Estonia – Running the Length of a Country – Part 3

‘It hissed at me when I prodded at it.’ ‘Why did you prod at it?!’ ‘I thought it was dead.’ ‘Please don’t prod anymore snakes.’ ‘Ok.’

In July 2023 Jolene and I set out to run the length of Estonia over eight days, self supported. This is part 3 of our journey. If you haven’t already done so, head over and read Part 1 and Part 2 before you devour this offering.

Run Estonia – Day 6

We rise early in the forest hut, quietly dressing and gathering our belongings so as not to wake the other occupants. The quiet continues at breakfast. We are both subdued and go about our morning routines with little conversation. There is no animosity in the silence. Jolene and I are both introspective people; able to spend time in our own minds working through our thoughts and feelings. And there are a lot of thoughts and feelings to work through on this trip.

As we finish our breakfast outside and heave on our backpacks the first of the scouts begin to rise. We bid them goodbye and thank them for letting us stay as we set out on another day of running. Today we have less miles – thank goodness. We’ve covered around 70 miles over the previous two days and the thought of a mere 24 miles today is very welcome!

It takes about two hours for my body to really get into it today. When did a two hour warm up time become a thing?! But the forest scenery keeps me going. The path twists and turns at first, wending gently through the trees. We occasionally clack our running poles together, our now ingrained and automatic warning to any bears that we are approaching.

First signs of wear and tear

Running has become life. It is our sole purpose each day. Fuel and run, fuel and run, fuel and run. I wish I could do this every day, it is my perfect life.

But, my body is starting to give me its own opinion on this. A slight niggle which started at the side of one knee yesterday is now worse. It is usually background pain but every so often it suddenly increases, sending sharp messages to my brain which override my auto-pilot and bring me to an abrupt halt. Each time I grit my teeth, take a deep breath and limp back into a run.

‘Hop Estonia?’ Jolene offers. If I have to. Whatever it takes!

The long and biting road

You don’t really know how much you like corners until there aren’t any. Emerging from the twisty paths between the trees we are back on long, straight tracks. On and on they stretch, not a corner in sight! It’s time for some more mental tricks to keep my mind occupied. As I tried to sleep last night I started to list modes of transport from A-Z. Today I switch to breeds of dog, then breeds of horse. Finishing with a couple more renditions of Ten Green Bottles. It’s amazing how much distance passes beneath your feet when you can just distract your mind.

There is one more reason to keep moving. Those damn horseflies! The mosquitos may have been put off by my generous lathering of insect repellent but the horse flies just see it as an entrée. They particularly like the back of my arms – the part you can’t see. They make me feel as if I’m going a little insane with their constant buzzing and brutal bites.

We stop for lunch at a campsite beside a river. Access to the water doesn’t look easy but Jolene spots a way down the bank and I start to follow her, only to beat a hasty retreat. Jolene has disturbed a wasp nest. I leave her to get the water and await her return – because I’m a great friend.

As we eat I swaddle myself in my sleeping bag and jacket, despite the heat. Determined not to give the horse flies even an inch of opportunity to join me in a lunch break.

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A shower?

All day I’ve been excited about the campsite tonight. The site is in the grounds of a Nature Centre and in my notes I’ve written that there is a shower! A shower!!!

We emerge from the forest onto a quiet road and trot along until the nature centre comes into view. Turning up the track the campsite is on our right. There are no other campers but there are two small, rundown cabins. Without needing to say anything to each other we clearly both have the same thought and head straight over. Peering through the cabin windows we can see each contains a bunk bed and a small table. Luxury! I try the door of one – locked. But the second opens! It looks as if I’ll be getting another tent free night. Better to ask forgiveness than permission we decide and we dump our packs inside. We can fight over the top and bottom bunk later.

