At the beginning of October, I ran my third marathon ever in Brussels. In the months leading up to it, I spent a lot of time browsing the web looking to get a sense of what the race and the city would be like, but there weren’t many recent posts that I could look to. I thought I’d share my own experience of the race and the weekend for anyone thinking about it as a future marathon destination.
I could say that I chose Capital of Europe as my marathon destination in order to make my feelings about Brexit quite clear. I could say that I was making a noble stand against terrorism after the bombings that happened there earlier this year. I could even just say that I wanted to indulge a love of Belgian beer, or chocolate, or waffles.
Unfortunately, none of that would be true. The much less exciting reasons for choosing Brussels involved, firstly, the date: it was the only city marathon that fit with my holiday time from work and, secondly, the location: it is relatively easy to reach from both the UK and Beijing (well, sort of). This scheduling and geography aside, I honestly had no particular reason for choosing Brussels, hadn’t planned on visiting any time soon and don’t didn’t even like Belgian beer.
Brussels, please forgive me.
Before the Race
I got there on Saturday morning, the day before the race. A ten-hour flight and seven-hour time difference left me feeling somewhat tired, but I got to meet my partner Gail, my brother, his partner and my sister and that made everything better. We wandered the tourist district, ate a nice meal and played a really good escape room game before I retired to bed quite early, which meant that I was feeling surprisingly fresh the next morning.
With 1,500 marathoners and 6,000 half-marathoners, Brussels is not a small marathon by any means, but it is nowhere near the scale of London, Paris or Berlin, where up to 40,000 take part each year. As such, I had no problem collecting my number and t-shirt on the morning of the race at the beautiful Parc du Cinquantenaire. What’s more, Gail and I were able to have a romantic cup of tea on the floor of the expo venue, surrounded by people applying Vaseline and adjusting their compression pants.
The hour before the race was incredibly laid back. In fact, on strolling down to the start line 10 minutes before the gun, I began to wonder if, in a jetlagged haze, I had actually turned up a few hours early. It was all so undramatic. Even on the start line, standing with the 3.15 group only 10 metres from the front of the race, the feeling was very subdued. I kept expecting hoards of extra runners to appear from nowhere wanting to shove their way into a better start position.
Some might complain about a lack of atmosphere but, when you have spent four months preparing for something and it finally arrives, fireworks and loudspeakers aren’t going to make it feel any more special. It was enough to be standing quietly with the other runners, thinking about all the time I’d invested, all the miles I’d run and all the doughnuts I’d rejected since signing up May. The 30-second countdown began before I knew it.
Ok, it’s time to come clean about that 78-minute P.B. statistic. This was no superhuman performance and there is no special training revelation to share. The truth is that Brussels was only my third marathon and my first experience of a flat(ish), city course. My two previous marathons marathons on Devon’s South West Coastal Path and on the Great Wall of China had each involved at least 3,500 feet ascent on top of the 26.2 miles, and so I came to Brussels with a best time of 4’26. Unless something went seriously wrong, I was always going to run faster than that. My original target for the race was 3’15 but the Pfitzinger and Douglas 50-70 mile 12-week plan had got me in good shape and I had lowered that to 3’10.
I remembered to take it easy in the opening few miles, although I think I was the only one. Even the 3.15 pacers were running sub 7min/miles at first and so I let them go ahead, knowing that it would help to reel in those early speedsters later in the race.
In order to judge my pace, I spent the first quarter of the race obsessively checking my GPS watch. It was difficult to stick to 7.15min/miles on an undulating course and, by 10km, I was sick of having to speed up and slow down and I realised that running the whole race in this way would be no fun at all. I switched the display to show my heart rate instead and tried to run at a consistent effort level throughout, regardless of the pace.
This worked quite well and I was able to enjoy the course as it left the city centre and stretched into the surrounding suburbs and parkland. Spectators and supporters were quite sparsely scattered but there were a few who diligently cheered for every runner by name, which really helped, even if the pronunciation of ‘Matthew’ eluded the French speakers. The volunteers at the aid stations were brilliant, despite the risks associated with handing paper cups of water to frantic runners. I must apologise to the one lady who, on placing a skinless banana into my grasping hand, found it projected back towards her like a slippery bar of soap. Feeling stupid, I half-stopped to apologise but she just laughed and told me to “Go, go!”
