Ultra Running in Poland | How A 1,100km Run Gave These Two Runners a New Perspective
"The slight pain I felt earlier in my right leg is now excruciating. I can hardly walk."
“It’s day 25. We’re in Gniew, a town in the north of Poland, passing through its beautiful, renovated Teutonic castle. After a short break I try to run, but can’t. The slight pain I felt earlier in my right leg is now excruciating. I can hardly walk. I stretch it a bit, but that doesn’t help. On top of everything it’s raining. How frustrating. We’re so close to the end! We consider shortening the distance or adding an extra day. Our last resort is to phone the physio and ask for help..." - Alan.
The wall is something most runners can relate to. It’s both a physical and mental battle and you learn a lot about yourself. Hitting the wall for 26 straight days is a fantastic way to test your willpower and strength. We are two Brits living in Warsaw, and we decided to run 1100 km in 26 days along the banks of the Vistula, the iconic river in Poland known as the "Queen of Polish rivers".
"The slight pain I felt earlier in my right leg is now excruciating. I can hardly walk."
A challenge that would be tough enough, even if we weren’t doing it in a foreign country with one of the hardest languages in the world, where hospitality invariably includes home-made vodka, grilled sausages, storytelling and little sleep.
Neither of us remembers whose idea it was. One summer evening in 2015 we were having a few drinks along the banks of the Vistula river in Warsaw, and as usual for us, we were talking about running. We were craving a challenge of our own invention. Thanks to a combination of beer and blind enthusiasm, we’d soon agreed to run the whole course of the Vistula River. Run Wisla. It was only the next day that we found out it was over 1000 km long.
Still, we were excited, and the idea seemed right for so many reasons: it's the iconic river in Poland, running the whole length of the country, from the mountains in the south to the Baltic sea in the north, through Krakow, Warsaw, Torun and many other historic and beautiful towns. We’ve both lived in Poland for nearly a decade and it’s a country that has welcomed us warmly. The banks of the river are one of our favourite places to run in Warsaw.
"Along the East bank through narrow woodlands… you can see the panorama of the city centre with its mix of skyscrapers, socialist-realism architecture and the atmospheric old town."
In particular the beautiful path along the East bank through narrow woodlands, from where you can see the panorama of the city centre with its mix of skyscrapers, socialist-realism architecture and the atmospheric old town. We wanted to actively encourage people to join us and see what a great place it is to run and enjoy the beauty of nature. Also, we wanted to raise awareness about the environmental condition of the river, especially when it comes to waste.
After provisionally mapping the route we realised that we’d run 1100km in total. We thought that 50km a day seemed like a good arbitrary number that we could hopefully manage. Once we’d decided to do it, we stopped thinking about whether it was possible and started doing all the things that a well prepared adventurer should do. We bought and studied maps. We altered our training to include a lot more strength work and longer runs. We scouted out parts of the route.
Our friends gave us encouragement, offering to be support drivers, photographers, brochure designers, and personal chefs. To our surprise, complete strangers also decided to partner up and help us out with the logistics, equipment and more. One of the big things we learned through this experience was that if you need something, just ask. People will often be willing to help as much as they can, and often more than you might think.
Sure we had doubts. Whenever someone asked if we thought we could do it, we’d answer, “Well, it’s not impossible". We were mostly concerned about the following:
- Getting hungry
- Getting lost
- Suffering from heat exhaustion
- Our bodies breaking down
- Being forced into drinking too much vodka
We dealt with each concern as best we could. At all times we had friends with a car supporting us so we could eat every hour or two. We had phones for navigation and power-banks to make sure our batteries survived. We wished for the coldest August in decades and luckily got it! We had a rigorous daily recovery routine including cold showers, incredibly painful foam rolling, compression socks and a lot of food and sleep. We decided to give up alcohol for the duration of the run. Although this self-imposed ban didn’t last long.
With all the preparation out of the way, on we travelled down to the picturesque ski town of Wisła, where we'd be starting the real adventure. Despite our doubts, we knew we'd have a rewarding experience. So long as we gave our all, there was nothing to lose.
The first day went pretty smoothly. The main concern was not to get injured on the rocky downhills. The second day was the first time we hit the wall. From then on, the wall hit us at least once a day, usually the first time after about 15-20km. We forgot how it felt to run pain-free. We had crises at different points in the day and helped each other through them with encouragement and distractions. Despite getting lost a few times we stayed focused on our goal rather than getting lost in negative thoughts.
"The second day was the first time we hit the wall. From then on, the wall hit us at least once a day, usually the first time after about 15-20km. We forgot how it felt to run pain-free."
