4 days in Nijmegen: Marching to fulfil my grandfather's dream
In an old Dutch city, 38,409 of us finish a gruelling trek, continuing a tradition that started 101 years ago
The world's largest multiple-day marching event is held every summer over four days in Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Each day, civilian and military marchers set out from the city, in the province of Gelderland near the German border, and march between 30 and 50 kilometres.
The route is different every day but ends each evening back in Nijmegen.
The event has its roots with the military and is intended to promote sport and exercise.
This year, the four-day march attracted 42,036 participants between July 18 and 21, and 38,409 completed the gruelling trek.
It was the 65th time the Canadian Forces sent a contingent as a way to fortify the relationship between the two countries.
Canadian soldiers played a major role in liberating the Netherlands from German occupation in 1945.
Vanessa Vander Valk's family lived in the Netherlands at that time.
She went with the Canadian contingent this year as an journalist.
Going to Nijmegen
Everywhere we went for four days, strangers would clap and cheer and wish us "Success!"
When I finally saw that word, just ahead of the finish line, I can't explain the feeling.
It had been a very long road to get there.
More than a week earlier, after months of training, mostly alone, it was a relief to finally meet my team as we boarded a plane for the Netherlands.
We hailed from four provinces: Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. We all had different, deeply personal reasons for joining the march.
For me, it was about fulfilling my late grandfather's lifelong dream of completing the march and saying thank you to the Canadian troops who liberated my family 72 years ago.
Alex Wishart, a 16-year-old cadet from Portage la Prairie, Man., had different reasons. He'd heard about the march while getting treatment for leukemia.
Wishart knew that veterans had completed the march despite being in worse shape than he was in, and he wanted to prove he could do it too.
Even after suffering a stroke, he remained fixated on Nijmegen. His parents wrote a letter to the minister of defence and it wasn't long before Wishart had word his trip was a go.
The team settled into Kamp Heumensoord with the rest of the Canadian contingent.
Some 6,000 military personnel from all over the world call the temporary camp home during the march.
Each day, the marchers leave from the camp and each evening they return home to the camp.
It's tradition to tap the boots on your way out in the morning and back home at night, for luck.
I forgot one morning and spent much of that day anticipating some debilitating cramp. (I'm happy to report that one did not materialize).
Day 1: Feeling apprehensive
With our rucksacks carefully packed and weighing 12 kilogram each, we felt pretty good on that first day, if a little apprehensive.
Each day we started out early, with reveille sometime between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and step-off for the march near 5 a.m.
Everyone else on the team had some kind of military experience, so I was a little behind with my marching skills.
Who am I kidding? I was a lot behind and likely left some of them with bruised heels because of it.
I did improve, somewhat, through the four days.
That first day, my eyes were just as wide as saucers.
The astounding throng of marchers, both military and civilian, the streets lined with well-wishers — it was amazing.
Kathy Green from Tabatière, a community in northern Quebec with a population just shy of 500, was the first Canadian ranger to be part of the Canadian contingent.
If my eyes were saucers, hers were dinner plates.
"Ninety per cent of what I'm seeing here is completely new to me," she said.
Day 2: Relying on our medic
On the first day, we all finished with no major injuries or issues. By the second day, we were starting to creak a little.
I already had my first blister. So did young Wishart.
We relied heavily on our team medic, Maj. Marsha MacRae, who was amazing.
She marched with us and when we took our three breaks to refuel on juice, fruit and chocolate bars, she kept working, draining blisters and manipulating joints.
She also became an expert in what looked like deep tissue massage on Martin Magnan's tense calf muscles and RCMP Sgt. Peter Vail's sore shins.
Heat also became an issue on the second day of marching.
The temperature topped 31 C, but the humidity made it feel even hotter.
By the end of the day, we decided to partake in a military tradition and stop for a beer at a bowling alley positioned after the civilian finish line.
Day 3: Everyone loves a Mountie
By day three, we were really getting the hang of this thing.
We did get a little soggy because of some early morning rain, but that cleared before too long.
I also discovered that no matter where you are in the world, everyone loves a Mountie.
Sgt. Vail is outgoing, but he didn't need to make much of an effort to meet people on the march.
He likely handed out more Canadian flags and swag than anyone else.
He also integrated himself into our team by knowing all the words to the classic Stan Rogers song, "Barrett's Privateers," thus expanding our marching song repertoire.
We weren't just giving out swag either. We also received it.
Adults and children lined the streets offering water, cucumbers, candies and watermelon — all kinds of treats to help get us through.
A special commemoration
There was serious business to attend to on this day, a commemoration ceremony at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery.
More than 2,300 Canadian soldiers who fought in the Second World War are buried there.
The sight is immaculate, cared for by Dutch schoolchildren. The ceremony and wreath-laying were moving.
I met a woman there whose parents left the Netherlands for Canada after the war, just as my grandparents had.
Hers moved back a few years later. But she felt a strong pull to Canada, where she was born.
She showed up three hours early for the ceremony and teared up as she explained what it meant to her.
It's true that people in the Netherlands love Canada, even after all these years.
I can't tell you how many people came up to us to talk about Canada, their plans to visit, or their relatives who live here.
A few times people would simply say, "Thank you."
Once the commemoration was done, it was back on the road to complete the day's marching.
Wishart, however, had some blister trouble so we stopped not too far down the road and made some Dutch friends who bought us drinks.
Day 4: The toughest yet
The final day was by far the toughest for me. Physically, the first three days had been pretty trouble-free.
I did get some blisters, but I spent time at the medical tent each night getting my feet wrapped and that made all the difference.
Halfway through that final day, I was coping with the pain in my feet, when my hips suddenly started aching.
Then the ache became a searing pain.
Without my team, I'm not sure I would have made it.
When we finally arrived at Charlamagne Field, our intrepid team leader, Maj. David Tischhauser, handed out our medals, the official finish for the military teams.
Then, to celebrate, if you can believe that, we marched another five kilometres through what's called the Via Gladiola.
I had enough time to stretch out my hips and take some painkillers so I could enjoy this last hurrah. And it was incredible.
The entire Canadian contingent marched together behind the flag.
They even handed us gladiolas to carry.
When you see that "Success" at the finish line — elation!