Short version if you’re in a rush
- Day One (41km): Kick-Off at Slovakian Presidential Palace. Nice cycle path. Beautiful. Windy. Very windy. Got lost. No GPS. Hot. Broken Bike. Tired. Time Vortex. Aaah. Made it. In Halaszi.
- Day Two (29km): Lost watch cable: disaster. Cold as f*ck. Easy route. Flood Levée. Suicidal Route. Picture-perfect American suburbia. Lots of dogs. In Gyor.
- Day Three (42km): Taxi to start point. Dangerous bridge. Where is everyone?! Achilles Heel going downhill. Fast. More and more flood levées. So so flat. Road Closed = 5km detour. Ugh. Watch cable waiting at hotel – woohoo. Superhero parents! Pippa’s butt hurting. In Komarno.
- Day Four (58km): The big day: 58km. Roman ruins. Water dilemma. Achilles heel huge. Amazing lunch spot. Danube incredibly beautiful. Another bloody 5km detour. Esztergom basilica: out of this world. In Esztergom.
- Day Five (38km): Legs dead. Running along rabbit path. Then main road. Dangerous. Abandoned buildings. Only rain (90 seconds!) of the week. Jacuzzi time. In Leanyfalu.
- Day Six (27km): Last day! Sped up. Last 15km in 4.30min/km average. Hundreds of kids. Missile rocket lying around. Tic Toc. Tic Toc. Shaky wooden bridges. Budapest Parliament. Done! Felt slightly deflated. What’s next?!
The run in numbers:
- 235 km
- 22 hours 53 minutes
- 6 days
- ~230,000 steps
- 20,100 calories
- 3 borders
- 22 gels (I think)
- 18 litres of water (and Kofola)
- 0 (zero!) blisters
- 1 pretty bad sunburn
- 1 very damaged Achilles heel
- 1 otherwise injury-free body
Seriously longer (but totally worth it) version: 6 days = lots of photos!
235 km. Two hundred and thirty-five kilometres. That’s approximately – well, very precisely actually – 130km more than I’ve ever run in one weekend or, for that matter, in an entire week. Surely the best way to prepare for this would be to spend a few months running 20+km per day, slogging it out to prepare my body for what was effectively an unknown level of effort and difficulty. That’s one option.
The other is to ignore reality and just chug along like usual and run 37km, 58km, 28km and 60km per week in the month prior (admittedly, with the Paris marathon in the middle). This worked out at an average of 6.5km/day whereas I’d be averaging 39km/day for this adventure. Easy! I’m ready!
To throw a spoiler up front, I made it to the end, mostly in one piece. All in all, it was an interesting experience: I’m not sure I can say it taught me much, but it was certainly a useful reminder of one’s resilience and ability to put up with different pain levels and how, actually, you can achieve quite a lot if you set your sights on a goal and accept that very little isn’t within the realms of possibility with a bit of effort and stubbornness (and long legs).
It was also a great way to visit 2 countries in an admittedly pretty unorthodox manner, and a great way to spend some time slightly off grid with Pippa, who was my life-saving donkey carrying all our increasingly smelly kit and water on the back of her bike!
Weirdly enough, finishing ended up being quite a deflating experience but, well, you’ll have to read (or scroll) or the way to the bottom for that!
- Day 1 – Bratislava => Halaszi (41km)
Our starting point was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia: I’m not 100% sure where and how I came up with the idea of running from Bratislava to Budapest but I think it originated about 18 months ago in me looking for two cities which were “far apart but not too far apart”, were connected by an easy-ish route and would be quite interesting to visit in any case.
In this case, both are nice cities, there’s a cycle path (though their definition of “path” was at times a little more generous than mine) that connects the two along the Danube called Eurovelo 6, it’s flat as anything and 200+km seemed like a big challenge for a run but still ranked on the “slightly odd” scale rather than the “insane, call the asylum” scale.
For instance, Vienna is only 70km further along the Danube and would have been an equally cool place to start from, but we quickly veto-ed the extra 33% distance and the Bratipest plan was born!
Before we started, we had a few days in Bratislava: in short, it’s a really nice place! It’s not exactly super exciting but it’s nice for a few quiet days, had a surprisingly large number of vegan places (and a cat café!) and a tolerably low amount of British stag-dos.
It’s a city that’s held various strategically important roles in the last few centuries of Austro-Hungarian, Slovakian and other empires, kingdoms or countries and has a big castle at the top of a hill (which, by the way, isn’t super interesting to visit). Budapest has a castle too. We will join the two, how clever of us!
Well, actually, not so much. Castles at the top of hills are, by definition, at the top of hills. Bikes with 20+ kilos of kit on their back or runners with 200+ kilometres in their legs aren’t very good friends of said-hills so, once we looked up at the castle one morning after we arrived, we quickly scrapped that idea! The new plan was to join the Slovakian Presidential Palace with the Hungarian Parliament which were both, by some coincidental fluke, not at the top of hills.
