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5 – Running With A Rhythm

“Wolves have been spotted around this area,” the sign reads. Well, isn’t that just frigging great. “There is no cause for alarm. They are conflict-avoidant creatures,” the sign continues.

Well, at least the wolves and I have something in common.

It took a while of marching to get to this sign, tucked in between more bushels of purple heather. I woke up 30kilometers north of it, in my cozy little hunting stand. The sun was beginning to rise, and a deer fed on the grass, almost invisible within the thick fog still resting on the field. I pack up, and wander out of town past a chicken factory. The birds cluck and chirp inside, and I quickly hurry on, not wanting to be misunderstood as a PETA activist lurking around the chicken coop. Not that I wouldn’t do that – but there’s only room for one adventure at a time.

I have a new set schedule. My aim is to run before it gets hot. The first three hours of the day are also always the easiest to turn into a scuttle-run. My legs are still fresh, and my brain is still too sleepy to complain. Perfect combination. After that first burst of energy wears off, I march through the midday heat, listening to my new audiobook “The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin. This place is so boring.

All I see is corn.

The midday sun makes each and every square inch of shade look tempting. I just want to nap, but then I realize that there’s a small stream close by. Just 3km down where I’m going. I could finally wash again. I do like sharing company with myself, but not the same odor cloud.

After a brief detour through the entire town (two guys point me into the wrong direction… and gift me a superfluous 1.5km!) I spot the stream. It’s icy cold, and I can even wash my grey long sleeve in it, drying it while I nap. I also try to charge my phone. Unfortunately, the cable and the powerbank are fighting out some kind of feud, and by the time I leave the place an hour later, it’s charged a full 20%. “You better get your sh*t together, or I’m replacing you,” I tell them both. They don’t seem care, leaving me wandering through the woods, holding power bank, cable and phone out on my hands as if on a silver platter.

I hope the bounce of my steps won’t disturb the fragile connection needed to give me my map/phone/entertainment source/writing pad/connection to the out world back.

But if that’s the extent of my problems? Eh. I can deal with that.

Once the heat of the midday sun subsides around 5PM, I begin to run again. At kilometer 40, I can feel myself crashing. I will myself to push past the pain, the need to rest, to stop, just a little further. “You trained to run 20km. And first, that hurt. Then it became easier, and you trained for 30km. Those hurt, too,” I tell myself. The first 30km had felt unattainable the first few times I tried to tap them. “Now you’re running/walking for 40-50km, with 10kg on your back. And it hurts. But that’s alright. It’s how you build endurance. Your body adapts.”

And this pain, too, shall pass.

This run was absolutely not what I had planned to do this year. But honestly, I don’t think 2020 has gone to plan for any of us – unless this was the year you had formed the crazy wild idea to finally play ALL the computer games, read ALL the books or maybe just lie in bed, locked into your room. Which also sounds like a good plan.

But that hadn’t been my plan.

Originally, I wanted to cycle again. Red may have been (still is) desiring a few more repairs before we hit the road again, but all in all, the idea was pretty set: Berlin to Istanbul. I had the route planned, the bags essentially packed and was just waiting for the right moment to tell my boss I would once more be off on my way for a month, when…

Well, we all know what happened.

Covid-19 hit us all in our own ways. Some lost jobs. Some went and moved in with a person they’d just begun dating. I had to rush experiments, terrified they would close the lab down before I could finish the project I had been building up for the past 3 months. I would cycle to work through an eerily quiet Berlin, run into the lab, work as quickly as I could and pray that the experiments would work.

Maybe it was the rush and stress and panic of those weeks of lockdown work. Maybe my experiments are fundamentally flawed (my supervisor says they’re not.) The result was the same:

The experiments didn’t work, and I spent most of lockdown worrying about whether I would ever finish my PhD. And in order not to be sucked into the spiral of panic, I held on to any sort of rhythm that I could still form in lockdown life. I began running.

A lot.

I think most people went a little nuts during lockdown. I was no exception.

And all I could dream of was freedom. What I would do, once we would be let out of our little boxes again. I didn’t dare think the country borders would open again this summer. And even if they did, going on the bike trip I had planned would have been irresponsible, given the circumstances. So as I ran first 5km, then 8km, then 10, 16, 21, 30km around my local neighborhood, I began to scheme up new ideas.

Any new adventure would have take take place inside Germany. It would have to be as socially distant as possible – so another solo adventure. “How about from Lowest to Highest by bike?” I asked my brother. “But you can’t take your bike all the way up, keep that in mind,” he replied.

Mmh.

On the first weekend back in May, when we were finally, finally allowed back outside, I went through a run through the woods. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. I felt so grateful to be allowed back out, that I didn’t even care (much) about the vertical meters coming at me. “Dang, I’d love to do more of this,” I thought. Just run. Just enjoy the freedom I had taken so much for granted pre-lockdown.

And that’s how the idea of an Ultrarun from the Lowest to the Highest point of Germany was born.

And just like that, he takes my backpack. And my phone.

But let’s puzzle out how I got here in the first place.

The first few kilometers of the morning fell easily, once I started running. Walking hurt. The first few kilometers always do. My left hip and knee, as well as my right side foot would really like me to drop out of the race by now. My brain is still undecided, going back and forth between “QUIT. RIGHT. NOW.” and “Dang, this is actually great, we’re outside, so many birds, so many thoughts to think, hey, have I shown you those memories of your old regrets yet, no, not since an hour ago, well, here you go again…..!”

But then there’s a town, a café, some cake and coffee and this run/walk isn’t so bad anymore. The only trouble is that once you’re in the zone, moving ahead as if in trance, you should not, under any circumstances, sit down.

Which my brain keeps convincing me to do. The coffee, and opportunity to charge my phone are worth it, though.

