Running Fiesta

Writing and running in Austin, TX.

Race Report: DVV Antwerp 10 Miles

I think it’s fair to say I’ve gotten a little too comfortable with the idea of living in Europe. I don’t mean that in the “I want to stay here forever,” sort of way, but rather in the, “I’ve been living in Europe for 7 months, I can figure out any city anywhere.”

For anyone who’s spent any significant time traveling and can read a map, this is mostly true. You learn the important things – subways are easier to figure out then buses, always make the tourist office your first stop in a new town (free maps!), there’s no such thing as a free public restroom – and figure you’re set. And if your only goal for a trip is to see the sites, you are set. Unfortunately, if your goal is to actually get to a specific location in a new city by a specific time – say, the 3:30 start time of a race – a little more planning is generally necessary.

Lesson learned.

First, a little background about Antwerp. The city lies in the northern part of Belgium, in the geographical region of Flanders. Belgium, if you’re not familiar with it, is a funny little country that is divided into two sections, the difference between which is language and a general disdain for each other. In Wallonia, residents speak French, some English, and no Dutch. In Flanders, residents speak Dutch, some English, and no French. (In Brussels, the de facto capitol of Belgium and the for sure capitol of the European Union, even toddlers speak more languages than you do.) These language differences, among others, contribute to the interesting fact that on March 29 of this year, Belgium beat Iraq for the record of “longest time a country has gone without a functioning national government”. (Luckily, municipal governments still handle trash pick-up and the like. This is Europe, not Toronto.)

“A” is for Antwerp. (For reference, Aachen is just on the German side of that “Maastricht” dot.)

Antwerp itself is a port town, connected to the North Sea by the Scheldt river. Thanks to this advantageous situation, it has the world’s second-largest number of petrochemical companies (Houston just can’t be defeated) and is a major center of the diamond trade. The Antwerp Diamond Heist of 2003 was named the #2 heist of all time by the Discovery Channel. Another fun fact: The Antwerp central train station was the location of one of the most phenomenal flash mob performances of all time:

And it was at this very train station that our race report begins. We actually drove into the city after a weekend in Brussels, but our Texan visitors had secured a hotel near the station to ensure a quick escape to Brugge the following day. Checkout from the Brussels hotel was noon, and check-in for the Antwerp hotel was 2pm. The drive was only 45 minutes, but we figured with grabbing food and getting lost, we could check in, ditch our belongings – and maybe the dog – at the hotel and then walk over to the race for the 3:30 start.

  • Problem 1: Despite advertising the 2pm check-in in multiple places, the Hotel Leonardo informed us we could not access the room until 3pm. Also, no dogs allowed. But, we were welcome to change in their microscopic bathroom and leave our inanimate objects behind the desk.
  • Problem 2: The hotel turned out to be 4 km from the race start, and we weren’t exactly sure where the start was. While the race did have a nice Web site, it did not have any sort of address or map of the start location.
  • Problem 3: The start was on the opposite side of the river from the hotel. And there aren’t that many places where pedestrians can cross, especially when one of the main tunnels is closed off for a race. Luckily, we found a pedestrian tunnel. Unluckily (for some of us), the tunnel is accessed by rickety wooden escalators that aren’t quite dog-friendly.
If you say so…
The intrepid canine adventurer curses our existence.
We weren’t entirely sure that the tunnel would even get us where we needed to go, but the occasional Belgian in running attire calmed our fears. We made it across the river with 40 minutes and 1.5 km to race start.
At this point, the two of us that were running the race were getting a bit edgy about our ability to find the registration tent, pick up our numbers, and get back to the start. I was also getting a little nervous about my choice of attire. The temperature had jumped from the 40s when we left Brussels to the high 60s when we arrived in Antwerp, and my running tights felt like they might as well be ski pants.
We crossed a large park and experienced a brief panic when several people with numbers on their shirts trotted by, but luckily these proved to be entrants in the ASICS Ladies Run 5K. (My apologies to the lady I darted in front of trying to get to the registration tent.)
At the edge of the park we spotted some white tents behind the Porta-Urinals and on the other side of a half-collapsed chain link fence. Alas, this was bag drop. 20 minutes to start time…
At the exit of bag drop we spotted another group of white tents and headed for them. There were drum circles, sponsor tents, and the obligatory scantily-clad girls handing out energy drink samples, but no registration tent. And not a single sign in English. 
With 15 minutes to go, we spotted a tent that was handing out some numbers. The tent seemed quite small, and everyone in the line with us was mysteriously young, but we were running out of ideas and jumped in the line. 
“Is this where we pick up our numbers?” we asked the friendly and (thank goodness) English-speaking girl checking off names.
“Are you with the school?”
“Uhh, no…”
General registration was in yet another tent across the street, which she pointed to before helpfully writing down the Dutch word for “General Registration”. We took off running. 
Sidebar: In my haste I failed to notice the large sand pit we were crossing. I collected about a quarter pound of the stuff in my right shoe. Well, I thought, That’s gonna be a blister.

