The path is maybe a meter and a half, two meters wide. Around me are pine trees, covered in a thick pack of snow. They are reaching up so high, and are leaning so far towards each other, that I feel like running through a tunnel. A tunnel of snow. Running the Houffa Trail here, in Houffalize (Belgium), is running through winter wonderland.
Well, running and sliding, because there is no part of this trail without snow on it. And it’s more than 23 kilometers long. Some parts are totally frozen, making the trail feel more like a skating rink. Especially some of the steeper down hills are tricky.
Playing in the snow
But that’s part of the fun. At least, for me it is. Maybe not for those runners who go downhill sliding on their buttocks, but for me it feels like being a little child again, playing in the snow. The sliding, not the running. That’s serious work today.
Serious focus as well, because all the time it’s searching for the perfect spot to run. A spot that’s still soft, fresh. A spot with a little bit of grip, so I don’t slide back again.
In the beginning it was hard to find, but now, now I’m on my own again. Like almost every race, the beginning was too crowded. We started in a funnel to prevent congestion on the first single tracks. It didn’t work.
It’s nice to start all together. It has something powerful. Especially if there is loud music and a count down, like the start of the Dolomiti Extreme Trail. However the start of that race was on a highway, so by the time we got to the first single track we were already spread out. Here in Houffalize the first single track, a serious steep climb, is only a few meters behind the start, so we walk up, in one big traffic jam.
But he, who am I to complain. Okay, I like to run in no man’s land, yet I like to run races as well. Although, I didn’t pick this one. It was my sister’s idea. She’s a cani-crosser, but now her dog is getting older, she’s running on her own as well. And how! 23 kilometers through the snow, without a problem.
Up and down
And 23 kilometers up and down, because this Houffa Trail hardly has any flat meters. We’re either climbing – a total of 800 meters – or descending. There are 14 climbs in total. Most of them are steep, the one I’m on now is long, very long. So long I decide to walk, just like the people around me.
I mean trail running isn’t just running, it’s walking as well. Today I’m doing a lot of that. One third of this race to be precise. Every uphill, to save energy. Here and there on the downhills, to stay on my feet.
Finishing fast or slow?
When I’m finally running again, I see my brother in law’s car, parked on the side. It means I’ve done 17 kilometers. This is the spot he’s supposed to meet my sister. If her legs are tired, this is where she will be stepping out, which is not today. Today she’s going strong.
I take a moment to say hi, and take a quick picture with him for my sister, then I move on. Only six to go. Shall I speed up, like I always do at the end of a race, or would it be wise to keep this pace?
I decide on the last. I know there are a few more climbs to come. On top of that, my knee is doing fine. After 3 weeks of rest, I’m finally running pain free. I don’t want to injure it again, nor end up totally empty on the last climb. So far I’m feeling great, and I want to keep it that way.
Best for last
Four kilometers later, that turns out to be a wise decision. A very wise one. The organizers of this run have kept the best for last. Two very steep climbs on tiny, single tracks, full of slippery rocks. By the looks of it, this normally isn’t a path. It’s made especially for us.
I scramble up, slip, slide and run down, and amaze myself how good my legs are doing. It feels like they are ready for more, which they soon have to do.
But for now, they only have to run to the finish, where Robert – my brother in law – is already waiting to cheer me on. Another race done, another step closer to the big goal of this year: the 55 kilometers Dolomiti Extreme Trail.
Photos Sportograf – Running the Houffa Trail with my sister on my heels (photo above)