Monday, May 26, 2014

Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein...Counting Countries

          When I set out a plan to run 4 miles in 44 countries in 4 weeks, I knew I would have short stops in many countries.  Over the years I have heard, and participated in, a number of discussions regarding what the criteria should be for counting a country as having been visited - even hearing from a number of people who denounce the practice of "counting countries" all together.  The most common contention is usually that you cannot count a country in which you were only in the airport.  Therefore, one of my favorite definitions is that you have to purchase something outside of the airport.  Fortunately, on this trip I had very specific criteria for each stop to meet...I had to run 4 miles.

         From 2000-2003, I was the sole Internist at Bitburg Air Base, Germany.  Despite having completed my Endocrinology training a year early, I took the primary care position for the opportunity to live in Europe.  In the end, it was by far my most rewarding job as a physician.  To be trusted by so many wonderful patients was truly an honor.  I have often been asked what is the most difficult thing about being a physician with Parkinson’s and I can definitely say that it is the loss of control, as you move from the role of physician to the role of patient.  With my time in this new role as the patient, I have gained even deeper feelings toward the patients I have worked with in the past.  In Germany, I had hoped to meet some of my old patients.  Although the travel connection would be tight, I contacted one of my closest patients/friends from my time at Bitburg and we made plans to coordinate a meeting and run when I was in Germany.  When I hadn’t heard from him, as my visit to Germany drew nearer, I began to worry.  Sure enough when we finally made contact again, I found out that he, his wife and son had all recently had serious health issues.  Therefore, when I made the decision to remain in Frankfurt during my stopover, I had a real helpless feeling and I would like to wish all of my patients, former and current, all the best and hope that my new perspective as a patient makes me a better doctor.

          My run(s) in Switzerland and Austria were prime examples of “counting countries” at it’s best and also highlight the logistical challenges I faced everyday.  In order to spend an extra day with my parents in Iceland, I moved up my flight out of Switzerland by a day.  This meant my only option to run in both countries was to take the train from the Zurich airport to one of two Swiss towns near the border with Liechtenstein, run across the border and back, catching a train back to the airport in time for my flight to Oslo.  I did everything I could to maximize my running time: booked my seat near the front of the airplane, researched the location of luggage storage and found a train connection that would get me to Buchs, Switzerland and back with just enough time for the run.  Things seemed to be working pretty well and I got to the train ticket office about 5 minutes before the train departed.  However, after spending 2 minutes at the automated ticket machine only to find it would not take my US credit card without a chip, I moved to the ticket window line with about 10 people in front of me.  I reached the window 2 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, told the lady the connection I wanted and she proceeded to search options and try to sell me a seat on a train that understandably would leave in 30 minutes, have a leisurely connection in Zurich and travel much faster to Buchs.  I frantically tried to explain that needed to catch the train that would now be leaving in 1 minute, connect in St. Gallen and arrive a crucial 20 minutes earlier in Buchs.  Fortunately she seemed to perceived my panic as rude behavior - likely figuring she could get back at me by selling me a seat on a train that I would never catch and then I would be forced to admit she was right as I scrambled to find a new train to Buchs. With a smirk she said, "Okay, sign here" and with that she handed me the ticket which I took as if being handed the baton for the next leg of the 4x100 relay in the Olympics and ran my 100 meters across the hall, down the escalator and jumped on the train less than 30 secs before it started to move out of the station.  Then sat back and enjoyed the Swiss scenery.

Arriving in Buchs I knew I had just enough time to complete my run if I kept a steady pace, didn’t deviate from the route and limited my photos and videos  When I didn’t meet the latter two requirements, I was forced to abandon the first.  Within a mile I found myself at the bridge that separates Switzerland from Liechtenstein and of course that meant that I would have to take some photos and video with the flags and of course, I would have to do multiple takes to try to catch wind gust and of course, this would put me behind schedule.

As I ran along the river toward the capital town of Vaduz, I caught my first glimpse of the Liechtenstein Castle.  It was the view of the castle that was my most vivid memory of my visit to Vaduz 12 years earlier.  As I ran toward the castle and tried to get a good photo, I began to consider running all the way to Vaduz and trying to find a taxi back to the train station.  Finally, at what would turn out to truly be the last possible minute, I took one more photo and turned around.

I calculated the pace I would need to catch the train to Zurich - knowing that missing this train would probably mean missing the flight to Oslo - only took one photo on the return trip and arrived on platform 5 at the exact minute the train was scheduled to depart.  Again within less than 30 seconds of me getting my train, the train began to move toward my next destination

One of the most frequent questions that I have been asked since returning is - What is the most important thing that I learned from my travels?  During the first couple weeks I struggled to answer the question, but during the second half of the journey it became clear.  During typical vacations we spend a week or so in a place and get to know the place in some depth.  Then a year later, we see another place and get to know about it while our memory of the other places that we have seen in the past fade.  Thus, impairing our ability to fully appreciate the similarities and contrasts between the various places that we have been.  But by visiting almost a quarter of the world’s countries in a month, I was able to see theses similarities and differences - like looking at photos side by side.  I saw people doing the same things in different countries in very different ways.  Children, with no inherent differences at birth just a few years early, were traveling to schools in very different modes of transport; working or playing – simply based on the country in which they were born and now lived.  Before this trip my view of the world was one of a number of individual lights marking the places I had been, but as my travels progressed I felt as though I could see a network of lights covering the entire globe and connecting my experiences.  My hope is that in the future, we can continue to connect the communities of those affected by Parkinson’s - as my experiences have opened my mind to so many wonderful activities, events and programs being offered to some and so many needs of others that were not being met.


Country Sponsor

I would like to acknowledge the support of a very special friend of mine from my high school days in Montana, Don Hatcher.  When I announced my plans take on this project, Don was literally the first to step forward with a generous contribution to Team Fox. Therefore, in honor his contribution, his friendship and our times together in German Club in high school I would like to say: Danke schon zu mein Freund, Hatch!


  1. Dr. Mark, please email me, PWP Dennis Padrick, Huntington Beach, CA;

  2. If your country of origin is not the United States, Canada, or the EU member states, check with your local Swiss consulate or embassy to find out about visa requirements for your country.

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