A piece of advice for anyone contemplating running a race in Belgium; prepare to get your elbows out and forget your British manners! Luckily I’d been forewarned of this and sharpened my elbows and practised a French-looking pout especially for the occasion.
I’m quite new to running having got the bug after the running GNR last year, and this was the only other big event I’ve been to. So, after a horrifically difficult journey across the channel which took a sweaty, cramped and grumpy 16 hours to get there (thank you EuroTunnel) I woke up in Brussels a nervous, doubtful wreck.
There’s no way I’ll manage this today, I thought, after hardly any sleep, very little food and with storms and wind blowing like mad! But once I got on the Metro, the sight of hundreds of runners of all ages, sizes and fitnesses heading to the start and my mantra ‘if they can do it, you can do it’ spurred me on. The atmosphere getting to the start was electric. I’ve never thought of the Belgians as a particularly happy lot but I’ve since changed my mind! The towering columns of the impressive Cinquantenaire signalled the start of the pens, and as I made my way over there with my friend James we were stopped and interviewed for Brussels TV (just thought I’d drop my five minutes of fame in there…)
In true Belgian style there was neither order nor control over the pens, so despite James’ number being 20,000 behind mine, we joined the hordes to clamber forwards and managed to start together not too far from the front. As I was so nervous, I knew I’d start far too quickly and that I’d probably already used up a whole load of energy jumping around in the rain to keep warm! So I consciously held to just over a 5k/mile pace through the business district and kept it strong and steady, trying hard not to get too pushed around by huge men with big elbows… Now I began to understand why I’d seen so few women there!
The course swerved and circled in nice short sections up a steady hill, along the Euro zone. It was challenging to keep a foot hold on the slippy cobbles as we flew past the Palace as Belgian roads are not a strongpoint! Hundreds of displaced cobbles and potholes meant quite a number of runners came a-cropper, but luckily I kept my head down and managed to avoid them. But then, my worst nightmare … three underground tunnels. I was still keeping a steady pace but I’m pretrified of closed spaces and as you entered the tunnels the humidity, heat and noise of thousands of runners was so disorienting I thought I might ‘go’. Instead, spurred on by a handsome fireman beside me, I picked up to almost a 4k pace and sped through them as fast as I could, and was rewarded after the hill at the other end by a break in the clouds!
The next part of the run was wonderful. We weaved through a beautiful park, down tree-lined streets and past bird-filled lakes. There were a few crowds of spectators, but nothing compared to the GNR. This was more than made up for by the fantastic blues, brass, jazz and drumming bands accompanying us at various points en route! I hit the 10k station at exactly 50 minutes and had a celebratory fruit gum. I was really enjoying it now and happy with my rhythm. The next few kilometres flew by, as the course moved along residential streets and past posh houses. I found it funny how runners could basically go any route they wanted – a few ran along tram tracks whilst others nearly knocked spectators over running over pavements! A few narrow streets meant I got my elbows out again and was nearly tripped by a pushy, scary-looking body builder-type, but I just about kept upright and found my rhythm again.
I’d been warned about the famous ‘mont du mort’ around the 17k mark-2 kilometres of steep uphill along Avenue Tervurenlaan but just as I realised I’d already started it, I spied the 1h45 balloons marker just by the side of me. I must’ve lost a bit of pace but as I was aiming for under 1h50 I was ecstatic! I kept pace alongside the balloon man and huffed and puffed past the runners slowing down, feeling thankful for once for Durham’s hills during my training!
As I reached the top with sweaty, misty eyes, I saw what I thought was the finish line – yeah! I tried to ignore my burning thighs and dig into a pocket of energy to pick up my pace, but as I neared it, I realised it said ‘only 1km to go’! Oh dear. I eased off a bit and reserved a tiny bit of push for the real finish. I managed a wobbly sprint around a roundabout, down an ‘elbows-at-dawn’ narrow and over the cobbles to finish in 1h47. But strangly I had come through in front of the 1h 45 marker… I saw James by the bananas having done a fantastic 1h40 and looking curiously fresh! I on the other hand weakly collected my Belgian-flagged medal and wished I’d only pushed 2 minutes harder! I’ll be more prepared for the tunnels, cobbles and sneaky finishes next time and sharpening my elbows in preparation!