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Photo credit: Conrad Wild

Running the Orient

02-Apr-21

Last updated: 02-Apr-21

By Conrad Wild

Why take the train when you can run?

Gavin Boyter is no stranger to a long run, having already written about his exploits running from John O’Groats to Land’s End in Downhill From Here.  In Running the Orient, he takes his aspirations into Europe with a run along the route of the Orient express, taking in Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul.

Such a journey across the heart of Europe promises variety, as we follow Boyter through villages, towns, cities, forests, alongside rivers and over mountains. Accompanying him on this journey is his girlfriend and sole support crew, Aradhna, and their trusty(ish) campervan, Roxy.

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I haven’t read a lot of books from the ‘travel journal’ genre, nor do I often read running books, despite being a keen runner. So it was with some trepidation that I picked this one up. I was pleased to see an introduction from his girlfriend, Aradhna. Support crews are crucial to endeavours such as this and very often are an all too ‘invisible’ part of the story (more on this later).

Boyter’s challenge starts with converting their new (old) Mazda Bongo into the fully-fledged state of the art campervan that will support him on his journey. ‘Vanlife’ is very much on trend at the moment and Boyter covers the challenges of it well.

Going to the loo (aka digging a hole) becomes a part of the daily routine, and there is always the challenge of where to park up for the night – we see often the kindness of strangers in offering hospitality, as well as the less salubrious places to spend the night.

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Other challenges include navigation (I get the feeling he didn’t have a precise route in mind!), where his path is often stymied by unexpected obstacles from rivers, to fences and even border officers in one amusing episode.

He is also not adverse to a spot of unassuming civil trespass when the need arises and let’s face it, we’ve all been there! And what running adventure could be complete without a Mexican stand-off with a herd of cows (not to mention feral dogs and wild boar).

Boyter is very thorough in his narrative and for me he is a little too thorough. We get quite literally a day by day account of his journey, which for me started to make the book a more arduous read than it ought to have been. Also, the footnotes. So many footnotes! Seemingly in a quest for detail, the author provides a lot of footnotes, many of which could have been part of the main narrative (and indeed enriched it), and others which could have been done away with altogether.

I found the latter half of the story (Eastern Europe) more engaging than the first half, perhaps because for me there is much more a sense of mystery and adventure around Romania and the Carpathians, and former Soviet Bloc countries. So, if you find yourself struggling through some sections, it’s worth skimming if it means reaching some of these later chapters.

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A recurring theme is Boyter’s relationship with his partner and support crew, Aradhna, and here is where I think the book misses a trick. There are constant references to Aradhna’s trials and tribulations, but these are very much from the author’s point of view. I think the story would have benefitted hugely from being interspersed with her narrative. Perhaps this could have replaced the recurrent ‘Tips for Multi-Day Runners’ sections, which in my opinion would have been better placed in the Appendices.

Overall, I found this book enjoyable, engaging, arduous and frustrating in equal measure. More judicious editing and the inclusion of a narrative from his support crew would have made for a much more satisfying read.

Running the Orient By Gavin Boyter is published by Great Northern Books.

About the writer: Conrad Wild has walked/jogged/ran some 30 ultramarathons, as well as a spoonful of DNFs and a marathon in a multi-story car park. These days, when he hasn’t got his head stuck in a book, he can be found jogging around his local woods with his spaniel, Jack.

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All photos courtesy of Gavin Boyter

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“what running adventure could be complete without a Mexican stand-off with a herd of cows (not to mention feral dogs and wild boar)”

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