This was the eighth marathon in my project, one that (almost) no one would have heard about and likely to be the one with the smallest entry. The race started and ended in Aarschot, which is 40km NE of Brussels in the Flanders region of Belgium; so it followed my rules, name of the marathon in alphabetic order and a different county.
I travelled over on the earliest (hence cheapest) Eurostar possible which meant getting up at 4.15am to catch the first bus to East Croydon. One of the advantages of travelling Eurostar to Belgium is that you can then travel on to any other rail destination in Belgium for 24 hours after your arrival in Brussels, then back to Brussels for 24 hours before the return train. So I travelled to stay in Leuven overnight then to Aarschot next morning all within the rules. Leuven is the home of Stella Artois, but I did resist the temptation to have a pre-race drink in its home town. And actually when in Belgium there are too many other more preferable beers to try.
I walked to the the race HQ from the station, despite being told by locals it was a ‘”long way” and would take “too long”. 20 minutes later I was at Cafe de Knoet, its proprietor organises the race and likes to keep it small and cheap (have you run an official marathon for less than the €10 this cost? But unsurprisingly for this cost there was no medal or T shirt but there was a free beer!)
After a pre race briefing in Dutch I realised the race had started as everyone began running in the opposite direction to the way I was expecting. All I knew of the route was ” Het opzet nog steeds hetzelfde als de voorbije jaren: vier lussen van ca. 10 kilometer in het Aarschotse te combineren tot de marathonafstand” which translates as “In the Aarschotse combining four loops of approximately 10 kilometres to the marathon distance”. I had pictured a relatively flat circuit around the outskirts of the city, on roads/paths/cycle tracks and the like. Maybe I should have downloaded the gpx file available!
After a straightforward first few k with a water station at 3.5k we moved onto trails through the trees with puddles, mud, tree roots and undulations. This looped back to the same aid station then back into the trees on different trails with a considerable incline that involved some walking, as did the steeper downward section. We did return to the start at the half marathon distance, and I went through in almost the same time as Guernsey in August, 1:55. Then we set off in a different direction around two more loops which is where the problems occurred. After about 10k some of the sights seemed familiar and I was certain I had missed a marker when I arrived at a picnic table I had certainly run past before. So I doubled back, met some of the runners who were on there first trip round the section and found the marker I had missed. Back on track I set off around the final loop which started along a tow path, where the leaders were already coming in the opposite direction. Things seemed to go well, through more trees for a few more k and back onto the tow path. The road I saw approaching meant just under 3k to go, or did it? Where was the aid station? I followed the marker and again realised I had been this way before. So I again doubled back on myself, met one of the accompanying cyclists who said I had missed a turn-round arrow after rejoining the tow path!
It’s amazing how the brain reacts to knowing you are not going to get ‘a time’; after my two errors, both totally my own fault (the signage was comprehensive and very clear!) it wouldn’t let me push myself. But as long as I could achieve one of the aims I set after my first marathon in Athens, to run all subsequent ones faster than that one, I would be happy. The final 3k were probably the easiest part of the course, and they were the extra distance that made my 8th marathon my first (mini)ultra. I finished with a distance of 45.28k in 4:42:48 I was 42nd out of 48 finishers, but the only one to run the extra distance! The whole event was sufficiently casual that you could decide how far you wanted to run at any time during the run. I saw bib number 102 which suggests less than half of those that started choose to complete the whole distance.
I drank with a very convivial bunch of local hardcore runners, must of whom had many more than 100 marathons to their name. They kept me long enough so I didn’t have time to stop in Leuven for a Stella, I ended up getting the last possible train to Brussels that connected with my Eurostar booking.
Just 3 weeks after this is my last marathon of the year, Istanbul. This is the shortest interval between marathons for me, maybe it’s good I didn’t have any inclination to push it over the last 10k of the run, need to have something left in the legs for my two continents run.