95th Vierdaagse

95th Vierdaagse

by Marge P.

“You walk the Vierdaagse because it is there—to see if you can.  It’s the Mt. Everest of walking; a 100 mile peak laid out flat and decked with windmills.”

I’ll bet when you saw the word Vierdaagse you thought it was a typo.  It’s not, it’s a Dutch word.  Literally translated, it means “four dayer,” but the Dutch will tell you it translates to The International Four Days Marches held in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

I am in Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands, to participate in The Walk of the World.  45,000 people have registered for this event…how many will finish?  Why am I doing this? That’s a good question.  I have asked myself many times why I have to prove to myself that I can do this.  I believe it has to do with letting my body know who is in charge.  I may be “mature” (that’s better than being old), and I may be buxom (that’s better than saying over weight), but I am strong and healthy.  I’m doing this event because I CAN!

I have been working with Coach Joe on endurance training for this event.  The Vierdaagse is a four day walk; 25 miles a day for four days. Each day we begin and finish our walk at the same place.  The routes are like a four leaf clover, taking us through different towns each day.

It is Tuesday, July 19th; its 5:15 a.m. on the outskirts of Nijmegen, the river Waal is pewter and saffron in the dawn.  The morning is cool and hushed, no noise save the tweeting of swallows and the quiet padding of polyurethane on asphalt.  A mare and a foal are striking calendar poses in a meadow by a thatched-roof house.  Yes, this is going to be just fine.

Near Rijkerswoerd the road forms a great long “S” snaking through a patchwork of cornfields and pastureland and affording a sweeping wide angle view of The International Four Days Marches.  It is a staggering sight; a solid stream of walkers 3 miles ahead and 3 miles behind.  What’s more impressive is that all of these people are walking all this way simply because they want to—not for charity, not for solidarity, not as refugees or troops or publicity-seekers.

Marches are something of a Dutch tradition.  The Vierdaagse was established in 1909 by the Royal Dutch League for Physical Education as a means for promoting fitness and athletic training among the general population.  The concept caught on slowly, with the first 10 or 15 years’ marches made up of mostly military units in training.  Sometime after World War I civilians began to outnumber military.  Today the ratio is roughly four to one.

Other countries have followed suit and have established long-distance marches of their own, but the Vierdaagse remains the March par excellence, as the “walkers’ Mecca.”  Holland takes its walking seriously.  Most every weekend there is a 10K or 20K walk somewhere in the country.

There is no one Vierdaagse walker type, not all of them are young; 20% are over 60.  It’s a landlocked Noah’s ark…spinsters and jocks, families and platoons.  Middle aged men in cardigans and dress pants who look like they are walking to work. Boy Scouts, musicians, undertakers, cops, moms…people from all over the world, 75% are from the European Nation…civilians and military troops…it is a sight to see.

Tuesday we go through the town of Elst; the entire town has turned out to greet us.  People are lining the curbs, clapping and cheering.  M*A*S*H-style PA speakers on poles are blatting out John Philip Sousa marches.  Everyone turns out to watch:  old ladies in lawn chairs with dogs on their laps, babies in playpens, teen-agers sprawled on furniture.  I’m not sure I entirely understand it.  Where is the entertainment value in 42,000 people walking?  We’re a parade with no floats, a protest march with no point.  There aren’t even any funny costumes, as official regulations stipulate clothing must be “in good taste.”

Cheering on the Vierdaages walkers is a kind of Dutch civic duty, like small-town America turning out to welcome the homecoming troops.  Besides, there’s little else for them to do today.  When the Vierdaagse passes through a town, everything shuts down for the day.  No one but the bartenders and oompah musicians goes to work.

Elst is the half way point for the first day, we should stop and take a break to eat and drink, as the temperature is getting warmer…  Stepping off of the route I find it hard not to feel panicked.  I look over my shoulder and see hundreds and hundreds of people walking on ahead of me…I feel like I will never be able to catch up…this is not true, everyone on this walk takes breaks.  As long as you are back in Nijmegen by 5 p.m., and get your wrist band scanned you are good for the day.  There is no incentive to finish early.  The first one to reach the finish garners no more fanfare than the last.  If anything, the cheers ring louder for the lame and the late, as their victory was clearly wrought at a higher price.

So, I’m walking with a group of friends, we’ve taken a break, and we have 12 more miles to walk before the first day is over.  I tell myself that I have to have a plan to get myself through this more efficiently.  I’ll stick with the group today, but tomorrow I need to develop a plan and stick to it.

