“A Dutch race in November,” I commented to Tim as we stood in the rain. “Whose idea was that?” Unfortunately, it was mine.
The race was the 15K Zevenheuvelenloop, the Seven Hills run of Nijmegen, and until about ten days ago I didn’t think I would be running it. I’d found it months ago and gotten Tim to sign up. But at the beginning of September I had a non-running-related injury that forced me to take six weeks off from running, so I had assumed I wasn’t up to the distance. I had been slowly getting back into things in October, doing two miles here, three miles there. Not really, say, nine miles.
The race is one of the most popular in the Netherlands, and apparently some other people know about it, too. When I sent the link to my sister, she looked up the 2011 results and sent back an all-caps bulletin of high urgency informing me that the race had most recently been won by HAILE GEBRSELASSIE. (“A LIVING LEGEND!”) Knowing that I was about to lose face with her running club, I wrote back admitting I had no clue who that was. But the upshot was that the race is known for fast times and attracts an elite set of competitors (in addition to the 29,000 regular people, who by my estimation were almost exclusively Dutch). Since I wasn’t going to run, she insisted, I should at least watch the elites. OK, I thought. Plus, it would be nice to cheer for Tim.
But as the race got closer, I found myself more and more annoyed that I wasn’t going to be running, too. “Maybe I could squeak it out,” I began saying. “I could do it, maybe.” “I mean, I ran a half in the spring….” Finally I went on the race website, “just to look,” and discovered it was sold out. I was disappointed, but noticed that there was actually an official overdracht on the website—a legit way for runners who had bought bibs but couldn’t run to transfer them to people like me. I ran five miles, felt fine, posted a message on the board, and by that evening had four separate e-mails from injured runners wanting to sell me their bib at cost. I picked one, and the transfer took place.
Then I had to go out and run a bunch.
But by this Sunday, I thought I was in reasonably good shape, and we were off to the train station for the two-hour journey to Nijmegen. Right away I got the giddy race-feeling. The train to den Haag was full of runners, and the train from den Haag to Utrecht was so full that runners were standing. (I was lucky enough to have a seat.) The train to Nijmegen unloaded hoards of runners into the street.
We followed the signs to the t-shirt pickup, and then to an underground parking garage being used as a changing area. (No shame in races—we walked in and were immediately greeted by a bare female backside.) There were several of these changing areas, and most people were hanging out in them because, well, it was raining. Combined with the chilly temperature, the rain—although not heavy—was decidedly unpleasant. In the garage people were pulling on garbage bags and wrapping space blankets around themselves. We had not been so prescient as to bring either, but I had a large shopping bag which I calculated was wide enough to cover my shoulders. We made the adjustments and I wore it until the start, thankfully not really realizing how stupid I looked.
The immediate disappointment when I received my new bib had been the colored circle indicating the original owner’s start corral: purple—the last one. Now, I am not fast at all. But I really didn’t want to start in the last corral. At the minimum, this means you stand around for-ev-er, getting cold and antsy and bored while everyone else is running. It’s kind of anticlimactic. I can’t find what the delineations were, but I was (delusionally?) sure I would have been at least a couple corrals better. And on race day, the rain intensified my disinclination to wait for that late start.
The corrals were broken into two major waves, and although this jarred my rule-following nature, I decided to see if I could slip into the back of the first wave. To my chagrin, volunteers were checking the bib colors entering the area. I decided to plead my case and asked the girl if I could go ahead, since my bib was an overdracht, and (I insisted) I was faster than the original runner. “What time will you run?” she asked, and I was excited to see that she was not opposed to the idea. However, thinking about times is not really my strong suit. I don’t run with a watch. I don’t think a lot about my times. I just think about finishing. Therefore, I answered this question in a manner I later understood to be completely unrealistic.
Well, she let me through. Right after she did, a man slyly showed me that he, too, had a corral bib from the second wave, but had hidden it under his jacket. Partners in crime, we inched toward the start; the race was already in progress and the rain was letting up. It still took almost thirty minutes (from the gun) for my pack to crawl toward the line. Kenyans were nearly finishing by the time I started running. In the last moments before we passed under the inflatable arch, runners were all yanking off garbage bags and plastic ponchos and chucking them aside. I fondly cast away my polka-dotted bag, and we were off.
