Leiden Marathon (Getting baked in a Dutch oven)


If you ever want to run at marathon in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of summer in the middle of a heat wave, then the Leiden Marathon in South Holland is the one to do. European summers can be something of an oxymoron, but the organisers managed to time the 2006 edition of the race to be run in the middle of a genuine heat wave. Fifteen years later and I can still vividly remember the four-and-a-bit hours I spent slogging it out in the sweltering mid-30s, and this is still the hottest of the 241 marathons I’ve run (to date), even beating out the Two Countries Marathon in Musina for the honour!

Surviving the heat in Holland.

You can’t control the weather, but you can control your diet. With a 12:15pm starting time, I knew it would be a challenge to get my sensitive disposition tuned into running a lunchtime marathon. After registration inside a huge ancient church, I felt a little peckish (even though I had had a hearty breakfast) and found a café to satisfy my appetite. If anyone is wondering, a sesame seed bagel with smoked chicken, avocado and basil pesto is definitely not the secret formula to running a good marathon…

Gratuitous windmill photo.

Lure of a Leiden Lager

Leiden was given city rights all the way back in 1266, was the site of the first university in the Netherlands in 1575, and was the birthplace of Rembrandt van Rijn in 1606. It is still very much a university town, and despite only having a population of around 125,000, the crowd support along the route was fantastic. Ironically, considering the heat in which we ran, Leiden was once known as “The Coldest Place on Earth,” thanks to the efforts of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in physics. He was the first person to liquefy helium, and subsequently managed to reach a temperature of less than one degree above absolute zero in his cryogenics laboratory.

Leiden is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands and was known as ‘the coldest place on earth’ because of their cryogenics laboratory.

I was surprised to find that the race was a double-lapper, but not surprised that most of the participants opted for just one lap. With two kilometres to go of the first lap, as the route re-enters the town, I made a mental note of the very vibrant beer garden marking this milestone. I told myself that I was only running 40km today, and promised my parched body a tall draught beer whilst I completed a two-kilometre walk to the finish when I made it back to that point again.

Just two kilometres to go – time for a beer!

I was obviously not as tough in those days, because that was the only beer I could stomach. The after-effect of the intense heat resulted in my beer-drinking activities being curtailed for several hours after the race… largely for fear of finding out what a partially processed sesame seed bagel with smoked chicken, avocado and basil pesto looks like after running a marathon!

The last few hundred metres of getting cooked in the Dutch oven.

Post-race ‘streak’

I was staying at the Schiphol Airport Hilton, and following a 20-minute post-race train ride north, I needed to make my way from the station platform though the airport in order to access the hotel. From the race photos, you may have noticed that I was wearing very small and rather revealing South African flag Polly Shorts. You might think that I was trying to show off my assets, but this was the only pair that the Sweat Shop had in stock at the time – and patriotism trumped my bashfulness.

Patriotism over dignity – proudly South African in the shortest pair of running shorts I could squeeze into.

And so it was, caked in salt from evaporated sweat and wearing pants that were small enough to make David Hasselhoff blush, that I was able to leave a lasting (and hopefully favourable) impression on the late afternoon commuters lucky enough to see me parading through Schiphol Airport. Anything goes in Amsterdam, but this was one of the few occasions when I did wear my marathon medal around my neck to hopefully offer a visual explanation of the strange site I presented in one of the world’s busiest airports!

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of Modern Athlete and is the first instalment in my Dutch marathon trilogy.

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