Whichever side of the debate you are on, it is hard to deny that the EU has shaped our club. Nine members set out to run across six borders.
As we ran along the outskirts of Aachen in Germany we were anticipating another national border. One kilometre, the sign said. Ten minutes per mile, so we would be in the Netherlands in six minutes. But it felt like a long time. Were we in Vaals, already in the Netherlands, or still in Aachen? We stopped and looked carefully. Then we glanced at the car park next to us and spotted the word ‘Nederland’ in the European Union twelve-star blue sign – totally obscured by overgrown shrubs. We laughed – that was how much these two countries cared about this border. In our entire weekend of running, it was there at a Dutch (or was it German?) car park that we found the most poignant symbol of free movement of people in Europe.
According to our club’s statistics, in November 2017 the Serpentine Running Club had 270 members who are non-British EU nationals – one in every six members. It is safe to say that the EU’s free movement policy has been vital to the social fabric of Serpentine. EU nationals are our committee members, regular running buddies, best friends, even husbands or wives. Many members, British or else, constantly race in all parts of Europe – the marathons in Rotterdam, Berlin and San Sebastian are among the most popular races for us. The existence of the EU has moulded the club we have today. Whilst there are many sides to the political arguments, it is undeniable that the UK’s vote to “Leave” in the 2016 EU Referendum could have significant implications for many of our members.
During a Wednesday Club Run in March we were chatting about politics. Article 50 was being triggered by the British government at the same time as we ran past the Houses of Parliament. We were dejected, but we wanted to do something positive and fun about the UK’s withdrawal. We then thought, how about running across some borders during the Brexit-vote anniversary weekend in late June 2017? What would be more symbolic to free movement than running borders? That evening I created an itinerary linking border towns of the six European countries which signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to establish the predecessor of the European Union. I advertised it among my Serpie friends and we formed a group of nine. In the next few weeks we refined the routes, created a Facebook page and made running T-shirts for the trip. The Schengen Sprint was on.
The Ligurian Coast
After showing our passports at the airport in Genoa, Italy, we tucked them away safely and settled in the Ligurian seaside town of Ventimiglia for the evening. We carb-loaded with some delicious pizzas and – when in Italy – a few late-night gelati. Thankfully, the ice creams created no ill effect the next morning when we started our adventure. Our run began at a sign pointing towards “Francia”, but Ventimiglia was still unmistakably Italian. Through the narrow, cobbled streets motorbikes streamed past, while we skirted around the medieval town centre and ran up a hilly road. It was a humid day, and it did not take us long to find the route difficult as it bended consistently upwards. We were running in varying pace but we stopped at intervals to wait for each other whilst admiring the stunning Mediterranean Sea. We continued through some small Italian villages, where a French runner said “bonjour” and sprinted towards his homeland. Perhaps a popular running route this hilly coastline?
On the road to France, I noticed a few Africans slowly walking back from the border. I speculated that perhaps they were migrants trying to reach the French border. It made me feel so fortunate that we had the freedom to do leisure running like this right next to the Ligurian coastline. Soon the French Riviera was in our sight and we descended towards the border. The road to free movement was hard-earned, but beautiful. 10km from Ventimiglia, we ran past the French customs building where a few policemen were stationed. We posed for photos, celebrated our first passport-free border crossing, and I thought about those Africans. I soon realised it wasn’t just they who symbolised the disparities among people and nations. On the other side of this porous border, Menton felt much richer than Ventimiglia. On a tidily-paved seaside boulevard we ran the final kilometre, before ending our first cross-border run at a train station close to a port full of expensive yachts.
Schengen – hill, fields, and river
We spent the rest of the day in France. We enjoyed the beach in Nice, flew to Paris for dinner, and took a high-speed train to Metz for the night. Our next adventure would be our signature run. From the rural town of Sierck-les-Bains, we ran about 5km towards Luxembourg through its back roads. Somehow, we picked a hilly road in a forest. Hill running is the hardest when you have no idea how far you have to go. We wondered how much further we would still be in France – imagine a national border in the middle of Hampstead Heath. We were excited but we were also tired of this ascent. Then we saw a waist-high steel barrier. Was this the border? My phone’s GPS said no – the border was 200m away. So, we climbed over and continued until we saw a small stone erected on the footpath, “F” on one side, “L” on the other. With no one else in sight, the Luxembourgers told us very quietly we had entered their country. This small border stone was high enough for us to stretch our tired legs.
After the Luxembourger woods, we came to a field of wheat. Remember that interview during the 2017 UK General Election campaign? The Schengen Sprint simply had to do what Theresa May said was the naughtiest thing she had ever done. We brandished our EU flags and ran completely freely in the fields. We succeeded where she failed – no farmers came out to tell us off. However, if they did see us, they would be pleased to know that the Schengen Sprint had arrived at the capital of this trip – Schengen, Luxembourg.
