Choosing pain

Snap from the road. Photo: Emma Robertson
Follow Jerome's team as they make their way to their destination.  Illustration: Milan Cater
Follow Jerome’s team as they make their way to their destination.
Illustration: Milan Cater

I was sitting in the back of some stranger’s truck. They had locked me in, and, with the last rays of daylight streaming in, I could see scratches on the truck’s sides that clearly told the story of previous crashes. The marks had perforated the thin metal wall that was all that was separating me from oncoming traffic. I had no seatbelt, no nothing. The noise from the wind and rain, reverberating inside that little box, was deafening, and I could hardly stay upright, we were swerving so much. As it got darker, it got colder, forcing me to pile our bags around my body and insulate myself with cardboard.

We’d left St Andrews at 5 am that morning to be dropped off north of Glasgow and had spent a whole day to get only as far as Hillend – the same service station south of Edinburgh that some Race2 groups had started from. The weather was really terrible, even by Scottish standards. I’m not the type to willingly hop in the back of strangers’ trucks, but we were so worn, soaking and frustrated (after three hours in the rain), we had taken the first ride we could get.

But, when the only light I had left was moonlight, I started to freak out a bit. We’d left with them at 2:30pm, and they said it would only be an hour to our next stop. How long had I been in the car for it to get this dark? What if they’d overpowered my teammate, Dave Doherty, and were taking me… somewhere?

In my panic I pulled out my phone and texted Dave, who was (hopefully still) in the front seat with the father and son drivers from Bradford. I ask what was going on, if he was still intact and (in case he had been compromised) I demanded he confirm his identity with details from his chemistry dissertation.

Thankfully he replied soon enough, providing ample proof of his identity, reassuring me he’s having a great time discussing football with the guys and that they’ve decided to take us further than we’d initially agreed. He mentioned that we were swerving so frequently because windshield wipers annoy our driver, so he has them off most of the time, making it almost impossible to see the road.

Little did we know then that our trip, which according to Google Maps was a 24-hour, 2480km (1540mi) car ride, would take us more than five days and 3120km (1940mi) to complete. To put it in perspective, our ground journey was the same distance as the journey from Las Vegas to Atlanta.

Snap from the road. Photo: Emma Robertson
Snap from the road.
Photo: Emma Robertson

The following is an account of how we chose pain over pleasure in taking on this challenge. It includes the highs, the lows and invaluable lessons learned from our epic trip.

Round 0: What is Race2?

As fifth year chemists, it was our last chance to participate in Race2, so we set out on 15 January 2015 along with about 200 other St Andrews students divided into 63 teams. We identified ourselves by the team name: C9H13NO3-(R), the empirical formula for the hormone adrenaline! The idea was to raise funds for the University Charities Campaign by doing a sponsored charity hitch-hike: Race2Madrid. Race2 happens every January (I’d previously raced to Prague in 2012), and last year Race2Berlin raised upwards of £38,000. This year’s beneficiaries were a local, a national, and an international charity: The charity Families First supports families and children across Scotland. Macmillan Cancer Support do what their name suggests. Simply mentioning the name Macmillan while we were still in the UK lead people to donate to our cause. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) helps provide medical care all over the world (and in Franceit is as widely supported a name as Macmillan is in the UK).

Round 1: Warm to cold

The cheer from our time with the Bradford guys wore off when we realized we’d only managed to make it a third of the way down the country by nightfall. Said warmth was replaced with the coldness we received (on multiple occasions) from British service station staff. In every station throughout our trip, we’d always politely indicate our presence and sponsorship cause (“Charity!”) to the relevant authorities. In Europe hitch-hiking was always acceptable; only in the UK were we (sometimes) treated poorly – arguably due to an exaggerated fear of insurance risk and of being looked down upon as ‘vagabond liabilities.’

But the UK was also where we experienced some of the greatest acts of generosity of our whole trip. We received more cash donations during our first day than the rest of them put together. And on our first night, an area hotel manager arranged for us to stay in a room for free. To celebrate, we bought a wooden duck to mark the occasion.

