A report on the 120K edition of 2011 by Sharon Gayter
From one ferry to another
It was barely two weeks after running for 6 days in Athens and a distance of 750 kilometres to break the British 6 day road record that I would be running my next ultra, the 120 kilometres of the Dutch biannual running event ‘De Zestig van Texel’ (60K & 120K, plus a 4 x15K relay). I felt good; couldn’ t feel any niggles and the tiredness had all gone. I only had battered feet that were still recovering. The toe nails had all gone now, apart from the two that survived, the blisters healed, it was just that left over feeling from where the feet had throbbed from battering the tarmac relentlessly.
The Texel race was on Easter Monday 25th April, on Good Friday I ran the Mermaid 10km in 42 minutes and 25 seconds, only 4 seconds shy of my club record that was set two years previously and on Saturday morning I couldn’t resist a run of 5 kilometres around Albert Park.
I booked the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and it was all systems go. It had been a while since we had travelled on this ferry; it was always my favourite way to travel. No long waits at an airport, we didnâ€™t have to carry or check the bags in, no cramped sitting conditions and a whole cruise ship to explore. We shared a four berth cabin as we took fellow competitor Colin Gell with us. He joined us at Hull and had run for England at 100 kilometres and qualified for the Texel race with a 7 hours 40 minutes performance. Compared to the Texel 60K race, the 120K is an elite race as potential participants need to have fulfilled a qualification like a 100K race within 9 hours 30 minutes or a 24 hours race with a distance covered of 200 kilometres or more. The 120K race Texel itself has a time limit of 13 hours. Martien Baars, the organiser in charge of the 120K and who had invited me, had seen his field of runners decimated by a series of withdrawals due to injuries since January. The six women were now two and one of them was me! The start field was down from 43 to around 25 runners in total for the 120K race.
It was a relaxing crossing but and an easy drive of around 100 miles to Den Helder to take the 20 minute ferry crossing to the island of Texel. There was no hanging around on this crossing and we arrived in no time. This island was fantastic. Martien lives on the island and calls it a miniature Holland, it has a little of everything. He was certainly right, although we didn’t have too much time to explore. We drove to De Koog where Martien had kindly reserved the last spot in the campsite over this busy period. Our late booking had probably not gone down too well! Plot number 120, the same distance as I would have to run! Each plot had a maximum of 6 people, 2 tents and 1 vehicle. We had the vehicle, we brought a small tent for Colin, (who hasnâ€™t camped since his scouting days) and Mik Borsten, who was a Dutch competitor that had run this several times previously and his two support team were also sharing a tent on the plot, but they had yet to arrive.
We were barely sorted when Martien arrived to greet us and make sure we had everything we needed. We arranged to collect our numbers later that day and meet the film crew that were following the race. There had never been a British runner in the 120K race before and so he was eager to stress that conditions were very tough this year with the hot, dry spring weather and the sand sections being very soft sand instead of the firm sand that was more normal for this race. The race is held on alternate years on Easter Monday and with Easter being so much later this year, and with the weather being so dry for such a long period, the bicycles could no longer cycle the sand sections as it was so soft. It also increased the effort that the runners had to put in, the 120 kilometre race would feel like 140 kilometres I was told. All Martien wanted was for me to finish in the cut off time of 13 hours. I still felt confident and reassured him I wasnâ€™t here to go for records, just to finish and enjoy the race.
After setting up camp and putting up the tent for Colin we rested and refuelled. Colin took a short cycle into town to buy some drinks as he hadn’t realised there were no organised drinks for the first half of the race, he was allocated a cyclist to accompany him and feed him the drinks he had brought. Mik soon arrived and gave us great detail on the race, his daughter and her friend were supporting Mik and he hired a scooter for them to travel around the course. I bet Bill wished I had thought of this!
At 6pm we went to the race centre in the StayOkay hostel in Den Burg (the capital of the island) to collect our numbers, championchips and a patriotic bright orange souvenir t-shirt! We met the film crew and figured out how to carry a small recording device they required for sound while running the race and then went back for more food and a shower before retiring to bed at 9am. It was to be an early start.
