Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Beer Lovers' Marathon

On June 9, I ran the Beer Lovers’ Marathon in Liège, Belgium.  This race was inspired by Marathon du Medoc in France, where you can sample French wines at every aid station.  After doing that race, a group of runners in Belgium wanted to create something similar in their own country.  Since Belgium is famous for its beers, the Beer Lovers’ Marathon has beer tasting stops.

Thursday, June 6

I arrived in Belgium after an overnight flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam and a short flight from there to Brussels.  This was my first visit to Belgium, so I spent two nights in Brussels before continuing to Liège.

I took a train into town from the airport.  I stayed at the Hilton Brussels City, which is just a few blocks from the north train station.

After checking into my room at the Hilton, I changed into clean clothes before beginning my sightseeing.  I find it helps to adjust to the local time zone if I spend some time in the sun, so I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the city center.

My first stop was Grand Place.  This is Brussels’ town square.  It’s majestic, with its guilded buildings, and it’s always busy.

After exploring Grand Place, I walked a bit further to reach the famous Manneken Pis statue, of a boy taking a piss.  Sometimes people dress the statue in clothes.

I also saw the less famous Het Zinneke and Jeanneke Pis statues.

No walking tour of central Brussels would be complete without a visit to the stock exchange.

By now, it was raining, so I stopped for dinner.  I sample local pizza wherever I go, so my first meal in Brussels was at an Italian restaurant with brick-oven pizza.  Don’t worry.  There was still plenty of time to sample local foods.

After dinner, I stopped at a beer bar, where I had a sampling of different Belgian beers.  It rained for the rest of the evening, so I took my time at the bar before walking back to the hotel.

Friday, June 7

I woke up at 4:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 7:00, I finally got up and ate breakfast.  Between lack of sleep and the seven hour time zone difference, I felt really sluggish.

After breakfast, I went for a long walk to see if the fresh air would help wake me up.  It helped, but not enough.

In some cities, I go out of my way to see certain things.  In other cities, I just explore streets at random.  In Brussels, I was mostly just exploring.  Walking around Brussels, I saw a number of murals.

For lunch, I had a waffle at a café that was inside an elaborate shopping mall.

In the afternoon, I left the city center to go for a longer walk.  By chance, my route took me across a canal and right past this Gothic cathedral.

I walked through a large park.  In the center of the park, there was a building called the Castle of Laeken.  There was an interesting building near it, but I don’t know what it was called.

My destination was Atomium.  This large structure was built for the 1958 World’s Fair.  It depicts the configuration of atoms in an iron crystal.

On my way back, I took a different route, which gave me some different views.  The iron balconies on this building reminded me of buildings in Barcelona.  The style is French.

It started to rain, so I hurried back to the hotel before it got too heavy.  There was a thunderstorm in the forecast, so I took a break at the hotel.  I was walking for hours and never felt tired, but as soon as I sat down indoors, I felt sleepy.  I think the fresh air and exercise was keeping me awake.

When there was a break in the rain, I walked to dinner.  After dinner, I went to Delirium Café.  This taproom holds the world record for the largest beer selection, with more than 2,000 beers.  Their beer list is 157 pages long.  I order a traditional Lambic, which is hard to find outside of Belgium.  They’re kind of sour, so it’s not a beer most tourists would order.  The bartender was so impressed with my beer selection that he let me have it on the house.

Finally, for dessert, I had a waffle with whipped cream and strawberries.

Saturday, June 8

I still couldn’t sleep through the night, but I woke up feeling better than I did on Friday.  After breakfast, I left Brussels and took a train to Liège.  It took just over an hour to get there.  In Liège, I stayed at Hotel Neuvice, which was just a few blocks from Place Saint-Lambert, where the race started and finished.

The hotel was located on a narrow street.  To get there, I had to walk down an alley that was even more narrow.

It was too early to check in, so I left my bags at the hotel and went to a pizzeria for lunch.  After lunch, I explored the neighborhood around the hotel.  I found a beer bar with wifi called Beer Lovers’ Café.  That seemed like the perfect spot to wait until I could get into my hotel room.

When my room was ready, I unpacked and headed over to Place Saint-Lambert to get in line for packet pickup.  Besides our race bibs, we each got a T-shirt, hat and program.  The program not only listed sites we would pass during the race, but also which beers we would sample at each of the aid stations.

This is a cupless race, so every runner got a small cup to use at the aid stations for water and/or beer.

On the back of the cup, it showed suggested fill levels.

To hold onto the cups while running, we each got a rubber strap that clips onto a belt.

After stopping at the hotel to organize my clothes, I returned to Place Saint-Lambert, where they had a summer beer lovers’ festival.  There were dozens of beers you could try.  You needed to buy a souvenir beer glass for 3 Euros, but then the beers were only 2 Euros each.

