Before the start in Achouffe with Robert Gehlhaar; credits Harry de Vries
On the third of March 2017 fifty-eight men and women set out on an epic adventure, a race of two hundred and fifty kilometres through valleys, along riverbanks, through bogs and along muddy tracks in the dark woods of the Belgian Ardennes. What they would encounter they only knew from the terrifying but awe-inspiring stories of participants in the first edition of the race in 2016. But they were prepared to face whatever this race might throw at them. They were determined to reach this single goal, their common goal: to reach the finish line and become a legend. And I was one of them.
I hardly know how to begin this tale. There is so much I could tell about this journey. I could tell about the beautiful landscapes, the people I’ve met or the emotions I went through. But the truth is: I came to race. So I suppose this tale must be about the race.
I had prepared myself for this race meticulously. It took me a while before I dared to enter the race, before the fear of this monster gave way to the desire to be part of this adventure. But after I did sign up for it, I immediately started planning reconnaissance runs on the course. I took the challenge seriously. From the stories I had read, I knew it was most uncertain that I would finish this race; that there were many things that could go wrong. So I wanted to test myself and train myself for the task at hand.
The first time training out on the course it was snowing all night. I was alone in the dark woods, I fell many times and the blizzards that hit me in the face made navigation almost impossible. But I felt at home. Despite the severe circumstances I felt comfortable with being out there on my own, many times uncertain of where I was. I was confident that I would find my way. I was comfortable with the gnarly terrain, the wetness and the mud and the darkness in the woods. As my confidence grew during the following training runs, I started to believe I might be good at this stuff. Now, I’m not the fastest runner. But if you would give me time, I could go a long distance at an easy pace, especially if you throw in some nasty weather and difficult terrain. So I gradually shifted my goal from finishing the race to possible finishing times. I thought I should be able to finish before the third night would fall. And then a few days before the start my brother-in-law asked me what my aspirations for the race were. I was a little startled by the calmness and firmness of my reply: ‘I want to win.’ My wife chuckled: ‘You’re joking, right?’ ‘No, I’m serious. I’m good at this and I know I can win.’
The start of the 2017 Legends Trail; credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
And so there I was at the starting line. I wasn’t nervous. I wanted to win, but didn’t need to win. A lot can and will happen in a race like this. I made a plan and I knew for sure that the race wouldn’t go according to that plan. But I had made a few commitments. First of all I was going to enjoy this race. I had experienced the course during the recce runs and it is beautiful and rugged and would both incite my senses and challenge my skills. I resolved to enter and leave every checkpoint cheerfully. Secondly I was going to finish this race. Whatever this race might throw at me, whatever might happen I was going to adjust my goals accordingly, but never this single goal. I was going to finish. Thirdly I was only going to start thinking about racing after checkpoint 4 at two hundred kilometres in.
So I was a little disappointed with myself when I realised I was running over ten kilometres per hour for the first three kilometres. I tried to constrain myself after that, but it took me some two hours before I finally settled into a comfortable pace. By that time I was running together with Jordy Ariens. We talked about the usual stuff that runners talk about. Which races we’d run. How much fun we had with them or how much we suffered. Time went by quickly and before we knew it we were in La Roche-en-Ardenne. There we heard from my Dutch friend and running buddy Fred and my father that there were five guys a few minutes ahead of us. ‘Good!’ I thought,‘This is exactly where I want to be.’ We both had enough to drink and I knew we could get water from a source in Hodister around 46 km in, so we didn’t bother filling up in La Roche and quickly made our way up to the plateau. We saw their headlamps for the first time while making our way into the steep ravine near Petit Halleux. Time to back off. I didn’t want to be in the lead so soon. So we kept them in sight and adjusted our pace.
Arival at CP1 km 63; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
We arrived at checkpoint 1 in Hotton at 2.50h in the morning, a few minutes after the race leaders, but about an hour ahead of my anticipated time. Apart from the first few hours it didn’t feel as though I had been straining myself too much. So I should be fine. I had taken Michael Frenz’s advice and resolved to be as efficient as possible in the checkpoints. I had made a checkpoint plan beforehand which helped me greatly with that. In no time I had taken care of my feet while eating two plates of hot food, refilling my water and food supplies, recharging my watch and drinking two cups of coffee and some water. I was standing at the door while everyone else was still busy taking care of themselves. ‘Holy crap! This means I’m going to be in the lead now!’
