Lions Heuvelloop

I spotted this race a little while ago, when I was looking for something a bit more off road than the standard fare. My original plan was to run the 10K, but when Ger threw down the gauntlet and suggested joining him for the half marathon in Almere, I figured I’d better start adding in some longer runs. Whilst running is going far, far better at the moment than I could have dreamed at the start of the year, I still don’t much fancy my chances at getting out on my own in the weekend for a long run, and to be honest, running 15K on the roads is just not appealing to me. So, organized events it’s going to be, but that comes with one hitch. Running a race, and not giving it your all? Hard for anyone, but when you’re as slow as me, and coming last is almost certain in a small event, running a race at easy pace is a huge mental challenge.

According to the mighty Mr Daniels (who I keep confusing with Paul Daniels, a TV magician, for those who weren’t growing up in the UK in the 1980s), my race pace for 15K should be 6:04 min/km. Take that with a pinch of salt, since my usual training runs are around 6km, and I’ve only done 4 10K runs this year. Clearly, having not trained for longer distance, my best would be slower than this. My long run pace should apparently be between 7:03 min/km and 7:30 min/km. My basic aim for this run was to try and land closer to the 7 min/km end of easy, which would give me a 1:45 time. Last year’s slowest runner did the race in 1:38, and I didn’t want to be totally embarrassed!

I also decided to finally dig out my heart rate meter. Since I haven’t used it in a few years, the numbers would probably not be very informative during the run, but would hopefully give me some kind of idea for the future.

Luck was on my side when I took the train to the race this morning, as I only had a couple minutes to wait in Haarlem for my connection. Given that this is my 4th race in that part of the country this year, and every time I’ve had to wait close on half an hour, I was a little surprised. But it turned out that there was a race on at the circuit in Zandvoort (where I ran a couple weeks ago), and there was an extra train service.

The route to the course was well signposted… except for the fact that the signs pointed to the start of the race which was a bit of a distance from the sports hall where the numbers were being handed out. Having been misdirected by one of the volunteers (should have ignored him and the signs and trusted my own instincts) I first ended up at the start and then had to double back. Luckily I’d allowed plenty of time, and it all worked out, but I was a little stressed until I had my start number safely in hand.

Given the forecast of 10C and rain, I decided to wear a jacket. I regretted it before the start, but during some of the colder parts of the race, I was quite glad of it. In fact we were pretty lucky – a few drizzly moments, but it never got too wet.

The start of the race was unlike anything I’ve encountered before – the 5K, 10K and 15K were all starting together, with the 10K and 15K running the same course. There was a barrier splitting the road running under the start banner, and the 5K lined up on one side of the start, and the 10K and 15K lined up on the other, so that the two races were facing each other.

As ever, when the start shot went off I jumped, and then choked on the smoke. No klaxon for this race then! As we shuffled up to the start, the fastest 5K runners came streaming past us in the opposite direction.

The first kilometre or so was on the roads, taking us out of town and down to the dunes. The overall profile of the race was that the first section was downhill, the middle section in the dunes up and down, and then the final section back into town, uphill. A mean way to finish a race I thought, and was glad I’d checked out the course profile and was prepared for it.

I started near the back of the pack, and of course, by the time we reached the dunes I was already losing sight of most people. I could arguably have gone out a little slower, but it would have been hard! I really did my best to hold myself back, because I was pretty worried about not having the energy to make it through the second half comfortably.

The part of the dunes we were running in is normally not open to the public. In fact, apparently it’s opened only once a year, for this race, which made it rather a special experience. On entering the reserve, we were met by a large flock of sheep and the distinct smell of farmyard (for which you may read, animal poo).

The race was well organized, with a good number of volunteers along the way to keep you on the right path. There were virtually no spectators, though, which made it very peaceful. For the first half of the loop I was running behind two other runners, who were a little distance in front. I wasn’t really sure if there was anyone else behind us, though I guessed not.

At about 4km in, the rear guard cyclist came by and asked if I was a 10K runner. I said no, and then asked if I was the last runner. The answer wasn’t clear since he was cycling off into the distance, but he did shout out that he’d be back for me later, which was really all the answer I needed! I didn’t expect anything else, though, and just focused on keeping the other two runners in sight. I hadn’t been sure what distance they were running, but since the cyclist went on past them, I concluded they were both fellow 15K runners.

Not long after the 15K leader came past on his second lap. Wow, that guy was flying! With hindsight, I realize now that the cyclist wasn’t picking up the last 10K runner, but was in fact leading the fastest runner. It was quite some time, easily a kilometre or more before the man in second place came past.

The course was a mix of quite open, barren landscape, and little wooded sections. The latter always seemed to be accompanied with inclines, but it was really nice to run on the soft pine needles. Aside from the first and last 2km or so, the course was on trails. In some places, fairly firm, but in a few places very soft sand, which was quite hard work, even if it did feel good under foot.