Walk, walk, walk, walk, talk, talk, talk, laugh, laugh…only about two miles left and we come to a church that has been converted to a pub for the day.  This seems like a good place to stop and have some Dutch Gatorade, aka, Heineken.  My knee has been hurting, so my excuse for ordering a second beer is to hold the ice cold beer glass on my throbbing knee.  Believe what you want, this one works for me.  The Dutch Gatorade has given us all a boost and we finish the last two miles full of energy…the last mile through Nijmegen is lined with crowds throwing confetti and cranking noise-makers.  You feel like you just got back from fighting a war.

Outside the finish line, it’s a massive beer bash.  Green tents line the plaza.  Long wooden tables are jammed with sunburned bodies and empty beer cans.  In a few hours’ time, all but the gamest of walkers will be in bed, their places being taken by spectators and general revelers.  More than one million Dutch descend on Nijmegen for the entertainment portion of the event, a boisterous roundup of dance bands, beer stands, and sing-alongs.

One day down, three to go!

Wednesday, day two.  I’m walking alone today; I’ve told my friends that I will meet them at the end for a beer.  My plan is to walk two hours and rest for 15 minutes.  A rest consists of using the potty and eating my cheese on whole wheat bread and drinking fruit juice.  I do drink plenty of water while walking. I attended a nutrition seminar with Laurie Schubert from Experience Triathlon at lululemon a while back.  While training for this event I practiced what I could eat to fuel my body, but still keep it healthy.

It’s very humid, about 70 degrees and drizzling.  Yesterday I didn’t use my MP3 player because I was walking and talking with friends, today I can’t use it because the display on it says BAT LOW…no problem, I worked in marketing for a lot of years, I’ll make small talk with whoever is walking my pace.

I’ve come up to a troop of American soldiers who are based in Germany doing the walk for the first time.  “Hey, anybody in this troop from the Chicago area?’  I say.  “Yes, Ma’am, I am.”  It really is a small world; the soldier was from North Wheaton.  I live in South Wheaton.  We talked for a while; I took his picture and told him I would give a copy to his family.  I ended up walking with this group for an hour, talking about the good old U.S. of A., and we ended up singing theme songs from TV shows.  They decided to take a rest at the Military Rest Stop, I kept on walking.  I saw this troop again on Thursday and Friday and got a friendly, “Hello, Red!”

Next I walked with a man named Irwin, he’s limping a bit.  I ask if he is okay.  “Blister.” he says.  I ask if this is his first time doing the Vierdaagse.  “First and last, it was his idea.” He directs the tip of his head toward his buddy, who looks apologetic.

“All my life I want to walk the Four Days of Nijmegen, Irwin says.  “Every year you see it on the television: you read about it, you know people who have done it.”  People do it, I suppose, for the same reason travelers on I-80 stop at Wall Drug in South Dakota.  For 200 miles they have seen billboards heralding Wall Drug, and they have to find out what the fuss is all about.  You walk the Vierdaagse because it is there—to see if you can.  It’s the Mt. Everest of walking; a 100 mile peak laid out flat and decked with windmills.

More walking, more oompah bands, more cheering crowds, more cheese on whole wheat.  Coach Joes knows what he’s doing because after almost 50 miles, my feet feel good, my knees are strong, no blisters… a little chub rub on my arms from the humidity, but other than that, I’m feeling good.  Okay, I have to admit that the drizzle is getting old…either rain already, or just stop drizzling…Marge is getting cranky.  ”What’s that Coach Joe talks about???  Six inches in front of your face is all you have to worry about.  Okay, just put one foot in front of the other, move your chub rubbed arms, don’t think about the drizzle.  Hey, is that Fred over there?”  I met Fred 15 years ago, the first time I did this walk.  He’s a talker, I just have to ask him two or three questions and he will talk us through the last four miles.  “Hey Fred, how’s it going?”  I ask, and he talks for the last four miles.  Fred and I are the first of our group to finish.  We save the table for the rest of the group.  It’s Miller time….I mean Heineken….50 miles walked, 50 miles left.

Thursday, day three.  Same strategy…do my own thing, two hours walking, 15 minute break, cheese on whole wheat, fruit juice and water.  I decide not to put a new battery in my MP3 player, because I want to enjoy the scenery and think.  What’s next for me?

It is a beautiful day, in the 60’s and a little less humidity.  Today is the day of the “seven deadly hills.”  It’s more of the same, so I won’t bore you.  If there were seven hills I missed five of them.  Thanks for the hill work on Thursday mornings Coach Joe!!!

The last 4 KM it rained, a heavy downpour the rain felt cool on my body, but my knees did not like being cold and damp…should I stop and put on the knee braces that I have been schlepping in my backpack for three days, or just finish and take a warm bath?  I was too lazy to stop to put on the braces…walked to the finish, walked to the hotel…no beer today.

Friday, day four.  Only 25 miles to go…ONLY!  I woke up this morning feeling good, feet a bit swollen, but not bad.  The weatherman is not our best friend this morning.  The forecast is for heat and its faithful sidekick, humidity.  I bring along extra fruit juice, water and my “if I never eat another cheese on whole wheat sandwich it will be too soon” sandwiches.  Same strategy since it worked so well the past two days.  No MP3 player.

