By Alexandre Beddock
ai???The endorphin rush is better than cocaineai??? sings Bernard Lavilliers. He is right. To run is to feel alive: operate your body, be cold, be hot, see your shadow change according to the height of the sun, and tread the ground according to your own rhythm. After several years of running in the parks, I decided to sign up to my first running competition: the Brusselsai??i?? half-marathon.
8 am. My eyelids open. I sip a bowl of milk with cereal. You do not change your habits on race day. Straightaway, I take a warm shower to loosen my muscles. I cross out the ai???Totalai??i?? logo on my race number to write ai???ALEXai??i?? on top of it with a marker; I signed up to support a charity, not for one of these multinational companies!
On an autumnal Sunday morning in Brussels, the streets are empty. I feel a certain pride to wear my race number. People are looking at me and smile. A tram passes by, full of runners. They turn to me with encouraging signs. Today the adventure will be collective. We are running together, not one against the other.
Arrival on the departure line: a strange oxymoron. I have been thinking of this moment for weeks. Here am I today. The speaker warms up the crowd of impatient runners with his microphone. Iai??i??ve got chills all over my body. Trepidation. I am thinking. Of an incredible number of things.
I was told not to kick off too fast. Carried away by the music and the crowd that starts running, I start like a bullet, well below the 5 min/km. Schuman roundabout, the heart of the European quarter. I am familiar with this place but today I feel I am much more than a member of the ai???Eurobubbleai??i??. I am a free man, and I decided to put on shorts to live a new experience. I accelerate. At kilometre four I am still running at the same pace. My heart holds out. It is reassuring, Iai??i??m only 24 years oldai??i??
The flow of racers enters a series of tunnels. There is a lot of noise, it is hot, and the air gets thin. A few runners loudly express their excitement, amplified by the echo. Third tunnel. I suffer. Each new ascent hurts. I temporise and go back above the 5 min/km.
Supply point. I grasp a water bottle. It is now a long descent beside the woods. Time to breathe and to look around me. Without a lot of effort I lengthen my stride. Here am I again below the 5 min/km.
Iai??i??m running. To run is not to walk. It is the adrenaline produced when your two feet do not touch the ground anymore. An extremely brief escape from what links you to Earth. Gravity no longer exists: Iai??i??m running.
Kilometre 7. Side stitch. Only one third of the race done, but I know I can do more. I continue pressing hard on my sides. The unpleasant sensation continues. Do not panic, surely it will go away.
Kilometre 10. I know that if I keep up the pace I will achieve a great performance, it is not the time slacken the pace. Bystanders are gathering. Some came to see friends and family, others just out of curiosity. They are all cheering us. I get this unique sensation of runners: I forget that I have the choice to stop. The world slips away under my feet: Iai??i??m running.
Only 5 kilometres to go. I cannot see the end of the ascent, I see only plane trees, always plane trees. Iai??i??m trying to ignore them and to have positive thoughts. The descent, the atmosphere in the Grand Place, my friends who are waiting there for me, and the crossing of the finish line. We can now see the arches of Parc du Cinquantenaire. There are a lot of people, music, and the speaker is still there. He gives me a high five. My motivation has come back.
Kilometre 17. Another hillside burns my leg muscles. I continue to run, arduously. I can feel I am exhausted. A woman waves a banner ai???Downhill to the finalai??i??. She is right: do not give up.
I start to run like I have never run. My heart beats faster and faster, my heart is jumping as if trying to leave my body. The bulk of joggers becomes denser, almost impossible to pass by. Suddenly the track gets wider. Sweat is flooding my eyes. Lost in the middle of the shouts and applause, blinded, I cannot see anything. There is only me and the finish line.
I canai??i??t help but smile. I made it! Last effort: I stop my timer. I donai??i??t know where I am anymore. I stagger, I am cold outside but I seethe inside. Eat or drink, I donai??i??t know what I need, but I smile.
It is only after pulling myself together that I realise what it means to complete a sporting event of this importance. One cannot summarise it by the name of a city or a distance attached to a time. However it is what people who know almost nothing about it will ask me in the days that follow. This achievement means a lot more. It is both individual and collective. It is made out of sharing moments: to be carried aloft by the crowd in the last kilometres, to share a sugar cube with a jogger before starting a climb steeper than the others, to help a marathon runner stand up, and above all the big hugs with complete strangers after arriving.
It is also a real battle with yourself, against your pain and tiredness. A life lesson: you have to know your own body and listen to your heart, just like in everyday life.
Last but not least, measured in time or not, you have to give your utmost in order to succeed. And if you do, this kind of experience is hugely positive, offering invaluable lessons and happiness.