< SWITCH ME >

In the 18th century, young British men from wealthy families used to embark on a Grand Tour - a trip through Europe to learn the roots and wonders of western society. By horse or carriage, they would spend months - or even years - admiring Notre Dame de Paris, crossing the Swiss Alps and walking around the ruins of ancient Rome. Ryan Johns, a 23 year-old grad student at Princeton University, decided in the summer of 2009 to imitate those English adventurers – in his own way. In 132 days, Ryan ran the 3700 km between Amsterdam and Athens.

Part I

For Ryan, the trip on foot followed logically from his two passions: running and architecture. After studying European buildings and art for three years, he wanted to see them in real life. When he found the towns on a map, he realised they were not that far from each other. He thought: "OK, so why not just run the whole thing?"

The day after graduation, May 22nd, Ryan flew to Amsterdam with a one-way ticket, a small backpack and a map with his route printed on a T-shirt, "so that I could easily explain to people what I was doing." He landed at Schiphol airport at noon and, instead of taking a taxi, he just started to run.

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Photo: Ryan Johns
Ryan on his way through France, obviously tired.

As if the physical effort wasn't enough, Ryan established two rules for his trip. First, he would never pay for a place to sleep – which meant he relied on random strangers to provide him with shelter in each town he ran to. He didn't establish this rule because of money but because he wanted to practise the languages he learned in school (French, Italian and some German) and to immerse himself in the culture as much as possible.

He landed at Schiphol airport at noon and, instead of taking a taxi, he just started to run.

Second, he would do everything on foot – if he went off course by car (to have dinner with friends or stay at someone's place) he would return to the exact same point and continue running. "I had to have a line from Amsterdam to Athens with no break, just on foot," Ryan explains with a big, amiable smile. His expressive lips and shiny teeth get all the attention when you look at him.

After spending three days in Amsterdam sleeping at a friend's apartment, Ryan went south towards Belgium where he enjoyed some waffles, fries and, of course, beer. However, the most important element in Ryan's diet was chocolate milk. "I always drink chocolate milk because it's delicious and also very good for your recovery after you run. It's got a balance of carbs, proteins, sugars and calcium," he says. The first thing he did every day, after arriving to a new town, was going straight to the supermarket, his stomach roaring. "I'd just have eyes for everything. I'd buy like a quarter of a watermelon, a big Gatorade, a big water, a chocolate milk, a box of cookies and some fruit and then I'd go outside and spend an hour just eating all of it. And I'd still be hungry for dinner!”

luggageryan
Photo: Ryan Johns
This is just about everything Ryan took with him on his way through Europe!

When talking about his journey, Ryan seems oblivious to the heroic dimension of it. He ran an average of 32 km a day – almost a daily marathon – carrying only the most indispensable things. "I had to be as light as possible, because I wanted to run in the mountains, get into bars, museums," Ryan says. The contents of his backpack: one change of T-shirt, one change of shorts, two pairs of socks, a light-weight jacket and trousers, a small emergency blanket, an ultra-light towel, a toothbrush (without its handle), two razor heads (only the blade) and a GPS cell phone. The electronic device was key for the trip, because he could look up maps, take pictures and call his mother, who worried about him. Nadine Johns was really upset when her son told her he was going to run across Europe in such a frugal way. She was fearful for his safety and the abuse the trip would mean to his scrawny body - it's hard to believe that this 5’9” skinny boy crossed Europe by himself running.

An Aching shin

She wasn't wrong. Three weeks in, when he was crossing the north of France, Ryan's shin started to hurt really badly. "The good thing about serious pain is that it makes you forget about other parts of your body that hurt. I was pretty sure I was going to get a stress fracture somewhere around my jaw from grinning too much over the past few weeks, so this pain in my shin has really helped give my cheeks some much needed recovery." Ryan wrote in his blog on June 8.

During the tour, he posted almost daily from an internet café or someone's computer – which appeased his mother. Nadine would check Ryan's blog every night. "His stories were so creative that I loved to read them. It became a habit, like a soap opera. I'd go to bed smiling about something he had accomplished and just thinking: 'Good for you, Ryan, you've done another night!'"