Being efficient at CP1 km 63
Credits Christof Simons
This is not what I wanted, but I wasn’t going to waste any time either. So I went! It was just as well. I had thought it would make me uncomfortable, but I decided not to race and to keep on running a pace that felt comfortable with and that I thought I would be able to maintain for at least another 12 hours or so. I soon forgot all about competition and was just enjoying the simplicity of running. I was running with ease, adapting to the terrain and felt I could go on like this for days on end. It all felt so easy and natural. I sensed spring in the air, the smell of the awakening earth after winter. I saw the sun softly pulling bear leek out of the earth and luring butterflies out of their winter shelters.
In Sy at 97 km, I met my support crew: my wife Marieke and our one-year-old daughter Sarah, my sister Maaike with her partner Tibor, my little nieces Trisa and Riva, both my parents and Fred and his wife Anita. Race directors Stef and Tim don’t allow any help outside of the checkpoints accept kisses and cuddles, so we made good use of this one exemption. It wasn’t long after Sy that the first signs of deterioration started to show. I had hoped this moment would be delayed until about checkpoint 3 at 150 km where I would sleep for two hours. But I had run a hundred kilometres already without any problems, so maybe I shouldn’t complain. At least not out loud. It was mostly my quads that started bothering me. They were gradually getting sore, which caused me to slow down on the downhills. Apart from that my breathing started to get laborious. So I began to slow down on the ascents as well. And eating was also becoming a bit of a problem. My stomach wasn’t happy with the amount of energy that was allotted to digestion in proportion to the amount of food that went in. The natural reaction to that is not to eat. But you can’t afford that while running two hundred and fifty kilometres. So whenever I felt the slightest inclination to eat, I did.
The support crew at Sy km 97; credits Han Geurts
Future Legend Sarah at Sy km 97; Credits Han Geurts
The last stretch to checkpoint 2 in Oneux was rough. I hit a low point mentally. It was getting rather warm. And I was getting drowsy after a sleepless night of running. I thought the flat stretch along the Ourthe from Xhignesse to Comblain-au-Pont was never going to end. I was seeking an excuse to stop running and found it just before I reached Comblain-au-pont. I can’t remember what it was. But I slowed down to a hike for a while. Two more climbs to Oneux. I detested these climbs. But the downhill in between was possibly even worse. My quads were really starting to hurt now and I had trouble running downhill. On the last climb I thought I was going to fall asleep. It was all just as I had anticipated. The early morning hours would be the toughest mentally because of sleep deprivation. This is why I had doubted so long about my sleeping strategy. I had decided not to sleep until checkpoint 3. But now I was again in doubt. It would be a waste of precious daylight to go and sleep at checkpoint 2, but how much time would I lose sleepwalking? By the time I reached checkpoint 2 I had decided to stick with the plan though.
At Comblain-Fairon with Tibor Strausz km 108; Credits Han Geurts
Not being happy approaching CP2 km 118; Credits Jean Pierre
I kept to the same routine that got me out of checkpoint 1 so quickly. But this time I wasn’t so keen to get moving again. I was taken good care of by the checkpoint crew and I was afraid of how my legs would feel after sitting down for a while. But Jean Pierre, one of the volunteers, gave me a great piece of advice: ‘Just start hiking to warm up a bit and then see where you’ll go from there.’ Meanwhile my pursuers had come in. I saw Joris, he didn’t look happy either. And I think I saw Ivo and Benny. Especially Benny looked in good spirits, although I think he was being troubled by blisters already. ‘Well, see you later guys! I’m off!’
Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
With my wife and daughter Sarah at CP2 km 118; Credits Jean Pierre
Mother Han with niece Riva and sister Maaike with niece Trisa; Credits Jean Pierre
The hot food and coffee had done me good. Although my quads were still hurting I was feeling a lot better mentally. I heeded Jean Pierre’s advice and started out hiking. It was not as if I had a choice and I had no idea that this warm up hike would last for most of the next eighty kilometres. But this is what I am most proud of regarding this race. Yes, I was feeling bad physically. But I stayed determined to finish the race, focussed on the job at hand and confident that things would turn around eventually. And when they would, I wanted to be in the best possible position. So I kept hiking fast going uphill, as fast as my fatigued diaphragm would allow me to. I ran most of the flat stretches as fast as my sore quads allowed me to. And again I hiked as fast as I could on the downhills. Running them was unbearable. And to my own surprise I was able to keep a pace of around five kilometres per hour. It wasn’t as fast as I would have liked, but I was moving well and making good progress nonetheless. In this manner I would be able to make it all the way to checkpoint 4 without ever slackening my pace and with hardly any breaks.
