The great European half marathon

Deep in the remote and steep farm hills of the Luxembourg & Belgium border we came to a barricade.  The road was blocked off at the border but our headlights showed there was a small opening if you drove in the mud to the right.  At 2:15am there wasn’t another soul for miles, so we swung our 9 passenger Mercedes vans around the barriers and sped down the hill.  We didn’t have a choice.  There was no time and our only hope was a Shell gas station that appeared to be in the absolute middle of nowhere.  The only gas station for 20+ miles.

I could see the cows, laying in their fields, raise their heads in annoyance as we swerved down the winding roads, surely the only vehicle for many hours.  The orange light of the fuel tank warning had been on for what seemed like hours and we hadn’t passed a single gas station.  We’d left the major highway in desperation.  These roads seemed to lead to nowhere but Google claimed there was an open gas station in this wilderness of farms.  We called several times and no one picked up.  If it was closed or didn’t exist, we would have no choice but to sit there for hours until the next day, completely out of fuel.  Our quest for 13 countries ending in the worst conceivable way at 12.

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My greatest logistical challenge ever had taken a horrible turn thanks to a French pump not taking credit cards, language barriers, a closed interstate and a 40+ mile section of Belgium highway with no fuel stations.  Now we’re here at 2:15am, with only the sleeping cows and a fading hope of not sleeping in the vans.  Nearly 2,000 kilometers of running and driving across Europe over 22 hours would come down to this random gas station in remote farmville Europe actually being open.

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The idea for running in 13 countries in one day came when I was reading about the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc race which traverses 3 countries.  I spent quite a bit of time online trying to find anyone who had ever claimed to have run in 4 or more countries in one day to no avail.  My recent passion for trying to expand what’s possible in one day led from curiosity to serious planning.  I made a Facebook post hoping 2-3 people might join me for an epic European run to help cut costs and ended up getting a group of 16 adventurers to join.  We set a date for mid-May, I planned for several hundred hours… researching routes, using google maps & street views to plan run locations, researching border crossings and trying to figure out the logistics of renting two vans that would be allowed to drive over 14 countries while staying insured.

The day finally came and we all met up in the O’Hare airport for a red eye flight to London.  The plan was to drive over 1,900 kilometers across Europe in one day while stopping to run at least 1.01 miles in each country along the way.  We would finish with a half marathon distance (13.1 miles) and complete the journey in less than 24 hours.  The driving route was the most efficient one I could find across Europe that touched all 13 countries and the running routes where the most scenic places I could find along the way.

(Left to Right: Lisa, Mike, Steve, Julie, Laura, Lori, Josh, Kathy, Haley, Angela, Lora, Debbie, Erin, Kyle, Nicole & Joe… the 16 runners taking on “The Great European Half-Marathon”.

(Left to Right: Lisa, Mike, Steve, Julie, Laura, Lori, Josh, Kathy, Haley, Angela, Lora, Debbie, Erin, Kyle, Nicole & Joe… the 16 runners taking on “The Great European Half-Marathon”.

We rented the vans and drove to the hotel just outside the starting line in Brno, Czech Republic.  After nearly 48 hours of travel, we were all tired but extremely excited to start the record attempt at 4am.  I went to bed early to prepare for over 24 hours of running and driving while some of the more fun runners went out to enjoy the Czech nightlife at a crazy secret speakeasy called the Super Panda.  We met in the hotel lobby at 3am and began the drive to the start line.  We had tons of snacks to get us through the day with minimal stops.  Kyle, being a sub 2:30 marathoner was going to attempt to run 2 miles in each country.  The faster runners would set up a camera on the hood of the van to get a photo at each country and as soon as everyone had finished their mile (or 2 miles) we’d snap a group photo and quickly move on to the next country, stopping only for emergency bathroom breaks or fuel.

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The first country was the Czech Republic.  We ran a fun out and back along the bike lane that ran next to the Thaya River in the town of Breclav.  The orange streetlamps illuminated the run in the crisp night air as the first signs of dawn started to light the eastern sky.  I stopped several times to snap photos of the other runners as they ran back and we hopped into the vans at 4:14 right on schedule.  The first country was in the books and we were off to Slovakia.

