In April, Viv mentioned that she was going to run the footsteps of her Grandmother’s refuge route across Europe. She said it so humbly. No one really realised what a ridiculous journey she was going on. Then she ran 3,850K. This is the story of an adventure of a run across a continent, taken on by a very normal person, told in a suspiciously casual way.
We had a coffee and a chat about her run. It was recorded for transcription, but Viv has a banging radio voice so there’s an audio version you can listen to, with all the coffee and chat sound effects thrown in, too.
Claire: When did you start thinking about your big run? When did the first inkling pop into your head?
Viv: I was visiting my best friend in Jordan. So, it was a year gone November. And she was the first person to say it publicly. At which point I thought ‘oh no no, I didn’t mean it’, and then I thought to myself ‘oh why not?’ I’d sort of decided months before that I needed to do a journey of some description.
”I’ve had loads of ideas in my life and never done them. But this one, for some strange reason – it was really weird. I’ve never been so convinced about anything, ever. I needed to do it.”
Did it need to be a running journey or just a journey?
No, not really – just a journey. I mean, travelling or something. I wasn’t really sure what it could be. I thought it would be good if I could do something that meant something to me and something I could learn from, I suppose. One that challenged me, actually, that was the big thing. Obviously, at work I was challenged but in a different way, and I got really fascinated by people who do really crazy stuff – people who row across the Atlantic or run around the world.
Did you consider doing one of those things?
Well, no. The running around the world, I just thought: it’s too long. So I’d read Rosie Swale-Pope’s book – I think it’s called Just a Little Run Around the World. And actually, I was really lucky because I met her about a month before I went off on mine. So I’d been in touch with her, heard nothing and suddenly she was doing another run. Someone got in touch and was like ‘do you want to meet her?’ I was like yes! So I went to run with her for a little bit which was amazing. So it’d taken her five years to do [her run around the world] and I was like ‘not really feeling that so much.’
So, you wanted a life changing experience but if you could do it in six – eight months that’d be great.
Yeah! So, it just sort of grew organically. Having been fascinated by all these people, I was then like ‘well, there’s my Gran’s story. There’s her journey as a refugee.’ At first, I was just going to do the the 300 kilometres that she walked. So I had that idea and then I read Rosie Swell Pope’s book and I thought: No, I’m going to go from the Northern tip of Europe to the Southern tip of Europe, which is why I ended up finishing at Tarifa, the Southern tip of Spain. But the Northern tip of Europe is the very north of Norway and it would have been amazing, but what I hadn’t quite appreciated is how long that is.
How far is it?
It’s about double what I did, I think. So, probably about 8,000K I think.
What was the exact number you did?
I did 3,850k. So I realised time-wise that was going to be a little bit long. I’d never really experimented with spending that much time alone, which I was a little bit scared about – kind of the mental aspects of it. So I thought, okay, instead what I’ll do is the part of my Grandmother’s journey which she did in a plane, and I’ll do it by foot. I’ll run it. Then I’ll go down to the southern tip of Spain. So I kind of worked out what was feasible – but not really. I mean, I never thought I’d finish it really. It was just a bonkers idea where I thought ‘oh yeah.’ I’ve had loads of ideas in my life and never done them, but this one for some strange reason – it was really weird, I’ve never been so convinced about anything, ever. I needed to do it. It was really odd.
”I followed my Grandmother’s refugee journey. The walking bit took her three weeks. I just find it really difficult to imagine. She was basically in work shoes; they weren’t taking roads because the allies were taking people and putting them into displaced persons camps, and they knew where they were going.”
Did you become more convinced because your friend said it at the party [and announced it as a public statement] or was that where you suddenly thought ‘actually I can do this, why not?’
It’s not that ‘I can do it’ but ‘why not try’. I never did it to finish it, actually. That only started when I got to the south of France. I was like ‘oh I kind of need to finish this now.’ And that was when there was a bit more pressure, from myself and until that point it was literally just see what happens. Day by day. Step by step, to be honest. Because you don’t know what your body’s going to do and what your mind’s going to do.
So when did you start planning it and putting it into action from the point where it gets publicly announced?
Probably not that long. I mean in terms of planning it, I needed to put the route together. So, after the Christmas break that year – I told my parents at the Christmas break that I had this idea.
What did they think?
They thought I was crazy.
But crazy in a loving way.
