January 8-9, 2021, covered approximately 96km in total. Overtaken by circumstances.
During the Devil’s Challenge version 2 in 2020, it became increasingly likely that the Legends trail version in February 2021 would probably not take place due to Covid. The Dune hopper concept presented itself as an alternative. This race is organized by ultra runners Maarten Schön, Marek Vis and François Flisijn, but I have let this race go because of the Legends in previous years. For me, usually the smaller, rougher and more simply organised, the more I like it.
The Dune hopper runs from Hoek van Holland along and through the dunes to Den Helder, a narrow but beautiful strip of nature in the Netherlands. François Flisijn is a participant who filmed the ‘long version’ of 365km from a helicopter last year. You will get a wonderful overview of our sea coastline from Zeeland. But as an ultratrail, this is a beast of a winter race that is systematically underestimated by many participating runners. 224 Kilometers in 48 hours max: mostly loose or even frozen sand with many nasty climbs in the dunes and also wind, rain, freezing cold, snow, hail and sleet. Hypothermia is often lurking and especially with this version that you can start freely with a possible GPS tracker that follows and records your completed course, but which you have to control completely in self-autonomy! Calling 112 may really be necessary and that is why this race is only intended for experienced ultra runners.
I decided to complete the race with Isa, with whom I ran The Great Escape in the Belgian Ardennes (100 miles) last September. We have jointly trained many distances for the Devil’s Challenge. We are not (yet) completely attuned to these kinds of challenges and we know that there is a risk involved. She has ‘only’ done a 100 miles twice, but as a geologist she is in her element under the tough conditions that we have already experienced together. She is also very good at navigating. We work out a plan B in case someone drops out, but we also realize that there is little plan B for this race except walking fast and yelling ‘mama’.
I can run a bit faster than Isa and walk easily on asphalt, while for Isa asphalt is like Kryptonite for Superman. But if you have to go somewhere in a forest in the middle of the low bushes, she will go through it like a Gazelle. She can run for a long time and we have already walked 35-40km with an average of 7km with hills several times. Due to our practical planning, we can only start in the afternoon in Hoek van Holland on Friday 8 January and that further reduces the plan B options: We mainly arrive in cities and villages when everything is closed!
We have parked 1 car near the track in Driehuis at 110km. This serves both as an essential drink station and as a post to get out if necessary. I also have family in The Hague who set up a drink station for us at 27km, a drink station at 72km (bag left by a friend in the dunes at night, the car at 110km, a friend with a drink station at 150km and another friend at 170km. Doable, but with a backpack of 7-8 kg. The snackbars or take-out food places are closed and almost all public taps along the coast are closed. Then you sometimes have to carry 4 liters of water with you.
Isa had some heel pain during the last training sessions, but walking went fine and fast. The main argument for me as plan B to go together was that theoretically you can still walk at 6 km/h.
You can easily lose 2 days by making a planning and packing! Food, water, energy bars, wraps, sandwiches, gels, alcohol-free beer (the liquid sandwich), first aid kit, clothing, insulating clothing, waterproof clothing, gloves, waterproof gloves, rescue blanket etc. At the same time, you try to pack as light as possible, but not so light that you take unnecessary risks in this far-reaching autonomy. I decide to start running a long distance with road shoes for the first time, trail shoes offer hardly any benefits on this trail and wear out quickly on asphalt.
In accordance with the permitted regulations, we leave from Belgium to Tilburg and pick up 2 Trackers from Linda, Maarten Schön’s wife, and have a nice coffee and a short chat. We drive on to Driehuis, park the car and take public transport to Hoek van Holland. It is a beautiful sunny day and it has been a long time since I saw several stations with public transport and I also notice how much has been built in the Netherlands! This is a first time for the Walloon Isa and public transport provides a good overview of the route we will have to deal with.
In the end we leave about 1 1/2 hours later than originally planned. The sun goes down and it cools down soon
Quite soon we are awaited by Bart who walks with us for about 10 km. Bart plans to walk this route himself at the end of the month and it’s nice to leave the navigation to someone else. It is also a real mental boost when people spontaneously come to encourage and/or help you along the way! In the meantime, I keep paying attention not to start too quickly, because Bart doesn’t have a backpack and I do have a heavy one on my body, while the pace we walk together still feels nice but imperceptibly boosts my heart rate. This pace is also too high for Isa with a full pack. It remains difficult to run at about 2/3 of the speed that feels comfortable at that moment!