Faking a smile on te way to Hautregard km 136; Credits Han Geurts
Walloon humour: disabled toilet at km 133
Playe km 135; Credits Harry de Vries
First I had to reach checkpoint 3 though. By the time I reached the bottom of the Ninglinspo climb I decided to treat myself to a coke from the vending machine down there. I sat down for a breather and gulped down the poisonous brown liquid. ‘Damn this tastes good!’ I didn’t allow myself to sit down too long though and soon I was climbing the treacherous trail along the river Ninglinspo. After reaching the top of the climb, nature called. There was no way I was going to reach the checkpoint under such pressure, although it was only two miles away. So I squatted down a few yards from the track in a dark conifer forest when all of a sudden a runner appeared. Noooooo!!! I wouldn’t mind being passed by my pursuers, but not in this manner! I watched the runner come closer. I was hoping very hard that he wouldn’t see me. As the man drew nearer I noticed he wasn’t wearing a pack. Not a competitor! Phieeeew! The man was polite enough not to look my way, but I ‘m sure he must have noticed me. It was just a brief glance to his left, right after he had passed me, which gave him away. Now that I was relieved, in more than one way, I made good use of the flat stretch that lay between me and a most welcome meal and bed at checkpoint 3.
Ninlingspo km 144; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
I’m not sure if the others came in before I went to sleep, but I certainly beat them to bed. That wasn’t an advantage though, for every time someone entered the attic I awoke, listening to the hustle and bustle of my fellow competitors and the rain on the roof. By this time it was raining hard. The timing was perfect. I had planned to sleep for two hours but awoke because I had to go to the bathroom. ‘Again?! I don’t believe this!’ It didn’t seem worth my while to go back to sleep again. So I ate another plate of food, drank a few coffees and off I went into the night and the dark and damp forests.
Chillilng with Eddy van Endert CP3 km 151; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
How does my phone work again? CP3 km 151; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
My pack awaits me while I sleep CP3 km 151; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
I was actually looking forward to this. It may sound weird, but I like running in dark and damp forests at night. It gives me a sense of peace. It’s rather uncomplicated. I like that. There were a few muddy stretches up ahead. I knew that. But since I still wasn’t able to run much, it didn’t really bother me. And I knew the climb up the river Chefna was coming up. I was looking forward to that.
Now the first part of that climb is winding along the stream and crossing it a few times via logs cut in half. The trail is hard to find sometimes and many times I strayed from the trail. Then, all of a sudden, SLUSHHH! My right food and lower leg disappear down into the ground. I quickly get my left foot under my body to keep balance and SLUSHHH! It disappears in the same black bog as my right one. I’m up to my knees in a rotting, black bog. A line from a song by Dutch singer-songwriter Boudewijn de Groot comes to my mind: ‘het is rottende drek waar een worm in gedijt.’ (It’s rotting sludge where a worm thrives). I try to lift my right leg. My foot comes out well enough, but my shoe doesn’t! What am I going to do! Well what else can I do? I reach down in the sludge for my shoe. I have to pull hard, but finally the bog relinquishes its clasp. I find firmer ground with my right foot and repeat the exercise with my left one. Now what? My white socks are black as sooth and my shoes are full of rotting black sludge. There’s only one thing to do. I tiptoe to the Chefna river to stick my feet in its icy cold water. I immerse my shoes many times before I deem it acceptable to put them back on my feet. They won’t warm up properly the rest of the night.
Not long after Monceau at 173 km I see them for the first time. Two lights appear behind me on the road that leads from Monceau up the hill. I haven’t been occupied with my fellow competitors or racing at all, but when I see these two small lights appear, it almost feels as a relief. Being in the lead isn’t exactly wearing me down, but I’m not all that comfortable with it either. It still takes them the next ten kilometres to Coo to overtake me, although we briefly meet at the intermediate checkpoint 3.1 at camping du Plein. It’s Ivo and Benny. They arrive the moment I’m leaving. Just before Coo they overtake me. We walk leisurely through the village and start the next climb together. I soon notice their pace is a little faster than mine and urge them to move on. ‘Do you have enough water?’ Ivo asks. ‘Yes’. ‘Do you need food?’ ‘No, I’m good, thanks!’ Awesome guy Ivo! This is what I like so much about trailrunning races. We’re not racing against each other; we’re racing with each other. We walk on along the trail up to the ridge, but they never seem to really put any distance between us. They are often stopping to check their gps and look for the right way. In this manner I’m able to stay with or at least very close to them. And so I arrive at checkpoint 4, just after daybreak, with only a five minute gap between us.
