The hills on the opposite side of the Amblève valley are covered under a brown blanket. A pale sun is out, accentuating the multi shades of brown and warming my back. I am standing in the small hamlet of Quarreux. The hills I’m looking at are the same hills I was coming down from only to days ago, to continue my way along the Amblève towards Nonceveux. The emotions of the grand adventure I was part of are starting to sink in. It’s a rare mixture of joy, sadness, complacency and peace. Two days earlier I was beginning to feel the effects of the effort I had made up until that point, both physically and mentally. My body was starting to ache and my determination was starting to falter. I was filled with the same mixture of feelings, and warmed by the same sun as I am today. I was on my way to accomplish the greatest adventure I’ve ever undertaken, for the second time: The Legends Trail.
This adventure started two years ago when I read reports about the first edition of the race. I was much impressed by the roughness of this event. Legends Trail is a footrace of 250 kilometres and 7000 metres of climbing along the toughest trails and steepest slopes to be found in the Belgium Ardennes. And because that is not challenging enough by itself, the race is held at the end of winter and starts at 18.00 hours to make sure the participants are sleep deprived before they are well on their way. It took me a while to convince myself that I could be able to finish a race like this. But after I had registered and started out on reconnaissance runs on the course, I realized that not only I would be able to finish, but I was actually going to love this adventure most affectionately. Last year I was kind of disappointed with the weather conditions and the condition of the course itself. The race would go down in history as the summer edition of the Legends Trail.
This year was going to be different though. It had been raining all winter, and the course was soaking wet during the first recon runs. I was slipping around on muddy forest tracks and splashing through swamps and bogs. ‘This is going to be tough and fun!’ I thought. Then it started to freeze. The muddy footprints and tire tracks of forestry machinery froze up to turn the tracks and trails into an ankle breaking, knee twisting festival. Then it snowed, it thawed, it froze and on the night the race started, it snowed again. In short, conditions for this year’s race were perfect. This was going to be an epic adventure. And I was going love it. On Friday evening the second of March at six o’clock in the evening seventy men and women started off on arguably the biggest adventure of their lives.
Only nineteen hours later and 130 kilometres further I am running and stumbling along the Amblève river opposite the small hamlet of Quarreux. A song is singing in my head. It’s been singing in my head for the greater part of the last nineteen hours. It goes like this:
Do, a deer, a female deer
Re, a drop of golden sun
Fa, a long, long way to run (Yes, it’s a bloody long way to run!!)
So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow so
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
And that brings us back to do, oh, oh, oh
(repeat a zillion times)
It annoys me at times. And I try everything to get it out of my head. I try thinking about nothing, about the trail that’s ahead, about my two-year old daughter who is such a great fan of ‘The sound of music’. Crap! I’ve circled back to ‘Doe, a deer….’. I come across some people on the trail. It distracts my mind for a while and the song retreats to the back of my mind. In Nonceveux there is a most welcome extra checkpoint. Wim Boydens is here and François Flisijn. ‘Aren’t you guys supposed to be running this race yourselves? After a short break I go on quickly to Ninglinspo where I know my family will be. I say hi to my sister and parents and wonder where my brother-in-law may be. He’s probably taking a turn in the Ninglinspo valley. And indeed a few minutes later I meet him on the ascent. He didn’t expect me so early and marvels on the pace I’ve been able to maintain under the rough circumstances this weekend. It makes me feel a little better, though I feel like I’m slowing down quickly now. The climb seems to go on for ages. In my mind there was supposed to be a flatter part on the course up here. I’m glad I took my poles from checkpoint 2. It helps me greatly to keep a decent pace on the uphill. The descent down the Ninglinspo is slow. The snow has been trampled down by many feet which demands careful footing. I anticipate the meeting with my wife and daughter in Quarreux, but I know what still lies between us, a few steep ascents and descents, more slow going. The last descent into Quarreux is treacherous. The top soil has melted, but underneath is solid frozen earth which makes the top layer sliding down with each step. I carefully choose my way along grassy and leafy patches. Somehow I manage to reach the bottom of the hill and my family unharmed. This is the most welcome reception I could have imagined. My two year old daughter Sarah comes running up the road to greet me. Tears of joy well up in my eyes, such a pretty sight! I pick her up and hold her tight. Everyone is here: my father and mother, my sisters, two nieces and brother-in-law and of course my wife. She seems to know I’m suffering and tries to mend it with the most tender of kisses. We’re standing there in the sun, two horses nibbling on some hay, the smell of spring in the air. What a great place to spend the afternoon! The possibility of quitting is luring in the back of my mind, but I don’t let it take hold. I quickly say goodbye to my family and run of.
