The 2016 Legends Trail, a volunteers experience.

Legends TrailIn March 2016 Astrid and I volunteered at the first edition of the Legends Trail, an experience we thoroughly enjoyed and that made a huge impression on us. Even though it is nearly impossible to explain it I have given it a try in this post about our first volunteering experience at a running event.

Even though my girlfriend Astrid and I have not been participating in running events for that long (out first race was a 10 km at the end of 2014). We did participate in quite a lot of events since then and were always thankful of the volunteers that made these events possible. So naturally the thought of volunteering at a running event had already crossed our mind a few times.

And then we read the call for Legendary Friends from Stef on Facebook…..

Tim and himself were organizing a trailrun that would lead the participants through the rough terrain of the Belgian Ardennes for 250 kilometers. Looking at the parameters of the event our heads were spinning. This is definitely not something Astrid and I could be running ourselves, but wouldn’t it be awesome to be part of it in some way?

And so we signed up as volunteers for the very first edition of the Legends Trails an event spanning a total of 4 days with a start on Friday evening and a cutoff time lasting until Monday morning 8:00 am. Since our only experience were single day running events we had no idea what to expect.

As we got closer to the event it also became a bit more clear what we would be doing. Astrid and I had been assigned as coordinators to check point 2 at 106 km into the course. Meaning that we would be responsible for the runners stopping at this checkpoint, providing them with food, drinks and the care they would need to continue their challenge. Ok, sounds like fun, we can do that!

Wednesday February 24
About 10 days before the start of the Legends Trail there was a conference call with all the volunteers, the first time we would “meet” most of them. During a somewhat messy Skype call we got a bit more context of the role of the volunteers during the event and through e-mail we received a nicely prepared planning for all the volunteers.

After this call we had a decent picture of what our role during the event would look like, it would be a mix of photography, filming, helping with the pre-race preparations and running the second check point of the course. And so we started our preparation.

GroceriesOf course the check points would be sufficiently supplied with everything the runners would need, but we wanted to make their experience at check point 2 even better and so we created a shopping list:

  • 60 liters of chocolate milk.
  • 10 boxes of chocolate dipped oreo’s.
  • 8 bags of chips.
  • 8 boxes of peanuts.
  • 10 bags of salted sticks.

Hopefully the right things that runners like to eat or drink after more than 100 km on the brutal course of the Legends Trail.

Next to that we also wanted to give them a bit of a mental boost and so Astrid started an initiative on Facebook asking the runners for their favorite music so we would be able to play that for them at the check point. Manny runners appreciated this and posted the songs that they would like to hear.

And so we were ready for it…. at least that’s what we thought….

Friday March 4
The weekend started on Friday the 4th of March. And so after my morning run we started loading up our car to head out from Utrecht (Netherlands) to Achouffe (Belgium) were the start of the Legends Trail would be.

The race would start at 18:00 and before that racer registration starting from 14:00 and so we arrived in Belgium early in the afternoon. After a brief introduction to Tim, Stef and several of the other volunteers the Legends Trail weekend was kicking off.

Astrid was being tasked with shooting the portrait pictures of the runners for the live tracking site and I was responsible for the racer’s drop bags.

Each racer was allowed to check-in a drop bag with a maximum of 20 kg which would be transported to the check points for the runners to use during their stop at the check point. So you can imagine that I felt somewhat responsible with the thought in mind that a very tired runner would end up at the first check point, not finding his drop bag because I screwed up. Not a pretty picture.

And so I made sure that all drop bags got on the vans that would be transporting them to the first check-point. And of course in between, the giant La Chouffe lepricon needed to be inflated at the starting area…..

Just before 18:00 all drop bags were loaded in the vans, after a short briefing by the race directors, countdown started and off they went. 47 brave runners embarked on the adventure that Stef and Tim had prepared for them.

After watching the last runners run out of sight the volunteering team quickly packed up and headed out to the headquarter location for the race in Houffalize.

While the runners headed out into the night on their way to check point 1, almost 70 kilometers from the start, our evening started with a dinner with all the volunteers together at Moulin Bock, the headquarters for the rest of the weekend. The kitchen crew was already operating at full speed and had prepared a nice pasta meal for all the volunteers.

Looking around I was still wondering what I was getting myself into. Here I was surrounded by people I did not know yet. Everybody seemed to be running around, arranging food, setting up the room for the safety coordinators, getting the medical supplied for the check points together, chatting, discussing. To me it felt like complete chaos. How would this turn out over the rest of the weekend?

After enjoying dinner together it was time to get to work. The medical team preped themselves by discussing all the runners to make sure everyone was on the same page, in the mean time the other volunteers started loading up the cars with the supplies for the check points.

