Cross Country

This past Saturday morning, I ran across an entire country.

No matter that the country was Liechtenstein—the sixth smallest nation on Earth; No matter that there was no official race course or registration or crowd of spectators to cheer me on—I ran solo across a landscape I knew only from the maps I had read, and when I finally reached the other side, I felt the twin joys of athletic accomplishment and a journey achieved.

What compelled me to run across one of Europe’s medium-sized micro-nations was the same question that all explorers ask before attempting any kind of travel: “Can I . . ?”

Can I reach the Spice Islands by sailing West? Can we canoe all the way to the Pacific? Can we put a man on the moon? Can I ride public transportation all the way to Antarctica?

Or in this case: “Can I run across Liechtenstein?” There was only one way to find out, and so I came to Liechtenstein with a water bottle and a pair of running shoes.

Nervous and jet-lagged, I woke up at around three o’clock in the morning in my hotel in Vaduz. I drowsily downed a banana and some cereal, and then drank some water—fueling up for the run ahead of me—then headed back to sleep until 5. In the dark, I dressed carefully and then laced, unlaced, and relaced my running shoes. Perhaps I was a bit anxious.

I took a cab to my self-imposed starting line—the northernmost footpath border crossing into Liechtenstein. (This is not an easy thing, getting a cab in the wee hours of the morning on a weekend in Liechtenstein.) The driver picked me up and immediately crossed back over across the Rhine, speeding along the Swiss highway.

“The speed limit’s faster here in Switzerland,” he explained, and I watched the distance pass by, daunted by the thought that I would be covering all this on foot. He finally slipped back to the other side, navigating around the farms of Liechtenstein, driving to the end of the road and then leaving the engine on, uncertain about letting me off in such a lonely dark place.

I assured him I was fine—merely going for a hike in the dark—then walked the last half-mile in total darkness, to the end of the field to the border. Unmoving cows slept silently under the trees and Venus sparkled white in the sky—the only light around.

The Austria-Liechtenstein border looks exactly like any shallow ditch between any two backyards—only there is no fence, just a trickle of a stream—not at all how one imagines an international boundary. Once upon a time, this was the line between the Nazi-occupied Axis and neutral Europe, and today it is the border between the European Union and this non-EU state. Yet for all of its geopolitical importance, there was only one overgrown metal signpost marking the line between the two nations and admonishing hikers to refrain from crossing between sunset and sunrise.

I waited in Austria until sunrise—of course I wanted my border crossing to be legal, but I also wanted to take photos. From behind the black alpine ridge to the east, I could see the sunlight glowing brighter, heard the click click click of electricity moving through the white bands of the flimsy cow fences.

When the sun finally arrived, I began running, departing Austria in a single bound and then jumping into northernmost Liechtenstein with measured leaps. As the cows came to attention with a chorus of cowbells, I attacked the dirt path along the edge of a cornfield.

“Here goes,” I thought, and tried to run as if this was every other run I had ever done, except this one was different. This one meant something more to me personally—a whim perhaps, but also an odd kind of dream, a curious longing to try something that I could very well fail at finishing.

A stream of fog hovered shoulder-high, surrounding the local farms. I was running by GPS, using the MapMyRun app, but navigating by the mountains to the east. I knew that all I had to do was keep running south. It also helped that there is really only one major road in Liechtenstein stretching from top to bottom and I intended to follow it most of the way.

“Distance: One mile!” shouted the robotic female voice of my iPhone. “Already?” I wondered. From around the world, my Twitter followers chimed in, reminding me to pace myself. “Slow down! Breathe!” they shouted by text, and they were right. I had a long, long way ahead of me—I wasn’t even sure how long—but I knew that I needed to conserve my energy for the miles ahead.

After mile two, I began to relax a bit more and notice the small things around me: ripe apples weighing down trees, the rustling yellow-brown leaves on the corn stalks, the morning slugs stretched out on the road, leaving shiny tracks of slime behind them.

It felt amazing to be running so early in the morning in a new country. Running is just another form of travel, and with every lunge, I found myself experiencing a whole new slice of Liechtenstein: Germanic pastel houses with sloped tile roofs, wooden barns stacked with round, wrapped hay bales, and the odd gray house cat who dodged away as I ran past.

In the towns, I saw bakers opening their shops—the first to wake up on this Saturday—I gasped, “Grüezi” to early morning walkers who eyed me suspiciously.

Heaving myself through sleepy villages in a neon orange jacket, I felt a tad conspicuous. I followed the tree-lined width of Landstrasse (literally “country road”) towards the capital.

Around Mile 8, I saw Vaduz Castle as it is, medieval-looking and clinging to the shrubby cliff above the town. I looked up at the windows and wondered if the prince and princess were awake yet, wondered if any member of the royal family has ever sprinted—or even walked—across their domain.