My race plan
The race started at 4:35am (equivalent to 3:35am British time) and would be dark. We were up and eating breakfast and packing away the tent at 3am for the short drive to the venue in Den Burg. I decided not to wear a head torch and preferred to run by the light of Billâ€™s bicycle lights. The route to start with was all on decent tarmac roads and it wouldn’t be that long before dawn broke. I started at the back of the field, and jogged very slowly. I wore my Garmin GPS watch for this one as I wanted to see the pace I was running. As the only goal for this one was to finish in the allotted time of 13 hours the plan was to run the first half in just under 6 hours to allow 7 hours for the second half. There was a reason for wanting to run the first half a little faster and this was due to the other races that were also going to take place.
The 120 kilometres race is an elite race, hence the very tough cut off time. The race runs around the island anti-clockwise for 60 kilometres to the ferry port and then does a u-turn and returns clockwise. At 10:35am the 60 kilometre race starts at the ferry port and runs clockwise to the finish the same as the 120 kilometre runners. There is also a relay race along the 60 kilometres where each runner completes a 15 kilometre leg. Although the elite field is small, the 60 kilometre event had around 340 competitors and then the 135 relay teams on top of this (with start 11:35am) so it made for a very large field in total. Can you imagine what it would be like if I didnâ€™t make the first half in 6 hours and had to face this barrage of runners coming at me in the opposite direction?
So the plan was to run approximately 55 minutes per 10 kilometres for the first 30 kilometres or so as in the second 30 kilometres there were two big sections of soft sand of between 5km and 7km each and this would slow progress massively from the feedback I had heard.
The start no quietness in the dark
The gun sounded and we were off. The men slowly drifted ahead and there was lots of banter going on, not much that I could understand. I tried to concentrate on keeping my footing and run as slowly as I dare. It was too dark to see my Garmin so I could not see what pace I was doing, this would have been a good guide but had to rely on my instinct and run slowly. The route felt slightly downhill and soon the red tail lights of the cyclists were little dots ahead. There was still a lot of chatter going on behind me and I knew there was a female voice that was LÃ©onie van den Haak. LÃ©onie was the only other female competitor in the race and her goal was the same as mine â€“ to finish in 13 hours. LÃ©eonie had only just qualified by running a few seconds under the 9 hours 30 minutes time required for 100 kilometres to enter this race – I was told it was a real thrilling finish of her 100K race in the RUN Winschoten 2010 that also made her the Dutch 100K champion that year – and so knew it would be a challenge for her to complete; she was also a Dutch competitor which was nice for the locals to support. There were a few men around chatting to her and I was wanting a bit of peace to concentrate on my running. There were also many cyclists around and I could never quite tell where Bill was as it was difficult in the darkness. In the end when I wanted a drink I just called for him and he would cycle alongside. I like my own space when running and was in two minds whether to speed up a little to reach sanctuary or drop back and let the crowd of runners and cyclists go ahead.
I came by some street lights and tried to read the Garmin, it said around 45 minutes of running but could not read the distance or pace as the light faded again. The film crew were around here, they had a tandem with the lead cyclist steering the bike and the second cyclist holding the microphone on a long pole above me, it made me jump as I was unaware it was approaching and only knew of something hovering above me which at first I thought could be a bat! Luckily I didn’t swat it!
Dawn was beginning to break but I came to a t-junction and didnâ€™t quite know which way to turn. There were no signs to follow and I had lost the tail light of the cyclists ahead and so stood and waited for the runners behind as I guessed they would know the route. LÃ©eonie and the group of runners and cyclists went ahead and turned right. I followed. At least it had made one decision for me and as they were ahead I dropped back a bit so that I could run my own race in peace and the chatting soon faded in the distance, although they were never really more than 400 metres ahead. It was nice to have just me and Bill and could settle down and concentrate better on taking it easy, try to enjoy it and keep the pace slow. I still didn’t quite know how this race would pan out and kept expecting Athens to come back and bite me at some stage.
Enjoying the early morning
Dawn was magnificent, running along the dykes right next to the sea and listening to the water gently lapping the banks a few feet away. It was glorious. I was enjoying this. The pace was sedate, the tarmac smooth and was heading towards a lighthouse in the distance. The weather was predicted to be hot and sunny today, but at the start line it had been quite cool and had opted to wear my tights and a t-shirt with arm sleeves underneath that I knew would come off when the sun came out. I also had my Great Britain vest on as Martien was so keen for a British runner to take part that I wanted him to be proud that he had achieved his goal and that I could be easily identified â€“ given that there were only two females in the race that was probably quite easy!