The pack I started in was, in fact, a bit fast for me. I got passed a lot in those first couple kilometers, and just tried to be OK with it, sticking to the far right of the road and concentrating on keeping my own pace. Most of the runners around were overall faster, but it’s never too long into a race before you encounter someone who’s started walking. Even in the first couple k’s I got passed by people panting, running all-out like a monster was chasing them. In the absence of an actual monster, most people cannot maintain monster-pace for any length of time. You pass them walking later on.
When I pass people off to the side looking pained, or turning back only a few k’s in and walking toward the start, I feel sad for them. I passed a few of those people in the first third, too, especially after the first hill came into view. Or maybe it was the second hill. All I remember is that suddenly, I could look ahead and see all the runners before me climbing this monstrous incline. I thought of harsh words, and plowed along. Although I am not speedy, I do all right at hills. I don’t walk, and so this is a spot where I actually pass people. Whenever it seemed intense, I would remind myself of two things:
- YOU RAN EDINBURGH AND THAT WAS MUCH WORSE THAN THIS.
- DON’T CRY–RUN.
This was actually a sign I passed on the course, big black letters on white paper. There weren’t a lot of signs (race fans—make signs! Give the runners something to read and laugh at or be encouraged by!), so this one caught my eye. Simple, but effective. Don’t think about the hills, don’t feel bad for yourself because you had to take six weeks off—just run.
I had taken a Sharpie and blacked out the name CISKA on my bib, scrawling in MEG. People really will cheer for strangers by name, and this resulted in a periodic source of amusement for me, as I realized: the Dutch are very uncertain how to pronounce my name. The hard g in Megan (forget the h) is not a Dutch g. Dutch g’s sound more like an h + a throat sound… for example, the famous cheese town that Americans pronounce Goo-da is in Dutch more like How-da. Early in the race, I heard a lot of “Go, Joris!” “Hoi, Elsa!”… and then: “Yay… Meh?” At least three separate times I heard odd guesses at pronouncing my unusual name, including an older man who added the diminutive -je, making it Meh-je.
If you usually run in miles, let me tell you: you will love kilometers. It didn’t make the race any shorter, but when I passed the 1 km flag, I couldn’t believe it. Fourteen more of those? OK! It was comforting to know that a kilometer flag was never more than a few minutes away. Mile flags can feel impossibly far.
The middle third of the race was hilly and felt a bit long, but once I saw that 10k flag, I knew it was all going to be fine. I ate a honey packet and had enough energy coming into the final k. This turned out to be useful because: 1. in the final 750 m, a middle-aged dude threw me an elbow for no apparent reason, and this meant I had to beat him. (I did.) 2. in the final 250 meters, I literally had to jump out of the way when a girl next to me started throwing up while running. Missed my shoes by inches. Yikes!
We celebrated with pizza at VIP and pooled some pros and cons of the race itself, as compared to other races we’ve run…
- Tons of port-a-potties! Seriously, the most port-a-cans I’ve ever seen at a race. They were even in the starting corrals.
- A funnel at the start line as your corral edged toward it, which basically ensured that you actually started by running, not walking/shoving/trying to find room.
- The simple overdracht system, legally allowing runners to transfer their bibs.
- Low cost (the race entry itself was, I think €19,50). The Dutch races often let you pay the base cost and then add if you want additional fees for a shirt, a medal, and a chip (you can use your own). If you run a lot of races, saving money by not taking the shirt and the medal is a great option.
- Really awesome shirt, at least this year’s iteration.
- Good, if not overwhelming, crowd engagement throughout the course.
- Deliberate eco-consciousness exhibited in the race structure, materials, etc.
- Nice scenery, mostly in the countryside, yet the start was very convenient to public transportation.
- Poorly informed volunteers. We asked a volunteer where the bag check was and she told us it was only informal—we could leave our bags in the big underground garage of changing areas. We were surprised, but figured, OK. So we left our bags and walked to the start… and passed the giant tents of official bag checks. I wound up scrambling back to the garage to retrieve my bag and rushing to check it—unnecessarily stressful.
- Signage only in Dutch, could be confusing if you were an international participant.
- Bad smells. I know this doesn’t make sense, but I thought it the whole race and then Tim commented on it before I mentioned it: the race smelled bad! I don’t know if there was something about the conditions that led to extremely intensified BO, but… it stank.
- Essentially no amenities after you finished. We got one small bottle of sports drink and that was it. No oranges, no food, nothing.
All in all it was a fun and personally satisfying race. I don’t know that I’d be dying to do it again next year, but I enjoyed it, and I’m grateful for my late bib!