Running, trail running can be a lonely affair. I mean if you’re not part of a running group, it’s just you out there, running alone. Figuring out everything on your own. Luckily more and more runners write about their adventures. For example Olivier Verhaege, an ultra runner from Belgium. He wrote The head weighs heavier than the legs. That book is his diary in preparation for the Spartathlon of 2016.
For all non Dutch speaking people, I haven’t found an English translation yet. Verhaege’s book was printed first in 2019. It was reprinted in 2020, 2021 and 2022, which means in Dutch it’s a success. As far as I know it’s still only available in Dutch, under its original title: Het hoofd weegt zwaarder dan de benen.
Why read this book?
So why do I bother you with this book? Simple; it’s worth reading. Maybe even with the help of the Google translate app on your phone. I finished the book in a week. That’s a sign I liked it. Okay, I had it with me when I went to Sussex to run my first ultra. In the days before the race Sara and I didn’t do a lot more than drinking tea, eating chocolate brownies and reading books in bed, but still… If I hadn’t liked it, I would have put it aside.
What makes this book so nice to read is the struggles Olivier Verhaege goes through. The same struggles I have, and maybe you as well. Can I run an ultra? What should I eat? How can I find the time to prepare? Can I afford going abroad for a race? How do I actually train for an ultra?
One big puzzle
Ultra running is like a puzzle. There are so many pieces you have to find and put in the right place to make it work. For a 5 kilometers, a 10 and even a half marathon you can kind of step out of the door in a pair of running shoes, shorts and t-shirt and you’re on your way. No need to worry about what to drink, eat or bring. Ultra running and long trail runs are different stories. That makes the puzzle complex.
It’s not that Olivier Verhaege gives you clear answers in The head weighs heavier than the legs, yet you can find a lot of answers in between the lines. Answers on how to overcome tiredness for example: ‘Thinking about the total distance of a 100 kilometers run is paralyzing. During the race I also think the distance isn’t doable. However, I can run another kilometer, and I can also run on to the next refreshment post. I know I’m kidding myself and the more tired I get, the harder it becomes to fool my mind, but it works.’
Learning from mistakes
We don’t only learn from what works, but we also – or maybe especially – learn from our mistakes. In his book Verhaege shows himself as – let’s say it nicely – a bit of a naive man. He travels to England with his tent to go camping the night before a big race, without informing if there is a camping around. Which isn’t the case.
When he goes to Crete, Greece, to run the Heroes Ultra he doesn’t inform himself about the rules of the race, which means he has to change his nutrition plan, after the briefing, on the night before the race. The Heroes Ultra is a 156 kilometers long trail run, through the mountains. Yet Verhaege has hardly done any hill training, and has hardly done any trail run: ‘I am a novice when it comes down to trail running. Yet, I trust my stamina and the power in my legs.’
Despite his lack of experience Olivier Verhaege finishes the Heroes Ultra, proving that maybe a strong will is more important than experience. The race convinces him he is ready for the Spartathlon, the race he has prepared for and dreamed of for two years. His race reports are the final chapters of the book. If he makes it or not, you have to discover yourself. If I tell you, it would spoil the book.
I enjoyed reading The head weighs heavier than the legs. Olivier Verhaege is open and honest. It was nice for me as a runner to have a look inside somebody else’s head and life. To see his struggles, and feel relieved that I am not the only one having a hard time balancing running, work, family, friends and a relationship. That I am not the only one who sometimes feels selfish, because I am going for another run. Leaving Sara home alone.
Am I inspired to run the Spartathlon now? To be honest, no. For two reasons. First of all it doesn’t inspire me to run through the night. Nights are for sleeping. Second, I have nothing with Sparta, Athens, not even with Marathon. I know there is historical value to these places, but the idea to run there, sometimes on the side of a motor way, doesn’t appeal to me. Let me run in England, let me run in Italy, let me run in the Alps, the Basque country and I’am happy. I’ll leave running from Athens to Sparta to others.
That’s it. Nothing more to say. Just keep on running.