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The drive to Slovakia’s capital city of Bratislava was only 48 minutes.  We took the exit and parked in the first spots we found to run the large boardwalk along the Danube River.  The sun was coming up over the river and the buildings and huge boats in the river were incredible sights.  Everyone was fresh and excited to be running.  We ran under a huge hotel that was built over the walkway and Danube and turned around to finish our mile, snap the photo and hop back into the van.  We managed to get a few minutes ahead of schedule after the first two runs.

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The next stop was one of shortest drives of the day.  It was only 17 minutes from Bratislava to the tiny town of Rajka, Hungary.  We passed the border without being stopped and took the first exit which led us to this quaint little village.  Ditching the vans in front of a few houses on the side of the road we sped off down the streets as the sunrise started to glow orange and illuminate the sleepy town.  We dodged the traffic of a few passing cars and again made great time finishing our runs. 

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Kyle was running his 2 miles at an average mile pace of 5:45 and consistently getting back to the van well before the 13 minutes allotted for the run (15 minutes total alloted from the time the van was turned off to turned on).  I was really pumped everyone was being so efficient with hopping out of the van, running and getting back in.  16 people in 2 vans can be really difficult to get on the same page but this group was fantastic and doing an excellent job of being a team.  We started off for Slovenia over 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

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There was a 3 hour drive from Hungary to Slovenia, our first long drive between countries and the longest drive between runs of the day.  Slovenia would also be our 4th country of the day and we would be the first to ever document running in 4 countries in one day.  I chose a run location that was off the very first exit across the border near an architecturally unique hotel and casino building.  I could tell there was a big hill we would have to run up but the side streets would have a terrific view of the Slovenian hills and valleys.  The hill was much longer and steeper than I imagined but it was a beautiful view from the top.  Our times were slightly slower due to the elevation gain but I think everyone was way too excited to now be “record holders” to worry about anything else. 

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We snapped our group photo at 9:05am.  It had taken us 5 hours and 5 minutes to drive across and run at least one mile in 4 countries.  Now we were off to the Alps and the mountainous countries after our first and only border crossing where we were asked for passports.  It took about one minute and we were on our way.

World Record! First known/documented runners to run in at least 4 countries in a single day.

World Record! First known/documented runners to run in at least 4 countries in a single day.

Our 5th country of the day was Austria and as we drove closer the Alps started to loom in the distance.  As a mountaineer turned runner, I have to say they are now the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.  It was simply incredible to watch them out the window as we drofe down the highway.  Having rented the vans in London, the steering wheel was on the right side of the car but all of Europe outside of the UK still drives on the right side.  The speed limit is also 130km which is roughly 81mph.  So, we were constantly traveling over 80mph.  I drove van one and Steve drove van 2 the entire day.  With the drive from the hotel to start line and finish line to hotel it would be nearly a 26 hour day.  Steve Miazgowicz is the absolute man.  A 9 passenger van with the steering wheel on the right side, through tunnels and winding mountain roads over 26 hours is a crazy amount of mental energy.  There was also the added difficulty of having no left hand side mirror after both vans smashed their mirrors on a German construction barrel placed on the road-side of the yellow lines.  It was masterful driving by Steve all day.

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We pulled off the exit and onto the side of a country road in Pyhrn, Austria.  The backdrop was the Austrian Alps and it was simply magnificent.  The bluebird sky with a few clouds for texture and snow capped peaks in every direction was incredible.  I ran a quick mile so I could get a finishing photo of everyone as they ran down the mountain road back to the van.  There were some unbelievable views and sights along our route but I don’t think anything beat this backdrop of the Austrian Alps.  We snapped our group photo now that 5 countries were finished and took off for Germany.

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I took 15 seconds to pull off at a rest stop to have Kyle drive for an hour so I could do some math to figure out times we needed to hit at current pace and close my eyes for 15 minutes.  Kyle was running twice as far as we did but did a great job in emergency driving relief.  We arrived in Germany on Lake Chiemsee just after noon and over 7 hours into our day.  Google maps had shown a path along the lake but it was actually an uneven wall about 24 inches high, so we just ran back and forth on the ¼ mile section of parking area along the lake.  The Chiemsee is essentially the German equivalent of Lake Tahoe. 