After one hour, I had run halfway across Hapsburg subdivision and felt hopeful that I would maybe just make it. See, I have never been a very good runner, from those gym class days of doing mindless laps around orange cones on the asphalt, to my brief and unimpressive time on the middle school track team where I dropped out of the 200-yard sprint with searing tendonitis—the only race I ever ran.

Being bad at something only means that you have to work harder at it, and so for the past few months, I have worked hard at learning to run. I trained as I traveled—running past the animals in Yellowstone, the lava rocks of Kauai, and the marble memorials of Washington, DC.

Yet even with my training had only taken me up to running ten miles nonstop. I estimated my run across Liechtenstein would be at least 15.5 miles—a distance that I had never attempted before in my life. But I was lucky with the weather—it was a dry and decent autumn day, not cold, but not overly warm, so that I was barely sweating as I searched the street signs for Lettstrasse.

Running in many different countries and climates has taught me a lot of things about myself—mostly my own physical limits. I knew that I would need to drink a lot of water on my run and that unlike official races, there would be no table of volunteers handing me cups of Gatorade.

And so, the day before my run, I had explored different water fountains in Vaduz and found one that was near my intended path. I marked it on my Google map and halfway through my run, dashed by for a water break. I jogged in place while filling up my bottle, then tore down the path, spilling water down my chin. I was afraid to stop for even a second—afraid that if I stopped I would never finish.

And so I ran on and on. Vaduz flashed by and soon I was running through the town of Triesen. I reached Mile 10, knew that from here on out I would be setting a new personal record, and kept running.

I was hurting by now—my right hip, my left ankle—my quads. For all the travel I do in the world, no country has made me hurt like little Liechtenstein. Mile 11 and Mile 12 came slowly, and then Mile 13—the half-marathon mark.

From that point to Mile 14 was the hardest—the point where I really had to push myself. I found comfort and encouragement in the dozens of hopeful messages pouring in from readers on Twitter. I held my phone up in front of me as I ran, grateful to so many cool followers, sending me well wishes.

And then I heard my name, shouted out from the distance, “Andrew?”

I turned my head as I ran, and there, driving a white Porsche, was a young woman with a bobbed haircut, waving to me from her car. I waved back but kept running.

I guessed that she was one of my Twitter followers—my only follower in Liechtenstein—who happened to see that I was running across her country and who had come out cheer me on. I was grateful for this brief human support—energized, even—and began the final slog to the finish.

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Those last two miles felt like I was on auto-pilot: step, lunge, step, lunge. I wasn’t sure I was running fast or slow, but I knew that I was running and that the end would come soon. My final stretch was uphill (of course), but I pushed and pushed, more confident now that I could actually do this.

The towns had disappeared and instead, I found myself running on the road, surrounded by green pastures and the ever-closer alpine ridge of the border. Squinting, I saw the pair of flagpoles in the distance, draped with sashes of fabric, flat from the lack of wind. Below I saw the red shield and white cross of Switzerland—the border—and knew I was going to make it.

There was no billowy tape to break through, no white line on the pavement, no cheering crowds—just me, exhausted, taking that final step across the border—one leg leaving Liechtenstein while the other dropped down into Switzerland.

I had done it—I had run nonstop across a whole country. As the thought sunk in, I stood motionless, incredulous at my little feat, aware that my legs were turning wobbly. I walked and stretched, pacing back and forth between the Swiss and Liechtenstein flagpoles, knowing that real pain would soon follow.

But then, like an angel in a Porsche, my dear local Twitter follower @SandraThurnheer pulled up, smiling and so friendly.

“Congratulations!” she shouted from her window. She parked and came to congratulate me, shaking my hand, then snapping my picture triumphant at the border. Kindly, Sandra drove me all the way back to Vaduz—an unexpected yet much-appreciated escort. After running across her country, she treated me to coffee in the capital and we chatted—Sandra was born and has lived her whole life in Liechtenstein, but she has been following my travels since I crossed the Atlantic earlier this year. She was surprised to see that I had come to Liechtenstein, and even more surprised to wake up that morning and discover I was running across her country. She’d followed me tweet by tweet and tracked me down.

I was grateful for her kindness and thanked her, then returned to my hotel where I soaked my legs and then fell into a coma, napping for much of the afternoon. Perhaps my body was behaving a tad melodramatically, but I obliged and rested all the same.

I am aware that people run marathons and half-marathons every day—but I am not one of those runners and never have been. I am just a traveler who loves maps and was curious about this little country in central Europe and who was trying to run a little better than I used to run.

All in all, I ran 16.08 miles (25.72 km)—the full length of Liechtenstein, from Austria to Switzerland. I clocked my running time as 2 hours, 32 minutes and 9 seconds, although the time is not so important to me. The only thing that matters to me is that I did it—I ran across an entire country.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would—although next time, perhaps some of you can join me.

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