Running, Somewhere in Holland

A crowd of runners gathers beneath the roof of an apartment balcony near the start of the race. Slowly, the density increases. Some perform mild stretches; others talk and joke lightly with others – either their friends or strangers. With five minutes to go, the crowd dissipates and heads towards the start line, marked by an inflatable green archway.

The rain is coming down diagonally; and steadily intensifying. It is not cold, but, neither is it pleasant. This is the last of the Zorg and Zekerheid (a health insurance company) race series. The distances are 5km, 10km and the half marathon. The half-marathoners go off first, in the drizzle at 11am, those in the 5km in the proper rain, those in the 10km in the diagonal and heavy rain. Oh, the pleasures of, what was formerly known as ‘long-distance running’, before the emergence and popularity of ultra-marathons.

The race takes place in Roelofarendsveen, a town 12km from Leiden, a university town near The Hague. Google Images gives up little of note for the town: a bridge, a windmill and a building with a tulip painted on it. This could be anywhere in The Netherlands. Apparently, one of its noted celebrities, is the guy who appears in an advertisement for Albert Heijn supermarket chain. Roelofarendsveen is indeed on the map of The Netherlands – there is a freeway passing beside it and no major train station. Jan Kortekaas, a coach of Leiden Atletiek, where I do my training, however, tells me that 30% of the world’s tulips are grown in Roelofarendsveen. Indeed, they’re being sold directly from people’s houses; €1.50 for a box. At 51 years old, Jan is no slouch. Last week he ran 10km in under 35mins.



I meet John in front of his apartment. It is in a row of buildings which surround a courtyard with a playground. It’s a grey morning, but, not yet raining. The forecast is indeed for showers and wind, but, we are full of enthusiasm for our run in Jan’s town. Six weeks earlier we had competed with other members of Leiden Atletiek in a race just south of the town. Our times were shattered by the headwinds that almost blew many us backwards. The fields were barren and we faced three kilometres of well, strong gusts. Some of us had prepared better than others; some were in a group, others, who had gone out by themselves, were quickly eaten up by the chasing packs. Embarrassing for some and good tactics for others.

John – a 200cm heavy metal nut – and I are driven to the race by his partner. We chat briefly about the shitty weather of The Netherlands. Indeed, there seems little getting used to it. I’m not the only one who complains, and I pride myself on complaining the least about the weather. Well, until the day of the ‘spring feest’, ‘spring party’ shop sales when it is 0 degrees. It is officially spring; flowers are coming out, turkeys are rooting in the park, and buds are emerging from tree branches. But, come on, less than 5 degrees? Even a Dutch spring should have better standards.

John’s partner drops us off to go and partake in her own hobby: photographing. We get out of the car and I play him my two ‘pump up songs’. The first is a 10second recording of the BBC’s commentary of Tim Cahill’s goal against The Netherlands in last year’s World Cup. The second is a chant from the Pasoepati supporter group in Solo, central Java. The chant of ‘alap-alap Sambernyawa’ has rather senseless lyrics, but, the rhythm and enthusiasm is great. John’s partner thinks our dedication to running is a little absurd in a country with such shitty weather (I can’t be more technical than that), and afterwards, we learn too that, the hobby of photography too, is compromised by er, heavy wind, slanting rain and plummeting temperatures.


This kind of recreationally competitive running is a struggle between the expectations, hopes and capabilities of each runner. At the end of the races, Willem, who did the 5km, says of how the most important thing is to have crossed the finish line. He has done some 100 races in his six years of long-distance running. Sometimes he was doing three per month – which not only speaks of his steady training, but also indicates the popularity of running in The Netherlands. Ron, who trains alone, but is known to many of the Leiden Atletiek members, is in his final stages of training before the Rotterdam marathon on April 12. He’s over 45, as good as bald, but, barely has an ounce of fat upon him. Throughout the race, John is admonished by our coach, Jan, for not going hard enough at the start and for keeping up with his training group. None of us get personal best times – the wind, rain and cold saw to that. But, we all received some tulips upon crossing the line.

In the afternoon John sends a whatsapp message with my placing. This time it is pleasing, even if the time isn’t. One can always find a reason to feel vindicated for one’s training, if one looks hard enough. I wait for feedback from Jan the coach. He had guided me during the windy sections of the race on his bicycle – from the 3km to 7km mark. This was helpful. I run for most of the way alone, and am overtaken on the track by another runner with 500 metres to go. I check the results on line and see that my net time was quicker than his by five seconds. A little pleasure.

I started running as part of a means to get out of the house; to find some quiet time; to do some slow thinking. But, also because I wanted to lose weight and to stay fit. I’ve always found running essential for feeling relatively at ease with myself. And here in The Netherlands it has provided me with my one steady community over the back-and-forth trips I’ve made to Leiden since the beginning of 2011. I don’t speak the language, but the pleasure and absurdity of running overcomes this awkwardness. This recreational competitive running proves that we are all not great athletes, just that we have inflated ambitions for ourselves.


  1. Rick Kane says

    Hi Andy

    I was with you all the way, through the drizzle and increasing rain, on your long disance runs. In spirit at least. Does this hobby take you all over The Netherlands? My mother’s hometown is Pannigen, near Venlo in the province of Limburg. It is a beautiful part of a very beautiful country. You understand why the run and ride so much.


  2. Hi Rick,
    Thanks for your feedback. Much appreciated.
    I run in Leiden and do races nearby. For example in places such as Lisse, de Kwakel (?), and elsewhere. Places I certainly wouldn’t visit were it not for these amateur races.
    The tracks are often picturesque and of course, flat, making for good times when the wind isn’t blowing a gale (as of late).
    I would love to do a race in Limburg; I’ve only done a 25km+ training run around Maastricht – inclusive of some hills :) as you say, very picturesque.

  3. Peter Fuller says

    I’m delighted to learn of your carrying the family name (afaik we’re not related) around the roads of the Netherlands. I have only “competed” o/s in New York (a half-mara), but I’ve run in many places in Europe, Asia, USA and New Zealand.
    I argue that if you only run in (near-) perfect conditions – 12 – 20 degrees, still and no rain – you don’t get to run too often. If the weather is really off-putting, I train indoors on a tread, or if outdoors then with appropriate clothing. I’ve run in gentle snow in Boston, minus 6 degrees in New York, and 2 degrees in London, and in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and especially Singapore.
    I think it’s important to have a range of expectations prior to a run, a fantasy time, a tolerable time, and a threshold beyond which you’ll be disappointed. However, my mantra draws on your friend Willem: there are three categories of winners in marathoning (or distance road running) first across the line, everyone who makes it across the finish line, and everyone who reaches the start line (because that implies some sort of training discipline and the commitment to take the hardest step, the first one out the door, especially in dirty weather).
    I look forward to hearing further of your experiences/exploits.

  4. Hey Peter,
    Thanks for your message. Sounds like some great running you’ve done.
    I’ll be doing a race by the coast in a few weeks, after initially not being interested. As you say, one has to run/race regardless of conditions. I generally find a reason to be satisfied with my races even if it is, ‘at least I know this is where I’m at’.
    I aim to write more about running here; my coach is a very interesting man (Jan) and the group is very committed.
    Rotterdam marathon is on this weekend; I might go to watch.

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