As Jolene sorts through her kit and gets her solar panel set up in the sun I wander over to the smart looking Soomaa Nature Centre. It is a hive of information about the surrounding forest as well as having a small gift shop. However, I see no shower, so I ask the lady on the information desk. ‘No, there’s no shower.’ She must see the look on my face. ‘Are you doing the long route?’ she enquires. When I confirm we are she relents. ‘This key is for the sauna house over there. There’s a shower in there you can use. Bring back the key when you finish.’ I could kiss her! The kindness of strangers swells my heart once more.

The bunk bed which wasn’t

We make the most of our shower experience; stripping off we take it in turns to either be the one showering or be the one washing clothes in a bucket and then swapping. Clean never felt so good.

Arriving back in the cabin after our shower I spot a slight flaw in our plan for a comfy night. There are no slats on the top bunk. I can’t believe it took us so long to notice! Jolene had a terrible nights sleep at the forest hut, so I offer to take the floor and give her the bed. It sounds like a kind move but really it meant the difference between a wooden floor and a wooden bed; so possibly not as saintly as I might like it to sound.

Before we sleep I ask Jolene to tend to the chaffing on my back. It is starting to heal but I need to replace the inadine patch which has helped it so much. She takes a photo so I can see. It looks as if I’ve been thoroughly whipped!

The cabin is muggy and Jolene begins to open the door to let some cool evening air in. ‘No!’ I shout, as the first eager horse fly attempts to join our party. We stick with the mugginess. Tomorrow is another big day and we both hope for some healing sleep.

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Run Estonia – Day 7

I wake during the night and leave the cabin to crouch in the undergrowth for a pee. There is something quite special about a wild wee! A moment of lone stillness. This time there is a low mist across the open campsite, its tendrils reaching into the forest. As usual, despite it being the middle of the night, it’s not fully dark here and it’s easy to imagine all kinds of animals emerging from between the trees. I pee quickly and scoot back to the cabin.

Looking at the distances between campsites today I can see the sensible option is to stop at Kilingi-Nõmme Campfire Site, just outside the town of the same name. This would be a 30 mile day. As usual there’s an alternative plan brewing in the back of my mind. It’s too soon to mention this to Jolene yet though, I need to see how we are both feeling as we run.

Taste of the day

We’ve had some interesting flavours of water already on this trip. From the peaty aqua of the bogs to the silty, insect filled hydration from the river. Today’s offering is another acquired taste; the taps on the Soomaa Nature Centre site dispense strongly sulphurous tasting water. Beggars can’t be choosers as my Mum would have said –  and taps are something of a luxury anyway!

I’m finding it tough getting going again and after a couple of hours I pull out my headphones  for the first time this trip and listen to music. What a difference! Jolene does the same and we bounce along, even giving each other a little dance. The drivers of passing logging lorries smile and wave to us. This is incredibly tough but it also feels so good.

We decide to break the day into chunks again. 13 miles of running before we stop for lunch. Another ten miles and we rest and refuel again. As we approach Kilingi-Nõmme the path diverges with the cycle route going through the town and the walking one around it. We choose the cycling route and are rewarded! We emerge beside a large road and a service station. People try not to stare as two sweaty, grubby runners enter the service station with large packs on their back. Revelling in the air conditioning we gaze at the range of cold drinks on offer. One in particular catches my eye Super Manki, it seems too fitting not to try it.

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Serpents and snacks

It’s not long before we stop again. As we enter the town we spot a co-op. We may have only run about 1.5 miles since the service station but we’re starting to flag. It’s only a couple more miles to the campsite, so it makes sense to stock up on snacks and for me to slide my alternative plan over to Jolene.

I don’t think I can not mention the ice cream I had here; a vegan cucumber and kiwi flavoured delight. Possibly the most refreshing thing I’ve ever tasted. I watch as Jolene devours some fruit and drink. We have covered almost 30 miles already. In my head I can’t face another 30+ miler tomorrow (our last big day). My leg is hurting so much. If we can just push on to the next campsite today we can cut tomorrow down. I know how much I’m asking of Jolene here. I’m being selfish. I can tell she would prefer to stop. But she agrees to push on. I am so grateful.

