All pictures by Maarten Schön aka the trail tourist
How far have we gone? Asks the voice in the back of my mind again as I’m walking down a snow-covered street from the small town of Neerijse to Sint-Agatha-Rode. We must be close to the first aid station surely? I am in a footrace of fifty miles, the Bello Gallico. It’s long past midnight, the moment the race started and that was half an hour after I finished the 100 mile race as part of the Bello Gallico event. The 100 miles took me nineteen and a half hours to finish and somewhere along the way I picked up this unwanted companion. I feel drowsy, despite the freezing cold wind in my face. My movements are mechanical. My mind is numb. As I cross a bridge over the river Dijle, a plastic yellow arrow points me to the right. I follow the directions and end up in a meadow. There is a shed here, surrounded by some trees and shrubs. It would have been a beautiful picture on a clear summer day. This might be a good place to finally get your watch from your backpack, the voice in the back of my mind whispers. Just have a look and see how far we are from the aid station. It can’t be far. We’ve been moving for ages. I have been wanting to check my watch for awhile now, but somehow it seemed impossible to do this while on the move in snow and wind. Now I let my unwelcome companion lead me toward the shed. I turn the corner to see if I can somehow get in. The shed turns out to be open in the front. The wind is at it’s back. There’s not much there but a bale of straw. And maybe some farm gear and materials, but all I seem to notice is this soft yellow piece of mattress padding. In the light of my headlamp it turns into gold. The bale has been disassembled and the straw is rearranged to form a slightly sloped bed, precisely the length of a weary runner. Why not sit down while you look for your watch? The voice asks slyly, ever weakening my faltering will. Get the pressure from your tired legs as Maarten would’ve said. I sit myself down and carefully put my backpack on the ground between some sheep droppings and a large turd of which I can’t determine its origin. The straw feels warm and inviting. I eagerly dig up my watch from my backpack… Thirteen and a half kilometres! Not even fourteen kilometres! In just over two hours! This is insane! No, it’s hopeless! The voice cries. I calmly do my math. It’s not that bad actually. Almost seven kilometres an hour. The voice is silenced… for two seconds. But it’s nine more kilometres to the next aid station! Then soothing: And you are so tired. And your legs and feet hurt so much. Why not lay down and close your eyes for a minute? The seductive voice spins its web more firmly around my feeble will. Yes, why not quit altogether? But I’m not ready to submit just yet. I call race headquarters to explain my situation and tell them not to worry about the absence of movement from my side. I’m going to have a power nap and then reassess. Mariel from the safety team offers to give me a wake-up call and I gladly accept. As my mind drifts off into the realm of emptiness I hear runners passing by every now and then, like fairies in the night. My mind tries desperately to cling to those fairies. Part of me wants to go with them. No, take your time. Rest some more. You’re so tired. Just let them pass. And then they’re gone. Maybe you should just quit all together. The seductive power of the voice is irresistable. Think of the time you can spend with Sarah and Marieke when you get home. If you would go on, you could make it, of course. But it would take you so long. You wouldn’t be able to finish before three or four in the afternoon. And then you would need to sleep a few hours before you would be able to drive home. Sarah will long have gone to bed by then. You won’t see her anymore. Why not quit and go home? They want you home, you know it. Don’t you? I open my eyes. My will is broken.
Twenty four hours earlier I was completely oblivious of the struggle that I would go through in my mind. At that moment I had great expectations about the race, actually two races, that I was going to start. The challenge seemed easy on paper: run two rounds of fifty miles in under twenty hours; then run the same round again for a total of 150 miles. The course is flat and fast. And that’s where the biggest challenge lies. The course is almost entirely runnable which makes it hard randelentless on the legs and feet. The circumstances made it even harder, since it had been freezing the past few days and the ground was frozen hard. After catching up with some of the many ultra running friends present, out we went into the cold and dark morning. Perhaps even race director Tim found the weather a tad cold for wearing shorts because the countdown went by faster than usual.
