Gentlemen, you’ve made it. Tell us all about it! How did you perceive the marathon?
Bert: The Zermatt Marathon was a wonderful experience! The first 20 kilometres from St. Niklaus to Zermatt were gently sloping. I ran those comfortably. But when we were leaving Zermatt …
Niels: There was an extremely steep slope. When we left the village we had to run for about 7 kilometres at an average gradient of 13 to 14%. Pure madness.
Pascal: There seemed to be no end to that slope. I was almost unable to run there. I walked quite long stretches. But because there did not seem to come an end to it, it was very heavy mentally.
So the race was both physically and mentally exhausting?
Bert: Absolutely! That 7 kilometre stretch was heavy as hell. We were running up a large ski slope. I ran the first 300 metres of the slope. I walked the rest of it. I was completely broken (laughs).
And after these 7 kilometres you had a long way to go, of course.
Bert: That’s right. Fortunately, next there was a gently sloping part, which allowed me to alternately run and walk. This made it possible to recover a bit and relax my muscles.
Pascal: But then there was another slope …
Bert: Right, yes. During the race I met a French lady who had already run 25 mountain marathons. She told me there was a ‘surprise’ at the end of this marathon. I was keen to know what the surprise was. I thought something nice was lying ahead, towards the finish. But the ‘surprise’ turned out to be an impossible slope of 3 kilometres long. Straight to the finish.
Pascal: This was a heavy mental blow. It was impossible to run on this slope.
How did you perceive this last slope, Niels?
Niels: It was indeed extremely steep. It really hurt! It was like running up a wall. No one was running at that point. Afterwards I wondered: “I got to the finish in 4h24. The winner in 2h55. How did he run this last part of the race?”
Running in the mountains is clearly a different kind of sport. And that winner ran in a whole other league (laughs).
Niels: (laughs) Indeed. Bert called me before the slope. He told me he had 3 more kilometres to go. So I ran down to give him some extra motivation. I had some energy left and at such a time you can really use a mental boost. I walked the last kilometre and a half back up together with Bert.
Bert: Thanks again, Niels. I was mentally and physically exhausted. The last slope was really impossibly steep. It took me a really long time (laughs).
That is team work, Niels! Good. And, so, you had some energy left! Did you run comfortably?
Niels: I did, yes. I do a lot of exercise and I trained well in advance. Also on the treadmill. And I balanced my energy during the race because I knew it was going to be a long effort. I have also consciously enjoyed the environment and the views. We were running in a beautiful setting. I am very glad that everything went well and that I got to the top without problems.
What was the most difficult moment?
Pascal: The slopes after Zermatt and before the finish seemed endless. These were really tough moments.
Bert: The same goes for me. Around kilometre 25 my muscles were about to break down. It was hard to move my muscles. And then I realised I was only halfway through the race and that I had to run a little under 20 kilometres more. That was a difficult moment.
Niels: I had a bit of a rough spot after about 30 kilometres. That was after that long slope. But I did not have a really difficult moment, where I thought I would not make it. I do not have a lot of muscle pain now either. During and after the New York Marathon I had a more difficult time because I was focused on the time. Now I focused on the distance and the track. I just wanted to reach the top decently. The time did not matter.
Did you ever think about giving up?
Pascal: No, never. I always said: “I am going to achieve my goal.” There was no other option. The race was hard mentally, but I would do it again tomorrow.
“I feared that I would be forced to give up.”
What about you, Bert?
Bert: I’m not really sure, as a matter of fact. I don’t think I ever thought about giving up. That wasn’t on my mind. I was concerned about the time, though. I did not want to arrive outside the allocated time. And I was also concerned about my muscles. I feared that I would be forced to give up at a certain point. It would have been difficult to accept that. But I was strong mentally. It is nice that I can always rely on that.
Bert, before the race you said you did not train quite that much. Did that bother you on Saturday?
