The big one. The spring goal. The “20 km door Brussel” (a.k.a. 20 km de Bruxelles a.k.a. 20 km of Brussels). Last year I ran it in 1h 30m 41s and injured myself in the process, getting sidelined for about six weeks. This year had to be better, both in terms of time as in terms of getting there safely.
About the Race
This is by far the most iconic race in Belgium. Its first edition was in 1980, admittedly not exceptionally long ago, and since then they have been organising the 20 km race on the last Sunday of May. Other distances are not considered, this is the only race they offer. No diluting the field, either you are here for the 20 km, or you do not matter.
With up to 40,000 participants on this one distance, this also makes it one of the largest races in the world. Needless to say, people in Belgium tend to know what you refer to when you mention you will run “de 20km”.
As training I followed Pete Pfitzinger’s lowest half marathon plan. The difference in racing between the two distances is negligible after all. His lowest plan starts around 50 km per week and peaks at 76 km. This had me slightly worried beforehand as I had only started running 50 km per week consistently at the beginning of the year. Not to mention those 50 km included considerably less workouts than what “Uncle Pete” had set out for me. I also allowed some modifications (and modifications on the modifications) on the plan to fit in my tune-up race schedule.
Following the plan went, luckily, mostly flawless. There was a short sickspell with antibiotics in week three. I had to cut my second VO2max workout, in the peak week, short due to general tiredness and warm weather. My tune-up races were not going as smoothly as I hoped (though people assured me training through a race can be a pain). Beyond these things though, I would say the plan managed to challenge me in what I think was a good way.
Besides the plan, I also tried to keep on bike commuting. In a normal week this amounts to about 100 km, but due to the sickness and other circumstances (being abroad, bike broken, resting for a race), it averaged out to being about 50 km per week. Sounds more substantial than it is.
Start and finish is in the Parc du Cinquantenaire (a.k.a Jubelpark a.k.a. Jubileepark) in six waves of up to 6,000 people. You run towards the Konink Paleis van Brussel (a.k.a. Palais de Bruxelles a.k.a. Royal Palace) which you hit around two kilometre in. At the palace you are also greeted with cobbles for several 100 metre, but you can try to avoid that by sneaking onto the side walk. You head towards the Palais de Justice (a.k.a. Justitiepaleis a.k.a. Palace of Justice), likely the largest building that was built in the 19th century anywhere in the world.
After reaching it, you are three kilometre into the race and a climb starts towards Ter Kamerenbos (a.k.a. Bois de la Cambre a.k.a. La Cambre Forest”) ending up in it at 7.5 km after which things flatten out somewhat. You leave this park/forest around kilometre ten and now stick to one road for the next seven kilometre.
This road features some net downhill, which is always welcome, and slowly circles you back in the direction of the Parc du Cinquantenaire. At the seventeen km mark you turn left onto the Tervurenlaan (a.k.a. Avenue de Tervuren a.k.a. Tervuren Lane), a road many runners refer to with dread. Dread, because soon after turning and over the course of about one kilometre, you are handed forty metres of elevation. Painful if you are already at your limits. On the plus side, once you are past it, you can see the finish which is only 1.5 km of straight road (with some roundabouts) away at that point. The finish is under the Arcades du Cinquantenaire (a.k.a. Triomfboog van het Jubelpark a.k.a. the Arch of the Jubileepark), ready to make you feel small just when you felt good about yourself.
Goals and Strategy
I had only one goal before the race: running the entire thing in 85 minutes (1h 25m). I thought about listing other things here as well, “back up” goals, but when thinking about it, I realise anything less would be a disappointment. Uncle Pete’s plan had brought me to race day brimming with confidence.
As such, the strategy was simple enough. Start out at 4:15/km pace for the first ten kilometre. Check at the halfway point whether going faster is still an option. Do not die.
Morning of the Race
The girlfriend and I got up at seven. I still had the sore throat I had been nursing the past week, though I did not consider it to be able to really hamper my goal. The usual habits were followed, some slices of bread with américain préparé, lots of water, and getting things ready while waiting around for the bodily functions to kick in.
We were out the door around half past eight to catch the metro. Arriving at the metro station near the start, we caught the first signs of the big crowd we would have to deal with the rest of the day. A big blob of people was queuing up for the exits and none of the queues seemed to be making any progress. Worse, a minute after our metro another metro was going to arrive, likely also filled to the brim with runners. Unwilling to wait around with no progress, I led us to a closed exit which quickly brought us to the platform on the other side, for metros in the opposite direction. The crowd here was considerably smaller and, more importantly, actually moving forward. We exited right at the Parc du Cinquantenaire and into even more crowds. A quick trip to the bathroom and some wading through the crowds later, we did a short warm-up and eventually went to our corral with about five to ten minutes to spare for the start.