And so, step by step, we made our way along the river. We watched it grow from a small mountain stream to a huge, majestic river. The vast majority is untouched and wild. We passed through mountains, hills, fields, orchards, were greeted by dogs in the towns and villages on the way. Most of the time we were outside of towns and cities and saw wild deer, storks and lots of other wildlife. We received warm welcomes from incredibly hospitable people.
At one point, in a town called Opalenie in the north of Poland, 25 people ran with us. We uncovered some real hidden gems, like the village of Metkow where we met the mayor outside a beautiful wooden church, the Jules Verne-inspired Water Tower in Pszczyna, our host Artur’s grilled sausages in Polaniec and the Pepper Mountains near Sandomierz, one of the oldest mountain ranges in Europe.
Gradually the accumulated kilometres took their toll.
Andy - “Three days before our third rest day in Warsaw my body began to crack. At first I’d learned to accept the pain, push it out of my mind and laugh at myself when it moved from one place to another. That day my body suddenly failed so much, my movements didn’t resemble running anymore. I hobbled to the end of the day through mud and rain almost in tears. The next two days were tough going with highs and lows until I was forced into walking for a couple of kilometres coming into Warsaw."
“Warsaw had a rejuvenating effect on me. It felt like a homecoming with even the vice-mayor of Warsaw coming to meet us. We were treated to a heroes’ welcome by friends from our Triathlon Club WITC who ran with us for the final 10km. This gave us a much-needed moral boost. A couple of long and painful physiotherapy sessions helped ease my aches and pains away."
Alan - "For me personally things got a lot tougher after Warsaw, so around two-thirds of the way through the run. Coming into Torun for our fourth and final rest day, I was struggling badly, but with the support of Andy and Lauri, a friend who joined us for that stage I managed to fight on through. After some rest and physio in Torun I felt better … until the second last day.
"He gave me the most painful massage of my life. I was screaming, but the massage helped. From then on the pain became more bearable and my condition improved."
We were in Gniew, just 70km from the sea, and I could barely walk. I phoned Wojciech, our physio in Warsaw. It fell to Andy to follow his instructions. He gave me the most painful massage of my life. I was screaming, but the massage helped. From then on the pain became more bearable and my condition improved. I was delighted as we arrived at our destination for that day - Tczew - a place I wasn’t sure I’d see a couple of hours before."
Our final checkpoint was a port built at the place where the Vistula was redirected in the 19th century to the Baltic. We had less than 10km to go and both admitted with a tinge of sadness that it’d been an amazing experience we did not want to end.
On the final section the river was impressive, so wild, yet majestic. It was difficult to believe that it was the same river we ran alongside 26 days earlier. We'd been talking about how we wanted to jump into the sea when we reached the end. Funnily enough, it turned out there was a nature reserve at the end meaning we couldn’t actually reach the sea, finishing 200m short! But we’d made it!
Alan - “My main emotion once we reached the end was that of being overwhelmed by everything, so much had happened and there were so many emotions. Delight, relief, joy, a bit of sadness, all there. There’s no way we could have done this by ourselves and the support we received was priceless."
Andy - “When I was a club runner, I never thought I’d run more than 10k, until the time I ran a half marathon. The next logical step was a marathon. The first time was a nightmare, but by the third time it was almost normal. Then the distance of a marathon seemed like an arbitrary number to stop at. Why not run more? Ultra marathons (any run longer than a marathon) were a way to combine a love of nature with a love for running and at the same time eliminate the psychological barrier of 26.2 miles."
Alan - “Ultras are very different to marathons. I mean the basics are the same, you’re still running, but in ultras there are so many more factors to consider: food, nutrition, clothing, planning breaks, pacing yourself right and so on. For me running ultras is a metaphor for life. In these kind of runs, you always get ups and you always get downs. The important thing is to know that they will come, prepare for them as best you can, but also know that they’ll pass. Just by getting your head down and moving forward, perhaps with the support of a good friend or even a stranger, you eventually reach a better place."
Andy - “I learned that I could run further than I thought. From our contrasting ways of dealing with crisis points, I learned that aspects of myself, which I’d thought were negative were just a different coping mechanism and not necessarily an invalid one. My strategy and methods worked for me. What worked for Alan wouldn’t work for me and vice versa. There’s no one true way. Everyone has to find what works for them."
In the course of the project, we met another British ultra-runner, Michael Nowicki based in Poland who independently had the same idea of running the Wisla but wants to do it a little faster...
Michael - “I was happy to find that Alan and Andy have already run the length of the Wisla. In June 2017, I plan to run the same route in 11 days, running about 100km each day. Why? I like to push myself to the very limit, encourage people to spend free time actively by the river, and to raise funds for charity"
For more on Alan and Andy's run, visit their Run Wisla facebook page