A perfectly organised 900km multi-stage footrace around Holland, that I failed to complete………..
Holland Ultra Tour, or HUT as it ended up being called, was an idea created by the Dutch ultra-runner Wilma Dierx who then allied herself with two fellow local ultra-runners; Erwin Borrias and Richard Dreijer. Together they worked on HUT for some time before announcing it in early 2018. Though still working on each stage up to the start of the race, due to the endless construction and infrastructure maintenance taking place in Holland during the summer.
The Stages (bear in mind I only did the first nine stages)
The 14 stages ranged between 45km (only the last day – didn’t do) and up to 78km (did it) a day, but normally each stage was in the mid-sixty km/day. (due to a heatwave the 78km stage was shorten to 58km for a number of the runners with the remaining 20km as voluntarily)
Holland has a reputation of being flat, which was confirmed thoroughly every day, I’ve never had such long stages with next to nothing elevation gain. (it was mentioned that the next edition of HUT could take place further south where they have much more elevation gain to offer)
There were lots of running on dedicated biking lanes and dikes, mentally long stretches where one had a canal on one side and some sheep on the other, or water on both sides, sheep on both sides etc.
Some few stages didn’t pass a shop or similar for restocking supplies, at all, then it was a long +sixty km on a hot day, luckily the Aid-stations were always well stocked.
All stages were well marked with arrows on lampposts/signs or spray paint on the ground. Only once did I miss a turn, that was purely due to talking and not paying attention which added 4km to an already long day. And yes, I know, physically 4km is nothing in a +900km race, but remember the formula for the age of a dog vs a human (1:7), the same applies for running too far in a stage race, it’s not the actually 4km, it’s the mentally 28km that nags me……
The accommodation was in shared tents, announced to be six people per tent but we never were more than four people in our tent, for the men at least, so plenty of space available.
Every day we arrived at the Finish-line the tents were ready, and our baggage lined up outside ready to grab.
Some days it was on regular camping grounds, some more posh than others, but the ability to appreciate the exclusive camping sites after +sixty km of running in the heat wasn’t always a possibility, as long as they had hot showers, which they all had, it was good enough. Other days it was camping on Track & Field stadiums, and they too all had sufficient access to hot showers and toilets etc.
Breakfast was a variety of cereals, milk, yoghurt, bread and different spreads, plenty of coffee, tea and juice. And enough for making lunch packs for the drop-boxes for the Aid-stations.
At the Finish-line every day there were some kind of beneficial snack/food e.g. pancakes, omelettes, toasts with filling.
Dinner, three words only; Very Good Catering. It was a couple/company that was hired to take care of the hot dinner and they did a remarkable job. Every dinner had good nutritious sustainable meals, even a section with dedicated vegetarian meals, and in plenty so the none-vegetarians could have a portion too. Couldn’t ask for more for my sake.
They had everything I could ask for, but that doesn’t say a lot as I survive on Coke and water alone, even on the long days. But they did have a lot, beside energy drinks, Coke, Sprite, salty chips, hot soup, assorted sweets, boiled potatoes, tomatoes etc. No reason to walk away thirsty nor hungry.
It was originally planned to have an Aid-station every 15km, but due to the heatwave that hit Holland during the race, the Race Directors managed to insert extra Aid-stations on the very hot days already between the planned 15km and 30km and onwards. And as the heat decreased, at least until I pulled out, extra Aid-stations after the 30km Aid-station, which was a huge help to me and the other runners.
“Was HUT ‘19 a hard race?”
Hard, compared to what? I may ask myself, plain distance wise it was manageable and within reach for sure.
The hardness of a race is often judged up on the percentages of participants that complete the race. It is rarely held up against the actually physical level of the runners themselves, neither their experience in multi-stage races, which both are some of the biggest contributors for completing such races. Beside good luck and a strong mental mind of course.
Everything has a first time, also a stage race, and everybody need that first time to comprehend what exactly it is, as it’s so much more than just a run that one does several days in a row. There’s so much to learn as the body reacts differently to the load as the running days and effort put into it builds up.
The weather this year became a big factor, where Mother Earth showed us just how hot Holland can be in July.
So yes, one could say that it was a hard race this year, on the other hand the Race Directors did everything within their means to ease up on the heat by providing more frequent Aid-stations. And no, it wasn’t the longest daily distances compared to other European stage races, and with a total elevation gain below 700m over +900km (50m/day average), it should not be considered a hard race.
Still it stopped me well ahead of the last day.