We trot past our original camping spot and I helpfully point out how boring it looks. ‘The site we’re going to is by a lake!’ I declare ‘and it says there are water wells.’

‘Snake!’ Well there’s a welcome distraction from running. We stop to watch it slither away. ‘I’m going to be worried about treading on snakes for the rest of the run now’ I declare. ‘Having not seen any up until now, I don’t think we’re likely to see lots more’ Jolene reassures. ‘We might be entering snake territory’ I mutter. We are.

I forgot to mention…

When I was talking Jolene into the extra miles today there may be one thing I forgot to mention. At the co-op we had already run around 30 miles, with another 2 miles to the original campsite and 7 after that to Lake Rae Campsite, that meant we were going to have to pull almost 40 miles out of the bag today.

The smattering of dead snakes along the track distract me for a while. However, it seems the high alert system in my brain isn’t functioning correctly. When we stop for a rest Jolene shows me a picture of a snake. ‘You ran right past that one.’ This one was alive – as Jolene found out when she went to investigate.

We’re both suffering now. Around each corner I hope to see a lake but it seems to take forever to come. It hurts my body more to walk than to run, so I keep on pushing.

And finally it is there; Lake Rae and the busy campsite on its shores. The number of people at the campsite reminds us today is Friday. Days of the week stop mattering when all you do is run. This is clearly a popular spot for Estonian weekenders. The lake is busy with swimmers and paddlers and more and more campers keep arriving. We’re clearly not going to get a quiet night.

Rest and refresh

We set up camp close to the old fashioned hand pump, which draws water up from the well. The less we have to walk the better. Heading down to the lake, Jolene is in the water in no time. I cling to the ladder for ages, my body telling me not to lower it into the cold water. When I finally let go and submerge it is delicious!

With dinner eaten it is time to tend to wounds before sleep. The blisters on my toes and feet have multiplied today. I am working my way through blister plasters and tape at quite a rate. There is also an infected horse fly bite on my leg to tend to. Another inadine patch and a little prayer for that one – it’s a bit of a gooey mess.

Our usual evening discussion consists of what dehydrated meal we have chosen to eat and then how good it tastes. Jolene shows me some videos her sons have made to cheer us up. They are dressed as us, with wigs, backpacks and questionable balloon boobs. As they run around the garden back in England they parody us brilliantly. Such welcome comedic relief!

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Run Estonia  – Day 8

Here we are. The last big day. When we planned Run Estonia we had mentioned a seven day run. Today we are on Day 8, because we started half a day early to get miles under our belt. And we will finish on Day 9 because our end point today is at a campsite by the ocean, 5 miles from the end of the route.

It’s a little hard to tell how far we have to run today. My calculations say around 24-25 miles. I really hope I’m right. So far I’ve enjoyed every day of running, despite any pain and the horse flies. Today is to be the day that breaks me. But before that…

A bear!!!

Leaving Lake Rae Campsite the path winds through the forest which hugs the shore of the lake. I am running in front of Jolene when I round a corner and come face to face with a huge bear! I skid to a halt. Laughing. In the split second I slam my brakes on I also realise this is no real bear. Rather a large cut out of one which has been helpfully placed in the forest. Obviously, we stop for photographs!

Our whole route so far has been inland. Today we head for the coast. I can’t wait to see the sea, but I’m going to have to. Once we leave the woods we are mainly on paved roads. And my body begins its break down. The pain in my right leg now starts to move around. Having originated in my knee it now moves up to my hip and then, at times, down to my shin. Clearly I’ve been running differently on it because of the pain, which has thrown my whole leg out.

Crying for help

The pain. I just can’t get my focus away from it. I keep asking my mind to urge my body forward but finally something gives. I stop and turn to see Jolene has stopped for a pee. And the emotion just surges out. Leaning over on my running pole I let out a huge sob. For around a minute I stay there, allowing the sobs to burst from deep within me.

