I had not specifically trained for the occasion. I’d run a marathon in April, did a half Ironman in June and just tried to keep the fitness levels up after that. July even had my lowest mileage in over 12 months as I only ran 72kms according to my stats.
The Dodentocht, now in its 49th edition, is not a race. In fact, it’s mainly a walking challenge which attracts close to 13.000 people each year. It starts at 21.00 and each participant has 24h to reach the finish line. To make sure that no one views it as a race, the arrival tent only opens at 7.00 sharp. Only a handful of people usually arrive at the tent before that and then are forced to wait until it opens.
There are 14 checkpoints along the way where you can get a whole range of refuelling goodies: sandwiches, soup, coffee, water, cakes, fruit, biscuits, … It also means you can split up your run in to 15 runs of 10kms or less. It sounds great and easy in theory but boy oh boy is it a whole different ball game to actually do it.
I was running it with my best mate who is probably as fit, maybe a bit fitter even, as me. We had run 30km together before so knew we ran at a similar pace. Talking about what we wanted to achieve, we had said: “let’s try to run 60km and see where we go from there. If we then have to walk the last 40km we’ll be in by 12.00”. Another nice theory.
Start – 25km
The group was split up into two sections of 6000 people so that it would be slightly less crowded in the beginning. We managed to get to the front of the pack which meant we only had a few hundred to pass and didn’t waste too much energy on it. Lots of walkers have the same idea though, to run a bit in the beginning and get ahead of the main pack.
The first bit takes you through Bornem centre where there’s still loads of people cheering you on. I had my son & family waiting for me at the 8km mark which was nice, always give you a boost seeing people you know & love.
We had said beforehand that we wanted to try and run between 6:00 – 6:30/km and not quicker than that. Amazingly we managed to stick to that, even in the beginning where adrenaline might make you a bit overconfident.
Once we hit the 17km point, around 23.00, the rain came. It was relentless for about 3 hours, a mixture of drizzle and the occasional huge downpour. It’s incredibly demoralising to say the least, especially if you know there’s still so long to go.
25km – 50km
Getting up to the 30km mark, I still felt comfortable. It was an easy pace and it wasn’t an unknown distance yet. After you leave the 28km checkpoint, you’re starting the toughest part of the run/walk. Tough because the distance between the next checkpoints are the longest you’ll get. First 7.8km to Breendonk (36.6km), 9.8km to Steenhuffel (46.4km), 6.8km to Merchtem (53.2km) and 8.3km to Buggenhout (61.5km). Also tough because you cross the marathon mark, you’re running through the night and the pain really starts already.
We kept on breaking down the run in to small bitesize chunks and looking for small (in the grand scheme of things) milestones. As we were coming up to the marathon distance, it had stopped raining. But I was going through a bad moment. My feet hurt, I was wet, cold and made the mistake of thinking: “fuck, there’s another 60km to go, that’s at least 7h”. I was very close to telling my mate, with about 3km to the next checkpoint, that I needed to walk. But I bit my tongue and fought through it. The experience of a few endurance races already was kicking in and I knew that after a bad moment, a good one usually follows. The only question is: when is that bastard going to come?
At Steenhuffel (46.4km) I had to get some new socks on as mine were completely soaked and my feet wrinkled. Luckily my running mate had some he could lend me. But I had some massive cracks developing which were worrying, blisters were forming and we hadn’t even reached the halfway point. I decided to take a paracetamol to take my mind off the feet for a while. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the longest part of the race, 9.8km to Merchtem.
50km – 75km
We knew, running between 6:30 – 7:00/km, it would take about 1h10 to get there. But we had the magic 50km marker to look forward to. Once we saw that one, we could start counting down. Well, a little bit at least. There were still 50km to go.
At Merchtem (53.2km), we took a bit of a longer break. I think we must have stopped at least 15min. We put our feet up, had some sandwiches and coffee and recharged our watches a bit. We can’t have them running out of juice now can we? Our flatulence was building up exponentially too. Every stop was an opportunity to relieve some pressure which we duly did. Long distance running is fun isn’t it?
