Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Race Report: Great Breweries Marathon

The route for the Great Breweries
It was actually a bit of happenstance when I came upon the website for the Great Breweries Marathon last year.  It had already happened, but what intrigued me was the run through three of Belgium's finest breweries, including starting and ending at the globally distributed home brewery of Duvel, in the middle of the Flemish Brabant countryside, where Kleine Brabant, the Dender region and Pajottenland meet. It was a fairly new race, having only run its third annual event in 2018, and being in June, the temperatures soared into the high 80s and even 90s on race day.  They pushed the event back into early May for the 2019 season, and I decided to go in on it. There is at least one other "beer centered" race in the country (the rich beer culture in Belgium is famous beyond its borders), which is the popular Beer Lovers Marathon in Liege, but that race sold out before I could register. So, in mid May, I prepared myself for this race, flying into Brussels, and taking the short train ride to the city of Mechelen, which would be where I would stay the night before the race. After the quick 82 minute Thalys train from Brussels-Midi to Paris Gare du Nord, I arranged to stay overnight in Paris at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport on Sunday evening, taking the early morning flight back to New York on Monday morning.

Brusselpoort gate near my hotel
I flew out of JFK on Friday night, taking a Virgin flight that arrived in London early on Saturday morning, then had a few hours of layover before taking a 45-minute long Brussels Airlines flight to hop over the North Sea to Brussels.  We landed a little after 1PM, getting through immigration pretty quickly and then jumping right onto a train headed into the city of Mechelen, only some 15 minutes away. Thank goodness for the NMBS/SNCB (National Railway Company of Belgium, styled using the Dutch and French abbreviations) app, I easily purchased a rail ticket off there to have on my phone to get through the turnstiles for the railway station at the airport; I missed one at 1:30, so I had to wait til close to 2pm for the next one.  Upon getting off at the Mechelen station, I easily walked over to my hotel, the Best Western Gulden Anker, roughly a mile away, near the Brusselpoort, an imposing city gate structure dating back to the 13th century that is the sole remaining part of the original twelve gates of the city.

Mechelen street scene
Check-in was pretty easy, and they put me in a hotel room located directly above the entrance of the hotel, which at first I was wary of in case of noise; I'd be so tired later on that night that I wouldn't even notice.  After dropping off my bags, I decided to go explore, and took off north along Hoogstraat into the city center.  Being that it was already around 3PM, I knew if I had any sightseeing to do, I only had a few hours before sites would close, so I made my way straight to Grote Markt, the central square in the historic centre of town.

Mechelen's Grote Markt
The city of Mechelen is located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels. Mechelen is one of the Flanders region’s most prominent cities, and was notably a centre for artistic production during the Northern Renaissance, when painters, printmakers, illuminators and composers of polyphony were attracted by patrons such as Margaret of York, Margaret of Austria and Hieronymus van Busleyden. Today it is a vibrant town, mixing trendy and traditional. Its carillon school is world-renowned, training students from all over the world in the art of playing carillons, sets of 24 or more bells hung in church towers. Shops downtown are often housed in buildings with the old-style Flemish architecture.

St. Rumbold's Cathedral
At that point in the afternoon, the Grote Markt was busy with people, many sitting for a snack or drink at one of the cafes that line the square.  On one end of the square is the imposing tower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral (Sint-Romboutskathedraal), the largest of the 8 churches in Mechelen. Its high tower (though not as high as originally planned - construction stopped early due to lack of money), is easily recognizable and dominates the surroundings. For centuries it held the city documents, served as a watchtower, and could sound the fire alarm. Despite its characteristic incompleteness, this World Heritage monument is 320 feet high and its 514 steps are mounted by thousands of tourists every year, following the footsteps of Louis XV, Napoleon, King Albert I, and King Baudouin with queen Fabiola in 1981. The original 49 carillon bells are housed in the tower, each with its own name, as well as a second full set that are regularly played over the summer months; the total weight of both sets of carillons is 80 tons. On the other end of the square is Mechelen City Hall, which consists of the Palace of the Grand Council, the belfry, and the cloth hall. The neo-Gothic style palace, built in 1526, was unfinished for almost 400 years (also due to lack of money) and wasn't completed until 1911, utilizing the original 16th century plans.