It’s one more climb up Chefna and then a long relatively flat stretch will follow. I’m expecting Ivo to catch up with me any minute now. The latest I heard, he was only one kilometre behind. It certainly would give me some ease of mind. But it seems he is slowing down as well. At the top of Chefna I am treated to another surprise checkpoint. My partner in trailcrime Albert is here and Nieves and a few other people. Christof arrives with his girlfriend Yanouck just when I reach the checkpoint. He’s going to cheer for me this evening. I don’t stay too long and head for the long stretch up over the plateau. It’s a beautiful almost flat area which would otherwise allow for a decent running pace. But my mind seems to get more proficient in finding excuses to slow down to a hike: change clothes because it’s getting chilly for example, or going to the bathroom.
Snow has its pros and cons when it comes to relieving oneself in nature. It is rather cold in the snow with your pants down on your knees, but there is plenty of snow to wipe your bottom. You can save yourself the trouble of digging in to your pack in search of toilet paper. Snow is furthermore very effective in cleaning your bottom. But perhaps I should move on to less awkward subjects. This might prove difficult in this phase of the race though, because everything seems to turn awkward at the moment.
Somehow I manage to keep on going and soon I am nearing the third checkpoint at Chevrouheid. There’s only a couple of steep descends and climbs between me and this save haven. Dusk is setting in though, and I don’t expect to reach the checkpoint before nightfall. I decide to get my headlamp out of my pack. It is in a bag which I seem to have pinned to my pack together with my race bib. Then, all of a sudden, while I am fumbling with my pack, Ivo stands next to me. I’m not even startled. It seems to be the most natural thing in the world. As if we’ve been running together all the while. Ivo tries to help me with the dislocated pin. I love this guy! But I’m done with fumbling around. Let’s move on! Together we finally reach checkpoint three.
My sisters and brother-in-law are here and Christof and Yanouck. Ivo and I both seem to have decided not to sleep this year. He is all hustle and bustle, preparing his gear for a quick take-off after a short break. I am, well, a bit more lingering, listless almost. I don’t feel like taking care of myself at all. Fortunately the volunteers on Legends Trail are the best to be found in the whole world. Shoes are unlaced, socks removed from feet, blankets put around my shoulders, my feet placed in a footbath and food and coffee placed in front of me. The only thing I have to do myself is move the spoon to my mouth and munch. When I’m done I close my eyes for a while. My sisters are outside urging me to hurry, waving, but I try to pretend I don’t know what on earth might be the meaning of it. At last, when they seem to persist until I make a move, I ask for some more food and coffee. Ivo is starting to prepare himself to leave the checkpoint and I figure I’d better do too. Ivo asks if I’m coming with him. But I decline politely knowing that I would soon have to let him go. An event which would make me feel very bad about myself. Finally I am out of the checkpoint and waved off by the checkpoint crew and my supporters.
It’s up onto the Fagne de Malchamps now. I am looking forward to it. I’ve had some eerie moments out on these moors during a recon run (read http://teungeurts.nl/avontuur/the-ghost-of-malchamps/ to learn more about it). Although we don’t actually cross the moors, but rather go around them, I am eager to meet my fears and deal with them. I am therefore rather disappointed to learn that the moors are swarming with people on night time runs or hikes. Directly after the Fagne de Malchamps there is an extra checkpoint. It’s only seven kilometres after the last checkpoint but I make good use of it. The hot chocolate and especially Gabrielle’s date-and-nut balls are brilliant. From here it will be a long time until I meet anyone. Slowly I retreat into the depths of my mind. I try to calculate my pace. Something one should never do during a race, certainly not when one’s physical strength and intellectual powers are being undermined by over twenty-four hours of running. But of course I can’t help myself. After the mathematical labour is done, I come to the conclusion that I am moving at a pace of approximately three kilometres per hour. With around ninety kilometres to go that means it will take me thirty hours more to reach the finish line. Note that at this point I actually have only about seventy kilometres to go, and in hindsight I am moving at about four to five kilometres per hour, and one can easily see why it’s the most foolish thing to do mathematics after racing for over twenty-four hours. At this moment I am not aware of my mistake and a discourse is taking place in the back of my head. ‘I am NOT going to hike at a pace of three kilometres per hour for thirty hours on end! Forget it! Why would I do this to myself? I could be sitting on the couch right now, having a romantic liaison with my wife. This is the last time I am doing such a ridiculous thing as this. I am cancelling Chartreuse Terminorum and from now on I’m going to spend my evenings with my wife and the weekends playing with Sarah instead of running around the block or spending weekends away in the Ardennes. The furthest I’m ever going to run from now on will be ten kilometres. Well maybe twenty every now and then, but nothing more! I-DON’T-WANT-THIS! I want to quit, RIGHT NOW!’ ‘But you’re the defending champion,’ another voice in the back of my mind remonstrates. ‘You can’t give up now. You owe it to yourself to defend your title. It wouldn’t be fair to Ivo to just give up like that either. Besides, you’re in second place. Who would give up while in second place? Anything can still happen. And think of all the people who are rooting for you, your family out here on the course and all the people at home glued to their computers and the tracking site. Would you want them to see you quit? What an embarrassment would that be!’ Accompanying this discussion is the same old song I’ve been hearing all weekend:
Do, a deer, a female deer
Fa, a long, long way to run…
A status quo is maintained in this manner and so I go on for many kilometres. When I’m approaching Stavelot, I see indicators flashing on the opposite site of the valley. I register them, wonder what their meaning might be. Somewhere in my mind they are turned into spark of hope. The climb out of Stavelot along Stockeu is relentless. I don’t remember it to be this steep. At moments I feel as if I am coming to a standstill. As I finally approach the top of the climb someone in a reflective vest is walking towards me. The spark of hope is turning into beacon of light. Well, an extra checkpoint with hot soup that is. When I’m told that I have to walk an extra fifty metres I briefly hesitate. But the temptation of hot soup is stronger than the aversion to extra metres. I sit down in a chair for a breather and soup. To aid me in my misery, Stef kindly tells me that I look horrible. I don’t care. I have already made up my mind to finish the race. On my way to the last checkpoint at Farnières I make up my plan. I’m going to repeat last year’s strategy and take my time to regroup, have some food, a massage and some eye-shut.
While I am on the massage table I feel my legs aren’t that bad. Yes, my feet hurt and my Achilles tendon is inflamed, but that doesn’t need to stop me from running. Then the doctor, Geert suggests taking some painkillers. Why haven’t I thought of that before? I’ve had them in my pack all this time! I’m not really used to taking painkillers, but I had put some paracetamol in my pack just in case. I decide to take some, just for this once.
When I reach the top of the hill after the checkpoint I start of in slow trot, which gradually turns into a decent running pace. Yeah baby, I’m on fire! Or rather: ‘Do, a deer, a female deer; fa, a long, long way to ruuuun!’ Romain Sophys has left the checkpoint half an hour before me, but nine kilometres later I’m only eight minutes back. Soon afterwards I catch him. It’s tempting to slow down now. I know Ivo must me far beyond my reach. I don’t want to know how far, but I know anything can happen in a race like this. Ivo can make mistakes or slow down dramatically. If this happens I want to be as close as possible. Besides, if I can keep this pace, I will better my own best time. It’s enough of an incentive to keep me going. I never see Ivo again though. He has run such a strong race and has been so solid over the entire race. He is a most deserving winner. I can only admire his tenacity in winning the race at his third attempt. Well done Ivo!
In the end I reach the finish line after forty-four hours and change. Slightly faster than last year, but with a much more difficult course and circumstances I can only be very proud and content with this achievement. I had a great time out there, even during the extensive periods of hardship described above. There is strength and hope to be found in suffering. It reveals new inner grounds and gives new meaning to beauty and joy. Time is rather a flexible concept during an extensive adventure like this. Though at times I felt like I was barely moving forward, time has flown by. I feel as if I have only run a good day. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there are extended periods of time where nothing noticeable happens during such a long race. Periods of time where the only action taking place is the motion of one’s legs turning over, in this case 315,000 times in total. Or perhaps it’s the feeling of stillness and peace that being internally focussed over such long stretches of time brings with it. Perhaps that makes time irrelevant. It makes distance irrelevant. But whatever might be the case, two-hundred-and-fifty kilometres still is a long, long way to run.
I’d like to thank Stef and Tim for making this adventure possible together with their wives Ania and Frederique. Thank you to all volunteers. You have been as amazing as ever. Thank you to my loyal supporters, my father and mother, my sisters and the rest of the family. And of course a huge thank you to my wife Marieke and daughter Sarah for being so patient with me and my running follies. I am greatly indebted to you.
Thank you Montane for aiding me in my running exploits with the best gear around.