It’s been two weeks since we ran the Batevierenrace, a huge relay race for 8,000 students between Nijmegen and Enschede in the Netherlands.
It’s also been two weeks since I was last able to run and, according to a specialist, it’ll be another 4 before I should be running again. (challenge accepted, Mister Doctor!)
So, do I regret running this race? Well… actually, nope, I don’t. Despite the lack of sleep, the stupidity of running on a really damaged ankle (see our road trip from Bratislava to Budapest report (Days 1-2, Days 3-4, Days 5-6)), the lack of sleep and the 6-hour drive to and from the race, it really was fun and worth it! (medical opinions are not welcomed at this point)
So, what is this race? It’s been around since 1971 and, if I believe what I’m told, is something that almost all Dutch students will know about, whether they race in it or not (a bit like the Boat Race in the UK, I guess). This year, there would be 325 teams of 25 students each, average age probably about 20; their main concern most likely being where they could fuel up on alcohol along the way.
Our team – the ‘Impalas’, made up of Imperial alumni and a few ringers like Pippa and me – had 9 runners; our main concerns: did we all have our EU Health Cards with us and the right car hire insurance policy. Our average age was … undisclosed, but I was the youngest, at 33, and one of our runners took part in one of these races in 1994 so … you can do the maths!
Last year, the team finished 5th with a similar number of runners and age which, I think, says a lot more about the level of intoxication of Dutch students than our team’s natural fitness and speed! It also probably says a lot about our (and Jeff’s and CK’s, in particular) organisational skills: while this is a running race on paper, it’s just as much a cycling race (you always need one cyclist with each runner), a navigational race (“take the third left after the church which you won’t see because it’s 3am and dark”) and a general survival race (too old for this no sleep malarkey). Get lost between two legs and you can easily lose half an hour or more.
The race starts at the ungodly hour of … midnight on the Friday and ends around 5.30pm on the Saturday: there are 3 ‘chunks’ of runs ‘night’, ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’ with an hour or so in between which allow for a bit of re-grouping.
Jack – of Hadrian’s Wall fame – took the first leg for us while the rest of us were kipping in the university campus gym. As expected, he ran like a lunatic and came in in second overall and first of the ‘non-university championship’ teams. No pressure then, great. Next up was Gavin, who ran well finishing in 36th and handed the number 104 bib to me over to me in 7th overall. This bib, made of the thickest and densest cotton fabric in human history, would gradually become more and more drenched in gallons of runners’ sweat but, at this stage, with only two people’s worth of excreted water, was still just about bearable to put on mid-stride.
Not that we knew it at the time but 7th would actually be our lowest overall positioning of the whole race: go oldies!
Bib in hand, I sprinted off shouting a mixture of RUNNER and ACHTUNG (German is the same as Dutch right…) with my headtorch blinding even the blindest of cattle which watched us run by.
Soon enough, Pippa caught me up on her bike just before we crossed into Germany and added a little more torch guidance to my run: I was actually one of very few runners to run with a headtorch which seemed a bit odd considering the fact that we were running in pitch pitch black down country lanes and it could be a few kilometres before the cyclists caught the runners up (their handovers were normally a bit more laborious) but, hey, it worked in my favour so I wasn’t going to complain! So here we were, Pippa and me: Pippa cycling; me running. Bit of a sense of déjà-vu from 10 days prior…
Despite the fact that I was barely racing at 4-minute kilometres, I was picking off a lot of people and it felt like I was flying. Internally, I was destroying my ankle but, externally, it looked good. Well, it was pitch black, anything would look good.
I finished my 7km leg in 23rd and handed over to Pippa in 6th overall: despite a slow-ish handover (unlike other legs where the cyclist could fly off with a kilometre to go to hand over to the next cyclist (another tip from years of Impala team knowledge), this was the only leg where cyclist and runner had to swap roles because no cars could access the handover point), she came through in 36th for her leg and 7th overall.
After only 5km on the bike, my butt hurt like hell and made me wonder how on earth Pippa coped with 235km the week before!
The rest of the night was spent in the car, helping navigate, driving and sitting in the back eating stroopwaffels. By the time CK ended the “night” set for us, we were 5th overall, a few minutes ahead of the next few teams, and a few behind the third and fourth (the top two were flying away).
We then had a lovely 1h and 15 minutes of sleep, which was interrupted by Jeff banging rather grumpily on the van’s windows at 6am. Not that I was rather grumpy that this was a full 15 minutes before our agreed wake-up time but, well, I’m just saying that I was looking forward to that extra 20% sleep!
Thankfully, he wasn’t: fresh as a daisy (though not necessarily a smiling one), he brought us home in 6th for his leg and kept our overall position.
