Hitchhiking – A Marathon Month

A marathon and damn long hitch hike. Travelling from Lofoten Islands on the northern tip of Norway, south east along the coast of Sweden, the entire length of Denmark, a passenger ferry to Germany, west into the Netherlands to Den Hague on the far west coast. A total distance of nearly 3000kms. I always travel self-sufficiently and carried a 20-25kg fully loaded backpack containing all my clothing, pots, pans, a stove, basic food supplies and a hammock for shelter, including a winter proof sleeping bag and thin inflatable sleeping mat.

The first ride of the trip was a relaxing 6-hour drive with a fellow worker from Sweden who I’d met while volunteering at a nature hostel for 6 weeks on Lofoten islands in Norway. Johan was headed back home to enjoy the famous Swedish midsummer celebrations with family, and agreed to drop me at a town called Kiruna in the mid north of Sweden.

We hit the road after 9pm and Johan pulled over on a desolate highway outside Kiruna, headed south, at 3am. I thanked Johan for the ride and attempted to find a place to hang my hammock, being so far above the equator the sun doesn’t set at this time of the year. It was a clear morning and the stars dimly twinkled through a dark blue sky. Pine trees crowded the empty highway, each step on the unpaved gravel sidewalk crunched in the silence. 100m from the road was a tiny pond where I unravelled the hammock. I hoped as I climbed in that the mosquito proof net would indeed prevent the pests finding a way inside.

The morning traffic I had anticipated failed to manifest as I stood on an empty road at 11am the next morning. The sky was now filled with thickening clouds and the rain started to sprinkle as my first ride for the day pulled in.

A handsome young Dutchman driving a blue van that looked like an old delivery truck had spotted me on the empty street and decided to take a U turn to pick me up. Robin, a young man roughly my age wound down the window and cautioned that he can only take me for two hours further down the road. The van had a full conversion well designed to comfortably live in. He gave me a moment to explore the interior. A fridge, stove top, drawers, and a sofa that folded out into a bed. A tinge of jealously grew over me as I explored the amenities. This was indeed luxurious travelling when compared to my pots and pans and a hammock. All the freedom and possibilities to go anywhere on four wheels. As wonderful as it seemed, for now at least, it was a hitch hiker’s life for me, full of unpredictable moments. The thrill of the ride, the interesting and helpful people along the way, many ups and downs, memories and friendships for a lifetime. 

As we drove and chatted it was clear that this was indeed one of those unique friendships that come from the random act of thumbing a ride. Robin had been to Australia a few years before living a similar lifestyle to the one I was currently living. He was thrilled to hear my relaxed, casual, monotone, Australian accent. The sound bringing a smile, and fond memories of the hipsters in the northern rivers he worked and lived with while down under. 

Considering that the rain was gaining momentum outside and the ride was an enjoyable one, Robin decided to drive further than the initial 2-hour agreement. 9 hours after U turning in Kiruna to pick me up on that desolate road, we pulled into a scenic resting station 5km off the main highway to set up my hammock with another family of pesky insects, while Robin spent the night in the van.

I hurried inside the camper in the morning to avoid the downpour. We combined ingredients and cooked a simple omelette brekkie and talked further of his travels around Australia and our mutual agreement on how easy it is to pick up girls with a foreign accent. Due to the bad weather Robin once again made my journey simpler by driving even further south, we finally departed ways just shy of Sundsvall, a mammoth 11 hours from Kiruna. 

It wasn’t long until a lovely middle aged man from Sudan invited me in his car. The introduction was an awkward one – He spoke fluent Swedish and minimal English. In fact, despite me having lived in Sweden for two winters, My knowledge of the Swedish language was very basic, and about on par as his English. So we traded what words we knew of each other’s dialect and in between fits of laughter tried to understand what the hell a Sudanese man was doing with a Tasmanian driving along the north east coast of Sweden. 

A couple of short rides later I was dropped at a busy gas station 5 minutes from Sundsvall, mid east Sweden. It was just after midday on Swedish mid-summer eve, the country’s biggest annual celebration. I grabbed a stray cardboard box discarded and headed out to the car park to make a sign. Midway through my masterpiece I’m interrupted by a tall, skinny, dorky looking man wielding a portable microphone. Lars, informs me he works for P4 Vasternorrland, a national radio station. He wants to interview me about my plans for midsummer. I gladly accept the invitation and begin to describe in my thickest Aussie accent, using as many impossible to translate slang words I can think of, informing the Swedish public of my epic 3000km adventure and plans to run a marathon in the Netherlands in three weeks’ time. As I’m rambling on, an encouraging smile and repetitive nods from Lars confirms to me that the radio jock is absolutely eating up this unexpected live air radio interview. Lars raps it up with a well-wishing sentence in Swedish and then takes a few photos of me to post on the internet, wearing a bug’s bunny singlet, holding a freshly painted sign next to my overflowing bag with hammock, sleeping bag, and ‘serial killer’ axe, and fire making bow, spewing out the side. He then offers to drive me into the city centre to continue the journey, in the hope I can make it to Are, to spend midsummer with my dog sledding colleagues. 

