I wish I could say “welcome to my blog!” in Flemish, but after spending three weeks in Belgium I’m even more confused by the language than when I tired to determine the cost of an Icelandic yogurt during our 4am layover in Keflavík. (FYI it was $5, creme brûlée flavoured and totally worth it).
This was my second summer spending July in Leuven, a tiny student town 20 minutes east of Brussels overrun by spandex-clad athletes during summer track season. Jack and I wondered how it was determined that Leuven would be the international hub for summer racing in Europe, but with convenient train routes to all the races, an accessible practice track, and enough waffles and gelato to feed the hungry runners, it’s a pretty great choice.
Arriving into Brussels straight from Canadian Nationals gave a welcome few days to settle into our Airbnb, rent bikes, and get our legs used to the time change. I actually felt better on our post 15-hour travel day shakeout run than during my semi final at nationals, so I was feeling pretty optimistic for good races to come. When we’re not racing we’re hanging out in coffee shops, training, and having the occasional European adventure. It’s basically like being at a track summer camp (aka. the best thing ever).
The main differences between meets in Belgium vs. at home are the atmosphere, fans, and volume of competition. Heat sheets are often made on the spot, the lanes are filled to the brim, and despite the low-key vibe the races are FAST. The meets typically draw a decent crowd, which is a far cry from the sparsely populated stands of socially obligated family/friends back home. In Canada, “fans” are usually there because they love someone competing, not because they love the sport. (And we athletes really appreciate them for it!!!!) Alternatively, watching races with your family/friends seems like something people actually do in Europe, almost like how people watch hockey at home. It might have something to do with the Belgian beer on tap, but the races were bumping. At one meet they had a music playlist that was only paused for the announcer to start races (sometimes not even then) – and it felt like we were at a rave instead of a race. (Usually when my phone autocorrects “racing” to “raving” I have to fix it but not in this case).
I’ll be honest, track has been testing my love for the sport, but there is nowhere I would rather be tested. When I look around at the athletes gathered around Leuven’s egg-shaped practice track I feel a real sense of camaraderie. We do different events, speak different languages and represent different countries, but we’re all chasing the same thing.
What defines a “bad race” for me is when I can’t respond. I feel flat and don’t have any pep in my step to kick for the finish line or go with a move. Somewhat surprisingly, it has little to do with time and everything to do with how I’m feeeeeeeeling. It’s both a blessing and a curse that I know what a great race feels like. The times that I’ve raced my best it felt amazing, which means I have a huge contrast between how I’ve been feeling and what I know I can feel like. I have to remind myself that’s a good thing. If you’d never had chocolate cake and been eating bran muffins your whole life you might be just fine with that. But when you’ve had chocolate cake and bran muffins are all you’re getting – it’s not OK. (Does everything have to be about food? Yes, yes it does).
Race #1 800m (2:07)
My first muffin meet was in Kortrijk. On Coach Lynn’s orders I did the best warm-up I’ve ever done (I’m often lazy in pre-race warm-up because I don’t want to “tire myself out”), and felt ready to rock and roll. I was in the slowest of the fast sections and I was happy about it. I felt a peaceful moment before the race when I felt genuine gratitude to be there and excitement to race for where I am now. I got out quick and positioned myself near the front of the pack going through 400m in around 60/61 and 600m in 1:31. Now here is my problem. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I have now gone out too hard and died in at least three races. Why do I keep doing this? Why am I going out too hard? Why am I doing the same thing and expecting a different result?
In my defence, I’ve run all of my personal best times off a 59/60 second 400m spilt. In my mind, that’s how it’s done. I also like to run near the front of the pack because I feel “in the race” and ready to compete for the WIN. But something is missing for me right now. Going through in 60 is not feeling smooth or easy, and my body is going lactic and shutting down.
In Kortrijk I was able to fight the shut down off until 150m to go, but it once again grabbed me and I began crawling at a pace slower than a baby that doesn’t want to leave the crib. I felt like how I did in 2013 when I raced with mono – I know what to do, but I can’t make my body do it.
When I unwillingly braved the results page after my cool down I actually laughed – I couldn’t believe I ran 2:07. It felt like 2:11 (or worse). I think that’s the happiest I’ve ever been with a 2:07 in my life haha. [Side note: 2:07 and 2:11 are not bad times for the 800m – but if you’ve run 2:03 you might not be very pleased. You should always compare results to your own goals/personal bests #Perspective].
Race #2 1500m (4:28)
My next race was the 1500m at Liege and I was looking forward to it. I was pretty confident I could smash my personal best of 4:22 as I’ve only raced the 1,500m a couple times and felt great. Spoiler alert: I did not feel great. This race was a needed serving of humble pie – all events take experience and while you can get lucky with a well-paced heat, it takes training and experience to run a new event well. I got too keen in the first couple laps and was bouncing around because I didn’t want to be “at the back” – not really sure why, if I had settled in and stayed with the pack instead of getting dropped like a hot potato I likely would have had a more enjoyable (and faster) time.
Bottom line, I gave it what I had on the day and while 4:28 is nothing to shout about it could have been a lot worse.
Race #3 800m (2:06)
Next up: Nacht van de Atletiek in Huesden. I went out conservative and ran my second best time of the season: 2:06.89. Although going through 400m in 64/65 is probably toooooo conservative (lol) it felt SO GOOD to actually finish a race with an acceleration into the finish instead of a waddle. The race was a strange experience as I felt like I was back budgeting in accounting class (with similar feelings of annoyance) as I consciously measured my energy to gauge if I could go faster or not. To be thinking about how full my tank is and assessing if I can respond to moves in a race isn’t the attacking mind frame I need to be in, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
Race #4 800m (2:07)
My last race of the season was the Memorial Rasschaert in Ninove and after a week of easy training I was feeling confident I could run a season’s best. We figured if I could go out in 62 and hold that pace it would avoid the shut down I’ve been feeling and feel relatively good (well, as good as running an 800m can feel).
I honestly don’t know what happened, but I ran 2:07 AGAIN and just felt so blah. My overwhelming emotion at the end of my race was relief. I am so relieved that this season is over.
Post Race Thoughts
Recently, I was reading an article where athletes answered the following question:
“What makes you feel your strongest?”
This season has reminded me of my answer. I feel strongest when I’m able to have perspective on my challenges and recognize that I have the tools to move on and re-focus. Am I going to sulk about this season? You bet. But I am going to limit my sulking. I’m appreciative that not running around a rubberized oval as fast as I want to be is a pretty great problem to have. I have so many amazing things going for me and I have an incredible support team. While I may be a down, I’m certainly not out. Taking the time to sit with why I’m feeling disappointed and explore actionable ways to change those feelings already makes me feel stronger and excited to get to work for the 2019 season.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity and experience I gained in Europe this summer and to be part of a sport that creates a community of such awesome people. Being in a small country like Belgium is a reminder of how vast Canada is, and makes me appreciate how nice it is to spend time with people I usually only see for moments at meets during the year, who are usually >4000km away. I’ve really enjoyed traveling to meets in our (very polite) mob of Canadians and seeing people from different provinces band together and even train together when practice plans allow the opportunity for collaboration.
Track has given me both an appreciation and apprehension of time and I’m reminded that the moments that matter most happen off the clock. I’m looking forward to many more of those moments. But first… Italy for 10 days of vacation!