The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Becoming an Urban Runner in Brussels

Running a marathon has become something of an annual autumn event for me. To be able to run a marathon (and enjoy the experience of it) requires months of training and kilometers upon kilometers of running. A marathon training plan can last anywhere between 12 and 30 weeks with three to five runs per week, and will include at least a few long runs past the 30km mark. This (rather obviously) means that in order to feel good running a marathon, one must spend a great number of hours running, to prepare for the big race. Up until this year, I have done all of my previous marathon training near my hometown Bodø in Northern Norway, just north of the Arctic Circle. Training for a marathon while living in what most people would consider a small and rural town in Northern Norway is an exercise in perseverance in itself. The long, cold and snowy winters of Northern Norway has often required me to wear layers of wool underwear, wind-resistant clothing, a balaclava, and spiked shoes to grip the icy ground – just to be able to go outside and run. Doing long distance running in the north, I have always felt that runners that live further south in Europe have it easier, being able to run in a milder climate.

In August this year, I packed my suitcase and moved to Brussels for a ten-week long stay as a visiting research fellow at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). While in Brussels, I planned my ‘marathon of the year’ to be Brussels Marathon at the end of October, meaning that most of my marathon training had to be done in Belgium’s capital city. Before I left Bodø, a colleague of mine told me that ‘in Brussels, you have everything you do not have in Northern Norway, both the good and the bad’. These words would not only turn out be true but also highly applicable to my experience of running!

Photo from a winter run near Bodø

Moving from Bodø, a city with approximately 51 000 inhabitants, to Brussels with its 1.2 million citizens, affected my experience of marathon training greatly and made me appreciate new sides of life as a recreational long-distance runner in the north. Adjusting to running in Brussels can best be described as an individual learning process of ‘becoming an urban runner’, and like most things in life, this learning process had some good, bad and ugly sides to it. Here, I reflect on what I experienced to be ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of marathon training in Brussels. However, this text should be seen as exactly that – an individual story of transitioning from long-distance running in rural Northern Norway, to long-distance running in an urban super-diverse city such as Brussels, Belgium.

 

‘The good’

The many gorgeous parks of Brussels undoubtedly represents ‘the good’ parts of life as an urban runner. One of the first things I did upon arrival in Belgium, was to google ‘best places to run in Brussels’, and as a result, I stumbled upon a list of the top ten places to run in the city. One thing is certain; Brussels does not lack parks suitable for running, with my personal favorites being Cinquantenaire and Bois de la Cambre. The parks of Brussels provide beautiful scenery and wide paths with plenty of space for recreational running. For a runner from Northern Norway, having so many stunning parks to choose from was a true pleasure. Running in Brussels’ parks, you will always meet other runners, and this makes it feel like there is something of a secret community of runners, hidden in the trails of the city parks.

The Beautiful Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels

A second high point of urban running life is the many races you can choose to participate in if you so wish to. In my ten-week stay, I could participate in the Color Run, The Ecotrail Half Marathon, Brussels Race for the Cure, the Brussels Night Run and the Brussels Canal Run – in addition to the Brussel Marathon. That’s more major races in ten weeks than the total of races arranged in Bodø for a whole year! As someone who enjoys the events of running races with other people, this was a great benefit of becoming an ‘urban runner’.

The Brussels Ecotrail Starter Kit and Medal

The third and final aspect of ‘the good’ parts of urban running in Brussels is the climate. While it’s been raining and snowing back home, I have enjoyed doing my marathon training in the much milder climate of Brussels (compared to the coastline of Northern Norway). Sunny, warm autumn days might be taken for granted by the Brussels’ locals, but for this Norwegian, busting out my running shorts mid-October was a new sensation and something that made running a lot more enjoyable than when it’s done with layers and layers of wool to keep you warm.

 

‘The bad’

Somewhat paradoxically, the beautiful parks of Brussel city also make up some of ‘the bad’ parts of urban running. There are a lot of runners in Brussels, and while a sense of a ‘running community’ is nice, picking the hour you go for a run in the park is essential to avoid ‘running in queues’ and overcrowding. Few parks have public restrooms, so if nature calls while on a long run, you might be forced to abandon your park of choice for a nearby café. Many people also walk their dogs in these parks, and more than once I have had the nasty experience of running right into dog droppings that some inconsiderate owner failed to pick up. In retrospect it is somewhat comical, and you could say that this is my own fault and that I should pay more attention to where I place my feet, the fact is that I’ve never had this problem in my years of long distance running in Northern Norway.

Royal Park Brussels

Being in a big city, there is not really much of a choice of running in one of the city parks. While ten top ten list of places to run in Brussels suggests running along ‘your own sidewalk’, I have found this to be more annoying than enjoyable. The sidewalks in Brussels are narrow and crowded with pedestrians, making it impossible to keep any sort of pace up without crashing into other people. The busy traffic in Brussels also makes it hard to run anywhere else than the city parks and feel safe about it. Sunday mornings are the only time I have found it to be ‘okay’ to run along the sidewalks of the city. The crowded city and the intense traffic makes running in Brussels contrast greatly to running in Bodø. Becoming an urban runner, I lost the freedom to ‘just go outside and run’, because I always find myself having to take a tram or a bus to somewhere in order to enjoy running. Even so, while running in Brussels, there are always other people around you and the tranquility and closeness to nature that I experience running along roads in the outskirts of Bodø is something I could not find training for the marathon in Brussels.

 

‘The ugly’

As a female runner that usually runs alone, I am (sadly) used to experiencing that some men will catcall, wave, shout, or otherwise try to get in touch with me while I’m out running in public places. I’ve come to accept it as part of being a woman and running alone. However, I have never experienced more harassment while running than during my stay in Brussels. Something that leads me to believe that other female urban runners must have similar experiences. In the crowded hours of running in the parks, I’ve experienced being groped while running past men, or being yelled at because I did not want to stop and talk to men. On one run, a man forcibly grabbed my upper arm to stop me so he could ‘talk to me’. The scenario of a grown man grabbing hold of me with a force that stopped me dead in my tracks is by far the scariest thing I have experienced as a female runner.

These types of experiences made me, for the very first time, feel unsafe running by myself. As a (female) urban runner, I do not feel safe running in Brussels after dark. Something I have never thought about while running in Bodø. There, I simply run. In Brussels, running requires planning and consideration. What clothes should you wear? Are your running shorts ‘too short’? Can you wear both a singlet and shorts on a hot day or is it ‘too revealing’? Is it safe to run through this path? Is it safe to run past that group of men? These are all questions I have had to consider while doing my marathon training in Brussels, and questions I never had while running in Bodø. This might be because, on many of my runs on the outskirts of Bodø, I rarely see other people, but these ugly sides of becoming a (female) urban runner made me appreciate the scenic nature of long distance running in the rural North in a new way. It’s peaceful, nature is beautiful, and most of all, it feels safe.

Sea and mountain view running outside of Bodø

 

About author
Anne Tjønndal is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Science, Nord University, Bodø - Norway.
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