After the traditional playing of the Bolero by Ravel ended, the Belgian national anthem was played. Then, finally, the start shot was given at 10:00. Let the race begin!
Well. Almost. As mentioned before, our corral still had up to 6,000 people and all of us had to pass by a rather small bottleneck that is the exit of the park. It took us another four minutes (!) to actually cross the start line. I said bye to the girlfriend, who was aiming for 1:27, and off we were. For realsies.
Oh how I hate the crowds. From the start (and, spoiler alert, till the end), there was no way around a group of people. There is just about never a bunch of open space. You are constantly weaving between others and others weave past you. It is a total clusterfuck. Every possible gap is used, police ribbons are jumped over or ducked under to get on the sidewalk just to have that little bit of extra room. There are simply so many people and, especially those first kilometres, you are constantly between people still trying to find their pace. One person’s pace never seems to match the pace of the other people nearby or, at least, my pace.
After two and a half kilometre you reach the first water stand. You are also on wonderful Belgian cobbles at this point. Add to that all the water being thrown around and the cobbles quickly become very wet. In case you have never encountered a wet cobbled road: it is slippery. Luckily the cobbles did not last much longer and before long you turn unto Avenue Louise.
Kilometre one in 4:18, kilometre two in 4:13, kilometre three in 4:26.
So far so good, as I more or less manage to hit the paces I had set out to hit. Things also get slightly better on Avenue Louise in terms of the crowd’s pace, it is bound to be more similar to yours by now. There are also no more turns to be concerned about for the next few kilometre, it is a straight line.
Even so, someone in front of me decides to plant more than just his body against the pavement as he miscalculates a hop onto the sidewalk. He quickly jumps back up again as another guy and I ask him “Ça va?” (“Are you OK?”) in chorus. He grunts and continues on.
While it is straight, this road features some tunnels and just like last year getting out of them is the most annoying part. It is pretty steep. My heart rate started rising towards 180 which is, I think, around the edge of VO2max for me. Not 100% sure, but either way it is a bit high for me. Despite this, I saw things were not going smoothly as my splits remained above what I needed to hit for 1h25. I went through the first 7km about 1m30s too slow, but was not too worried yet as the second half of the race is easier than the first.
Kilometre four in 4:25, kilometre five in 4:54, kilometre six in 4:13, kilometre seven in 4:50. Official five km split at 22:07.
Around the point where we entered the Terkamerenbos I decided some consistency would be nice and, realising I am often pretty bad at pacing, started tailing a random guy that seemed like he might be knowing what he was doing. This went well for a bit, but I lost track of him at the next water stand. The volunteers there seemed unprepared and undermanned on one side… my side. I noticed I was about to not get any water, so decided to grab a bottle from their bottle packs myself. I grabbed for one, but my grip on it was not tight enough and it fell from the pack unto the ground. I did a quick break, turn around, grab bottle, turn around, start again. Just what I needed when the pacing is not going entirely as planned. At least I had some water to throw over my head.
We passed the time mat for the halfway point, but my watch was still quite a bit away from ten kilometre. This briefly gave me hope, thinking my watch was just fucking up. A bit further we passed the actual sign for the ten kilometre. I guess the people placing the signs and the people placing the mats were not in sync. Either way, hopes shattered.
Kilometre eight in 4:39, kilometre nine in 4:37, kilometre ten in 4:35. Official “ten km” split at 43:35.
I was not as much aware of these splits during the race as may seem to be the case in my telling here. I knew things were going slower than I had set out to do, but the actual numbers did not really register. The thing that did register time and time again was the fact that my heart rate remained consistently too close to 180.
The next few kilometres were done on autopilot. I am sitting here and for the life of me cannot really pinpoint what happened at this point in the race. Just chugging along. There was a bit of a downhill at some point which the handicapped people in their handibikes took advantage from, they zoomed past, having to brake to safely navigate the crowd. I guess that does give me a point to raise. There are charities pushing a buggy along with someone incapable of moving themselves in the buggy. This would be OK if it were not for the fact that these groups take up so much room. They also let them start at the front, regardless of their pace. In a race this crowded, this makes for needless extra weaving for the other runners. Let them start even earlier (they currently start 15 minutes before the first wave) or put them where they belong pace wise.