Next, I went to the pre-race pasta party.  I usually skip these, in favor of going to a restaurant for dinner.  This one was worth making an exception.  They had three kinds of pasta, free beer, and a live band.

Sunday, June 9

Sunday was race day.  Breakfast at the hotel started at 8:00. Normally, I would have to skip breakfast, but the race didn’t start until 9:30.  I don’t usually like to race with a full stomach, but this race was an exception.  I was going to have 16 beer samples during the race, plus another beer the finish line.  I needed to have some food in my stomach first.

Some aspects of this race make it difficult to run fast.  Most of the course is flat, but there’s a long set of steps that you have to walk, and there are places where the course is narrow, so you have to go through single file.  Also, I was planning to sample all the beers, so I knew that would have an effect on me in the later miles.

The time limit is six and a half hours, which is fairly generous.  They also had intermediate cut-off times at 21K and 33K.  My only goals were to finish and have fun.  I was prepared to take as much time as I needed, as long as I finished within the time limits.

Speaking of having fun, runners are encouraged to wear costumes.  This year’s theme was “Run as a Hero,” so many of the costumes were superheroes, but there were all kinds of costumes.

I sometimes wear cheetah print tights, and I have a matching hat.  For this race, I decided to complete the look by buying a T-shirt with a similar print.

I started the race running at a steady pace.  There was only one aid station that didn’t have a beer tasting.  That was at 2K.  This aid station, called the breakfast stop, had water and croissants.

The first beer tasting was at 5K, which was at the base of the Bueren Steps.  After drinking my beer, I refilled my cup with water and began walking up the 374 steps.

When I thought I was at the top, I turned a corner, and saw a hill leading to more steps.

Just before the last set of steps, there were volunteers with pitchers of water.  I worked up a sweat on the steps, so I was happy to get another water stop.  After the last set of steps, I reached a scenic overlook.

After the steps, there was a long gradual downhill section, but at about 8K, I began a long hill.  I tried to run it, but it was too tiring.  I had to take walking breaks.  After this hill, I was rewarded with the next beer stop.

Each time I reached an aid station, I had a 10 cl. beer tasting and then followed it with about 20 cl. of water, using the same cup.  That not only rinsed the cup for my next beer tasting, but also ensured I was hydrating with something besides beer.  Temperatures were in the low 60s, and the outfit I was wearing was quite warm.  I had to be a little careful about overheating.

The aid stations were festive.  Some of them had live bands.  Others had recorded music.  At the 9K aid station, I paused to take pictures of the band as well as some middle-aged ninja mutant turtles.  Then I took my first bathroom break.  When you’re drinking both beer and water, sooner or later it goes through you.

Now I was high above the city, which brought a change in scenery.

Shortly after 9K, I reached the first of a few narrow sections, where there isn’t room to pass.  This one was a brief section of single-track trail between two tall hedges.

I knew from the course map that there would be another section where the course gets narrow.  Just past 13K, we ran through a narrow alley that was only a meter wide.  I thought that was it, but later we had a narrow section of single-track trail through the forest.  I was surprised how long it was.  We must have been on that trail for at least a kilometer.  There wasn’t any room to pass, so I felt obligated to keep up with the runners ahead of me.  The pace was tiring, but it didn’t want to hold up traffic.

In general, the first half of the course was the tougher half.  It included the Bueren Steps, the only long hill, and the longest section of single-track trail.  The section half was flatter, although it still had some short sections of trail and some tiring cobblestones.

Other than the steps and that one long hill, I ran the first half of the race.  The cut-off time for 21K was 2:40.  That’s a fairly easy pace, but it’s not nearly as generous as the cut-off time at the finish.  You couldn’t do too much walking in the first half.

Shortly before the halfway mark, we crossed a bridge onto Ile Monsin.  This is an island in the middle of the Meuse River.

I reached the 21K mark in 2:12.  That put me about 28 minutes ahead of the cut-off.  At this point, I could afford to take walking breaks, but I felt good.  I kept running, albeit at an easy pace.

After leaving Ile Monsin, we continued along the bank of the Meuse for about two more kilometers.  Then we crossed a bridge over to the other side.

The first half of the race had a more difficult course, but the second half had more beer stops.  There were six beer stops in the first half, but ten more in the second half.

For the next 15 kilometers, we were mostly running alongside the river, sometimes getting good views.

Just past 31K, we began an out-and-back section.  I started to see runners coming back from the turnaround.  At 33K, I reached the southernmost point on our route.  This was the second checkpoint with a cut-off time.  We had to get there in 4:30 to continue.  I got there in 3:31.

As I left that aid station, a volunteer put a red wrist band on me.  That signified that I made it through both cut-offs on time.  You needed that wristband to get into the post-race party.

