It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. I thought I’ll just do it once and be done with it. But then it gets under your skin, and you find yourself with an aching heart, just seeing all those people crossing the Waal bridge on the first morning, the euphoria of reaching the Via Gladiola on the final day, and everything inbetween…
The first time I took part in the Nijmeegse Vierdaagse – internationally known as the Walk of the World, or the Four Days Marches of Nijmegen – was a rather spontaneous decision. I had one week of holiday left, and I thought I might as well give it a try. It had been in the back of my mind for ages. Especially if you grew up in the area, and witnessed the madness every year, you can’t help but feel a strong connection. And a growing urge to have a go at it yourself.
But this is one epic journey that is not to be underestimated.
The Four Days of Nijmegen is the biggest walking event & summer party of The Netherlands. Tens of thousands of people voluntarily choose to walk 40 kilometres a day, for 4 days in a row, in the third week of July. Men even have to do 50 kilometres a day. If you’re over 60, or between 12 and 15 years old, you can do 30 kilometres. The whole city of Nijmegen turns into one big festival area during the week around it.
Waal harbour and bridge in Nijmegen.
The walk has been held since 1909, for 100 almost consecutive editions so far. This year, in 2017, will be the 101st Walk of the World. Nijmegen has been the epicentre and starting point since 1925, and in 1970 the Summer Festival was added to the excitement. Combined, they draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. And the atmosphere is just incredible. People from all over the world come together, to celebrate life, the summer, and to encourage the walkers along the routes – those who are brave enough to defy the adversity of blisters, sweat & tears to conquer the Via Gladiola in euphoric triumph at the end of the fourth day.
At that time it was still possible to sign up on a short notice. I registered in May, only 2 months before the start. Even though I hadn’t done any serious training in the previous months, I thought I would be able to do it.
The official training schedule recommends that you should do at least 400 kilometres of walking in preparation, built up over five months of progressively increasing distances. I only did all of 2 half-serious training walks – one of 12 and another one of about 18 kilometres. Still nowhere near the 40 kilometres you have to complete each day. But I thought I’d be allright. I knew I could walk all day. In the previous year I had done a fair bit of bushwalking in Australia and New Zealand, including some long walks. I had even done the Tongariro Northern Circuit. And that was all on rather steep, uneven, sometimes muddy and tree-root ridden tracks and terrain. So how difficult would it be to walk on perfectly smooth, flat and paved roads, without any hills to speak of – except for the notorious Seven Hills of Groesbeek on the third day – even if it is for four full days in a row…?
How wrong I was!
The first challenge is forcing yourself to go to bed on time, and sleep while the sun is still bright & shining outside. You need to get up at ridiculous o’ clock to be at the start at 5 in the morning. But I managed to get up in time and set off with a feeling of hope and optimism on the first day.
And it was quite doable – up until 30 kilometres.
The notorious Oosterhoutse dike, at the end of the first day.
But the last 10 kilometre stretch did my head in, or rather: my legs. It weaves over an endless dike, winding for miles, with the skyline of Nijmegen like a hallucination on the horizon. You think you’re almost there, but it doesn’t seem to get closer. It’s still further away than it looks. That last bit was truly exasperating. I felt bolts & joints in places I wasn’t even aware of. I plodded on, and barely made it to the finish. Then I couldn’t even bring myself to walk any further to the nearest bus stop, about another kilometre away, as everything had just come to a screeching halt. Defeated and embarrassed, I called my mother, to ask if she could please come & pick me up.
I thought after a good night’s sleep my legs and feet would fall into shape again. But when I got up the next morning, I was so stiff that I wouldn’t be able to walk even 4 kilometres – let alone 40. So I dropped out, and didn’t start on the second day. I was happy to have at least completed the first day, without getting the dreaded blisters. But I walked like an old woman for the rest of the week. And my heart was bleeding when the Vierdaagse came through Groesbeek on the third day, and when I watched the daily television reports.
After years of getting progressively restless every time the Vierdaagse and Summer Festival came around, I couldn’t take it any longer. In 2013 I had to give it another try.
This time, I took the training schedule seriously.
Still, it was pretty tough. I had no idea if I was actually going to make it through four days of 40 kilometres in a row until the very end. I just took it a day at a time, and each day I finished was a victory in itself.
Forty kilometers… per day!
On the second day an annoying prickly feeling appeared on one of my toes – a forebode of the dreaded blisters… But the waiting time at the First Aid blister post was just too long to consider. I’d have to wait for over 2 hours, which meant I would not be able to reach the finish on time. So I struggled on, and was saved by a relaxing foot massage at a very convenient point about three quarters of the way. The waiting time was only 15 minutes. It was just what I needed to revive my weary feet and get through the last 2 hours ahead.
The Seven Hills of Groesbeek
Then the third day of Groesbeek came, with the notorious Seven Hills. The tricky bit is that they come at the end of the route, during the last 15 kilometres. But I was quite surprised to find it wasn’t as difficult as I expected. Perhaps it’s because adaptation starts to kick in. After the initial fresh start on the first day, and the exhaustion on the second day, your body is getting used to the daily distance. I actually steamed up those hills a lot quicker & easier than those endless winding dikes and flat areas of the previous days. They seemed to give me an added energy boost. But perhaps it’s also my mountain fetishism 😉
And the final day is the longest. You have to do over 42 kilometres, to make up for the previous three days when the actual distances are a little less than 40. The total distance of the four days has to add up to at least 160 kilometres.
It’s also the most euphoric day of them all.
Natural high on the Via Gladiola!
The parties along the route, the people encouraging & cheering you on getting more intense all the way. When you reach the Via Gladiola, the last 10 kilometre stretch from Malden to the finish in Nijmegen, it becomes a complete madhouse. By then, you don’t care about whatever hardships and blisters you have had to endure. You have made it, and it’s the point of no return. People will hand you gladiola flowers and cans of beer, and you don’t worry about getting wobbly legs anymore.
It’s too late to not finish it – even if you have to crawl.
The feeling of euphoria and natural high was so intense that I was overwhelmed by tears of joy & gratefulness as I stumbled along the Via Gladiola those last couple of kilometers. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses to discretely cry them behind.
I finally made it & crawled in on time. But I never knew my feet could hurt that bad!
And I thought I’d be done with it now. But when the next edition came around, I found myself with an aching heart and itching feet again… And I realised it had taken hold of me. The infamous Vierdaagse virus really does exist. I succumbed to it again in 2015 and 2016.
De dood of de gladiolen!
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Registration and training
If you want to take part in the Nijmeegse Vierdaagse, you can register until the end of March each year. Even if you don’t want to do the walking, the Summer Festival of Nijmegen is worth a visit by itself 🙂 It all takes place during the third week of July.
You can download a training schedule, route maps and other information from this handy page on the Vierdaagse Walk of the World website.
More stories & inspiration
Ode to the mountains! – The magic of Mount Taranaki
Tongariro – The track across Middle Earth
The Hazards – Scrambling up to prehistorical views
The walking track to Heimaklettur – The Home Rock
Haleakala – The House of the Rising Sun
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