The course wasnâ€™t quite as flat as I had anticipated, although I wouldnâ€™t call it undulating as there were often some gentle slopes leading up to the dykes and down the other side and very minor undulations that gave the legs a break. It was so quiet and peaceful as the sun began to shine. I then finally noticed the 20 kilometres marker as it was daylight and glanced at my Garmin, 1 hour and 52 minutes was the time, 2 minutes slower than I had anticipated. I wasnâ€™t bothered with this, I had settled into my pace and was running well within myself and just hoped it would stay this way. I had been feeling a bit tired at the start, the very early morning and darkness had made it feel like the middle of the night but with the sunshine I came to life. I was gaining on LÃ©onie and other runners and soon glided by them again. Then another big group of runners stretching the width of the road with a line of cyclists behind to negotiate this was Mik and some other runners.
We were still heading northwards to the far point of the island and the lighthouse and I knew we would change direction soon. The path then divided and again I didn’t know which way to go, and again had to wait for Mik to catch up and shout directions. I grumbled at Bill and was a bit annoyed at myself at not having been more observant and kept an eye on the runners I was catching so that I knew the route. I then made Bill cycle ahead to see how far the next runner was and to keep between us so that I didn’t have to stop again.
The path was now superb. It was a manmade path through a nature reserve and dunes. This continuously undulated very gently and was extremely scenic and I was in my element, thoroughly enjoying my day out and soon got glimpses of the runner ahead so that Bill could join me again as I gained yet more ground. This was my favourite section of the whole course and wished it would continue.
Sand first and then beach
Shortly after the 30 kilometres mark (2 hours 48 minutes) we veered sharply off the course up a ramp and along a grassy track, the manmade path disappeared and soon a soft sand section began. I thought this was the first of the two sand sections and told Bill to retreat and find the route around. I continued on alone, but the soft sand soon gave way to a kind of grey trail that was heaven for my battered feet. All of a sudden I heard a familiar voice, Bill was back with me! He didn’t know the way around and there was no-one to follow so he tried his luck and came with me, luckily the route was now much firmer underfoot and it wasnâ€™t so bad cycling, this obviously wasn’t the beach section we were anticipating. I then asked for a drink and as I had already used up the supplies in the basket he had to dip into the panniers to get the next supply ready. I continued running while Bill found the drinks and suddenly saw the wire fence next to me jumping all over as if something had run into it. I glanced back to see Billy’s bike fallen on the wire â€“ he had propped it up against one of the posts but had not realised it was an electric fence until it sent a current through him and he dropped the bike! How easy is running! That fiasco over and we hit another road that now led up and then down to the beach. Now this was obvious it was the soft sand section as it was exactly that, a beach of nothing but sand. I repeated to Bill again not to cycle this section as instructed, there were other cyclists around he could follow one of them. The route was easier right next to the sea, but the tide was almost in and there were only small sections of firmer sand that could be found. It was about 15 minutes later that I heard the familiar voice I am still here. I couldn’t believe Bill had followed me yet again. He had seen one of the other cyclists that had headed across the beach and so thought it would be best to follow again, the difference being the other cyclist had a mountain bike with fatter tyres that didn’t sink into the sand as much as his touring bike. He frequently fell behind and had to run and walk with the bike as best he could to keep up. Needless to say I left the beach long before Bill and a smooth tarmac road greeted me.
The next road section felt slightly uphill and before I knew it Leonie had caught me up again; I could hear the familiar banter again. I glanced at the Garmin to see what pace I was running, I had seen no markers since 30 kilometres and the pace was around 8 minutes 30 seconds per mile, more than fast enough for the speed I required and so I let her run ahead and continued my own run. Bill finally made it back and I yet again told him not to try the next beach section. He got the message, he was knackered! That section was through the trees and gave much shelter from the sun. The arm sleeves had been taken off long ago while running through the nature reserve and the heat was rising now. I had taken note that several cyclists were coming the other way; my thoughts were that this must me a dead end road and the cyclists were following the road around to avoid the beach and made Bill aware of this. The minute I see the beach give me a drink and follow the other cyclists I instructed, Leonie’s cyclists were just ahead and I was sure they would lead him around. No sooner said than the bottle was thrust in my hand and off he went. He certainly didn’t want to do another beach section!