We paused at the European Museum of Schengen. Outside there were flags of the countries who participated in the Schengen Area – including non-EU members like Switzerland and Norway, but excluding the UK and Ireland. In between the flags a local tour guide greeted us. She was glad to see we came from the UK for this running protest, and she told us to “take care of Europe”. In the museum we went through the history of the Schengen Agreement, as well as learning how the EU functioned. There was no mention of the UK’s leaving the union, however we made sure our visit would not go unnoticed. We signed the visitors’ book, where I wrote down our Facebook page website, and put a bold statement – “one day we will re-join”.
Our day of running was to finish on the other side of River Moselle in the German town of Perl, but not all of us ran into Germany. The Schengen Agreement was signed by representatives of nations on a boat in this river, so two of us symbolically took freedom of movement to another level – swimming across to Germany. It was a calm day and the river was slow flowing. Seven runners lived up to the name of our trip and sprinted over the bridge to Perl, whilst the two swimmers made it safely across in breast stroke. We applauded as they emerged from the water. What freedom, and what a way to arrive in another country.
The Low Countries
We journeyed up the railway along the River Moselle, switched to the Rhine, before heading west to Aachen. This is a city of huge importance in European history – many Holy Roman Emperors were crowned there, followed by the Spanish Army of Flanders laying siege in the city. Centuries later Nazi Germany was defeated by the Allies there in an important Second World War battle. But none of that drama when the Schengen Sprint arrived. In the time of the European Union, we found a calm city with tasty bratwursts, beautiful churches and majestic squares. In fact, I thought we were the only ones causing a scene. On our 7km run out of Germany, a driver stared at us in surprise, and forgot to turn when the traffic lights changed.
Whilst the border post entering the Netherlands was confusing, in Vaals everything was distinctively Dutch. The land was flat as a pan, a group of cyclists streamed past us, and a couple of ‘coffee shops’ appeared when we arrived in Maastricht. We had a quick break and seemed to be well received. A Dutchman on the street asked us what we were doing and we had a chat about Europe. We started our final 15km of running from the stone commemorating the Treaty of the European Union, which was signed in this city in 1992. In the city centre we flew down the cobbled streets whilst jazz musicians filled the atmosphere. Many Sunday shoppers clapped us on. A large sign in town said “Maastricht: Meet Europe”, and Maastricht definitely met the Schengen Sprint. Our European spirit was in full swing.
We criss-crossed a park in Maastricht’s suburb and joined a highway towards the Belgian border. It was a quietly overcast Sunday afternoon and we were the only people travelling on foot. We were approaching our final border crossing, but frankly the Dutch-Belgian border was highly unremarkable, as it is perhaps the softest of all soft borders in the world. The Dutch didn’t bother to bid farewell, or say “thank you for visiting”, just as they didn’t say “hello” when we entered. The Belgians were equally ambivalent. There was a sign headlined “B”, with a website of a domain name “.be” asking drivers of heavy goods vehicles to pay road duties. The only people making a bold statement at this border were the Flemish – the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium. ‘Vlaanderen’ was proclaimed in bright yellow, loud and proud with its lion symbol.
We might have entered a part of Europe where regional sentiments rode strongly, but the next thing we saw reminded us this was a united Europe after all. A Union Jack stood side by side with the Belgian tricolour. It was a war memorial, commemorating the sacrifices made by armed forces of both Britain and Belgium. No matter which side of the EU argument we are on, it is undeniable that we share many historical connections with our neighbours. In this tranquil woodland park, we couldn’t help but feel deeply that we would remain close to the fate of Europe, come what may. We continued running deeper into Belgium, but we couldn’t disguise our tired legs. Luckily, we only had a few sleepy Flemish towns to negotiate. We dodged roadworks, navigated farmlands, and arrived at the city of Bilzen, our final destination.
We celebrated with beers in a small bar, and then a few more after arriving in Brussels by train. There was no better place to revel in our odyssey than the union’s capital. Having run over the borders of six countries – most of the time slowly – it still felt strangely like a sprint. It was a sprint across Europe collecting snapshots of this diverse continent with a shared history and also future. From Italy all the way to Belgium we saw the unrestricted movement bringing these European nations together, whilst in no way diminishing their own cultural identities. How beautiful the disappearing borders were.
PS: The Schengen Sprint nine – representing nine countries and five current EU Member States – Maureen, Richard, Donna, Natalia, Adam, Tamara, Damien, Eda and myself. Grazie, merci, danke, dank jullie!
PPS: We have talked about Schengen Sprint 2.0, through different EU/Schengen countries. Ideas welcome – let’s make European running great again!
Hans Ho has not stopped running since 1996 when he was asked to run a cross country race for his school. Since then he has completed seven marathons in six different countries. Currently he coordinates the Wednesday night Three-parks club run, and has a website here: hansineurasia.wordpress.com