Museum Hof van Busleyden
As I continued walking north from the Grote Markt, the carillon bells at St. Rumbold's began to play, which marked a quite amazing part of the day, enjoying something so uniquely Belgian.  I passed by the Museum Hof van Busleyden, housed in the stately Mechelen City Palace which had been recently renovated and reopened to the public last year. It is an eclectic museum with items of local interest: paintings, sculpture, tapestries, the town mascot, and the chains from the old jail - there's a little of everything. I decided not to spend too much time here as the museum's exhibits were all in Dutch, but I did enjoy the early Renaissance style architecture of the building.

Kazerne Dossin's main exhibit
Ultimately, I wanted to head to Kazerne Dossin, which sat further north of the city centre along the River Dijle. Mechelen's more infamous recent history dates to World War II under German occupation, when the extensive railway structure (due to an industrial revolution of metalworking industries within the city) led to the Nazi forces to choose the city for a detention and deportation camp in the former Dossin Barracks. It was here that Belgian Jews and Romani (of which approximately 90 percent of Belgium's Jewish population were living in Antwerp and Brussels) were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust in World War II. Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 Romanis were transported through the complex to the concentration camps in the east. Two-thirds were killed upon arrival. By the time of the liberation and the end of the Holocaust in Belgium, only 1,221 Belgian Jews had survived. The Kazerne Dossin museum building, established in 1996, is situated on five floors, each devoted to telling the story of these atrocities. The top floor is an observation deck, from which one can view all of the city of Mechelen, as well as the original site of the barracks next door.  I spent just over an hour here up until the museum closed at 5pm, taking in as much as I could to learn about the sad history that occurred in this place.

Outside of Brouwerij Het Anker
After the museum closed, I became quite hungry, so I sought out a place for dinner. I made my way to Brouwerij Het Anker, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium, dating back to 1471, when it was founded by a community of Beguines. It is best known for the Gouden Carolus Classic beer, a dark ale named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was raised in Mechelen. It’s the main ingredient in their recipe for vlaamse stoverij, also known in French as carbonade flamande -Flemish Stew, one of the national dishes of Belgium.  This hearty meal is basically similar to the French beef Bourguignon, but using beer instead of red wine. This dish was accompanied by the customary Belgian Fries and mayonaisse, and also a chicory salad (using locally grown Belgian Endive, or witloof). I also got to try the Anker Boscoli Cool Fruit Beer, a white ale enriched and sweetened with natural fruit juices. Apparently the brasserie at this brewery is quite popular, as I arrived before the evening rush and was able to easily get a table for one; they had been already fully booked for days after the 7pm hour.
Vlaamse Stoverij in Flemish, otherwise known as Carbonade Flamande in French... so delicious!
Gouden Carolus beer to wash it all down...
I came back through town to the Grote Markt to head back down to my hotel, and realized that nearly every shop was already closed, which left me thinking that there really didn't seem to be much to do in the city centre in the evening!  So I headed back to my hotel, and already tired from the six hour time change, I ended up falling asleep by 8:30pm, much like last week in Prague - but not feeling sickly this time!

Welcome sign in Breendonk!
I woke up around 6:30 and got dressed and out the door, checking out of the hotel to walk over to the train station, as a shuttle with the Great Breweries Marathon was to be parked there waiting for participants to provide rides from Mechelen to the start area at the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in Breendonk 20 minutes away.  We were the first bus to leave, and we left barely full - perhaps only 15 of us in the massive tour bus, mostly international runners, since I wasn't the only clueless one when the driver started to try to speak with us in Dutch.

