Irene Gabriëlle Ergün & the privilege of being healthy

“it’s the subtle things that I get from my runs. I never come back without feeling different from at the beginning of my run. It makes me on one level physically satisfied for the rest of the day.”

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Running is so full of numbers. There is a proliferation of digits. Athletes are categorised by their age; athletes check their watches constantly for seeing their pace, their distance, their total distance run. Strava multiplies the kinds of numbers that runners seek to quantify their level of achievement. The statistics are seemingly endless. Apps enable runners to compare their mileage with their own training over several months and also to compare themselves against runners globally.

Rotterdam (photo by Erik van Leeuwen)

The advent of the GPS has been a boon for the quantification of running. It allows us runners to measure our progress. It’s hard to imagine that there was once a time without Strava, let alone GPS. Fell running, cross-country and trail-running are less subject to the strictures of numbers, but they also have their own objects of fetishisation: elevation, distance, duration.

One number that stands out though when talking with Irene Gabriëlle Ergün though was 682.80. This was the amount of euros raised by Irene for the Dutch Cancer Society during her lead-up to the Rotterdam marathon in April this year.

I had seen through Strava that Irene is extremely active in her training: running, cycling, swimming, yoga – often going late for runs, perhaps after finishing a late shift at the LUMC where she works as a nurse. Running is her first love and cycling is ‘a fun hobby’. I was curious about the position running occupies in Irene’s everyday life. So, I put some questions to her.

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How did you get interested in running? When did you commit running ‘seriously’?

I started from the age 14-15 at my local track and field club ACTION in Enschede, where I started with sprint training, 4-5 times a week. I started track and field because I really liked running fast, maybe because running was my escape plan when I was a little bullied. Haha

Then after moving to Leiden about seven years ago I started in the sprint club, but I felt the group was too big for me and not really my age and so I moved over to the jump-group at Leiden Atletiek and I was really happy with the atmosphere of the group even though I wasn’t a good jumper, but I liked the fact that I was learning something new and the training was also very reactive, just like sprinting. But due to my job where I work in different shifts, I noticed that it took me too much energy to train on the track multiple times and I started running longer distances outside of the track. Starting with three to five times a week five kilometers, just like I did in Enschede where I also started working shifts just before I moved to Leiden.

After three to five years of training with the jump group I felt I needed to choose between medium-longer distances and the jump/sprint group. Which I found really hard because I easily get attached to a group of people that make me happy. So, eventually I made the decision to transfer after a good talk with my trainer back then. And now I’m training with the group of Hans Wesseling – after I had started with Jan Kortekaas every Wednesday;

I became committed to running when I moved to Leiden, when I didn’t have a real job yet and I needed something active during the day next to my jump-training to keep me calm and relaxed because my energy levels were not so balanced.

What have been your most memorable experiences as a runner?

My first marthon, the Connemarathon, which felt like the pinnacle of my reason to run or do sports, the dream which I expected to get to at a later stage in my running life. Running in a wild, stretched out landscape, with no public allowed, except for the sheep, just the runners on the roads of Connemara National Park (Ireland) in far from sunny weather conditions. Different types of runners from different countries, but all literally with their own path of why they were running there.

Irene vs Connemara (photo by Martijn Pot, le boyfriend)

Sometimes I get that same feeling during a training in the rain or on holidays on new terrain, but it’s just a fraction of what I felt during that Marathon where I was one of those runners that got dropped in the middle of Connemara National Park. Now I felt like more than just something I do sometimes, I felt I was a reel runner as a part of my life;

Next to this was running the Mont Ventoux for the Tour du ALS (France), because there weren’t many runners, mostly cyclists. But I wanted to participate as I was (partially a cyclist, but mostly a runner back then). Eventually we unfortunately had to stop six kilometers before the top, because of dangerous weather conditions. So we had to return, all cold and wet to the valley. But then I put on my running shoes and tried a few hours later to get to the top by running now that the summit was reopened for a short amount of time, because the weather got a little better.

So I ran and while I was running I felt so connected to a lot of participants next to my friend and her sister for whom I was participating. You start talking to people for the sick or deceased person they were participating for: no race-goals, just trying to give it your best with the well function body you have that might hurt a lot, but has the privilege of being healthy when you think of the people getting the disease. So, the euphoric feeling was so palpable during the climb to the top with every participant complimenting and cheering for their fellow climber. Just an atmosphere to remember.

