De ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) is one of those events where legends are born, where heroes fall and those same fallen heroes, keen on revenge, rise again. Merckx, Boonen, Schotte, Museeuw. You see grown men break down entirely, struggling on those notorious climbs, grimaces, blank faces,… But there’s also the heroism. The victory. The flowers & kisses. And in the background, out of sight, first-timers have their own private victories as they cross the finish line.
“Loop van Vlaanderen” was announced as the runner’s alternative to all this heroism. And the 50k road-book looked promising: 4 times Koppenberg, 2 times Ladeuze, Oude Kwaremont, and the one where my cycling colleague JM warned me for (“it’s reaaaally steep! If you can run that… everlasting respect”): the infamous Paterberg.
Rise and shine in the morning. The weather looks promising. Cold, but dry. I decide to go with my lightweight running shoes, a bit of a gamble but I guesstimate that my sturdy trail shoes are a bit overkill. Fill up the backpack and off to Oudenaarde. Pick up some bananas on the way there. I’ve barely arrived when I see my friends. All excited and ready to go, 90 minutes till starttime. I go pick up my number and gear up. Still some time to kill, which we do by catching up. 3 of us have run the Antwerp marathon last week, but I’m the only bigmouth that announced this to be my real goal. A test of where I can end up. I declare to anyone who’ll listen that I’m going for a sub-5h time.
I start off too fast, but with a plan. The second part of the race is heavier and I want to build up some margin before I get there. 11k/h should do I think. I quickly fall alone, but not for long. After about 2k I see a familiar face. Well, a familiar face sees me. It turns out to be Bert, one of the organisers of a recent run in Beernem I attended. We start chattering and when I check my watch after about 1h, I get a bit worried: 12.4 average. Still, everything feels fine so I decide to just go with it and see how far I get.
Ardennendreef, 2 times Ladeuze, 3 times Koppenberg. I run all of them, no problems at all. The third time we do the Koppenberg, it’s from the same aproach the cyclist do. The cobblestones break their rhythm, but not so much for us I guess. We catch up with a cyclist, each overtaking him on one side. “Severely overrated, this Koppenberg, if you ask me”. I say to Bert, loud enough for the cyclist to hear it.
After this, we get a bit of a break and drive up the pace again. Things are going splendid, weather is awesome, provisions are perfect. And then the moment of truth: The Oude Kwaremont, a mythical place, a demolishing 2.2k climb, and right after that the Paterberg, much shorter but also much steeper. My colleague’s words haunting my thoughts, I refuse to give in. We run both and start heading back for Oudenaarde
Every now and then we catch up with another runner. Positions 20 and 21. “I’m gonna be honost with you, if it stays like this, you’ll have to sprint if you want to be top 20”, I tell Bert. But that wouldn’t be necessary: we overtake another runner or two, safely top 20 now. Beyond any expectations I had, just like the 12.3k/h pace on my watch.
And then it’s time for the final climb of the Koppenberg. And that’s where I have to let Bert Go. I take a glimpse at my watch: Marathon in 3h27, on this terrain… No wonder I’m starting to feel it. I struggle onwards. A runner catches up with me, but we catch up with another one, placing me just inside the top 20 again. I refuse to let this go. 21st just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But to make things worse, the signs on the road tell me it’s still 4k while my watch says I’ve already done 47. I curse, but refuse to give in. I stop looking at my watch and decide to believe the signs, mentally preparing for the worse. There’s Oudenaarde. I’m close now. The city centre. People are enjoying their beers on market but take their time to turn around and cheer. I hand out some high fives to some kids.
The finish line. 4h12 for just under 51k, averaging 12.1k/h. I am Johan Musseeuw.