It was January 1st, 2007.
The day before my flight from Prague to London had been canceled due to weather and I was stranded in the Czech Republic. I had finals in Ireland in two days and, needless to say, being present for those, passing my classes and getting school credit was very important to me.
I had been backpacking around Europe for the past two weeks. The way the school year worked out, my Irish University shut down for the holidays and hosted finals in the beginning of the new year. My college in the states, where I would return for the following semester, started a week later. I didn’t think it made much sense to fly all the back to California, only to fly back to Ireland and then to Pennsylvania, so instead I took all the money I had left and went on a two week trip around Europe.
My goal was to see as many cities as possible, albeit quickly, and also to run every day. Track season was starting a few months later and I needed to get into good shape. I took only a backpack with me – not one of those huge 70 liter camping backpacks either, just a small school bag that had a change of clothes, my running gear and a notebook I wrote poetry in. No electronics except my watch – the simple kind that only told time – I used it to see approximately how far I had run.
The trip started in the latter half of December. I flew from Ireland to Barcelona where I planned to get a Eurail pass that would let me travel as much as I wanted for 15 days. In order to make my limited amount of money last, I often took overnight trains so I didn’t also have to pay for a hostel.
Over that trip I visited Barcelona, Milan, Venice, Zurich, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and finally Prague.
Some of my favorite runs ever were on that trip. I managed to run every day throughout December. Usually first thing in the morning I would get dressed and just start running. The cities have so much richness that I would inevitably stumble upon something interesting and historic (sometimes historical as well).
The runs were all very different too.
In Barcelona it was warm, even in December, I ran on the boardwalk in a t-shirt.
In Zurich I spotted a hilly wooded area and ran straight up – I stopped to stretch in a meadow and had such a peaceful experience viewing the city and lake – it remains a highlight of that trip.
In Paris I weaved through curvy streets and climbed stairs looking for a park or something – then I turned a corner and saw the most beautiful white cathedral I had ever seen. I had stumbled upon Sacré-Cœur unknowingly.
In Berlin, on Christmas Eve, I took off running on some trails to the west of the city. At some point heard sounds that I was sure were wild boar and took of faster – trying to ensure the Christmas feast was not reversed. I inevitably got horribly lost on the unmarked and winding trails. I eventually made it back to the city, but had no idea where in the city I was and couldn’t distinguish all of the German street names anyhow. I made it back eventually but ran twice as much as I had wanted to.
In Warsaw, on a day that was below freezing, old men sitting at the Park yelled something at me that I was pretty sure was Polish for “you are crazy”. I thanked them an continued on, hoping to finish before frostbite kicked in.
By the time I was leaving Prague, I was tired and ready to get home. I had seen a lot, not eaten much and washing my only pair of running clothes in the sink at night was not doing a satisfactory job of getting the stink out.
All flights were grounded because of the weather, I didn’t have much money to work with, and the earliest they could rebook me, on account of all of the other cancelled flights was three days away. The one thing I had going for me was my Eurail pass was still valid for two more days on account of a misunderstanding about what times the ticket office in Barcelona was open. (Hint: they are kind of liberal about that kind of thing). I ended up having to buy a single ticket to Milan and purchase my Eurail pass there, two days later. Thus, I still had an unlimited train pass.
Unfortunately it was late and there were no more trains leaving. I would be stuck in Prague until the morning.
My New Years plans went up in smoke since I would not be making it to London, where I had planned to go to a big celebration. I also knew finding a place to stay in Prague would be very difficult on account of people visiting for the celebration there – I had a hard enough time finding a bunk the preceding days.
I called an audible – I would go back to the hostel I had been at (where at least I knew a few people), toss my bag down and go celebrate in the public squares. Prague was known for its New Years eve celebrations after all.
Lo and behold, as I walked in to the hostel, the group I had been hanging out with for the past few days, about a dozen people from as many countries, was just walking out. They were excited and surprised to see me, everyone was bummed when I had left earlier that day. I tossed down my bag and we took off into the city. Within a few minutes I had fireworks in one hand and a bottle of Champagne in the other – we would shoot both off into the sky at midnight.
We got back to the hostel late enough that I just barely had time to grab my bag & freshen up before heading to the train station to get on the 5am westbound train.
I spent the day in a daze on a series of trains passing through stops whose name I could not make out on the loudspeaker. At one point, somewhere in the south of German, I woke up with my face pressed against the window, staring at a beautiful view of a lake and pine trees. It was something out of a story book.
Around 1am I hit the end of the line. There were no further options to go west that night. I was stuck in Brussels without a plan, place to stay, or much money.
Thankfully I had been there before, enough to know my way through town to a few spots. After walking around for 30 minutes I realized that none of the hostels had people working at 1am. Only the big hotel chains did and I couldn’t afford a few hundred dollars. By some stroke of luck I found a Chineese food place where the man was willing to rent me a room to sleep in. It was the kind of room where the door wouldn’t open all the way on account of bumping into the bed. It was the kind of room I was used to.
I put down my gear exhausted and pulled out my map to find a place to get a few miles in. It was now nearly 2am, I’d only had but a few hours of interrupted sleep over the past 48 hours and I had to get on another train at 6am if I had any hope of making it back in time for my finals.
I made the hard call to skip running that day.
I could count on one hand the days of running I had missed over the past few years. This was the type of circumstance that was required to separate me from the hard work I put in towards achieving my goals.
The next day I would take a series of trains, busses and boats over to France, London, Dublin and ultimately back to the University of Limerick. I arrived with plenty of time to take a shower before skateboarding over to my first final.
I don’t actually recall studying at all, and I certainly didn’t have any books with me, but looking back at my transcripts I seem to have done fine. Perhaps my first final was on European geography – I had just had a crash course in it that I would not soon forget.