After two successful track races in August, I was eager for more in September. However, there were not as many options nearby in distances I cared for. My eye fell on the Brussels 20 km. I had not been training for it specifically, but I figured jumping in it could be nice if the weather worked out. Usually this race is held at the end of May, but due to COVID19 it had been cancelled last year and postponed to fall this year. I kept pushing back the decision whether to take part: 5-6 days prior to the race I was still undecided, but leaning towards signing up. I ended up signing up on Thursday, with the race happening that Sunday. Perfect prep.
After the 5000m race, I spent two weeks in Greece. The first week there was a planned down week (80k), the second a normal (100k) volume week. It was a bit too warm there so I ended up not bothering with any workouts. There were some good hills to be had though, so I did a few of those. Some say hills are speedwork in disguise, so I figured that would do.
We flew back on a Saturday. The next morning (exactly a week before the 20 km) I did a run-bike trail event with a friend. You both start at the same time, one person runs, one person bikes, you can change whenever you want. We did not plan on racing it, so kept it easy enough. The friend is a bit more casual with running and the terrain made the biking more challenging than we expected. In the end I ran the larger part of this event, 26 km to his 14 km. I had offered beforehand that I could do about 25 km, so I did not mind. Just another long run with some extras. We also ended up grabbing second place there and got some free beer, so that was nice.
The week leading up to the 20 km, I started out as a normal week, still undecided whether to take part. In other words, no pre-race workout on Tuesday, since I had planned a regular workout for Thursday. Of course, after the late sign up I pivoted the planning to add some quick tapering for the 20 km. Ended up doing: 10k, 13k, 13k, 10k, 10k, and 6k the days before the 20 km. As always some strides in that final run too.
Goal and Strategy
My PB was set in 2019: a 1:18:20 slotting me 287th place. With the recent races in mind, my goal was to be loftier. Calculators gave me 1:12:40-1:13:20. Of course, that was based on races on track races. On the bumpy course that is the 20 km, I expected to be going a little slower. Even then, I felt pretty certain I could run sub 1:15 and in the end 1:13:xx became the real goal. I figured I would start out around 1:15 pace (3:45 / km) and switch to 1:13 pace (3:39 / km) around 7-8 km. By that point in the race you are done with the first long climbing (with tunnels), so it is a good point to assess how you are feeling. In theory.
I also gave this time when signing up, since 1:13:xx was what I hoped to run. They did not check my credentials (though if they had, I could have backed it up with the recent races) and just gave me an elite bib. The difference between the elite corral and the “regular” first wave is nothing crazy. You get your own smaller corral so you can jog back and forth a bit longer, but before the race starts, the barrier between the elites and the first wave is removed, so everybody gets squished together.
The afternoon before the race, we went for a little walk with some friends. One of them suggested to grab a pizza afterwards from his favourite pizzeria. I figured why not: I eat the weirdest stuff before any long run, what’s the worst that can happen? I admit I don’t know whether I can just blame the pizza for what is to follow in this section, but it seems like the most likely candidate to me. The other option would be to blame some leftover lettuce I had at lunch. Both looked and smelled perfectly fine at the time. Either way.
I went to bed a bit “food burpy”, like I had eaten way too much, but I most definitely hadn’t. I did not take note of it at the time. I was asleep by 22:30ish. I woke up around 23:30 with cramps all around my belly. I had some diarrhoea and a small bit of puking. Tried to sleep, but the cramps lingered and I could not fall asleep. By about 0:30 the cramps were getting stronger again and I used the toilet again. More diarrhoea and suddenly several bouts of violent projectile vomiting, luckily all in the toilet. I am not sure I ever had those levels of puking. It felt miserable and triggered a nose full of running snot and tearing eyes. Once I was past that, the cramps seemed gone at least. I figured that was the end of it and tried to sleep. After maybe 30 minutes of dozing I woke up again with cramps, rushed back to the toilet, and had another bout of diarrhoea and violent puking. I thought my stomach had surely been emptied after the previous one, but apparently not. After that ordeal I managed to sleep about two hours till 3:something. Woke up again and had more diarrhoea, no puking though. Then I managed to sleep from 3:30ish till close to 7:00, when I had planned to wake up to prep for the race.
