Losing sight but gaining insights

Finally I was back on India’s scary roads again; it was mainly the trucks that were the problem. They are overladen and under-powered, they can’t accelerate very fast which means they try and keep their momentum by not slowing down but just swerving to miss anything in their way. The other thing that I found very exasperating was the constant sounding of horns that rang through my ears all day. I am more familiar with the horn being used in an aggressive way back home, whereas in India it is used just to alert people that you are there, even on the back of the trucks it says ‘sound your horn’.

One of these trucks hurtled passed me and threw up a cloud of dust and stones. The whole town was based around slate processing and several tiny sharp fragments of the slate had gone into my eye. I couldn’t really see anything because when I opened my good eye, it made the other one move around and scratch more so it meant I couldn’t open either eye! I was aware that India doesn’t have an ambulance service and I couldn’t get a taxi as I wouldn’t have been able to fit all my things in it. It was very scary being in a foreign country, unable to speak the language and unable to see.

Luckily three guys from a local factory saw what had happened and came out to help me. I felt quite embarrassed but after 40 minutes of not being able to see, I felt really very scared and vulnerable as I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I began to go into shock and my knees started shaking involuntarily. This was probably down to low energy as well, as I was already 29 miles into that day’s 32 miles.

One of the guys sped off on his motorbike and came back with eye drops from a chemist.

After an hour of washing the eye with bottled water, followed by buckets of water, and then submerging my whole head in water and holding my eyes open, I finally managed to open my very sore, bloodshot eye. They kindly made me a bed on a pile of slate in the factory and forced me to rest while the eye drops soothed the scratching.

Throughout my journey through this fascinating country, I was faced with many challenges but much heartfelt warmth and kindness, in fact more than I have experienced in any other country, I will save that for my next blog…

 

An Indian Embrace

The people of India were fascinated by my crazy challenge. Admittedly I did stick out like a sore thumb in their country. Mile after mile I was stopped by locals eager to find out what on earth I was doing running with a baby buggy filled with my worldly belongings. It wasn’t long before national media caught up with me to find out from the horse’s mouth what was actually going on.

I did interview after interview and was featured on the front page of many newspapers. India’s biggest news channel caught up with me, did their own interview, took many pictures and followed me as I ran along the road to shoot their own coverage.

I wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen next. The news channel had featured their broadcast of me three times a day over the subsequent three days which meant 120 million people now knew what I was doing and they wanted to come and meet me. I had swarms of children running out of their schools, to pull me in to talk to them about my challenge, why I was doing it, for what charities I was doing it for and the hurdles I had faced.

I was also officially greeted by the elders of the village and they would place garlands of flowers around my neck, mark my face with powder made from turmeric, symbolising their traditional Hindu beliefs. They adorned me in turbans, their customary headwear and I was taken to visit their temples and was even invited to spend the night in one. As I approached each village the same thing would happen, as the next village didn’t want to be outdone by the previous.

This kind of attention didn’t come without its problems though. I found myself outside in the searing heat for hours longer than I wanted to be and my days were becoming longer and longer as I signed autographs and accepted their pleas to go to locals’ houses for tea.

This aside, it was truly very heart-warming; I was touched by the genuine hospitality that people showed towards me.

I didn’t camp in India as I was running at night and sleeping during the day.  It was therefore impossible to put up a tent amongst the millions of inhabitants and expect to actually get some sleep, so it meant me having to run from lodging to lodging. This played havoc with my miles and meant some days I was running more than 45 miles and others not so many in order to find somewhere to put my head down. It also took a few misguided hunts for hotels, only to find that ‘hotels’ were actually restaurants and the name they use for ‘hotel’ is actually ‘lodging’.

Remembering all the challenges India threw at me, the people truly made up for it and I will be forever grateful for how they welcomed and supported me through their country.

I eventually reached the city of Chennai on the east coast of India, having run a painful 1250km, ocean to ocean to get there, ready for my onward flight to Perth on Australia’s west coast. Another continent to conquer with its own crazy challenges.

 

People, parasites and parasols

I wasn’t sure if India might finish me before I finished her…

To say this leg of my journey was difficult was an understatement. I started on the beach in the world’s largest city, Mumbai, and fought my way out of the 13 million inhabitants, most of which seemed to be on the roads. At one cross roads I counted the waiting vehicles; there were 23 stretching across the width of the road. It was scary; running through traffic like this took so much concentration which left me mentally drained before I had a chance to tire physically. I counted between three to four squashed snakes on the road every day; I didn’t want the same fate as them, one of the reasons why camping in India wasn’t an option.

As I left the city and made my way into the more rural parts of India, I was eaten alive by the mosquitos, I counted 187 mosquito bites on me in 38 hours but it was the soaring temperatures that finally got the better of me. I ran over 350 miles of India successfully in temperatures between 31 and 36 degrees, only suffering with mild heatstroke. This I managed, and even took the opportunity to use my Blue Peter skills by adding shade to my buggy in the form of a parasol. However, it wasn’t long before the temperatures rose to an unbearable 38-40 degrees in the shade, it was relentless, extremely humid and it barely cooled down much at night. This was when I was faced with severe heat exhaustion. I felt sick, confused and very weak.

