were in starting group 2, having entered an expected starting time of 1:45 (hence the purple race numbers, which is cool, I like purple anyway). It took a while for everyone to funnel through the starting gate (our corral started 6 minutes behind schedule). There are unfortunately no pictures past this point, as the camera stayed with Catherine.
At this point, Andrew drops what I consider to be a bomb: “I signed up for 1:40”. So, we went for it. I’ll gather the highlights of the race into bullet points, otherwise this might get a bit lengthy.
Km1: B”This seems to be going well”, A”Slow down man, or we’ll never finish”
Km2: It started to drizzle, fairly refreshing.
Km5: The tunnels start, my GPS watch loses signal and thus, the finish time estimator is trashed (no worries, I have my own calculator running along beside me…..the dude is seriously smart).
Km6-10, starting to get a bit difficult, as we’re aiming for 5min/km.
Km12 (or so), the energy drink station. It turns out Isostar tastes like lemony sweat.
Km16: “If this were the Dam-to-Dam, we would be done by now.
Km17-20: I really started to feel my heart pump now, especially as its all uphill from 17 onwards. Mild discomfort (agony) ensues.
Km20: last burst of speed and we cross the finish line in 1:43:13. I’m ecstatic, Andrew has barely broken a sweat (not really, but it feels that way to me).
For those who like data, here are a few highlights:
Jokingly, on the walk back to the apartment with our finishers banana, medal and bottle of water we joke that we should do a Marathon…. Well guess what?