I'm still struggling to comprehend what Lucja and I just accomplished. It's hard putting the pain and exhaustion into words. My dad doesn't think anyone will quite understand what it was that we achieved and put our bodies through unless you were there, seeing the suffering first hand. I knew this challenge wasn't going to be easy but I don't think I quite realised the scale of it before committing to the challenge.
The Pieterpad Trail - our route from North to South
It all started three years ago when Lucja and I met doing our first multi stage ultra marathon in the Kalahari desert. We have been great friends since, travelling around the world together to take part in ultra marathons. Having done plenty of races together, we thought it was about time we organised our own challenge. After planting the seed in Lucja's mind of organising a challenge, she came up with the idea to run across The Netherlands in our pink Runderwear . Without thinking twice, I said yes! The plan we soon hatched was to follow the Pieterpad Trail which runs from the north to the south of the country covering 500km. Being two young females we decided to raise money for breast cancer through the Pink Ribbon Foundation which fit in perfectly with the idea of wearing our pink undies. Planning for the challenge started in December and for the next eight months it became a secondary full time job to organise.
Our main base of training for the challenge came off the back of our preparation for Marathon des Sables , which both Lucja and I took part in in April. After a couple of weeks of rest after MdS, we had 13 weeks to prepare ourselves instead of a 16 week plan which I'd usually stick to for such a big run. Still, I knew I was in good shape after MdS so I just needed to maintain this level for the next few months.
I can hands down say that this run was the hardest five days of my life. The sheer distance we had to run in such a short amount of time; on top of the fact that we had to organise the whole thing by ourselves puts this challenge on a completely different spectrum to any other.
These both led to a level of stress on the body and the mind that I never anticipated. When you're running on average 15 hour days on five hours sleep, there is no down time (like there is in the desert) and it makes it very difficult to find the energy to prepare for the next day. When we finished for each day, instead of resting we would have to load the route map onto our watches, put everything on charge for the next day, eat the right food in preparation for the next leg, thread our blisters, get physio on our legs, shower, get our kit ready for the next day, pack up our bags for the morning, update friends and family back home of our progress, update social media for sponsorship, make sure everyone knows their duty for the morning and so on! As for sleeping, I'm not sure you could count all five hours as worthy rest. I'd be waking up in hot sweats, with joint pains and in panics about waking up in time for the next day. We were exhausted and I can remember running with heavy eyes thinking I could fall asleep while on the move.
With exhaustion comes emotion! I’m not normally the emotional type but I probably shed a year's worth of tears in the five days. I first cried 80km into Day 2, when my parents surprised me by arriving early. I've never seen my mum sprint so fast towards me with her arms wide open to hug me. It was too much for my sensitive emotions and I definitely set a few other people off too!
Our support crew were such a huge factor in our success. We had a full support crew of 13 people, four cars and one caravan. It might sound overkill but when you factor in all the crew, bags and supplies, we had just enough room for everything. It also meant the crew could rotate on CP duty, checking into hotels, sorting out dinner, checking the route, buying extra supplies and keeping us company while running.
Lunch checkpoint on Day 2
Each day we'd have on average one CP every 10k, although the crew sometimes had to improvise to shorten some CPs if we were having a bad time and felt it needed to be broken up. Half way through each day we'd enjoy a 20/30 minute lunch break where Joerie managed to sweet talk free spaces for the caravan to park and for the CP to be set up. We had campsites, someone's garden with a trampoline and even a couple of lunch tables in a beautiful monks mansion!
The scenery was surprisingly varied and beautiful. There is more to Holland than just flat farm land! We passed through many small towns that often seemed completely empty (although apparently locals were taking photos of us from their bedrooms and posting them online) and smaller villages with cute traditional Dutch houses and immaculate gardens. The whole country looked a bit like a Polly pocket village, perfectly neat and clean; designed, built and maintained to a very high standard.
The terrain was a mix of road and trail. We ran through several beautiful forests and lots of corn fields that trapped heat and became difficult to run through in the heat of the day. There were also a lot of open fields, long footpaths and road passes. We got our fair share of hills too believe it or not and even a decent amount of soft sand to remind us of being back in the desert!