Not too pleased about it, actually. They were really worried, I think. It was only when I got quite a way in that my Dad was actually like ‘oh she can do this’ that they kind of understood. Because I didn’t grow up doing adventures – we were sporty, but in quite a conventional way. So they weren’t too happy about it. But they also said ‘well, if she’s going to do it, she’s going to do it. We can’t stop her, off she goes.’ When I got back from the Christmas break having told them, I started doing the website. I don’t think my Mum really thought I was going to do it, because like I said, I’ve had loads of ideas. But then I put together my website and I’ve never done that and that was kind of fun. Then I think the realisation came for them that actually I was quite serious.
Then the only other planning was putting the route together and getting loads of kit that I didn’t have, including ‘Bob’ – the famous buggy that I used to put my stuff in. Then it was working out what kit I needed, what kit was the best for this time of thing. I spoke to a few people who had done similar types of things to get ideas in terms of kit. Really seriously, probably only over the four months prior to starting I was quite busy just trying to organise myself.
So when did you actually leave?
I started on the 15th off July  from this really tiny – well, it’s not even a village. I think there’s about three houses there. So when my Grandmother lived there (I might get this wrong) I think 300 people. Not huge, but now I think there’s about three houses. Obviously there’s been a huge migration because when the Soviets came in all the Germans had to get out and millions of people had to leave, and I guess maybe that’s part of it. I grew up with this picture of a hand-drawn church on the wall. And this is where the church is. So, we saw the church [in Unieradz, Poland] and there was something really poignant about it. My Grandmother passed away a few years ago. It was really special to go to where she’d grown up because none of us had been there before.
That sounds really beautiful. So did you go with your parents or solo?
I went with my Mum. My Mum came because it was her Mum, and she stayed for the first – I think after the day I think my IT Band flared up and so I had to take two days off. Didn’t start so well.
How far down the road did you get?
Well, I’d done 20K but I couldn’t move for a couple of days. So that was a real shame and put the heebie jeebies in me.
Was that stressful or, if you were already thinking you weren’t really going to complete it, not so much?
Well, it was stressful because I’d hoped I’d get past the first few days!
Yes: “Well I tried, I did 20 K” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Yeah. So when you make things public – it became public really when the Red Cross wrote a blog about it. I can’t remember when it was, I think it might have been in April or May. I thought ‘fine I’ll make myself accountable now – I’ll post this.’
So, I left 15th July and spent (I can’t really remember how much but I think it was) 100-200k in Poland before entering Germany. Then I followed my grandmother’s route. She was in planes by this point – one of which crashed. Then she woke up in the Red Cross station, hence the link to the Red Cross. Then she took another plane up to a town up to Flensburg which is on the border of Denmark. So I did all that by foot and followed the bits she walked with another girl. So, that’s 300K. She settled in a place called Celle. The rest of it was just to see if I could do it. It wasn’t linked to her story at all, it was just something that I cooked up. So for the first 800 K was roughly her route – I mean, I didn’t know exactly. She’d written a four page story or account of her experience, which had a few locations on it and so I just made sure I went through there.
Did you stay in each of them?
Yeah, probably. She stayed in a few farms so I ended up staying on a few farms. I don’t know, there were some things that were very sentimental but for me were really nice. When people say to me what’s the best part of the journey for you, that was probably it. I enjoyed the rest of it but there was something quite profound about following her route. And you know, linking it to refugees – I would have hard days and genuinely didn’t want to move, but then you’re like well – these people.. I think the latest proper stat on forcibly displaced people both inside and countries and across the border is 51 million or something. It’s ridiculous. So you know, there were all these people going through that and there’s little old you who feels in a bad way because you’ve got a sore foot and you don’t feel like walking or running that day.
How long did it take her to do her journey?
The walking bit took her three weeks. I just find it really difficult to imagine. First of all she was basically in work shoes; they weren’t taking roads because the allies were taking people and putting them into displaced persons camps, and they knew where they were going. My Grandmother didn’t know whether her family had survived the Russian invasion at this point but she’d met another girl who had family in this place called Celle – that’s why she was heading in that direction.
She had no food, no water, you know. They got to this girl’s family’s house and they were so severely malnourished that they couldn’t keep food down. This girl’s Mum nursed them back to health. Again, I experienced the kindness of strangers and it’s quite an amazing thing.
Did you do it all solo?
I did it all solo. I did all the running solo and in the second half of the challenge my Mum came once and my Dad came at another point and a friend at another point, so I had three separate weekends on a rest day where people very very kindly came to spend some time, which was lovely because it was really lonely particularly towards the end in Spain. That was really really nice.
What was it like mentally doing the first section that you Grandmother had walked, and then from that point seeing how far you could go, eventually to the very south of Spain?