As soon as the medical team was done we were on the road to first help set up check point 1 before we moved on to check point 2, the check point that we would be running. We arrived late in the evening and after a quick inspection of the facilities on the check point we got into bed for some rest at 1:30.

In the mean time the runners were running through the night and moving towards the first check point.

  • Rinus Holvoets
  • Marek Vis
  • Safety Coordination Board
  • At Check Point 1
  • At Check Point 1
  • First runners about to leave CP1
  • Rinus Holvoets
  • Marek Vis
  • Safety Coordination Board
  • At Check Point 1
  • At Check Point 1
  • First runners about to leave CP1

Saturday March 5
The phone rang at 5:15 (around 3 hours after we fel asleep). The voice on the other side of the line was Tim’s, notifying us that the first runners had left check point 1 and were on their way to check point 2, meaning that it would probably be between 10:00 – 12:00 before they would arrive. After trying to get some more sleep we eventually just gave up, got out of bed and started setting up the check point.

After a briefing with the volunteers, setting up the medical and physiotherapy area, the wet and dry-zone for the runners, tents to protect the drop bags from the rain and snow, unloading the dropbags that had arrived, putting up signs, flags, a banner and of course the giant lepricon again, check point 2 and the volunteers were ready for the runners.

The original estimate of expecting the runners between 10:00 and 12:00 was a bit too optimistic, but luckily we had live tracking and could follow the position of the runners on the course during the event and therefore we knew exactly who was coming in and at what time.

The first runners arrived at our check point around 12:30 and after that runners were coming and going from the check point either as individuals or in small groups, basically meaning that the check point crew was operating at full speed.

Working at the check point was fun and rewarding. It was exciting to see all the racers coming in, each with their own stories about their journey so far. And of course, coming from the Netherlands, it was extra special to be able to follow the Dutch runners this closely.

At the check point we made sure that all runners got their drop bag, a decent meal, something warm to drink and the necessary care from the medical team before they headed out on the trail again.

While helping the runners and hearing their stories the magnitude of the challenge was slowly starting to sink in.

The last runner left check point 2 at around 20:00. But work was not done after that of course, after the last runner left the check point it was time to clean up, take down all flags, signs, banners and tents and load the last drop bags in the van transporting them to the next check point and of course deflating the giant lepricon again.

At around 22:00 we were done and it was time to drive to headquarters for a shower and a bed.

Sunday March 6
The plan for Sunday was to go out on the trail and capture the moments of the race in pictures and video. Since the runners were already passed check point 3 and heading to check point 4 the first stop would be to go there and see if we could intercept them on their way on to that final check point.

We figured out that the trail would pass through a small village, Grand Halleux, just about 4 km before check point 4. We parked the car in the village and walked onto the trail towards the runners to shoot some pictures and video. For several hours from around 12:00 to 18:00 we moved between Grand Halleux and check point 4 to get the runners on different parts of the trail and on the check point.

After two dutch runners Paula (the only woman left in the race at that point) and Michiel had passed, closely followed by Leif, the live tracking showed one more runner on his way to check point 4, Marek. Marek was still a few kilometers out and I was in running gear anyway so I ran out to meet him.

I remember that while I was running towards him I was thinking how slippery the trail was. Going over a few kilometers of single track with slight elevation changes I enjoyed the run, but in the same time realised that the real runners where encountering this same trail after almost 200 km and 2 nights without sleep and I tried to think how hard that would be.

After about 3 to 3,5 km I caught up with Marek. Instantly realizing that I did not think this through. “What if het just wants to be here on his own and just wants to be left alone?” So all I could do is just ask if it would be ok if I would join him for a bit. And so for the next 3 km we walked together along the Legends Trail. I think this is where I made up my mind that one day I want to be here as a racer.

Now that the last runner was at check point 4 it was getting dark and it was time to get back to headquarters. I think it was around 19:00 or 20:00 when we arrived. After a shower and a meal I started doing a first rough edit of the video material. And of course I helped setting up that giant lepricon again :).

While staring at the dots on the live tracking it became clear that the first runners would not finish until somewhere in the night or early Monday morning. We sure did not want to miss any of them so we decided to get some sleep now while they were enjoying 40 cm of fresh snow on Baraque de Fraiture, the highest point of the course.

Monday March 7
I had set the alarm of my phone at 1:30 AM since that was the first possible moment that the leading pack could be close to the finish.

When the alarm went off we jumped out of bed and checked the current situation. The first runners were still had 10 to 15 km to cover and would not reach the finish line in the next few hours. While Astrid went back to bed for a bit more sleep I decided to stay awake and see where I could help at HQ.

Together with a few others we prepared the finish area with a table with the medals and beer for the finishers, some floodlights for the giant lepricon and then it was time to wait.