Dolan. Photo: Jerome Gano
Photo: Jerome Gano

At the start of day two, we were spurned by yet another service station but then happened upon Iain, who ended up taking us straight to the orbital highway south of London. Iain was quite the character, and it was a joy listening to some of his stories, ranging from his work as a SCUBA diver off the coast of Alaska scouting oil pipeline routes to his current job at the top of Aberdeen petrol industry politics. Best of all, the previous day, he’d picked up an entirely different Race2 team! We met that same team later in the evening at a hostel in Dover, and they shared with us that Iain also had a fondness for travelling the world taking local ethnic cooking classes.

Despite Iain’s apparent penchant for hitch-hikers, there are a few standard reasons people avoid them, and the presence of children in the car ranks fairly high on this list. So it surprised us when a family pulled up and asked us if we wanted a ride, joking out loud that, “We don’t have anything valuable and the car’s a piece of crap, so there’s nothing to lose!” As it turns out, our duck was a smash hit with the daughter of the couple, and overall, though they had the least means of anyone who helped us, they shared freely everything they could, which was more than enough. Similarly I’ve never stayed in as rancorous, loud, unkempt and dirty a hostel as the one we ended up in that night in Dover. But neither had I ever seen an establishment so accommodating when they ran out of beds, fitting in four more people than they had room for after 13 unexpected Race2-ers ended up there that night.

The next morning, while sitting in front of a service station, we asked a man on his way to the rest-room for a ride; he said, “We don’t take strangers.” But on his way out, he agreed to take us onto the ferry. After spending some time with him and explaining our journey, he bought us tea and sandwiches before sparing us from getting stuck in Calais by taking us through France, and then out north of France, into Belgium.


Round 2: Europe, and getting robbed

If you can picture Europe, you’ll know that going from France to Belgium isn’t quite on the path to Spain. Once in Belgium, we were faced with a tough decision: to accept a long-distance ride down the west coast of France and risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere far from any service stations or to turn down the offer and wait for another. The best way to hitch-hike is to coast via service stations since they provide you with the best chance of meeting people able to drive you as they’re already on the highway, clearly heading somewhere and you have the chance to chat with and (hopefully) convince them to accept you as passengers.

We decided not to take the ride – and were soon plagued by doubts about it. Incidentally, many teams got to Madrid quicker than us by the very route we had chosen to reject.

We got a ride instead from a woman very into environmental activism (whom Dave had actually met last year in a shopping mall in the Netherlands), and it was good to hear the motivations behind the recent anti-fracking protests she had attended in Manchester. In particular, excessive police turnout (400 officers for a dozen protesters), reports of police bullying and provocation and fabrication of charges against the activists. It was a similar story to that of a Ukranian nun I met while travelling to Prague last month, who felt responsible for having encouraged people to attend pro-democracy rallies that ended in police brutality that left some protesters disabled for life. At least in Western Europe the police get in trouble if they maim anyone.

A sweet moment on the road.  Photo: Emma Robertson
A sweet moment on the road.
Photo: Emma Robertson

We ended up getting stuck on the north coast of France outside Dunkerque and resorted to taking a train down to the poor mining town of Lens in the northeast. The plan was to somehow climb onto the major north-south toll-highway nick-named l’Autoroute des Anglais, so-called for all the British tourists who drive it south.

Unfortunately in our grand plan we lost sight of a key factor: safety. As racers, we had been advised in advance: ‘With hitch-hiking, there’s always an inherent risk with strangers. Neither the passenger nor the driver can ever guarantee if the other person is safe.’ As it turns out, that risk remains whether you’re in a car or not.

On our walk from the train station to the highway, we ended up in the deprived, middle-of-nowhere, residential neighbourhood of Angres. Only after eagerly setting off for the highway on foot did we realized we’d massively underestimated the map’s scale. We’d never make it on our own.