Bert: Yes (laughs). You could say it bothered me quite a lot (laughs). In an ordinary marathon I usually run the first 30 kilometres comfortably. Then it sometimes gets tougher. But the gradients were phenomenal in this race. It absolutely requires training. Because I didn’t, my muscles were so cramped at some point that I could no longer bend my legs. I forced me to relax, both mentally and physically. At these moments you really learn how to divide your energy to reach the finish. You learn to keep your muscles under control. It requires a lot of energy and concentration.
What were you thinking of during the race, Niels and Pascal?
Niels: I simply enjoyed the mountains and the environment. And I also concentrated on the race. I knew I had to stay calm. I did not force myself. When I was overtaken I consciously chose to not follow the other runners. I ran at my own pace. I constantly kept an eye on my heart rate. All these things turned it into a pleasant race.
Pascal: If you can reach such a goal with your head and your heart: that is just wonderful. I used all of my mental strength to keep on going, while I shouted encouragements for myself. And suddenly you realise what motivation can do for you.
What were your most beautiful moments?
Niels: I remember the public during our passage through Zermatt and when I arrived at 2 585 metres high. The view was amazing. And I was very glad to have successfully completed the race.
Pascal: I really enjoyed it when I took a shower at the top of the mountain and was enjoying the view afterwards. It really feels wonderful: you reached your goal, the sun is out and the view from the Matterhorn is phenomenal.
Bert: I remember several beautiful moments but the arrival was really fantastic. Then you suddenly realise that you are at the top of the mountain. And you also realise what motivation can do for you. This undertaking proves once again that if you really want something and you are really focussed, you can often do even more than what you could have imagined. Looking back I must say that it was probably not very wise to appear at the start without (almost any) training (laughs). But if you go really deep, a lot is possible.
Furthermore, I also really enjoyed the natural surroundings. And the people you meet on the way. During such a race one look is often enough to know that the other runners are having the same problems. Then you know that you are not on your own. I had a few nice chats during the race. Especially after the first ski slope I was really down. I was mentally broken. The chats with the other runners brought me back into the flow. That is what kept me going. That is how the finish line came closer kilometre by kilometre.
What did you think when you reached the top?
Bert: During the race I often thought “‘I’m all in, but I will never do this again.” During the trip I would think: “Good that I did this, but I will never do it again. This is superhuman …”
And what now?
Bert: Well … I am going to do this again (laughs). With the difference that I now realise that I really have to train for the slopes.
What did you think when you reached the top, Pascal?
Pascal: The half marathon was a difficult but beautiful experience. The feeling at the top is indescribable. I will never forget this for as long as I live. I relived fragments of the race in the past couple of days. I see these pieces of the race and the arrival. And of the surroundings. And Zermatt, the village without cars. Participating was a wonderful overall experience.
Have you already set new sports goals?
Pascal: Yes, I have. On 26 July I will probably run l’Ardennaise, a challenging race of 22.5 km near St. Hubert. One of the most beautiful regions in Belgium, if you ask me. If my legs and head have recovered sufficiently I will certainly run. Now I am going to rest some more. And then we will see.
Niels: On 3 August I will be taking part in the half trio-triathlon in Eupen together with my colleagues Tijs Billemon and Dieter Uyttersprot. Dieter will swim 1.9 km, Tijs will cycle 80 km and I will run 21 km. Really looking forward to it.
What about you, Bert? What is your next goal?
Bert: I will be running the Berlin Marathon at the end of September. I’ve definitely caught the running bug. And then …
Bert: When we returned to Zermatt in the little train we met 2 people from West Flanders and an Englishman. Three young mountaineers. We had a really pleasant chat. Since that conversation I have been wanting to have a go at mountaineering. I have always been really attracted to nature. And you can’t get much closer than during these trips in the mountains. And if you spend time in the mountains, being a man, you feel so small. Everything around you is beautiful, but there is also a lot that can go wrong. If you do not prepare well or if you are not reading the weather correctly, you can fall prey to nature in no time. These extremes really appeal to me. At work you often encounter problems and challenges. Everything depends on how you solve these problems at that moment. I love these challenges. Searching and finding control. At work and in sports. I think I am going to inquire about mountaineering. To be continued! (laughs)