We were all set and, after the standard unforeseen delays caused by taking a few photos – during which I managed to skin my leg by walking backwards into a concrete block, good start! -, I took my hand off the gate of the Presidential Palace and we were off at 9.40am!
A full 32 seconds later, I took my first break at a pedestrian crossing. Right. Town centres. This may be a slow start.
Eventually, after about 2 kilometres of treading carefully along the capital’s pavements, we crossed the (huge, seriously, it’s a BIG river!) Danube and joined the cycle path. Off we go, only 233km to go, woop woop!
Though everything was pretty much going to plan, I wasn’t really in the zone to start off with where everything feels great and you’re excited about going on a big adventure. Though I wasn’t nervous in the “aaah, I need a shit, pass me the Xanax” kind of way, I think I was internally a little daunted by what on earth I’d just undertaken: this was actually a LONG way. This could go wrong. Or this could go wrong. Or that. Oh, and this could happen to Pippa’s bike. Or this. Or that. Etc
After about 7-8km, my nerves settled a bit and it started feeling fun. This was partly helped by the miraculously flat course (250m elevation change across the 235km: virtually impossible to achieve that little by choice!) and the easterly breeze/wind which blew in our sails throughout the entire journey. We were, without a shadow of a doubt, incredibly lucky with the weather during the 6 days: I ran for nearly 24 hours and we had a full 90 seconds of rain; the temperature was unseasonably cool but not cold; and the breeze never ended. When we reached Budapest, we got 72 solid hours of rain which would have made this a very different experience!
Anyway, back to Day 1. The cycle path essentially runs in a straight line along the top of the flood levée: the first 15km or so are tarmacked so it was a very comfortable run/cycle. Spring was blooming along the flowery bank to one side, while swans and other riverside birds swam away to the other.
Compared to running around the polluted backstreets of Paris, this was alright! That said, mentally, running in a long straight line can seem like a long way and end up quite challenging. I was therefore breaking the challenge down by thinking about what this represented in my Sunday long runs in Paris: 5km – easy, just the distance from home to the Bois de Boulogne. 5-30km is basically two loops of the Bois de Boulogne then 5km home and that’s basically the run for the day. That’s not that bad! (you may have noted that 30 + 5 does not = 41. More on that later)
Shortly after and near the halfway mark, as we gradually started moving further away from the river, we crossed the Hungarian border. It was barely noticeable, save for a tiny metallic flag and a crumbling building, though the routes quickly got a little fiddlier and more gravelly.
Having been in the sunshine for a full couple of hours, we were grateful for a bit of a break as we spent a kilometre in a more forested part. After almost a kilometre of running in what “felt like the wrong direction”, we realised we were indeed “in the wrong direction” and had missed a tiny turn at one of the many hydroelectric plants. Bugger. To make it worse, we were in an area with no phone signal which was like a worst nightmare for a modern runner. We were only a small step away from Blairwitch Project #3.
Joking aside, this trip was made so much easier through modern technology – quite frankly, it would have been impossible or incredibly complicated to do this even just a decade ago. Before we left, we basically plotted a few points on Google Maps and saved the course it came up. Then, on the run, we essentially just whipped our phones out every time we felt lost. The logistical nightmare of carrying paper maps and a compass would be mind-boggling and, in particular, slow.
Anyway, we were now off the road and running along a muddy path in the flood plain: this was a little more challenging for Pippa and we were being overly cautious with her tyres but it was a nice change for me and the adventure was starting to feel very fun by this point.
I was getting warm in the sun so did a few kilometres topless. Pippa, meanwhile, who has the body temperature of a lizard, stayed wrapped up in her winter jacket.
The day then became a little less fun: the off-road – and fun – path ended suddenly, and we had to join a main road with no pavement and very little safety. Our agreed approach was for me to run behind, dangle my bright green tshirt so they saw us from a long way out and give Pippa a head’s up every time a car came by. Archaic, but functional.
Anyway, there was only 10km to go. Or so I thought. As we approached the next pretty little Hungarian village, we had to stop suddenly when … Pippa’s seat fell off having been badly tightened by the hire company. Oops. At that point, we checked the map and, to the horror of my tiring legs, despite having just travelled 5km, there was definitely still at least 10km to go. Fine. And then, bis repetita 5 km later: there’s still 10km to go. What. Was. Going. On. We seemed trapped in some sort of space vortex, or at least a vortex where our map reading skills were crap.
By now, we were reaching full marathon distance and, I think because I’d twice thought we were so close to finishing, I wasn’t really enjoying it as much! Anyway, we gobbled a few gels, gritted our teeth, and kept going.