We crossed the street and found the entrance to large section of tents number two, only to find that we were at the VIP Entrance. “Oh no, you have to go around to the other side,” another friendly English-speaker informed us. CRAP. 10 minutes till start time.
My watch read 3:27 when we finally picked up our numbers. My fast friend took off sprinting for the start. I followed for about 100 meters, at which point it occurred to me that he was planning to average 6-7 minute miles for this endeavor. I let him go and jogged up to the back of the start pack, pausing only to pull off my shoe and empty it of as much sand as possible.
At last, I had made it! It felt like such a victory to reach the start that it was odd to think I still had to do the actual running of the race part. Still, it was time to do some serious thinking. Should I stick with my 10-minute miles plan? This hadn’t exactly been the ideal warm-up. I was overdressed and had sand in my shoe, and the course itself would only have two water stops, at 6.4K and 12K. 
But, I thought, what the heck? I had already advertised my goal to my known world, so I might as well give it a shot. But was I lined up in a good start spot? Would these people be too fast? Too slow? I looked to my right and saw a guy dressed as a giant banana. This is probably about right.
The start was an unmitigated disaster. 14,547 people started the race, and it turned out I was standing behind approximately 14,000 of them.
Chaos at the start.
I spent the first 2 miles weaving around strollers, errant spectators, and groups of friends running 5-abreast down narrow streets. In other words, it was exactly like a race in the US. My Garmin was reading 9:45 average pace, which I worried was too fast, but I reasoned that the start was downhill, and I was just going to run like this until I got some clearer running room.
That running room came right around mile 3, but I was a bit too distracted to appreciate it. It turned out the race crossed back under the river, which meant lots of not-Garmin-friendly tunnels. I agonized over what to do. Stop the watch and start it again after the tunnel, so I could at least see my average pace? No, I thought, it will still have to reconnect with the satellites, so the laps will get all screwed up. I settled on letting it run and just using the elapsed time and mile markers to estimate my pace.
There were only two problems with that: 1) There were no mile markers. There were intermittent kilometer markers that started somewhere around 7K, but I haven’t exactly memorized the kilometer to mile conversion to the point where I could make pace calculations. I did spend a few minutes thinking, “5K is 3.1 miles, so that means 1K is…uhh, this is hard.” In my defense, intense physical effort can make intense mental effort rather more difficult.
2) When Garmin lost the satellite signal, it informed me by covering the entire watch face with a “Lost satellite reception” message. It would go away if I pushed stop, but come back if I pushed start. (It’s a universal truth that Garmin will ALWAYS abandon me during a race.) I surrendered, reset him, and cursed myself yet again for not fully reading the manual. Surely there are a zillion runner’s forums with ideas about what to do when Garmin abandons you mid-race. It’s just laziness on my part that I haven’t found them.
We hit a second tunnel about a mile after the first, and Garmin and I played the error/reset game again. I now had no idea what my pace had been in these tunnels, so I figured I’d have to just haul butt and try not to pass out before the end if I wanted to hit my goal. 
I fell in behind a huge guy wearing a black polo shirt and biking shorts. He was moving pretty well, all things considered, and I decided if I could just focus on not letting him drop me, I’d still have a shot at hitting the 10-minute miles (and saving my dignity as a runner).
This worked until about the 12K point. I was out of water, desperately in need of GU (it turns out you go through way more of your sugar reserves when you pick up the pace), and there was no aid station in site. “Where is the God d*mned water?!?” I heard a British accent behind me ask. I silently thanked God that it’s not just us wimpy Americans who need more than 16 ounces of water to run 10 miles in heat.
I would eventually lose about a minute at that water stop. With the sweat on my hands I couldn’t get the stupid GU pack open, so I finally stopped at the last table, put down my cup of water, and tore the packet open with my teeth. This is how our ancestors lived. Only their food wasn’t flavored “Chocolate Outrage”.
At the 13K sign I started performing my mental math again, trying to figure out how many K = 10 miles. Given that a 10K is 6.2 miles, I brilliantly deduced that it was “less than 20”. So how much longer could I keep this pace up? I wasn’t sure, but surely I had at least 2 more miles in me, which I figured was about what the race had in it. (I swear I CAN do math when I’m not about to keel over.)
At 14K we entered another tunnel. Dutch is just close enough to German that I was able to conclude that the sign hanging over it said, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Errr, that doesn’t sound good.
And it wasn’t good. The tunnel had emergency exit markers every 25 meters that indicated how far it was to the other side. This was when I brilliantly recalled that a mile was roughly 1600 meters, and the fact that the sign next to me read “2675” was not a good thing. I tried to boss myself around. Don’t look at the signs! But of course, like a traffic accident, they’re there and so you have to look. 2650, 2625, 2600…oh God, I was going to die in this tunnel. Especially since the last 2000 were uphill. Oh, and at one point we all had to move to the right to let an ambulance out. Well, I tried to remind myself, no matter how bad this seems, at least your day is going better than that guy’s.

