We did it! (The Brussels 20 K)

rue de la Loi

rue de la Loi

I have done an awful lot of ‘eating for Europe’ since the beginning of my mandate and inevitably have put on a few kilos – well, quite a few, truth be told. It’s not that I eat so much (I stick to fish, fruit and vegetables as much as possible, anyway); it’s also because I haven’t been getting enough exercise in. This is not a state I like at all and a small voice has been chipping away inside my mind saying ‘once you start to get a little bit of time for exercise then you must get this situation under control.’ There was a time, in my squash-playing heyday, when I was pretty fit. We played competitive matches on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (in various leagues) and trained pretty intensively on Monday lunchtimes and Sunday mornings. Recurring injuries put an end to that level of fitness and, in the end, to squash. Though I hated it, I took up jogging, but after a few years I was warned off of that by a doctor because of the state of my knees.

Another view

Another view

This was about the time the job took off – the directorship, and then the post of SG and, well, my waistline has never looked back. Well, never until recently. In March, I mentioned to a colleague, Marc, who does a lot of running that I needed an objective and was thinking of doing the 20 kilometres of Brussels, perhaps with my (14 year-old) daughter. By what magical means I do not know, but in a twinkling Marc had got me two places (they are like gold dust) for the race, and then I knew the time had come and I had better get serious about it…Since Saturday, 14th March I have run some 230 kilometres (I kept a log). We started off with threes and fours and built up to eights and tens. We/I have run all over the place: Naples, Lago di Como, Prague and, above all, Brussels (Josephat, Tervuren, Rouges Cloitre, the Arboretum, Berthem,…). We generally got in two or three runs a week, and we gradually built up both our stamina and our speed. Last Tuesday, 26th May, with the race five days off, we did fifteen kilometres around Parc Josephat. It was a revelatory moment. We hit our rhythm and only stopped because, back home, guests were coming. We felt as though we could have carried on forever and that was the moment when we both realised – my daughter at her young age and me at my over-fifty age – that we were going to do it. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive on several scores.

The first was my hamstrings, which chose the closing week to start tightening up. The second was the crowd – a record 27,200 people were going to do the run and we had been warned by various old hands that there was some jostling at the beginning and that the tunnels on the Avenue Louise could be claustrophobically crowded. The third was the weather. If it got too hot – and fine weather was forecast – there was a risk of dehydration for both of us. The night before the race I slept badly. I drank loads of water and had to keep getting up. But I also had bad dreams, dreams in which, for one reason or another, I failed, miserably. This foreboding continued on Sunday morning. What if a hamstring twanged after one kilometre? What if I fainted after ten?

We went to the Breydel2 building at 13.30. Everyone running from the EU institutions could run under the colours of ‘Running for Europe’ (this year’s theme was against tobacco and smoking). And so we went there for the ‘team photo’. The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering energetically. At 14.30 we wandered off to the Parc Cinquantenaire, to take up our starting places. The sun was worryingly hot on our backs (and I had forgotten a cap). The 27,200 runners gathered on the esplanade in front of the Cinquantenaire arch – a fantastic experience of which to be a part. We knew it was getting close to 15.00 as Ravel’s Bolero reached its climax over the loudspeakers and the crowd surged forward expectantly. Then the Brabançon, the Belgian national anthem, was played, and we knew that at the end we’d be off. There was a loud boom from high up on the Cinquantenaire arch and then… nothing happened.

To avoid the jostling we had deliberately placed ourselves at the back of the crowd. Finally, after some ten minutes, we started to shuffle forward. We then witnessed a quintessentially Belgian moment. On the other side of the arch Prince Philippe, heir to the Belgian throne, stood, waving us enthusiastically on, and just beside him a row of men were pissing against a hedge. You couldn’t make it up. How I wished I’d had a camera with me! We had micro-chips attached to our laces and our timed race only got under way as we ran over the electronic carpet at the exit to the Parc. And then we were trotting down Rue de la Loi and both of us experienced a sense of wonderment that we were actually doing it.

It was a really fun experience. There were jazz, and other, bands at various points around the circuit. The crowds were encouraging and we found that once we had hit our rhythm it was pretty easy to just keep on going. Before we knew it, we were heading up the tough hill at the end of the race (Avenue de Tervuren) and were into the home straight. We came in with respectable (and identical, of course) times of two hours and thirteen minutes. In retrospect, we realised that our particular form of training had helped a great deal. First, the rhythm we adopted for the race itself was significantly slower than our training speed. Second, we had run up a lot of hills and our regular circuit around the Parc Josephat is, basically, one long hill followed by a descent, so the tunnels on the Avenue Louise and the last hill up the Avenue de Tervuren were not at all daunting. Indeed, this being our first race, we had taken things easy. But I think we were both aware at the end that we could have done significantly better – certainly under two hours. At the end, we were overtaking a lot of people and we were slowed down by the number of people who had stopped or who were walking up the Avenue de Tervuren. So the chances are that we’ll be back and raring to go next year!

By chance, there was a review article in the Financial Times on Saturday. It reviewed, among others, Murakami’s book (What I talk about when I talk about running – see my 31 October 2008 post). One of the questions frequently put to long-distance runners is ‘what do you think about whilst you’re running?’ Murakami’s reply – and I can now confirm this – is that you don’t really think about anything at all. In fact, there can be, once you get into your rhythm, an absence of thought. An interesting phenomenon.

Whatever, when the kids were very much younger they used to watch an American TV learning video with a character called ‘Barney the Dinosaur’. When he had made some significant achievement Barney would sing a simply ditty: ‘You can be so proud; you can shout out loud; you did it!’ And that, as we crossed the finishing line, is what kept going through my head; we did it!


  1. Jeannette

    Well done Martin! (and your daughter!) Knew you could do it. Love that image of the Prince and the men peeing in the hedge!

  2. Rory Watson

    Well done.

    A very impressive time for a 14 year old, but am not so sure about a 50+ year old.

    I too survived.

    Hope you had a good time in the Ardennes afterwards.

    You should think about coming hashing with us on Saturday afternoons. We already have one EcoSoc member and Hugh Burton used to be a regular.

    Congratulations to you both,

    Rory W

  3. Bernhard

    I saw your time…
    It’s gonna be a tough one for me to beat it next year I guess.

    The absence of thought you mention is actually really a very interesting phenomenon. For me it is a kind of meditation, where body and soul unite. I think that is another reason why you feel so happy after running, because your body met your soul just bypassing the brain.

    So running is actually a very good and useful exercise, not only for the legs.

  4. Marc

    You did an extraordinary job, Martin. Congratulation to you and Emily for having reached an ambitious goal…
    It was nice to cheer you at km 17.

  5. Martin

    Thanks, Marc; it’s all because of you, you know.

  6. Martin

    Bernhard, see my next post about Zen and de-reeding!

  7. Martin

    Thanks, Rory – not bad for a first time out, at least! It was good to see you and chat. I really enjoyed the whole occasion. All the best, Martin

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