Still there was more diarrhoea, but I figured this must be the end of it. Surely my body was empty now? I thought I would go through the motions of getting ready for the race and seeing how things felt. I was not sure the body would be happy with it, but if I did nothing and then felt perfectly fine at 9:30, I would be annoyed with myself. I tried to eat my usual muesli (100g) with soymilk (double that) and the belly strongly disagreed with this choice. I forced some in, slowly, not to upset the stomach, but I could not make myself finish the whole thing. I had a cup of tea and over half a litre of water. In retrospect I realise I should have forced way more liquids in.
I was starting to feel better so the girlfriend and I made our way to the metro around 8:30, to arrive there by 9:15ish. She had offered to carry my stuff during the race. A brief warmup was not filling me with confidence as the area around the solar plexus felt a bit cramped up (is that a thing??). Well, I was just going to give it a go. I’ve often felt shit before a race and then felt fine during, I was still rooting today would somehow turn out to be one of those days.
It was not one of those days.
After just one kilometer I had a weird cold sweat thing going. Quickly, the pace felt terrible and we had not even hit the tunnels yet. These were still the relatively easy first few km: downhill for 600 metre, uphill for a bit longer (but less steep, then flat(ish) till just past the 3 km mark. It never felt right. I was going a bit faster than intended, but not a pace where everything should be feeling like the struggle that it did.
I also immediately grabbed a water bottle, thinking I would continue working on rehydration. This failed completely as most of the water ended up slapping into my face. I have told myself this in the past, but I never got around to it: I should really practice drinking while running fast. Frustrated, I threw the bottle away after only getting a few tiny sips in.
Also notable is that one of the 1h20 pacers was well ahead of me this entire time. That threw off my pacing a little. Though I was quite sure he was wrong, it still made me go slightly faster in that first section.
While the splits are definitely a bit faster than planned for those first 7 km, I knew that the Louisa line was to follow now: net uphill for the next few km with three tunnels thrown in. As soon as I did the first tunnel though, I knew it was going to be a sufferfest. Going into the tunnel is always easy of course, but coming back out was hard, really hard. I struggled. The struggling did not improve in the next tunnels. People were starting to pass me. I told myself to hold out till the 7 km mark, then the course would let up a little bit. The heart rate was in the low 170s a few times, while ideally I would have wanted high 160s. I figured dialling that in slightly and holding out till the easier parts might save me.
I crested that first major top and still felt terrible. I tried to latch onto some people that passed by me a few times, but it was not working. As we went largely downhill for a few km, my heart rate got a bit more under control: low 160s. However, I also felt like I could not push my body to even go harder. The heart rate was no longer the worry, the body just did not have the energy to move the legs fast enough. Soon we left the Terkamerenbos and passed the 10 km mark. I strongly considered calling it quits there and then. The only reason I didn’t was that I was quite far away from the finish line. I did not want to get back to the finish line while walking or taking the public transport. Instead, I figured I would push on.
Once I made that decision, I also considered the possibility of still PRing (1:18:20). If I somehow recovered enough on the downhills of the second part of the race, it was still a possibility. It felt very unlikely, but I needed something to focus on.
First I still had to get through a bit of climbing though. After 10 km you first climb for a km or two before you get some downhill reprieve. The climbing was hard and even there I barely managed to get the heart rate up past 165. The body was having none of it. The pace took another hit. Even going downhill afterwards was unpleasant and I was just counting down till the end.
Once past the 15 km mark I started noticing more signs indicating medical stops and was tempted to stop at one of them every time. I never did see people near those signs though, maybe they were chilling till the masses would show up. Thus I stayed just tempted, but not convinced. I trudged on.
I went through 17 km with an average pace of 4:00, or 1h20 finish time. Of course, right around that point, the final dreaded climb starts: Tervurenlaan. If you are still feeling alright at this point, you can claim you barely notice the bump. If you are feeling bad, prepare to feel worse. I definitely fell in the latter category. My pace dropped even further as I dragged myself up the hill. I just kept telling myself it was almost over and that maybe I could at least dip below 1h20 still. If the 18 km split had properly registered in my brain, then I would have known that was not going to happen.
Upside to this climb: I was going so slow that I finally managed to properly drink from the water bottle I grabbed at the side. Too little too late.
Once past the peak, I usually try to speed up a little, squeezing every last bit out of what my body still has to offer. On this particular morning, I did not even try. I just kept it somewhat the same, repeating to myself that it was almost over. Just keep the effort going, it will be the quickest way to end this run. The energy of the final km (well, the final 200m anyway), seeing others sprint to the line, did get to me a little and I tried some last bit of a push too. My heart rate crossed back into the 165-167 range, but that was about it. I just did not have the energy to push.
