LES 4 CIMES DU PAYS DE HERVE , THE RACE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
In 1986, my pal and "running guru", Jim Mouat, suggested we should go to Liege in Belgium to run in a race organised by friends of his. Jim was a superb runner who had won numerous races on the continent, though not in Belgium where he'd just won lots of friends. One of these, Guy Nezer, had invited Jim to come with some friends to run in the first edition of Les 4 Cimes, a 33km (mainly) road race around the beautiful Plateau de Herve. So it was that Jim, Neil, and I arrived in Liege in my beat-up old car, to a wonderful reception of kindness and joy such as I had never experienced before.
The night before the race, there was a lively party at the home of one of the organisers, Fernand Marechal, and his wife Monique. During the evening, our hosts had to pop out to another party, but by that time the fun was well in progress and the drink was flowing, so the partying continued. I took my running rather seriously in those days, and I decided to avoid more drink and get to bed early. Neil thought the same. So we asked someone where our bedrooms were and were shown to a large bedroom with one double bed in it. Not having any pyjamas with me, I wore my Burnham Joggers race kit to bed: Neil was rather bemused. It was not until the morning that we realised with much embarrassment that we had taken our host's bedroom, but with great grace they made light of it.
The race went well for me, and I found myself contesting the lead with a handsome young Belgian, Bernard Simonet, who was 'sympa' enough to speak in English when I managed occasionally to run along side him. For the most part I was hanging on some 20 metres behind Bernard. I was greatly surprised at the encouragement and support I received from Guy in the lead car. With a kilometer to go, I drew alongside Bernard again and suggested to him that we should cross the line together, and he agreed. So we started running up the dreaded Mur de Bouxhmont together. What happened next is still a strange thing for me. Bernard must have 'hit the wall' as we approached the finish, and the pace slowed considerably. In the last few meters I jogged in front of him and crossed the line first. It's not something I'm proud of or can justify, it just happened. To Bernard, it must have seemed a great deceit and trickery, but he behaved (and always has) with great dignity. I'm sorry Bernard. Neil still remains convinced that I only won because of the strange ritual of wearing my race kit in bed.
The post-race party was an amazing experience for me: in England we are lucky to get a cup of tea after a race. Being a very inhibited and shy Englishman, I was quite shocked when Guy congratulated me with an embrace and kisses on both cheeks. We had great difficulty tearing ourselves away from the party, and miraculously, Neil succeeded in driving us to Calais, although it was nearly Paris after navigator Jim stopped singing and fell asleep.
A year later when the second edition of Les 4 Cimes took place, I was injured, and felt it was too far to go if I couldn't run. I did go back for the third event, and got such a wonderful welcome as a former winner, that I realised that I had made a mistake in not coming the previous year. I have returned every year since: if I can't run, I ride round on a bike. I have long since learnt that the friendship is much more important than the race. In those early years I spoke very little French, but used to pretend I understood what was being said. Then I started going to French evening classes, an investment which has repaid me richly in great friendship and shared joy. I have enjoyed immensely every trip to Belgium, and now have many very dear friends there. It's become my second home.
So, Les 4 Cimes and my Belgian friends have really changed my life and shown me 'la joie de vivre'. My heartfelt thanks go to race organisers Fernand, Michel, Bernard and Guy Pirlet for all the joy they have brought to so many over the 18 years of Les 4 Cimes du Pays de Herve.