Human Race: ‘I’m stronger than I knew’

Photo by Steve Sparrow

Some days, my body just didn’t want to know,’ says Viviane Joynes. ‘But my philosophy was that if I could put one foot in front of the other, I would carry on.’

That bone-weary feeling will be familiar to most runners, but Viviane’s body had more to protest about than most. On January 13, she completed an unsupported 2,387-mile run that took her through six European countries: she was on the road for 184 days.

The idea took hold in November 2013, when the 33-year-old City consultant decided to take some time out from her career. ‘I needed a change and I needed a challenge,’ says Viviane. ‘I began thinking about the journey my grandmother had undertaken as a German refugee in the war and I decided to follow in her footsteps.’

Her grandmother’s story reveals that an adventurous spirit runs in the family. Ilse Herte Luise Smith grew up in Neurese, Germany (now Unieradz in Poland). Towards the end of the Second World War, the Soviet invasion forced her to flee her home. She and a pilot friend escaped in a small plane, but crashed in a storm. Ilse woke up in a Red Cross station with only minor injuries, managed to get a plane to Flensburg, in northwestern Germany, then walked 186 miles south to the town of Celle.

Viviane has Ilse’s written account of the journey: ‘Having no home and no news of what had happened to my family, I set off to walk to Celle with another girl. We walked for three weeks, sleeping in haystacks, eating turnips and stealing milk. There were thousands of people on the move, as there were no trains or buses. Everyone was trying to find refuge or find their way home. I had blood blisters on my feet and had them bandaged at each Red Cross station.’

‘I wanted to honour the hardships my gran faced and the hardships others in similar situations face every day across the world,’ explains Viviane. ‘I chose to raise money for the British Red Cross because they helped her, and because of the incredible work they do today.’

Viviane’s original plan was to run the 500 miles from Unieradz to Celle. But the more she researched, the more inspired she became by the awesome challenges other runners had taken on, so she decided to push the boundaries, organising a much longer challenge that took her through Europe, finishing in Tarifa, in the far south of Spain.

On July 15 last year, Viviane left Unieradz. She wasn’t entirely alone. With her was Bob, a black and yellow children’s buggy that, fully loaded with her possessions, weighed 35kg. ‘I looked either homeless or crazy,’ she says.

Although Viviane had always been sporty, she took up running only a couple of years ago. ‘I began to take running more seriously once I was planning the trip, but I also knew from my research on multi-day endurance challenges that people tend to build up stamina during the endeavour.’ Early on, Viviane covered 12-15 miles a day, but soon that ramped up to 20-25 miles. ‘I’d usually reach my destination by early afternoon. Then I’d eat,’ she says. ‘I’d sort out my sleeping arrangements for the next day, write my blog, rest, explore, and connect with family and friends on social media. Then eat some more. I tried to take a day’s break each week for proper rest and refuelling.’

Reaching Celle, which completed her grandmother’s journey, was a profound experience. ‘Seeing what she had seen, albeit in very different circumstances, was very special,’ says Viviane. ‘I was also elated that I’d completed my initial aim – going further was always just a bonus.’ But as her days on the road accumulated, Viviane says that the miles became ‘just numbers’. ‘I would simply choose a place about 300 miles away and gradually reel it in.’

Viviane’s strength and stamina held up well for the first half of the trip. But beyond the 1,500-mile mark, niggles began to bother her – first came iliotibial band syndrome, then Achilles tendinitis. ‘I just had to manage the pain and inflammation as best I could,’ she says.

Aside from the enormous distance, the terrain presented its own challenges. In France she found herself running along roads with no pavements or hard shoulder. Germany’s wide cycle paths were a dream, but lugging Bob through forests and over Spanish mountains, on ‘ridiculously off-road terrain’ took its toll. ‘I always knew it would be a physical challenge,’ she says. ‘But I hadn’t appreciated the mental side. I’ve never been a loner, so when it’s just you out there, day after day, pushing the limits, it can become extremely tough.’

On harder days, Viviane told herself that what she was enduring was nothing compared with what over 46 million displaced people around the world have to endure. ‘While I had food, money and a roof – or a tent – over my head, they often have none of that,’ she says.

And just as her grandmother’s journey was made possible by the help of others, the kindness Viviane encountered constantly amazed her. ‘From a bed for the night to a free meal, or just words of encouragement, the people were one of the highlights of the whole experience. In the entire six months I was on the road I had nothing stolen, even though I did sometimes have to leave my stuff unattended. There were a few unsettling encounters, but I never felt threatened.’

After pushing and pulling Bob across Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain, Viviane reached her destination. ‘The elation I felt is difficult to put into words.’

Viviane, who’s now back in London, has raised over £10,000 for the Red Cross. ‘It has been an amazing, life-affirming experience,’ she says. ‘I’ve learned that I’m stronger – mentally and physically – and more determined than I knew. I’ve learned that people are generally good, and that breaking large projects into manageable goals is essential to avoid that feeling of being overwhelmed. But most of all, I’ve learned that by taking ourselves out of our comfort zones, we can achieve more than we ever thought possible. This is genuinely where the magic happens.’