- Day 3 Gyor => Komarno (42km)
On Day 1, we took a bus to the starting point.
On Day 2, I cycled while Pippa jogged.
On Day 3, we … got a taxi!
Pippa’s 13km stint the previous day was a bit much so, rather than put her through the same routine again this morning on an empty stomach, we decided to part with 25 euros and dismantle the bike (which gave me a few heart palpitations), load it and our increasingly smelly bags into a taxi and zoom – in all safety – down the motorway which Google wanted us to explore on foot.
My plan was to complete the entire route from Bratislava to Budapest without a single gap along the way. However, annoyingly, there was a kilometre just before the boarder with Slovakia with absolutely no hard shoulder and lorries flying by at 100 kilometres per hour. I didn’t attempt (too much) to justify the risk to limbs and life to Pippa in order to complete this arbitrary challenge and accepted that common sense should prevail.
So, a bit grumpily, I walked back as far as I could along the sidewalk towards Hungary while Pippa fixed up the bike, turned around, and set back off for another big day.
My legs were feeling pretty refreshed actually though my left calk was niggling a little right from the start. I was excited enough to get going anyway that I managed, for the first time of the trip so far, a kilometre in under 5 minutes/km. I quickly settled back into a slower pace more appropriate for the distance and we re-joined the flood levée.
On the one hand, running along the levée, was amazing: straight forward (it’s hard to take a wrong turn, even though we did sometimes manage), calm (we didn’t see a cyclist all day and only maybe 6 humans in the entire day) and flat. Like, really really really stupidly flat. My watch measured 10m elevation gain in 41km: this must be the flattest place on Earth!
The repetition of the (admittedly beautiful) landscape meant I found it easier to break the day down into 5km chunks to keep myself going: “make it to 10km, then can take a break. Make it to 15km, then another one etc…” Much easier mentally than “only 36km to go on tired legs…”
After a couple of days alongside the braiding parts of the river, we were now back to the main river and wow is it WIDE. And still no one in sight. It was so quiet actually that, mid run, I even managed to hear a tiny screw fall off Pippa’s bike and, amongst the gravel, find it. I was pretty chuffed with myself.
Though humans were conspicuous in their absence, there was at least a little bit of fauna to entertain us: a deer here and there, a hare running off in the distance or birds making their nests in the tall grass along the levée.
We kept going, slowly but surely. My top went off, my top went back on, it went off etc in sync with the passing clouds. The wind continued, gently pushing us from behind.
However, after a drink stop around 30km, things started getting a little tougher. This is usually the marker around when marathons become hard. The left calf was clearly swelling pretty rapidly so I dropped the pace a little further and was barely running 6-minute kilometres.
Pippa knew not to bug me too much now as, as per marathons, I was in “the zone”. Not “the good zone”, but the “bugger off and please leave me and my misery alone zone”.
To be fair, Pippa was struggling too, though remaining cheerful, as the levée path had become very gravely and moving a 20+kg bike along loose gravel is a much different equation to tarmac! That said, an unexpected kilometre along compacted sand gave her a carnal lust for gravel I don’t think she knew she had within her.
After 35km, I was convinced we’d stumbled into a parallel world where time stood still. Every meter covered felt like ten. Surely it had been 500m since I last checked my watch? 100m. Shoot me (actually, don’t).
The good news was that we only had about 3km to go: from the levée, it was straight along a road to the finish.
What could go wrong?
Maybe, hypothetically, the European Commission might have granted funding to build a huge bridge between the two countries which would mean said-pathway would be closed, and we would have to do a 3km detour through fields of potatoes? Well, that’s one option we certainly hadn’t foreseen… but the big TILOS (‘no entry’) sign was very clear and, despite my best desperate attempts, the fence was really quite impenetrable.
This meant we were back on the main road for a bit too. Although my left leg was struggling, there’s nothing quite like running for your life to make you run a little faster, so we caught up a bit of time at this point.
After about 40km, it was clear that nothing could happen to add more distance: I was cheering up. Nothing, however, could cheer me up more than what was awaiting me at the hotel: 1) my watch cable (YES! Thanks Mum & Dad!) and 2) a hot bath.
- Day 4 Komarno => Esztergom (58km)
Today was the Big One. 58 bloody kilometres. And it started with me … shaving my left leg. Standard.
We’d bought some physio tape to help support the Achilles heel and calf and there was no way I was sticking it straight to my leg hair. I’ve suffered way too much in the past.
Komarno is a nice little city which we got to see a bit of in the morning: it has an odd peculiarity that half of it, named Komarno, is in Slovakia while half of it, named Komarom, is in Hungary. It was originally one city on both banks of the Danube but ended up split in two after World War One and the Treaty of Trianon.
The Schengen Treaty means that it’s no problem to hop from one town and country to another, but I can only imagine how much of a pain in the arse it must have been in the early days of Czechoslovakia!
Anyway, the run. Clearly, I was a little bit worried as we set off. 58 kilometres was a stupid distance and even more so when your left Achilles was twice the size it should be.
