Running the World - east to west, north to south

Published in Runner's World, May issue

On March 15th I had the privilege of running 58km with a Nutter. And a world famous Nutter, to boot.

Definition of a Nutter: Someone who is completely and utterly beyond any chance of return to normality, and who is this way voluntarily. The achievement of Nutter status is the ultimate quest, the Holy Grail, for an ultra-distance runner – after all, who wants normality anyway?

The honourable Nutter was none other than Danish ultra-marathon legend Jesper Olsen, who that day was completing the African leg of his challenge to run around the world – not for the first but the second time. (Let’s face it, once you’ve been the first person to run 26 000km across the world east to west, isn’t it the obvious challenge to run another 46 000km, conquering it north to south?)

Jesper’s incredible achievement will be the world’s longest fully GPS-documented run by a long shot (he already holds the record from his World Run I, 2004 - 2005). On top of that, when we reached the Cape of Good Hope that day, Jesper became the first person to run from the northernmost point of Europe to the southwest tip of Africa, and the first to run the length of the African continent.

World Run II began on 1 July 2008 in Nordkapp, Norway, 500km within the Arctic Circle. In 20 months Jesper ran through Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa, reaching his halfway mark of 21 450km at the Cape of Good Hope.

He has crossed tundra and deserts, passed through cities and rural villages, run on highways and jungle paths, and slogged through extreme temperatures from -10˚C to 55˚C. And so far he’s gone through 28 pairs of running shoes.

Every step of the way has been covered live via the cellphone GPS Jesper carries, and thousands of people around the globe have watched his progress via his regular uploads of photos, video clips and daily blogs on his website.

Now halfway on his journey, Jesper has returned to Denmark for a few months to recharge his batteries and undergo a thorough health check before tackling the remaining 21 000km, which will take him from the southernmost tip of Chile, through Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, USA, to the northernmost tip of Canada.

Running at a steady 5:30 - 6min/km pace, Jesper covers between 32 and 50km a day, depending on climatic and road conditions. So far, rest days have been rare – usually about once a month and even then, only due to unforeseen circumstances: like in March 2009 during riots in Khartoum, Sudan, or on the day before his final leg in Africa, because he’d have been mown down en route to Cape Point by 25 000 cyclists riding the Argus Cycle Tour!

Apart from the first 9 000km of World Run II, which girlfriend Australian fellow ultra-marathoner Sarah Barnett ran with him, Jesper has tackled much of the feat by running alone. A support vehicle – either driven by volunteer helpers along the way or, in more remote areas like the Sudan, by a paid driver – provides him with snacks and drinks every 5km. Alternatively, Jesper pushes a robust baby stroller carrying his provisions, which when fully laden weighs a hefty 40kg. As Jesper says, it’s great on the downhills but murder on the ups!

Depending where he finds himself at the end of each day, Jesper either sleeps in his small lightweight tent on the roadside or, if he’s lucky, in the home of a friendly local family. (South African running clubs did us proud – Jesper told me our country has the most hospitable, enthusiastic runners in the world, and every night he was hosted in a runner’s home or B&B, enjoyed a hot meal and a comfortable sleep!)

What motivates someone to push himself so incredibly hard? For Jesper there are several drivers: besides the competitive urge to be the first to achieve a seemingly impossible goal, there’s the fascination for experiencing different cultures and seeing how other people live – not through the eyes of a tourist, interestingly, but as a person on foot, passing through villages, living simply and interacting directly with the local, “real” people in each country.

With a political science background, Jesper is constantly aware of what he refers to as the “top down” approach, and how it influences our attitudes and expectations of a country. He says that in reality, this theoretical view is completely out of touch.

In his blog he writes: “As a world runner you see the world from the bottom up – the true perspective of everyday life as the people experience it. I’ve learned that my heroes are not the politicians or media celebrities, but the everyday people I see and meet across the world.”

Planning a feat of this magnitude took two full years of focused logistical and mental preparation. Starting with an idea of how to tackle the route, Jesper researched the political, climatic and topographic conditions of every country. He also analysed previous attempts at world runs, and why they failed.

As for the physical preparation needed, Jesper has more than 23 years of competitive running in his legs. Jesper’s running pedigree is amongst the finest: he ran his first marathon aged 15, and has a marathon PB of a tidy 2:27.

After some years of elite marathon racing, he moved onto the 24-hour track race, before finding his favourite: the 6-day track race. He has run, and won, three 6-day races, including the George Archer 6-day race in Johannesburg in 2008. His 6-day track PB was in France: 780km.

“Only years of running can prepare the body for a feat like a world run, pounding day after day, month after month, constantly for more than two years. But it’s not only about physical fitness, it’s about one’s mental approach too. Contrary to what people think, you have to be good at not pushing your body to the limit. It’s about listening to your body and respecting the signals it gives back,” says Jesper.

Jesper obviously gets it right: in more than 47 000km of almost daily running, Jesper has not had a single running-related injury.

Ironically, the only injury he has suffered has been to his right arm. As a result of complications after tripping on volcanic rocks in northern Kenya and cutting open his elbow, Jesper has endured three bouts of septicaemia and blood poisoning. He even underwent emergency surgery to his arm in Dar es Salaam, after a passing expedition doctor warned that he was likely to lose his arm to gangrene if not operated on urgently.

Other health hindrances along the journey have been malaria and dysentery.

“I had dysentery every couple of weeks through East Africa. I’d get fever and throw up a lot, but after two or three days I was always fine. I didn’t let it stop me running each day – I just made sure I drank more fluids.”

Simplicity is key for Jesper. He does not rely on sports gels, fancy supplements or smart gadgets to help him run the world. Instead he snacks constantly – health food’s out, junk food’s in: Snickers Bars, M&M’s, pizza and choccie biscuits are amongst his favourites, washed down by a wide assortment of fizzy drinks.

I asked Jesper the inevitable question: what’s next after he’s run the world twice over? Ah, he chuckled, there’s always something bigger to achieve next!
I wonder. Maybe a third time... diagonally?

Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa (halfway), followed by Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, USA and Canada.

• International shoe manufacturer ECCO (main financial sponsor)
• Mobile technology company LifePilot (covers all his GPS and cellular communications)
• Themcom (handle the live updates for the website
• ABC Kids (provide the stroller)
• Oase Outdoors (provided tent)

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