I’m welcomed at the checkpoint by Marek, legend and finisher of last year’s race, and his team and I’m immediately directed inside the building. There’s a familiar ambience in the place and I feel at home directly. It’s peaceful here. And it’s just what I need. Here I undergo the same gentle but insisting routine of volunteers directing me to take of my shoes and put my feet in a warm footbath. As I am sitting there in the entrance-hall of the building, a lady asks me: ‘Aren’t those your parents outside in the white car?’ ‘My parents!’ I laugh. Marek and his team made me forget all about my faithful support team! ‘Yes, they must be my parents!’ ‘They are sleeping outside in the car. Shall I go and fetch them?’ ‘Yes, please.’ I think it was Benny’s mother. Benny and Ivo have their family with them as well and they have been meeting my own family and friends all day and night. Soon my father and Fred and Anita show up with drowsy eyes. I still keep to my checkpoint routine, though a good deal more leisurely than at the first two checkpoints. First, I eat a plate of food and ask for coffee. Then I decide not to drink the coffee but take a powernap instead. After the powernap I eat another plate of food, drink coffee and another coffee. And I’m ready. I just sit there. I’m too comfortable to go. ‘Do you want me to massage your legs’, Steven Hobert of the medical team asks. ‘Yes please!’ My legs are massaged with the help of a young girl who later turns out to be Benny’s daughter. I talk with Marek about last year’s race, about the prank they have in mind for Maarten, who’s back to rectify a DNF during last year’s race, and about the time we anticipate I will arrive at the finish in Mormont. I should be able to arrive there before dark I think, if I’m able to keep up my pace of five kilometres per hour. After the massage I just sit there for a while. The other guys are taking a powernap as well. In the meantime Joris has arrived too. Marek and my father gently urge me to put on my shoes and get going. Their attempts are thwarted by the unwillingness of my weary brain to receive any information relating to going outside for a fifty kilometre run. Or maybe I left my will behind sleeping on the mattress on the floor. Or maybe… something seems to penetrate my slumbering brain. It awakens from the tranquil realm where it had been lying asleep. ‘Oh yeah! I’m here to race!’ Slowly I put on my shoes. They stink of the rotting Chefna sludge. I don’t notice it. I’m drifting off to a place of my own, a tranquil place. I find my will back there and the focus and determination that I need to finish this adventure. And something else: a power I didn’t know exists. It’s a raw, primal kind of power. And it starts welling up from the depths of my core.
As I start shuffling off, momentum is building from the inside out. I try to run, but it hurts so much that I must look like a fawn getting on its feet for the very first time. Fred laughs and I laugh with him. Momentum is still building. ‘Back to the power hike then!’ I think to myself. I start hiking uphill. It doesn’t hurt. My legs feel fresh actually. I start running. Slowly at first, but faster and faster when I realise the pain is gone. Soon I’m getting hot. I had put on all my clothes because I anticipated a slow trudge over the windy plateau. I take of my waterproof jacket while running, then my windbreaker. I stop to roll up my waterproof trousers and sleeves. After that first climb a gradual, kilometres long descent follows. I test my running legs. Nothing! They feel as if I have just started running.
Right! That’s it! It’s time to race! I make a decision: ‘I’m going to win this race no matter what! It’s mine!’ I bomb downhill and look back up to the hill from the bottom. Nobody! Good! I press on really hard the next twenty kilometres, all the way to Baraque de Fraiture and checkpoint 4.1. I sit down for a minute to refill on water and gulp down some soup. As I leave the checkpoint I hear Jean Pierre whooping and laughing, which spurs me on even more. I keep running almost to my maximum. At the more difficult passages I take it easy to give myself time to recover a little. And I keep repeating my mantra: ‘I’m so gonna win this! I’m so gonna win this!’ Visualising myself crossing the finishline in Mormont. I’m calculating my pace: eight kilometres per hour. I surely must be gaining on my pursuers. We were doing five kilometres per hour before checkpoint 4. Let them run seven kilometres per hour and I’m still gaining one kilometre every hour.
