As far as my feet will carry me – My first Ultra-Hike

Submitted by Thorsten on 24th October 2021

Two years ago – in autumn of 2019 – I signed up for a 100km march in Vienna, that was supposed to be in April 2020, on the weekend of my birthday. As we all know, that minor thing called Covid happened in between, and thus this particular event did not. However, from this moment, the idea of walking around Vienna in one go was planted firmly in my head. Yesterday – Oct 23rd 2021 – it became a reality.

The Idea

The organiser of the event I had initially signed up for gave people some advice how to start out. One actual requirement to take part was to have completed a test hike of at least 30km distance. This was only a little bit longer than I had walked before, so I decided to give it a go with 50km and see how I’d do. Here’s me being cautiously optimistic after that first test:

So I was satisfied that I’d give it a good fight in April and moved on with my other training, which was mostly tyre pulling back then, for our Nansen 2020 expedition. Thanks to Covid, neither the 100km hike, nor the expedition went through. So I suddenly found myself without a goal to work towards and with a lot of spare time, since I had taken a year off work to prep for Greenland.

Sadly, 2020 went by fast and uneventful, without me doing much for my fitness. That was thanks to various lock-downs, which gave me serious mental health issues and killed most of my motivation to go and do anything. Fast forward to Spring 2021, I found myself unfit, easily out of breath and 8kg overweight, just coming out of the April lockdown. I had in the year before registered to guide a trekking weekend at the end of May, so I had to get in shape fast. My plan was easy, I would just go and walk a lot. I started to go to the supermarket 3km away instead of the nearest one, and then walking back as well instead of taking the bus. I went for long walks in the evening and took walking breaks during the days. And I went hiking in the outskirts of Vienna. At the end of that month, I had walked about 370km and had seen most of the circle path leading around the capital. There it was again – the idea to walk it in one go.

Preparation and Logistics

I seriously started looking into the logistics. There were a couple of challenges to solve compared to just signing up to managed event. First and most importantly would be water. Luckily, as it turned out, Vienna has an excellent water supply (if you ever have time, go read up on it, it is seriously impressive), which allows them to have publicly accessible fountains almost everywhere in the city. Plus there’s a nice app showing you the nearest ones. Problem solved.

The second concern would then be food. 100-ish km burns a lot of calories, so I am expecting to have a restock once or twice. Now the Viennese supermarket map is going to be at least twice as densely populated as the map of water sources, so technically that shouldn’t be a problem. However, they mostly tend to not be in the outskirts of the city and, contrary to a public fountain, they have opening times. So doing it on a Sunday is not possible (shops are closed on Sundays in Austria) and doing it on a Saturday means I have a 10h window (shops open from 8am-6pm). So there’s a bit of a timing issue to be considered, where I have to be at certain points on the route at reasonable times. To make things more difficult, the circle trail around Vienna also leads to some parks that are closed at nights, the biggest one being the Lainzer Tiergarten in the south-west. But I couldn’t factor that in reasonably, so I just decided to walk around those when I come up on one during closing time.

Another concern is daylight. I don’t want to walk in summer, cause I hate the heat, and doing the attempt at the end of the season seems reasonable, cause that’s when I’m usually in peak condition. That makes it end of October-ish, which means more darkness than sunlight over a 24h period (sun rises at 7:30am and sets at 6pm). The idea of walking 13h through the night did not sound enticing at all to me. Those were the main factors I took into consideration when planning the walk.

In terms of training, I simply continued what I had started doing in May: walk a lot. I racked up about 2000km on various hikes and walks, purposefully putting longer hikes in there as well. I completed several with 30+km and one more walk with 55km in that time, and felt my fitness level increasing every week.

The Plan

Come October 2021, I knew this was the time I had to start looking for opportunities to make an attempt. On Oct 18th, I decided I’d try for the coming weekend, should the weather hold. It was going to be a reasonably full moon, so night walking shouldn’t be as awful, I reasoned. It was going to be a very low temperature range, from about 5°C at night to 11°C during the day, meaning I wouldn’t need to take many flexible pieces of clothing. And there was no rain forecast. In other words, perfect conditions.