Exiting the tunnel of death

 We did eventually reach the end of the tunnel. Alas, end of the dark did not equal end of the hill. I had spent the months leading up to this race assuming that as a port town, Antwerp would be flat. This was a cruel, cruel joke.

Miraculously still moving in my winter running tights.
Thankfully, that really was the end of the suffering, as the finish was in sight. Or rather, 4 inflatable archways, one of which presumably was the finish, were in sight. I gunned it, but the reaction was kind of like gunning a 1950s farm truck. It was more of a stutter across the finish than a sprint.
The clock read 2:04, but given that I hadn’t seen the start clock and had no idea how long it had taken me to get from the back of the pack to the start line, I had no idea if I’d achieved my goal. I had a sinking feeling that I’d missed.
As this was registering, a woman with a microphone walked up to me and began speaking rapid Dutch. “Uhh, I’m sorry, I’m from America. I don’t speak Dutch.”
“Ohh, that’s okay! Is this your first time in Antwerp?”
“Yes, yes, first time.”
“And how do you like it.”
“Oh, beautiful city, very pretty,” I said, thinking I hate your cobblestones and your tunnels and your lack of water…

“So a bit of tourism, yes?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And do you usually run so fast?”
Well, THAT’S a first. “Uhh, I usually run far, but not fast.”
And thus concluded my 15-minutes of Belgian fame. I have no idea if I ended up on national TV or even college radio, but I felt a little bit guilty for all the times I’ve made fun of pro athletes who give terrible interviews after a race or game. Having a mic shoved in your face when all you can think of is “sugar, need sugar NOW” does not lead to the finest oratory moments.
The adventures didn’t end at the finish of course. I somehow missed the handout of the medals, and after 20 minutes of wandering, I finally stopped a guy wearing one and asked if he spoke English. He did, and informed me that the medals were back at the finish line, about half a mile back the way I’d come. I had no idea how I’d missed them (it was probably when I was trying to pilfer a second sports drink from the food line), but after all that had gone wrong that day, I was single-minded. I would get that medal if it killed me. Which it didn’t of course, although I figured Handsome J and company were probably wondering if something unfortunate had befallen me between when they saw me cross the finish and when I actually made it to our reunion point back in the big park.
It was actually a series of unfortunate decisions. First there was the medal mishap, which was soon followed by my turning the wrong way out of the exit chute. I was on the opposite side of the race from the park, and the entire course was walled off by metal fences that I finally had to jump to make it back. This was my second time sprinting across an active race for the day. (I did try really really hard not to cut off any of the runners still on course, though.)
Luckily the race let me buy this nice dry T-shirt
It would be two full days before I found out my finishing time. The Antwerp Gazette had exclusive rights to printing the race results on Monday, so they weren’t online until Tuesday. All the refreshing and guessing at URLs in the world couldn’t find me my time until 7am Tuesday morning:
1:38.33
9:51/mile average
Cue Hallelujah chorus now.
I’m not quite sure how I pulled it off, and I’m pretty confident it had more to do with desperation than smart racing. I also know I couldn’t have held that pace for a minute longer. The PR is exciting, but at the same time I’m almost sad to see my times improving. Now that I know I can get faster, I feel the pressure to always chase the time, when really there’s something to be said for hanging in the back of the pack and enjoying the race. I think I’ll try to make the latter my plan for my next 10-miler, which will be 3 weeks after Dusseldorf. Surely even I won’t feel like I have to go all out so soon after a marathon? Right?
The hard-won medal, modeled by the one who had to sacrifice her dignity to acquire it.

5 comments on “Race Report: DVV Antwerp 10 Miles

  1. Emily
    April 25, 2011

    Way to go, Chris!! The part about questioning Garmin and worrying about having to reconnect to the satellites again had me cracking up! Garmin never fails…to fail! (fail looks really strange right now to me…i digress) So proud of you for being such a speed demon! I will use you as inspiration in the bun run this weekend!

  2. Jeanine Swanson
    April 25, 2011

    WAY TO GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love it. PS. you are looking way skinny.

  3. Chris
    April 26, 2011

    Aww, I love you guys. Good luck in the Bun Run! I got an ad for it and was rather jealous. And Jeanine, please keep updating me on Ironman and wedding prep! Your life is the perfect marriage of my jock and girly interests =)

  4. Jenn
    May 13, 2011

    I know I am way late to the party here, but I wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS on a super great time! Sounds like it was well deserved! We miss you. Please don't leave us behind in your dust when you're back in Austin. 🙂

  5. Alessandro Mascia
    April 21, 2013

    Hey Chris, I just ran the Antwerp 10 mile race today and just wanted to say that all of your comments about the race were spot on. No indications or directions on how to cross to the other side or where the registration tent is; the 10 degree celsius temperature spike that occured when the sun came out (my running tights also felt like they were ski pants), the coblestones and yes the tunnel of death (where we also had to get out of the way of the ambulance). I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same!Anyways I managed to complete the whole thing in 1:39:05 according to my stopwatch. Belated congrats on your excellent time and keep up the great work!

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2011 by in PR, races.
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