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London to Auschwitz: Day 23, Ústí nad Orlicí to Opava, 140km today, 2075km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 23, Ústí nad Orlicí to Opava, 140km today, 2075km total

Yesterday was a tough day and a long one. I remembered a 10 mile section that stank of manure and the whole area was covered with flies which kept latching onto my legs. You learn to keep your mouth closed in places like this and breathe only through your nose. The people were so miserable throughout the whole day and it really was quite painful with the strong headwind. It was all just rubbish.

But somehow when I reached the hostel for the night I was fine, everything felt good. The long and tiring day which made me want to throw the bike away and get on the next train was over. Somehow the memory of the pain had fallen away. I felt good and the suffering was forgotten. I was living life at that moment in the evening and everything was great.

Two small deer ran across the field ahead whilst climbing one of the hills
Two small deer ran across the field ahead whilst climbing one of the hills

However today also started badly. There was something wrong with the bike. I stopped to oil the chain and pump up the tyres by the side of the road, but back on the bike, my speed was still cripplingly slow. I had somehow destroyed all the muscles in my legs and I was just unable to pedal anymore. I spent a good 2 hours at this 12kmph speed (7.5mph – not that much faster than walking). I figured I just had to press on and knock off as many miles as I could.

I was in a lot of pain both physically and mentally. I had a long way to go and my legs were having none of it. I tried to stand up and push harder, but I couldn’t sustain it for more than a minute – maximum.

Suddenly it became clear what was wrong with the bike and my legs. I reached the crest of a hill. I had been climbing a gradient for several hours, but was unable to tell by the landscape as it was consistent and continuous. I was so relieved to suddenly be zooming at about 50kmph downhill without pedaling for almost 30 minutes before stopping to buy many more energy bars.

The roads had a lot of switch backs like this!
The roads had a lot of switch backs like this!

Alas the hills didn’t stop. Suddenly I found my speed was back to the snail pace of earlier in the day. I was climbing again but this time I knew it. I spent about 2 hours and 20 kilometers doing nothing but slowly climb through the trees on a lonesome road. Pulling into a parking area, I sat on the grass verge with my head hanging low. I wasn’t at the top, it was endless.

I was not enjoying myself. I was not happy. I contemplated why I was doing this. Surely I could have just driven here? Or taken my motorbike? Or even taken the train, or better yet flown? The whole motivation of the trip crumbled away in my mind. What was the point? Why should I be on my pushbike suffering like this? I was mentally defeated. I tried to motivate myself back up by thinking about the pain I had overcome just yesterday. Surely it will all be better once I get there? Thinking about my original keenness I had for the trip and remembering of the highlights so far, I managed to pick myself up and get back on the bike.

Eventually I reached the top to find myself not needing to pedal much for a good 30 kilometres. The sun came out and I was singing again.

Sunset on the open road
Sunset on the open road

When I first arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of cycling. The roads were perfectly smooth and the drivers a lot more courteous. Now I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a week; the first couple of days I was incredibly frustrated at the quality of the roads, despite them not being that different from English roads I’m used to. I was just used to the smooth German roads and it was annoying to be back on the bumpy broken tarmac. Today, however, the roads were the worst they have ever been but I was expecting it, I didn’t even think about complaining.

My point is that we, as humans, get used to things. Whether they be the quality of the road, perhaps living with your parents at home and having a full fridge, or just always having loved ones around you to support you. Putting yourself in a situation where you don’t have these things is tough. Unfamiliarity is difficult. This is a lesson I personally learn again and again, and of course humanity learns it over and over.

There are so many analogies that you can create from familiarity: having a loved one pass away, moving to a new town perhaps for university, if you live in the South of The United States of America then it might be rare to encounter a homosexual. These things might be tough at first, yet somehow we can get used to them.

I have had uncontrollable emotional responses throughout this trip – both good and bad. When rationalised, I could overcome the challenging ones, but it wasn’t easy.

I have tried to relate these human feelings to the World Wars: I imagine that if you are used to fighting all day it becomes strangely normal. If you are an SS guard then perhaps seeing and inflicting suffering unfortunately becomes normality. From some accounts I have read, people in concentration camps manage to put aside the poor treatment and take pleasure in other small things.

We are all adaptable creatures but remember there are always limits. If you are a good person then there is only so much pain you can inflict on others; if you are being tortured there are limits to how much you can take before you give up. Regular evaluation is always valuable to work out whether these limits have been reached – but you need to push through the limits to know where they are. Mine was probably a few days ago but it’s valuable that I now know that.

I have just a couple of days left of this trip. I have had to overcome low points of pain but lived some incredible highs (probably endorphin related!). The lessons learnt from this trip don’t have to just be in regard to a physical challenge, but they can relate to any challenge. Whether it be a project at work, a personal project, completing a course or just reading a book. Something that you know is good for you but sometimes hard to get up and do. I hope that you reading this can relate it to something in your life and hopefully this can spur you on to do something you know you should do, but it’s just difficult right now.

Get up. Do it. Be happy.

