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Sometimes a marathon just isn’t long enough. I can’t remember what gave us the idea of doing the 100 kilometer (62 mile) Deathmarch, or Dodentocht in Bornem, Belgium. It might have been a comment from a marching legend, or a chance sighting of the patch worn proudly on a backpack. At any rate, I told myself that I wouldn’t leave Europe without completing the 100-kilometer march, or meet Death in the attempt. When I questioned the large group of marathoners at my company, several people actually sounded interested, while most gave me a look that reminded me how much a marathon hurt to complete, and that two and a half of them in succession would be absurd.
Two coworkers took me up on the challenge, and we completed training runs of marathon distance and even longer in the weeks leading up to the event. On the day of the march, Wilson, Hensley, and I drove up to Bornem, Belgium, and found our way to the registration tent. For such a long distance, the time limit to complete the event was 24 hours, and the march itself started at 9 o’clock at night. I stuffed my pockets with flashlight, map, gummy bears, and water bottle, and with our start cards on a chain around our necks; we joined the throngs headed to the start.
At the gun, we were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with people, and it took miles of walking before we could get much clear space around us. Wilson couldn’t hold himself back, and took off running. Hensley and I played it a little safer and walked until the crowds settled a little more. It was dark almost immediately, and only the streetlights and stray flashlights lit our way under cloudy skies. The weather was perfect for running, and a T-shirt and windbreaker kept us warm enough when walking.
Along the flat trails and small towns, Belgians were out in force to cheer us on or just watch the hordes of crazy people in a crazy quest to walk all night and all day. The bars spread their music out into street parties, and we ran to the beat of the loudspeakers past the crowds dancing on the sidewalks. Families sat on their front lawns to watch the spectacle, among small tables littered with wine glasses and lit with candles. Every six miles or so, a checkpoint provided a relief from marching in the form of drinks and food. We munched on various snacks including apples, whole carrots, peaches, fruit pies, candy bars, juice, and water. We declined to eat the pureed split pea soup after a smell and a very small sip!
By 4 a.m. the crowds were gone, and only the fluorescent trail markers showed us the way. Hensley was feeling the pain of almost 30 miles, and I left him napping at a checkpoint after we changed our socks and put up our feet for a while. Rejuvenated, I set out to run as much of the second half as my body would allow. The skies cleared, and the sun came up, and when they told me I was 426th place at a checkpoint, I found even more energy, and started counting the people I passed, losing count at over 200 by the finish. I passed Wilson soon after sunrise, who was unable to run anymore but still determined to finish. Several hours later, I was in the same boat myself (along with most of the people on the trail), and limped the last miles to the end.
As I somehow found the strength to run the last half-mile to the finish, smatterings of applause followed from the appreciative crowd behind the barriers, some of whom would stay for the next ten hours to watch the rest of the participants limp on in. As I stopped the clock at 14 hours, 20 minutes, I was handed a prize of a whole pineapple and a finisher’s medal. I collapsed in the shade, and could barely stand up to cheer Wilson as he finished several hours later. We were both almost too exhausted to eat and drink, and dozed in a daze for more hours. The crowd grew to fill the square, and finishers were coming in almost too fast for the pineapple givers to keep up, when Hensley slowly limped through in the late afternoon. Congratulations were given all around as we all hobbled back to our car, because after all, only 60% of the people would finish the race, and we three had done it!
During the afternoon, the announcer had read off the nationality totals from the more than 10,000 entries in this 38th year of the Dodentocht. Topping the list was Belgium with over 7,000 participants, following by Holland with more than 2,000. Various other countries followed in smaller increments, including most other European nations. At the bottom of the list was the United States, with just three (3) participants. Hey, that's us!