“Everything is good until it isn’t”
That is a very good description of my participation in the race, because I had days where things were flowing nicely and days where I had to dig a bit deeper to achieve something useful. Nevertheless, it was a constant forward movement, every step and every km/mile counted, every day finalised was one less day on the road and it came as far as the starting line for Day 9.
Before kick-off on Day 9 I had done 552km, including the full 78km stage, and my body felt all OK. All joints and ligaments were a bit sore, some tingling and numbness, which was to expect, but no pain whatsoever anywhere. Just after 12km into the day I encountered two massive zaps in my right shin, one in the centre just over the ankle and one on the outside halfway up the shin.
I knew instantly that anything that painful that come so suddenly would become a gamechanger. But as my mind was focused on just getting that day over I pushed forward with unchanged speed, at least to the first Aid-station at 14,5km, from there my life became two curves crossing each other. One curve indicated my speed, gradually going down, the other indicating my pain rapidly shooting upwards, somewhere before the 30km Aid-station the curves had switched place, I felt miserable (first-world miserable that is, I know).
After 30km it became a half run half walk job, wasn’t pretty nor fast. Mentally I’d several times been at the KLM Counter at Amsterdam/Schiphol Airport and changing my upcoming Sunday flight home to something the next day.
Passing through the 43km Aid-station a mixture of reality and dark thoughts started in the back of the head, and to distinguish them became more and more difficult as they completely merged the further I went, I knew it was game over but wasn’t ready for that yet.
I had come to run the HUT, and that’s what I wanted to do, yes, there had been days where the heat had reached nearly forty degrees Celsius and I had walked a bit, but this was becoming more than I’d planned for.
I made the call around 47km, it was over for now, I would throw in the towel at the 51km Aid-station, wait there for a couple of runners that were behind me had passed and then get into the vehicle and be driven to the Finish-line.
It wasn’t the remaining 18km for that day I had a problem with, it was the +300km that laid ahead over the next five days that was impossible to run.
Just before the 50km I got caught up by one of the Japanese female runners that escorted me to the 51km Aid-station and man, did I get a surprise?
Due to the heatwave that hit Holland during the race, the Race Directors had arranged more frequent Aid-stations than original planned for, which was a life-saver for many of us runners. But it also meant that some of the Aid-stations were reached by bicycle by the volunteers, a task beside all the other things they had to do to nurse us runners, highly appreciated.
There they were, the two lovely female volunteers that had also served us at the 14,5km Aid-Station, they had biked all the way up to 51km to assist us again, how wonderful was that?
But that wasn’t what I mentally had expected or planned for in my head, pretty f……far from actually, but I held a straight face, got my shin wrapped in a couple of Japanese painkilling plasters, got up and walked on.
Next Aid-station was around 60km and a very long walk away, wherever there is darkness, which my head was full of at that time, there has to be light too. Luckily, I got company by the Dutch artist Anne Van Dalen who accompanied me to the Aid-station, and we had a good talk about life and the world in general along the narrow dike, her, in her fancy three-wheel cycle and me on my PPP (Piss Poor Performance) skew limping legs.
At 60km I stopped the watch, informed the Race Director that I was done, I knew it at 12km the same day that it was over, just had a very hard time coming to terms with the reality, I had tried various running styles, all in vain. I felt the tiredness slowly flowing through my body as soon as I let my guards down, the past 48km had taken its toll for sure, much more than a good 48km walk in sunshine should normally do.
It turned out to be “Chronic exertional compartment syndrome” that stopped me. Reading up on it afterwards, all the symptoms were there in the days up to it became too much, I just failed to interpret the symptoms correctly. Again, as enlightened in the hardness of the race, stage races are a learning curve at so many different levels, including the ability to read all the body symptoms the right way, and I’m still learning for sure.
Next time, for despite everything there will be a next time, I have that knowledge with me in my baggage, then if the symptoms surfaces, I’ll have to make a plan. In between now and then I’ll have to find out what exactly triggered it to come so suddenly, beside maybe speed, otherwise I’ll have a hard time making that plan……………..
Together with taking away with me a number of good new friendships, both among runners, volunteers and outside-the-race people, I also managed to get my first black toenail and my first blister, ever, in my time as a runner. Do I feel special because of that? Hell yes I do, I now look like a real ultra-runner 😉
Thanx a million to Vilma, Erwin and Richard for throwing that rock in the pond (arranging the race). The same goes out to the volunteers that created the rings and waves in the pond which hit every single runner in the race over and over again (magnificent support indeed, we runners only see the surface of what you go through).