Though the outside world might take hitchhiking across Europe for charity as a sign of insanity, in St Andrews it seems perfectly rational. And according the winners of this year’s Race2 Berlin, you’d be insane not to.
Chatting over coffee with the still shocked winners, Charlotte Gorman and Michael Laird, I was immediately struck by their enthusiasm for the campaign.
The race is a major event in St Andrews’ calendar. With a different destination each year, the racers must rely on sympathetic members of the public to reach their allotted city; spending their own money on transport is against the rules.
For the two second-year members of the winning ‘Team SnapChat’, this was their first time competing. Equipped with some very flattering yellow t-shirts, a pack of banners and explanatory leaflets in various languages and perhaps naïve smiles, they set off on their journey. Thirteen different lifts, five countries and 34 hours later, the friends had reached the sanctuary of the hostel and were triumphantly holding their trophy aloft.
Going into a race of about 200 participants, they never expected to win. Charlotte explained: “We definitely, 100 per cent did not enter the race to win. But I think towards the final ride, when it was just us and the final team, we thought wouldn’t it be amazing to win after 30 something hours of no sleep or food!”
A stroke of luck meant that they got picked up just outside London by a Frenchman who was going home for the weekend. “I think that was the first really lucky thing that happened to us,” Charlotte told me. “That motivated us to get the whole way adhering strictly to the rules and not spending any money on food, transport or accommodation.”
After being dropped off at a service station in Calais, they managed to get another lift with a Dutch truck driver.
Throughout the race, there was an interactive map and liveblog which plotted the whereabouts of each team. With no internet access however, it wasn’t until their final lift from Utrecht to Berlin that the two realised they had taken the lead.
“By the end our family and friends were following us and they would text us like, ‘you guys are almost there, there’s only one other team’.”
Having not taken the lead until the very end, and having never anticipated winning, Michael did not feel the heat of the race until that very last stretch: “It was the final leg when we were heading towards Berlin and people were texting [us] when I said to Charlotte, it sounds bad but I’m going to be disappointed if we don’t win now.”
But there was no need to be disappointed: “When we were going to Berlin we were able to go straight there… There was this Polish guy who we just ran up to and he couldn’t even understand where we were going. So I asked him where he was going, and he told me the name of this Polish village. And I was looking at this map that we had and saw that it was right on the other side of the border from Berlin.
“At this point we were in Holland and where he was from was so close to Berlin that my heart sank; in a great way. I was just like this is it, please just take us as far as you can.
“He knew it was a race and he got pretty into it.”
He wasn’t the only one. The two regaled me with stories about all the people they met on their journey: “That was one of the best parts – people told us all about their travels and what they do with their lives and where they’re going. It’s an amazing thing to pick strangers up who say they’re doing something for charity and help them out. And the people we met were so nice.”
From a French businessman who taught them about politics, to a couple who worked in West End set design, to a Dutch tulip truck driver with flawless music taste, their charitable drivers provided a wealth of knowledge.
“We ended up learning so much about France, Belgium, Holland and Germany just from the people we met.
“Race2 is a travelling experience which you can genuinely never recreate. We were able to see parts of Europe and meet people we never would have been able to had we just gotten an EasyJet flight to Berlin.”
Safety was clearly a huge priority for the organisers. Though hitchhiking is generally considered an unorthodox means of travel, they assure me that “as long as you’re doing the right things, you’re sensible and keeping up with the safety procedures, then it’s completely safe.”
Both Charlotte and Michael would whole-heartedly encourage everybody to take part in Race2. Michael said: “I would have regretted it if I’d known about it and not done it while I was at university.”
Obviously, winning did make them appreciate the experience more.
“It came as a shock. There was a moment when we thought we had lost,” said Charlotte. “It was so surreal getting to the hostel, everyone was there cheering.
“It validated our decision to do this crazy thing. It felt great.”
Michael added: “We were still in a daze and I kept saying to Charlotte, how did we manage that? Can you believe we did that? Can you believe we’re in Berlin?”
I asked if they would race again. “We’re still shocked and recovering. It’s a high that we definitely couldn’t recreate.”
But through meeting new friends from around the university, Race2 has encouraged both of them to get more involved in future charity campaigns, perhaps even organising the race, and made them excited about future travelling.
Having raised close to £800 for charity between them, Charlotte and Michael have been converted to some of Race2’s greatest advocates. A true adventure, it is an experience and feeling I’m sure they won’t forget.