Running the Orient

Some of mankind’s greatest acts of philanthropy have had their genesis in boredom. Numerous creative breakthroughs have emerged out of ennui too. Or as Kierkegaard put it, “They gods were bored, therefore they created human beings.” For Aradhna and me, the inspiration for Summer 2018’s epic journey came from an exceptionally tedious wait for a line of fans to snake their way towards legendary US ultrarunner Dean Karnazes in Waterstone bookshop, Piccadilly.

Gavin Boyter.

The Orient Express was a professional wrestling tag team in the WWF in the early 1990s composed of Pat Tanaka and Akio Sato — hang on a minute. No. Here we go. Wrong Wikipedia page.

The Orient Express was a long distance passenger train which over the course of it’s long life, and several iterations, originated in Paris and terminated (depending on the route) in Vienna, Istanbul, Athens, and Venice. 

It is, suffice to say, a long old way. 

It is, suffice to say, not a route which is traditionally, or has ever, been travelled by foot. 

But humans are nothing if not adventurous and/or bored, and Gavin Boyter – having already ran from John O’Groats to Lands End – was itching for another adventure, ideally one which he could share with his girlfriend Aradhna. Inspiration was struck, a camper van (Roxy) was purchased, and Gavin set out on foot from Paris to Istanbul, with Aradhna supporting him in Roxy, both anxious to see the glamorous cities which lined the historical route across the continent.

This, unlike many long distance adventures which result in books, was not a journey taken for the sake of any record. By default, the completion of the route would set a new pedestrian record for following the Orient Express line, but time was a minor factor in the consideration of Gavin’s journey. Admin days, tourism days, and numerous detours took precedence over speed. The result is that this book is more of a travel book than it is a running one. In fact, it is more a relationship story – on both a personal and global scale – than it is a running one. 

Gavin shares his tips for multi-day running, sure, and he has plenty to say about the cycle of exhaustion which repeatedly rinsed him over the course of his journey, but the truth is you come for the trip. There are beautiful, notable cities along the way but the real interest is in the interim spaces, those lesser explored roads between the Great Cities; the Alps, the Carpathians, the plains of Hungary, the lavender fields of Bulgaria. In those places Gavin and Aradhna are constantly affirmed in their belief of a greater, global identity, one that was shaken by Brexit. In those strange, sometimes scary spaces they meet an array of human life connected by a consistent willingness to help. There are farmers who invite them to stay on their land and share bread and beer with them, police officers happy to leave them be for a night as they park Roxy in an unmarked layby, and a Turkish businessman who is so resolutely determined to aid them generously that it is almost suspicious to the cynical eye. 

This is not to say that the trek is one long, smooth, transcendental journey towards global friendship. For instance, Gavin is repeatedly bothered by packs of wild dogs, and in one incident which is resolved in a bizarrely casual manner, manages to stumble onto an active Turkish military base. These flash points, coupled with Gavin’s exhaustion, and the stress which grips Aradhna, puts their relationship under pressure. It is a constant relief to read their restabilizing tactics: touring cities, stopping for beer, wine, dining out, meeting friends, swimming in the ocean. It isn’t the sort of thing Scott Jurek was doing in North, that’s for sure, but it’s all the more relatable for that reason. This is an epic journey, almost beyond belief, almost. But is believable. Although on paper the feat is superhuman, it is written in a specifically human way. It reframes an ultra journey as having value way beyond sporting achievement.

It is a purposeful changing of perspective, a new way to see the world. It is a way of challenging and bettering the relationship between two people.

Indeed, it is a way of solidifying a relationship between two people, and a whole continent. 

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