In the end, the Trans-European Race from London to Istanbul, using only public transport, came down to a clash of two travel titans – and an unbelievably close sprint finish in which Turkish police briefly intervened.
A reminder of the inaugural trains, boats and buses contest, which was organised by Lupine Travel of Wigan. At 10am on Saturday 5 August, almost 100 participants – who had paid £99 each for the privilege – set off from Trafalgar Square in central London.
The racetrack was something of an obstacle course. They had to make their way via a series of checkpoints to Turkey’s largest city. The direct distance is 1,560 miles, but overland routes are much further – especially given the waypoints they had to visit along the journey.
All the participants knew the first checkpoint would be in Paris, and many of them had bought Eurostar tickets for a high-speed start to the marathon. But the remaining locations were revealed only minutes before the race began.
For the second checkpoint, contestants could choose between Venice, Munich and Prague: Munich is on the the most direct track, which is one reason why the Orient Express international train from Paris to Istanbul was routed that way.
The next two stops were mandatory: the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. Which is where we pick up the two leading contenders, 48 hours into their journeys.
Bram Houtenbos is a 38-year-old financial services executive from south London, who self-identifies as a travel nerd. His opponent: Eleanor Parker, 32, who works in the humanitarian sector on safeguarding for NGOs.
After two sleepless nights and days, both converged at Plovdiv bus station to board the same 2pm Metro coach to Istanbul.
Bram’s journey so far had been based on an Interrail pass. It involved fast trains as far as Budapest, including one welcome sleeper segment from Salzburg to the Hungarian capital.
Eleanor chose a budget approach. Her one luxury was an on-the-spot express train ticket from Paris to Geneva on Saturday afternoon. After that, it was back-to-back buses via Venice, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Nis and Sofia.
In a 21st-century version of the tortoise and hare, the road warrior caught up with the rail supremo after Bram found himself having to cool his high-speed heels in Budapest for eight hours with no alternative transport to Belgrade.
The travel gods conspired to force a sprint finish to the trans-European marathon. Picture it: Eleanor and Bram on the same coach bound for one of the biggest and most chaotic transport terminals on earth – Istanbul bus station – with a complicated onward journey by Metro and tram to the finish point, beside the Obelisk of Constantine in Sultanahmet Square.
Eleanor is travelling light with just a day pack. Bram has a hefty backpack that gives him a 15kg handicap. During the six-hour journey from Plovdiv to Istanbul, he tried, without success, to find someone working at his hotel to meet him at the bus station and take the pack so he could run unencumbered.
Instead, Eleanor stepped lightly from the coach while Bram had to wait for his weight to be unloaded from the hold.
At this point a normal traveller would have hailed a cab for the six-mile final straight. But taxi travel is explicitly banned: it had to be public transport.
Such is the level of confusion in Istanbul bus station that they ended up catching the same Metro train. “You just end up shouting to people, ‘Metro, Metro, Metro?’ to find your way,” Bram recalls. They then made the same transfer to the tram that rumbles into the heart of a majestic city.
So now it came down to two competing strategies. Eleanor hopped off at Cemberlitas, a tram stop 500m from the finish point. Bram stayed on to the Sultanahmet stop, 300m from the appointed stone needle.
Eleanor calculated the tram would take at least one minute longer to reach the next stop – time that she could usefully spend sprinting through the backstreets to the obelisk. Bram, meanwhile, gambled that the traffic-free square was his best bet for victory.
Neck-and-neck – until the long arm of the law intervened. A strange figure with a large backpack sprinting through the tourist hub of Istanbul aroused the attention of a police officer, who insisted on checking the voluminous contents of Bram’s luggage.
As precious seconds and Bram’s hopes ebbed cruelly away, Eleanor was greeted at the finish line by race director James Finnerty – who, one minute later, welcomed the literal runner-up (and his mighty backpack).
A gruelling journey that had taken 57 hours was decided by a margin of just 60 seconds. Despite having invested so much time, energy and stress in the race, Bram was a picture of magnanimity in defeat: “All honour should go to the winner.” He spent a night in Istanbul and then began another adventure, into Moldova, western Ukraine and across Poland to Berlin.
Eleanor, meanwhile, is resting up after having taken a lifetime’s worth of long-distance coaches in a couple of days, and deciding how to spend her prize: £2,000-worth of expeditions with Lupine Travel.
All thanks to her rival on the Orient Express run, she says: “Bram very much deserved to win, he was a fantastic rival. He gave me the energy to keep pushing.”