What kind of training do you do to complement or support your running? How does cycling support you as a runner?

Well, I do a fair amount of cycling, swimming and yoga. All of these help with my running. I’m so bad at swimming that I just say that my competence is not much more than “an advanced way of staying afloat”. But I do it because I notice that it’s good for the strength of my lungs without having to burden my joints (I’m almost 34).

Cycling is a fun hobby I got “infected” with by my fiancé who cycles a lot more. It makes me see so much more of the Low Lands and also abroad when I’m in the mountains than what I would have see when I would go running. And when I feel like running many days in a row is straining my muscles and tendons, I try to cycle a bit more to prevent injuries, but still train my cardio and lung fitness. 

Irene in recovery mode (photo: Martijn Pot)

And lastly yoga is multifunctional, good for my strength without having to do the neck-straining core-stability while at the same time stretching which I do too little, which I noticed during my last marathon-preparation while expanding my running km’s, without expanding the part of taking care, letting my body restore and keeping my muscles and tendons flexible enough to keep up with my need to run more kilometers. But mostly yoga is to start to calm my mind and that’s what running also does to me. Some people take wine, but I go for a run. Never have I come back less happy than when I started.

Tell us about your experiences with running a marathon.

1st: April 2018, the Connemarathon, Ireland (3.42.24). Experience was as described above  in a short summary. 

2nd: November 2020. Corona-solo marathon, Leiden/Valkenburg,Meijendel. Maybe it’s not an official race, but it felt just as much as a race as any other and next to that I felt like it was more special than any other. It was the time during the pandemic where the lockdown was a bit more tight where you could only be outside with 2 persons or less. So I came up with the idea of a corona-solo marathon after I heard someone did a 5 K solo-run/virtual run. Then I asked my fellow club-athletes of my current running group to become a pacer for me next to my fiancée cycling with me. So every 10 K someone would switch with the next pacer. I felt so humbled that they would give up half their day for me like this and at the same time be a part of why this experience became so special. My entire group was on the group Whatsapp like they were following an official race. On top of this all., it was a perfect sunny fall-day( my favourite season). I even ran a PB (3.34.54), so I was a little extra happy with that next to the bliss of getting to see almost all of my running colleagues in the middle of that lockdown where we hadn’t seen each other for almost 1.5 month. 

3rd: April 2022, Rotterdam Marathon (3.36.15). Rotterdam was the marathon I wanted to run for a few years but Covid got in the middle and made me postpone it every time. That’s also one of the reasons I did my Corona-solo marathon. It was another marathon-preparation that never got to the summit. But this year February they finally could confirm that it would finally take place. I was happy and a tiny bit nervous with the short preparation time, but I was just so hyper after the many preparations the previous years that I wouldn’t let anything come in between. Two weeks before marathon-day I somewhat got myself an injury after my longest run with a stretched tendon from a place next to my Achilles up until my back leg during my spike week in km’s. So I directly got to the physio and after two weeks of really hard poking, day in day out by myself,  by the physio, a wooden spoon (to get to the tendon) and my fiancé who tried to poke the tendon to relaxation I was a little nervous for Marathon day because it was a first time I couldn’t really tell if I could rely/trust my body or if the pain would start and bother me. But I got through it. I only visualised stepping out of the race because of an injury, so seeing the finish line after I hit the wall at 30 kilometres was a big relief after two weeks of pain and anxiety about this race that would finally make me more than a debutante on the marathon. 

What’s your favourite gear to wear/your favourite shoes?

My favourite wear is never too much clothing during my summer runs, so shorts and a singlet because I’m not good in losing heat. Just my Garmin watch with my music in my ears (I still one day want to win some Aftershokz hihi) and some shoes (lately mostly Saucony with a good balance of extra cushioning and a light compact shoe). Not many suffice, so finally finding the perfect balanced long run shoes than could make me run for hours is quite nice. 

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Running is not knowable or delimited by the numbers that proliferate around it. Running also becomes meaningful through what it enables. It is a deeply corporeal experience as well as one that is engaged with geography and with others. Competition, the acts of racing, while dominating the elite conception of running, is not essential to being an engaged, proficient runner.

Irene after Rotterdam (photo courtesy of IGE)

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