The beach was tough! Much longer than the previous section and the route left the shore line and headed across a massive soft section of beach, that was a nudist beach! This seemed to go on for mile after mile and felt much longer than the 7 kilometres I had anticipated. The sun was relentless now and I was down on my drinks. I hardly dare look at my watch in anticipation that I would not make it to 60 kilometres in 6 hours. It was a battle to keep running and I frequently stopped to walk this section. The sand was energy sapping and all I could see ahead were the dunes we were approaching. Then the first runner was coming back at me. Wow! He had a massive lead and made light work of the sand. I must be tiring. The dunes weren’t so bad and hidden in the dunes was the road to the half way mark and Bill. The road around was quite a distance for Bill to cycle around but I assured him there had been absolutely no firm sand on that section and dreaded the thought of returning this way. This was certainly the hardest section of the whole course. It was nice to feel the tarmac again but it was hard making the transition from soft sand for so long back to tarmac and getting the legs ticking over again. LÃ©onie was never out of sight and appeared even closer now. There were several pockets of supporters around now and the feed tables for the 60 kilometres race were obviously now set up. I tried to get back to a smooth rhythm and counted the runners coming in the opposite direction. The first man was well ahead and then a few men in close succession. Colin was in fifth place and looking steady. I was rather frazzled and really wanted to take my t-shirt off now. I had run out of drink on the last section and was guzzling loads now to rehydrate, but I was desperate to make the turn-around point before taking a few seconds to remove my shirt.
We crossed a busy road which was apparently the road from the ferry port that was well manned to allow the runners an immediate crossing and the cars were stopped. The route was now heavily lined with cheering supporters and runners for the impending races and I knew the start line of the 60 kilometres was close. Around a kind of triangle and there was a championchip mat and clock. I did it! I reached 60 kilometres in 5 hours and 52 minutes, a whole 8 minutes to spare! Back down to cross the road again and finally I stripped down to my vest, but I couldn’t be bothered to stop and take my tights off, that would take too long and involve taking my socks and shoes off. My shoes were heavy with the sand but this could wait. I planned to change to clean shoes after the beach sections were finished.
Encouragement by the 60K runners
As we headed back to the sand Bill could see a wave of runners charging towards us. The 60 kilometre runners were coming! I had been closing down on Leonie again and at the first feed station just before the sand she was cooling down with the water. I did the same and doused myself with the sponges provided. It felt good. I overtook Leonie. The first few 60K runners were now overtaking me. I put my head down to do battle with the sand. I knew this was a long section, drank a full bottle of water before heading out and took another full bottle with me as Bill cycled around the road. There was no big stampede of runners that I had anticipated, just a very steady trickle of wonderfully supportive runners. The race numbers that we wore front and back detailed not only the number, but our names, nationality and the distance we were running, so the 60 kilometres runners could easily identify us and gave us much respect. They lifted my spirits enormously and it was wonderful to be continuously encouraged. The beach section was over in a flash and it had felt much easier than on the journey out. Bill was waiting. He had just had an ice-cream and I was still well hydrated and in good spirits. This was a superb race. There was a deep crowd of supporters on leaving the beach, not just supporting their own runners but all the runners. I reached 70 kilometres in 7 hours and 01 minute.
I could visualise the return journey now and looked forward to the trail section that led to the nature reserve, but I had one more beach section to go. The road through the trees was still quite shaded and it was here that the first relay leg finished. The route was completely lined and I could hear the tannoy supporting the first lady in the 120 kilometres race, Sharon Gayter, and got an enormous cheer. I waved at the crowds and it was quite emotional to have such support, I am not used to this!
There was still a constant stream of runners overtaking as I hit the beach for the last time. Bill found the way around the road this time. Now it was the turn of the kids to build sandcastles and moats at the waters edge for us to negotiate! I frequently got lapped by the water, good as it cooled the feet but it was on a steep camber that made running difficult. My feet had felt a little tender at 30 kilometres but the trail and the sand had initially made these feel better, now the compressed sand in my shoes was squeezing my feet and it was painful. The line of runners seemed to stretch for ages and it was a relief to turn up to the road again. Bill was ready with water to wash the sand off my feet and gave me clean socks and shoes. I sat down on the ground to do the job and noticed a good few of the 60 kilometres runners were emptying their shoes of sand. Bill hauled me back up again and off we went to the grey trail section. He decided to follow me on this section but avoided the electric fence this time!
