Working in Brussels in the late 90’s, I looked for a fun and inexpensive way to expand my social life. Running seemed to fit the bill, so I joined a running club called Cepal. Based in a sports centre with a running track, they ran on the track in the winter and in a local forest in the summer. The club had about forty members, of which a dozen were expatriates. Their professions ranged in scope from secretaries, to the EU Commission’s chief justice advisor.
The group was headed by the trainer, Alex. He had piercing blue eyes and I always felt he knew what I was thinking. Sometimes, under his penetrating look, I blushed like a teenager!
My French wasn’t very good so I struggled to understand the repetitions he would set for running on the track. “Du calm, du calm!” he used to say to me when I got het up trying to figure them out.
The corrections extended to the dining experience. The first Thursday of the month, there was a meal in the clubhouse after training. As it was so delicious, I always ordered the same thing, spaghetti bolognese. For some reason, I ate spaghetti bolognese with a knife and fork. The first time I was served the dish, the waitress saw me using my knife and fork, and took remedial action!
Leaning over my shoulder, she placed the spoon into my left hand and the fork in my right, and proceeded to show me the correct way to eat the dish, as if I was a child. I was mortified, but have always eaten it the correct way since.
During Spring and Summer, we trained in the Foret ( Forest )De Soignes, a beautiful 10,000 acre wooded area. At the Battle of Waterloo, the Foret de Soignes lay behind the Anglo-allied Army of the Duke of Wellington. From the time of the Romans it had generally been seen as a tactical blunder to position troops for battle in front of woodland because it hampers their ability to retreat. Napoleon repeatedly criticised the Duke of Wellington’s choice of battle field because of the forest to his rear.
I loved training in the Foret de Soignes. There were endless tracks and trails. The sun shone through the trees, creating a beautiful dappled effect on the ground. At times the runners would break into spontaneous singing of the chorus of Guantanamera by The Sandpipers. I remember thinking “What kind of running club is this?!”There was a great joie de vie among the runners. I suppose we experienced “Runners High” a form of euphoria.
In Belgium there’s a great selection of cross country races to choose from. The Challenge Delhalle is a series of races ranging from 14km to 21km in towns all across Belgium. I participated in the races, it was a great way to see the country. I was never among the winners but it was a great day out. After the race, the runners got together for prize-giving. Before the prize-giving though, the post-mortem of the race took place over a Belgian beer or two. There were also bread roles and cake to enjoy. The bread roles were called “pistolets” and you could have ham or cheese. Nobody apparently had discovered the delight of ham and cheese rolls! Finally, after an inordinate amount of time, calculated to sell as much beer and bread rolls as possible, the prizes would be awarded. A friend of mine, Julia, from the running club often took top spot for her category. She was tall, with a long gait and seemed to be impervious to running in oxygen debt. I, however, didn’t like suffering and just plodded along at my own pace.
My running form improved and I took part in longer distance races. I signed up for a half-marathon around the streets of Brussels. It started and finished in the beautiful Grand Place. It was a unique opportunity to run around the streets of Brussels. Race day brought heavy rain, something I was used to in this city. I togged myself out in my running gear and took my place on the start line. The horn blew and we were off! There was a bit of hustle and bustle as we vied for space, but then we spread out and ran with ease.
I got into my stride, my own pace, which didn’t generally vary throughout the race. The race consisted of two laps. At the end of the first lap I heard an official say to me “derde vrouw.” Belgium is divided into the Flemish speaking north and the French speaking south. The Flemish word “derde” sounded like third to me. Was a place on the podium destined for me?
I turned around and searched for any female runners. There were none to be seen. I upped my pace and tried to stop stressing. I passed Julia, who was acting as an official for the race. If she had been running I would definitely be in fourth place.
The rain continued to lash down, but I didn’t mind. It had obviously kept a lot of runners away. I kept running without looking behind. If there was a female runner in sight, it would only have stressed me out.
I saw the sign for five kilometres to go. I relaxed a bit, knowing I could keep up the pace until the end. The last kilometre was nerve-wracking. How terrible to be passed by a female runner and lose my third place at this late stage. Luckily it didn’t happen and I finished the race, euphoric, in third place.
“Where is your kit?” an official asked me. In my excitement, I drew a blank and couldn’t remember where my kit was. It was actually a few streets away from the Grand Place.
“Never mind,” said the official and brought me into a porta cabin. The two runners who finished first and second were there, chatting away. They were dressed, make up done, and gave me a disdainful look as if to say “what took you so long?” My time was a pedestrian 1.48. I didn’t mind, I was in third place and about to take my place on the podium in the Grand Place.
In my bedraggled state, I stood on the podium in the Grand Place and was presented with flowers and a sports backpack which I still have to this day. There was a small crowd assembled in the rain to applaud our achievements. I could see Julia in the crowd. She was probably rueing the decision not to participate in the race. She would surely have won it.
After the race, after I came down after my runners high, I reported my success to family and friends. I’m sure they thought I was insufferable, but my one and only podium place was important to me.
Training at the sports stadium went ahead whatever the weather. I remember one night in particular when there was a heavy frost on the running track. The red artificial surface twinkled and glimmered as I ran lap after lap. It was the first Thursday of the month, so we would gather for spag bol and beers after the session. I remember feeling a great sensation of contentment. The best things in life are free, or cheap anyhow, with spag bol just €5!
My time in Brussels came to an end, but I continued to run and race in Dublin. I ran three marathons, Dublin, Berlin and Vancouver, just scraping in below four hours each time. Nowadays, when I visit Brussels to see friends, I usually take a walk around the park near my former apartment, Parc Cinquantenaire. This park, the site of the Brussels International Exposition (1897), is where I spent hundreds of hours jogging through its tree-lined running trails.
Nowadays, my exercise is more pedestrian, but I have wonderful memories of Cepal and discovering the lovely towns and villages of Belgium through the racing scene.
(c) Jenny Crossley
Retired civil servant Jenny Crossley revels in her new role as children’s author. She has written a number of children’s books under the pen name Connie Jessop. You can check them out at www.conniejessop.com. As writing is not a full time job for her, she also volunteers with a Dublin charity. A former marathon runner, she now contents herself with walks near the foothills of the Dublin mountains. Her favourite way to relax is to play bluegrass music on her five-string banjo.