24th September, 2020

I did it and I loved doing it!

Sunday, October 29th, on my way to “the best day of my life”! I was well-prepared for the upcoming marathon. I had succeeded in moving my pain limit sensibly ever since the accident five years ago. But still doubt kept running through my mind as we left for New York, fear of the longtime injury resurfacing kept me busy. On top of that, the risk of a new injury was not unimaginable after following such an intensive training schedule. In any case there was a lot at stake: I was going to run the marathon at a sponsoring rate of 12.000 € for our good cause. My ultimate goal was therefore crossing the finish line. But I also wanted to be a role model, as a sportsman and as a socially active person, to my employees and collaborators.

New York had only just finished “trick or treating” or it was already getting ready for another big feast: The ING New York City Marathon. On Thursday, Friday or Saturday 38398 runners had to travel to the “Javets Convention Center” in Manhattan to pick up their race number. This was where the enthusiasm for the marathon of the other runners and the Yankees in general, got to me for the first time. I belonged to this diverse group with one identical goal, challenging our bodies into this consuming race at our very own pace. It was also at the Convention Center that a first form of stress started building inside of me. It was a healthy form that kept me alert and aware as not to make any sudden and wrong moves, preventing me from getting injured in this big city full of hidden dangers. That’s why in the next couple of days I stuck to shopping with my wife, so at least one of us was happy and relaxing. I also decided to pass on the mass events organized by several running organizations such as the “Friendship Run”, “The Marathon Eve Dinner” and the “Fireworks”. My focus was on November fifth and my ultimate goal, I had no time for diversions.

Saturday night we stuck our heads together and discussed at which places I would meet up with my wife and friends. My “fan club” wanted to be there when fatigue caught up with me, so they could support me and cheer me on. We decided they would take post on First Avenue and 6Oth Street, 25 km into the race. Our American friend Julie offered to drive me to the start. This saved me hours of nerve wracking travel by train and bus: a fantastic help!

After eating an elaborate breakfast, that mostly consisted out of “peperkoek” (a typical Belgian product that leans a bit towards the American gingerbread), I headed towards Staten Island at 7 am. Staten Island was the first of five boroughs to be crossed throughout the marathon. All runners would be departing from its famous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Heavy traffic caused us to arrive at the waiting area around 8.30 am, where I was to find the right departure area. The departure area was divided into 3 coloured sections ( blue, orange and green). The blue section where I was to start from hosted a couple of other facilities such as breakfast, drinks, medical aid,… There must be an organisational master brain at work behind the scenes of this race to have 38398 runners start all at once over the bridge.

Around 10 am I move toward the departure area. At 10.10 am all voices suddenly grow quiet at the sound of the “Starr spangled banner”. After listening to the bone chilling anthem people are deeply moved, the only noise to be heard is that of eight helicopters. Finally the start shot is given. Elation moves through the crowd as we slowly get moving. We are surprised by an extremely low flying US Air force Hercules bringing us runners a salute.

As I get moving an extreme adrenaline boost rips through my body, leaving no fiber untouched. A large number of VIPs and a live band applauds us. I have to walk for about fifteen minutes before the crowd thins out and I can run. I’m sure all of you have seen the images of the runners crossing the Verrazano Bridge, each one of them touching toes and heels with another one. The powerful structure trembles under my feet as I slowly get sucked into the mass of racers. Finally, after eight long frustrating years a dream has come true! There’s not much talking. Everyone concentrates on the first challenging hill ahead.

After two miles we get to the end of the bridge and we enter Brooklyn, after which we will run through another borough Queens. Two areas of New York I never visited during my three years stay in the beautiful state. The atmosphere has completely changed since we crossed the bridge, we are met by a large ecstatic crowd lining the roads. Unbelievable! Fire departments have driven out their fire trucks and cheer us on atop their ladders. Church communities have gathered and under accompaniment of little orchestra’s they encourage us to go on. The songs, rhythms, openness and enthusiasm remind me of the gospel culture. Lot’s of families take part in this feast. Every runner gets encouraging cries. Those who have their names written on their chest are personally screamed at. This incredible atmosphere stays throughout the whole 42 km. On some places police officers have to urge the crowds apart to let the runners go through, images comparable to the hysteria on the mountaintops of the Alps and Pyrenees in the Tour de France. Thousands of co-runners and the crazy crowds push me towards every next mile.

Fifteen km into the marathon my greatest fear turns into reality, the injury I had five years ago resurfaces. The muscles and tendons in my right leg start to hurt and bother me. Though the pain slows me down I try to stick to my rhythm and enjoy the feeling. The training for this marathon made me a mentally stronger person. I wanted so much to finish this race, and I was sure I would…

The Queensborough Bridge with its strong slope did my leg no good, on the contrary. About 15 miles into the trajectory we enter the pandemonium of Manhattan. On first Avenue the spectators line the road in four thick rows, as people push each other to catch a glimpse of the runners coming by. I meet up with my fan club at 60th Street. I am happy to talk to them for a couple of minutes, share my first impressions and have a bite to eat. My daughter Sofie who is tracking me on the internet in Belgium calls my wife to give her an update and is very surprised to hear my voice on the phone. I take the time to have a short talk with her and then, without speaking of any pain, I continue for the next 18 km.

At my own pace I keep running down first Avenue. Luckily the marathon organisation provided drinking facilities every two miles. Throughout the run I keep enjoying the encouragements and many groups of people along the road. Sometimes I try to forget my own pain and encourage and motivate other runners who seem to have an even harder time than I. I keep telling myself to stick to my own rhythm and pace as to not overdo myself. One of my main aims during this race was not to exploit my body ( I had to be able to go shopping with my wife and friends the next day). After what seemed an endless first Avenue I start looking forward to run through the Bronx, a neighbourhood you normally don’t pass through as a tourist. The enthusiasm is no less in this part of the Big Apple. On the contrary, the residents have gone to great lengths to “sell” their neighbourhood. Not only do they cheer us on but they also provide us with additional beverages and food. What strikes me is that the Bronx have turned into a much cleaner area then before, maybe we can relate that to Bill Clinton putting up office there?!

I have five miles to go of which three very steep ones. I manage to drag my body along by making sure my mental strength prevails over my crippled body. I think of the sick children I’m running for, they suffer so much more during the months or years they are battling cancer. I want to make it. I want to cross that line. In central park the family that is hosting us goes crazy when they see me running by struggling to finish the last kilometres. Julie and Drew both ran the marathon about ten years ago and understand that it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. One mile ahead of me the finish line awaits me and I meet up with my wife and friends for the last time. They give me the Belgian flag, hoping this will give me the extra boost I need to get there.

Getting to the finish line was a very emotional moment. With all this happiness flowing through my body I even forget to cross the official finish. The speaker asks me to cross it. Emotions of pain, happiness and joy overwhelm me.

Mission accomplished: a modest contribution to the uttermost vital innovative scientific research into new therapies for fighting cancer amongst children.

I did it and I loved doing it! But it needs mentioning that without the support of all of you it would not have been possible to achieve my goal. Therefore, I would like to thank all of my friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances and sympathizers sincerely. A special thanks should be attributed to the Coburn and Engelmann-Ulfers families for hosting us in their lovely homes.

Greets, Pol

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