Back to the nature reserve and I was still smiling. I was easily going to make the cut off time. I had held back and kept thinking Athens would catch up with me and the second half would be a real battle, but with clean dry feet I was still thoroughly enjoying every minute of the race, especially now as lots of the 60 kilometre runners were coming back to me! I continued overtaking and noticed the odd 120 kilometre runner I was overtaking too. It was then back to my favourite section of the route to run the undulating cycle path through the dunes. It was completely different now. This was a path that was only the width for one runner and cyclist alongside, but with so many runners the cyclists were now behind and at times overtaking became rather congested, more so when you met walkers coming in the opposite direction. But the gentle undulations were good and I was easily maintaining pace. Not long after hitting this section around 90 kilometres, I overtook Colin, still fighting hard but struggling a bit. I wished him well and continued back to the lighthouse and turn to the southerly direction back to the finish.
Without companion and without breath
Now it was the dykes and in the sunshine I could now see the colourful fields of flowers that I had missed in the darkness on the way out. They were deep with colour and the fragrance was in the air. On by 100 kilometres in 10 hours 21 minutes and I was beginning to struggle, not with my legs but with my breathing. I called to Bill. No response. I turned around. No sight of Bill. What had happened? Not quite knowing I continued on. I was out of drink now and no Bill as the next checkpoint appeared. I stopped to soak myself in water as I had done several times already and took a cup of water. About 20 minutes later there was the usual â€œI am back!â€ His chain had come off the bike and it took ages getting it back on again. He had some bad news and so did I! His news first, Leonie is not far behind and going strong â€“ my news, I need my asthma pump I can’t breathe!
I stopped to walk and take my pump and try to get my breath back. I needed to keep going. I had the confidence of finishing but I now wanted to win having been in the lead since just over half way. I continued to run a little slower and gained control over my breathing. Another relay point and yet more crowds and cheering. Now we had to cross one of the dykes on a narrow path. Easy for me as a runner but Bill narrowly escaped a dip and after that walked across! The last few kilometres now and 110 kilometres was reached in 11 hours 30 minutes. I had 90 minutes to finish. The next section hit a harbour where there were many colourful sailing ships as well as big fishing ships; we had again missed this in the darkness and soon the road turned inland and UPHILL! I was in Holland! Where did this hill come from? I had thought in the darkness it felt downhill, I certainly now knew this really was uphill. With 5 kilometres to go Bill held back for 3 minutes to see how close Leonie was. He caught me up and reported that he could not see her and so I relaxed and enjoyed the last few kilometres to finish the Texel 120 kilometres in 12 hours 24 minutes; that was 54 minutes for the last uphill 10 kilometres! First lady and first ever British finisher! Job done. I sat down. Bill was tired too! The film crew retrieved their sound device. I had not seen them in the second half, but just as well as I knew the tiny microphone had come unstuck when I removed my t-shirt after half way.
Trophy, massage and goodbye to the island
Leonie finished a few minutes later in 12 hours 30 minutes and we exchanged pleasantries. She had certainly kept me on my toes and it was wonderful to see a local Dutch girl easily finish within the time limit. I had heard she had trained very hard for this race and it was nice to see her achieve her goal.
I made use of the showers and massage provided. Martien gave me a trophy that was a piece of wood carved to the shape of the island of Texel with a stick insect style runner on top (which Bill said looked like me!). The exact trophies I like, significant of the place I have run around. I was also given a nice cash prize too! A rarity for me. It had been a wonderful event. I had enjoyed almost every minute of the race. I kept expecting tiredness to catch up with me and it didn’t. I was in reasonable shape considering the racing miles I had completed. My legs were fine and it was just the bottom of my feet that were feeling really tender again, but then these were not fully recovered when I started the race. The plan had been to catch the ferry home to the UK that same night, but it didn’t work out. Poor Colin had battled on and knew he would be outside the cut off time and knowing that we were trying to get away that night he had withdrawn at 105 kilometres and found us at the finish.
We took the ferry off the island later that evening and parked up there for an overnight stop. It was a real shame that we couldn’t stay longer and enjoy the island, but then again I had seen the entire circumference twice over now! I was so pleased that I made the journey and very grateful to Martien for inviting me. I am sure without his support there would still not have been a British finisher to this race, but it was certainly one I would recommend as a well organised, extremely pleasant and varied course and hopefully the sand will be firmer next time around!
PS I ran the parkrun in 21 minutes and 7 seconds the Saturday after and then the Tees Barrage 10 kilometres on Bank Holiday Monday two days later (42 minutes 54 seconds).