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It was a great view point even if the running surface wasn’t quite what was expected.  There were restrooms and a small restaurant and this was our first stop where we didn’t hit our 15 minute limit for total stop time to run the mile.  We had over a half hour lead on projected pace to finish in 24 hours and everyone was starting to feel how you’d expect someone to feel after nearly 7 hours in a van.  The break was nice and even though we didn’t hit our 15 minute time, we had re-fueled and used the restrooms and now our 6th country of the day was done.

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Italy was next and one of 3 countries that wasn’t directly on the route but instead a country we did an “out and back” drive to get to.  We took the highway over a mountain pass to the Italian boundary and the town of Brenner, Italy at an elevation of 5,000’.  There was a paved path along the road side that was fairly flat but had great views of the Italian Alps. 

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I sat on the path to get photos from a great vantage point and at one point Kyle hurdled me as he sped off for his second mile.  We got some great photos and made great time and despite needing to stop for fuel and restrooms again, we had nearly an hour lead on 24 hour pace.

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The next drive was through dozens of incredibly long Austrian tunnels to get to Liechtenstein.  The tunnels were dark and often 10-20km long and I would get sleepy as I drove through them.  When we arrived in Liechtenstein the Alps somehow got more scenic.  The little town of Vaduz was like something out of the Sound of Music with a little fair happening in the town center.  We dodged a passing train and ran through the town in the shadows of the Alps. 

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Those who finished their mile first posed with the farm animals of a farmer who was quite impressed with our travels.  We were equally impressed he was running a small farm in the middle of this town.  We got our photo with a great view of the mountains in the background and started off to Switzerland.  Shortly after we got in the car a quick afternoon rain shower began.  We had almost perfect weather the entire day.  The only rain that fell all day was later in the day and always when we were in the car.  Traffic was also perfect with only construction slowdowns and no real heavy traffic jams.  We were catching little breaks and staying well over half hour ahead of schedule.

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The drive from Liechtenstein to Switzerland was nothing short of the best mountain drive I’ve ever experienced.  It was like Banff (Canada) mixed with the Sierra Nevada’s (California).  We arrived at our Zurich run location shortly after 7:30pm local time to run a mile in our 9th country of the day. 

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The road was private, which I wasn’t expecting, so we parked in an empty 4 car driveway and ran the park paths to a vantage point with a beautiful view of Lake Zurich and the setting sun.  The paths were lovely and we soaked in the last run of the day to be done in the daylight and then off to France.

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The first 9 countries went exactly to plan and were close to perfect in terms of traffic, weather, running locations, border crossings and pretty much everything.  We had a 35-40 minute lead on 24 hour pace as we rolled through France.  The plan was to run at a rest stop that had a track and neighborhood behind it.  If the track was open, we’d run the track as that would be the safest night run and if it were locked, we’d run the neighborhood which would at least be lit with streetlamps and have slower moving traffic.  Unfortunately, there was a tall locked fence not everyone could jump over and so we had to go to the next exit to find a place to run.  The next exit inexplicably had bumper to bumper cars parked along the street for a mile in every direction.

Nearly 19 straight hours of driving and running had taken its toll and I was trying not to be really irritated that my run location didn’t work out and this exit had no parking for a mile.  We finally found a spot, parked the vans and started running down the French sidewalks of Strasbourg.  It ended up being a really pleasant city run in the cool night air but we ended up losing nearly 10 minutes of time.  The plan was to get gas and a quick bathroom break before leaving France and then hit the last 3 countries.  We took our group photo and country number 10 of the day was complete.

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We pulled into a highway rest station to get fuel and use the bathrooms.  I needed some caffeine too.  I put my card in the pump and it was declined.  So was my AMEX.  So was my Visa.  Frustrated, I went to the attendant who didn’t speak English to try and figure it out.  I ended up giving him the last of my 20 Euros which was all the cash I had to fill it up enough to finish, or so I thought.  The other van had the same problems but we still had over a 1/3 of a tank plus 20 Euros of new fuel.  When I went back in, I found nearly all 15 of the other runners in line to buy food.  I have a huge sense of urgency and begged everyone to pool their food and just make one transaction as this stop wasn’t supposed to take nearly this long.  Not figuring out a way to get more fuel into the vans here and telling everyone this wasn’t a food stop are my two biggest and really only regrets of the trip.  I failed everyone as a leader here.  When we got back on the road we had only a 20 minute lead on 24 hour pace with the final 3 runs to go.