I hadn’t decided on a final route, yet, but now it was time to finalise it. On a whim, I decided to not follow the circle route I already knew, but to take a wider berth around the city in the west and in the south east. This would make for a route of 112km.

One of my big concerns was how I’d deal with night walking, which I haven’t done for extended periods of time. I figured it would possibly be demotivating, so I wasn’t keen on starting my hike at first light in the morning and then have 13h of darkness as the 2nd half. I do often have the problem that I can’t sleep very well and lie awake after 6h, feeling fully rested already, and during one of those nights, I came up with the idea to make use of that. So my plan now was to go to bed around 7pm the day before, and then start my hike around 2am at night. This way, I figured, I would have the bulk of the night walking in the beginning, when my legs will feel okay. Then I’d have the full daylight period to make as much progress as possible and when darkness falls again, I’d be close enough to home to not be demotivated by it. I decided my day would be the Saturday.

The Walk

Come Friday I packed what little I (thought I) needed.

I was going to wear my hiking knickerbockers with leg warmers I can roll down during the day. On top a heavy Merino long-sleeve and a mid-layer jacket for the nights, plus a very light shell jacket. A thin merino cap to keep my head warm. On my training hikes, I always noticed that hiking boots are too constrained for my feet on really long distances, that’s why I do everything above 35km in my running shoes. I use walking poles to translate some of my upper body strength into speed (yes, it really works). Apart from that, I was packing a small first aid kit, my phone and sports headset, three powerbanks and provisions for the first 40km.

Saturday 1am, I wake up, not fully rested, but determined to not just back out. Having had a porridge for breakfast and plenty of water to start out fully hydrated, I leave my home and start tracking on my watch. It is 1:30am and I am on my way. I put an audio book on to pass the time quicker and make great progress in the perfectly flat terrain. It’s usually boring to walk here, but all I see is the pale-white cone coming from my head torch. My initial sleepiness goes away after two hours or so and I feel alive and energised. I’m making great progress, taking only a bit over 10min per km. I decided to take breaks every 90min to have a cup of water and a bite to eat, but at this point I am mostly eager to get going again and not lose my stride. I see some animals, who are trying to hide in tall grass or the woods, startled by my torch. A family of deer crossing the road, some rabbits and foxes by the side of the path, and a whole lot of yellow eyes reflecting back at me, when I look out on the fields. These places may be boring during the day, but they’re full of life at night, so I’m enjoying being there with them.

It’s now four hours since I started and my audio book just finished. The batteries on my headphones usually only last five hours, so I decide to put them on charge, only to realise I packed the wrong cable for them. Out of my cable box with an estimated 543 Micro-USB cables, I managed to take that one Mini-USB cable that goes with the Garmin GPS. That means no more headphones for the rest of this day. I’m not thrilled, to say the least.

Around 7am I see the Danube for the first time. Sadly, you have to cross this river twice when you want to circumnavigate the city. And sadly, the bridges are mostly not where you want them to be. Once I hit the river, I have to walk back towards the city centre for 7km, knowing fully well that I’ll have to walk the same distance back out once I cross the bridge. At least I am rewarded with a beautiful view of my destination, illuminated by the rising sun against a grey morning sky.

After about 35km, I take my first longer break of the day. Over the last hour, the realisation has built up that I forgot to consider one logistical element of hiking in the city, that becomes especially important when you’re going for more than eight to ten hours: access to toilets. I think you get the idea and I don’t have to explain more. Luckily, I am at a train station that has a public toilet, so for now, I am safe.

The next 30km or so are going to be the toughest stretch – at least on paper. Almost all the elevation is coming from the hills around the northern and western parts of the city. So on top of the distance, it’s going to be 1300m elevation to conquer as well, usually enough for a good day hike on its own. It starts in style, with the steepest part of the entire route: the Nasenweg up Leopoldsberg with a 250m climb, including several sets of stairs. On the way up, I still overtake a couple of hikers, who took the early trains and I can’t help but feeling smug about it.