My intention to let the fast guys go and run my own easy pace goes out the window immediately. I do let the fast guys go, but my own heart rate goes up to 160 beats per minute rapidly. It’s strange what a shot of adrenaline can do to your body and mind. The pace feels easy and my breath feels easy. I blame the coffee. Maybe two big cups of coffee, of probably legendary strength, really are a bit too much. I decide to go with the flow though and just keep on running with the guys around me. I don’t know them, only Rinus Holvoet a little. It seems that none of them know each other, for we run in silence most of the time. Actually I believe not a word is spoken until we reach the first aid station in Bierbeek.
There is beauty in running through the woods in silence with a pack of people. There’s no sound but the soft thud of feet on the soft soil and the heavy breath from runners exerting themselves. This, combined with the confined sense of space caused by the limited view, makes it easy to drift away in a state of timelessness. A second lasts for ages but the miles fly by in the matter of seconds. The sensation is so peaceful, you never want it to end. So when I enter the first aid station in a cosy pub in the town of Bierbeek I’m just standing there in the middle of the usual hustle and bustle of a hundred mile race aid station. It takes me a few seconds to realise why I am there. And it takes me a few more to realise there’s nothing there that I require. All that I need right now is out there in the woods and fields of Flemish Brabant. So after asking what direction to go, I head out on to the streets quickly. Rinus must have had the same thought and follows me.
Soon we leave town and are back into the fields. It’s cold up on the plateau and the muddy tracks are frozen hard. The soft thud of feet in the woods is replaced by the slapping sound of hard-soled trail running shoes on solid surface. The silence is broken only by intermittent chatter. After 35 kilometres we are just having trouble finding the way through a rough plot of forest full of brambles but completely void of every possible form of trail, when Maarten Schön aka the trail tourist catches up with us. I dubbed him the trail tourist for his notorious habit of shooting more pictures than running miles during his adventures. I have never had a serious conversation with the fellow, but he does have a serious watch, with a gpx file of the course on it. So I wasn’t going to start complaining about his want of seriousness now. With Maartens watch as our guide we’re back on course quickly. The three of us run together until the second aid station. Here we meet Nico van Meulder for the first time, but the trail tourist takes his time and Nico is out some five minutes before Maarten and myself are ready. Rinus decides to take it a bit easier and Maarten and I head out into the break of dawn together.
It’s not until 53 kilometres into the race that we catch up with Nico. He was running together with to other guys who seem to have trouble keeping up the fast pace. Nico hooks up with us and a fellowship is formed for the next seventy kilometres. By this time my feet and legs are already starting to suffer from the hard ground underfoot. I feel like I haven’t completely recovered from my attempt to run the Eifelsteig the end of September either. I just feel a bit stiff in my lower back and legs. But there is no room to complain, nor time to take it easy. We are on a mission here: run sub-twenty hours to start another race. We encounter little trouble until we reach the halfway aid station at race headquarters.
The only drawback of a Legends Trails aid station is the temptation to linger too long risking to stay there forever. The halfway aid station at Bello Gallico, also the start and finish location of the race, is no exception. It’s a warm place. You meet friends there, get a hot plate of food and all the love and care you need. You never want to leave. So we take our time here. Clothes are changed, feet tended to, hungry stomachs filled, bad jokes about lubricants made and watches attached to power banks to recharge just like their owners. This is also where the team is extended with my dad. He’s not going to run with us, but he intends to follow us along the course for moral support and a helping hand at the aid stations. After 45 minutes we’re ready to leave for our second round in the opposite direction.
