Running for beer

My whole body feels like it’s been wrung like a rag, squeezed and drained, discarded. My feet feel like I’ve been walking on fire.
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My whole body feels like it’s been wrung like a rag, squeezed and drained, discarded. My feet feel like I’ve been walking on fire. My legs hurt to the bones; to beyond the bones. Yet I’m feeling light with the relief and joy of finishing a marathon and I’m light with the few glasses of strong beer that I’ve just drunk. And as I sink into the soft chair on the bus back to Brussels, and as I feel all the deep dull aches mixing with the effervescence of alcohol and accomplishment, I ask myself why. Why do I run?

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I run because it’s easy and because it’s hard. I run to think and I run to not have to think. I run to make myself feel good and to make myself hurt; for the perseverance to keep on going even when it sucks, for the satisfaction of soreness after more miles logged. I run to get better at it, to beat old times, to beat friends, to beat people I don’t know. I run for the race day, for the medals and the new PBs. I run to be a part of something while also being apart from it; the collective activity with the individual result. I run for the healthy life balance of a professional beer drinker (who also used to be the fat kid in school). I run to eat well and to not drink and I run so that I can eat and drink whatever I want – every mile equals a beer, a 10km is a night out, a half marathon is a reason and excuse to eat and drink everything. I run because… actually, I think I mostly just run so that I can eat and drink more.

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Before the starting line: There’s a frites stand! And the bar at the back has… 3… 9… 15 taps of Duvel! And Tripel Karmeliet! I’m going to eat so many frites later! And I’m gonna be so drunk! There are people over there drinking already!

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I wish I was drinking a beer on this sunny Sunday at 9am. Instead of drinking, I’m stretching and smothering myself in factor 30 and jumping around with nervous excitement because this is my fifth marathon and while I don’t know exactly what the next few hours will be like, I do know that at some point they’re going to hurt very, very much. Marathons mostly just suck. Why am I doing another marathon?!

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Because it’s the Great Breweries Marathon. I couldn’t resist running around Duvel, Palm and Bosteels in the Belgian countryside. It’s starts and finishes in the Duvel-Moortgat brewery and this is the coolest race village I’ve seen, especially for a beer nerd like me. I could’ve done a 25km version of the run, or even walked either distance (at least then I could drink on the way around), but I wanted the challenge of training for another marathon (and then the finish line with as much Duvel as I can drink).

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Start line: Am I ready? I’ve drunk enough water. Had two pees (and, crucially, don’t need another poo). I’ve got energy drink. I’ve eaten enough. Laces are tied. Compeed plasters on my nipples are well stuck (thank god I discovered Compeed). Hair is tied back (should’ve got it cut last week). Calves and hips are tight, but they’ve been tight for weeks and I’ll worry about them later. I’ve got my pace wrist band for three-hours and thirty minutes. The 10-second countdown begins. I’m ready.

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Mile one: I am not ready for this heat. Jeez, it’s hot. It must be 22ºC or more already. The brewery is huge for such a small town. How do they fit it all in?! And we’re off-road already and running past the flat, green pastoral land, the farmhouses and trees, lots of (stinky) cows. I just wish these slow joggers would get out my way. I’m leaping left and right, into fields, around trees, speeding up and slowing down!

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Mile three: Could I just live here and run around the fields and then drink Duvel all the time? It’s a top three beer of all time for me (but remember how you didn’t ‘get it’ for the first, like, half dozen bottles you drank? Unbelievable). What else? Tegernsee Hell? Or Augustiner? A Suarez Family beer? Blind Pig IPA? (Another IPA? Which one…) 5km time check: a minute ahead of my target. Perfect!

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Mile four: Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh, no, no... Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh, no, no... Why am I singing Beyonce?! It was that bloody brass band a mile ago who were playing it! Why do I always get one song stuck in my head when I run? Uh oh, uh oh…

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Mile six: Palm Brewery! It’s like an old castle. I high-five a man in armour. There’s medieval music. Palm, Rodenbach, Cornet, Steen Brugge. Cases are stacked four pallets high to build the route. That’s cool. Where are we… Packaging! Runners go left, walkers go right. If I was walking, I’d definitely be stopping for a Cornet. Flipping heck, it’s hot. 10km marker. Time check: 47 minutes. Smashing it!

Mile seven: Time for homemade energy: maple syrup, espresso, pinch of salt. It’s the least refreshing drink in the whole world but way better than gloopy gut-wrecking gels. Get water. Why is it in paper cups? Running quickly while drinking from paper cups is impossible.

