At the age of 22, Russell Cook has accomplished more than most of us do in our lifetimes.
He is the first person to run from Asia to London and from London back to his home town of Worthing. Russell ran an astonishing 71 marathons in just 66 days, through 11 countries in total – Istanbul, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France and London.
Russell was raising money for The Running Charity which aims to improve the lives of young people who are affected by homelessness. They work closely with other charity partners, and aim to combine personal health and fitness development plans to help young people take progressive steps to regain control of their lives. Russell’s run from London to Asia raised more than £3,000.
I met Russell in his hometown of Worthing at a small cafe opposite the train station. Worthing is a small seaside town in West Sussex where there isn’t a lot going on, so for Russell, this run was more than setting and breaking records. It was more for his own personal sense of achievement and to do something that no one else has done before.
He also tells me that it was about not giving up at the first sign of fatigue. I found this quality stood out most when meeting him; he is determined and headstrong. Most people can’t claim to have run one marathon in their lifetime; he ran 73 in 68 days.
Russell had only been running for a couple of years before he started his epic adventure across Europe. Travelling around the world and training continuously would enable him to complete his run.
“If I want to do something then I will do it regardless of what it is, regardless of how outlandish it may seem to other people I will try my hardest to do it successfully.”
He travelled to Kenya to take part in a high altitude running programme which consisted of intense, strenuous training. Russell explained that running was like meditation for him. At first he did not enjoy running long distance but explained that his body eventually got to a point where he could run comfortably without much difficulty.
He found that distance running was a great way for him to be alone with his thoughts and to focus on something positive. Before Russell took up running he had his own cleaning business, from our meeting, it was clear he had always had a drive to do better for himself as he had always set himself targets throughout his life.
His journey began on the Asian side of Istanbul, where Asia and Europe meet on the banks of the Bosphorus. Russell knew which direction he needed to head in but the route he would take was unknown to him or anyone else.
Russell revealed that he used Google Maps to find his way back to London. He explained that all he wanted to do was find the most direct route back, whatever that may be.
There were times when his phone would run out of battery. This could be problematic, but when this happened he would navigate using the sun. He knew he needed to head west, so he ran to where the sun was setting.
He confirmed he had to do this a few times, as his phone played a vital part in getting him from town to town and meant that he could keep in contact with friends and family back home.
Each day targets were set to ensure that he would complete his run in the fastest time possible. He wanted to run at least a marathon (42.2 km) per day but after completing the 26 miles he would then weigh up his options; where was the next town? Did he have the energy to keep going and pushing forwards to find a decent meal and somewhere to sleep? This meant that some days Russell would run two marathons, a full 52 miles. In total Russell had run an astonishing 73 marathons in 68 days – from Istanbul to Worthing.When doing the run Russell would camp outside in a hammock that he would suspend between two trees or anything stable he could find. He had this sleeping arrangement as he did not know where he would end up running that day, and didn’t want to commit to staying in hostels if he felt like he could continue running.
It was vital that he would get at least five hours sleep because he needed time for his legs to recover. Furthermore if he was physically exhausted he would not be able to run to his full ability the next day. Letting his body recover physically but also mentally was hugely important in completing the run because it would had been detrimental if he were to become ill.
The contents of his backpack consisted of the hammock he would sleep in every night, a two litre bottle of water, a bar of soap, battery pack and toothbrush. He really was carrying the bare minimum, the less he had on his back the easier it would be to run.
He made sure he could fill up his water whenever possible and wash whenever he saw an opportunity. For those 68 days he lived an incredibly stripped back lifestyle.“I did start eating fruit off the bushes if I became desperate. It is weird that I am talking to you about doing all of that, and now I’m sitting with you in a cafe in Worthing. The stark contrast between the two is mental. The lifestyle change is mad to me, I prefer that lifestyle being stripped back rather than living in Worthing.” Russell confirmed the experience has changed him and his perspective on many things in his life.
I wanted to know what had made him do this incredible run as most people have these crazy ideas but rarely even start them, let alone finish them in record time but for him it was different. He had the idea, the goal and he would stop at nothing to complete it.
“I think I have always been quite bold with what I want to do. If I want to do something then I will do it regardless of what it is, regardless of how outlandish it may seem to other people I will try my hardest to do it successfully.
“I have this over-riding thing where I see so many people living miserable boring lives and I just think I don’t want any part in that. If I think I can do something I will fully put everything into doing it. The worst thing that would happen is I would fail and is that really so bad?”
Russell said that he would have rather died than given up. He believed that if he didn’t have this mentality he would have given in to the temptation of catching the first flight back to London.
“I remember I was running through Vienna on a Sunday and I was actually in Vienna airport because I stopped there to get some food and something to drink and I didn’t even think about the fact that I could have easily got a flight home there and then, only till after I had started running away from the airport did I think that I could have easily got a flight back to London. I tried to get rid of that thought as quickly as possible because I knew I was not ready to throw in the towel. I had come so far already.”
The average person burns 100 calories per mile when running. 26 miles a day would mean burning more than 3,000 calories per day which is more than the average calorie intake of a fully grown man.