The long break hasn’t done me very good and I’m starting to have trouble to keep up with Maarten and Nico. But their presence and patience give me just enough willpower to keep going and I’m just able to hang on. There’s not much that can equal the powerful force of common purpose trying to overcome the difficult challenge of a hundred mile race. I would only realise this lying in a shed when I needed it most and when it was absent. The first twenty five kilometres of that second round my view is mostly defined by the looks of Maarten en Nico’s behinds. The hardest parts of the course are the flat sections. There’s an excuse to walk when the slope goes up and then when the track goes down, running is easy. But on the flat sections there’s no excuse nor any tailwind and my tired muscles can’t keep up. Just when I think we’re done with the flat parts, we cross the river Dijle for another long section along the river. When we turn a corner I notice a pretty shed surrounded by trees and shrubs at the edge of a meadow. I save this beautiful picture in my memory, then I put my head down and just keep grinding on.
After aid station five, just over the hundred kilometre mark, things start to turn around and I am glad to be able to return the favour and keep the team moving at a decent pace. Not many words are needed to know what has to be done or not be done. It’s almost as if we’re moving as one. When anyone slows down, we all do. When one of us starts running again the others follow suit. We continue in this way until we near the sixth aid station at 120 kilometres. The sun has set since we left the last aid station and now, all of sudden, Nico falls back. Maarten and I start walking too, but this time Nico doesn’t seem to be able to catch up. We slow down even more to give Nico a chance to catch up with us. ‘Shall we?’, I ask when eventually he does. I’m still not sure what Nico meant to say exactly, but when I look back after having run a couple hundred yards, he’s not there. Maarten and I decide to press on to the much desired aid station, which is not far away, and there reassess. Nico comes into the aid station a couple minutes later. I don’t dare discuss what we are going to do, for I sense that Nico will not be able to keep on going at the pace we have been running for the last seventy kilometres. And I know we can’t slacken our pace too much if we want to finish under twenty hours and be able to start the fifty mile race. We have some margin, but we will probably need it when we’ll be slowing down. And we will need some time between the races to prepare too. When Maarten and I are ready to go, making a decision is inevitable. Nico is obviously in a bad spot. He is low on energy and urges us to go on. We don’t have to think long, but we leave him behind with regret. The fellowship starts to fall apart.
As Maarten and I press on Nico stays in the aid station to recover. He would leave the aid station some three hours later to finish the race in 24:32 hours, a grand example of perseverance and determination. Halfway to the last aid station Maarten is starting to have trouble to keep up the pace. Running is interrupted with short spells of walking more often. Maarten urges me to go on. I try a few times, but I need the walking breaks as much as he does. Every time I slow down to a walk, Maarten catches up again. We go on like this until we reach the pub in Bierbeek together. I don’t want to stay too long and leave soon after eating a grilled sandwich with ham and cheese. Maarten stays a little longer and leaves fifteen minutes later.
I am able to keep up a decent pace. I calculate that I should be able to finish at around nineteen hours. I catch up with two fellows after we all take a wrong turn. I soon leave them behind me which gives me motivation to keep pressing on. My competitive spirit kicks in and I keep running most of the time. A finish under nineteen hours would allow me to take a much desired nap, so I keep pressing on. Around 21:30 hours the first snow starts to fall. I had already put on my windshell earlier and at first that is enough to keep me dry. But when the snow intensifies I decide to put on my waterproof to make sure my upper body stays dry. I love running in the snow! The cold snowflakes in my face keep me awake. Time flies by and so do the miles. I feel invincible. In my head I am already thinking of how I’m going to prepare for the fifty mile race. First I’ll have a warm meal, meanwhile changing clothes and then have a nap. After that I’ll have some coffee and I’ll put on my Montane Spine jacket and pants to keep myself warm and dry whilst moving slow. While thinking about all this a voice in the back of my mind tries to tell me something. Shouldn’t