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Houffa Trail; running in Winter Wonderland

Race name
Houffa Trail

Seriously? My Garmin watch tells me I’ve already run 50 kilometres. Only 15 more to the finish of this Houffa Trail. But my legs aren’t wasted yet. I’m still running. Not walking. Am I this strong?

It’s seven hours ago that we started, at dawn, in front of the Vayamundo hotel in Houffalize, Belgium. The coldest start I’ve ever had; minus 9 degrees Celsius. A few of the other runners are wearing shorts. I have my windproof thermo pants on. On top of that a base layer, mid layer and windproof running jacket. I’m hiding my face behind a buff and beanie. But I know, I’m not that fast. I’m a back of the pack runner on these long distances.

Starting slow

That’s why I’m also starting slow. One of the last to cross the starting line. I’ve got a plan for today. Or is it more a wish? On my last two ultras – Kullamannen and Auge um Auge – I had to walk a lot at the end. This time I hope I can keep going. To make sure, I want to walk every time we go uphill. To save energy.

August last year I was running in this area as well. In the rain. Now it’s cold, but dry. Back then it was the Trail des Fantomes. Sixty-eight and a half kilometres. It took me almost 12 hours to complete (11:49:04). Based on that, my last ultras and the training I have done the last couple of weeks, I am hoping to finish today in 10 hours. That would be a serious progress. Although I admit, today is 800 metres less altitude.

However with all the snow, I’m not sure if I can make it. The first kilometres are pretty good runnable. A fresh layer of snow, with a layer of ice underneath. The uphills are a lot of falls flats, which I walk. The downhills are more than runnable.

Soft yellow and gold

After an hour and a half, with almost eleven kilometres done, the sun shows itself; painting the spaces in between the trees soft yellow and gold. It puts a smile on my face. This is why I run. To be out here, in Winter Wonderland. Sometimes surrounded by other runners, other times all on my own. Feeling small, humble, feelling a part of nature.

Here and there the forest opens up, and we’re running over open fields, looking at the rolling hills of the Ardennes that spread out over Belgium, France and Luxembourg. At other moments we’re running by the Ourthe, the river that flows into the Maas at Liege. With all the rain and snow of the last couple of weeks, the river has overflowed its banks, making it hard to keep our feet dry.

Frozen soft flasks

As it’s still freezing, it’s something I do prefer. It’s freezing so hard, the water in the bite valve of my soft flask is frozen. I have to screw the cap off to drink.

I’m the lucky one. I just gave my foldable drinking cup away to a runner with a camel bag, as the water in his mouthpiece and tube was frozen as well. The only way he could drink was getting his camel bag out of his racing vest and pour water out of the opening in his mouth. Which didn’t really work.

Running on Coca Cola

Luckily we were close to the second refreshment post of the day. Which means 23 kilometres done, in 3 hours and 10 minutes. To prevent more kilometres without something to drink, I fill up my soft flasks with a third of Coca Cola, and two thirds of water. I know Coca Cola has a lot of salt in it, so hopefully my water won’t freeze again.

My hand has, as I don’t screw the lid back on in the right way, splashing half of the content over my hand. Hopefully it dries up quickly now the sun is out. It worked with my butt, after we had to slide down a steep hill on our rear end.

With the halfway point coming up, we’re running through a kind of maze. A single track runs through picturesque green bushes with a thin layer of snow. It’s hard to keep an eye on the runners in front of me as the path keeps winding itself around the trees and shrubs. If there wouldn’t be any markers, I don’t think I could follow the path. If it’s a path at all, and not just a track created especially for us.


When the bushes open up, we find ourselves on a little ridge. The downhill is super slippery. Sliding on our buttocks is the safest way to continue our run. Another climb directly follows. None of this Houffa Trail is flat. We’re either climbing or descending. Never for long, but still it’s demanding. Yet, my legs feel, with 33,5 kilometres done in 4,5 hours, still good.

That stays that way for another 10 kilometres. With more or less a marathon done, I start to feel them. My hamstrings especially are telling me I don’t do enough climbing in training. But that’s a problem for later. At this moment I’m happy, I have to admit. I used to get tired after 25 to 30 kilometres. Today it’s forty. That’s a big gain. Hopefully by the time I’m going to run the UTMB CCC 100 kilometres race my legs will be fine up until fifty to sixty kilometres.

Frozen gels

With the temperature still around minus 5 degrees Celsius, I keep remembering to eat in time. This race I’m running on Voom bars, Maurten gels and a couple of energy bars from the Bisschopsmolen, a bakery in the Netherlands that makes those bars for the Jumbo-Visma cycling team. If their riders can win the Tour de France on energy bars from the Bisschopsmolen I should at least be able to finish the Houffa Trail on it.

I do have one more gel with me, a SIS gel, but it’s ice. Uneatable. I do try a bite, but after one I know enough. Eating this will give me belly problems. Luckily the next to last refreshment post has soup. And not just soup, also Sara. We’re not too far from the hotel and she has walked over to cheer me on. For me it is always an emotional and beautiful moment.

Feeling strong

Cheers are always welcome. Especially when I’m struggling. Strangely enough, I’m still feeling strong. I’ve run 48 kilometres in 6,5 hours. Maybe it’s the Coca Cola, maybe the spekkoek (Indonesian layer cake) I’m eating, maybe it’s all the training that’s paying off, but my legs still feel like running. So when I leave Sara behind, and face another false flat, I decide to slowly jog up. From here it’s only fifteen kilometres to the finish. I can run that.

The first part is tricky. A small single track covered with felled trees and severed branches that feels more like an obstacle race than a trail run. Luckily the wide forest paths are never far away and the time I lose on the small paths I make up on the now frozen wide ones. At the Auge um Auge I had to let Colin go on the downhills. After running all night together he descended with more ease than I did at the end of the race. Now it’s me overtaking other runners in the final kilometres of the race.

Sun set

The sun is slowly setting. Under the trees it’s getting dark and cold. I try to pull my buff up to cover my face, but after breathing through it earlier today, it’s frozen.

I dive into the forest again. From here it’s just downhill to the finish. Or just… The last downhill is the hardest one. A bobsleigh track. I slide down on my buttocks, stop myself with the help of an overhanging branch to avoid hitting the lingering trail runner before me, but when I try to stand up, I slip. Hitting the ground hard with my elbow.

The runner behind me helps me to my feet again. Asks if I’m okay. I think I am. My head feels okay, my elbow not, but my arm is working. Besides that, the finish is calling and with all the sliding and falling, we’re at the bottom of the hill.

Fast finish

In the distance I can already see the hotel. Hear the speaker. If I want to check my elbow, I can do it there. The last metres we run by the water again. I still feel good and speed up one more time. At the first checkpoint, after 8 kilometres, I was number 115. Now I’m 67. I follow the little river. The finish arc is looming in front of me. One more corner, one more bridge. I check my watch, and with a big smile on my face I stop the clock at 8:34:57. An hour and a half faster than I expected. What a race. What a Winter Wonderland.

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