Our startline
We arrived as the area was still being set up, and there seemed to be a miscommunication with where the driver was to drop off runners coming by bus from Mechelen; he started arguing with a woman with a Marathon "Crew" T shirt who was seemingly in charge of traffic at the brewery, which was served as the Athlete's Village for pre-race preparations and post-race celebrations. Eventually we were let off for a short walk to the village, which was superbly organized; all bibs were being picked up race morning, and since we were among the first there, it was very quick to retrieve, as well as the t-shirt.  We had more than an hour to lounge around as the crowds began to grow inside the village; I parked myself on a lounge chair situated near the t-shirt booth, trying to soak up the sun as clouds occasionally raced by, getting annoyed if someone was standing in my way.  Eventually, with about a half hour prior to the 9:15am race start, I took off my sweatpants and jacket (it was a brisk morning, in the mid 40s) and dropped off my bag to walk over to the startline. I positioned myself near the 4:15 pacers, which was knowingly a bit aggressive, but I knew being near them would at least keep me on pace for a sub 2:10 first half, which was my "short term" goal.

Running through residential Breendonk
Running through the countryside
We headed off a couple minutes after 9:15, taking off down the quiet residential street on Breendonk-Dorp, making a sharp angled right turn onto Molenheide, which turned into Groenstraat to make our way out of the town.  We passed a talented busker playing some jazz on his soprano saxophone, accompanied by canned instrumental background music, as we turned left to begin our run through the Flemish farmland.

Dirt trails in Londerzeel
It was pretty quiet out here, as there were no spectators - just us runners, and the views of the flatlands around us.  We'd pass by working farms with cows watching us as we ran by.  We came back out on the asphalt roads near the neighboring village of Sint-Jozef, cutting through the edge of town, past quaint Belgian homes as it merged into Londerzeel.  Before long, we were already three miles into the race, as the single lane streets passed through the surrounding farmland. At one point, we even had to run across a dual tracked dirt trail, made by the wide tires of a tractor. We crossed a road-level train track as well, which had timing sensors on both sides just in case any of runners were held back by scheduled train service passing through the area. I was luckily not affected. During this time, it also rained very briefly, but only a little bit of a drizzle lasting maybe ten minutes at most.
These Belgian cows go moo, so I do too...

Entering Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.
Musicians in medieval garb!
All decked out in a knight's armor!
It got decidedly more rural the further out we got, but by mile 6, the scenery began to change, as we approached the Diepensteyn Estate, with its majestic medieval castle in view.  Running on cobblestones (Prague redux?!), we turned into the complex's drive and ran toward the castle, crossing the drawbridge and moat (!!), and encountered a couple musicians in medieval garb and a man in a full knight's costume. The castle was the site of our first brewery stop, the home of Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.

Running toward the storehouse
Along a path lined with stacked crates marked with the "Palm" logo, we entered the brewery's main storehouse, where we ran through a marked pathway.  More stacked crates lined the route, while music was piped in via speakers - at that moment, it was Adele's "Chasing Pavements," a fittingly perfect song for the fact we were 10K into our 42K run on the streets of rural Flanders.  We crossed a timing mat as we passed through the warehouse, clocking in a 1:00:18 split.  We emerged out of the warehouse, passing by a cheer station of onlookers drinking some of the beer brewed from that very brewery.  A sign had indicated runners continue on in one direction, while walkers passed through the area where they were serving; they had non-alcoholic beer available for us runners, which I didn't think was very fair!  I exclaimed, bewildered... "alcohol-free?!" as those cheering laughed... oh well, I still had a race to run, so I continued on.