Not too far after the cyclist had passed me I saw a small group of highland cattle ahead, and my two fellow runners gingerly making their way through them. The path was quite narrow, through the trees at that point, and the cows didn’t leave much room. As I passed by them, one of them turned and moved towards me. I slowed to a walk as I passed so as not to startle it whilst there was only a foot or so between us, and then continued. A volunteer on the other side, standing next to his bike said ‘I was told that the cows wouldn’t do anything’, but the tone of his voice, and the fact that he had his bike at the ready to rush for help, implied that he was feeling a bit uncertain about them too!

By this point we were coming up to the 5K point, and hit the hardest climb of the route, which was through very deep, soft sand. I took it easy, but kept on running up the hill, passing one of the runners, who I never did see again. I expected him to come past later on, but there was no sign of him.

I was pretty happy with how things were going at this point. Whilst there was still a long way to go, I was running easily and steadily and still felt strong. Past the 6K point, and there was a small table set up with water. I walked briefly whilst I drank, ate a small piece of cereal bar, and then continued.

Before long I was nearing the end of the first loop. Somewhat incongruously I came past the only spectators – a woman with a group of 3 small girls, huddled together under a pink umbrella. They cheered me on, and I waved at the girls. Then I rounded the corner and came back to the main entry road. Two men with flags who were trying to wave me left, as I indicated that I had a lap to go and needed to go to the right. Standard procedure when you’re last! They cheered me on, and off I went for lap number 2, watching one of the volunteers pull up the road markings behind me.

My hips were tightening up, and I had a bit of shoulder pain, so I tried to loosen myself up a bit as I went. By this point I was 8K in, so just over halfway. Knowing what was coming up ahead made the remaining distance much less daunting, and I wasn’t feeling too tired.

My remaining fellow runner was still in sight, although given the how winding the path was I only caught sight of her now and again. Really, this didn’t feel like a race at all, just a solo run out in nature, and I was totally relaxed. I also was still convinced that the man I’d overtaken must be behind me somewhere, so I didn’t even think I was last.

Coming up on the cows again, and I could see that they’d huddled even less conveniently in the middle of the path than the first time around. I saw the woman ahead gingerly pass, going up off the path to give them a bit more room, and when I came to pass, followed her example.

That hurdle over, the next one was the hill around kilometre 10. Definitely harder work than the first time around, but I focused on taking short steps and was soon at the top. I ran the first 10K in about 1:08, which is pretty much the same as the race in Arnhem last month, and faster than we ran Tel Aviv last week. Hands down, today’s race was far more relaxed than either of those, both of which really took a lot more effort, the first because of the hills and the second because of the climate & my lack of sleep, I guess.

The water volunteer was still waiting for me, and I gratefully took some water, like the first time around, leaving my empty cup on the bench for him to collect without having to bend all the way down to the ground.

My legs were tiring by now, but I felt otherwise good. Time seemed to pass by in a dream, and before I knew it I was approaching the end of the loop. Suddenly, out of nowhere came the cyclist, saying ‘promised I’d be back’. Oh, I said in some surprise. Am I last? I thought there was another man behind me.’ I guess he had done the 10K after all, leaving me bringing up the rear. Still, at least this time I was finishing with someone else just in front, as opposed to half an hour behind the next slowest person.

With my cyclist pal, the last few kilometres flew by. With him leading I felt like I picked up pace a little. When we reached the end of the loop there was a small crowd waiting with their bikes. I grinned at them, and waved enthusiastically. If I was going to finish last, then I was determined to make it absolutely clear that I was finishing strong!

We chatted and joked as we went – one cyclist on either side, and then a few more behind us. My new escort told me that we had both a doctor and a forensic scientist in the group, ‘just in case’! Then, onto the final leg – out of the dunes and straight uphill. Mean, very mean, but I didn’t let it defeat me and held steady.

Then we turned on to the final road before the finish. They must have just held the prize giving, because everyone that came towards me was clutching a trophy. I waved at each one and congratulated them as I went by – some things are worth using up a little extra breath for.

And then round the corner I came, expecting, I must admit, to be met with a huge crowd of adoring fans, just as in the Vlietloop last year, and as I saw at Rondje Nederland last month. But no. Everyone aside from the volunteers had already gone home, apparently. Nonetheless, the volunteers gave me a big cheer, and I was very grateful to them!

I came in with a net time of 1:45:23, and I have to be honest and say that I had to work hard not to be disappointed. This was, after all, pretty much spot on what I should have done for a long run (actually, on the fast side of long run pace), and a PR by 4:14. It’s just that compared to the 4:30 I’ve knocked off my 5K time, it seems little paltry!

I had to work hard at reminding myself that not only did I take this at a deliberately slower pace, but that the fact that I finished strong, meant that I paced myself well for those 15km. Plus, when I ran the 1:49:37 at the Bruggenloop in December, I was really pushing myself the whole way, whereas today I was very relaxed. And, of course, December’s 15K was a road race, whereas today’s run was almost all off road.

Heh, a PR is a PR, and one that’s achieved when not going all out, is surely even more of an achievement.

So that’s my fifth run of 15+K ever, and I’m pretty happy with how it went. Now I need to plan the next long run, but first the 10K in Rotterdam next week.

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