< SWITCH ME >

A trip from Amsterdam to Athens: Sounds like a very academic holiday; like uncountable museums, relaxing with café latte and like a couple of hours waiting for late trains... But this is not quite Ryan’s style of travelling and instead of choosing comfort and culture, he opted for extraordinary physical challenges and chocolate milk and decided to run the whole stretch! Last issue we accompanied Ryan on the first part of his trip, from Holland to the Black Forest in Germany. A marathon per day. 132 days and 4 pairs of shoes later... Read on to find out whether Ryan still had the strength to climb up the steps to the Acropolis.

There was no time to waste; he still had 55 miles to run that day to get to Schaffhausen, Switzerland. He arrived there in the evening, the sky already dark, "wiped out and bleary eyed, unshaven and covered in ash and the smell of campfire," Ryan wrote. "I was pretty sure that I couldn't make another night outside, so I started my general process of wandering around hoping that a miracle would happen."

Swiss neighbours did not turn out to be very welcoming. After some fruitless encounters, Ryan ended up at Cross Box, a backpackers bar. He ordered a beer and struck up a conversation with the bartender. Although she herself couldn't help Ryan, she found two young men who offered him shelter. After sharing a drink and discussing some common interests in music, they went home. "I took a shower and slept for a solid 10 hours. It was amazing. I love bed."

Ryan_and_chocolate_milk
Photo: Ryan Johns
The one thing that kept him going - chocolate milk!

For the first 80 nights (in Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland and the north of Italy) Ryan always found a bed to sleep in. Couchsurfing.com became a powerful ally in big cities, but when he ended up in smaller villages, it was all about serendipity. It wasn't until he got to the south of Italy, by mid August, that he would eventually have to sleep outdoors.

Ryan's natural ability to meet new people and his unshakeable optimism surely played a major part in helping him keep his rule of never paying for accommodation. In his junior year, his mother moved him to a new high school in Olympia, Washington. "Most kids hate to move at that age," Nadine recalls. "Ryan just took the first week and every time he went down the hallway he'd introduce himself to everyone: 'Hi, my name is Ryan Johns' and they looked at him like 'this kid is crazy!'" That year, Ryan was elected class president. He kept the position until he graduated.

unforgettable Encounters

Ryan often thinks about the amount of people he met in 132 days. "It was a weird way of living. Every day I'd wake up, say goodbye to the person I'd just met and I'd run 20 miles to another town that I had never seen before." Yet some relationships turned out to be surprisingly strong. Ryan was enjoying an evening drink in Gioia del Colle, Apulia, when suddenly his host for the night cried off. Marco and Gianluca, two Italian youngsters he had just met, offered to drive him around and try to find some place for him to stay. The ride was unsuccessful and the two Italians reclined their seats and said "Good night."

"It was a weird way of living. Every day I'd wake up, say goodbye to the person I just met and I'd run 20 miles to another town I had never seen before."

"What are you guys doing?" Ryan asked.
"Going to sleep."
"Why don't you go to sleep in your beds and leave me in the car?"
"We feel bad if you have to sleep alone in the car."
"But... you have to work tomorrow morning. If you sleep in the car as well it will be more uncomfortable for all of us."
"Don't worry about it."

tanned_Ryan
Photo: Ryan Johns
Southern Europe has definitely a favourable effect on Ryan's tan.

Ryan said goodbye to Italy on September 14th. In Brindisi, he took a ferry to Igoumenitsa, in the north of Greece. He was so tired that he slept almost the whole ride long. After more than two months in Europe, his hair had gone blonder and his skin had become the color of a caffè latte. As a consequence of running without a T-shirt under the Mediterranean sun, only the backpack on his shoulders, two white stripes crossed his back. The marks are still visible on Ryan's skin, he confesses, slightly ashamed.

Running had for Ryan no particular relationship with being environmentally friendly. "The environmental lesson of my run is not the efficiency of human travel, but rather my own personal ability to see first hand the scale of the world," he wrote on his blog. "Seeing where cities end and where mountains begin, I have developed a greater understanding of how small our world actually is. This place really is like a "Spaceship Earth." Everything we make and throw away doesn't have very far to go. The grime of Milan is only a few runs away from the mountains and crystal waters of the Alps. For me, seeing that everything REALLY is connected is one of the greatest lessons of this trip."

Greece, finally

The switch in country meant a switch in mood too: "Greece was a big shock for me. In the countries I passed before, I knew a little bit of the language or everyone spoke English, but in Greece it was so difficult for me to get by," he recalls. He even used an online translator to create a short explanatory note in Greek about his trip, but it wasn’t really helpful; apparently the translation made no sense.

"This place really is like a 'Spaceship Earth'. For me, seeing that everything REALLY is connected is one of the greatest lessons of this trip."

Athens was near and he could feel it; that made Ryan impatient, anxious, unable to enjoy the last part of the trip. Tiredness was taking its toll, too. On day 118 of his tour, he wrote: "There was nothing between me and Metsovo except more kilometers, and the only way I would eat was if I got there. If I walked I would have to wait longer to eat, but my legs were too dead to run... and I was too hungry to run. Oh, I felt terrible... but there was bottles of chocolate milk waiting for me in Metsovo."

Ryan always thought his arrival to Athens would be epic, but it was not so at all. "It was the longest day I had ever done. I ran 80 km (50 miles). 2 marathons. In one day," Ryan recalls. He woke up at Oropos and headed towards the town of Marathon, the classic route that gave the race its name. After having lunch at the town and visiting the museum, Ryan started his last run of the adventure: the authentic Marathon.

ryan_ancient
Photo: Ryan Johns
An uplifting feeling: Running in the ancient stadium of Kalimarmaro.

"4:00 PM. 29 September 2009. On the mark. Get set. Go," Ryan wrote. Although he has run the distance of a marathon hundreds of times, Ryan has never raced an official one. It's difficult because you have to be mentally very strong and the feeling when crossing the finish line is always unsatisfying. "It's a good reward if you ran well but the problem with running is that you already set your next goal. So you never really finish."

The trail from Marathon to Athens was hell. There were cars everywhere, dead dogs, Ryan had to jump up onto the side of the road to avoid getting clipped by car mirrors. He was in pain, struggling to manage every step. "Would that dude who ran from the battle be such a wuss?!" Ryan thought.

hitting the wall

But when he reached mile 20, he hit what many runners call "the wall," that crucial moment when the body says it can't move anymore, and finishing the course is just down to the strength of the mind. He was at the gate of Athens and it was so crowded that he had to stop. "My legs were just like empty, they didn't want to work anymore," he says. There was no special celebration. No big crowd of people waiting for him. "To me it was this really big accomplishment, but no one knew here what I had done," he recalls without losing the smile on his face.

So he did exactly the same thing he had been doing for 131 days. "I bought both a carton and a bottle of chocolate milk and sat down on some steps to drink them. I poured out the first sip onto the ground in libation and drank the remainder with greedy thirst. Delicious."

Afterwards, he walked, slowly and very painfully, towards the Acropolis.

 

Teaser Photo: Ryan Johns

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