DAY 24, OPAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC TO KATOWICE, POLAND, 105KM TODAY, 2180KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

Another emotional day as I reached a very significant milestone in the journey following the liberation path.

I have gone past the place where the allied forces met in the middle – the “anti-fascist coalition” as the monument recalls. The US Army and the Red Army met between the town of Borek and Rokycany. It was a very moving spot to reflect at because this signifies the end of the fighting journey for the troops. Now there was just a big mess to sort out.

I have come a long way. The furthest cycle trip I have ever done and it has taken weeks to get here. But I have travelled a similar physical journey to what a lot of the allies would have travelled from the D-Day landings in June 1944 to the declaration of peace in September 1945.

A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.
A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.

I was reminded by many more memorials that a lot of liberation occurred on this route; these markers hadn’t been seen in Germany but were abundant in France almost 2 weeks ago. They have a strangely uplifting feeling when I cycle past them or stop to reflect next to them. Each time I pass one I feel better about my trip and it gives me a boost of positive energy.

A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945
A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945

Another memorial was in Czech, but I have looked up the meaning which refers to Josef Molák. He was a significant member of a resistance group that was shot by the Nazi Gestapo in 1943.

Josefa Moláka was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943
Josef Molák was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943

A common thing to think about is what would I have done at the time. If I was free and not persecuted then would I be a member of or even lead a resistance group? What if, as was the case, anyone who had any known affiliation with anything that didn’t “fit” the Nazi regime is thrown into a camp or killed just like Josef was? Would I still have the chutzpah to put my life on the line for others? I certainly believe I would. This memorial helps me to remember and thank all the resistance members for their efforts that were critical to the liberation.

As I cycled alone over the remaining hills towards Prague I began to think: what would have happened if I was sent to a forced labour camp because of being Jewish? I am fit and healthy so would be made to work, but would I be fit and healthy enough to stay alive? I know from this trip I need a good amount of food and decent sleep and I can get very emotionally weak especially at times of fatigue. I’m always impressed with any survivors I meet, they always have incredible and inspiring determination.

The bridge into Prague
The bridge into Prague

Finally reaching Prague I was glad to see the familiar faces of my Mum and my friend David; having been alone for a few weeks this is a nice comfort. Especially since the language has changed again to something I can’t even relate to! I am very interested for tomorrow’s visit to another camp, especially with my Mum and David who haven’t been to any of the camps before.

DAY 20: REST DAY IN PRAGUE TO VISIT TEREZIN CONCENTRATION CAMP >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

A much needed rest yesterday afternoon and a lie in this morning allowed me to start afresh on even more hills in Bavaria today. Heading up through the forests I caught up to another couple out cycling on this fine Sunday morning. They were foraging for mushrooms on the forest floor but seemed interested in my long trip.

I have told many Germans here about my journey, and almost everytime I mention I am finishing in Auschwitz they seem to go quiet and not really want to talk. I have yet to confront them with this, but perhaps it is them not knowing what to say. This couple were no exception as they headed off to a trekking path to find their mushrooms after I’d spoken with them.

Schnitzel Lunch
Schnitzel Lunch

After cycling a little further, I stumbled across an antique shop/restaurant overlooking the river which was filled with locals – always a good sign. I ordered “the most popular thing”, a schnitzel, which was delicious – though this could be because I’d waited for an hour for it and by this time was starving! Taking another coffee after the meal I pressed on with the remaining 30km for the day.

Riding through more quiet forests I saw a big hard-back book by the side of the road. Intrigued by it, I stopped and inspected it. It was a collection of German adult magazines. Very strange but oddly funny as I stood on the side of a steep road in a German forest looking at some odd German material! I decided I had to leave the book as it was too heavy to carry – also someone might want to come back for it perhaps?!

Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale
Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale

Whilst riding over the gentle undulations into Würzburg, I saw several cyclists heading the other way. None of whom smiled. If I hadn’t gone through France where there were a similar number of grumpy people, then I would think all Germans were grumpy – but I guess it’s just a people thing! Another cyclist (who looked a bit like Albert Einstein with crazy hair) was behind me at one point. I slowed down to let him catch up, said hello when he did, but he ignored me. I pushed on after he passed me to get beside him and start talking but he ignored me again and turned off. Just rude.

Church of Würzburg
Church of Würzburg

Finally I reached Würzburg which was heavily bombed during the way, more than Dresden; so much so that the women had to rebuild it because many of the men had perished. I wandered through the gorgeous town centre to try and find the famous oldest Pizzeria in Germany, but alas it was closed… Sunday again! From the few interactions I had, the people there didn’t seem that friendly and I settled for a cheap chinese meal to pack the calories in. (Word to the wise: a small beer in Germany is still pretty big!)

So now an early night ahead of an early start to avoid the expected heavy rain. With the Nuremburg museum closed on Tuesdays, yet another reason to complete the 100km as quickly as possible tomorrow…!

DAY 16, WÜRZBURG TO NÜRNBERG 100KM TODAY, 1470KM TOTAL >>