DID you know that the “Gravensteen”, or Count’s Castle, was built by Philip I of Alsace as a show of power and wealth and to keep the burghers of Ghent in order? No, neither did I. That is not until I heard one of the quirkiest audio guides I have ever encountered.
Full of interesting anecdotes about Philip I, his wife, Elisabeth, the executions and tortures routinely inflicted there, it certainly takes your mind off the exhausting climb up winding stairways to the pinnacle. Once up there, however, and elated that the climb is finally over, you have the town before you!
It was not surmounting old ruins, however, that attracted a group of Reading Roadrunners to the Belgian town, but a different kind of challenge.
October 27th saw a running festival take place and we were targeting the half marathon – flat, fast and situated away from the town centre, there are no real hills and cool weather promised good times. Ghent is also easily accessible by Eurostar – an ideal venue for a short bit of running tourism.
Of the ten of us originally up for this, two were non-starters! Fiona Ross and myself, with illness and injury respectively, decided not to run. Undaunted by this little difficulty and unwilling to give up on the chance of a weekend away with good company, we switched our entry to the 10k walk.
This was much more civilised, allowed for some sightseeing and photos, and was rewarded by personal bests for the two of us of about 2:09:00. Probably not astonishing in the world of race walking, but should there ever be a “leisure walking” event, we would be up there!
The rest of the group took the half marathon race rather more seriously and were rewarded by some exceptional results. Fergal Donnelly turned in his second best-ever time at 1:25:57 and Mark Andrew completed at 1:35:50; but the greatest credit should go to Helen Pool.
The rest of the group also performed well – Dan Rickett was well within his predicted two-hour time at 1:54:47, John Bailey and Liz Atkinson chased each other in at 2:26:17 and 2:28:31 respectively, despite John sporting a shoulder injury, and Lorraine Bailey followed with a solid 2:37:10. Liz and Lorraine bagged the second and third FV65 placings in the process.
We were joined for the event by Reading parkrunners and long-term friends of Reading Roadrunners, Aleid Busser and Adrian Wadham. Aleid turned in a superb 1:59:39 as first FV70 and Adrian 2:05:24 as first MV75.
Veronica Andrew also attempted the half, but under-trained and a little under the weather, she wisely decided to call it a day at 10k before things went pear-shaped. Her prudence paid off and she is none the worse as a result.
As for Ghent – not so well known as its flashier neighbour, Bruges, it is, however, very quaint, with a long history as a mercantile town. It sits on the rivers Lys and Scheldt and is criss-crossed with canals.
As well as the castle and mercantile history, Ghent is famous for the “Adoration of the Lamb” triptych by the Van Eyck brothers in St Bavo’s Cathedral and, at the other end of the artistic scale, “Graffitistraatje”, where you can try your hand at your very own graffiti.
The half marathon has only been running for about three years, but next year it is planned to route through the city centre. This will add interest, but perhaps not speed — much of the centre is paved with cobbles. I am also unsure of how they will deal with all those thousands of bicycles that zoom around. Between the cyclists and the trams, walking, never mind running, can be a hazardous experience.
Overall verdict: A well organised, multi-terrain, friendly race with a super finish line in the Topsportshal Stadium and the bonus of a big bottle of exceptionally strong Belgian beer in the goody bag.
Cartoon: Veronica Andrew, from her personal collection.
Pictures: JohnBailey, Dan Rickett, Andy Atkinson, Fergal Donnelly