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Mile nine: I’m with the 3:30 pacers. Thud thud thud through dusty tracks. There must be 20 of us here. I’ve never run in a group like this. It’s like we’re in a team, like a peloton, and I’m running with people who run 3:30 in a marathon. What’s your best time? I want to say 3:29. I’ve done three 1:32 half marathons this year. I can do a sub-3:30 marathon. That’s unthinkable for the breathless, lazy, fat 14-year-old who couldn’t do a single lap of cross country in school without stopping or whinging or just quitting. Fuck you, Fat Dredge, I can run now. 

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Mile 11: Ketchup is amazing, isn’t it. I could drink a pot of ketchup right now. All that sugar and salt. Ketchup and chips. I always want chips after a very long run. I’m in Belgium, the home of frites. This is perfect. Heinz is the best, isn’t it. Craft ketchup just isn’t the same.

Mile 13: Halfway in 1:42. Exactly my target! I’m kicking my arse, but it’s okay. It feels good to run fast though the open countryside, through villages and fields, past people having breakfast in their front gardens, cheering us on, with kids cycling alongside us ‘Go Mar-ek!’ they say. Drink more maple syrup (eurgh, I’m sick of carbs and sugar).

Mile 15: It shouldn’t hurt this much this early. Just stay with the pacers. Am I going too fast? No, this is your pace. You know it’s going to hurt so just deal with it. This is not some Sunday plod around the park. This is a race.

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Mile 17: Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh, oh, no, no... Bosteels! Hopefully we’ll get to see… Oh, that’s it and we’re in and out of the brewery in a few metres. I don’t even know what I saw apart from people drinking. I can barely see properly anyway. Tripel Karmeliet. Classic Tripel. Richer with malt with spicier yeast compared to Strong Golden Ales like Duvel. This is good: distract yourself with beer. Actually: I can’t think about beer right now.

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Mile 20: Where did the 3:30 pacers go? How did I lose them? 10km to go and I’m at 2:41. Shit. How did I lose so much time? Why aren’t my legs moving? I can still get the time if I push. It’s just pain. Come on! Finish the maple syrup. Need water. Why is that so hard right now? I can’t even run the pace I’d jog around the block. And still six more miles. SIX! Shit.

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Mile 23: Time has never moved slower (my legs have never moved slower). I hate this bleak, hot, flat countryside. I can’t go on. I have nothing. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. DON’T STOP. The road is empty in front of me. There’s just dry fields all around. I’ve stopped. AARRGGHH! CRAMP! FUUUCK. Fuck you, body. I need to get this over with. How can I even manage three more miles. Every single step is horrendous right now. I just want it to be over. I’m in a bad way, a bad place, a black place in the hot white sun, and there’s no escape until the finish line.

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Mile 26: I can see the brewery! I see the massive tanks. The bright red Duvel sign. All the Duvel in the world is around me right now. Millions of bottles. I’m scorched, sweaty, dusty, dehydrated. Imagine getting into a bath of ice cold Duvel right now (I bet the bubbles would tingle and that’d feel glorious). Where’s the end? Corner after corner through stacked-up cases. 300m to go. 200m to go. One final turn.

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I choke up, but no tears come out. 3:42. There’s a constricting, breath-taking, stumbling, crumbling relief. I did it but I didn’t do it. I take my medal but don’t put it on. I stagger to a patch of grass and can barely even fall to my knees. More than any run I’ve ever done, that hurt.

After the finish line

“I’m never running a marathon ever again,” I say to Emma, my girlfriend, when she finishes the 25km version of the race. “Good!” she says, “maybe we can stop running for a while!” I haven’t eaten since finishing the run over an hour ago and finally I’m feeling hungry and thirsty. “I need some frites!” she says.

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We sit on the floor and eat hot, crispy, salty chips (mine are covered in loads of ketchup) and drink beautiful, fresh, cold Duvel, which is, right now, one of the single greatest beers I’ve ever tasted. I feel immediately revived in a remarkable way.

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We drink more beer (the only thing better than the first glass of Duvel is the second glass I order). We take photos with huge cut-out beer glasses. Get selfies with our medals. I feel good. I feel great. I sadistically and addictively love the post-run pain and the post-run buzz. People arrive into the race village tired and smiling and grimacing and thirsty. We’re all toasting others and toasting ourselves. We’re all happy and hurting. We’re eating chips and pizza and burgers and drinking beers because we’ve earnt them. And we’ve earnt them together. Thousands of us here, all now sitting in the sun, have done something fun or challenging or life-changing and we’ve all won our own races, in our own ways, and now we’re enjoying the best thing about running: when you’re no longer actually doing it but can enjoy having done it.

Back in Brussels and we’re drinking gueuze outside a small café in the dozy warmth of dusk. “But that was your second-fastest marathon!” says Emma, while I moan about not getting the time I wanted. “I know it’s good, and I’m happy, but I know that I can go under 3:30…”

“Don’t even think about it!”

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