It was time for a tune-up race in my training for a 10 km race at the end of November. The Brussels Canal Run stood out as a candidate since it is one of the few completely flat races here in Brussels. The distances they offer are 4, 8, and 12 km. My plan asks for a 5 km, but I deemed 4 to be close enough. On top of that, the girlfriend had won the 8 km last year, so it only seemed logical she should try and defend her title.
Training could have gone better. I used Pete Pfitzinger’s lowest 10 km plan as a basis and added some more distance to it to fit where I was when I started the plan. There was also a small gap between my last goal and the start of this plan, so I already incorporated some of the plan into the weeks before the actual start.
That is also when disaster struck: ten days before the start of the plan, during a speed workout, my hip suddenly gave up on me during one of the speedy parts of the workout. Sort of like I pulled things too far and I felt a tendon/muscle shift over the hip bone. Things hurt, I abandoned the workout, but still had to run about six kilometre homewards. Two days after this, I was an idiot and thought the pain I felt would quickly fade as I ran an endurance run. It did not and I ended up taking about another week off to play it safe. After this, I could run again, but the hip area remained uncomfortable for a few more weeks.
During those weeks, I slowly worked things back to my original planning, culminating in the past two weeks before the race. Each week in turn broke my personal record for longest distance in one week. Only by a few 100 metre each time, but still: 72.5 km and 72.7 km. The previous record was 72.4 km. Progression over the past weeks has been: 27.8, 28.4, 56.2, 61.6, 64.7, 50.5, 72.5, 72.7.
The main workouts I have been doing, have been depending on the day. I run on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tuesday is usually GA with some strides or GA with a speed workout (e.g., 2×(4×200)). Wednesday is an endurance run, I use these to commute to work. Friday is either an LT or a VO2max. LT runs are done by LT intervals, like 3×10 minutes at LT pace. I have only actually done one VO2max so far during this plan, though more had been scheduled. I avoided them whenever the hip felt tricky. The workout I did do was 5×1000 metre at 3-5k race pace. I place that at 3:45 / km pace. Saturdays are a recovery run. Sunday is another endurance run.
The week of the race itself, I did a mini taper. No more workouts. Tuesday 11 km, Wednesday 9.3 km, Friday 5 km. Race on Saturday.
The course is pretty simple. You start along the canal and run along the canal for 1.7 km. You cross a bridge (some “elevation”) and run back on the other side of the canal for 2 km. Cross another bridge (no elevation here) and run back to the finish. The longer distances (i.e., the 8 and 12 km) just run it two and three times.
One spot around the 2.7 km mark was a terrible bottleneck, everyone is forced into a small footpath where you can just barely overtake someone else if the other person runs nicely to the side. I was however not worried about this, the organisers had noted on their website that the 4 and 8 km races would start at the same time, with the 12 km starting afterwards. In other words, there would be no weird crowds for me to overtake.
Goals and Strategy
Last year was the first edition of this race and saw only 38 people at the start of the 4 km. The first and second place were 13:35 and 14:21 at the time. I did not take part at the time, otherwise I likely would have taken third place, it was only 17:33. During my only VO2max workout, 3:45/km pace had felt like suffering and hard to hit. However, you can always push yourself more during a race, so I figured 15:00 would be a nice goal to aim for. Depending on the people that showed up, I might even podium with it. That last hope was quickly crushed when I saw this year the amount of people to take part had more than tripled: 149 people ended up taking part in the 4 km.
As such, my goal was to hit 15:00 (3:45 / km pace).
My strategy was even more conservative than that. I figured to start out at 3:50 and see whether I really felt up for it.
Day of the Race
The race was not till 14h30, so I had the opportunity to sleep in, which I happily did. Spent my time with some sitting around, cleaning a bit, eating the leftover spaghetti from the night before. Around 13h00 the girlfriend and I left, arriving at the bib handout at 13h30. By 14h00 we were ready in racing gear with our bag dropped off, so we went on a warmup. Mine ended up being four kilometre with some strides. We were all ready to get started, when the organiser casually said that the 12 km would start first. Goodbye running in empty streets, I immediately feared the bottleneck.
We watched the 12 km people get ready and did our usual inspecting of the front lines. You can always pick out those that really should not start at the front. An obvious candidate was a girl in long tights and a sweatshirt, holding her phone in her hand and having headphones in. She was standing right at the start line and we both figured she probably did not belong there. I know you should not judge a book by its cover, but it looked pretty obvious to us. The start was given for the 12 km and the girl actually took a selfie right as it started, immediately holding up some people. Go figure.