The cut-off time for the finish line was 6:30.  I had just over nine kilometers to go, and almost three hours to do it.  I could easily have walked the rest of the way, but I kept running.

At roughly 35K, we ran close to the 31K aid station.  I didn’t realize it, but this was the end of the out-and-back section.  I was supposed to go straight ahead, but I turned right and re-entered the aid station.  I needed to make a bathroom break, and I remembered seeing bathrooms there.

After my bathroom stop, I went through the aid station and had another beer tasting.  It didn’t seem right.  Every beer stop was supposed to be a different beer, but this was my second time drinking the same beer at this aid station.

As I left the aid station, I saw lots of runners coming toward me, but none going the direction I was running.  The arrows on the pavement were only pointing in one direction.

I came to a stop and looked back toward the aid station.  I didn’t see any runners coming from the aid station.  After waiting for about a minute, I realized I must have missed a turn.  I started walking back to the aid station.  I could have saved time by running, but I didn’t want to run a section I had already run once.

As I got back to the aid station, I watched for the runners coming back from the 33K turnaround.  Instead of turning right to enter the aid station (as I had done), they went straight.  That’s where I made a wrong turn.  I was too focused on making a bathroom stop.

In general, there were course marshals at any place where you could make a wrong turn.  At other places where I didn’t immediately see which way to go, they were always quick to point me in the right direction.  There was a course marshal at this junction too.  She probably didn’t stop me because she saw I was heading for the bathroom.

As I got back to that junction, the runners who were still outbound turned left, but I turned right to get back on course.  The course marshal started to tell me I was going the wrong way.  I pointed to my wristband, so she would realize I had already done the out-and-back section.

The next aid station was at 37K.  This one had a variety of solid food, including meat, bread, and cantaloupe.  I paused long enough to eat a slice of bread.  I also posed for a picture with one of the volunteers.

Later in the race, I as crossed a bridge, I ran above an aid station I had been through earlier.  As you can see, each aid station was like a small party.

The next aid station was at 39K.  The beer at this aid station was Chimay Dorée.  That’s a Trappist beer, which means it was brewed by monks at a Trappist monastery.  This was no ordinary Trappist beer.  It’s what they call a Patersbier.  That’s a beer the monks brew for their own consumption instead of selling it to fund the monastery.  Instead of drinking the beer at the aid station and filling my cup with water, I took a walking break while sipping the beer slowly.

For the rest of the race, there were aid stations every kilometer.  At 40K, I drank the beer sample and followed it with water.  The 41K aid station came almost immediately.  They couldn’t have been a full kilometer apart.  I couldn’t drink more water this soon, so I just drank the beer.

The last aid station was at 42K.  I don’t usually stop with only 200 meters to go, but this aid station not only had another beer to sample; it also had waffles.  There are different styles of Belgian waffles.  These were Liège waffles, which have a sugary coating.

The last 200 meters were confusing.  I knew where the finish line banner was, but the course turned to the left.  Then I saw marking on the pavement indicating a U-turn.  After turning off the road and onto a terrace, I didn’t see a way forward.  It seemed like a dead end.  I saw a set of steps to my right, so I headed toward them.  The volunteers were waving me to run forward instead, but it still seemed like a dead end.  It was actually a ramp, and I was supposed to run over the top and slide down.  That wasn’t obvious. Finally one volunteer told me I could either take the slide or take the steps.  I took the steps.  At the bottom of the steps, I had to make two quick turns, and then I could run under the finish line banner.  After finishing, I looked back and saw the slide.

I finished the race in 4:48:06.  I could have been faster if I took the slide.  I could have been faster if I didn’t make a wrong turn.  I also lingered at some of the aid stations, but none of that mattered.  This race wasn’t about time.  This one was about having fun and sampling Belgian beers.  It was my slowest marathon so far this year, but it was also the most fun.

The finisher medal incorporated the Run as a Hero theme.  It also included a bottle opener.

At the post-race party, I had a brat with lots of toppings.  I also had another beer.

I didn’t know how I would feel after this race.  I was worried I would be staggering back to my hotel.  In fact, I felt fine.  I consumed almost two liters of beer, and some of the beer samples were quite strong.  I think it helped that it was spread out over a five hour period, which gave my body time to metabolize some of it as I was running.

Here’s a complete list of the beer samples during the race:

I showered and changed clothes, but didn’t go out again until I was done making frequent trip to the bathroom.  When I was ready, I had pizza for dinner at the Beer Lovers’ Café.

The summer beer lovers’ festival was still going on, so I stopped by there after dinner for one last beer.  They still had several good Belgian beers I hadn’t tried, and it’s hard to argue with two Euros for a beer.

Monday, June 10

After breakfast, I went on a two hour guided tour of Liège.  This was something I paid for when I registered for the marathon.  It only cost seven Euros, which seemed like a good deal.