Another half marathon to go from Censes km 228; Credits Han Geurts
I meet my family and friends again in Censes at two hundred and twenty-eight kilometres. I want to know my lead for the first time since we started out from Achouffe on Friday night. One mile! Only one mile!? Damn! It turns out someone else decided to race as well. I hear he is on his own too; my family is not sure who it is. I had hoped I would have built a lead large enough by now, so I could slacken my pace a bit. Instead I have to run an entire half marathon at maximum speed! I quicken my pace. My wife is unable to keep up with me. I know what is awaiting me. This last stretch of the course is one of my favourite ones, but there are a few steep ascents and quad-pounding descents to come and now I dread them. My quads hurt and my breath becomes ever more laboured. All oxygen is redirected from my brain to my legs. This is so awesome! At every long descent or climb I look back. Surely now I must be gaining on him. I want to know who I’m racing. When I meet my mom and dad again at Achouffe I’m told it’s Ivo who’s chasing me and he’s gained on me. My lead is down to a little under a kilometre. Holy crap! I try to calculate how much time he would have to gain on me per kilometre to catch me. It’s no use. My brain is dead. At the top of the climb back up from the Chevral stream I’m unsure which turn to take, the first or the second. I take the first but I get my phone out to check the GPS. Just to be sure. The map doesn’t load. I’m running back. But what if it was the first to the left and Ivo takes that one. He would have an advantage on me. I turn around again and check my phone once more. The map loads now. ‘F*ck!’ It’s the second to the left after all. Again I run back to the crossing. I must have lost several precious minutes. The track goes up just slightly from there, but I’m struggling to keep running. ‘Would Ivo be running this? He might.’ But I can’t. I slow down to a hike. As soon as the track flattens out a bit I start running again. I look back. No Ivo. As soon as I hit the road I start pounding downhill, back to the Chevral stream again. My legs are begging me to stop. But I can’t. Not just yet! Just before a bend in the road I look back. No Ivo. I’m building confidence again. There’s still no sign of Ivo when I start climbing out of the ravine again. ‘Only four kilometres to go. Ok. I think I’ve got this!’
Only 10k to go with Ivo hot on my heels at Achouffe km 239 (the man on the photograph is my dad ;-)); Credits Han Geurts
The final descent into Wibrin I’m starting to relax a bit. I’m visualising finishing again. I want to be able to run the last ascent and slacken my pace a little. Ivo’s wife and boys are just getting out of their car when I arrive in Wibrin. ‘Ge zijt goe bezig! Ge gaat winnen!’,‘You’re doing great! You’re going to win!’ one of them says. I know I am. I knew it ever since I started running that uphill from checkpoint 4. I just couldn’t have imagined I would have to fight so hard for it, that it would hurt so much. But that doesn’t matter now. I look up to the top of the road in Mormont and I see my family and friends standing there, cheering for me. I have won the second edition of the Legends Trail! How f*cking brilliant is this! Before I turn the final corner, I look back one last time, down the empty road…
Finished!; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claesse
A final word:
Thank you Stef and Tim for creating this beautiful community. It has been an unforgettable experience with like minded people from near and far. It’s your passion and enthusiasm that cements this community. And for the race itself: I can’t imagine how much time and effort you guys must have put in this amazing event to make it run so smoothly. Thank you for this epic adventure, for the toughest challenge I ever met. Tim’s words on parting are exemplary for the spirit of this race: ‘Stef and I are already thinking up stuff to make the race harder next year.’ You can count me in!
Thank you to all the volunteers, safety team, medical team, checkpoint crews and others I might forget. Thank you so much for taking such good care of us runners! For keeping us safe and healthy despite our self abuse. For keeping us fed, watered and warm. For keeping our spirits high when we needed it most! We couldn’t have done it without you!
Thank you to Astrid and Joost for allowing our distant friends and loved ones to be there with us during the race through your photos and videos.
Thank you to all fellow participants for the great fellowship on this epic adventure. For the camaraderie and competition.
And thank you my dearest, loveliest Marieke and Sarah, mom and dad, Maaike, Tibor, Trisa and Riva, Fred and Anita for the much appriciated mental support!
Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claessen
Thank you Marieke Geurts-Schoenmakers for being so patient during my running follies (most of the time ;-)).
Thank you Marieke en Mayke Kranenbarg for editing.
My father looks fresh enough!; Credits Legends Trail|Astrid Claesen
Best pizza ever!; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claesen
Fred en Anita: where are we now?; Credits Han Geurts
With two legendary women, such an honour!; Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claesen
Credits Legends Trails|Astrid Claesen