I was meant to be running my second of four legs later that “morning”: a short 4km leg, which would be ideal for a bit of sprinting. Thankfully – again, I was actually sensible: I knew the pain in the ankle was more than just a niggle so leapt on Jeff’s offer to run the leg instead of me. Whether he actually meant it when he offered it is another matter, but there’s no backsies! My morning was therefore spent driving through sunny Dutch countryside: lovely!
At this point, it’s worth mentioning how impressive the event itself is: I’m not sure how many volunteers they had but I’m going to say probably almost a good thousand: 150 motorcyclists who zoomed from one handover to another to ensure everything is in place; general volunteers at the handovers; people giving directions in the middle of nowhere; a team which must have done all the minute planning over the course of months; administrators running the show in the background; volunteers who helped foreign teams like us not get lost etc. Students often get a bad name but, despite having spent a long time working in student sport in a previous life, I’ve never seen such a big student sporting event organised so well: goed gedaan!
Jack, meanwhile, was keeping the pressure on. He ran 4 legs for us. He won 3 of them. Winning one is impressive. Three is … ridiculous, especially when you consider most other runners were only running one leg each. He only finished fifth in his last leg mind you: shameful, right?
Anyway, by the afternoon, it was time for me to put the shoes back on and whip out the Herne Hill Harriers top (remember that bib 104 made of Kurdish carpet? By now, it was like putting a denim jacket on) for a nostalgic spin.
Matt was cycling by my side and, to my surprise, my legs were turning a little better. Admittedly, it’s not THAT surprising that it’s easier to run at 1pm than 1am but, you know…
I was also picking people off which always helps the legs “un-creak” themselves. Quite a few, noticing that we were English-speaking, shouting “success” back at us, which I guess was a word-for-word translation of a Dutch encouragement. Nice anyway!
Motivated by my improving performance, I sprinted to the end in an average 3.50/km (still slower than normal race pace but ok considering the tired legs) to hand over to Jack only to find that he was blocked: our wave of runners had come in way too early and there’d be a mass restart. I’m too fast you say? Why, thank you!
A few more legs later and the relay bit ended before the last two legs: two consecutive mass restarts: one for the women, then one for the men. It’s one of the most fun legs so, as the team newbies, Pippa and I were both kindly given the legs.
Pressure was off too: we were in 5th out of 325. The team ahead of us was more than 20 minutes ahead. The team behind in 6th was 13 minutes off: catching us up would require them running each leg more than one minute per kilometre faster than us. No chance. Ish. In the end, they manage to gobble up 10 minutes off us by throwing two utter greyhounds in their team so we should have been less confident in hindsight!
Anyway, Pippa set off from Enschede town centre and, 30 minutes later, I did too. Everyone set off like idiots but, being totally judgemental, a lot of runners were wearing battered tennis-like shoes and football shorts. This suggested that they weren’t regular runners and, sooner or later, I’d catch them up so I stuck to my planned pace even though, in all honesty, this pace was also dictated by what my body would still do.
The town was out to cheer everyone on. After a few kilometres, a little girl was shooting a water pistol to cool us down. Another kilometre or so later and all the bovine population was out to see us whizz by the backstreets (cows in town centres? Why not!). After about 5km, you enter the campus for another couple of kilometres of zigzagging.
This is where the fun really begins.
The other 8,000 runners and supporters are there to welcome their teams. With each street corner, the crowd gets bigger and bigger. By the time you reach the stadium, the crowd is 3 or 4 people thick. With a few hundred meters to go, you go through a tunnel with a wall of crowd either side and above: it’s really out of this world and, though they obviously weren’t there to cheer us oldies along, we benefited from the buzz too.
The finish, well, is without a doubt the most amazing finish I’ve ever had for an amateur runner like me: there must have been about 5,000 drunk students, a few hundred motorcyclists and 8 other Impala team members in the crowd, screaming their guts out as the weird and wonderful runners appeared for a lap of honour. Wow.
Inspired by the racket, I set my eyes on the guy with a blue shirt 20m ahead of me with 200m to go. He was distracted and lapping up his mates’ encouragement. I sprinted, caught him, was smug as I left him in my trail. Until the bastard realised what had happened and, offended by my move, took me on. We both sprinted like madmen towards the line but his freshness allowed him to pip me to 35th place. However, thanks to Pippa’s strong finish in her race and my reinvigorated legs, we held on to 5th place which was an amazing team effort!
In the end, we finished in 12 hours, 9 minutes and 44 seconds. 7 seconds slower than in 2018. Seriously. 0.000162% slower than last year.
In the evening, the party for the winners was just as ridiculous as the race itself. Normally, you might get the friends of the winning runner(s) turn up for an awards ceremony. Here…it was something else: just watch the video! (and ignore the horrible Dutch music) Having scar tissue scraped off my damaged tendon is more my cup of tea than discos but, being objective, it really was an excellent way to end a bloody ridiculous day.
Final Time: 12h09.44 (5th/325)