Kilometre eleven in 4:43, kilometre twelve in 4:33, kilometre thirteen in 4:26.
After about 14 kilometre, I decided to just ignore my pacing altogether. I had only my splits to go by (I had somehow forgotten to enable the total time data field on my watch), but it was clear to me my goal was out the window. I switched my watch to only show my heart rate and managed to bring it down a few beats. This apparently immediately shows up in my paces too.
Kilometre fourteen in 4:33, kilometre fifteen in 4:43, kilometre sixteen in 4:44, kilometre seventeen in 4:49. Official fifteen km split at 1:07:06.
After a very long stretch of autopilot, we turned onto the Tervurenlaan. This meant some climbing was to be done. Last year I cruised through this section, not really losing any pace as I went up it. This year was disastrous. I slowed down to a 5:25 split and was just so happy when I crested (the worst of) the hill.
Inexplicably the last few kilometres to the line are done on a terribly narrow stretch. Two cars wide tops. If you plan on sprinting to the line, you best prepare to get your elbows ready in order to squeeze through. I had no such plans and just chugged further.
Kilometre eighteen in 5:25, kilometre nineteen in 4:36.
Suddenly however, with about one kilometre to go, I saw someone in front of me that could be the girlfriend. Upon further inspection, it really was her. How did that happen, why was she in front of me?! I had settled with having a disappointing time, but I would not get beaten by her! I would hear about it for ages. With renewed energy, I decided to sprint to the finish line. As I passed her, I gave her a tap on the shoulder said “damnit!” or something similar and raced away. Surprised with what I still managed, I made my way through the crowd, running on narrow sidewalk edges, hopping on and off like a madman. I squeezed through gaps that were not there, to the malcontent of other runners. I was a bit rude, I must admit, but at the time I had but one goal: keep the girlfriend behind me.
I crossed the line and immediately came to a halt. I stopped my watch and saved the run. I forgot to even look at my time, so automated is the stop and save motion. I knew it was going to be bad, I just had no clue how bad exactly. Considering the girlfriend was so close behind, I imagined I would still be around her goal time of 1:27 then.
It was not. Not even close. My official time was 1h 30m 40s, Strava agrees though the distance it shows is short. I seem to be the only one on Strava with that problem though. Exactly one second better than last year. I can only say this was a disappointment across the line. I trained harder (last year’s peak week was this year’s start). I trained smarter (backing off when I felt I might run into injury). Yet I barely did better. I could try to blame it on the warmer weather (20C & clouded, last months I had gotten used to running at maybe 12C max), I could try to blame it on the sore throat I had all week, but in the end this does not make me feel better about the result. It is what it is and it is much slower than I had hoped. The only uplifting news I find for myself is that I did about 500 spots better than last year: 2345th. It seems I was not the only one having more trouble than last year.
With seeing the girlfriend so late in the race, you can imagine she was close behind me across the line. I managed to put her on 18s still. Victory. Though obviously her time is much more impressive if you take the obvious gender difference into account. I also managed to be faster than the other people from work that took part, as well as the friends I saw post on facebook. A hollow victory though, I was only focused on my own time.
The only ones I would have been interested in beating, are two people I have been seeing at races around Brussels, but who have generally been better than me. I had hoped to creep closer in this race, but that did not happen. They absolutely smoked me. First one is a guy, who ran it in 1:22:24. The other is a girl, finishing in 1:24:18. They have been smoking me in the past few races too, so I expected as much.
So what is next? I do not think the failure in the race had anything to do with the choice of the plan, so I will be sticking to Uncle Pete’s plans in the future. In the next few months I will just do some base building, it puts less pressure on my runs. Raise the weekly distance, keep some tempos and strides in and just enjoy it all.
I am still looking for a main goal for fall, most likely a half marathon because I wanted to race that distance once this year. I doubt I will use a specific plan to get me there. Like I said, base building. As that main goal draws closer, I could be inclined to incorporate ideas from a specific plan though.
I have doubts whether I want to run this race again next year. Two things are currently strongly dissuading me:
- The crowd. I had hoped this would be better this year, starting in wave one and everything. It was not. I have the feeling you have to be in the first 1000 (just made that number up) before it becomes OK. To satisfy my curiosity: that required 1:25:10 this year. Hey, look what my goal was.
- The weather. At the end of May, chances are it is going to be warmer than what I want to race in. I want low 10s, not 20C.
I still have a while to decide, but for the time being I am looking at other options. Suggestions welcome.