A 2:22 marathon after only two years of running — it’s the stuff of legend, almost too ridiculous to be believable. But that’s largely what The Netherlands’ Nienke Brinkman did at the April 10, 2022, Rotterdam Marathon, and she did it after a year of racing on trails too.
Check out iRunFar’s news story on Nienke’s 2:22:51 run at Rotterdam.
“Well, yeah, running as a sport started for me during the COVID-19 pandemic, so I guess it’s three years, not two now,” Brinkman quickly clarified. “But I was always playing field hockey, so it’s not that I didn’t run.”
The 28-year-old gives greater history, “I would have loved to have played at the highest level, but I was just on the second team. There’s the highest league and then there’s the national team, and they’ll play Germany, India, Argentina. There’s not so many countries, it’s not that familiar.”
Count me among the field hockey unfamiliar, and so I press on how much running might be involved, whether in a game or otherwise. “I’d warm up before the match, before training, but that’s 10 minutes around a pitch, just some exercise to make the muscles loose. And then once a week training for running, I don’t know, technique, but field hockey is much more explosive, a lot of sprints.”
In 2019, Brinkman moved to Zurich, Switzerland, for a Ph.D. program in geophysics and lost one competitive sporting community while gaining another. “I tried field hockey [in Switzerland], but the level was not the level I was looking for. I felt like I did nothing, and I like sports, I like to come back tired.” She turned to cycling, going to the gym, and running.
She trained with friends toward the 2020 Amsterdam Marathon. It was canceled courtesy of COVID-19 and Brinkman instead did a marathon-distance run with friends. She ran 2:39. “That was without a coach, and not very structured, and I saw there is more than this [within my potential],” Brinkman said of the early discovery.
Swiss triathlete Benjamin Ueltschi started coaching her. She won the Zermatt Marathon in 2021 and — in the real benchmark for trail running elite, was a regular leader or nearly so during last year’s Golden Trail World Series in Europe. Brinkman was second at the 2021 Sierre-Zinal, for instance. She next leveled it again then, running 2:26 at the December 2021 Valencia Marathon.
“I’d come from the trail season, race after race, and was mentally tired, so switching to roads was really nice, a good transition. It was nice to focus a block on the roads and the preparation went really well,” she said, smiling that she overachieved versus her sub-2:30 Valencia goal.
“I wanted to get the European [Athletics] Championships Marathon limit, but I also got the World [Athletics] Championships Marathon limit, surprised myself.”
Caught up, I turn Brinkman back to her Rotterdam Marathon success. She’s now competing for Netherlands-based but internationally competitive NN Running Team and benefited from a four-week training cycle in Iten, Kenya.
“One hundred and 80 kilometers per week,” Brinkman said of her typical training volume, and we both try to do the quick math to miles. It’s about 112 miles. “Sometimes I’ll do two runs per day, but it’s mostly one extensive session, intervals, track, hill repetitions.”
At Rotterdam, she locked into Dutch national record pace early, behind two male pacers — one dropped at 25k and the other at 32k — and ran a freakin’ negative split: 71:52 through halfway, and then 70:59 for the half marathon coming home.
Brinkman was ecstatic and quickly draped in the Dutch national flag below her giant smile. Her voice still sparkles at the achievement. The former record had stood since 2003.
It’s taken a while, but I’m finally ready to ask the question I really want to know, and what most of the iRunFar community probably wants to know too. After a world-class marathon performance, will she return to the trails? I anticipate an answer, but Brinkman surprises me.
“I plan to go to the Golden Trail World Series [again]. Zegama [Marathon] before the two U.S. races,” she answered without pause, and now I smile. She cuts me off to say: “And I’m also doing the European [Athletics] Championships [Marathon].”
Zegama is May 29, 2022, in Spain. The European Athletics Championships Marathon is August 15, in Munich, Germany. The Pikes Peak Ascent in Colorado is September 17, and the Flagstaff Sky Peaks race is September 25 in Arizona. Wow, Brinkman’s going for it, and I’m still excited about it myself hours after interviewing her.
I realize that Brinkman will then miss the July 18 World Athletics Championships Marathon in Eugene, Oregon.
“Can’t do both, just one month away,” Brinkman shrugs it off while also pointing to her trail plans. “And traveling, much less traveling [with the European Athletics Championships Marathon]. I still have a job, and I have a chance for a high ranking at that race. And I think the conditions in Munich could be like Paris 2024, which is really my goal.”
I didn’t ask, but confirm it quickly after we finish speaking — of course, the 2024 Summer Olympics are in Paris, France, and so Brinkman’s making big goals.
Brinkman plans to race trails and roads at the highest level then, at least this year.
“My base training for road and trail is the same. Even when I’m racing trails, I put in track sessions. I’ll just be a little more trail-specific then, and the other way around before roads. I don’t lose one or the other. At the end of a road cycle, I’ll skip the hill sessions, but if I’m going to trail, I’ll do more hill repetitions than the other extensive stuff,” she explained of the makes-sense training.
Brinkman’s excited about it all, but speaks calmly, even as I gush about her impressive racing and bold schedule. “I’m really looking forward to the U.S. races, for all three [trail races] I’m really excited. They’re all new,” she beamed.
“I never had it in my mind that I would stop racing trails. I really want to combine [trails and roads], especially this year. I strongly believe that can help me.”
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