Once I am on the ridge, it’s mostly going up and down small peaks while following the path running right on the city border. Walking is now on forest paths, and although the autumn colours are spectacular, there isn’t any view or much in the way of changing the scenery. I am longing to start another audio book to combat the boredom, but I want to keep the remaining hour of battery for tougher times.

45km into the walk, I have to make a decision. Here is where my intended route splits off the circle path I’ve already walked before. I deliberate a bit and decide to scrap the route and follow the path I know. There are several good reasons for my decision coming together:

  • Access to toilets and water. I know there are both on the path I know, but not necessarily on the other
  • Supermarket opening times. Going closer to the city means I can restock somewhere for sure, going around in a wide berth risks not finding one before they close at 6pm.
  • Navigating a new path is hard when you’re focused on just walking. I can feel my brain getting tired and the last thing I want is to make a mistake that adds 5km to my route.
  • A friend wrote me up that they’re going to walk with me for a bit, if I come by their neighbourhood, and he’s bringing a charging cable for my headphones.

This deliberation break is also my first time to take a real look at social media and I am surprised to discover the amount of people cheering me on both publicly and through direct messages. At this point, my legs still feel great and I’m making fantastic pace, although it has naturally slowed down a little from the flat ground east of the river. I decide to use the rest of my headphone’s battery now, anticipating I’ll get some company and a charging cable soon.

The next stretch leads me back into the city, towards the Lainzer Tiergarten. Instead of going around it to the West, I am now going to go around it on the eastern side, so I can meet up with my friend, who lives in the vicinity. After 55km, I have reached the mark for my longest walk ever. I am now definitely starting to feel my feet complaining and some blisters developing, so I have to take another longer break, to give my feet a rest and tape some sore spots. My socks are completely drenched from sweat, which isn’t going to help the blister situation and I’m cursing myself for not thinking about that. Being able to switch into dry socks would really come in handy now.

In the meantime my wife has decided to come and see me at my friend’s as well, which is another motivation boost for me. After another five km – now 65km in – I finally meet up with them and get my charging cable, some treats, and most importantly some personal encouragement. There are good and bad news from this point on: the good news is that this marks the end of the hilly areas, and most of the climbs are behind me now. The bad news is that this is now mostly going to be walking on paved roads and sidewalks, directly through the city. So I’ll have to pay attention to cars and stop at traffic lights and so on.

After walking for a short bit together, my wife leaves again and I resist the urge to jump in the car with her. My friend decides to come with me for a while, and I am excited to have someone to distract me from the boring cityscape we’re now walking through. Our main navigational obstacles are now not rivers or dense forests, but highways, the railway line and gated communities we aren’t allowed to pass through. I take the opportunity to dip my swollen feet into the small stream we’re walking along. It’s refreshing and afterwards my feet do feel a bit better.

The tracker now shows 77km and walking has become a pain. The hard paved ground doesn’t help and I try to pick grass patches to walk on whenever I can. Taking breaks to rest my feet every 5km or so is enough to keep me going so far. Around 6pm the sun sets and 30min later it is dark again. I anticipate it will gradually get tougher from here to remain focused and stay awake. I’m happy that my friend stays with me for almost 20km, until I reach the Zentralfriedhof, leaving the worst bit of boring city walking behind me before he says goodbye. It’s only a short distance to the river now. Words can’t describe how grateful I feel, I do not know if I could have pulled off that dull stretch of without his company.

Walking around the Zentralfriedhof – which is closed at the time – I feel the realisation sink in, that I might actually make it home. One of my big concerns was how I would stay awake when night would come again, but I am feeling surprisingly awake, considering I spent 19h on my feet already. Another break gives my feet some much-needed rest while I look at the remaining route. It’s about 4km to the Danube and there I can cross a small pontoon bridge to get to the Lobau, the nature reserve I live close by. I originally intended to follow the path there along the city limits, but instead I am going to head straight home. This shaves another 7km or so off my route, leaving me with about 12km to walk from here. My next goal is making it to the Kraftwerk Freudenau.