In Angres, we met two French teenagers who keenly agreed to help us. In fact, we couldn’t have had more animated guides or a more direct path to our destination. But it was a little strange that they asked us if we were carrying money and passports. And that they stopped off to pick up a friend. And that everyone in their neighbourhood was calling to each other and peering at us through their windows (this was a proper rural French ghetto). And that they seemed quite outgoing and friendly (despite being Racaille, the French equivalent of NEDs). And that they’d walk 45 minutes out of their way to help us for no reward. And that they were being a bit too possessive of Dave’s new smartphone, which had our map of the neighborhood on it (and which they didn’t seem to need but regardless kept holding onto and checking it every few minutes).

Right as we got the very edge of Angres, with the highway service station just on the other side of a small field, the three paused – and then gleefully tore off with Dave’s phone in hand.

More than the machine, it was our memories they’d just stolen.

Round 3: The nice side of France

Now I don’t tell this story to scare you off of doing Race2. In fact, Race2 gives a fantastic experience of seeing ‘the real world’ outside of St Andrews. These are exactly the sort of things that happen when you lack caution and street smarts. As frustrating as the cellphone-stealing incident was, thankfully it wasn’t anything more serious. I haven’t heard of anything worse ever happening to a Race2 team. So as long as you don’t try to bushwhack after dark through a foreign ghetto (which, in afterthought, is really not a good idea), everything should be fine.

We called the Race2 safety team immediately (whom we all checked in with, every four hours for the whole trip), sorted out cancelling the SIM card and bought the most sublime French chicken sandwich to brighten our moods.

After a rather cold night on the floor, we found rides with hunters searching for wild boar, then with a couple going skiing (with whom we saw a wild dear running parallel to the road) and at last with a retired English couple (who took us all the way to Perpignan, north of the Spanish border). I was very glad to be relieved of speaking, navigation and story-telling duties since until this point in Europe most all our rides had been incessant conversation in languages Dave can’t speak.

This may sound too fantastic to be true, but the English couple who dropped us off in Perpignan were actually from the district in Manchester that had recently been disrupted by the very protest our anti-fracking driver had participated in! The husband was rather quiet, but after exhausting the topics of dogs, fishing, Scottish independence, the chemical industry and how “if they’d known I have green hair they wouldn’t have picked us up,” he became quite animated in his critique of the protests. He listed his complaints but ended in resignation to the fact that the rich landowners would do as they pleased regardless of public opinion. The real victims were the locals whose roads were being blocked because of the protest. In a crazy twist of fate, we were able to learn about both sides of this issue on our way to Madrid.

Meanwhile, travelling south towards the Mediterranean was fantastic. We could see the landscape become more arid, with dry bushes replacing forests. The air got warmer, and the architecture became distinctively more Roman.

While waiting at one station, we met a bus-load of young men returning from a rugby match. They were going the opposite direction as we were, so if our sole focus had been optimizing our chances of winning the race, we would have rejected them and immediately moved on. But once we stopped seeing people as a function of ‘how can this person be useful to me,’ and started chatting for enjoyment’s sake, we tapped into the real fun and joy of hitch-hiking. It isn’t only about travelling for cheap; it’s about the experiences and people you meet along the way.

Round Four: Losing our heads

However, sleeping rough in a service station for another night took its toll. I found it wasn’t so much the discomfort of the hard floor that prevented us from resting well, as it was the cold. Without blankets we couldn’t sleep deeply enough for it to count. As a result, we were slower, less aware and less able to wake up at 5am the next morning. We had arranged a ride to Barcelona with a truck driver but then didn’t wake up in time. Worse, while on our first ride of the day, I realized I had lost my phone. Stranded and unable to text the safety team, all I could do was use a pay phone to call myself and wait. After two hours, right before we were about to move on, the payphone rang. It was our most recent driver reassuring me he’d found my phone and would send it back to St Andrews. Just one of many acts of generosity that got us through.

The teams begin to arrive in Madrid. Photo: Emma Robertson
The teams begin to arrive in Madrid.
Photo: Emma Robertson

This was the pivotal point in the race for us. After four days and two sleepless nights, we weren’t held-together enough to keep going. Dave (who’d previously spent an entire summer driving all the way from St Andrews to Mongolia with S.T.A.A.G.) admitted that this Race2Madrid was the most challenging adventure he’d ever been on. So would we continue to try our hand hitch-hiking from this tiny, deserted border pit stop? Or would we cave in and pay our way? Would doing so be tantamount to failure? What would be justifiable circumstances in which to call it quits?