On to the next one, Buggenhout (61.5km), which was another 6.8km. But in reaching that one, we had passed another milestone. This one being: “Less than a marathon to go!”. It’s the little things in life. This period went well too, the stop in Merchtem had really given us a boost and I was a bit delirious and started rambling. It must have been some general tiredness that was setting in, it being about 4.30 and that we had been running for a good 7 hours at this point.
In reaching Buggenhout, we’d also gotten through the 4 long runs. With 7 checkpoints left, the longest distance between them was “only” 6.6km. Another one to tick off the list.
The next thing to look forward to was seeing our wives. They had set their alarms at 5.30 to come and meet us wherever we would be at that point. And when we reached Opdorp (67.2km) we got our first Whatsapp messages. They would meet us at the next stop! That would mean one thing: getting rid of that backpack which had been taking its toll on our shoulders and backs. They weren’t heavy and are made for long distance running, but the lack of training with one had probably been the main reason for the discomfort.
It was great seeing the ladies. Well kind of. Wouter, my running mate, was about 10m in front of me and my wife started running alongside him whilst carrying some supplies in a box as there was still a few hundred meters to the scanning line. When he said: “Maybe go over to Simon, he’s struggling a bit”, she casually turned her head towards me to go: “Life is not for pussies”. Cheers love.
75km – 100km
As we set off towards Puurs (79.1km), 6.6km away, my ribs really started to hurt. The backpack had taken a slightly bigger toll than expected. Oh well, another part of the body with pain. I noticed Wouter was feeling better than I was and told him to go on ahead without me. We had said beforehand that if one is better than the other, he had to go for it. You never know when a bad moment might come so you need to make the most of the good ones.
He reached Puurs a few minutes before me so was still waiting when I got there. When we left that checkpoint, we pretty much stayed together after that. He would be 100m in front of me sometimes but we would meet up at the next checkpoint.
We had gone through the night continuously asking each other: “So, how’s the body & mind?”. With regards to the body, we kept on coming up with new aches and pains. Sometimes it was your left foot, sometimes your right ankle or knee,… Whatever it was, it usually went away after a while and something new popped up. It’s something you need to keep in mind when attempting something like this. Pain is temporary but glory is forever.
But from Oppuurs (82.6km), the pain seemed endless and was increasing. Every restart hurt more and more. You have to get through those first 300m to get back in the groove, but it’s a battle every time. Just keep thinking: “one foot in front of the other” and “it’ll hurt just as bad, or more, if you start walking now”. We had reached this point already and not stopped running yet, we weren’t going to start now. Running towards Sint-Amands, we reached another little milestone: the double marathon!
When you get past Sint-Amands (88.2km), the final checkpoint is in sight and so is the end. You have a long run along the river Schelde to get to Branst (94.5km) and every step is a challenge. Even Wouter was struggling now too, so there was lots of complaining about pains towards each other, but it seemed to help us. I tried the technique of smiling to try and trick your brain but we were too exhausted for that to work.
The final 5.5km leg was, for me, a relatively good one compared to the others the past 20km. Maybe it was because the finish was in sight? Because there was some support on the street? Or because there was a board every kilometer counting down to the end.
The elation when we crossed the line was immense. No longer would we have to restart our bodies for another run. No more complaining. No more trying to find little milestones to motivate ourselves. No longer would we have to endure pain… Oh wait, that last one isn’t true. We’re now 36h after we arrived in Bornem and I’m walking like a 90-year-old waiting for a double hip replacement.
But was it worth it? Absolutely. An incredible experience and achievement personally. I only properly started running in April last year and can now classify myself as an ultrarunner. Who’d have thought that? Not me for one. It’s only made my desire and hunger grow, looking for the next challenge. I think the Ironman-plan for next summer might well have to be put into action. To be continued…