The Kraftwerk is lit brightly and makes for a good spot to have another short breather. I take off my shoes and socks and expose my feet to the cooling air. After 5min or so, I think it’s enough and resume walking. The first steps after every break are the worst and I don’t want to risk my legs cramping up by idling too long. The legs and feet are clearly signalling that the break was way too short and they want to stop walking altogether. I had to climb some stairs to reach the crossing and now my left knee is joining in the concert of various sore spots and sources of pain as well. This is the last point where my wife could pick me up with the car before I enter the nature reserve, I ponder. However there’s not a second thought at this point, I decide to push on.

Descending the stairs on the other side of the crossing, I find myself in complete darkness again. I bring out my head torch and prepare myself for the slow slog through the forests, seeing only the ground in front of me, again in the pale white light cone I’ve grown accustomed to the morning before. I have to find the pontoon bridge that is going to be my crossing point for the last bit of the river. Suddenly, a thought of panic crosses my mind: I know there are several such bridges around Vienna, and some get dismantled or closed in the winter. If this bridge isn’t there, that would mean a 15km detour to the next one up river. As I make my way towards it, I pray that I will see an intact and open bridge appear in my headlight any moment. As I can finally make out the silhouette in the dark against the water, my relief is endless. The bridge is there and it is open.

92km in, I have crossed to the eastern side of the Danube again. Before me lies only the Lobau, a nature reserve where I usually go for walks or tyre pulling. There’s no quitting now. My feet are screaming at me to stop walking and my left knee feels like it’s going to refuse to carry me any second. I originally intended to take another break here to rest my feet, but I feel that this time, I won’t be able to continue walking after. Slowly, but steadily, I make my way over the well-known forest paths. I notice another couple of deer eyeing me curiously from the dark, but unlike this morning, I can not appreciate their company. My entire focus is on the next step forward, my view firmly on the ground in front of me. Any bit of unexpectedly uneven ground could cause me to roll my ankle or cause my knee to buckle, and I don’t know if I will be able to get up once I stop moving. My entire world is now the cone of light moving slowly through the night. I’ve walked this last bit dozens of times before. I’ve pulled tyres here. But at this pace it feels like I’m going on a conveyor belt moving me in the wrong direction. My pace is now barely a crawl, but I’m still making progress. After an hour that felt like an eternity, I can see the street lights of my neighbourhood between the trees. Once I exit the forest, it’s going to be just under 2km home. I am now sure that I’m going to make it. 30min later, all I have to do is climb the two flights of stairs back up to my flat – I’ve done it. I have walked around the entire city of Vienna in one go.

The Metrics

  • I walked for 97km, a bit longer than Garmin says (in the morning my watch only started picking up a GPS signal about 500m from my home)
  • I covered 1577m of elevation, both up and down (obviously, it’s a circle route).
  • It took me 21h and 50min, including all breaks.
  • My best speed was 10:22min/km on the first five km, and my worst speed was 15:40min/km on the last full five (5.8km/h and 3.8km/h respectively).

The Learnings

As with any new experience, I learnt a lot during this walk. Most of it is about myself, what I am capable of, and how I can push through pain if needed.

Other specific learnings:

  • You need toilets if you’re out all day
  • Double-check your charging cables
  • I used way less food than I anticipated. My provisions that were planned for originally 40km lasted me throughout the day with plenty to spare. I also lost 1.6kg of body weight. Follow me for more easy weight loss adivce. This is an area where I’ll still have to improve my planning and discipline.
  • Things I brought, but did not use: sun hat, rain jacket, third powerbank.
  • Things I wish I brought, but did not: spare socks, gloves.

The Aftermath

The first thing I did yesterday, was putting my feet in a tub of cold water. They aren’t in a great shape. At the time of writing, I have spent about 12h sleeping like the dead since I came home. My legs have now entirely cramped up and walking is out of the question for me today. Luckily, I have my loving wife taking care of me and the dog, so I can spend the day in bed.

Good news is that most of the blisters have already retreated over night, the one you can see in the picture was at least twice as big right after the walk.

As far as my feet will carry me – My first Ultra-Hike

Thorsten

Keen hiker and ÖAV trekking and hiking guide, in love with Nansen. Owner of the most walk-averse rescue dog ever. Ice cream lover, kit junkie, runner and mad software genius.