you eat? But I ignore the appeal of my new companion. I am not hungry and my energy levels are still high. I finally reach the fish ponds of De Zoete Waters near the finish. I know there’s a loop of seven kilometres through Heverleebos I have to negotiate. That shouldn’t be a problem normally. But somehow a switch flips in my mind. I feel hungry all of a sudden but I just can’t put myself to eating the cold, coarse bars in my backpack, nor the dry sandwich with cheese. My mouth is just too dry after all these hours to be able to process the food. All of a sudden I’m feeling tired and the pain in my feet and legs seem to intensify. The voice in the back of my mind gets louder. Why not walk for a minute. You’ll feel better. As I start walking the pain subdues and I force myself to eat a snickers bar. But when I start running again the pain returns. I try to keep running as long as possible. But by now the number and length of sections that I walk are increasing quickly. Then I get to a crossroads… without course markers. F*ck! This is NOT good! I get out my phone to check my location on the tracking site of the race. I’m still on the blue line. But my mind is so numb I’m not able to process the possibility that my location on the map is not up-to-date. Maybe someone took the course markers. I think you should keep going. But I’m getting suspiciously close to the motorway E40 now. This can’t be right. Just after I turn around my phone rings. It’s my dad. ‘Your of track!’ ‘Yeah, I know!’ My mind is having trouble to figure out where I am exactly and where I should go. But my dad confirms what should have been obvious.’Just walk back and take a right turn. There’s someone heading your way. Just stay with him.’ But when I reach the turnoff, he’s still some way off. I start running again alternated with short spells of walking. In this manner I finally reach the long final stretch toward the finish. I have lost a lot of time walking and getting off course. I will probably have only half an hour to get ready for the fifty mile. That’s less than the break we had after round one. The voice in the back of my mind grows ever stronger. There’s not enough time. You won’t be able to have a nap before you go and you are so tired. I can always just toe the start line and then get back inside to have a nap before I go on. Stef says it’s allowed. But that would not be quite fair, you said so yourself! After the race has started you’re only allowed to receive aid at the aid stations. Besides you have already finished a race. There’s no shame in quitting now. You can have a good night’s sleep and then go home to Sarah and Marieke. Have a nice Sunday with your family. I have almost capitulated when I get near the end of that long final stretch. Someone is waiting here. It’s Adriaan Pandelaers. ‘Well done Teun! Come get inside! Have some hot food, change your clothes and get ready for the fifty miles!’ The voice in the back of my head is silenced immediately. ‘I can still toe the line and get back in for a nap’, I object half-heartedly. ‘No, no! You must make use of the flow from the crowd and run with them. It would be no use to try alone.’ The last escape route is expertly cut off by Adriaan. There’s no alternative but to run the fifty mile race. And I’m starting to get my motivation for it back too! By the time I enter the large hall I’m determined to start and finish the fifty mile race.
When I enter, the hall is filled with runners getting ready for their race. I don’t feel worthy of their applause. My race isn’t over yet. I do have to collect my medall for the hundred mile race though. I’m a little annoyed when Stef asks me to jump on the podium to receive my medal. Jump on the podium? I don’t deserve that yet. I have another race to get to and finish first.’ I say none of that: ‘no, just put the medal round my neck.’ I’m glad Stef senses my urgency and complies. He reaches me my race bib for the fifty miles which he must have had ready before I arrived. ‘Do you accept?’ ‘Yes,’ I try to smile. It must look more like a grimace.
I get to business quickly. Seeking out my dropbag and taking of my clothes. People gather round to help me. My dad gives me a hand with my gear and Frederique brings me food and coffee. Frederique is race director Tim’s wife. Now Tim and Stef make up these brilliant challenges and throw the runners out into the dark and cold night. But Fre and Ania, Stefs wife, are the ones that keep the runners alive with their delicious and wholesome food and make it possible to actually finish the Legends races. While preparing I gratefully devour a plate of rice with the best stew ever, re-dressing at the same time. One minute before the start I’m ready to go out again.
