The ninth day meant only 1 thing, race day!.
The day of the Night of Flanders Marathon had finally arrived. But as its name suggests, I didn’t have to get up very early to take part. So I didn’t.
I eventually ventured out of my room to find breakfast and then went back to bed to ponder how to spend the rest of the day prior to the gun going off at 8pm. By being lazy I thought.
By 5:30pm, having done nothing more than go for a gentle walk around town, eat a late lunch and do a bit of stretching to loosen my muscles a bit, it was time to think about getting ready to get ready to head to the start. An hour earlier I’d received the bad news that the bus containing my club mates from Shelton Striders were severely delayed getting through passport control at Dover, due to added security.
It was almost certain that they would miss the start of the race, so I went over to race HQ to ask that they be allowed to start later than everyone else. It took a bit of explaining but fortunately they agreed.
It was a real shame that they wouldn’t be there for the official start. But hey, every cloud has a silver lining, at least I might beat some of them.
I slipped into the back of the starting pen about 5 mins before race start at 8. I was very unsure how my legs would feel, so my strategy was to be near the back, start slow and then, if necessary, slow down. And even though I’d run further than the race distance for the last 8 days I was actually feeling a bit nervous. Too late to go back to the toilets now though, we were under starters orders.
The first kilometre of the race took us through the central square of Torhout, a location we would pass again at half way and where the race finishes. As the race snaked through the town for the first time the atmosphere was very uplifting: lots of people cheering and music playing. And my legs were working. A few little aches and pains but nothing was hanging off.
As we ran out of town I found myself alongside a group of Brits from Orpington running club, who’d made the trip over for the race too – and had luckily managed to get on an earlier ferry. We had a brief chat but as race pace settled down I was back to doing my own thing.
After my largely solitary existence for the past few days, it felt strange but good to be running among people. With the half and full marathon starting together the lane out into the countryside was quite full at this point. But I figured it would be closer to my normality when those of us left in the race came round again on the second lap.
My watch beeped to indicate a mile covered. 8m 58sec. That’s okay I thought. If I can maintain that I may be able to finish in under 4 hours. A little part of me wanted to finish while it was still Friday, just so my challenge would be completed on the 9th day and not slip over into the 10th.
So, so far so good. Just 25.2m to go. Well about 24.2 actually, by the time I’d done the maths to work out the above.
After about 3 miles we reached the first hill of the race. Actually the only hill, but we would have to climb it 4 times in total. It was nothing to write home about though. Oh, I just did, didn’t I ……whoops!
Anyway, as I ascended the bridge over a motorway (that’s all it was), I could feel some stiffness in my calf, reminding me not to get carried away with the pace. I didn’t want to get injured in the final stage having come all this way. It eased as we descended the other side and as the road flattened I got back into my groove.
As the miles ticked by, you know what, I actually felt good. The runner’s high was kicking in and I was really enjoying it. I’m not sure what brought it on though. Was it knowing the challenge was almost done? Was it endorphins woken up by running faster than I’d run in a while? Was it the thought of a cold beer at the end? I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t care. Things felt good, so I should make the most of it and savour the moment.
I was brought down to earth a bit when I saw the race leader coming back the other way when I was still 2ish mile from the turnaround point. Yeah, but how many miles have you run this week, I thought for a moment before settling back to my own business.
Being quite rural there were stretches of just fields either side of the road. However, it was nice to run through each village as many of the locals had moved dinner out onto the pavement, so they could shout encouragement to the passing runners. Although they could have been shouting anything as my Belgianeese isn’t up to much.
The turnaround point was actually a circuit of the village of Ruddervoorde (at least I think that’s what it was called), where quite a lot of people were out to support the race. With spirits still high I negotiated the twists and turns and then headed back on to the long straight road back to Torhout. There were still runners coming the other way, which is always good for the ego, but they soon started to dwindle down to nothing as I passed the tailenders.
Then I saw a lone runner coming the other way, moving at quite a speed and wearing a familiar looking vest. I realised it was my club mate, Sam, and he was leading the second (unofficial) wave of runners – who I subsequently discovered had started 67 mins after everyone else. Having pretty much jumped off the bus and hit the ground running.
Over the next 2-3 miles I encounters a steady stream of blue and white clad Shelton Striders along the road. And wondered whether they’d schemed the late start on purpose so they could showboat around with the course to themselves. There were big cheers both ways and high fives as we passed one another. Each one lifting my positive spirits even higher.
BEEP. 10 Miles. Last mile: 8:31. I was quickening up without realising. It must have been the excitement of seeing the others coming the other way. Keep it steady Brooks, I thought, still a long way to go – I’m not half way yet.
As I cruised through the gathered mass of drinkers around the middle of Torhout, I noted that my pre-midnight finish was still very much on the cards. Just keep going steady. Although, my word, sub 9 minute miles don’t half feel fast after you’ve done 300odd at a max speed of 10:30.
I was really hoping to be back on the out and back section in time to pass my fellow Striders again. And as luck would have it, I was; so was soon whooping and high fiving again. So great to see everyone after getting out of solitary confinement.
Over the next few miles I maintained the pace of the previous few. One of the other upsides of which was that I was now starting to reel in other runners who’d over cooked the first lap. Again something else to lift my spirits. Using each runner ahead as my next target to catch.
Within no time I was back at the turnaround in Ruddervoorde and heading into the last quarter of the race. I’d avoided the mistake of yesterday and broken the race into 4 quarters in my head to fit with the twice out and back nature of the course. Rather than just counting miles.
The last of any daylight had now completely gone, so it was quite surreal running back into the countryside in almost complete blackness. Fun though, especially as I was continuing to reel others in.
Along the straight I had one last opportunity to cheer the other Striders on, although their numbers had dwindled now with many opting for the shorter half marathon and 10k distances. Such sensible people. They’d be in the bar already.
Before I knew it I was climbing the ‘hill’ again, happy in the knowledge there were only 3 miles left. I’d got the bit between my teeth now and my pace was creeping up. Forget 4 hours I thought, how about 3:50.
BEEP! 24 miles. 8:18!!
BEEP! 25 miles. 8:10!!!!
COME ON!! Last mile, and a bit. Just a circuit of the town to go.
I could see 2 runners ahead. Might as well catch them. Another runner, go on Brooks, one more, as I rounded the last corner.
A big shout from some of my team mates gathered on the corner put a big smile on my face as the finish line came into sight.
I glanced at the race clock mounted at the side of the finish line. 3:47:25 it read. I’ll take that, I thought.
As I walked through the funnel I heard someone shouting my name from the crowd. I looked round searching to see who it was. And there stood Dave, our trip organiser, handing me a nice cold beer. Top man!
And the stats, for the last time:
Miles covered 26:2 (42.2km)
Accumulative mileage 324.21 (521.65km).
Time elapsed: 3:47:25 (gun time), 3:46::40 (chip time)
Position 113th (of 259 full marathon starters)
Elevation gain: 34ft
Average pace: 08:40/mile
Average heart rate: 127bpm
Consumption during the run:
– 1 banana
– 1 litre of Tailwind mix
– few slurps of plain water
Beer consumed: didn’t count