The Nijmegen March in the Netherlands is a rigorous and prestigious event that annually draws over 40,000 walkers from 50 nations and is witnessed by over 1 million spectators along the 160-km route. Gerrit Reinhardus was a participant in the 40 km route this year to mark his 70th birthday.
The “vierdaagse” (Dutch for “Four day Event”) has taken place in the Netherlands since 1909. Participants walk 30, 40 or 50 kilometers each day for four days. It is the largest walking event in the world. The first day of walking is always the 3rd Tuesday in July.
It started as physical fitness training for the military but now most of the walkers are civilian and this year, 40 percent of the walkers were women. The oldest participant was 91 years of age and this was his 60th event. You can choose which distance to walk when you pre-register although military personnel must do the 40 km ones and carry a 23 lb backpack. I think most of the 50 km participants are speed walkers.
Everyone starts and stops at the same place each day but the routes themselves vary, depending on the distance. When you register you are given an armband and punch card and there are two control points each day along with the start and finish ones, so it is very regulated. There are two start times, 5:15 am and 6:15 am and you alternate each day. Some walkers get to the start point an hour early to get out in front of the crowd.
My walking partner was 22 years younger than me and had done the walk seven times before. He was an energetic and fast walker. We would complete the walk each day in about 7 hours, 8 hours on the last day. The latest time that you could report in each day was 6:00 pm. Our lodging was about 2½ km from the start point so we had to walk an additional 5 km each day—45 instead of the official 40 km—and your body knows the difference.
There are food outlets and rest areas along the way. We would stop for three 10-15 minute breaks where we would stretch our muscles, use the toilet facilities and at lunch have something warm to eat. Water was available all along the route and locals would hand out pieces of sausage, fruit, raw vegetables, and candy. There was heavy rain the third day, a thunderstorm in fact, and we got soaked and had to wade through muck at the various rest stops.
The whole city seems to open their doors to the walkers. Three of us shared a tiny bedroom and the family gave us breakfast each morning. At night we had no desire to walk to a restaurant for dinner so on the way back to the house we’d stop at a grocery store and buy a ready-made meal and a couple of bottles of wine to bring back with us.
I had blisters on my feet by the end of the second day and one of my toenails came off. The tape I used for the blisters was a problem because when you peeled it off the loose skin from the blisters came with it. By the last day one foot was really hurting and I checked in with a Canadian military medic who put on new bandages which allowed me to complete the walk without too much suffering.
There was lots of hoopla every day and more at the end. From the time we left early in the morning there would be university students about waving bottles of beer and wishing us well. People came out onto their balconies to cheer us on. There were bands all along the way playing music, people dancing, and stands with dignitaries to greet us. There was lots of partying but I doubt few of those marching participated in the festivities since they had to be up by 4:00 am.
On Friday, the last day, thousands upon thousands of people lined the last few kilometers of road before the finish to cheer us on. That street, the St. Annastraat, is dubbed “Via Gladiola” for the day. The gladiola is the official flower of the marches, and given to participants by spectators. My sister from Holland and her son and daughter-in-law were there waiting for me with a big bouquet of gladioli. There are different types of awards and the walker receives a specific medal depending on the number of times he or she successfully finished the course.
The event was personally significant to me for a couple of reasons. I was in the Canadian military and the town of Nijmegen is important to Canadians because this is where they had their headquarters during WWII. Along one of the routes is Groesbeek where there is a Canadian military cemetery with over 2,300 graves. An official ceremony of all NATO troops that are marching is held there each year. I was also born in Holland and speak Dutch (although not knowing any Dutch is not a problem).
One of my colleagues has done the march 20 times and has made wonderful contacts in the Netherlands and he meets up with them each year. Another buddy decided to do the 30 km march after two bouts of cancer. Two weeks after his last operation he put his boots to the ground and started training. So there are different motivations.
Other birthday articles
Celebrating my 60th birthday in Costa Rica
Celebrating my 30th birthday in the great city of Chicago
Celebrating my 65th birthday hiking in the Italian Cinque Terre
I’ve always been a walker. I started to seriously prepare for this in April. By mid-May I was recording the distances and clocked 765 km from then until departure. I gradually increased the distance each week until I was up to 40 km and then took it relatively easy for the last two weeks.
It was tough, tough slogging. Did I ever think I wouldn’t finish it? Never. And when the officials pinned on the medal it felt pretty good.
By Gerrit Reinhardus
Photo credits Gerrit Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2012