Russell explained that he would try and eat more than 5,000 calories a day to keep his energy levels up and not be too tired to run. He claimed that he would eat anything he could as he didn’t know when or where his next meal would come from. Russell did lose weight however by the end of the run he had lost eight kilos (17.6 pounds).
His appearance had changed dramatically by the time he arrived home as he did not have access to the pleasantries we take for granted. By the end of his journey, he described himself as “looking worse for wear” because he had been sleeping rough for the past 68 days. Scruffy, smelly and all-round changed beyond recognition.
The biggest challenge and struggle for Russell was the impact the running had on his feet. “My feet were fucked. They were the biggest problem throughout the run because they would swell up every day, the blisters were awful and I would have to run miles before I found blister plasters, even putting my shoe on hurt.
“It was a nightmare every step I took I was wincing. There’s no dressing it up it was fucking terrible. When you are a long-distance runner you should always buy a pair of shoes half a size bigger because your feet swell and its really hard to get your trainers on in the morning because they expand so much.
“Definitely one of the most annoying parts of the run because the pain would mean I was running slower and if I was running slower I wouldn’t reach my targets and without reaching my targets it would take me longer to reach my destination.”Not only was it the physical side of the run that affected Russell, but it was also mentally draining. Loneliness was something he had to deal with on a daily basis whilst away. He said that he usually enjoyed being by himself and never felt the need for much human interaction as he wasn’t the type of person to crave human interaction or be with someone 24/7.
However, by the end of his run, he began to feel lonely as his only interactions were from passersby and shopkeepers. He hadn’t heard a familiar voice in 68 days. Russell didn’t want to use his phone for trivial things like social media as he needed to prioritise how he would use his battery life. This meant he had little contact with friends and family through-out the run.
Even now he claims he does not like communicating over social media because he would rather meet up and speak face to face. Not many 22-year-olds would have the same opinion and outlook; while he does have social media platforms, he explained that he rarely uses them and tends to stay clear as he feels its vital to be in the moment.
When asked whether or not Russell was afraid during his journey he responded with “not at all. I know people won’t believe this but I actually didn’t feel scared at all.
“When I was sleeping in my hammock in Serbia I could hear wolves howling and moving around me but to be quite honest I was so tired and quite delusional. I didn’t care at that point, I was just happy to be resting. The only thing I was scared of seeing was a brown bear in Bulgaria and Serbia. I did research one night how to handle a brown bear just in case the situation would ever arise.”
Having said this, Russell did say that a few times he thought he’d really messed up and put himself in serious danger. When running through the mountains in Bulgaria he had run out of food and money.
“I don’t think I’ve mentally recovered from it yet, three months on. I still feel a bit strange.”
If he wanted to make it out safely he would have to continue running and try to find the nearest town, where he hoped there would be a cashpoint and therefore access to food and water. Luckily he was approached by two local women who kindly fed him and gave him water: “I remember thinking if they hadn’t been there I would have been done for.”
His biggest concern was becoming dehydrated and getting sunstroke, as this would end the run and potentially be life-threatening. He claims not to fully understand his emotions towards it and how he has been feeling subsequently.
When asked about his current mental state he told me that he thought he went slightly insane during and after the run. He remembers coming home and feeling lost and unable to be in the moment. “I don’t think I’ve mentally recovered from it yet, three months on. I still feel a bit strange.”
The sense of achievement and pride were overwhelming for Russell as he returned to Worthing. As he was approaching the final stint of his incredible record-breaking run he was met by a crowd of people, friends, family and supporters cheering him on. He explained that although he felt exceptionally proud of what he had achieved it was a bitter-sweet feeling.
“I don’t know its kind of a bit disappointing in that sense because you work so hard to get to this goal and once you get there it’s quite deflating because it’s over and done with – I was like oh what do I do now?”Setting new goals is something that drives Russell; setting himself targets helps manage his life – he said that without these goals he would feel lost. He is always trying to think of the next challenge to accomplish.
Russell has had many ideas on what to focus on next. One of which is to run from pole-to-pole. He explained that this would consist of two years of running a marathon a day. He goes on to explain the elements are completely different from the European summer and there are a lot of logistics that would need to be worked out.
When Russell ran from Istanbul to London it was one season of summer so he could run with the bare minimum in his rucksack. However, if running pole-to-pole it would mean more equipment to cope with the cold weather and the extreme weather changes, more equipment to carry therefore making the run more strenuous and challenging from the very start.
This expedition will take many years of training and planning, but if achieved would be a record-breaking expedition. Before attempting the pole-to-pole run, Russell plans on running through Australia in 2020. He understands that it would be another different challenge due to the heat, wildlife, snakes and spiders but compensated by running in a country where he can communicate with the locals.
However Australia is so vast, he could be running for miles without seeing any sign of life, food or water. He plans to plant supplies along the way to make the run possible, hopefully, with the help of a sponsor, their financial help will make these trips an easier and safer reality.
“I did this for my own personal sense of achievement. I’ve got some mad stories to tell and I have done something no one else has done which makes me feel proud.”
You can follow Russell Cook on Instagram @thehardestgeezer_
All images courtesy of Russell Cook.
Edited by Fransizka Eberlein & Mischa Manser.