Buoyed by the P4 interview, even though it was approaching 6pm and rain was imminent, I felt certain of making it to Are even though it was still at least two hours’ drive away. The traffic was heavy and moving so slow I could almost keep a walking pace with it. And then the rain came, an almighty downpour. I stubbornly stood on the sidewalk, hoping for a sympathy ride, watching the busy traffic tip toe past as the contents of my bag gradually filled with water. As the rain increased I was simply too drenched to continue and took refuge in a nearby gas station.

I placed my bag under the heating and bought a packet of peanuts. The rain was far more enjoyable to watch from inside the gas station. I logged onto the Wi-Fi using my Lenovo tablet and discovered A ten-euro train ride at 3am to Åre station. I booked the ticket without hesitation and took a long hard drag of my marijuana filled vape pen and sat at the station waiting for the train, watching an old drunk man stumble about having grumbly conversations with about 15 different people, some of which didn’t even exist.

Six hours later I arrived at Are station and sat at Pressbyran on Swedish midsummer, drinking coffees and eating Kanelbullar, waiting for Joe, my 19-year-old former housemate, and his best mate Igor, to bring a suitable amount of alcohol to start the celebrations. The combination of straight whiskey and hitchhiking for a week with minimal sleep in a hammock took an immediate toll. The teenagers took an even more liberal approach to swigging the hard liquor and we were all ready for bed before dinner.

The following day, while Feeding the dogs, I became violently ill. My head was spinning and my body felt sore and fragile. I had caught an eye infection and my eye socket was red raw and swelled to the point of being unable to see out of it. I had lost weight and felt depleted of energy. I spent the next three days in bed and barely thought of the marathon I was intending to run in two weeks. Once I began to recover I called my mate Stuey who was living in Copenhagen. When hearing of my plans of hitching to the Netherlands, Stuey urged me to press on. Considering my deteriorating health, Stuey suggested I catch a train instead of hitch hiking to Copenhagen and spend a week on his sofa.

With just two weeks before the event I ran my first official training run. It was the first time in memory I’d ran further than 15km. I completed over 20km’s in approximately 90 minutes which I repeated every second day while staying at Stuey’s. My health improved dramatically, the fourth and final training run was a few km’s longer and completed in record time. We celebrated the achievement with a visit to free town Christiania to sample the local delicacies and drink way too much Tuborg. 

With confidence building it was time to pack my bags and hit the road for the Netherlands. I caught a train to a hitch point recommended on hitchwiki.com, 20 minutes south of Copenhagen. At the hitching spot I was picked up by a spiritedly middle aged woman on her way to her summer house in the south of Denmark. Next car, I jumped in with a travelling couple who were headed on vacation to the town close to the main ferry terminal to Germany. I was dropped at an almost walk-able footpath, 10 Kms short of the ferry terminal. I thanked the friendly couple and stood on the only stretch of road headed for the ferry. My frustration grew as I watched empty seats drive past. With palms pressed together I pleaded with the drivers to stop, there was no other possible direction to go, or any other possible destination than the German bound ferry and I was desperate to make it across the border and continue into Germany on that particular day. The unusually hot afternoon Danish sunshine even turned on me, directing its gaze firmly on my exposed body. 

Hitch hiking isn’t always smooth sailing. In fact, for the most part it’s a lot of waiting and frustration, especially if you’re on a time schedule. Waiting arm stretched for a person I’ve never met who may never arrive, pull the car over and let me in, drive for a while, chat, jump out and repeat the process for hundreds of kilometres it can absolutely take its toll. The more desolate the situation the less likely cars are to stop. Its not the time for self pity though, it rarely helps in any situation, especially when its a conscious decision to live this alternative lifestyle.

I was questioning whether I’d ever get a ride when finally, a wayward Asian man pulled over. The contents of the car spewed all over the street. pots, pans, fruit and veg, cutlery, Tupperware, newspaper, all spread on the tarmac in front of me. I quickly explained my desired location to him while fumbling to help gather the loose items. He wasn’t going to the ferry terminal but appeared in no rush to go somewhere else and agreed to take me there. I threw my bag along with the junk in the backseat and buckled up. Truly grateful for the short ten minutes ride but I couldn’t help but to fear for my life as we drifted into oncoming traffic as he attempted to pull over to the side of the road so that I could climb out. The man, unbeknownst to him, was parked abruptly on the wrong side of the road, facing directly into oncoming traffic. Rather than risk my life explaining why we needed to move the car, I jumped out quickly and thanked the man, watching as he disappeared around the bend in the left hand lane, there wasn’t many cars around and I hope for his sake it stayed that way. 

