Crossing Belarus

In my last post I spoke about crossing the border into Belarus and the challenges I faced due to a lack of maps, limited language skills and cultural differences. Little did I know that that was just the beginning…

How on earth had I ended up having to run almost four marathons in less than two  days in order to avoid having to pay large fines and waiting to see if I’d be imprisoned or deported?

I had planned to exit Belarus early on the Friday, a day and a half before my visa expired at midnight on the Saturday. I had requested an eight day visa although I only needed seven days to cross the country. It seemed prudent to have a day or two extra, in case of unforeseen delays.

Thank goodness I added the extra day or instead of writing this blog I may well have been sat in a prison cell which would’ve spelt the end of the world run attempt.

Unfortunately during this week I experienced my first bout of food poisoning so I made the correct decision to take the day off with bed rest. This allowed me to continue running the following three days, and I was perfectly confident of leaving Belarus 12 hours early.

As you can guess this didn’t happen. I only made it to the border a mere 90 minutes before my visa expired!

The Thursday turned out to be a complete waste of a day, with 11 of the 29 miles I planned to cover along a road that no longer exists! I had no choice but to double back on myself, continued on the main road I had left many miles earlier and set up camp in the dark. Needless to say, my heart sank when I thought about what was to come the following day.

I had originally planned to cover 61 miles over the next two days, setting forth from the town of Ivanvitchy, however, I was now a full 23 miles from there! I also didn’t trust the route so had no choice but to stick to the main road, meaning a total of 95 miles in two days!

I’ve completed 50 mile runs many times before but not pushing a buggy and certainly not two days in a row! I knew I could do it – with fresh legs – certainly, but it’d be tough, on legs pre-fatigued with over 3000 miles of running. It’s the first time I’ve ever faced an ultra-endurance run with a well-founded niggling doubt in my head, and it was unnerving.

The problem wasn’t really the distance alone; 36 hours earlier I was still lying in bed crippled by food poisoning. The real concerning factor however was the rapid and persistent deterioration in the weather. From Friday morning the winds rapidly grew in strength seemingly in direct disproportion to that of my legs. They were heavy, slow and unresponsive; a week of not eating anywhere near enough will do that to your legs, no matter how hard you tell them to run.

By lunchtime visibility was terrible as snow showers became heavier then constant. I was barely able to keep above 5kmph as the wheels of my buggy fought the ice and snow piled in front. It’s incredibly dispiriting to put in inordinate amounts of energy for seemingly negligent gains in speed, fighting headwinds and the resistance on the wheels. But I couldn’t afford to succumb to worry or doubts if I intend to make the finish line in time.

Friday was a 12 hour slog, 42 miles to a hotel. It was no weather for camping and I wanted to hit the pillow for a few hours and then get back on the road.

At £30 a night instead of the £11 average throughout Belarus, the hotel was far nicer than every other place I’d stayed. Just a shame I couldn’t make the most of it since I planned at rising at 5.30am to leave at 6am.

Not only was the hotel nice and modern there were a bunch of guys mainly German, Hungarian and a Belarusian who all spoke English. They were staying there while rebuilding the local power station.

Spotting my buggy and the world run signs they asked to pose for photos and invited me to join them for dinner.

Before bed they ordered me a pizza. The English speaking company was most welcome but hesitantly I dragged myself to bed around midnight for my five hours of shut eye before heading back out into the blizzard.

When I woke, there was I thought, about 55 miles left to the border and less than 27 hours on my visa. I estimated it would take 15 hours.

A half marathon complete just after sunrise wasn’t too bad a start to the day, then the pain started. First case of shin splints I’ve had since I began running and I couldn’t place my left foot on the floor without clenching my teeth.

With over 35 miles to go I had to ignore the pain and the intense cold and keep moving.

After 10 hours I was desperate for a hot meal or at least a caffeine fix. I had to stop. Spotting a bus shelter I took out my stove and began heating some water for a brew. It was more for morale than warmth, I needed hydration and caffeine. It was getting dark again and there was still 18 miles to go!

Pre and post tea was literally night and day but the difference in my step was very noticeable. You can only imagine my annoyance when less than five minutes running further down the road I ran past a café!

If I’d had the energy, I’d have been infuriated. As night fell, so did the temperatures and the blizzard returned.

The next four and a half hours were some of the worst I’ve ever ran through.

There was very little traffic on the road, and for good reason. It was too dangerous to be out in these conditions. I saw many vehicles abandoned at the side of the road. Vehicles slid off the road, crashes between cars and horse drawn carts.

The weight of my buggy, usually a curse, was here a blessing as it kept me weighted down! Without the buggy it would have been almost impossible to run on the road with the cross wind.

I finally arrived at the checkpoint after 10.30 with less than 90 minutes to spare.

I must have looked in a bad way. A stranger jumped out of his car and poured me a thermos of tea. The customs and passport control officers ordered me into their office. I was worried at first, then realised they were worried about me.

Placing a chair inches from the radiator they ordered me to sit and brought me some hot food and lemonade.

I didn’t need to worry about crossing the border on foot here. The guys were seriously impressed with the 85 km I’d covered that day in those conditions, my paperwork proving where I’d stayed the night before.

But I guess there’s no faking how rough you look running 95 miles in the snow in under two days with just five hours sleep!

They asked to see my route through the Ukraine, I wondered why? They explained they wanted to check if I was avoiding the mountains, where temperatures would be too dangerous. I was, but it was nice they wanted to check!

They kept me there thawing out until five minutes before midnight when my visa would expire.

I couldn’t believe how warm I felt from the inside just from the care these guys showed.

The ‘cold scary Belarus’ I had ran through the previous week erased, as these ‘scary Soviet guards’ shared their food and shelter with me, a crazy stranger in their land.

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