Ex Typhoon Wanderer
An insight into the Nijmegen Marches.
16th -23rd July 2011
Heumensoord Camp, Nijmegen, Netherlands
I led 6 members of Typhoon Squadron: OCdt Swanwick, OCdt Peace, Ocdt Turner, OCdt McCool, OCdt Urey and OCdt Phillips to the Netherlands to take part in the Nijmegen Four Day Marches 2011. We formed a team with 6 other marchers from 73 RE TA, Trojan Squadron and Oxford UOTC.
So what are the Nijmegen marches? The "vierdaagse" (Dutch for "Four day Event") is an annual walk that has taken place since 1909, being based at Nijmegen since 1916. Depending on age group and category, walkers have to walk 30, 40 or 50 kilometers each day for four days. Originally a military event with a few civilians, it now is a mainly civilian event. Numbers have risen in recent years, with over 40,000 taking part - including about 5,000 Military. It is now the world's largest walking event. The first day of walking is always the 3rd Tuesday in July. All military contingents March 40km a day in fatigues with a minimum of 10kg of dead weight. The civilians have a choice of route lengths and carry no weight. For the 4 days everyone in Holland has a national holiday and about 1million people gather in Nijmegen to have a festival in support of the Marches.
Everyone formed up on Sat 16 Jul, but the marches didn't start until the Tuesday morning. We used the 3 days to absorb the culture of the Nijmegen festival and travel to visit the Museums and sites in Amsterdam.
Each day of the marches is named after the biggest town it goes through. Tuesday is the day of Elst, Wednesday the day of Wijchen, Thursday the day of Groesbeek and Friday the day of Cuijk.The marches start between 3 and 5 in the morning and last about 8 hours each day. On Tuesday we Marched over the Famous Nijmegen Bridge (Famous for being one of the key Bridges in OP Market Garden 1944) to complete a 44 km circuit in North Nijmegen before returning back to camp 9 hours later. The 2nd and 3rd days are 40km circuits in the villages and country side around the town of Nijmegen. And the 4th day Is the final 44km circuit culminating with a March into the town center as a big parade.
The festival atmosphere is abundant throughout with pubs and clubs open in the evening and people lining the streets in all the villages, handing out sweets, flowers and playing music for the participants of the marche’s’ entertainment.
So how did the team perform; Day 1 was fairly easy with us getting to the half way point around 0830 in the morning but then the sun came out and we entered a 11km stretch known as the Dyke which is hard walking and fully exposed to the heat of the day. This lead for slow in March pace. It was at this point that the full weight of the task ahead hit everyone. Ending the day with 2 people having to see the medical staff, one for heat exhaustion and one for Blisters, we all felt exhausted.
The second day was slightly cooler and we grizzed it from checkpoint to checkpoint getting around in 7 hours. That afternoon marked the halfway point in the marches. With everyones feet now in pain either due to blisters of the constant compression the 3rd and 4th days where a mental battle to get around, more than a physical battle. All you had to do is find something to occupy your mind and mask the pain, whether it was a conversation, singing, admiring the crowds and other participants (noticeable the civilians who complete the marches in clogs or in barefoot) and ultimately painkiller.
Friday finally arrived and the end was in sight so spirits should have been high, however everyone seemed to just be in their mental happy place and trying to get though the day. First a 14km leg, then 2x 10km legs with 10 minutes break inbetween each leg and then finally a 10km leg along a straight road back to Nijmegen for the final parade. This parade was a 4km stretch into town with people standing 15-20 deep on all sides, its hard to convey how happy you feel to finish and your appreciation for the crowd.
The efforts of some personnel on the March cannot go unnoticed:
Firstly, OCdt peace needs a mention for battling though from day one with feet that the medical team described on the Friday evening as the worst they have seen in a longtime. Just picture bubble-wrap and you’ll get the idea. With feet in his state, no one would have though anything if he though in the towel but instead he mentally powered through completing every step of the 100miles, unable to walk each evening it is pure wonder how he managed to March each day. Secondly to OCdt Urey who truly embraced the atmosphere of the marches by entering each day with full enthusiasm, he was always waving to the crowd and smiling and generally keeping the moral of the group high. He didn't seem to struggle with the marching or weight and even took others weight when they struggled. When someone dropped behind he frequently came back to help them make up the pace and inevitably kept the group together. For this he was the true wonderer amongst us. As a team we where given a medallion for completing the March with no drop outs, I spoke with Capt Fowler and it will be awarded to Ocdt Urey for the above mentioned efforts before going on display in 73 RE’s Mess. Mention should also go to OCdt Weasby who never struggled with the marching, and OCdt Turner who completer his 3rd Nijmegen March.
It is not in the What? Where? When? or how? that we find the true legacy behind the Nijmegen marches but in the why? Why would you want to do it and why does it attract participants back year after year? The Nijmegen marches originally started in the early 1900s as a way to promote sport and exercise. But why would Typhoon squadron send us abroad when we could undertake a sporting March in the UK. My account of the March may not sound glamourous because it was tough and exhausting, but it is in the challenge of being receptively outside ones comfort-zone that we can find the reason behind the training aspect of the Marches. The Mental determination to not give up when the going is tough, the ability to refocus on the positives of the March such as the festival and the crowds rather that your internal pain and exhaustion is what essentially makes the Marches such a great character developing tool and that, ultimately, is why we marched. People flock back in the thousands each year to repeat the March, not because it is considered easy but because it challenges them and they get a euphoria from completing it on the fourth day. This is the legacy of the Nijmegen marches and hopefully we will see you there next year.