Review: Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter (2020)

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter

Blurb:

Armed with a toilet trowel and a converted Mazda Bongo called Roxy, self-styled ‘ordinary’ ultrarunner, Gavin Boyter, embarks on his latest long-distance challenge: to run the 3400km from Paris to Istanbul along the route of the world’s most illustrious railway journey, the Orient Express.

And, despite work on Roxy having hampered his training programme, Gavin remains undeterred and plans to run through eight countries, to cross 180 rivers and to ascend 16,500 metres, through forests, mountains, plains and major cities – aided all the way by temperamental mapping technology and the ever encouraging support of his girlfriend, Aradhna. En route, Gavin will pass through urban edgelands and breathtaking scenery, battlefields and private estates, industrial plants and abandoned villages, and on through a drawn-back Iron Curtain where the East meets West. He will encounter packs of snarling, feral dogs, wild boar, menacing cows, and a herd of hundreds of deer. But he will also meet many fascinating characters, including a German, leg-slapping masseuse, music-loving Austrian farmers, middle-class Romanians, itinerant Romanies, stoic soldiers, and boisterous Turks. However, confined to the cramped conditions of Roxy, and each other’s company, Gavin and Aradhna’s journey is not only a test of the endurance and stamina required to put in the hard miles, but of their relationship, too. After all, if they can survive this challenge, they can survive anything.

But will Gavin’s legs make it all the way to Istanbul, where he has planned a special surprise for Aradhna?

Review:

This book may seem an unlikely choice for someone whose only brushes with running include the odd couple of weeks here and there when I’ve dragged myself out of bed and laboriously thumped along the road for half an hour or so before slowing to a walk and returning home, defeated by my lack of both fitness and a suitable sports bra. Nevertheless, I had followed some of Gavin and Aradhna’s journey on Facebook back in 2018 (when foreign adventures were still possible, happy days) and found myself gripped by their travels, so I jumped at the chance to read this book. Many thanks to the author for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

I had imagined that this book would be one I would dip in and out of, and was slightly nervous that as a non-runner I might find it difficult to involve myself fully in the day-to-day of such a long trip. This was not the case at all: I was thoroughly absorbed in the adventure, and read it in a few sittings (including on a bench on the South Downs, the closest I get to the wilderness these days). It is quite remarkable how Gavin manages to go into such detail about their daily routine and the ins and outs of the ultra-running experience and make it really compelling reading. Quite apart from the fact that his feat of endurance is utterly incredible (running almost every day for over 100 days), I was blown away by the minute, precise detail with which he tells their story. It is mostly narrated in the present tense, which creates a wonderful sense of experiencing each episode alongside them; it is a truly immersive experience (without the blisters and nipple chafing – win win).

It felt like a privilege to be taken on this slow, mindful journey through Europe, all the more poignant, as both Gavin and Aradhna, in her introduction, observe, in the light (or shade) of the looming spectre of Brexit. Gavin runs through eight countries, and describes each one in elegant, lucid prose. Quite how he managed such recall, I don’t know – I suspect he took meticulous notes, which would be the last thing I would feel like doing after a full day’s run. The nature of the journey, travelling on foot (with Aradhna and trusty Roxy the Mazda Bongo, who becomes a character in her own right in the story, both providing outstanding support), means that the pace is much more meditative than many travelogues, in which planes, trains and automobiles whizz the traveller from one country to another in hours. It takes Gavin days or weeks to cross each country, and he sees so many aspects that the capital-hopping tourist would never encounter: run-down farms, industrial estates, leafy suburbs, hidden mountain tracks…the list goes on. The writing is often really quite beautiful, and the prose is precise and very visual. It was easy to picture the scenes that Gavin describes. His tone is delightfully Bryson-esque, full of self-deprecating understatement, and quite charmingly old-fashioned at times, giving a flavour of the Grand Tour, or perhaps more appropriately, the Victorian travels on the Orient Express itself. I really enjoyed his use of expressions like “Alas” and “pay no heed” – it created an image in my mind of a Laurie Lee figure, loping across the landscape in search of good old-fashioned adventure.

There are moments of tension (involving feral dogs and border guards), and some very honest commentary on the strain such a trip can put on a relationship (it must be stated – as Gavin does frequently in the book – that Aradhna is a saint, and quite certainly the lynchpin of this mad scheme), but above all this book is a testament to the joy of travel, of movement, of observation and adventure. The maps and colour photographs add another layer of interest to the diary-style entries, and for runners, there is a wealth of useful information for planning your own trip, large or small. For everyone else, there is so much to be enjoyed in this inspiring story. Even I have been prompted by it to think about some outdoors adventures in the future – though I suspect they will involve walking rather than running. And I will definitely be getting Gavin’s first book, too.

Running the Orient by Gavin Boyter is published by Great Northern Books and is available to purchase here.

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