Running French city streets

Running French city streets

Running Luxembourg city streets

Running Luxembourg city streets

We passed the French border and into Luxembourg just after 11pm.  Our first traffic issue came up when the main interstate highway through Luxembourg City was closed and we had to take a detour which cost us over 5 minutes of drive time.  We ended up getting to our run location from the opposite direction I was planning on but it was a nice urban shopping area with a well lit and paved sidewalk to run on.  I tried my best to have safe nighttime run locations and we finished our run about 16 minutes ahead of 24 hour pace.  Kyle was pushing himself hard with 2 miles in each country and still knocking out sub 5:45 miles despite constantly having to run 2 miles hard and then hop in a van for a few hours and repeat.  We were all getting fatigued from the day but 11 countries were in the books with only Belgium and The Netherlands left.

We use headlights instead of camera flash and it didn’t go so well ;-) Sign says: Luxembourg: Mile 11

We use headlights instead of camera flash and it didn’t go so well ;-) Sign says: Luxembourg: Mile 11

We took the highway exit north to Liege, Belgium and had about an hour drive to the major city right up a 130km/hour highway.  It was evident at this point (shortly before 2am) that neither van was going to have enough fuel and we’d need to stop.  We pooled together our remaining Euros and I used the walkie-talkies to tell the other van we’d stop at the next gas station.  That station never came.  Nearly 30 highway miles later we still hadn’t come across a fuel station.  I had the team Google search for any open stations.  They were all 20-30 miles behind or ahead of us and we didn’t believe we had enough to get there.  The only option was a Shell station that seemed to be in the absolute middle of nowhere, way off our route.  We had no choice but take a leap of faith, leave the highway and head into extremely remote farm country.

After over 7 miles of driving the steep, sharp winding farm roads we came up to where the Shell station should be.  At this point, I didn’t even care about finishing all 13 miles in 24 hours, I just didn’t want this group of 15 friends to have to spend the night in the vans.  They had trusted me with this crazy adventure and I was perilously close to letting them down in a heartbreaking way.  We passed over a small hill and then all screamed in excitement when we saw the brightly illuminated Shell logo.  The store itself was closed and no lights were on but it’s still incredible to me this station existed in the literal middle of nowhere.

We held our breath as we pulled up to the pump.  It was off.  There was no credit card receptor.  I breathed out a quite sigh in complete defeat.  I had let everyone down.  We would have to run a mile here and then spend the night in some completely remote farm country with cows while waiting for morning.  Just then, Kyle says the first pump on the other side of the station had a credit card insert.  I walked over and put in my Visa.  Error.  I put in my Mastercard.  Error.  I put in my American Express.  Error.  I hadn’t used my debit card this whole trip but for some reason, just put it in out of the purely masochistic motivated feeling of wanting to get declined a 4th time.  Enter PIN.  Huh?  I entered my PIN and the pumped roared to life.  I screamed.  I screamed to Steve to quickly drive over so I could fill his van while Kyle drove my van in queue.  With both vans filled with fuel, I turned around and tore down the road.  We flew over the bumps and hills, sped past the border barricade and through the tiny sleepy village that guarded the highway.  When we got back on the highway our estimated arrival time to The Netherlands was 3:49.  We still had to run a mile in Belgium.

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I was defeated thinking the time just didn’t work but Kyle kept pushing me and refused to accept any sort of defeat.  When I was low he picked me up. So, we took off at 140km (speed limit was 130km) and rolled into Liege. Going a few kilometers per hour over the speed limit allowed us to get to the city streets of Belgium 5 minutes early (we had very strictly followed the speed limit all day, not going even 1km per hour over).  The highway through Liege, Belgium goes right through downtown but stops being a highway and more of a 4 lane city road. We pulled over at an open parking spot, smashed the brakes and tore off down the city streets, leaving the van doors wide open.  I made it back to the vans with a sub 6:30 mile and started them up.  We got both vans started, lights on, camera set and ready to roll the second the last runner arrived.  Kyle and Kathy both rolled in at the same time and we snapped the group photo and were back on the road within seconds.  It was by far our fastest run, taking only 11 minutes which included the 2 seconds it took to do the photo. 