I think on the blog post on the day I left Celle I think I said I had a hangover. I thought that was quite amusing because I don’t really drink and I knew my friends would be like what’s she talking about? (Well I do, but I just don’t drink a lot.) But it did feel a bit like that [after the first stage]: because I felt like I’d had a real purpose for the beginning with regards to reaching where she got to. But the whole thing was about breaking it down into manageable chunks. So then I just though: well, I need the next target to head for and that’s going to be the border between Germany and France so that was another 300 or so kilometres (I can’t really remember the exact distance). I always needed to have something that I was aiming for within a few weeks that I’d slowly get closer to.
”At the beginning I was always hungry. Always. I’d spend my whole day eating.”I like how during a marathon people break it down into the next two miles or so, and you ‘break it down into 300Ks’.
This is the thing – even now – when I say the number of kilometres I’ve done, I can’t really believe it. It just seems a bit silly really. And people do more – don’t get me wrong. There are people who do much more crazy stuff, and they do a marathon a day, but for me this was still outside of your comfort zone. I felt permanently outside of my comfort zone. Especially in places where you can’t speak the language; those practicalities. When I think now, because I’m not running so much because I’m trying to let my body heal a little bit, I kind of think the idea of doing those many kilometres a day just seems like a different time. Even though it wasn’t that long ago. I felt like that really soon afterwards. It just becomes your reality. You don’t have other stresses: you don’t have a family, you don’t have a job. It’s just your job, that’s all you’re doing.
So it was just a couple of weeks after when you thought ‘what on earth was that? I’m not doing that again.’
I probably wouldn’t do it again. But I would do shorter stuff. I think it’s – and bikes are the same – a great way to see places. Also, so slow. You can just stop and look at stuff. I love it.
When you said that you didn’t really feel comfortable, when you got to the points further in the journey where you thought ‘hey maybe I can actually do this or I’m obliged to do this because I’ve gone so damn far I might as well keep going’, did you feel more like you owned it? Like this was ‘your thing’?
I found that was the hardest bit for me. It might sound a bit counter-intuitive. In a way, almost the closer I got the more pressured I was to finish, which I think I struggled with a little bit. I’m sure from outside you’d look at it and say ‘oh she’s been doing these distances for x number of months now, surely it’s just a case of getting up and doing it’ but not really.
There are always days that are easier than others but even after that long.. I’d obviously worked out my nutrition and stuff but then I remember in the south of France I messed up my nutrition one day and felt terrible for the rest of the day, just through being forgetful and not paying attention to when I needed to eat. So, I’m always a bit sensitive in regards to nutrition: if I don’t get it in that’s a disaster.
When you’re running 3,000K what do you eat on average per day?
That was something that was really interesting. At the beginning I was always hungry. Always. And I’d spend my whole day eating. I’d stop and I’d just eat for the rest of the day. But by the end it wasn’t like that. I think your body just becomes very efficient with what you put in it. I didn’t use gels because I thought: I’m not sure about the nutritional content for the time I’m going to be using them for. And I wasn’t going fast, so you can kind of digest while moving. So I had bananas, dried fruit and cereal bars. They were like my staple while I was moving and then normal food the rest of the time. Even now, I just prefer eating food when I can. But you can’t always – if you’re doing more high intensity stuff, you just can’t.
How did you decided what kit to take with you?
I was really lucky because there was a couple that ran South America. The 5,000 Mile Project I think it was called. Really really lovely couple. I’d been in touch with them and they’d sent me their kit list, which was really sweet of them. So that was a starting point for me. I was in Europe and I wasn’t going to be very remote so there were a couple of things I didn’t need. Then it was just research. Boring research: what’s lightest, because that’s the biggest thing. I had my digital SLR with me and my laptop which frankly were luxuries and weighed too much but I’m glad I had them because I used them all the time. I don’t regret it but they weren’t very good for weight. For everything else I just tried to get the lightest thing. The trouble with that is that as soon as you’re going into the top ranges of things it all gets expensive. So the stuff that was really expensive, I tried to contact the brands. In a couple of instances I was really lucky and either got free stuff or reduced which was really helpful.
How do you start training for it, and how do you start training with a buggy?
I didn’t train once with the buggy.
Just on day one? How was that?
It was a bit irresponsible, frankly. That was alright fortunately. I grew up in France and the family home’s still there, so i went there before going to the start and that’s where the buggy was delivered to. So I met ‘Bob’ [the buggy] three days before I started. So I ran up and down the road and thought well, it’s the right kind of height. Thankfully, because had it not been.. it’d have been so awful.
