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Join a Belgian running club to help shake off the coronavirus blues

13:51 07/09/2020
Running clubs are seeing a surge in interest post-lockdown. Keen jogger Sara Levi-Shtein meets some of the organisers and asks for their favourite routes

Anxiety about staying at home, fear of falling ill, loss of income… The coronavirus crisis has been a challenging period, with emotions that can negatively affect the body and brain.

Sport may be one of the best weapons we have in the battle against stress – and running in particular is great for boosting strength, topping up on vitamin D and releasing endorphins and dopamine to improve our mental wellbeing.

When I moved to Belgium three years ago, like many expats, it was a challenge to socialise. I was also very eager to explore the country.

I’m a big fan of jogging. So, I decided to run in each of Belgium’s 11 provinces, from the small riverside town of Durbuy, to the hidden treasure of Lier - "the Venice of Antwerp province" - and the castle and lakes of Pepingen, just 15km outside Brussels.

I also met all the biggest running clubs and invited other expats to join me in my adventures via my blog IRunBelgium on Instagram. Run after run, my life was becoming more interesting, full of new people and good vibes.

Coronavirus hit me in New York this March. For about two weeks it was hard for me to breathe and I had no energy to walk. I could start running a month after recovery. In fact, it helped me to get back to normal life.

I caught up with two of Belgium’s biggest running clubs to find out how they have adapted to the coronavirus way of life – and some of the best places to get out and explore.

BXL Run Crew

Founded by Tim Verheyden and Camille Pollie back in 2018, BXL Run Crew is the most popular running club in Brussels with more than 1,200 members on social media.

“After the lockdown we started to run together again,” says Verheyden. “The amount of people joining grew exponentially - running became extremely popular. We did our best to follow the security measures: dividing people into smaller groups for example, keeping distance between ourselves.”

However, since the coronavirus situation in Brussels started to worsen again, the group decided to put the real-life runs together on hold. “We are a running community, and being a community for us means also taking the social responsibility,” Verheyden adds. “We still continue with virtual events: running all at the same time, supporting each other on social media. We have also launched various challenges, with prizes for those who complete them.

“We encourage people to run solo or in their five-person bubble, keeping the recommended distance. We are looking for opportunities to reinvent ourselves digitally and trying our best to keep the crew spirit and the group vibes until this corona storm is over. Probably in the future the restrictions will stay, but we will find a way to keep going.”

If you’re looking for a recommended spot to take a run in Brussels, Verheyden’s favourites include the Bois du Laerbeek, which connects Jette’s Roi-Baudouin park with the Dieleghem forest, and the Jette-Ganshoren marais. The Sonian Forest is another gem, especially around the Folon Fondation and Solvay Domain in La Hulpe.

“If you want to go for a steady or an easy pace run, try jogging along the Brussels canal: start in Anderlecht and go further to the direction of Halle,” he says. “The scenery is amazing and it is definitely worth running there.”

Antwerp Running Crew

“Solo, but never alone” is the new motto for this club, which was started in 2016 and now includes more than 600 members on social media. Pre-corona, the group organised runs on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Het Laatste Nieuws editor-in-chief Dimitri Antonissen is one of the club’s three founders. “We do not do the real runs now,” he says. “It feels like we've always been one step ahead of government regulations. We abandoned crew runs a week before the first lockdown, and now - with the rising numbers - we stopped the group runs again just before the second wave of regulations started in Antwerp.

“When the lockdown was lifted, we were careful of restarting. We did it gradually: runs in small groups, keeping the 1.5-metre distance. Some of the runners work in hospitals and care homes - they make sure we are always aware of how serious things are.

“The interest in running is higher than before corona, as there are almost no activities in the city now. During the first lockdown we did online Zoom workouts together with different fitness instructors - with some legendary Zoom bar hangouts afterwards. Now we plan to do some ‘fly-by’ runs where everyone runs the same route but solo.

“Also a nice one could be an ice-cream run. We did that before as well. Everyone ran solo, but had one objective - to hit as many ice-cream spots during the run in Antwerp as possible. You got extra points if you actually ate an ice-cream at the place. I won, by the way, doing four ice-cream bars, with an ice-cream at each, during an hour of running.”

Antonissen says Antwerp is a unique city for running. “It doesn't have bridges crossing the river, but it does have several tunnels. The most remarkable one is for pedestrians - it was created during the 1930s and is a nice example of art deco, great for taking pictures but also very cool for a run on a hot day. Stop off for a drink at the new mini-golf in Linkeroever. It sounds corny, but the new owners are really nice and very creative, hosting all sorts of alternative events.”

Just a few kilometres outside the city centre you’ll find a unique nature reserve: Hobokense Polder. “You wouldn't tell now, but only half a century ago this was a dump,” says Antonissen. “Construction material from all over the city was buried here. Now nature has completely taken over and it’s great for a 7km run – just follow the route that is marked.”

Antwerp has an incredible street-art scene and the Eilandje and Berchem neighbourhoods have several nice routes. But the best street-art is found in Deurne. “It's a bit of a shabby neighbourhood - in the shadow of the Sportpaleis event centre - but the works are extraordinary,” he says. Street Art Antwerp gives you a map with all the best spots in the city for you to plan your run.

Written by Sara Levi-Shtein