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Brussels 20km: Registration opens for historic 40th edition on 19 May
When the first runners crossed the start line of the inaugural 20km of Brussels in 1980, none of them knew they were writing a small chapter of the city’s history. And when the 40th edition takes place on 19 May this year, 49 of those pioneering athletes will be there once again, taking part in a run they have competed in every year since.
Among the VIPs will be 90-year-old René Pairon. “While I can still do it, I’ll keep doing it,” he told RTBF shortly before taking on his 38th run. “It’s just divine when you cross the finish line.”
The 20km spirit
In the late 1970s, running wasn’t the popular lifestyle activity it is today, and race founder Carine Verstraeten of the Syndicat d’Initiative-Bruxelles Promotion (SIBP) faced a struggle getting the authorities to agree to the event. An early police stipulation was that the roads would have to remain open to vehicles, with runners sticking to the pavements and waiting at each set of traffic lights.
But an agreement was reached, and on 8 June 1980, the first 4,659 runners set off from the Atomium. Ever since then the course has begun and ended at Cinquantenaire park, with the finish line beneath the famous arches, but little else has changed – and that’s how Verstraeten likes it.
“What’s important for us is that we keep the spirit of the race,” she says of the event, which has become a major fixture on the city’s calendar. “Each year the numbers have increased, but we decided to cap it at 40,000 people because we prefer to go for quality rather than quantity. We have always had a lot of respect for the participants.”
The race’s demographics over the years say a lot about both society and the city. People of 130 nationalities take part, reflecting Brussels’ position as an international city at the heart of Europe, and each year the proportion of women participating grows. “The image of running has changed,” says Verstraeten, who is now general secretary of SIBP. “Society is also changing and women have more free time to run. In my generation, that just wasn’t possible.”
With its democratic entry price and festive atmosphere, the event has long been a major draw for Brussels’ international community, and offers an alternative way to see some of the city’s sights. “The best thing about running the 20km is being part of the positive race day atmosphere with thousands of other runners – and of course the sense of accomplishment (and celebratory cold beer) after actually finishing it,” says Kara Kogler, a Portuguese-American who’s taking part for the third time this year. “The various local races leading up to the 20km are also a lot of fun and a great way to see different parts of the city.”
For first-time runners, Verstraeten has a key message: train properly and listen to your body. “On the day it’s a big party, but a good edition of the 20km is one with no problems for anyone,” she says. “Yes, it’s important to take part, maybe to get a good time, but for us what matters is that you get from the start to the finish without problems, that you make the most of the event, that you are full of pride when you finish. If it’s two hours, three hours, if you walk all the way – it doesn't matter. We just want 40,000 people to come to the finish line happy. Everyone who runs the 20km has their own story.”
20km of Brussels
19 May, Cinquantenaire park
Registration from 23 March