‘If we can just get to the start point in Estonia I know everything will be fine.’ My own words rang back at me as we sat in Luton Airport staring at the word ‘Delayed’ beside our flight number.
We’d made it through the first part of the journey, a National Express coach ride from Nottingham, unscathed other than the assault on our nostrils from the coach lavatory. Little did I know this was to be the first of many smelly toilets on our trip. But now we were trying to calculate how much sleep our flight delay would cost us. A hasty re-plan of where we would stay in Tallinn clawed us back an hour at the other end and we were both relieved to step out of the airport to see the Estonian flag flying gently in the breeze. We were on our way!
Run Estonia – Day 1
Our first mission of the day was to find an outdoor store in Tallinn and grab a few last supplies. Stove gas for me and dehydrated breakfasts for Jolene. In the smart shopping centre we grabbed coffee and waited for the shops to open at 10am. It was the first time we realised that Estonians prefer to start late and stay up late.
Having spent months trying to fathom out the buses which would take us to our start point, the Oandu Visitor Centre in Lahemaa National Park, we decided on the day to just get a taxi! Stepping straight from the shopping centre into a cab, 60 minutes later we were there! In the middle of a forest, standing beside a sign which read Oandu-Ikla Trail, Oandu 0km, Ikla 370km. This was it, the challenge was about to begin.
I stalled a little of course – looking round the deserted but lovely visitor centre, buying maps of the route, visiting our first composting toilet of the trip and asking the only person around to take a photo of us by the sign. He did, but from very far away!
Run Estonia begins
My back was twinging majorly as we hauled our 14kg packs on. I’d twisted it the day before when we were travelling and was quietly panicking it would go completely under the weight of the pack. Straps adjusted, running poles at the ready, there was nothing left to do but run.
Today was a bonus day in terms of running. Initially we weren’t planning to run today but having worked out we could get to the visitor centre for lunchtime we decided to get half a day under our belt. As we began to run the strap from my pack pulled taught across my chest, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe properly. The narrow path wound quickly deep into the forest. In places overgrown and with fallen trees testing our ability to understand just how big our packs were as we tried to duck under them.
We were aiming to do a mere 17 miles today, finishing at Nõmmeveski Campsite on the banks of the Valgejõgi River. I have a spreadsheet on my phone which tells me the distance between all the campsites along the route. It is to be pored over again and again over the coming week. The campsites are all run by the RMK (the Estonia Forestry Service), they are free to stay at and have very basic facilities; usually one composting toilet and with water available from rivers, lakes and bogs nearby.
As we run those first miles we are both thinking the same thing…bears. Each peering into the trees and occasionally clacking our running poles together, to warn them of our presence. At one point I think I hear a growling noise. ‘What was that?’ whispers Jolene. ‘I’m not sure, it sounded like growling.’ I whisper back. We both realise at the same time that we should not be whispering!
Just as we start to feel tired we emerge from the woods into a tiny village. I peer through the dusty windows of what appears to be a long closed down shop, only to see movement inside. The owner appears, unlocking the doors and switching on the lights over the mostly bare shelves. But there is one thing we want – coca cola! We buy a bottle each and as he locks the doors back up behind us, guzzle our refreshment thirstily.
Setting off too fast we both manage to get lightheaded. Steadying our pace we cover the final few miles to the campsite. A river appears to our side as we approach, as do the mosquitos! Arriving into camp, there are only a couple of other tents. We pitch ours for the first time, go for a dip and a wash in the river and tuck into the first of many dehydrated meals before settling down for the night.
Oandu to Ikla – Day 2
Setting the theme for the next week we both sleep badly. It is camping after all! I’ve realised it doesn’t get totally dark in Estonia at this time of year. We rise at 6.30am, pull on our sweat soaked clothes from yesterday, eat breakfast, pack our kit and we’re away.
I love the first ten miles of the day. Cruising through woods and small villages before hitting our first bog boardwalk of the trip. Running through a bog doesn’t sound much fun but these are genuinely stunning. Wide open plains, studded with glistening pools of peaty water. Outdoor swimming is a common pastime in Estonia and dipping in the peat bogs becomes a luxury of this trip. The long boardwalks make running across the bogs easy – so long as you don’t tread on a rotten or loose board!
Hitting around 12 miles the heavens open, just as we reach a section of the route which has been diverted along a busy, triple carriageway road. As the rain and spray soak me through I bonk majorly. This is not the place to stop and refuel, so I try to stuff soggy sweets into my mouth as Jolene pulls away from me ahead. At one point I try to call to her that I can’t keep running. But she can’t hear me above the traffic. I’m glad of this truly, it forces me to just keep going.
Once off the road the rain eases and I’m able to eat a little more to keep me going to our lunch stop. We have chosen a campsite beside a lake to lunch at. The water from the lake will top up our supplies for the day. We have both chosen to have mainly liquid lunches during the trip. Not the alcoholic kind! We are using Tailwind Recovery drinks as they are tasty, packed with protein and easy to digest. My lunch is topped up with a small bag of peanuts and Jolene’s with some jerky. It doesn’t seem a lot but its the perfect amount and combination of sweet and salty.
Before we leave the campsite I visit the composting toilet. It has no ventilation and smells awful, so I breather through my mouth until I exit. Bad idea! When I close my mouth and try to breathe normally again it is as if I have swallowed the entire contents of the long drop. As I gag on the taste I swear not to make that mistake again!
The Co-op of dreams…
On we go. The miles passing, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Finally Jolene asks me how far we have gone. ‘Are you sure you want me to look?’ I ask. I know how hard it is to keep going when it’s less than you have hoped. She insists. I check, we’ve covered 25 miles, we still have 9 to go. The rain starts again in earnest.
At 32 miles we arrive in Aegviidu, a small town. It’s 6pm and a Sunday, when I spot a co-op I’m not sure why I have a glimmer of hope it might be open. But hope I have, and it pays off! Soaked and smelly we enter the shop and stock up on snacks and drinks. Exactly what we need for that final push to the campsite.
Even refuelled those last miles feel hard. At the site we pitch our tent in the rain and I check out my first blister and show Jolene the impressive chaffing on my back. We eat and go to bed without washing. Even in bed I feel cold and damp, I can’t get warm and I’m unsure if my body is shaking from the strain or the cold.
Day 2 has been tough on me, both physically and mentally. It has thrown doubt into my mind. I still believe I can run the length of Estonia, but will I enjoy it??
Part 2 of our trip is now published! You can read it here.
If you want to know more about this trip, you can find out more about how it came about and our planning here. Our Run Estonia adventure was entirely self supported; read our kit list to find out how we did this.