I stand in the back of the pack. My plan is to start slowly to warm up again and then see from there. After the countdown I try to let some kind of primal scream burst from my mouth. It sounds more like the hoarse cough of an animal in distress. But off I am and that’s what matters. I walk the first short uphill and when the track turns down I break into an uncomfortable trot. After a flat part along De Zoete Waters the track gently goes up again and I cautiously try to run uphill. It goes well enough. Soon I start catching up with people and I slowly move up the field… Until I don’t anymore. Two guys that were running and walking near me the first six or seven kilometres slowly run away from me. This is de part of the course with the long flat sections. I loathe them. I’m not able to run for long and when I walk, my pace is so slow I feel I might fall over. There’s a fellow near me that seems to be walking most of the time. When I run I move away from him. When I walk he catches up with me again. We go on like this for a while. But then he too slowly moves away from me. Other people start passing me. My morale sinks proportionally. I miss my companions Maarten and Nico, their encouraging presence. I’m not able to connect to the people around me. I feel like I am in a different state of mind after 100 miles of running. There’s nobody I can share the burden of twenty plus hours of running with. I just feel lonely and want to go home. The voice in the back of my mind grows stronger again. Why don’t you have a look at your watch? My watch is in my backpack to recharge. I feel like I’ve been running quite far and quite long. It might motivate me to know how far I’ve come and how far I have to go until the first aid station. But it’s windy and cold. I don’t want to stop out in the open. I look for shelter. There’s none. How far have we gone? The voice asks when I enter the small town of Neerijse. We need a break. We need a nap. How far until the next aid station?
The bus stop at the corner of the street that I pass by is at exactly fifteen kilometres, seven kilometres from the aid station. But I don’t know that yet. What’s worse, my watch will tell me something different in a few minutes. It will tell me I’m only 13,5 kilometres in. And in an hour from now I will be standing right here at this bus stop waiting for a ride back to headquarters, already regretting my decision to quit. But I don’t know that yet. For now, I just keep slogging on along a snow-covered street towards a bridge over the river Dijle where a yellow arrow will direct me to a shed surrounded by some trees and shrubs at the edge of a meadow…
The Bello Gallico double is a brilliant invention, made up by Marek Vis. It consists of running two races within a single event: the Bello Gallico. The 100 mile starts at four o’clock on Saturday morning, the 50 mile twenty hours later at midnight. So one has twenty hours to finish the 100 mile race to be able to start the 50 mile. It seems easy on paper. I figured the hardest part of the challenge would be to run the 100 miles under twenty hours and still have the legs to start the 50 miles. I wasn’t worried too much about starting te 50 miles once I would have finished under twenty. What I didn’t take into account was the mental challenge of actually running the 50 miles. I figured once I had started I would easily finish it with a sixteen hours cut-off. But when you run 100 miles you get into a different state of mind. You’re weary and everything superfluous is stripped away. You’re soul is naked. And what remains is something very near to your true self. In this state of mind it is hard, or at least it is hard for me, to connect with people that didn’t go through that same process. I just felt lonely. Especially since I missed the companionship of Maarten and Nico. I quit in a moment (a moment that lasted an hour) of mental weakness. Had I looked at the facts: I had been moving at a pace of seven kilometres per hour (not that bad after 175 kilometres) and I was only seven kilometres away from the first aid station which would have had me at 58 kilometres from the finish, I might have decided differently. But I didn’t. I let my emotions and the voice in the back of my mind take control. I regretted my decision to call headquarters and ask for a ride back almost instantly. While waiting for my ride I even considered revoking my decision and go on after all. I guess it was too late for that. This time at least. I sure love the simplicity of this difficult challenge and I am sure I will try again next year.
I have nothing left but to thank everyone involved. My wife Marieke and daughter Sarah for letting me go on these whimsical expeditions. All volunteers without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Stef and Tim for inventing these wacky races and Fre and Ania for the nourishment that makes it possible to actually finish them. An extra big thank you to Fre for the extra care between races. Adriaan, thank you for making me start the fifty mile. Dad thanks for the support. And of course my ‘makkers’ Maarten and Nico, thank you for your patience and comradery. Nico, volgend jaar gaan we da doen. Maarten thanks for the pictures.