‘Are you ok?’ I hear Jolene ask gently behind me. ‘It just hurts so much’ I heave. Gradually the sobs subside and with it the pain. It is as if the release of emotion has also released my body slightly. ‘I’m sorry for crying’ I tell Jolene. ‘I’m just sorry it’s taken you until day 8 to cry!’ she laughs. ‘I’ve cried almost every day!’ It’s exactly the humour we need to get going again.

I put my headphones in again. I don’t usually listen to music when running but it’s needed now. A song from my favourite group, Runrig, comes on; Hearts of Olden Glory. More tears spring to my eyes as the song evokes thoughts of my Mum and my late partner, Bob. I picture my Mum at a concert singing along and I ask the spirit of both of them to help me reach the ocean.

Limping on

I’m trying to find a rhythm once more when a huge blister on my toe bursts. The pain makes me bite down on my running pole in agony. Jolene asks if I want to stop and dress the wound but my stubborn head insists we carry on until we get to the coast.

A few people have mentioned since the run that Jolene and I never seem to be running together in photos. We were always in sight of one another but we also kept to our own pace and our own mind space. I like to run in front and get very disheartened when I’m behind. I’m incredibly lucky that Jolene doesn’t have this hang up and is happy to let me go ahead. We may not have run together all the time but we did run in total harmony. And we were always by each others side when we needed each other.

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We can see the sea!

After approximately one trillion miles we spot the sea! As we hit the coast we stop at a Nature Centre and I finally relent and dress my burst blister. We still have a good few miles to go but it feels so good to have made it this far.

The daily campsite discussion starts. This time I’m actually tempted to stop sooner than planned and it’s Jolene who persuades me to go on. I’ve been seduced by the mention of showers at the first campsite, which would leave us a couple more miles to run in the morning. Jolene, however, likes the sound of our planned Krappi campsite. She offers me the best compromise ever. The first campsite also has a bar. We can stop there for a drink and then push on the last two miles.

Beer! Our first beer since we started running a week ago. Today is a super hot day so take a moment to imagine how good this felt. Eight days of running, around 220 miles covered and now we have a beer in our hand! I’m not sure how we managed to tear ourselves away after just one beer.

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A perfect spot for our final night in Estonia

I’m so glad Jolene persuaded me to push on. Krappi Campsite was not krappi at all, well apart from the toilet and we were used to that by then!

The trees ran right up to the dune line, which gave way to the beach and then the sea. After a paddle in the ocean we set up camp.

Then we went through the ritual of washing our clothes and hanging from the trees one last time. Ready for us to put on, cold and wet, in the morning, one last time. One last time we prepared our dinner and ate, sitting on the floor beside the tent. One last time we dressed our injuries and snuggled into our sleeping bags for one last sleepless night.

It wasn’t long before I was up again, needing to crawl back out of the tent for a pee. As I walked back from the long drop I spotted the sun beginning to set behind the trees. It was almost 10pm; late for us, but I couldn’t resist the lure of an ocean sunset. Poking my head back into the tent I told Jolene what I was going to do and headed to the beach.

I wasn’t the only one. Most of the campsite were on the beach. But it was still peaceful. The sea stayed shallow for a long way out and people strolled up and down in the water, watching and waiting for the sky to give us a show. After around ten minutes Jolene sat down beside me. There was no way she was going to miss out on this either. I’ll let you look at the pictures to see if it was worth it.

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Run Estonia – The finish line

We wake early as usual and eat breakfast. Today is different though. Our food supplies are used up and I dispose of my gas canister after breakfast. Our packs, which weighed around 15kg at the start of the trip, are now reduced by at least 4kg. They finally feel light as we position them on our backs. We have five miles to run. My body vibrates with emotion.