This set me back two days, I had no choice but to lie under a fan, with a sheet soaked in cold water on me to try and cool my body temperature down. At this point I took the decision to start running through the slightly cooler nights. It took some adjusting to but I literally had no choice.

My time in India was a week longer than the four weeks I had allowed to run across it. Following my two  days off with heat exhaustion, I ended up being stranded in the same village for a further three days as I wasn’t able to withdraw any money from the bank. I never carry that much cash on me because it is dangerous, so the morning I had planned to leave, I went to the bank to withdraw money to pay for my lodging only to find it was a public holiday! Having queued for 45 minutes only to be told they were limiting cash withdrawals to approximately £10 per person, I was none too pleased. This meant another day waiting. I returned the following day only to be faced with the bank being closed again as their workers were on strike, once again I had no choice but to stay put as I couldn’t pay for my room. I was itching to get going again and in the back of my mind I knew it was a race against time as I had a flight booked from Chennai to Perth that I couldn’t miss!

From Romania to Bulgaria

Completing the Romanian leg of the run on the shores of the River Danube, it took just a ten minute ferry crossing to reach Bulgaria.

Instantly I spotted a major change, the alphabet here was Cyrillic (aka cryptic!) the same lettering used in the Russian language that I’d seen throughout both Belarus and the Ukraine.

The other startling difference which took a few hours to confirm was the presence of far fewer stray dogs than in Romania, which was a pleasant surprise, being that Bulgaria is a known trouble spot.

Bulgaria was short but sweet, the smoothest and fastest running so far, and the first week that I clocked over 230 miles in seven days – my aim being 210 miles per week.

Not to say the running in Romania was easy, far from it, as it’s the first country where I hit real mountain sized climbs. Hours at a time of constant uphill running, and unlike cycling, there’s no reward for climbing by coasting back down – it’s just as demanding descending.

The truth is I find mountainous terrain the most inspiring environment to run through; even though it’s physically much more taxing I can’t help but grin and run faster!

I also realised I’d come a long, long way south since the arctic circle, as although January is still firmly ‘winter’ it was so warm in comparison that the shorts came back out for the first time in months which I’m sure bemused all and probably scared a few of the locals! Running across mountains generates a lot of heat, especially when pushing 50 per cent of your body weight in front of you!

I received a fantastic welcome on my first night in Bulgaria, like their Romanian neighbours, people here showed a genuine interest in what I was doing. I ate dinner at a restaurant and within minutes of arriving the landlord handed me a beer, it was from a local to welcome me to their country.

I ate two dinners that evening but at the end of the night the landlord wouldn’t let me pay! I was also taken in by two of his friends who had an outhouse which they offered me for the night – always a welcome treat when camping rough on the road.

The biggest mountains were saved for my last days in Bulgaria; to reach the border with Turkey I had a lot of seriously big hills!

A village welcome

Although in Romania, I constantly had to be on high alert for packs of wild dogs and dangerous drivers, the people more than made up for this.

Throughout Romania, especially in the smaller towns and villages, I found people to be the most open and inquisitive of all the countries I’d run through so far. They showed a genuine interest in why I was running, rather than just silently staring at me.

Romania was also the first country where I’ve been welcomed by a whole village. It felt like I was back on Dartmoor, it was a real farmers welcome! Coming on the tail of a non-existent Christmas and New Year’s Eve spent alone in a hostel, this was especially appreciated.

I turned up at the village just before dark and inquired about a meal in the local bar, they didn’t serve food and the nearest restaurant was 50km away!

However, even with serious language barriers they went out of their way to help. Next door to the restaurant was a shop, the landlord took me there, grabbed a whole loaf of bread, various different salad, salamis and cheese and asked the owner to prepare what turned out to be, the world’s largest toasted sandwich. This was perfect after camping and running in the Romanian winter all day! When I went to pay the lady explained the landlord owned both the pub and the shop and it was on the house!

I was relieved when one local, Daniel, turned up as he spoke near perfect English and he helped translate.

I rarely drink while on this run, but this night I indulged in a couple of beers with the friendly locals.

The landlord had said I could camp in the back yard, as when I showed them on the map where I was planning on camping that night, they all protested that it was far too dangerous with the wild dogs in that area!

Daniel invited me to stay with his family for the night, “We’ve been generous to you for the night and now we let you sleep in the cold in the tent? No, we must finish how we start, so tonight you are comfortable”, he said.

I slept very well that night and left with a spring in my step the next morning. Experiences like this really help to make things easier. My other option would have been lying awake all night in a tent, with a rumbling stomach and fighting off packs of wild dogs. Running 30 miles after no sleep and on an empty stomach is plain torture!