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Pointing toward the hop garden...
All of the hops, just starting to grow!
We passed a small hop garden, where vines of hop plants were being trained to grow into the flowers that are used for bittering and flavoring some of the beers, particularly this brewery's blonde beer variety, known as Palm Hop Select.  We continued onto the aptly named Brouwerijstraat, down a quiet residential street in the middle of the town of Steenhuffel, turning left to continue along an asphalt path through the countryside.  Literally, just a single lane path that cuts through the non-gridlike flat plots of farmland with random houses with neighbors hundreds of feet away, over the next several miles.  Every so often, there would be people out there watching us run, but more often than not, they were involved with the race itself, as course marshals, making sure we were staying on the correct path of the race!
Running between the plots of farmland
Some of the fun signage along the course.
Har har har...
Rnning along a gravel pathway
After four miles of running, seemingly aimlessly, through the countryside, we turned right onto a short segment of street, before turning back onto crushed gravel pathways meandering through a lightly forested area.  We emerged out into an open area half a mile later, to then end up running turning into a thickly forested area that was the Buggenhout Bos, a beautiful dirt pathway that snaked its way under a canopy of oak trees within this medieval forest, the largest forest of East Flanders.  It was truly magical as we ran through this area, eventually reaching the halfway point in 2:08:41.  The 4:15 pacers had caught up at that point, perfect timing as they were right in front of me as we crossed the split mat.  The course had some short out-and-back sections within the forest, allowing for a chance to interact with runners who I had been already playing a bit of leapfrog with since leaving Steenhuffel.  My pace had slowed down a tiny bit, tired from roughly ten miles of sub-10 minute pace.  We exited the forest onto Bosstraat as it made its way into the center of the town of Buggenhout, where our second brewery spot was located.  Meanwhile, back at the start in Breendonk, the 25km runners had begun their race roughly two hours after we did. 
Running through the Buggenhout Bos
Two beer or not two beer...
Bosteels Brewery
We turned left onto Maalderijstraat, where the street was divided with runners coming up the other way.  We entered the narrow entrance gate of Bosteels Brewery just before the 17th mile of the race, literally going in, looping around the building, and coming right back out... a little disappointing to see so little of the brewery itself, but it was what it was.  Again, here, there was a separation between runners and walkers, but I wouldn't let it stop me, as I gestured to a spectator drinking beer if I could have a sip; she gladly obliged, and I drank some to the laughs of other spectators.  It was a nice "kick" as I continued on out Maalderijstraat.  The 4:30 pacers started to come in hot, and I knew I had lost a bit of time in my slowed down last couple miles.

Crossing the center of Flanders
We made our way out of Buggenhout, following Spoorwegstraat and Sportveldstraat on a lengthy straightaway that hugged the elevated trainline that ran from Mechelen west toward Ghent. I made up a little bit of time here, picking my pace up ever so slightly.  We were now three hours into our race, as we took the roads heading northward into the town of Opdorp, the 4:30 pacers literally right behind my tail.  We entered the town of Opdorp and crossed through a grassy section of the course that literally cut right through the center of the town's square, and where local authorities managed the traffic to stop traffic and let us cross through.

Another fun sign along the route
We then followed Vekenstraat northeastward out of Opdorp and back into the countryside.  I crossed the 30km mat in 3:09:06, only about two minutes ahead of the 4:30 pacers.  They eventually passed me somewhere over the next mile, almost just like last week.  My pace slowed considerably, and I felt like I had started to run out of gas.  I chalk it up to the fact that I only ate or drank during four of the last seven days that week, due to contracting strep and not being able to swallow.  I was just exhausted, and working my ass off to just finish these last six miles!  We passed the 20 mile mark, and not long after, the geographical center of the Flanders region, aka the "Middelpunt van Vlaanderen," as evidenced from a sign put up by the race. Over the next mile, we'd run past the Lippelobos, another forested area, which we would run along the edge of on Kruisheide.
Passing the 30km mark of the race

40km completed... just 2.2 to go!
The last 4.5 miles of the race weren't as alone as we had been, as the 25km runners, especially those coming in with 2:30 goal times, merged with us right after we made a bridge crossing over a canalway onto Marselaerdreef.  The narrow roadway became a little narrower, and even a slight bit crowded as these "fresher" runners made their way past, still encouraging us who had many more kilometers under our feet than them. The terrain briefly changed once again to a section of dual tracked dirt trail, much like what we had encountered early on in the race. Eventually we were back on residential roads, seeing signs for the municipality of Puurs-Sint-Amands (where Breendonk was located), and we were on familiar looking streets.  Soon, we heard faint strains of jazz, and there was the soprano saxophone player from the first mile of the race, STILL there and entertaining runners coming into the finish as we entered Breendonk.