Training-wise: I went to do the Palestine marathon: Right To Movement in April. I’d trained for that but to be honest, after speaking to this couple that had done South American, and a couple of other people: everyone says you build your endurance as you do it. They said: don’t worry too much about getting stressed because you’re not getting enough training in. My work was about 10k away from where I lived. So I tried to do one-way every day, so I was probably doing 10k a day. In an ideal world, you’d probably do more.
No wonder your legs suddenly hurt after day one when they were doing 20k.
Yeah. So that was my training. My aim when I started was always to have an average of 20k – a half marathon – a day. My average on moving days was about 30k.
What was the most you ever did?
44k, I think. It wasn’t really intentional.
Were you just having loads of fun?
No I wasn’t – it was terrible. It was going from the centre of Barcelona to a place called Sitges and there was this road that was kind of elevated up the cliffs and kind of narrow. Fortunately there was a wall to stop me falling into the sea and dying. Really useful. But there was very little room for me. The cars weren’t very happy about me being there; I wasn’t very happy about me being there either. It was really winding, really hilly. Not particularly pleasant. Although, it was beautiful – the scenery was beautiful – but in terms of preserving life, which I had to deal with a lot particularly in France where the roads were frightening, that was the longest that day. I think it’s possible to do longer but the reality for me at that point was that I already had achilles tendon problems, so I just had to be really careful. Well, not that careful because I didn’t stop, but try and manage it as best I could.
And any place you did stop you just found a room in that location, or did you plan it out?
I tried to do it the day before often because then at least I knew I’d have somewhere. Then occasionally I’d use my tent, but I didn’t sleep very well. My one man tent; a really amazing tent, really light. I tried not to use it. The concept of showers and beds is highly sought after, I have to say.
Before you went who did you talk to? Who were some of the people you got advice from?
People who’d done similar stuff. Other than that, Barbara was involved. I trained with her for the Palestine marathon so I continued training with her which was great. I did some high intensity interval workout with her which was really useful. But other than that, I sort of did a lot of it on gut. I don’t think it’s your brain that wins the argument for doing silly things like that. I think it’s your heart that tells you it’s a really good idea.
How was it in the end spending all the time by yourself; the mental aspect?
The first bit was amazing. I needed the time alone – I’d had a really difficult time personally for a while and work had been quite stressful, and I found it quite blissful. I mean, it was summer for a start, with holiday feelings, despite the fact that I never really felt like I was on holiday. I sort of felt like I was working in a ‘my choice’ kind of way’. So I’d arrive in places and be like ‘ah, so if I want to look around or I don’t, then I don’t have to.’ It was nice to be able to do stuff just for me for a while.
I was really driven by getting to Paris because I’ve got family there. I spent almost a week resting there, and when I left that was really hard and I think that’s when I realised how lonely I was, having just spent time with people. You meet lots of people on the way and you have the amazing kindness of strangers, but it’s all really transitory so you don’t build relationships. The most lonely was Spain – probably because I went from being a little bit more comfortable in France because I speak French, then all of a sudden being physically out of my comfort zone, slightly injured, and not being able to speak the language. I found the loneliness really really hard for that last 1,000 kilometres or so. You know that you’re getting towards the end and you can see people soon, so maybe that makes it a bit more difficult. I’m not really a loner – although you might think that’s a bit strange for me to say, given I went to do this – but I’m not. I love being with people. That was the hardest thing.
Was it blissful or overwhelming to come back to civilisation in the UK?
Both. Blissful because I could see my friends and family again. That was the most wonderful thing, and going back to Run Dem Crew was just positively wonderful.
So, it took me six months to do the challenge and then I spent six months in France, just outside of Paris but essentially in the countryside. I basically spent seven months in the countryside: during the challenge I had gone through towns but mostly I was in the middle of nowhere. So it was a bit of a shock coming back to the hectic-ness of London and the energy of it. But it is very nice being back – it’s very different. I think I’m experiencing it in a slightly different way, but also falling into old sort of habits as well as though nothing’s happened in between! I struggle a little bit because I think I get a lot of energy from nature and I miss that. So I need to make sure I go on many adventures into nature at weekends.
Are you planning any more strange adventures in the future?
Not for now. But if anyone’s got any ideas then I might be keen to join them. It would be quite cool to do something – part of me thinks it would be easier to do it with a support crew. Some people [do these sorts of challenges with] a support crew. People suggested before I left [for my challenge] that I should find someone here to do it with but finding someone who can take six months out of their life is not an easy thing. [If you have that support] you can cover longer distances then because you wouldn’t be so worried about having to go so far.
So no is the short answer, but would definitely be up for something shorter in time definitely. Even if it’s just a weekend.