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Belgium: Gent Running Team and the torchlight embrace

8-DAY 5K CHALLENGE: 10–18 August – 225 days to go

I’d never been to Ghent (Gent in Dutch). I knew of it only from its football club, one of the best in Belgium and which features frequently in European competition, and because of an epic poem distantly remembered from a childhood anthology, Robert Browning’s “How They Brought The Good News From Ghent to Aix”. My own good news from Ghent was that, a few days before my trip there, an introductory email I’d recently sent to local running club the Gent Running Team had been answered promptly, if a little tersely: “Yes, run with us next Wednesday. 7.30pm from the yacht club. Don’t be late.” This was to be another stage of Running: Me Running EU where the location was influenced by a work trip. I’d been running (a doubly appropriate word for it in this story…) workshops for euRobotics, a European membership association for the European robotics sector, for a few years. This year, the robotics department at Ghent University had offered to host the annual workshop for national event coordinators for European Robotics Week. 

I have no professional background in robotics but I do know something about getting people talking, sharing ideas, making decisions and solving problems together – sometimes called collaboration skills. And that’s why euRobotics had been using my services regularly as a workshop ‘moderator’ in recent years. The workshops are an environment where people from across Europe come together, pooling their ideas and experiences about organising events, about robotics education and about capturing local media and public interest.

I’d got to know a few of the regular attendees, Lia from Madrid, Artur from Barcelona, Ana from Bucharest, Krzysztof from Poznań, and somehow over time I’d also became one of the familiar faces representing the annual pan-European meeting place for this cross-section of robotics professionals. I took Eurostar to Brussels and changed for the half-hour onward journey to Gent St-Pieters, arriving shortly after 5pm. The workshop would be the next day. Meanwhile, my plan for the evening was simple: find my guest house accommodation, change into running gear and head to the edge of the city to hook up with Gent Running Team and run Stage 5 of Running: Me Running EU. I’d worry about where to eat later. 


It took time to find the guest house. I’d opted to walk. Travelling on a shoe-string means that taxis are an absolute last resort and, while a great fan of public transport, I didn’t want to lose time trying to figure out which bus route would get me to the right part of town, from which bus stop and when, how to pay, etc. As time-saving goes, it proved to be a false economy (note to self: learn the lesson). Eventually, hot and slightly concerned about missing my rendezvous with Gent Running Team (“…7.30pm. Don’t be late…”), I rang the guest-house bell and was shown to my room. Within ten minutes, after a rapid costume change, I was back on the street, Google Maps open, and orienteering my way towards the city perimeter and my encounter with the local club. As the time ticked away to 7.30pm I increased my speed from a jog to a saunter and then to a pace more typical of a Monday night club run, hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to a final sprint. Finally, with water and yacht masts in view, I crossed a road to join a large mass of runners. 


I heard a hubbub of Flemish conversations. As I approached, the runners began to split into groups and a few started running. Although confident enough to join the Gent Running Team for one evening as a stranger and a foreigner, I didn’t want to become an unknown and possibly slightly suspicious figure just tagging along without invitation or introduction, so I spoke to the nearest runner. Hearing my English, she directed me to one of the organisers. I introduced myself and was invited to join a moderate paced group who would be running about 9K. We formed a circle on the car park tarmac and a warm-up session began, using what to me seemed unfamiliar but no doubt effective stretching exercises. To be honest, I’d never been as disciplined as I should about warming up, so these techniques would do as well as any. There were a few interested and vaguely friendly glances in my direction as I took part. And then we were off, running into the wooded park along the waterway in what was once part of Ghent’s inland port. The light was fading by this point and I was conscious of being virtually the only runner in the group without a head-torch. I mentally cursed: as a regular Thunder Runner, I should have thought of that. 


Staying mid-pack I got talking to a couple of runners, a very athletic-looking woman who introduced herself as Els and a younger guy whose name I didn’t catch. Els was a coach, keen tri-athlete and qualified sports masseuse. I mentioned the lack of a head-torch. Els simply smiled and said that within the pack there would be light enough for everyone. We all quickly fell into an easy conversation about aspects of running just as I would expect to do with fellow Bournville Harriers on a Monday club run. I realised that this was further evidence to support my hunch that, British, Belgian or whatever, our mutual love of running unites us and that, regardless of other national differences, we were all Europeans in wickable running gear together. 


Every couple of minutes as the pack advanced through the woods and out into the open, someone would shout a warning – “‘Fietsers!” or “Lopers!” – as bikes or other runners appeared out of the gloom and came towards us. I tentatively asked Els if she thought the group would mind being part of a photo at the end. “Not at all!” she said and took charge as we finally returned to the yacht club car park. Els quickly explained that ‘Steve’ was ‘Engels’, an Englishman running in every country of the EU for charity, who wanted a picture to prove that he’d been running in Belgium with the Gent Running Team. 


And what then happened led to possibly my favourite picture from the entire 28-country challenge. Around 20 GRT runners gathered round, placed me in the middle and shone their torches towards me. Someone took my phone and took some pictures. It was a warm, happy moment, a collective embrace for a fellow runner and someone trying to demonstrate that at least some Brits still felt part of the wider European family. I found my way back to the guest house, showered, changed and ate a good meal at an almost-deserted restaurant across the road. Stage 5 had been a very happy experience. 

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