He ran an average of 32 km a day – almost a daily marathon.

One day, he walked on the side of a road in the rain for eight hours, still unable to run because of his aching shin. Cars pulled over continuously, asking if he needed a ride. "No, no, no. I have to walk, I have to go on foot," Ryan answered. He was in the middle of nowhere, 20 km in either direction from any town, with a little green trash bag covering him and his backpack, walking very slowly because of the pain. "People just thought I was crazy..." Ryan recalls.

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Photo: Ryan Johns
Well deserved rest.

Not everybody thought Ryan's adventure was insane. His track coach at Columbia, Jon Clemens, admits he was jealous. While Ryan was having a bad time because of the injury, Clemens gave him some advice by phone. "I was never worried," says Jon in an email. "I knew he would get tired but I also knew he was smart enough to rest when he needed to."

It wasn't the first time Clemens saw Ryan overcome an injury. "I don't think in my years of coaching that I've ever met someone as tough as Ryan. In one race that was 8 km long, a rock punched through the bottom of his shoe at 3.2 km into the race, puncturing the bottom of his foot. Instead of stopping, Ryan ran the remaining 5 km with the rock continuously jabbing in and out of his wound just so he could finish the race! I later took him to the hospital where he just walked in on his own and said he was fine! He's an animal!” Clemens writes in an email.

In college, you can choose from three things: athletics, academics and social life - but you can only take two.

Within the running team they had a theory. In college, you can choose from three things: athletics, academics and social life - but you can only take two. "I wouldn't say it's completely true, but I kind of chose academics and track," he says, smiling.

From posh Paris to the daunting Black Forest

In glamourous Paris, Ryan's outfit sometimes became an obstacle – especially when he went out with friends. "I spent most of the evening being the guy in the group who couldn't get in anywhere because he was wearing running clothes. 'This is not a bar for jogging,' the bouncers would say. It didn't help that I smelled pretty bad as well. Everyone felt bad for me, but I thought it was just funny to be 'that guy'," he wrote in his blog.

On his way to Switzerland, Ryan wanted to run through the Black Forest, in south-east Germany. He was excited about going camping in the middle of the woods, so he bought an accurate map of the trail, matches and some food (nectarines, a baguette and four bratwursts). When he reached the "camping area" – signalled in the map with a fire under a shelter - he found that the tiny wooden roof was 650 feet away from the fire spot. Ryan had eaten only a candy bar during the day. It was dark now and, what was worse, it began to pour with rain.

Hunger was making him impatient. He tried to start a fire using the map and a bunch of sticks, but the paper burned too fast. The wood got wet, so he went back under the roof and took any dry thing he found (leaves, cigarettes).

By midnight, he had run out of matches. Eventually, he headed to the closest road and stopped a car - to get a lighter. He tried again and again. "I was underneath the hut with some rescued wood, cold legs, tired eyes and raw bratwurst. It was 3:30 a.m. and my spirit was breaking." He tried to sleep, so that time would go by faster. "I slept maybe one hour, curled up in a ball, wrapped around of my blanket that didn’t do anything." He tried it all to make himself warmer, even putting himself into a trash bag.

"I saw my friend, the fire, grow, through bloodshot eyes… One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.This morning, I would eat at last."

At 5 a.m., he attempted to make a fire one last time. He spent an hour and a half picking silvers off the board and producing as much tinder as possible. "My hands were trembling and cold, and my legs were wrapped in my (useless) space blanket, but I was patient," he recalls in his blog. "After a couple flint strikes, a fire started to grow, and I wrapped my hands around it in desperation. 'Take my warmth, whatever you need...just live!' Man did it live. Tired, cold and covered in ash, I saw my friend grow, through bloodshot eyes… One of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. I threw my bratwursts on the grill and ignored the drizzling rain. This morning, I would eat at last."

 

To read about Ryan's adventures in Italy and his glorious (or not?) entry into Athens, you'll have to wait until the next issue comes out! 3 months... the ideal time to establish your own training schedule, isn't it?!

Teaser Photo: Justin Hession.

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