The mixed terrain unfortunately wasn't enough to counteract the impact of the hard ground and number of miles travelled on our feet and joints. Day by day the feet were getting more swollen and tender and we were having to thread and tape an increasing number of blisters and hotspots. I chose to wear Hoka Cliftons for the run, knowing that I'd need the added cushioning and support but stupidly bought only a 0.5 size up instead of one without knowing quite how much my feet would swell. For the last two days I switched back to my trusted New Balance Leadvilles , which had less cushioning but more space for the toes to breathe. Nevertheless, the rubbing was still so bad that I had to cut a massive hole in my shoe to create space and reduce the pain.
Running on a sore knee with Suzan, Rhianon and Lucja
One problem solved, or rather helped, meant another escalated. With less cushioning, my knees were taking a lot more impact on every step and becoming increasingly sore. My right knee in particular was becoming extremely painful and causing me to limp whether walking or running. In my mind I had no choice but to run on so I opted for pain killers and mentally trying to block out the pain.
At times like these I remind myself of why I'm running. I think of how long and hard I train, all the social activities I miss out on, all the money that's been raised for charity, of people who have had to suffer even worse pain in worse conditions, of our support crew giving up their week for us and of everyone back home following and supporting us. I quite often felt like stopping but I always seemed to find something in me strong enough to persevere and get to the next CP no matter how horrendous I was feeling.
There were many low moments for me during the run. I woke up on day two in a mentally bad place. I remember hugging James goodbye wanting to burst into tears at the thought of what we were up against for the next four days. 20km into day two I was suffering from severe mid-foot discomfort. Much to both our surprise and by a complete timing coincidence, Joerie's foot specialist friend who lived nearby, met us at the next CP and gave me a foot massage. Past that point, my foot had completely recovered. I was told only after finishing the run that something had actually moved out of place in my foot and had I not seen the foot specialist, I wouldn't have been able to carry on for the next half of the day, let alone the rest of the week. He was a godsend and it was meant to be that he was there then!
The changing point in the run for me was just after the 250km point on day three when Lucja and I hit rock bottom. As we were running into CP6, Suzan and Rhianon held up a sign saying 'You girls are superheroes’. We both broke down at the sign in floods of tears and from that point on I didn't stop crying for the next two hours. We were exhausted, sore, in pain and unable to regulate heat. But more than anything, it was a huge mental struggle. Trying to comprehend that we still had another 250km left to go was hard to digest so I found myself at an all time low.
In tears and a world of pain on day three with mum
For the final two days, we were joined by Lucja’s husband, Dion. This was a real game changer for Lucja, as her spirits subsequently picked up and the psychological impact of his support meant she felt surprisingly strong in comparison to the previous day. This was not the case for me however, as I felt my situation somewhat worsen knowing that I had become the weaker of the pair. As much as I love Dion, he doesn’t have quite the same impact on me as he does Lucja.
James could see I was getting worse and became such a big part of getting me through the final two days. He ran with me for 40km on the last day, the furthest he has ever run. If there is one thing I’ll take away from this challenge, it will be how powerful people close to you can be at influencing you to carry on when you think you have nothing left. Knowing my parents were at each checkpoint was another boost getting me through each day. I could see how proud James and my parents were so I couldn’t let them down by not finishing.
Forcing a smile at the start of day four
Lucja knew how much I was struggling and came into my room that evening to discuss the possibility of me not being able to continue on the last day. It was a hard conversation to have, knowing that I had put doubt in her mind about finishing together, but for me, there were no two ways about it; I had come this far so couldn’t give up now and despite all the pain over the last few days I had never considered not completing the run. So I started the next day and despite the pain never getting any easier, ticked off one checkpoint at a time all the way into Maastricht where we would reach the finish.
I'll never forget the moment we reached the finish line. Neither of us could quite believe we had made it but it was such a euphoric feeling to finally get there and not have to worry about anymore running! It's still hard to comprehend quite what we have achieved and put our bodies through so I think I'm going to be pinching myself for a while to remind myself we've just run the length of a country!
Having taken a serious battering to my body, I’ve dedicated a full two weeks of rest to allow my blisters to heal after being put on antibiotics to clear an infection and to give my knees a break since I have been limping around for the past two weeks. Our donations to The Pink Ribbon Foundation have reached over £7,500 so a huge thank you to those that have donated.
The whole experience was an emotional rollercoaster that I am still coming to terms with. Lucja and I have been on such a huge journey since we started running, so much of it together and I feel grateful to be able to have shared my greatest accomplishment to date with her.
I wonder when, or if, the reality of what we have accomplished will sink in, but I'll be forever proud to be able to say I’ve run the length of The Netherlands!