FAKING THE CITY TO SURF – by running it in Amsterdam

They're off! Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

They’re off! Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

It’s exactly ten years since last I finished Sydney’s City to Surf race from the city centre to famous Bondi Beach. Time to do it again.

One problem – I’ll be in Amsterdam, not in Sydney, on the big day.

So I’ve had to devise a 14km virtual reality City to Surf route in a town which has no true city centre, no surf and nothing remotely like Heartbreak Hill, the steep stretch halfway along the course that causes so many hopefuls to ‘hit the wall’.

Over 60,000 serious athletes and ‘fun runners’ take part in the largest event of its kind in the world. I’ve joined them a few times over the years, finishing well back in the field, though I’m pleased to report that I’ve always succeeded in running/jogging/shuffling, rather than walking, the whole distance.

A few years ago I decided that running was causing too much knee pain, so I switched to cycling as my main exercise. But I noticed early this year that my knees didn’t feel too bad, so maybe… It’s not that I particularly enjoy running; ‘fun run’ is an oxymoron in my book. I just don’t like the idea of being so old and decrepit that I’ll never run again.

My son put my knees in serious danger by giving me a GPS runner’s watch for my birthday. Naturally I had to try it out. Before long I was hooked.

Hmm...five kilometres in under 30 minutes. That's encouraging.

Hmm…five kilometres in under 30 minutes. That’s encouraging. Could I do 10km in under an hour? Maybe not yet.

Getting back on the running road was easier than I expected.

My first attempt to run around the local park ended at the 1.16km mark. It was the mind that gave up first. ‘Make sure you don’t get injured,’ it told me, ‘Stop as soon as you feel a twinge.’ The next few runs I made it to 2, 3 and 5 kilometres without having to walk. Within three weeks I’d managed a 10km run.

It wasn’t without its problems. That damn watch kept telling me the time per kilometre, so naturally I had to keep trying to beat the previous effort for the 10km. Result – sore heels, hamstrings and calves and another enforced break from running.

I bought new running shoes. That wasn’t easy either. Each time I buy new sport shoes those on offer seems uglier than their predecessors. Why do all running shoes have to be unbelievably gaudy? Do the designers assume we all want to make passers-by think, ‘Wow, look at that guy in the cool shoes go!’? Don’t they realise that many of us want to shuffle around the roads without drawing attention to our awkward style and ageing bodies? Flashy shoes make any runner who isn’t Kenyan look like a try-hard.

Finally I gave up scouring the sports specialists of Amsterdam for anything in modest brown or grey. I bought a pair of Pumas that the store claimed were marked down to half-price.

So ugly they ought to be fast.

So ugly they ought to be fast.

Next I had to find myself a 14-kilometre route through Amsterdam, to run the equivalent distance of the City to Surf. I was almost paralysed by choice because within trotting distance of our apartment are three wonderful parks.

The Vondelpark is the best known. Being long, thin, car-free and connecting the south of Amsterdam to the centre it’s a regular through route for cycling commuters and pretty much an outdoor gym for everybody else.

If you don't mind dodging the bikes, the Vondelpark is a lovely 4-5km circuit.

If you don’t mind dodging the bikes, the Vondelpark is a lovely 4-5km circuit.

Nearly as close to home is the Rembrandtpark, almost as big as the Vondelpark but wilder and far less busy.

A 4km circuit of the  Rembrandtpark is a breath of fresh air.

A 4km circuit of the Rembrandtpark is a breath of much needed fresh air.

It’s about a five-kilometre trip out to the Amsterdamse Bos (‘Amsterdam Woods’). Once there, I can find many more kilometres of paths through forest or beside lakes than my legs and lungs will stand. That will be my long-distance route from now on.

A 2km stretch along the Amsterdam rowing course.

Amsterdamse Bos: A 2km stretch along the Amsterdam rowing course is not exactly Heartbreak Hill, but it’s much more beautiful.

The great thing about the runners’ watch is that it measures the exact distance wherever I go. I can choose a different route each day to add variety. It also tells me how far it is to walk home if I quit early – a good reason to turn around and run back if I can.

So here’s the plan…

While the diehard City to Surfers are slogging away up Heartbreak Hill and beyond, I plan to be asleep in bed. When I wake they will have finished their work and will be posting the photos on Facebook. But after that I’ll start running, aiming to complete 14 kilometres.

I won’t be able to reproduce the shivering early morning start, huddled outside the Australian Museum wearing a disposable plastic garbage bag to keep warm. I won’t have to wait out those impatient minutes after the gun has been fired before the sea of people in front of me starts moving and I can break into a jog. I won’t have any hills to contend with.

I won’t have the crowds cheering me on, the bands playing along the way, the water stations and the relief of rolling down the hill from Bondi North. I won’t have the big guy in the Elvis suit up ahead to give me a target to beat to the finish. He passed me near the tape ten years ago – damn!

I won’t have the atmosphere, the cameraderie and the adrenaline. I will have a lovely route and ugly running shoes.

I can’t back out now. I’ve promised readers 14km. I’ll do my best.

I was inspired to have a crack at this by my friend Libby, who herself is making a comeback to Sydney’s City to Surf after a long absence.

If anyone feels like supporting these efforts with some money for a good cause (scholarships for disadvantaged students, particularly refugees), please visit Libby’s donation page. Mevrouw T and I have proudly sponsored Libby and any further contributions will be very gratefully accepted.

STOP PRESS: I made it around my 14km simulated course in Amsterdam, just seven minutes slower than my City to Surf time of ten years ago. Pleased with that.


Filed under Holland

9 responses to “FAKING THE CITY TO SURF – by running it in Amsterdam

  1. But… but… but… We have the Dam tot Damloop, Richard! 16.09344km through beautiful Amsterdam-Noord. 🙂
    Apart from that minor detail, I stand in awe!

  2. The pictures of the parks make me feel like I’m there, almost. The Vondelpark trees arching together make a charming and calming view. 🙂

  3. And what costume will you be wearibng … or just resorting to body paint???

  4. Good for you, Richard. I’ll be cheering you on.

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