Amsterdam and Venice Marathons
by Renate van Niekerk
If running is your default setting and your children have issues, your advice cannot be other than: “grab your tekkies and go for a run”.
If they need a bit of motivation, you enter together for a marathon.
If you are a runner and a very good friend asks you to run a marathon with him, you enter.
That is how it came to be that I entered for the Amsterdam marathon with my son Pieter, who works in England. Soon after, my friend Judex asked me to run his second marathon with him - this one in Venice. The previous year Judex and I had run together in Berlin. I say yes, thinking that I’ll be in Europe in any case, during that time. My son tells me travelling in Europe is easy. I, therefore, convince him that we enter for the Venice marathon too. Now we have a race scheduled for the 20th of October in Amsterdam and on the 27th of October in Venice.
We start our exercise regime on two continents. I meet up with Pieter in London from where we travel together to Amsterdam with Eurostar. We stay with friendly South Africans, Liezl Verloren van Temaat and her husband Frans. They live in a lovely apartment in the centre of historic Amsterdam. Liezl will also be running and together we set out early Sunday morning for the set-off at the Olympic stadium. It’s a sight to behold! Thousands of excited athletes, announcements that we can understand, a booming sound system and cool cloudy weather.
All the athletes have been seeded, the timing is perfect and we’re off with a bang. At the beginning of the race there are many containers to leave your redundant clothing, but I wasn’t feeling ready to shed my top yet. This led to a problem: you can’t leave it lying around later; they specifically requested that we do not. I think that this might not be the place to show off bad manners. Eventually I leave my Loskop-top carefully next to one of the water points. My SA flag shirt is recognizable everywhere! The Bokke are playing in Japan at the same moment and we high-five spectators all along the route who are streaming the match and shouting out live results. A lot of people along the route are dressed in green and gold.
The route hardly has uphills and winds through the city, crossing underneath the Rijksmuseum. Next moment you find yourself amongst fields and cows. There are butcheries and farm stalls along the route and fields of flowers here and there. We run all along the Amstel river, cross a bridge and return on the other bank. The river is the source of entertainment: boats with orchestras, an accordian and singers, casual rowers and members of the public who’ve joined in the fun. The water points are organised exceptionally well and we are soon used to having our sip of water every 5km. The official event entertainment along the route is just as interesting: drumming and rock bands and the more classical string & brass bands.
We run through Vondelpark, the beautiful public park in central Amsterdam, and back to the olympic stadium where the final stretch on tartan makes you feel like a real olympian. It’s great to hear over the loudspeaker that your South African colours have been spotted by the commentator! The total elevation for the route is a mere 38m, of which the minimum is -24m and the maximum, -8. The participants come from all over the world, but we all speak the same language. Luckily we had come prepared with beanies and warm jackets because it is freezing. We feel satisfied and warm, with medals around our necks and wonderful memories in our hearts. Back home, Frans treats us to home-made hamburgers and chips. Delicious. Pieter is in pain following his first marathon, but at least he has a week to recover!
We stay five more days in Amsterdam and walk far and wide through the city. In retrospect it was the perfect recovery plan.
On Saturday 26 October we arrive in Venice. Language is a problem and the public transport here is not as easy to navigate, but we find our hotel, book in and walk to the race registration. The near-impossible happens when we run into Judex and Lynette Oberholster at the station, also on their way to register. Together we embrace the Italian adventure. The shirts in our goodie-bags are super tiny and tight and we storm the help desk in an attempt to secure larger race shirts for our South African bodies. We manage to get a large and an extra large shirt, but walk away feeling a bit worried: here in Venice we don’t understand much.
Race day is sunny and we walk 2km to the station where we will catch a bus to take us 42km inland to the start of the race. It is located on the grounds of a beautiful palace with huge gardens in which athletes are warming up for the race. Pieter and I enjoy sweet black tea which is served by people with large friendly smiles. With great disappointment we realise that we have not been seeded and thus we start the race with the last group. We quickly befriend the athletes around us, mostly international runners. Pieter chats to a Japanese girl named Juri - the Bokke are now famous for their success in Japan.
The palace grounds are situated on the banks of a river. The first leg of the race winds along the river. Italy’s countryside is beautiful in the early morning and we pass through farming towns every now and then. Hundreds of townspeople have gathered to cheer us on and we realise two things: we’re running in a foreign language and every second athlete is named Marco. I could see people giving a puzzled look at my South African shirt, but I was gone before they could make up their minds. In 42km you quickly pick up some of the lingua franca: “Bravi, bravi!!” is often heard. The entertainment along the route all sounds like the same rock band to my runner’s ears. Once again we have water points every 5km where you receive a bottle of water, probably 300ml. You have to drink and drop the bottle at the waterpoint or run with it to the next point, NOBODY is littering. There are also cooldrinks and snacks futher along the route.
We were worried about how our bodies would deal with the pressure of a second race. Mine immediately went into fight mode, but I can see that Pieter is struggling. Until the 15th kilometre we run together, but then he starts to struggle. Still on the mainland, the route goes through a newly renovated mall where the support is phenomenal. The crowd’s cheers are deafening between the buildings. Comrades has taught me to look people in the eyes so that their strength pulls you to the finish line. Here it works again to motivate and challenge me. They shout: “Bravi Signora!” - I think I am Sophia Loren!
The route passes through the huge park where we registered the previous day and then comes the long, very long bridge to the island. I run alongside huge passenger boats lying in the harbor, up and down St Marco’s square where they have cordoned off a small path through the cheering crowds and along the Grand Canal where water laps against the cobblestones. You have to cross 14 bridges over the channels. Not an easy feat. The organisers built ramps across all the steps, but you can’t pass other competitors because the ramps are just too narrow. Here the last position we had at the start starts to affect me. I shot past many athletes between the bridges just to be caught up in the bundle at the next one. Close to the end they had suspended a floating bridge just above the water’s surface. When I read about it I had thought it would be like Sani to Sea, but it was much shorter and very stable. What an experience! Elevation 37m.
At the finish you receive a heavy bag with water, sugar free juice, cans of beer, huge apples, biscuits etc. Our plan to meet each other after the race doesn’t work as anticipated, so I sit on a brick close to the finish and wait. When the Italian officials speak to me I pretend I don’t understand. Eventually a friendly man explains to me that I really need to move towards the exit. I look him in the eye and make sure he understands to look out for the Big South African who is my son, for whom I will wait a few meters on. At last we find one another. Included in our entry fee is the boat ride across the channel to the train station where we catch the train to our hotel (also included). We recover with race beer and biltong all the way from South Africa. In the evening our therapy starts with a walk around Venice to take in the lights and nightlife. We feel wobbly, but very satisfied. Pieter has a very sore foot, but how many people can say they’ve done their second marathon a week after the first?
We did it!