Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Remarkable Ambassador Gerda Verburg

One of the pleasures of ultra-running is the diversity of the community – people from all backgrounds, geographies, professions - each with their own special gifts. Yet, there is a thread that binds this diversity together – remarkableness. Does the sport foster and develop remarkable people? Or, is being remarkable the qualifier to engage in a sport that requites a high investment of time, commitment and perseverance. Regardless of the reason, I get great pleasure from the many amazing people that running brings into my life. One of the remarkable people I have met in Rome is Gerda Verburg, the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), three UN agencies based in Rome with expertise in agriculture, food assistance and rural development.
In her role as Ambassador, Gerda participates in the governance of these organizations and represents the interests of the Dutch government. Indirectly – she is my boss! 

Prior to this appointment, she was Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality in the Netherlands. Previous, she was a member of parliament for the Christian Democrats. Before entering politics, Gerda was both an entrepreneur and a trade union representative. Gerda’s athletic interests are as diverse as her professional accomplishments. She is an equestrian, cyclist, skater and runner. Prior to my first meeting with the Ambassador I was “briefed” that she was an avid cyclist and rode her bike to work (how cool and how Dutch). In an effort to impress her during our first meeting I decided to ride my bike to her office. The morning of the meeting I had a flat and was late to the meeting due to the time it took to for me to repair the flat (how lame and how American). It was after that first meeting that I learned that her real athletic talent is running and that she is consistently a top finisher in her age group (55+). In fact, Gerda won her age division in this year’s Rome Marathon in a time of 3:26:11. Definitely a “bad ass” performance given there were more than 14,000 runners! 

She has completed 15 marathons with her fastest time being 3:16:52 at “Dwars door Drenthe Marathon” in the Netherlands in 2006. Meet the remarkable Ambassador Verburg: 

Q – When did you first start running? And, what prompted you to start running competively?I started around 1985 because a friend of mine, who is an equestrian as well, started running and became very enthusiastic. We ran twice a week, 1,5 km out and 1,5 km back. In between we did some stretching and while running we talked about life, politics, sports and love. After each run we ate a banana – that was the beginning.
Soon after my friend told me about his positive experience running a marathon and I thought, “well, why not, let me give it a try.” So, my first marathon was in Amsterdam, 1990. My time - 4.04.36. One week later I knew, “I will do this again and…next time faster.”
Q – What is your most memorable race? The Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa. It’s an extraordinary marathon: 56 km - start and finish at Cape Town. The race begins at 6:00 am in the dark and follows the Indian Ocean to the south. Everywhere people singing, partying and yelling – at half past 6 in the morning! Then you cross Chapman’s Peak, a mountain, to reach the other Ocean, the Transatlantic Ocean. I was challenged to run this marathon by a South African colleague, Ruben Denge. Ruben was working with youngsters that left youth prison in Johannesburg offering them education and skills to find a job. At the same time the youngsters got guidance to find or develop their own way in life without falling back into crime. My trade union CNV supported this work and gave me the opportunity to travel to South Africa. Ruben told me about The Two Oceans Marathon and said, “I run this marathon every year and I challenge you to do the next as well.” For me it seemed impossible, to run a marathon, 42 km (26 miles) and then another 14 km. however, the idea settled itself somewhere in my brain and after a few months I invited my spouse to join me on a holiday trip to South Africa to run the Two Oceans Marathon. It is a well-organized race with an exciting course. Yet, the support of people is what is most memorable for me.
Q – What is a typical training week like for you? Number of kilometers run? Types of runs? Cross-training? My Internet coach sends me schemes. I inform him about my next objectives and he anticipates on the new goal. I like sports; so almost every day I do something. Not always for competition, but my favorite way to go to office or return to my house is on the bicycle or running. As an Ambassador I have a driver, but several times I send him to our Residence to bring my documents and stuff for the next morning so that I can run home after my work is done.
For a marathon a typical training week is: Sunday:  3-3,5 hours duration run. Monday: early morning to the bakery on the bicycle and back through the hills (10 km). Tuesday: 1.15 hours steady run. Wednesday: to the bakery…. Thursday: 1.15 interval training. Friday: on the bicycle to a party. Back home the bike in the trunk (because my spouse comes by car) Saturday: to the bakery…and 1.30 hours; fartlek. In general I prefer to run off road and I love hilly areas (both for running and cycling). My legs are built for uphill moving.       