Finally, at 41km, having initially missed the end mark, we called it a day. This is the point where I’d jump on the bike for 3km while Pippa ran to the hotel. The next morning, we’d do the same journey in reverse and re-join the main course. I could have tried to creep over into marathon distance territory but had, quite frankly, no desire to do any extra metres than I needed to!
The village of Halaszi is probably a fairly typical Hungarian village: not much to see (a nice quiet river), to eat (we had to eat the only veggie pizza at the Kebab Pizza shop that night, yum), or do (nada). Still, it meant we didn’t have to travel the extra 5km to Mosonmagyarovar, our initial target, which we were grateful for. There isn’t much to say about that town except that – fun fact for the day, it has the highest rate of dentists to residents in Europe (to cater for Austrians who want cheaper treatments)! There you go. Who knew.
As we tucked into our grease-covered pizza, I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t overly confident about the next 5 days. I actually wrote in my notes that “maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew” and I meant it: my legs were tired after essentially a marathon distance and I still had almost 200km to go. Jesus.
- Day 2 Halaszi => Gyor (29km)
Disaster struck the previous night. Just as we went to bed, we searched high and low for my watch cable charger, but it was nowhere to be seen. All I could do was plant my face in my pillow and curse my stupidity. Short of the watch itself, of all the bloody things I could lose on this trip, this was bad. Ok, I guess the phone would have been worse. Or the passport. Or the credit card. But, on a running holiday, losing the ability to track your run is … not great.
That said, before throwing all my toys out of the pram, there was a second option: get the puppy eyes out and start begging my parents to coordinate getting it couriered from the hotel we left it in in Bratislava to our next stop on Day 3. This they did – thank you again!
Back to the run itself. It had rained overnight so it was a bit wetter underfoot and a cold start. Actually, with the wind, it was bloody freezing. I even wore gloves. Pippa wore her winter jacket. And mine. Lizard.
It was only Day 2 but we were already settling into this new routine of sleep, run, eat, sleep, run eat. A kind of runners’ Stockholm Syndrome, where you forget what normality in the outside world looks like and you accept your fate and embrace it. What do normal people do with their days anyway?!
The first few kilometres were directly through farmers’ fields of wheat and rapeseed. Hawks flew overhead and it was all actually quite scenic and pleasant, other than the Arctic conditions.
After that, we fluctuated between paths along the flood levée again and little towns and villages where, it seemed, almost every house without exception had at least one barking dog who ran out to greet us, yap at us, try to play with us, or try to bite our heads off.
To ease matters, we broke the day up in a few segments of 10km: this gave us a chance to recover, eat, and coordinate Slovakian courier-related logistics.
The route was relatively easy to follow though, when we ended up in deep gravelly paths for a kilometre or so, it was clear that we’d veered off course. Bugger. Google knows best.
Unlike Day 1, there were no major roads and this was a pretty tranquil day overall, helped in part by the shortest distance of the whole week.
Physically, I was still getting a bit knackered but I just tried to break it down into segments: 40% done, easy! Only 10km to go, easy! Only the “home-Bois de Boulogne distance left”, easy! Only 6 laps, easy! Only 5.5 laps, easy! Only 5.25 laps, eas…ok, this is REALLY dragging now. I was back in the time vortex.
The plan was to reach the border crossing bridge for Slovakia, where I’d stop (to pick up at the same spot the next day) and Pippa would run the 10km into Gyor. However, when we got there, we couldn’t help but notice that this “cycle path” was a dual carriage way with a very explicit NO CYCLING sign at the side. And lorries flying by at 100kph. Maybe Google doesn’t always know best.
We therefore planned an off-the-cuff detour through back villages which, while ensuring we didn’t lose any limbs, did add an extra few kilometres to the process which I enjoyed – being on the bike, but Pippa didn’t so much.
The towns and villages here were lovely. Quite honestly, it felt like being in picture-perfect American suburbia at times, with large pastel houses with big grassy front gardens lined up one after the other. And dogs. Lots of dogs. Still more dogs.
And, finally, Gyor. 13km down, Pippa was a little … well, let’s just say she was glad we’d arrived.
After a shower and a rest, we went for a short walk around Gyor as it felt criminal to just run through places and not look around.
Gyor itself seemed like a really nice town with a really attractive centre, though it did have a few architectural monstrosities. See Exhibit A below…
One of the more amusing (to us) bits of quaintness of Hungarian culture was the custom for shops in towns to buy graduation photos of their kids’ classes and fill their shop windows with these large cut-out boards.
Almost every shop window was covered that way. Eszter, seemingly, is a very common girl’s name. It’s a sweet custom to be honest, just not something we’d ever seen elsewhere!
Time to snore, another big day tomorrow.