What a weekend.
I write this from a train back from Brussels, where I have just competed in my first ever overseas race, the Brussels Marathon. Leaving work as early as possible on Friday, I hopped on a train to London and then to Brussels, where my good friend Tom was waiting for me. Tom and I go back a long way and he was best man at my wedding last year; I was really excited. I arrived too late to do anything on Friday evening, but Saturday was spent sightseeing in Antwerp, mainly by bike so I could stay off my feet in preparation for the race the next day.
Knowing we had to be up before 6 the next morning we got to bed early but I could barely sleep. The freak heat wave that has hit the UK in the last week has also reached Belgium and it was unbearably hot, even indoors. This was made worse by the mosquitos who had made their way in and were feasting on us as we slept. The pattern of half an hour sleeping then half an hour tossing and turning and swatting away mosquitos continued until 5:45 when my alarm went.
A quick bowl of Muesli and a cup of coffee and we headed to the station to catch the train into Brussels.
It was a cool morning at first, but as soon as the sun started to rise over the Military Academy, the race’s start point, the temperature rose quickly. The start area was full of people of all nationalities milling around with no one in a huge rush to push to the front. I put myself in the sub 3 start pen and tried to stay out of the sun.
The gun went (in fact it was a cannon) at 9am and we headed towards the centre of Brussels for the first couple of kilometres. Several people went charging off at the front; I tried to ignore everyone else and run at my own pace. After barely 2km of running, with the group ahead of me stretching out of sight quickly and the group behind not going with me, I realised what I had suspected before the race began: this was definitely going to be a solo run.
The first 5k was the least interesting part of the course, mostly on a long straight main road with several underpasses to negotiate. I could have done without the reapeated descending and climbing, the effects of which I knew would be felt later in the race. I went through 5k in around 18 minutes.
Kilometres 5-10 were far more enjoyable, a loop section through some woodland which brought some welcome shade. I was already pouring with sweat by this point. At exactly the 7km mark I saw someone who I was certain I recognised, strange given that I only know 5 people in Belgium and that this person wasn’t one of them. After some thought I realised it was Justine Henin-Hardenne, the tennis player. I laughed to myself and looked back. She gave a knowing smile when she saw I had recognised her.
Passing through 10k in around 36:10 I became aware of one of the runners further ahead falling back. I knew there was no need to try and chase him down with only a quarter of the race run, but I hoped to catch him and maybe even be able to work with him. At 12k I did this and after a brief exchange of words in French we settled into a good rhythm, clicking off kms in the 3:30-3:40 region. The heat aside, I felt very comfortable and strong, even as we began the long grind up the hill from 18k all the way to the half way point. We took it in turns to lead up the hill, with the other one tucking in behind and drafting. Just after 20k I took my turn in the lead and he didn’t go with me. He was spent, and with a long way still to go.
I got to half way in around 76:30, just as planned.
The section that followed was an undulating out and back on a main road with a 6k loop at the end of it which went round a lake. I was still pouring sweat and was pleased that the section round the lake was in shade. Looking round, I still saw no one near me, not even the Belgian runner I had been with only a few km before. At 29k I was off the loop and back on the long out and back section. The heat was really starting to take its toll. I got to 30k in 1:50 and realised I had stopped sweating, a sign of severe dehydration.
The next few kilometres were a blur. I tried my best to push harder but my body just wasn’t responding the way it normally would, and my legs were slowing down. I was vaguely aware of Tom watching at 36k with his girlfriend Sarah and was grateful for their support. With a brutal hill ahead I needed all the support I could get. It came in the shape of a local on a bike, who had clearly seen me suffering and took pity on me. He offered words of support in Flemish which I didn’t really understand. The hill was steep and long and it took all the mental strength I could summon not to start walking or just stop altogether. It didn’t help that the leading half marathon runners who had set off an hour and a half later than us were starting to charge past.
Once I reached the top of the hill I saw the Military Academy ahead of me and knew there wasn’t much further to go. This gave me a lift and I started to feel strong again. From there it was a predominantly downhill stretch into the centre of Brussels. I just tried my best to hang on. Just after the 40k mark I sensed another athlete approaching from behind. Though my time was not going to be quick and we were competing for minor positions I didn’t want to let him take the position I had held for the majority of a race which I had run on my own. The cobbled streets were playing havoc with my tired quads and calves but I pushed on towards the finish, which was tucked away in one of the many squares that fill the centre of the city. I crossed the line in a time of 2:43, nothing special and certainly not what I was hoping for, but given the conditions I felt I hadn’t done too badly.
After a shower I met Tom and Sarah at the hall where the runners had congregated. I felt sick and deyhdrated and sipped an energy drink, only allowing myself to stand up when I was certain that said energy drink wasn’t planning to reappear along with the rest of my stomach’s contents. We set off in search of some salty food and spent the afternoon catching up, talking about the race and enjoying the surprise October sunshine.
Thanks for having me, Brussels.