The International Four Days Marches, a physically challenging walk in Nijmegen, the oldest city in the Netherlands at 2,000 years old, is so popular that 46,000 people from all over the world participated this year.
Traditionally held on the third week of July, the walk promotes exercise, and is the largest event of its kind on the planet.
“People came from Israel, Japan, Peru, Norway, South Africa, Kenya – everywhere,” said Jane Van Haaren, who grew up in Nijmegen and moved to Massachusetts 53 years ago before relocating to Warwick in 1964. “It was one big group of people. We had a fabulous time.”
Van Haaren traveled to Nijmegen a few weeks ago with her husband, William, their grandson Alex Van Haaren, 23, and his friend, Zack Aprea, 24, for the walk, which first took place in 1909 and began being held in Nijmegen in 1916. It started July 16 and continued through the 19th.
While Alex and Aprea hoped to take part in the walk, they visited as spectators. As more than 51,000 people registered, event organizers held a lottery to limit the number of walkers, a practice that has been in action since 2004.
“You can imagine how bad the traffic is,” Van Haaren said. She and William didn’t register for the walk but have visited Nijemegan “many times” through the years to watch.
Alex was disappointed he and Aprea didn’t get the chance to participate.
“It’s gotten some of the biggest attention the walk’s ever seen,” said Alex, who has been an active runner since his freshman year at Bishop Hendricken High School, where he graduated in 2007. He played soccer and rugby, sports that require a lot of running and stamina, and is now studying business at the University of Rhode Island.
“I’ve known about it since I was really young and I figured it was worth a shot. It would have been really cool achieving that accomplishment with a lifelong friend,” he said.
Van Haaren advised him to keep his registration number, as it will give him a better chance at qualifying in the future. He is optimistic he and Aprea will partake in the event eventually.
“I’m sure we’ll get in next year or the year after that,” Alex said.
Alex has attended the event as a spectator once before when he was a child and was amazed by the music and firework show that occurs before the walk begins. He said the opening ceremony is the “coolest” part.
“Picture the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympics, but smaller,” said Alex. “Everyone walks in with their country’s flag. It’s a big celebration.”
Seeing it as an adult was just as thrilling.
“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “All my expectations were surpassed.”
Speaking of celebrations, people always gather to celebrate with music on the last night. Bands and musicians perform in the streets, serenading tired walkers and spectators alike.
Alex, a musician who works full-time as an operations manager at Guitar Center on Bald Hill Road, particularly enjoyed the musical aspect. He plays piano, guitar, ukulele and bass, and chimed in during the festivities.
But it’s safe to say walkers needed a little more than music to get through the event. Band-Aids and ice packs were used to soothe blistered feet and toes. Depending on age and gender, participants walked 30, 40 or 50 kilometers daily. They began in Nijmegen, going north, east, south and finally west before returning to Nijmegen each day.
“The third day is the most difficult because there are lots of hills,” Van Haaren said. “It is so hard to describe the emotions you have seeing the people come in on that Friday. Some of them weren’t able to walk because of the blisters.”
As if walking long distances isn’t difficult enough, she said, some participants make it harder by walking in wooden shoes, which they stuff with newspaper or straw. Several limp across the finish line, or drop out because they are too tired and hot, as the weather in Nijmegen during this time of year is much like summertime in Rhode Island. Sadly, a few people died while walking the event in 2005 due to extreme heat exhaustion.
That’s one reason participants train extensively leading up to it. They are advised to walk 400 miles from February to July to best prepare their bodies and minds. Still, the challenge is what keeps walkers coming back year after year.
“Some people have participated in the walk 20 or 30 times,” said Van Haaren. “There are people who are 70 years old that do it. Their families welcome them in holding signs.”
Upon completing the walk, participants receive royally approved medals, along with a Gladiola, a flower that symbolizes force and victory.
Walkers are mostly civilians, but a few thousand military members also participate. In contrast, they are expected to walk 40 or 50 kilometers daily wearing their uniforms, plus a 10-kilogram backpack, depending on age. The walk was originally established as a military event that allowed civilians to participate, but these days it’s the other way around.
No matter citizen or soldier, Van Haaren pointed out that many people attend to watch and cheer everyone on. She said at least 1.5 million people were there this year.
“There is no comparison of the excitement of these people,” she said, adding that she’s thrilled King Willem Alexander and his wife Queen Maxima were there.
Mostly, Van Haaren said she’s happy she’s able to visit her native land with loved ones. She thinks it’s “wonderful” that Alex and Aprea wanted to participate, as they are carrying on a family tradition.
“When [my three children] were smaller, we went every other year,” she said. “Now, we go with our grandkids. We’re very familiar with that exciting scene.”
For Alex, his grandmother is the one who is wonderful and exciting. He enjoys that she’s so willing to educate him – and his friends – about his heritage.
“Between her and my grandfather, I’m always learning so much,” Alex said. “Getting these opportunities is great.”
While Van Haaren is humble, she’s more interesting than she’ll admit. But she might have an idea. After all, she and her husband are each writing memoirs about their lives. Her ancestors came from Germany, France and the Dutch East Indies, and she traveled to the United States from Nijmegen at the young age of 20.
For now, she’s basking in the excitement of her recent trip to Nijmegen, a story she’s likely to include in her writings, while Alex can’t wait for next year’s walk.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.