Once Safely across the border and onto German shores a van driven by two young Dutch girls stopped and enthusiastically instructed me to jump in. Rose, and Elsa, were headed home to the Netherlands, Groningen, just 5 or 6 hours shy of my final destination.

The two girls had just arrived back from vacation travelling around in Denmark. They were using the van to pick up sleeping bags that could be distributed to refugees in Bosnia. I listened intently as rose spoke of the harsh stories she had encountered while working there. She spoke of mostly middle aged men fleeing war torn countries and trekking on foot into Europe. These men walk in the summer and the winter Through the scorching heat and snowy cold for weeks aiming to seek a better life on European lands. It was these harsh deadly conditions that meant only the strongest would survive, woman and children had to be left behind simply because they wouldn’t survive the journey. These Chilling accounts of real life stories put my life and current adventure into humbling context. I completely admired Rose for her work and passion for her job. A true sense of satisfaction and humility was to be gained in such a line of work. An opportunity as well to put your troubles and fears aside and lend a helping hand to those of us on this planet who are dealt a cruel card in life simply by being born in a part of the world that’s crippled by war, famine, disease, and poverty. In a perfect world we would all be born equal with equal opportunity to thrive. I have been extremely lucky, simply to possess a passport with an attractive badge on the front. These people are not, and fight a daily battle of survival because of it. 

It was getting late as we crossed the border into the Netherlands. Elsa offered for me to crash at her place which I gladly accepted. Rolling in around midnight I fell fast asleep on my sleeping mat on the floor of Elsa’s bedroom. In the morning I thanked her for the hospitality and made my way to a local hitch hiking location, not far from Elsa’s apartment. No cars were stopping and rain gradually soaked my bag. I gave up hitching and found shelter and a couple of beers in an Irish pub that showed Australia versus England in the semi-final of the one-day world cup.

Australia batted first and lost wickets consecutively throughout the morning making it difficult viewing from the outset. Growing increasingly bored of the cricket I left the pub and walked to a nearby park where I could read my book, cook some dinner, and scout the area for a decent night’s sleep hidden from walkways or roads out of view of the public eye. 

I was reading ‘adventures of a lifetime’. A book about adrenaline packed extreme adventure travels, ultra-marathons, gnarly ridge crossings, deep water diving, cold water swimming and epic road trips. It was the perfect inspiration for what I was about to undertake. Pushing the body beyond its limits was what I was striving to achieve, as I sat reading, relaxed, cooking a simple rice and veggies mix on my stove top, the storm that had threatened all day finally unleashed from the sky. In a matter of seconds my bag, its contents, the half cooked food, my adventure book, and the clothes I wore, were completely drenched. I chucked everything under the nearest tree but It didn’t stop the torrential rain easily penetrating the meek leafy covering overhead. My only option was to quickly find a suitable tree, tie my hammock to it and jump straight in for the night.

By morning the rain had eased but everything was soaking wet. Thankfully, my bag has a protective waterproof covering, At the bottom of my bag were the most wearable clothes which I put on and trudged back to the same hitching spot I’d failed at a day earlier. A car eventually pulls in, allowing me in, to narrowly avoid a second saturation. A family man who worked at a tech company drove me further west to Utrecht Centrum just two hours from my final destination. I connected to Wi-Fi, for just 9 euros I could stay at a family friendly camping ground in den Haag. It seemed pretty close to where the marathon was due to start. The thought of a warm shower, and peace of mind that my stuff could potentially be dried, and my legs could be rested with just two days until the event, I decided it was best to push on and into den Haag that evening.

It was a wonderful campsite with hot showers and a cosy place tucked away in the trees to hang my hammock. I quizzed the receptionist on how far the marathon start location was and was amazed to see the Google search produce a result that showed a less than 2km walk from the campsite. It was as perfect as my preparation was going to get, I slung up my hammock and made way to the local supermarket to stock up on carbohydrates. The race was just two sleeps away and my body needed some minor pampering if it were to be dragged 42 Km’s consecutively on foot along a sandy beach.