The GPS said we’d arrive at the first exit of the Netherlands, 2.7 kilometers past the border, at approximately 3:57.  It was only 17 minutes away but we needed to get there quicker for even the fastest runners to have a chance at sub 24 hours.  We did not drive recklessly but our 23 hours of defensive driving certainly turned more “offensive” minded the last hour. The highway through Liege turned from 60km city limit driving to 130km highway again and we tore off to the Dutch border.  I took the exit and as we circled the ramp towards the main road I quickly ran the van off the side of the road into the tall grass and smashed the brakes. 

Kyle had jumped out of the car before it stopped and I threw the van into park in the same motion as opening the door, leaving it running and jumping out.  We had somehow made it to the Netherlands at 3:54am.  Everyone would get to say they ran in 13 countries in one day but it was still possible to finish the full 13.1 miles and a get a full mile in each country if you could run the final mile in 5 minutes.

Parked the vans on that strip of Dutch grass

Parked the vans on that strip of Dutch grass

The last mile of the European Half on the pathway

The last mile of the European Half on the pathway

There was a bike path along the road and I tore after Kyle at nearly full speed.  I checked my watch at a quarter mile and my current pace was 4:17/mile.  The first half mile to the turn-around was slightly uphill and I made the turn at just over 2:30 (5/min mile pace) while Kyle continued on to finish his two mile run.  I pushed as hard as I could the final 800 meters.  In one hand, I pulled up my camera on my phone so I could take a photo and time stamp my watch once it hit 1 mile.  I came up on the vans and my watched vibrated as I finished the full mile.  I went a few extra seconds to make sure I hit 1.01 miles and took a photo of my watch showing a 5 minute mile.  I touched my phone screen to see the time stamp of the photo…

3:59am. 

Kyle was a mile away finishing his 2nd mile and the rest of our rad crew was just behind me running their final mile as fast as they could.  I had one minute to myself in the orange glow of the Dutch streetlamps, in the cold night air at 3:59 in the morning.  4,000 miles of flying, 3,500+ kilometers of driving to the start line and during the record attempt, 200+ hours of planning, 24 hours of driving, 13 miles of running and 1 crazy idea of what’s possible in a day… came down to single digit seconds.  3:59am.  According to Strava, which I’ve used to track my runs the last two years, I ran my fastest half mile, kilometer and mile since starting the app on that final mile in the Netherlands.

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I raised both arms outstretched in the cool night air and lifted my face to the stars.  This was my moment.  It was a moment of extreme gratitude for my non-elite body being able to push itself just hard enough to do something cool.  Gratitude for things somehow working out in a way that despite major setbacks the last 3 hours there was at least a slim sliver of hope.  Gratitude for the 15 amazing friends I spent every second of the whole day with.  Gratitude that every one of them got to physically stand in and run in 13 countries in one day. Every second counts.  Every.  Second.  Counts.  And this one moment was the culmination of everything and it’s the one second I’ll forever be grateful for.

Kyle crushed his first mile and also logged a mile in the Netherlands before the clock turned to 4am.  Steve and Joe both finished at 4:00am and the rest of the group just a minute or two after.  I know some where disappointed they didn’t log the full mile before 4am and I get that but every single one of the runners on this trip set a new world record for running in 13 countries in one day.  It doesn’t matter if you had 0.62 miles at the stroke of 4am or finished the mile by then.  You physically ran in 13 countries in a 24 hour period.  Record holder. It was an incredible day.  We took our photos and drove off to the hotel to sleep.

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The next morning we drove to London and celebrated all night.  I slept for 4 hours the second upon checking into the hotel while the others went out to dinner.  When I woke up around 9, I went for a quick 10k jog around London to check the city out at night.  I didn’t know where I was going.  I had an incredibly detailed plan for every second of this trip but tonight… tonight there was no plan.  There were only the bright city lights of London as I ran over the bridges and along the Thames.  The shadows of the buildings occasionally hiding my lit smile as I soared over that city.  This is where the magnitude of what we did truly hit me.  We shattered boundaries, we set records, we did something no one history has ever dared and tonight we were the kings and queens of London.  16 adventurers, 16 runners, 16 friends for life… 1 epic record setting day. The great European half-marathon & marathon.

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