At around 2:45 I woke up Astrid because the first finishers were now getting closer and seemed to have picked up quite some speed. And then around 3:15 we saw the light of their headlamps on top of the last hill they had to descent before they could get to the finish. Michael Frenz, closely followed by Joris Jacobs became the first finishers of the first edition of the Legends Trail.

After them another 13 runners finished either covering the last section alone or in a group. Within a timespan of only 4 hours after the first finisher Dirk van Spitaels, Ivo Steyaert, Christophe Wislet, Claudy Jambon, Benny Keuppens, Peter Swager, Michiel Panhuysen, Paula Ijzerman, Leif Abrahamsen, Geert Dewit, Marek Vis, Robin Kinsbergen and Hans Coolen completed the total of 15 finishers out of the 47 people that started the challenge almost 62 hours ago.

Each of them was greeted by race directors Stef and Tim at the finish line.

After the finish it was great to hear the stories from the runners, from the winners about the race that was going on in front during the last kilometers, but the story would not be complete without all the other stories. The navigation mistakes after sleep deprivation, the terrible conditions on the ski slope, stories about pain, suffering, but also new friendships being born.

After helping during the cleanup of headquarters it was time to say goodbye to the Legends Trail for now and we headed home. For days, no weeks after that it remained one of the main topics of conversation and it was clear that this had made an impact.

The amount of online attention on the event afterwards with articles, videos, pictures, blog posts, Facebook messages was huge and it is clear that a new benchmark for long distance racing in the BeNeLux area has been set.

Moments of the race for me.
The entire weekend has left a massive impression on me, in the first few weeks after the Legends Trail not a day passed by where I wasn’t talking or thinking about the Legends Trail. Therefore it is very difficult to identify the most special moments during that weekend.

The teamwork of the volunteering team.
Al throughout the weekend I have seen awesome teamwork among all volunteers. People from completely different backgrounds got together with one common goal, to make this running event reality and keep the runners safe. The people at the check points, the safety team, the medical crew, the safety coordinators, the kitchen crew preparing all the food, the drivers transporting the drop bags to the check points, all other volunteers and of course race directors Stef and Tim all worked their asses of during the weekend.

If companies would be able to create this amount of drive and energy in teams chasing the company’s goal that company would excel in ways beyond the owners’expectations. For me it has been a true privilige to be part of this team and I hope I will encounter more of these experiences in the future.

Being on the trail with the runners.
While shooting some video footage of the runners I also got the opportunity to be out on the trail with them for a very brief moment. While filming the runners a few kilometers before they would reach check point 4 I got the chance to walk along one of the dutch runners (Marek Vis) for about 3 km. I guess that short 3 km of seeing a future legend pushing himself forward really made clear how big this challenge is. Walking next to Marek I felt very humble.

The finish
After experiencing this weekend, supporting the runners and then watching those headlamps appear on the last descent towards the finish line at 3:15 am Monday morning was a very special moment to witness. The hours after that were a sequence of emotional moments seeing 15 runners coming down that hill and finishing what they had fought so hard for over the weekend.

What would I do differently next time?
Of course a first experience as a volunteer also provides an opportunity to learn. So what would I do differently next time I am volunteering at such an event:

  • Bring some basic tools. Just some basic things like duct-tape, a multitool, tie-wraps, flashlight and a pocket knife will definitely be in my equipment next time.
  • Be prepared for various weather conditions. The outdoor life is all very new to me and so I don’t have a closet full of down jackets, raincoats, etc. And so from time to time it was a bit cold. I have some shopping to do for next years edition.
  • Buy a local SIM card. I used my cell phone heavily during the weekend to check where the runners were and using roaming to do so this was not the most economic use of my cell phone.
  • Make more pictures and movies. The seconday goal I had for this event is to get a nice set of pictures and some videos to share with the runners, the volunteers and other people interested in this event.
  • Get a hotel for the night before and after the event. Driving home Monday afternoon after a weekend with a limited amount of sleep was not the smartest thing to do. It all went well in the end, but in hindsight was not the safest thing to do. Next time I will book a hotel for the night after the event to have a good night of sleep before heading home safely.

Will I return to the Legends Trail?
Yes, yes, yes and yes! Astrid and I have already signed up as a volunteer for the 2017 edition and are looking forward to help out at this event again. Will I return as a racer one day? Compared to the experience of the people that started this year I am an absolute beginner, but since this weekend the Legends Trail is definitely something that I would like to do as a participant.

Volunteering in it is definitely a valuable experience I can take with me if I would ever enter it as a racer. It also ensures that I don’t think too lightly about it and am taking it one step at a time. For this year that step is the 80 km of another trail race organized by Stef and Tim, the Bello Gallico trail in December.


Special thanks to Astrid Claessen and Kamil Weinberg for providing the pictures in this post.

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