For over a year I lived in my van, a self-converted VW Crafter, as I explored the less travelled parts of Europe. The purpose of our trip was to be outside in nature as much as we could climbing, hiking and swimming. I’d need more than a blog post to even begin to reflect on what I learned and gained from the trip, we even took on three abandoned puppies.
I also ran. A lot. I soon realised that Running is undoubtedly the perfect sport for van life. Here are my top reasons why.
#1 You can see more
Seeing things is a big reason to run for many people. I’m definitely in this category (see my post from February). For some people this might be a string of mountain tops as part of an ultra; for me it’s a section of a beach or clifftop path, or just the buzzard I saw perched unflinching on a roadside fencepost on my usual local circuit this morning. Seeing things is an even bigger reason to travel, probably the main reason for most people. If you put these together, it’s pretty obvious that you’ll see more if you’re running while you travel!
After parking the van my girlfriend and I always scout out the local area on foot, usually straight away, for maybe thirty minutes or an hour. When lockdown hit in March last year we were on the west-coast of Greece. We raced to find a corner of the Peloponnese that we could envisage ourselves staying in for what was then an unspecified number of weeks. We ended up at what seemed like the edge of the world, more or less at the tip of Cape Maleas, surrounded by grey sea on one side and green spiky scrubland on the other, against a backdrop of red dusty rocks framed by an eternally blue sky. As usual we walked when we arrived, in one direction finding fossilised trees and long-extinct sea creatures, and in the other we soon reached a tiny sleepy fishing village full of stray cats called Profitas Ilias. From both the van was still in sight.
Before long I started running regularly, usually when we were due rest days, or when the weather was too bad to climb. The cape opened up. I never ran for much more than an hour, but I saw corners of our temporary homeland that my companions didn’t. There was another village not far away, with a pretty, steep-sided natural harbour for the small fleet of little fishing boats. There were olive groves inland, and each time I ran through them I’d see the farmers planting or watering or harvesting the gnarled trees. Countless Orthodox idols decorated every bend in the road. There’s no doubt that running as I traveled let me explore further afield.
#2 All you need is shoes
My van is pretty big, and was designed with storage for plenty of extra gear in mind (which also came in handy for storing dogs later in our trip). I often wished for a smaller van though: easier to park, able to get down narrower lanes or under lower branches, lower fueling costs.
The beauty of running is its simplicity. The human body is built to jog. All you need is shoes, and who would go away without a pair of trainers? No one. Not even in a small van where every item packed before a trip is carefully scrutinised for its size, weight and usefulness. You could be going away with all your cupboards and hatches filled with your biking gear, your cameras, your scuba suit or your paints and canvas, and running is a sport you can still fit into every adventure.
We recently took the van for a couple of nights exploring the Banffshire coast, in the North of Scotland. We just threw everything in quickly after a busy shift, to get away during a rare crossover of time off between our rotas. I hadn’t planned for any activity, I even forgot my swimming shorts and my binoculars, but was still able to enjoy pounding along a clifftop path wearing the trainers I left the house in!
#3 It doesn’t take all day
Going for a run takes up a fraction of your day, unlike a lot of other activities I did on the road. Climbing a mountain is a day out, or even three. Exploring a city or a national park takes, again, at least all day. Making any serious headway at a sport climbing crag, or doing a long climb then walking down again? Most of your daylight could well be taken up.
Squeezing a run in? You can manage it before breakfast, and you might even catch the sunrise. You can go at night, and let the moon light your trail. If you’re traveling with someone else, you can get out when it’s their turn to cook or wash up; let’s be honest, you will probably need a break from each other at some point if you’re sharing a van (I could call that reason 3b)! Taking even half an hour to run still leaves you with a day to fill with whatever else you fancy.
Looking through my diaries, photos and Strava as I write this, I was reminded of a great evening in Romania. The phrase ‘busy day’ doesn’t really cut it. We had slept in a woodland car park, out of sight of the spires and towers of the palaces and castles of Transylvania. A storm overnight had brought three trees down around us with epic crashes, one landing right across the only road out. The fire brigade, along with the park’s tree surgeons, had to be called in and did an excellent job of clearing the way for us. We had another scrape with the emergency services when I pulled out the wrong direction from a petrol station, and was breathalysed by the, thankfully very understanding, local police. We walked with the dogs up to Cascada Urlatoarea, or the Howling Waterfall, and did a massive supermarket shop, stocking up for the next week.
We were tired, and it was late, when we stopped in a streamside glade between two hills. I only ran for half an hour, but felt amazing for squeezing it in. I got lost in some woods and tried not to think about bears as I ran up a steep hill and stumbled upon the Franciscana Sfanta Treime Monastery hidden high up in a clearing in the trees, from where I found a phenomenal steep downhill to hurtle back to the van. I was greeted by the pups bounding up to me like I’d been away for years and they ran along behind me for the last few meters. I was reminded that amazing runs needn’t take all day.
#4 It keeps you fit for whatever else you’re doing
If you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need convincing that running is great for you. As a climber I notice the difference on the rock when I’ve been running a lot recently. Whether you’re a cyclist, a kayaker or a hiker when you’re not running, I’m sure you notice the same.
Not long after a lockdown spent running windy coast paths, we set our sights on Taygetus, a mountain whose pyramidal summit, Profitas Ileas, is the highest point in the Peloponnese. We had planned a three day route – two up, one down – but, despite not having been hiking up hills for months, I was surprised by my cardio fitness. We may as well have flown up the almost 2500m ascent. We were at the summit in just a day, wrapped in our down jackets and bivvying amongst the maze of crumbling stone walls that make up a bizarre one-service-a-year chapel complex, amazed that we had set off from Kardamyli in thirty-something degree heat that morning. The view covered all three legs of the Peloponnese, and we sat there, our legs aching, eating and drinking in the view. Our quick ascent let us spend an extra day descending and we explored a lot more of the area, including Chalasmeno, the steep, rocky, fairytale-esque adjacent peak, and almost got eaten by jackals, a story that’ll have to wait for another day…
Even if you’re traveling by van without another active or outdoorsy passion, you’ll still benefit from the difference in your fitness from running. You’ll be able to cram more sights into a cultured day of exploring a city. You’ll take in far more of a place’s feel on foot rather than on wheels. You may even be able to stay standing further into the night in a sticky-floored ‘Cideria’ in Oviedo, the cider-capital of Spain!
#5 You can eat more delicious local food
I’ve rarely met a traveler who isn’t obsessed with food. Wherever in the world I’m running, I am always thinking of what I’ll have to eat once I’m home, stretched and showered. When I’m out running somewhere with different, exciting local food, I can’t wait to see what the calories burnt running can be spent on. Pierogis in Poland, little dumplings with any filling imaginable. Tapas in Granada, Southern Spain, where a free meal can easily be made when every beer comes with a hearty snack. Aubergines in Greece, like none you’ve tasted in the UK, simply cooked in the embers of a campfire and smeared with tahini. Cherries straight from the tree in Albania, apples similarly so in Slovakia, I could go on and on; every country has a local food for everyone, and if you’ve spent an hour on the trails that day you’d do well to eat twice as much!
So there we have it, I hope I’ve done my best to convince you to pack your trainers and shorts (and sustainably produced tees!) when you head out into the wilds for this summer’s staycation. Stay safe, and keep pounding those trails!