The battery of my phone, power bank and watch are almost entirely depleted. I’m going to need a place to stay tonight to recharge everything. Denis is on it straight away, hunting for little pensions on google maps that were on my way. “I found one in 35km distance from you, the other 42km away.” – “Gimme the one further away.” If there’s a bed waiting, it doesn’t matter how hard I have to push myself to get there. I can stumble directly into the fluffy pillows and clean sheets, and nothing will matter anymore. I remember how nice it was to do that at the Anti-Fascist wood camp.

“I found a place, but I don’t think it’s going to be as nice as the anti-fascist wood camp.”

Oh well.

I’m excited to move ahead quickly, with a bed and all waiting for me at the end of the day. Also, the battery of my phone is so low, that I’m not sure I’ll make it there in the first place. I have to put the phone in battery save mode, and spend the entire day walking with just the birds’ chirping and my own thoughts for company. And when you’re walking, and everything hurts and your brain wants you to sit, or quit, just stop, it uses some pretty terrible tricks to get you to succumb.

Not only are you in physical pain. Your brain also takes you to some pretty terrible places to get you to quit.

Just sort those thoughts.

Accept them.

They have a reason to exist, but they’re not a reason to quit.

Just one more kilometer.

I check my phone. Alright, so maybe 20 more kilometers.

That’s when I see him. His bike and gear scream “LONG DISTANCE TRAVELER”. So I walk past with a smile, and ask: “Hey! Where are you headed?”

And that’s how I meet Roy.

“I’ve wanted to do a long-distance trip on my bike ever since I met this man at the Familia Sagrada in Barcelona,” Roy tells me excitedly. “While my mom was being a tourist, staring at the admittedly quite pretty church, I was look then other way: at a man with a bike laden with more bags than I have now, and a sign strapped to the back “TO THAILAND”. I asked him about it – and once I realized he was planning to cycle all the way to Thailand, I wanted to something like this, too.” He grins at me. “It’s such a beautiful, natural way to travel. All powered by my own body. And my bike, of course.”

Ah yes, the joys of long-distance travel. Distances suddenly acquire meaning.

We basically hit it off straight from the start, him offering me a nut bar only a few sentences into the conversation. I don’t think there’s a better way to make friends with a starving thru-hiker, I think as I greedily gulp the thing down in just a few bites. “So where are you headed?” I ask. “Arendsee!” He replies, and I laugh in disbelief. I haven’t run much outside of Berlin – only once from Wittenberge to Arendsee. What a coincidence.

“This is so nice, to finally meet someone on the road to talk to about traveling!” We both agree. So far, neither of us has been approached much, or been accompanied or been interacting with the locals. Everyone just stares or nods silently from afar, maybe tosses a shy and/or gruff hello your way, but conversation is hard to get. I’m telling you, Germans were social-distancing before it was cool.

“I still have 20km to go today, my phone is about to die, and I can’t find my inn without it… but I really enjoy chatting with you,” I tell him after a while. “Wanna come with?” His face lights up. “Sure!” I grin at him. Finally. Company. And he’s on a bike. Wait….

“Would you mind taking my backpack, and I’ll just run alongside till the next town?” I ask, thrilled at my own idea. “Sure, no problem!”

We strap my backpack to the large mountain of bags on his back wheel.

“Yeah… I packed too much. A ukulele. A drone I never used. A frigging chessboard! What the heck was I thinking!” He laughs.

I giggle along. “And I’m going back and forth on whether I need that extra Tshirt. There’s always too much stuff. What’s your name, by the way?” – “Roy,” he replies, swings himself on his bike, and we head on together.

I feel as light as a feather. Running is suddenly so easy. “You’re a gift!” I tell him. He laughs at my relief to get the pack off my back. I’m not sure this still counts as a self-supported run now, but 10km of 1000? Eh. Who cares. I just want to run normally again.

We talk about long-distance traveling. I tell him (of course I do) about my ride to the Nordkapp. We talk motivation. “Last time, it was … easier, in a way,” I tell him. “It was after a breakup, and I needed to do something with that… force of energy that comes with a loss.” He nods, understanding. “This time is so different!” I laugh. “I haven’t been this happy in a long, long time, and yet, here I am, out on the road again, wondering why the heck I’m not at home if I’m so god damn happy there.” I’m quiet for a moment, as he cycles alongside me, my breathing hard. Damn, it’s nice to run. “Theres definitely more ego involved this time. Last time, I didn’t know what I could do. This time, I want to see if I can do something as hard again. And then there’s just the love of being in a situation where all you can think: the heck did I get myself into again?!” I laugh. It feels good to know what I’m made of. It’s why I’m back here, on the road.

“One day, I’m going to travel all along the Mediterranean coast with my bike,” Roy confides in me.

It’s a brilliant plan. I hope he really does it one day. He shows me how to unearth potatoes from the fields around us. Digging with his bare hands in the dirt, his smile is as wide and bright as that of a child. “It’s like Christmas!” He exclaims, as his hands unearth the sweet, golden nuggets from the ground.

Finally, we reach the town where we had agreed to part ways again. Instead of it taking me two hours to get here, we did the entire thing in just 45min. I get us both Fanta from a gas station, trying to pass on my obsession. “Behold!” I exclaim. “The stuff of legends, drink of Gods!”

Don’t ask me what’s happening with Fanta and me. I normally am NOT this excited about lemonade.

It’s time to part ways. Roy’s charged my phone while we were traveling, so I can listen to music or audiobooks on the last 10KM ahead. “Well…. you always meet twice in life,” he says. “Yes,” I agree. “And I shall see you when I see you,” I add. He chuckles.

Then we head off, each back to our own adventure.