Q – How do you manage to fulfill all of your duties as Ambassador and find time to train? Any secrets as to how you have been able to excel at both? I usually run in the morning before breakfast. I love the smell, the colour, and the view of early morning nature in each season of the year. During the first part of my run, my brain solves problems, the second part I think of new ideas, sometimes very original, funny or just practical. Back home from running I take a shower and prepare a good breakfast. I take 30 minutes for breakfast, with news on the radio and/or papers. Then I’m ready for the day, no matter how long or challenging the day might be.
I have 3 secrets to share;
  • I am used to run my marathons on pancakes with cinnamon and brown sugar, both for dinner the evening before as well as for breakfast early morning marathon day.
  • Running is just fun, not a must or a way to lose weight or something. I love parties with a good glass of wine or beer etc.
  • I love sleeping, but 5-6 hours per night is enough for me.

Q – How has your training changed as you have aged? What advice to you have for “older” runners who want to race competitively? 
Probably the biggest change is that I tend to stick more to my training schedule. When I was younger I had an eye on my scheme, but usually did more training than my scheme advised. I had good energy, I was almost never exhausted. Now I follow my scheme much more closely.  Some relaxing or reading a good book is also part of (mentally) preparing for a marathon.  

Q – What is next for you? What are you preparing for and what are your goals/aspirations? 
I don’t have a “next” yet. I just finished holidays on the bicycle. We went from the Netherlands through Belgium and Luxembourg (the Ardennes) to Provence, in South France, a distance of 1350 km in 9 days. Then we climbed the Mt. Ventoux by bicycle. First from the most difficult starting point: Bedoin. A few days later we did it as well from Sault, which is much easier. In between I climbed the Mt. Ventoux walking up and back (34 km) and this was really the most challenging part.
Back in Rome, while I survive the August and September heat I intend to start thinking about a new adventure. Running or biking or may be both. 

Q – Most readers are as passionate about their shoes as they are running? What are your current favorite racing shoes and why?I buy two pairs of shoes at the same time. Different brands. I ran the Maratona di Roma 2013 in Mizuno Wave Inspire and my other favorite shoes are Brooks Adrenaline ASR 10 


Greg said...


Thanks for the great post. I love that Gerda's running started with twice a week 1.5k runs and is now running 3:26 marathons in the 55+ female category! I also find it refreshing in the current atmosphere of trendy caveman diets that Gerda incorporates a twice weekly ride to the bakery in her training plan.

peter said...

I can certainly identify with the early morning runs, minimal sleep, time to solve problems both personal and external, and the feeling after a morning run (and coffee) that no matter what challenge arises during the day I will be primed to deal with it.

pamelaweese said...

What an inspiration! I love the rides/runs to the bakery and the love of sleep ( though only 5-6 hours) and the down to earth attitude Gerda has about training. It's so refreshing to see a training schedule that is reasonable- Jay, you are a lucky guy to meet people who are so motivating!!

Anonymous said...

Amazing lady! Love how she maintains balance in her life. And awesome reminder to train not for a specific race, but to maintain physical and emotional health. Thanks for sharing!

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Mandy Hosford said...

It is very rare, amongst women, to find a woman role model who is both an athlete as well as a driven and successful professional. It has been very hard for me to find balance in my own life around those things that I am passionate about: work, family (my dog), horses, running, and friends. It has been difficult to identify women colleagues or other woman athletes who are successful, driven, and balanced across both work and play. I appreciate your profile of Gerda, not only because it highlights her running acumen, but also the balance it illustrates in Gerda's life, from engagement in her profession to vacationing with her husband. Thank you for sharing Gerda's story. It means a lot to me to know that I'm not alone in this crazy pursuit of loving horses, running in Mizuno's, and wanting to do a damn fine job at work. Thanks, Jay and Gerda!

Keith said...

Gerda's story serves as a gold standard of balance; i.e., how to juggle work, life and play while keeping it all in perspective. Particularly, one of Gerda's secrets, "Running is just fun, not a must..." (along with her affinity for a good glass of wine :) is a good reminder of what training/running can truly enable for us--something much more than race results. Great post, Jay.

Christian said...

Great post Jay, thanks for sharing. I can't believe how competitive she is with amount of professional responsibility she has. It certainly seems like she has found a great balance that works well for her. I could definitely learn a few things about keeping it fun and mixing it up.
One question I was hoping you would have asked her, when is she planning her first Ultra?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jay, for this wonderful post. Gerda is an inspiration! I think it must be the cinnamon pancakes and wine...