Track at the crack of dawn in Leuven

The back straight on the Leuven track. Really! (Photo: Kevin Liao via Flotrack)

The back straight on the Leuven track. Really! (Photo: Kevin Liao via Flotrack)

I’ve been back in Ireland for over a year now. If anyone asks me what I miss from my eight years of living in Paris I tend to give standard answers like “the sights”, “the bakeries” and “the friendliness of the waiters”.

But you and I know that what I really miss from Paris are the free municipal athletics tracks.

In particular, I remember using my local track in the spring of 2013 to follow the Daniels’ Red Intermediate Plan. I would get up at 6:00, run the mile of deserted streets to the equally-deserted track, and then do my session as the sky gradually turned from dark to milky-bright.

I loved the peace, the freedom and the sense of purpose and accomplishment – an early-morning track session always felt like it was worth two evening sessions.

Dublin being underserved by tracks, I haven’t been able to keep up this habit. I mention it because this week I was on my travels again, and the opportunity arose for a morning run on a track; I grabbed it with both feet.

For reasons too glamorous to bore you with here, work brought me this week to the Belgian city of Leuven – and as I saw that the local university had a track, I decided to fit in a few early-morning laps.

I spent my few days in Leuven in the old red-bricked town centre, near the university and the Irish College. By day the place was quiet but after 7 p.m. the streets came alive with students, most of them cycling on old-fashioned bikes and not wearing the helmets or hi-vis gear we’re so used to seeing. It was a quaint sight, like something from the 1940s, but it turned casual strolling into a fraught affair – absent-minded tourists out for a Leuven evening stroll risked being upscuttled by a silent cyclist shooting out of nowhere.

I can’t really report on the local cuisine. Though I knew Leuven was in Flanders I figured that it would still be bilingual and I could use my French. This proved not to be the case – Flemish everywhere, with my few words of French getting a frosty reception from shopkeepers and taxi drivers. And because it was the only place with a menu in English in the window, I ate in a nice little Nepalese tandoori restaurant. After that I popped next door into an Irish pub to watch Champions League football on TV. No Belgian waffles, beer, chocolate or fries for me this time around.

As for the running, my pre-travel research had shown me that the track was a mile from where I was staying. I got up at 6 a.m. to run the mile there, do a mile on the track and then run back. Thankfully there were no predatory cyclists lurking in the dark pre-dawn; I also took extra care on the paved and cobbled streets.

Leuven is a place with athletics credentials. Track fans with an interest in the old days may know one of its club runners: Emiel Puttemans, Olympic silver medallist behind Lasse Viren in the 10,000 metres in 1972 and a supporting player to Viren, Prefontaine et al in the dramatic 1972 Olympic 5,000 metre final. And for those of you who run in spurts, there’s another Olympic silver medallist from Leuven – sprinter Kim Gevaert, from Belgium’s 4×400 team in Beijing in 2008.

The university track at Leuven probably isn’t full-sized, though I can’t find any confirmation of that online. It’s beside a football stadium built right on top of another running track – you can see the bends of the track peeking out from under the stands at each end.

But the reason the Leuven university track is odd is because it has almost no straights – it’s nearly an oval. The back straight is probably 30 metres long, while the home straight makes a tangent of around 50 metres with sprint lanes alongside. This makes the two bends long and gradual.

Whether from the early hour or a sniffy disdain, no one else was using the track, so I had the place all to myself. It was great to feel again the familiar bounce of the surface and the surge of energy from daydreaming I was in a major athletics final. (That morning in Leuven I imagined myself in the thrilling 1978 European 1,500 metre final, with David Coleman’s electrifying commentary crackling in my mind’s ear.)

Because I didn’t want to waste time waiting for a satellite signal that mightn’t have come anyway among the high stone walls of Leuven, I wasn’t wearing a GPS watch. So, I’m not sure about the exact distance of my run; I did four fast laps and then ran around again to the gate, which I reckon saw me do the mile in total. The wash of lactic acid in my legs is always tough on the last lap but as soon as I finish it somehow becomes thrilling – all these familiar feelings came back to me on that Leuven track.

So, I had a great early-morning track run in Leuven. As I picked my way along the mile back, I passed two drunk students staggering wildly to their dorm or digs or wherever – they’d had a great time too.

Be it around the track or in student parties, all the best stuff happens at the crack of dawn.

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