I learned that Liège was a prosperous city during the industrial revolution.  Its industries included coal mining, steel, and weapons, such as these two cannons.

This is the home of a man who became wealthy selling gunpowder.

Saint Bartholomew’s Church was built in the 11th century.  The bishop of this church was once the most important political figure in the region.

Eglise Notre-Dame-de-l'Immaculée-Conception is an example of Baroque architecture.

This is the courtyard of the city hall.  When I arrived on Saturday, there was a wedding going on here.

The last thing I saw was the Palace of the Provincial Bishops.  The tour wasn’t done yet, but I had to leave,so I could check out of my hotel.

After the tour, I checked out from my hotel and took the train back to Brussels, where I checked into the Hilton again.

It was a nice day, and I still had half the afternoon, so I once again set out walking, exploring central Brussels randomly.  I stopped occasionally to take pictures of churches and interesting murals.

I knew I was getting into the touristy part of the city, when I saw a large crowd of people in one of the intersections.  They were all trying to get a picture of the Manneken Pis statue.  Since it was decorated differently now, I also took another picture.

In this part of town, there are waffle and chocolate shops everywhere.  I didn’t think think it was possible to combine waffles, chocolate, and Manneken Pis into one shameless advertisement, until I saw this.

I thought a waffle sounded good, but I went to this place instead,

One day after having a Liège waffle with beer, I had a Brussels waffle with strawberries and whipped cream.

The Scottish football team was in Brussels for a match with the Belgian team.  Several fans traveled from Scotland to watch the match.  I saw some of them kicking a ball around at Grand Place.

I didn’t have a plan for dinner, but as it got closer to dinner time, I walked past a restaurant called Mozart, that specializes in BBQ ribs.

When I finished dinner, it was raining.  I didn’t bring a jacket or umbrella, so I walked back to the hotel as quickly as I could. After that, I stayed in for the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, June 11

After breakfast, I had an all-day small group guided tour of Battle of the Bulge battlefield sites and memorials.  My dad fought in this battle 75 years ago, and I’ve read a few books about it, so I had a personal interest in seeing some of these towns with my own eyes.  Ironically, I was much closer to them when I was staying in Liège, but it’s easier to find guided tours that are based out of Brussels.

I was picked up at my hotel at 7:15 AM.  After our guide picked up the other five passengers, we headed to the Ardennes region.  Our first stop was the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial.  Thousands of American soldiers are buried here.

We made several stops in the vicinity of Elsenborn Ridge, including the barracks at Camp Elsenborn and the towns of Elsenborn and Bütgenbach.  Bütgenbach is where my father’s unit was making camp on December 16, 1944, when the battle began.

We saw monuments dedicated to three American divisions that fought to defend this area, including the 99th Infantry Division, which was my father’s division.

Next, we drove a short distance into Germany to a forest where we saw some of the concrete anti-tank barriers that were once part of the Siegfried Line.

Our next stop was Malmedy, were we visited the site of the Malmedy Massacre.  While we were in Malmedy, we stopped for lunch.

From Malmedy, we retraced the route taken by the infamous Kampfgruppe Pieper, which broke through the American Lines rapidly, but was under order to take no prisoners.  We followed their advance to the river where they were turned back, because American engineers had already blown up the bridges.

Along the way, we saw this Tiger II tank.  It’s armor was so thick that American shells made dents, but couldn’t penetrate it.  Its downfall was its high fuel consumption.  It still sits in the spot where it was abandoned 75 years ago, after running out of gas.

Next, we drove to Luxembourg City, where’s there’s another American military cemetery.  This is where General Patton is buried.

From Luxembourg, we drove to Bastogne.  This city was vital to the German advance, because several roads intersected here.  American troops were surrounded here for several days, but never surrendered.  In the center of town, we saw a Sherman tank and a monument to General McAuliffe.

 Our main stop in Bastogne was the Bastogne War Museum, where we spent a little over an hour.

Our last stop was in a forest between Bastogne and Foy.  Here you can still see the remnants of foxholes used by the American troops who were under siege here.

It was a long day.  I didn’t get back to my hotel in Brussels until 8:30 PM.

Wednesday, June 12

To trip to Europe would be complete without a long travel day to get home.  On my morning flight to Brussels, I saw more Scottish football fans.  In contrast to their jubilant mood on Monday, they were now somber.  Their team lost to Belgium 3-0.

I’m always conflicted as to whether to schedule a layover that might be too tight or schedule a longer layover.  This time, I opted for the long layover, which made for a very long travel day.  On the bright side, it gave me time to work on this race report.

Race Statistics
Distance:  42.2 kilometers
Time:  4:48:06
Average Pace:   6:47 per kilometer (10:55 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  375
Countries:  35