My first dry night in the Netherlands was wonderful to wake up to. The first two days of travel since Stueys had been wet and wild but I felt satisfied knowing Id made it to den Haag. My crazy idea of travelling 3000kms to run a marathon out of a camping bag was about to become reality. My main concern now was rest, and getting in enough food to sustain my body. Most of all though was back and calf cramps I was experiencing from carrying a heavy load. The twisting motion of repetitively removing and putting back on my bag had caused spasms in my upper back. My calves were beginning to tighten from the three 20 K runs the week before. I had one day before the event to do absolutely nothing.

Race day. Some light stretching in the morning to loosen the body, a big bowl of porridge with peanut butter, and a refreshing shower I felt as ready as I’ll ever be. The race start time was scheduled for 16.00, at around 1pm I cooked a monstrous bowl of pasta, with cheese, lentils, and whatever I had left in my shopping bag, Packed my hammock and left the campsite.

I felt the eyes of the competitors shift in my direction as I wandered into the clubhouse to throw down my pack. Wearing heavy hiking boots, a large overloaded green travel pack, and another ruck sack huddling in front of me they all must have thought I was lost. About 60 competitors in total, a completely Dutch dominant field. I put my running kit on and headed for the start point. Race instructions too were delivered in Dutch. A nudge to a fellow competitor explaining my lack of the local language, and he confirmed what I already suspected. Just run and follow the signs. 

I began slow and steady, weary not to push myself too early. The unnaturally tedious approach created a sizeable gap between me and a bunch of four leaders as they drifted off through the windy tarmac and out of view. My initial snail’s pace couldn’t be maintained for long as I stubbornly stretched out my stride to a more natural rhythm, causing A similar gap to open up behind me. I was ten minutes in and I suddenly found myself running a competitive marathon in the west coast of the Netherlands completely on my own. 

I started to gain steady ground over the next few kilometres and got into a nice rhythm. I could see for miles, not a runner in front, or behind. My legs now were moving on instinct. My thoughts would come and go and then drift blissfully, up over the crashing waves and way off on the horizon to join the flat crystal ocean water. I was now in a meditative state. With no care about how far or how fast we’ve come. Just running, one step at a time. forever staying rooted in the moment. Using the breathe as an anchor for any thoughts or feelings that arise.

I reached the halfway mark and was told to turn back and complete the race in reverse. It felt much too soon to have run halfway. My legs felt fresh. Immediately I felt a surge of adrenaline. The fierce head wind that had plagued the first half of the journey now turned into a strong tail wind. The sand on my feet appeared to harden as the air cooled and tide drifted during the evening. I was sprinting along the beach. Buoyed by high fives along the way from my fellow competitors. Screams of encouragement from the drink stewards were shouted in Dutch which I acknowledged with an awkward smile, there was no time for small talk anyway I was charging towards the finish line with a spring in my step.

I kept the pace the entire length of the beach only breaking stride to snag a banana or refreshment from the dedicated stations. Off the sand, climbing up the small wooden stairs onto the tarmac road, and into the clubhouse just 30 seconds over my goal. Giving me a finishing time of 3.30.30

I euphorically chugged enormous amounts of coca cola and water and tried explaining to the race officials where I was from and how I’d got there. The veteran runners were impressed and told me the beach marathon is one of the toughest terrain to run 42km.

I limped into the clubrooms to watch the final set of the Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Federer. Fittingly, a ‘marathon’ final set going down to tie breaker in one of the most epic finishes the game has ever seen. The elation and relief on Novak’s face after his victory was easily relatable.

One of the friendly local runners dropped me at a nearby hostel. I was delegated top bunk on a three bed bunk. Arriving at 10pm to painfully dress my bed with sheets in the dark while others were fast asleep in the room snoring. I was quickly reminded why I don’t travel through hostels anymore. After finally organising all my things and having a shower I was ready for bed. The copious amounts of coke and water I’d consumed post marathon prevented me from falling asleep. I got up to relieve myself repeatedly throughout the night. Finally getting off to a comfortable sleep at around 3am. 

A truly random adventure and an achievement I’ll be forever proud of. I look forward to my next marathon where conditions may not be so harsh where I can train to crack the 3-hour barrier. Or perhaps I’ll turn my attention further, for the more gruelling ultra-marathon. where some competitors run 100kms. Whatever it is I’ve now got the fire burning for extreme competitions and random adventures in the future.

I checked out of the hostel and went back to the cheap campsite for a few days to recover. I rested my legs, and had a refreshing surf on the same beach I’d run the entire length of a few days earlier, and prepared for my next journey, a one thousand kilometre hitch hike to the Austrian Alps to volunteer at a yoga and meditation retreat. This two-week trip would take me south through Belgium, along the eastern border of France through the tiny country of Luxembourg, towards Lyon, into the ski village of Bruson in Switzerland, and finally heading east to Fernpass.

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