The 4 and 8 km people got ready and I lined up at the front line, the girlfriend right behind me.
The start was as usual pretty fast, with people sprinting like crazy on all sides. As is also usual, I let myself get dragged in it for a bit, thinking “hey this feels great still”. After about 150 metre however, a glance at my watch told me I was running at 3:10ish pace. I knew the great feeling would not last long and dialled it back some. A balding guy with some rainbow coloured stripes on his shoulder was near me and I decided to hang onto him for a bit. He looked slightly older, so I expected him to be better at pacing (more book cover judging). This worked out nicely and I essentially trailed behind him till the turn across the canal.
Only 500 metre into our race, we also started overtaking runners from the 12 km race. My involuntary pacer solved this by essentially going further from the edge of the canal, avoiding the crowd altogether. Near the turn across the canal, this idea failed as there was not a lot of room to turn. Regardless, we managed to get through it pretty unscathed. Just past the bridge, on the tiny “downhill” away from the bridge, I found rainbow shoulder was going down it too easily. The time was right and I took over the lead. I figured he would not mind and could follow me a bit now instead. I never looked back, but at some point I must have dropped him. He was not with me at the finish.
Just past the turn, about 1.8 km into the race, I also passed a girl I recognised from the 12 km start: headphone selfie taking girl. I let out a small internal sigh and zoomed past her.
Kilometre one in 3:32, kilometre two in 3:50.
The allotted space on this side of the canal was more narrow and passing the 12 km people without zigzagging continuously was proving difficult. Instead, I decided to go just outside the police barriers so I could overtake people more easily. I could go past the barriers easily enough as there was no connection between individual barriers. I hoped this way I could also end up avoiding the single file bottleneck to which I was now rapidly approaching.
As I got closer, the barriers were being connected by a ribbon now, but I figured I could still stay on this side of the crowd. A rather unhappy looking police agent was, however, waving at me from up ahead to get back on the correct side, right with the bottleneck coming up. I ducked under the ribbon and hoped things would go OK. I caught up to somebody else from the 4 km at that point, so I figured he would be able to guide us through.
It did go largely OK, most people seemed to realise in time and stuck close to the right, allowing us to just squeeze past on the left. There was a guy however that was running the middle of the narrow road. He was wearing headphones. He did not react when we yelled at him to make some room. The guy in front of me shouldered past him and I stuck out my hand against his arm to make sure he would not immediately veer back into the middle. As we passed, he rather angrily yelled “Hey, there’s no need to push me!”. I (also rather angrily) yelled back without looking back “Don’t wear headphones then!”. Someone else yelled at us “Use the street then if you want to pass more easily!”. Shit dude, you don’t think that is what we had wanted to do?
We got through it and the sidewalk widened a bit again, enough to overtake people without making them needlessly angry.
Kilometre three in 3:40.
Beyond me hearing across the water that the first guys from the 4 km are crossing the finish line, nothing special happened between then and the final turn across the canal. During that turn, someone was overtaking me for the first time in the race (not counting the mad sprinting in the first few 100 metre). I thought I recognised him and said “Laurent?”. I was correct and we exchanged hellos. I asked if he was also doing the four kilometre. As soon as he confirmed it, I said something along the lines of “Well OK then!” and started my sprint to the end. There was about 200 metre to go. I managed to take the lead again there, the surprise probably helped. For a while, I thought I had it in the bag. With about 30 metre to go however, he comes up beside me as I begin to feel I started sprinting too far away from the line. He manages to get ahead of me and we race across the line.
Kilometre four in 3:19.
We also almost hit the people with goodie bags right behind the line. They apparently thought it wise to stand maybe five metre past the finish without any room for us. I took a sort of turn and used a garage door there to help slow me down.
The extra crowd did indeed take away my podium chances. Laurent crossed the line as seventh, I was eighth. Official results place both our times at 14:21, my strava mostly agrees. Last year this would have put us right at the time of the second person. This year, we were a minute off the podium. Last year’s third overall would have only been 31st today.
Headphone selfie taking girl finished her 12 km as 229th out of 265 finishers, in 1h12m58s.
Using a picture from the startline showed his face, but not his bib. I then googled some names from the results that I thought could be him (white guy, 40s) and… actually found him. Internet creeping! Anyway, he died a bit. He finished 21st in 16:42. That is 2:21 behind me. Considering we were together at the halfway point, that is quite the fading away.
The girlfriend got herself into a sprint for the finish as well. She however did manage to win that sprint and, with it, the race. Defending champion!