Training in Brussels during the years 1986 to 1988, when I reached my peak as a distance runner, I had everything I needed to succeed:
- Wonderful places to run plus all the facilities I needed for my cross training
- A perfect training partner (my husband Paul)
- A spartan lifestyle
I’ll describe our Brussels lifestyle in a future post. Today, I’ll write about the places I ran and did my other workouts, and explain why Paul was such an ideal training partner for me at that time.
Paul and I met during the Toronto Marathon (my one and only marathon) in 1983. It was his second marathon. He had read about my race plan in the newspaper, and decided since he had the same finishing time goal as me, he might as well run with me. (He had a girlfriend at the time, so I’m sure there were no ulterior motives!)
We ended up running together until about 38K, when the pain in my feet became so extreme that I had to let him move ahead. After we finished in 2:38 and 2:40 respectively, he visited me briefly in the medical tent. We started dating in the summer of 1984 and married in 1986—but that’s another story.
Paul had been an avid runner since the age of 10. He had a lot of natural speed, and in school competed at virtually every distance from 100m to 3,000m and cross country. He was a national-level midget runner in Quebec for a couple of years, but a bad knee injury hampered his development after his early teenage years. The distance that he was probably ideally suited for physiologically was the 1,500m. He had quite a lot of success in that event during his university years. He also did very well in the 400m hurdles, where his long legs (he’s almost 6’4″) were an advantage.
However, Paul always wanted to be a marathoner. Psychologically, that was his event. He simply loved running for a long time; three-hour runs where he could travel through beautiful places and get lost in contemplation were his favourite kind of training.
By 1987 he had a marathon PB of 2:25. That year, travelling by train to various cities within an hour or two from Brussels, he finished about seven marathons with times in the 2:26 to 2:38 range. He treated these races like training runs, sometimes making the decision to race only the day before the event.
Needless to say, Paul understood that an elite athlete had to have good places to run. He was also familiar with my frequent injuries and made sure I had good facilities for cross training near the places we lived in Brussels.
Now I’ll describe my running areas, my gym, the pool I went to, and the types of workouts I did.
The majority of my running workouts were done in the Forêt des Soignes, a huge forested area criss-crossed with trails, wide gravel paths and paved paths. Paul and I typically cycled from our house to the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics (where he was doing his Ph.D. work), a distance of 10K.
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, we left our house at about 7 a.m. We could bike most of the way to the Institute on paved paths through the forest. The leisurely bike ride was an ideal warmup. After arriving at the Institute, we stretched inside for a few minutes and then crossed the street to begin our workout. Once a week, we did a 10-mile run together. We never measured this course; comparing my times on it with courses I ran at home, I would estimate it was about 10½ miles. When we did this run together, we went all-out, right from the start. Paul was usually in better shape than I. Depending on our relative states of fitness, sometimes he gave me a small head start. Often, we started together and he gained a huge lead on me in the first two miles, but I could catch him near the end of the run and we would push hard for a final sprint to the finish. Every run was an opportunity for a new PB!
I remember one time a fellow student of Paul’s at the Institute, a Norwegian guy named Aspen, decided to join us on one of our 10-mile runs. Aspen was a top cross-country skiier. He thought he was in good shape, and he wanted to challenge himself by training with “real” runners. Paul showed him the course carefully on a map in case he got separated from us.
On this particular day, Paul shot ahead right from “the gun.” He was soon out of sight. I was pushing the pace hard, and Aspen stuck with me. As we approached the top of a small rise about two miles into the route, he panted, “Go on—I’ll see you later.” Being the pitiless training partner that I am, I continued running at a brutal pace, trusting that Aspen could find his way out of the forest. I don’t remember if I caught Paul that day or not. Aspen appeared at the Institute not long after we got back. From then on, he ran with Paul on Paul’s “easy” days.
Paul did this 10-mile run every morning; on the days I wasn’t running with him, he did the run for enjoyment. I alternated the 10-mile run workouts with interval workouts. For interval training, I did loops of various lengths within the forest. For example, I might do a 20-minute warmup run and then 6 x 1,000m with a 1-minute rest.
After we finished our workout, we could shower together at the Institute (there was only a men’s shower, but no one else was ever in there), and have a hot chocolate in the cafeteria. Then I would ride my bike home and Paul would start his day’s work.
On these Tuesday/Thursday running days, I usually did a second running workout late in the afternoon; you can read details in the Training Log.
Paul and I could also run on gravel paths starting very close to our house, and by these routes reach the Forêt de Soignes without having to cross any major roads. On Sundays we typically did a long run starting from our house. I would stay with Paul for 45 minutes and then turn back, while he would continue on to complete a 3-hour run, maintaining a pace of 6:30–7:00 min/mile.
Saturdays we jogged a short distance to a nearby 370m gravel track where our workout was 6 x 4½ laps with two minutes’ rest between each run, followed by 6 x 100m for speed at the end.
On my “easy” days I usually did both a gym workout and a swim workout; Fridays I allowed myself to be a slacker by choosing one workout or the other. The “American Gym” (as it was called) was an easy one-mile walk from our house. When I wasn’t injured, I usually did an hour of weights and core exercises, doing few leg weights because my legs were invariably exhausted. This gym was usually almost empty when I went at mid-day; I don’t recall talking to anyone there very much. It was difficult for me to make casual conversation with my limited French.
The closest pool to us in Brussels was about a two-mile walk away. I enjoyed getting out at dawn and walking through the streets and woodsy paths. However, I hated that pool with a passion because it was cold! Every minute of being immersed in that water was pure misery for me, and I marvelled that everyone else seemed to be quite comfortable swimming there no matter how long they were in the water. I could usually last for about 35 minutes, swimming as fast as I could. I was always frozen when I got out. Luckily, there were huge radiators around the pool. I used to lie on one for about 15 minutes after my swim until I stopped shaking. Still, those swims made me so hypothermic that I often jogged home with my backpack because I couldn’t keep warm enough by walking.
All of this made for a pretty tough training regime, but it turned me into an aerobic monster. My next running post will explain how the training was just part of our total spartan* Brussels lifestyle.
* Not spartan enough to exclude the superb Belgian chocolate