Slowly the forest gives way to the countryside. An old farm with a thatch roof looms in the distance. It looks like a picture out of a history book. This is the countryside of Ommen, Overijssel, a place where time has stood still. The perfect place to run my first mid-winter trail run marathon; the Run Forest Run Ommerland.
I look at my watch. Another kilometer done in 6 minutes and a couple of seconds. So far I am ahead of schedule. Am I going too fast? Maybe, but my legs feel good and I’m happy running here, on these wide paths in the forest.
Okay, normally I’m not a fan of wide paths. I like small single tracks, but they will come. At this moment these paths are perfect. My group of runners started first. One by one, so from the first couple of meters I had enough space for my legs to run at my own pace. However, after we started, it was the start of the half marathon. Those guys are running faster, and are overtaking us now. They will be done after 21 kilometers, we will be running more than double: 44,5 kilometers.
I admit, it still feels weird to be overtaken. Ego I think, but I know I’m here on my own mission. This is a training run for Sussex, which is a training run for the Dolomiti Extreme Trail this summer. With 44,5 kilometers this is a serious training run. My longest so far. Almost 8k more than the 36,8 kilometers I ran the day before Christmas.
That one was at home, here I’m in the unknown. In the Vechtdal, a national park full of drifting sand, heath, fens, lakes and high pine trees. Some of those are chopped down and block our path, forcing us to jump over them.
Shortly after this first obstacle run there is a split. The half marathon runners will start their way back, we marathon runners are on our own, doing an extra loop. So far I have listened to an audio-book – A man called Ove – to block all the chatting around me. Now I’m on my own, I’m switching off Google Play and enjoy the silence.
Here and there I see another runner in between the trees, but that’s it. The crowd is gone and it’s just me, in the middle of nature, the best feeling there is.
Well, for the first 25 kilometers. Almost all of them go within 6.30 minutes per kilometer, the pace I had in mind for this race. But now, now I’ve done 25 kilometers my legs are starting to protest. Or to be completely honest; they have been heavy since kilometer 20, and my right shoulder hasn’t felt great for a while as well.
Luckily, there is a little group of supporters here to cheer for one of the long distance runners; a girl, who is running not far behind me. The group bikes around, and whenever our trail crosses a biking lane, they stop to cheer. They ask my name, and from then on, they cheer for me as well, putting a smile on my face, despite the pain in my legs.
With 24 kilometers to go, after a section with a lot of small hills, I’m wondering if my race is over. I overlook a tree root, stumble and go down. It’s just a little fall, but I land on my injured right shoulder, and the pain is excruciating. Two, three minutes I am sitting in the sand, holding my shoulder, wondering what to do. Then I stumble to my feet, and start to walk again slowly. My shoulder is on fire, but I have nowhere to go then forward.
Half an hour later Sara starts to send me bad jokes. What do you get when you run in front of a car? Tired. They put a smile on my face, and help me to find my rhythm again. At least for a couple of kilometers, because around kilometer 35 I have another dip. I am bored with running and feel tired. Not just my legs, but also my head. I look at the trees on the side, wondering if I could just sit against one to take a little nap.
I shake my head. I am not here to sleep, I am here to run. I put on the Football Weekly Podcast of the Guardian, as those guys always make me smile, and force myself to run again. Slowly I find my rhythm. Up until kilometer 39,when I enter the Sahara, a remainder of the sand drifts that ravaged the Netherlands in the 19th century. Today they’re freezing cold, and I search my running vest for my gloves and beanie.
As soon as I’ve crossed it, I see the last refreshment post, where the cheerleaders are awaiting me. A couple of other runners have gathered here too, enjoying the Brussels waffles, sugar bread and other great snacks. From here on it’s only 5 more kilometers. For the last time I try to find something of a rhythm, as far as the pain in my right hamstring and under the ball of my right foot let me. Every uphill I walk, every flat bit and downhill I run.
A couple of kilometers later I see bungalows looming in between the trees. I sign I have to be almost there. To my surprise the trail turns away from the park again, for an extra loop. More hills and even the stairs from the forest theater, but then, then I can see it. The flags, the finish tent, the event area. Deserted, except for the cheerleaders who enthusiastically call out: ‘there is John’. With a painful smile I run the last few hundred meters, thanking them for their hard needed support, and searching for Sara, who is smiling at me behind the finish line.