French Battle

 

I always take a running contest very seriously. Especially that year in the southern of France, where we are celebrating our family holidays on a large camping side. On the last Friday of our stay the camping management organizes such an event over three or eight kilometers. (2 or 5 miles) I am really looking forward to this exciting challenge as a nice end to this year’s holidays: my first competition outside of the Netherlands!

I immediately register for eight kilometers and the pretty French woman, who does so with a skilful hand and graceful characters, proudly says that there were 103 participants in last year’s run! When I ask her for the track details, she emerges a map of the surrounding area, on which she indicates the route with a marker. She makes it clear, putting two fingers in the air, that the track has to be doubled! It will lead me along slightly rolling French countryside, between corn- and sunflower fields and alongside vineyards! When I ask her if the running times are going to be recorded, she writes the track record -a fast time of which I can only dream of!- in the upper right corner of the map and says with a beautiful smile: “Start and finish will be at the main entrance of the campside!”

In our first holiday week I bring it to three solid workouts in evening hours, on which I often come across or become overtaken by remarkably good runners. I count at least six of them, while we greet with a nod, a gesture or even a “bon jour”. “They are much too fast for me”, is my conclusion. On my last workout (Wednesday morning, very early) the sun rises beautifully and a fresh French breeze makes it very enjoyable to run. I cannot resist if: Why don’t I explore next Friday’s track in advance? Again I am not the only one with this idea. The two runners that I come across now, are about my modest level, I estimate. The night before the race I decline a glass of wine and I decide to creep into the sleeping bag for an early night.

On the contest day it is scorching hot. Such a pressing heat, that almost causes you a headache without running anyway. “I’ll take it easy,” I adjure my wife, who emits me a negative running recommendation. In the afternoon, when it looks like a heavy thunderstorm will break any moment, I actually come across my competitors again. All six sit on the terrace of the campsite, exchanging a swim in the pool with cold beers. By the end of the afternoon they appear at the start at the last moment. Much to my surprise, they position themselves at the group which is to run three kilometers. When their starting shot sounds and the runners are in motion, there remain only seven runners for the “eight kilometers” … That is very few. When our group has heard the starter’s gun, I lie in third position at first, because two runners make off like a rocket. Halfway through the first lap I catch up with them, because their lightning start in this heat must be paid for with an insurmountable oxygen debt and too high a heartbeat. My breathing is also laborious, but for the first time in my life I go in first place!

Just after the first round I double an English couple, of which the woman wears a hat and pays more attention to this headgear than to her speed. Much to the chagrin of her husband. Between gasps he shouts at her: “Leave that hat alone!… Run!.. You are not on bloody Ascot here!” On the moment that I overtake them, she is all mixed up: “Where did we go wrong?” Just cross the finish line applause of wife and children, other interested people and (finished) runners of the “three kilometers” is my reward. I am more than three minutes ahead of the two runners. When the organizer once more tells us how hot and humid it is, mentions my time and hangs a medal round my neck, there is still no sign of the British couple.

After all, in terms of running level, a very disappointing contest. But, no matter how you look at it: Abroad I am still unbeaten!

(July, 1990)

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