The first 13 miles were a breeze, with the temperature a perfect 12-15°c and series of wide roads bordered by trees and lakes. I had read in places that Brussels was a hilly marathon “most suitable for serious runners” but I would dispute that. It is definitely not flat, but the hills are more like long drags and they actually offer some nice variety, without disrupting your rhythm too much. I was feeling in control and was able to concentrate on passing those people who had gone out a little too hard. I went through half way in very pleasing 1’34, a minute quicker than my target time, without feeling like I had pushed too hard. Everything was right with the world.
Of course, a marathon doesn’t really start until after half way. For me, the difficulties started from mile 15 onwards when we ran round an oddly shaped lake in Teruven Park next to the Palais des Colonies. I saw the 3’00 pacers on the other side of the lake and stupidly told myself that I had a chance of catching them if I could just increase the pace a little more. The next ten minutes felt like an eternity, as I trudged around the edge of the lake, the opposite side never seeming to come any closer. It started raining, I realised just how far ahead that group were and I started to wonder if I’d slowed down without realising it.
It was also then that my stomach started giving me trouble. I’ve since realised that I had probably eaten too much in the days before and I had also had a veritable three-course meal of raisins, bananas and sports gel while running. This slowed me down a little more, as did the longest uphill section of the race at around mile 18. A few people passed me for the first time and I began to talk myself down from 3’00 back to 3’10 and then 3’15.
What helped was the arrival of the half-marathon runners, whose course joins up with the full marathon route at around 5 miles to go. They were a relatively fresh and adrenaline-pumped bunch, wooping and panting their way up the hills with random bursts of speed. This was also where the majority of spectators were positioned and the atmosphere slowly built as we approached the city. I felt slightly better and enjoyed running through the European Quarter of the city, around the edge of the Parc du Bruxelles and past the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.
In the last km, we dropped into Brussels (the only really steep hill on the whole course) and ran along the cobbles right through the Grand Place. That was where my family had placed themselves to cheer me on and it was where the emotion really hit me. I’m not usually a crier but, as I passed them and thought about how proud I was to be finishing and how pleased I was that they were there to support me, I had a tear in my eye. Powered by emotion, I ended up absolutely flying over the last 500 metres and almost kept running past the medals, the foil blanket and the free waffles at the finish.
That’s not to say that I forgot about the race clock. I hadn’t looked at the time since the halfway point and I felt like I had slowed significantly since then. To my delight, I crossed the line in 3.08.45, two minutes quicker than my target. I was so pleased that I marched off down the road to the ‘official meeting point’ without spotting my family standing a few yards away.
After The Race
Brussels offers the weary marathoner an unrivalled range of post-race treats. After some beers, a chocolate waffle, a three-course meal, some French fries and another chocolate waffle, I’m sure I quite comfortably reached a state of calorie surplus for the day, despite the 2655 my watch was telling me I used up during the race.
That afternoon, we spent some time at the Royal Museum’s Bruegel exhibition, which I really enjoyed despite having to sit down every ten minutes. I also tried some beautifully fruity lambic beer at the Café de la Mort Subite (Café at the Sudden Death- see the website). Unfortunately, marathon runners don’t make great travel companions and I found myself wanting to go to bed at about 7:30pm.
I had a brilliant time in Brussels and I would recommend it to anyone wanting a European city marathon without the massive crowds of the bigger races. It was impeccably organised, with the finish line handily placed right in the centre of town.
The route was enjoyable and I only wish I had known more about it before running (I later found out some amazing facts about Tervuren Park, the place where my crisis of confidence happened). Despite the inclines- I refuse to use the word “hill”- it is a place where a runner in good shape can get a P.B., and Eric Kering’s winning time of 2’16 shows what is possible.
I was very pleased with my own performance. I ran the race in a controlled way with roughly even first and second half splits. I perhaps ran it slightly easier than I needed to in the end and, with the exception of the last 5km, my heart rate never went into the red zone. In fact, my highest heart rate of the weekend came the next morning on receiving the bill for breakfast in a trendy café (the Pound is oh so weak against the Euro!).
It was not a cheap weekend, but it was a memorable one. It has given me a taste for city marathons and a real desire to try and improve my time. No doubt I’ll go back to trail running eventually but, for now, I’m officially a roadrunner.