We run at a pace we haven’t achieved in any of the previous days. Spurred on by the thought of the border. However, setting off quickly has its draw backs. After a couple of miles we spot a long drop shed beside a grave yard. We both stop and admit we do rather need the toilet. The shed is very new looking, what luxury! Jolene goes in first and emerges a couple of minutes later. ‘You can’t poo in there. It hasn’t been installed yet. There’s no hole underneath it.’ What disappointment!

We did it!

The miles tick over and I watch the kilometer markers at the side of the road ticking down our distance. 5km to go,  4, 3, 2…1. And then we see it, the border line with Lativa and the end of the Oandu – Ikla Trail. We have done it! I have tears in my eyes again writing this. 375km (over 230 miles) in around 7.5 days of running.

I am overcome with tears once more. Anyone who knows me will realise how much this means. I struggle to cry usually. Not because I don’t want to cry but because past grief has caused me to bury deep emotion when it arises. Not now though. Now the tears of happiness and relief flow.

It is still early in the morning and there is no one around but a lone car approaches and drives past. They see us there celebrating and clearly realise what we have done. They beep their horn to celebrate with us. It is magical.

Jolene exclaims how quickly we must have run those final miles. ‘It’s still only 8am’. I am forced to admit I set our alarm half an hour earlier than usual this morning, at 6am.

A final sting in the tail

All we need do now is step over the border into Latvia and walk about a kilometre to the bus station in the small town of Ainazi. From there we are catching a bus to Riga for three days of rest and relaxation in a spa hotel.

Before we leave Estonia though we have unfinished business. I spot a board walk leading down to the sea. And along it is a long drop shed. ‘I’m going to the loo before we go!’ I declare happily. And in I go. Only to emerge 30 seconds later, yanking my shorts back up hastily. ‘You can’t poo in there either, there’s a swarm of wasps!’

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After the adventure

I feel the full after the adventure story needs a short post of its own, so these are just some brief snapshots of the moments and days once we had finished running.

Firstly, at the sleepy bus station at Ainazi there was a toilet block. With actual flushing toilets and taps with running water! What heaven. I had packed my bag this morning with a plan in mind. While in the toilet block I strip off my damp and smelly running clothes and slip on the lightweight dress I bought with me and my flip flops. It feels final, a detachment. The first step back into the normal world.

Then I cross the street to a smart coffee shop and buy Jolene and I a coffee each. Yes, they had oat milk.

On the bus to Riga we are both a little dazed. There is no denying we were ready for the running to stop but I’m not sure we were ready for the adventure to end. It feels like a wrenching exit.

Beautiful Riga

Once in Riga we find our hotel and marvel at soft beds and hot showers. We visit a charity shop to get an outfit each for becoming tourists. The only outward clue to what we have just done is our taped up feet and toes.

For a couple of days we stroll the streets of Riga, taking in the sights, the beer and the food. We visit the hotel spa, where I struggle to sit still for more than ten minutes. We hide from rain storms and I tell Jolene fake history stories about the city. We have fun, we laugh and chat and are just as easy in each others company as we were in the wilds of Estonia. Which takes me to my final point.

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Thank you

I was so blessed to have the most perfect adventure companion for this trip. I can’t think of anyone else who could have complimented me so well. We had no quarrels or quibbles with each other and we have come away with a shared experience which I would struggle to match

When someone asked afterwards how we split the task of setting and breaking camp, the truthful reply from Jolene was ‘I did it.’ She did, she was the organised one when it came to kit and she just got on with it. My worry then was; ‘wait, what did I do then?’ You were the planner’ she replied. And she was right again. I’m a big picture planner and she’s a practical details person.

Thank you Jolene. Now, where are we running next?

And thank you to all of you who followed our adventure. Thank you to Dad and John C for taking care of Brew and Loki Dog while I was away. And to Cara for looking after Spooky the horse. Thank you to Ollie, Seb and Tallyn for silly videos and inspirational quotes.

All your words of encouragement meant such a lot to us. And the cheeky smile and warm greeting from one special friend at Leicester Bus Station upon our return was the cherry on top of a perfect adventure.

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.

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