However, one lesson that this trip taught me was that, with reasonable planning and sufficient mental juggling, tough challenges can be overcome. The solution was simple: barely lift my legs and shuffle. Slowly. The way I saw this, this remained in the “headache” levels of pain category, not “migraine”, and not “aneurysm rupture” either. So I just had to make sure it stayed like this ‘til the end.
Amusingly, at the end of the day, my quads and hamstrings would actually feel pretty refreshed such was the level of slow shuffling. I set off at a ridiculously slow pace of 6.20min/km (though that still felt like race pace at times) and aimed to never break sweat throughout the day, in a literal sense. Figuratively, I broke a sweat and a tendon probably but, literally, my aim was to keep my heartbeat as low as possible by expending as little energy as possible. Just move. But don’t run.
Mentally, I tried to manage my expectations by telling myself I’d run/shuffle for 9, then walk for 1, then run/shuffle for 8, then 2 etc. As it happened, I never ended up walking, but it’s a bit like in marathons: break it down into achievable little tasks, and the big beast becomes feasible. A lesson for everyday life.
We’d initially planned on running on the south side of the river, but the bike-hire lady told us to go north to avoid the busy roads. We couldn’t find an official route so used Google Maps and satellite pictures which seemed to suggest a levée of sorts for the majority of the journey. Pippa was worried that this would result in 50km of gravel, but it was a surprisingly lenient journey (only 10km of gravel!).
We counted our lucky blessings too with the weather: again, broken cloud and persistent wind from behind.
One big change was that we finally weren’t alone on our journey! Perhaps because it was a bank holiday, perhaps because we were nearer a bigger town, but there were humans on the levée! Humans!
There was also a big Roman ruin just outside Komarno which we briefly looked at but, aware of the hours ahead of us, we didn’t spend too much time there.
I continued to perfect my Forrest Gump shuffle as we went in and out of various villages, where a continuous Mexican wave of dogs greeted us from their gardens: really, it’s incredible how much they love their dogs near the Slovak-Hungarian border!
As we progressed, we faced our daily dilemma regarding water: how much do you drink, and when. We came to realise that drinking water on seriously long distances is a little bit like managing your savings: there’s no point having any left when you’re dead but, all the same, it’s a little foolish to spend it all at the start. So, using our best estimates, we sipped away when required, and Pippa otherwise carried the gazillion litres along.
I thought I’d be struggling but, tentatively, it seemed to be going ok. After around 15km, we came across a child swing and took a long break: if we were to get through the day, breaks would be needed. Marathons should have breaks, it’d make them much easier!
Talking of breaks, we stopped for lunch around 28km along the Danube. We lucked out with what must have been the best spot of the entire day: a quiet, secluded, sunny, out-of-the-wind beach with crystal clear and calm water which was more like what you’d expect alongside a freshwater lake, not a major continental river. I’ve had worse lunches. Getting going again was harder!
Rehydrating on Kofola, the Slovakian equivalent of CokeThe rest of the day was mostly along the Danube which kept getting wider, and wider and WIDER, with the odd bit along main roads which remained as terrifying as previous days.
The only other challenge along the levées were the 5cm high cattle gates. After about 40km, each one felt like a proper steeple; it was pathetic!
That said, it’s funny how the mind works: on the second day, after just 26km, my body was dying as I knew I only had a few kilometres to go. Here, after almost a full marathon, I felt surprisingly fine (well, “fine”) as I’d set my initial expectations of mileage so high for the day. Mind over body and all that.
What else? We went past a few cool houses, including one which was deliberately built slanted (see picture) and some vast fields which, in the wind, blew tons of dust back into our faces.
Around the 40km mark, we started to be able to see Esztergom’s basilica in the far far distance: as a full-out non-religious person, I hold little awe for religious buildings but the setting for this huge basilica is really quite breath-taking, with its imposing figure overlooking the Danube from the top of a hill.
The town used to be the Hungarian Empire’s Capital and this really does do it justice: out of this world!
Anyway, though we could see it getting bigger and bigger, we weren’t in Esztergom yet. Straight line, easy. Except. Except… we hadn’t planned for the Smurfit Kappa Fucking Factory. At 48km, our beautifully straight path came to a very clear ‘Smurfing’ end, once again established by a large TILOS sign, though they gracefully also put the English translation beneath it to be sure no one entered their grounds.
To make it worse, there were really no easy ways around it, bar an extra 5 kilometres retracing our steps and going up a long steep path (which was seemingly the local wild dump) in the opposite directions.
The backstreets of the Slovakian city across the Danube aren’t worth mentioning much so, a little bit later than planned, we were crossing the river again and were back in Hungary and ready to collapse. Easy peasy.
For all the media reports of Hungary setting up barbed wire all along their borders, it couldn’t have been easier. I’m well aware that the barbed wire actually is along the southern border, though I’d have thought that they’d be equally keen to keep liberals Europhile northern Europeans out too (booboom, that’s my political joke done).