Today I notice more people lying on the side of the road with their feet in the air, more people lined up at the Red Cross blister tents.  Every time I pass some one who is limping I whisper “Thank you” to God, the universe, Coach Joe…because I still feel great after 75 miles of walking.

I’ve walked two hours, it’s time for my break…I see a flat, dry field with a few folks resting and think this is where my first stop of the day will be.  I sit down and eat my bread and cheese without tasting it, same for the fruit juice.  Two girls plop down next to me, one of them is crying.  “Are you hungry?” I ask.  I know you need to eat or you start to go a little nuts…”No” is the reply.  “Can I help you in any way? What’s wrong?”  “My knees hurt.”  On Saturday I took a walk into downtown Nijmegen to a sporting goods store and bought two knee braces…the Cadillac of knee braces, for 44 euro each.  So far I have been schlepping them in my backpack and have not used them.  I took them out of my backpack and said, “Here, put these on.”  The crying girl replied, ”But I don’t know if I will see you again, to give them back to you.”  I say, “Let’s just put them on you to see if it feels better.”

Long story short…I told her I didn’t need them back.  “Please just use them, and the next time you see someone who needs help, pay it forward.”     Hey, it was less stuff for me to carry.

I feel good, it’s getting hotter…I’ve got about six miles to go…all the cush is gone from my shoes, I think I can feel every pebble on the road, I think the asphalt is melting and sticking to my shoes.  I see a soldier who had taken his regulation boots off, he has taken a pair of sandals out of his backpack and is doing a polka outside of a beer hall.  He is entertaining the spectators.

Five miles left…my feet hurt, I’m tired…what was I thinking, what am I trying to prove here???  Just walk, you want that medal. The Vierdaagse medal is no mere lapel pin, no commemorative XL Beefy-Cotton T.  This is a “royally approved” official Netherlands decoration.

Walk, walk, walk…DONE!  I’ve passed the final checkpoint.  100 miles!  I’m finished…well almost.  All that remains is the Via Gladiola.  This is the homestretch, six kilometers of well-wishers and fanfare, a quarter-million Dutch jammed into bleachers, whooping and handing out flowers.

Unfortunately, these 6 km are not part of the required 25 miles.  They are optional additional miles.  On top of that, through some quirk of casual sadism, the Vierdaagse organizers chose to begin the Via Gladiola a couple of kilometers past the final checkpoint, which means you log an additional 8 kilometers just for the privilege of flowers and glory.  You have to do the Via Gladiola…there is no other way to get to the finish to pick up your OFFICIAL NETHERLANDS DECORATION.

Normally I would feel the need to bitch about this…why don’t they change the route on the last day, bla, bla, bla…???  Something changed my perspective…the Via Gladiola goes past the Nijmegen Hospital.  This year the hospital got the permission to set up two tents along the route.  They also got the permission from the families of 10 terminally ill patients to be wheeled out of the hospital into the two tents.  These patients were hooked up to machines, covered in blankets, with a nurse or two standing next to them.  Someone had made bedspreads out of gladiola fabric.

So, here I am walking down the center of the road, because I convinced myself that if I walk on the painted center lane, it’s a little softer.  I’m cranky because I don’t think its right that I HAVE to walk this part when I have no one here to congratulate me or give me flowers….I see the white tents, something makes me walk over to them.  I hear a soldier say to one of the patients, “We are so glad that you could come out to cheer us on today!”  The patient replied, “I’m not ready to go.”

Well, this healthy, strong, mature, buxom walker lost it.  Here I am feeling sorry for myself because my feet hurt because of my own doing…I cried…I couldn’t stop.  I kept telling myself that it was good that I had sunglasses on, so no one would recognize me crying while walking the Via Gladiola.  The Via Gladiola is supposed to be the end, the happy part…

I finished, got my medal, found my friends and had a few beers.  I’ve decided that I like to drink Heineken when it is a domestic beer.

Joe asked me to do a write up for Experience Triathlon website blog.  This is it…I really want to thank Laurie, she doesn’t even know how much her seminar helped me get through this.  Coach Suzy Cerra’s walks on Tuesday morning at lululemon Naperville made me walk an hour longer one day a week.  Coach Joe, thanks!  I’ve done this walk before, but this is the first time I finished with over four hours to spare on the last day.  I appreciate my friends following me on facebook and sending good vibes my way.

Walking without my MP3 player gave me a lot of time to think…but I still don’t know what’s next for me.

Congrats, Marge, on this amazing accomplishment.  Your journey is a true inspiration to us all.  I look forward to finding out what your next dream will be. 🙂 – Coach Joe

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