Every long trip is a little adventure!
Many people are delighted just to finish the 101-kilometre-long Dutch Mountain Trail over the course of a few days. Others aspire to complete the route more quickly, like trail-runner Wouter Huitzing. Wouter recently ran (yes, “ran”!) the entire distance in an amazing 11 hours, 20 minutes and 22 seconds: a record. He was also the first to run the Netherlands’ longest trail, the Pieterpad, a 498-kilometre footpath which spans the length of the country, from north to south. At the time, his 98 hours and 16 minutes was a record. Wouter is a five-time Dutch Adventure Racing champion and participates in competitions throughout Europe.
Of course, we were curious to know more …
Wouter, what is trail running? Not all of us may have heard about it.
Simply put, trail running is a fancy name for running off paved routes, that is, on “trails”.
How did you get into trail running?
I’ve been involved in Adventure Racing since 2004. At first, it was only in the Netherlands, but for quite a few years now it’s been worldwide. Adventure Racing is a multidisciplinary team-sport based on running, mountain-biking, canoeing and navigating. This is done in teams of 2 or 4 people and races can last from anywhere between 8 and 24 hours in the Netherlands to up to 7 days non-stop internationally. It was when I started running internationally that I discovered I was one of the stronger runners. I often had to adjust my pace, or helped my teammates by carrying extra gear. This gave me the idea that I should do an ultratrail and see how I got on. My first was the Spine Challenger, a 174-kilometre winter run in the English Pennines. My goal was to finish within 60 hours, but much to my surprise, I finished the race in fourth place with a time of 33 hours without any real difficulty. I had an appetite for more and the next year I won the race.
What makes this more extreme kind of endurance sport so interesting?
To see how far I can go. But really I just enjoy it, being on the road, seeing and experiencing new things. Every long trail I do, whether it’s a race or a route I come up with myself, is an adventure. That’s the best thing, just being on an adventure!
You’ve already achieved quite a lot as a trail runner. Why take on the Dutch Mountain Trail?
I just had to experience this challenging ‘mountain trail’ for myself. A trail in the Netherlands which has a height difference of no less than two thousand metres and a total distance of 101 km is quite something. What’s more, the section goes through the ENCI limestone quarry and over the Sint-Pietersberg and I have good memories of that. And I must say, the DMT lived up to its promise. It’s a very scenic trail with many challenging sections. It was like running through a foreign country, not surprising when you consider that the Randstad where I live is totally flat.
Which parts of the trail did you enjoy the most?
There were several sections which caught my eye. It was as if I was having a mini-break abroad. The COVID-19 curfew had just been lifted and public transport was back to normal again. I was very pleasantly surprised by the first 10 km: I’d looked at the map and thought that I would be running through a park in Kerkrade. Instead, it was beautiful woodland with several demanding stretches. Vaals is also a beautiful setting, likewise the section onwards to Gulpen and the Voer region in Belgium. The last part along the Maas, over d’n Observant, through the ENCI quarry and over Sint-Pietersberg was a real joy. I must say, the whole trip from start to finish was fun. Of course, there are more tedious bits in between, but I would recommend the DMT to anyone and I will definitely do it again, perhaps at a more sedate pace and with bivouacs in between.
Were there any other challenges along the way?
I wanted to run the entire DMT without back-up, so without stops at cafes and shops along the way. I run abroad a lot which often means trekking hundreds of kilometres through the mountains with nothing but streams for water. I wanted to recreate that idea with the DMT, so I decided to use only public water taps. I looked this up on the internet beforehand and found only one tap that was actually on the trail, in Eijsden. In Vaals and Gulpen I had to make slight detours which added extra kilometres and, in the case of Gulpen, an additional climb. What’s more, the weather beyond Gulpen rapidly deteriorated and I had to run about thirty kilometres in the pouring rain. I came well prepared, but mostly for the trail itself. I can’t say I felt uncomfortable at any point, but I was a little concerned about the return journey, sitting on a train in soaking wet clothes for two hours. Once you stop moving you cool down quickly, but I was lucky. When I got to Eijsden the sun came out again and it dried me out quite nicely for the last fifteen kilometres.
I should also mention the heavy rain, which transformed paths and sunken lanes into torrents. At times it felt more like wading through a river than running a trail. It’s not something I’m used to when I train in the flatter regions of Holland.
If you invest so much time in trail running throughout the year, can you call yourself a professional? Do you make any money out of it?
Sadly, although adventure racing and trail running are my great passions, in the Netherlands there is no money to be made out of it. INOV8, Compressport and Ultimate Direction provide me with shoes, clothing and equipment every year and I am very grateful to them for that, but otherwise I pay all my own expenses.
If you turn your passion into your job, would it still be your passion?
To be honest I don’t know. I have always held down an office job, alongside these passions. I work 32 hours a week, so I always have one free day a week to train or go running (which is also a kind of training). I’m now a father to a one-and-a-half-year-old boy and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to travel somewhere every week to walk (or cycle) a good distance
What’s your next challenge?
In the first weekend of July, I won the Dutch Championships for Adventure Racing for the fifth time. In early September I will participate in the European Adventure Racing Championships in Denmark and at the beginning of October, the World Championships in Spain. I had a lot more plans this year, but unfortunately COVID threw a spanner in the works. I’d also like to do the 431-kilometre Spine Race (along the Pennine Way) in England next January. My aim after the World Championships is to train for that, which might include running the DMT twice, once at night.
Do you have any tips for people planning to trail-run the DMT?
Just have fun! Many people are staggered by the height difference, as well as the long distance. But unless you actually try it you won’t know what it’s like. Pick a date and just go for it. If you’re not one-hundred percent sure, take a running mate along or ask your family or friends to supply refreshments every ten kilometres or so. There’s plenty of stopping points en route, so if you do have problems, there’s always an escape route. Or just walk the DMT instead!