The first 14km are easy and consist mainly of asphalt. The first stretches of dune are covered from about 14 km, you will see that you are somewhere in the middle between Hoek van Holland and Scheveningen. But with a number of loops to go, Scheveningen is further than in a straight line. But the runs in the dunes are also going good. On arrival in Scheveningen harbor the trees decorated with Christmas lights form a beautiful spectacle and shortly afterwards a number of cousins await us with standing table, snacks, coffee and water and decorated with lights and Hawaiian wreath. A very nice surprise, especially because of the way it is done. For one niece, it is the first birthday she celebrates on which she survived a cardiac arrest. That makes it extra special.I am still amazed by the bond we have, but we’re starting to cool down pretty quickly. After about 20 minutes we continue, still cheerful and fresh. Very soon afterwards we meet Remco at the entrance of the dunes who has also been waiting for us with water and refreshments. Unbelievable that there are so many people who follow this and this gives a mental boost! We like to take a few more Twix bars from him and he tells us how cool he thinks it is that we do this. I left with about 3L of water up to 72km.
The sand starts to freeze slightly and at that moment I still think: mmm, that’s actually good, because then it is less difficult than walking through loose sand. But soon after, a heavy rainstorm comes and all the streets and roads that were already frozen turn into one big ice rink. We are forced to walk most of the time or look for the still unfrozen edges with grass or something that does provide grip and this immediately results in a completely different muscle use, while the average speed plummets. It also continues to freeze and the frozen sand now feels just like frozen snow with thousands of deep footprints in it. This is terribly heavy on the ankles!
Pretty soon after, it becomes difficult for Isa to keep running in this phase. I should have paid more attention to taking it easy with Bart, but if we go speed hiking now, there is still no problem. That’s what we do. The winding dune roads through Meijendel are beautiful. But after several hours of speed walking on the frozen sand and cramped walking on the ice on the paved paths and roads, I get huge pains in my right psoas. Never had it before, but something I recognize from before on the left side. In any case, it is caused by a combination of walking uphill in frozen sand and walking on ice with cramped outstretched legs. I look for on-the-spot solutions by relaxing more where possible, applying pressure with my fist and occasionally stretching the psoas. Fortunately I manage to master this after a while, but it remains a concern in this early phase and I will continue to monitor it.
It is now starting to freeze so hard that the water that I carry in the bottles on my chest is also starting to freeze. I pull out the whole bottle, unscrew the cap and drink from the bottle which is slowly turning into an ice slush. I still manage to thaw one mouthpiece by keeping it in my mouth for a long time, but it’s practically a lost cause with this freezing cold. This means that we will immediately be faced with some water shortage and that it is therefore better to continue walking to keep water consumption low. However, we now find ourselves in a downward spiral: due to the terrain conditions we are forced to walk more slowly, which means that we cool down too much compared to the weather conditions.
At 72km I agreed with a friend to leave a bag with water and some calorie content between the thorn bushes. I’m of course worried that with this freezing cold we only risk finding some blocks of ice there. We look for an accident for at least 20 minutes and cool down even further. The friend concerned appears to have made a mistake later in the day and the lack of this drink station throws a spanner in the works. But I could have sent a message in advance to confirm just to be sure, so that was partly my fault. But covering 80km/14hrs with effective 1.5L of water is really difficult. Meanwhile, our average speed continues to drop in the dunes, we sometimes don’t get past 4 km/h and the nice margin we had with an average of 6.5-7 km/h drops to 5.3 km/h. We are in danger of entering a zone where we have to race against the clock to stay within 48 hours. Isa is slowly but surely starting to cool down even more and her heel is hurting a lot and our average speed drops even further. Stopping is now becoming a real option, but I want to postpone it for the car at 110km.
But in the meantime the dunes remain beautiful and it is full of deer. You can walk off the trails in this area and on the GPS we also follow the marked lines as accurately as possible, while there are no trails and you sometimes have to walk around a lot of thorn bushes. The arrival at gnome village in the silk in the Amsterdam water supply dunes provides a fantastic spectacle: on a stretch of approximately 100 by 100 m there are garden gnomes in various colors and sizes and in between are about 15 deer. The deer are used to people, but all remain a bit wary.
Arriving at Zandvoort we miss an opening in the fence with a barrier for the animals and we continue to walk hopelessly in and out of the park. Although Isa and I had discussed plan B to go on alone, in the end I clearly decided to embark on this adventure together. Going on “for my own glory” and letting her serve as a mobile drink station just doesn’t feel right. Moreover, she herself is quite annoyed that we are not going to make it. I’m at peace with it, I’m also not sure if my own psoas will keep it. We decide to take the train to Driehuis in Zandvoort to avoid further destruction and hypothermia unnecessarily.
SHOWERING IN AMSTERDAM
Hypothermic, I phone a friend in Amsterdam to ask if we can come over to warm up again. We can also take a shower at his place. Only then do we realize how devastated and hypothermic we have become from this adventure!
But the next day I speak to Maarten on the phone and the option for a resit opens up. Isa in particular has a hangover from her DNF and I believe that with what we have learned we still have a chance. On to the next!