Entering Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
We turned left onto Beenhouwerstraat, with the archway of the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in view, our final brewery to run through.  Like at Palm, we were guided through a course with stacks of branded crates lining our way.  There were many more spectators here (since it was the finish after all, and then we were led for the final push, which took us around the perimeter of the main brewery building.  The last several hundred yards of the race even took us over flattened grass - it seems we needed to have yet another different bit of terrain to run over before finishing!  Making the final turn, there was our carpeted finish line; I veered slightly to the right to be able to run alone through the marathon finish line, and I crossed in 4:34:25, over a minute faster than last week!
Finish line isn't too much further...
A couple turns before crossing the finish!
The finish line!

The contents of the box of beer!
I eagerly picked up my medal and found my way to the registration booths, that had now been turned into the "gift box" retrieval area, where finishers could get their box of beer.  25km runners got a box of four beers, while full marathoners got a box of six - from all the breweries we had passed through.  In addition, we had the option of getting three beers from the draught of our choice.  After getting my headstand photo taken just outside of the Athlete's Village with the "Duvel" neon sign high on top of a building on the brewery campus, I got my backpack in the gear check area, threw my warm clothes back on, and then found a spot to park myself and begin drinking through my beer prize!  I made a few new Belgian friends in the process, who explained to me how a bit higher in alcohol content these beers were than the Belgian beers I'd find in America... without having much to eat, I definitely started feeling it after finishing my third!
Victory Headstand at Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
Enjoying a Tripel Karmeliet!
After spending a good two hours celebrating my 102nd marathon finish, I made my way out to find the shuttles that would take us back to Mechelen. I had three remaining beers still - after drinking two of the bottles, gifting the IPA to one of the Belgians at my table (I don't like IPAs), and drinking one of my free draught beers (the Tripel Karmeliet from Brouwerij Bosteels, the one I had a little sip of at mile 17, was hands down my favorite!) I gingerly put them in my backpack to consolidate what I was carrying.  Somehow in my post marathon and drinking haze, I ended up misplacing a small red bag that contained my European iPhone charger adapter and my earbuds on the bus, which I didn't realize until several hours later when I was already en route to Paris. Thankfully it wasn't an expensive loss, but I wasn't going to get them back.  We arrived back in Mechelen, and I was able to get on the next train into Brussels Centraal arriving some twenty minutes later.

Walking through Brussels
I had three hours in Brussels to spend, so like the last time I was in this city, I decided to just walk through it and enjoy.  Interestingly enough, the last time I was here (thirteen years ago), I only had three hours to spend here, too.  So I made my way to the central square of the city, iin Grand Place, where I knew a few of the important sites were... this included having to see Manneken Pis, a two foot tall bronze sculpture of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain basin.  Surprisingly, this statue is the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, and embodies their sense of humor.  I also decided to go out to find Jeanneke Pis, his female counterpart representing a little girl squatting in the act of urinating - far less visited, but not too far away either.  I also made a stop for my usual memento and some chocolate, before continuing on to find a place to eat (which I eventually found at the Brussels-Midi train station) before my train to Paris.
The train ride to Paris was quick, and being so tired, I fell asleep for half of the less than 90 minute trip. The suburban train from Paris Gare du Nord left from the same station, so after navigating my way through, I was on the RER B out to Charles de Gaulle airport to check into my hotel for the night, the Ibis Hotel in Roissypole.  This would be my third Paris airport hotel to check out in my travels over the past month.   I finished my remaining beers before crashing for the night, waking up early the next morning to catch my flight home to NYC at 8am (with breakfast at the Air France Lounge, of course.)  This time, no strep.  I slept for half the flight, and got into work ready for another week!

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