Airplanes forced our hand. We both had one-way tickets out of Madrid, which were fast expiring, so we prioritized spending a few extra days in the city rather than on the road. And the race had already been won a few days earlier by a group that had managed to crowd source their airfare. In the end, Race2 is a chance game – one can’t actually control one’s circumstances or force better rides to appear. And we’d had some pretty bad luck, including the Belgian detour and hitch-hiking in the context of the highest domestic terror alert France and Belgium had ever seen. Not to mention the blooming fire in the channel tunnel, stifling the flow of cars down our highway of choice.

We were sufficiently satisfied when looking at our progress in light of the odds against us. Thus we decided to take a bus and train to Barcelona and grab an overnight bus from there to Madrid.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and relaxing. Apart from when we happened upon a giant, jet-black iron art installation behind Barcelona’s main train station. It was in the form of a dragon, but upon closer inspection, we realized it also had three slides coming off the wings and tail. (You climbed up through the mouth, as one does.) If you remember the wooden duck we’d gotten on our first night (whom out of boredom we’d ironically christened Dolan), here was his moment to shine. He had accompanied us all throughout our trip without as much as a scratch, his head often peering out of our bags since we couldn’t quite fit all of him in.

I climbed through the dragon and set Dolan up at the top of the slide. With a swift push I launched him down, but the slope was too great. Not even Brave Sir Robin could have fled his dragon foe as quickly as Dolan did. Dave didn’t even have time to reach out and catch him, so he stuck out his foot to stop him – and kicked Dolan’s head clean off! I’d wanted Dolan to get some flesh wounds, signs of having really lived it on the way to Madrid, but nothing so severe as swift decapitation! I followed suit on my trusty piece of cardboard, which though it successfully insulated my rear from the rain on the slide, it also facilitated my sliding across the glistening sidewalk straight into a massive puddle. Dolan literally lost his head, I got soaked and we had an hour left for the overnight bus.

We arrived the next morning in a hostel entirely reserved for Race2 teams ranked 53rd of 64 teams. Looking back, I stopped caring about the race on our first night. It was much more about the experience and the lessons learned. Needless to say, it was a blast spending time in Madrid with other St Andrews students who’d had equally eventful adventures of their own. But I couldn’t help feeling changed as a result of Race2Madrid.

Round 5: Return to St Andrews

Dave and I had spent all this time and effort traveling on as little money as possible (the whole trip cost me less than my flight back home). But after moonlighting as an impoverished traveller, I easily hopped on a plane and returned to my nice, warm bed in pleasant St Andrews. I thought student housing was deprived and cold, but we all have beds and blankets that keep us warm enough to wake up ready to work. Although the benefit system in this country may be scorned by some, at least it is attainable and functional for those who need it.

Asking every stranger we came across for help (or even just a smile), sleeping on floors and sitting in the back of that truck like a refugee were all profound experiences. I went and did this for fun and adventure, to see outside my privilege. Heck, I’d never even taken an overnight highway bus ‘till last month. But so many people face worse hunger, cold and transport danger daily.

Now I can imagine what it’s like to live in a country without welfare or where police brutality is a real threat. Race2 is great because, in a bite-sized and sanitized way (24/7 safety team and a maximum race time of six days), St Andrews students are given a chance to grow in empathy and solidarity with people who live differently than us. I didn’t have a universally fun, relaxing or easy experience. But everyone who does it loves the adventure.

Unfortunately all participants have a set minimum fundraising goal of £150, which many of us still haven’t met. I strongly encourage you to support the work the Charities Campaign are doing through Race2, either by participating or simply donating to teams.

We chose pain, and we grew through it. Team 62, sign-off.

If you are interested in donating to Team C9H13NO3’s Race2 fundraising efforts, please visit:



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