Sunday 4 December 2016

Geen Excuus!

If you’re an outdoorsy type like me, you probably mourn the passing of summer each year. The fine weather and the long days have a mesmerising effect on me, luring me en plein air. By the time the autumn equinox arrives I’ve generally burned off enough calories on long evening walks and cycle rides to offset those that have accumulated in the pub during the halcyon days of summer. September then slips into October and before you know it, the clocks have changed. By the time November kicks in, sunset times have slid from 7.30 pm to just gone 5, helped admittedly by some daylight-saving adjustments, with temperatures plummeting similarly. In my experience the encroaching dark and cold have a numbing impact on the spirit. The lethargy, much like the calorie intake, starts to mount ...

In my younger days it was easier for my mind and body to counteract the darkening mood that descends in November and December, the two months of the year that see an unremitting loss of daylight. As the years go by, my alter ego demands I stay in bed a little while longer, prepare more lavish evening meals washed down with a glass of wine (or two), or curl up on the settee with some comforting tea and biscuits. Leading a sedentary existence as a translator working from home, if I’m not careful, languor can lead introspection and melancholy.

On reaching one's mid-forties, there’s a growing realisation that youth is no longer on your side. Bluntly put, you’re halfway to oblivion. Many will go to great lengths, not entirely in keeping with their character, to retain their sense of youth: plastic surgery, a fast car, an armful of tattoos and a hair transplant are among some of the more clichéd responses to this phenomenon. Myself? I discovered the Winterlauf, the perfect antidote to seasonal gloom and declining years.

The Winterlauf, or ‘winter run’, is an annual race organised by the Aachener Turn-Gemeinde (ATG), an Aachen-based athletics club. With the inaugural run being held in 1963, the Winterlauf follows an 18-kilometre course through the forested Eifel region on the city’s outskirts and takes place on the first or second Sunday of December. You could in fact question the name, since it’s only one week into the meteorological winter and two before the solstice, but one thing’s for sure, with only 8 hours of daylight, the days are dark and the weather all but predictable.

This year's Aachener Winterlauf, the 54th, was held on December 4. Registration to take part in the run opens in mid-September and such is its popularity that the 2,500 places are snapped up within 24 hours. It’s hard to determine quite why demand is so high. Having done multiple runs myself, it’s probably safe to assume that once you’ve completed one, you’ll keep coming back for more, however hard you try to convince yourself otherwise when you cross the finishing line each time.

Each year follows more or less the same pattern and after having now completed 14, I can mentally picture every twist and turn.

On the morning of the race, entrants assemble from 8.30 onwards at the ATG’s clubhouse in one of Aachen’s leafy southern suburbs. From there, a fleet of buses takes the runners on a 30-minute ride to an isolated and invariably muddy car park in the middle of the forest. This, in itself, is a major logistical exercise, with 20 or so buses shuttling back and forth to ferry the 2,500 or so participants to the starting line located on a minor road between the villages of Zweifall and Mulartshütte. The shuttle service continues until just after 10, so the trick is, especially if the weather’s bad, to sit in the warmth of the clubhouse changing room and jump on the final bus.
The mood is one of animated apprehension as the mass of runners funnels out of the car park and is corralled up the road to the starting line. There's much muscle-flexing and nervous banter as people jockey for position ahead of the 11 oclock start. As the pistol-shot sounds, the excitable chatter is replaced by the sound of 5,000 training shoes hitting the tarmac. Unless you’re at the front, the first kilometre is slow, with the pack weaving in and out, everyone trying to find their pace for the gruelling 18 kilometres ahead.
After the first kilometre, a steep 100-metre climb separates the wheat from the chaff. At the top, the runners – not quite so bunched now - are having to find second breath. From Kilometre 2 to Kilometre 6, there’s a slow but pronounced descent before the route picks up the old track bed of the long disused Vennbahn, a former railway line built by the Prussian state railways to carry coal and iron ore. After another slow climb up to the abbey town of Kornelimünster, contestants are at the halfway stage and the route opens out onto Brander Feld, a seemingly never-ending stretch of exposed plateau on the ouskirts of Aachen.
Most runners reach the Aachener Wald, the forest above the city, without having to break their run, but now they are confronted with an unexpectedly stiff and muddy 1.5-kilometre ascent through the woods. Once this has been negotaiated, the finish is within sniffing distance - it’s a question of gritting your teeth and trying to forget the pain. If you’ve got any legs left, it's a quick sprint down the final hill to the finishing line.

I’m one of five regular running buddies who’ve been taking part in the race for the past 15 years. We go by the unofficial name of Geen Excuus. We differ in age by just 5 years and are all the wrong side of 55, yet most Sundays throughout the year, and often midweek, we toil up hill and down dale, come rain or shine. Family commitments, injury, illness, even the occasional hangover, might sometimes get in the way, but on the first Sunday in Advent there's really 'no excuse' for crying off – the Winterlauf is the one event that no one wants to miss!

The build-up to the race starts in earnest around mid-September when our work-outs – normally an hour - get extended week-by-week. But we’re neither fanatical nor meticulous in our training methods: our one single aim is to increase our distance, whilst minimising the pain. Running is supposed to be fun and our only battle cry is Doorlopen!* If we’ve managed to hit the 18-kilometre mark by mid-November, the Winterlauf will be plain sailing! Well, at least that’s the theory, the point being that by the start of December, most of us are all in reasonable shape and ready for the main event.

In the week leading up to the big day, we're on tenterhooks. What’s the weather forecast? Will I need my rain-gear? Will that niggling twinge go away? Should I stay teetotal the night before? And - I jest not - how will my ‘insides’ behave on the day? Once we’re on the bus to Zweifall, there’s a schoolboy excitement which only dissipates once the race gets underway. Strangely, for a group that runs together every week, as soon as the starting-pistol fires, we’re on our own. Of course, there’s over 2,000 other runners to keep you company, but from here on in there’ll be no mates garrulously urging you on and as you tick off the kilometres, it’s a question of manning up and making the best of it. The Winterlauf can throw anything at you: rain, wind, snow, ice, mud, you name it, we’ve had it. And despite all this, in the 15 years we’ve been running the race, none of us have failed to stagger over the finishing line with competent times. And together, with our almost 300 years, we’ve managed to clock up over a 1,000 kilometres.

There’s a feeling of euphoria once we’ve crossed the line. The organisers dole out mementos each year, always with a running theme, the most prized of which is the buff scarf. The day wouldn’t be complete without the traditional post-race pizza at La Finestra in downtown Aachen, helped down by some well-earned Weizen. Once I’m back home, you can usually find me slumped on the settee like a heavy sack of potatoes for the duration.

Having put the Winterlauf to bed for another year, my aching limbs decide they've deserved a break from exercise for at least a couple of weeks. By that time, we’ve broken the back of winter and - at least as far as daylight hours are concerned - it’s all uphill from here. Not only do I get the satisfaction of having completed yet another Winterlauf, more importantly, all the hard work, and not least of the camaraderie, have helped keep the autumn blues at bay.

Three cheers for the Winterlauf

*doorlopen = keep on running