Soon as I crossed the line, I veered to the side towards the barriers at the side from where the crowd watches. I just wanted to sit down and lean against something. I sat there for a bit, trying to find energy to move. A medic team walked by and I was half tempted to ask them for some help in terms of hydration. I figured I could still take care of myself though and instead got up and started shuffling through the finish zone.
I was given a bottle of water that I downed immediately. I got some energy bar and the thought of eating anything was upsetting my stomach. I stumbled slowly to the spot I would meet the girlfriend at, she arrived a little later. I sat and lied down on the ground for at least 15 minutes, sipping water, trying to imagine eating food, and having the stomach rebel at the thought. I managed to eat a quarter of an orange, but did not try any more. My body was shivering and my hands were trembling as I was sitting and lying there, not that I was particularly cold as I had already changed into sweats.
I said to myself that if food was a no-no, then sugary drinks would be the way to go. I forced myself up to shuffle towards the metro, the sooner I got moving, the sooner I could start fixing the body. We grabbed two juices / “healthy smoothies” from the first place we passed, then took the metro home. I slowly sipped them, not daring to drink too quickly as the stomach was still a bit upset at the idea. When we got home I soaked in a bath while the girlfriend was kind enough to fetch me some more sugary drinks. My stomach still did not like the idea of food and even got in a twist from the smell of something she was eating. I did not move much that afternoon and just kept on drinking the sugary drinks. Hydration and calories.
By the evening I felt a bit more certain I would be able to eat something. We ordered Chinese food for the occasion. Usually I eat about 1.5 to 2 portions. Now I had maybe 0.75. It was not a lot, but it would have to do. Come morning I could at least eat my muesli again and at lunch I ate bread without issues (though also quite a bit less bread than usual). The effects were noticeable most of the rest of the week, I kept having acid food burps, my appetite stayed low for a few more days. I also had lost 2.5 kg compared to the Friday morning before the race. Yet to gain those back a week later.
Oh right, the numbers. Obviously nowhere near what I had hoped or even what I had expected on a bad day. Never expected a bad day to feel this bad. My final result was 1:21:16, my Garmin recorded 1:21:09. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the difference is chip vs gun time. Since I had an elite bib, they might have used gun time instead. This would normally not be as much of a problem, but for reasons unknown they made us start like 50 metre from the actual start line, which is a bottleneck to begin with. That’s a dumb way to lose some time if you are chasing a PR… In other years the first wave moves forward to the elites, who are standing at the actual start line. This year went the other way around: the elites were pushed back to the line of the first wave. I hope they fix this in coming years. I hope they realise this is an issue to begin with.
Anyway, 1:21:09 is what I think I’ll take. Chip time all the way if they mess it up. That is a 4:03 pace. Three years ago I would be overjoyed with the result. Now I can only feel disappointed that the race was lost before it even started. Some people have told me it’s quite alright all things considered, but eh, I’m not feeling it. Place at the time of writing is 372nd. As you might expect, I did not improve either timing or placing with a race like that.
The coworkers and former coworker still hover around the same ballpark: 1:31:16 (2:30 off PR), 1:35:19 (he PRed, but was aiming for sub 1:35), and 1:38:14 (no PR). Older guy with glasses ran a 1:21:02.
The seemingly incorrect pacer was indeed incorrect. He passed through 10 km in 37 minutes. Yikes, I hope those that followed him knew what he was doing.
Healing up and forgetting about this is the way to go I reckon. I have my eyes on a 5000m and a 10,000m, both on the track. I am leaning towards doing both to finish out the track season. My 10,000m especially should be a stupidly easy PR as I am still using my 10 mile road race from spring 2019 for that one. Those two track races would be early October. So a week of post-20km recovery, then a normal week, then a normal-ish week with 5000m race at the end, finally a week with slight taper for a 10,000m at the end of it.
After all that I’ll probably just recover and get back to base building. Intensity wise anyway, the volume is largely OK I think. Might let the XC season pass me by, I worry about my ankle. We’ll see if I still have that sentiment a few months from now.
After this disappointment, I am rather tempted to make the 20 km a spring goal again. I can postpone that decision till January or February though.