Nick Butter has run 4,876 miles, taken more than 400 flights, filled up 10 passports, gone through 15 pairs of trainers, been thrown in a police cell, mugged, attacked by wild dogs and spent half a million pounds – all on his mission to become the first human in history to complete a marathon in all 196 countries of the world.
The Bristol-based ultra runner began his quest two years ago and is now “just” 12 marathons short of the full set, which he’s scheduled to complete in early November in Athens, Greece.
While Eliud Kipchoge became the first to run a marathon in under two hours last week in Austria, Nick is making his own history in the sport – but has taken the scenic route.
The 30-year-old’s inspiration stemmed from a passion for running and travel, and his desire to be the first to achieve the feat, but also a man called Kevin Webber who he met on the Marathon des Sables in 2015.
Kevin has terminal prostate cancer and said to Nick after completing the route across the Sahara Desert: “Don’t wait for a diagnosis until you do what you’re passionate about” – a message which helped Nick formulate his plans for world domination and to raising money for Prostate Cancer UK.
“Since speaking to Kevin, he changed my outlook on the world,” says Nick.
“You don’t get a guaranteed ticket to retirement. I wanted to do something for Prostate Cancer UK and my only criteria was that I wanted to enjoy it, wanted it to be big and something nobody had ever done, and I wanted to set a world record. Two years later, here we are.”
As a seasoned ultra runner, regularly competing over distances of 50 miles, for Nick, running a marathon isn’t as daunting as it seems.
What has been the fundamental challenge throughout this expedition has been the logistics – applying for visas, booking flights, being up to date on political situations across the world and, most of all, ensuring he doesn’t get injured.
Packing 196 marathons into 672 days – one every three and a half days – is extremely draining from a physical and mental perspective, before you add changing time zones and jet-lag into the equation, which Nick admits has left him “permanently knackered”.
‘I’m just about to pick up my 10th passport’
“It took two years to plan the journey and for those two years it wasn’t five minutes every fortnight, it was full time, every day,” he says.
“There are also nutrition and psychological difficulties – being away from home while running a marathon in three different countries every week for 96 weeks isn’t going to be easy on the body.
“I’m just about to pick up my 10th passport. I’ve not lost a single one, they’ve just been all filled up with visas. Plus some passport stamps mean you can’t then go into another country – if you’ve been to Syria then America doesn’t particularly like that, and that’s before you get into Israel, Iran and other parts of the Middle East.
“People don’t understand or comprehend the complexities of planning it. I certainly didn’t, otherwise I might not have done it.”
Nick began the feat on January 6 last year in temperatures of -25C in Toronto, Canada, and has since travelled from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Afghanistan to Zambia and across five continents.
Not all have been organised races – he estimates 25 per cent – but such has been the awe inspired by his attempt, word has spread and as he’s reached more countries, he’s discovered races laid on especially for him with hundreds of people competing.
‘I ran past a beautiful erupting volcano’
Nick has also had to constantly think on his feet. In Toovalu in the Pacific Ocean, the nine islands that make up the nation are so small, he had to run the entire marathon back and forth on the mile-long runway which forms the hub of the community.
“There are some insanely brilliant people and places out there in the world and I’ve seen too many of them to mention,” he said.
“One of the first experiences I had, I ran with 1,000 people in El Salvador. Between the British Ambassador and the Minister of Sport, some charities and schools, they came out and had medals with my face on the back, trophies and all sorts.
“Another was in Guatemala when I ran past a beautiful erupting volcano with some brilliant friends I met there.
“Running in -25C in Toronto was a difficult one, but it was so unique, such a shock to the system and, most of all, such a lovely group of people.
“It really woke me up as to what the hell I was doing! I learned quickly to expect the unexpected.
“Without people, this trip would not be what it is. I’ve met so many incredibly lovely, selfless, just kind-hearted people that have made the journey.”
Unsurprisingly, given the sheer variety of landscapes, conditions and environments Nick has experienced, he’s seen his fair share of unpleasant and challenging experiences.
Thrown in a cell
“Running in 60C in Kuwait was unbelievable,” he adds. “But there are a lot of misconceptions I’ve had about places.
“You expect, when planning it, that somewhere like North Korea would be difficult but there’s an official marathon in Pyongyang, you can go with a tour company for four days and you’re in and out. And so it was a piece of cake.
“Then there are places like Equitorial Guinea, for example; I was throwing up for the entirity of the run because of the smell in the city.
“I was put in a cell on the Senegal-Guinea Bissau border. I wasn’t really aware of why, but I later found it was probably for my own safety because due to a cancelled flight I had to go overland through two countries and two water-crossings inland in Africa.
“I was camping at 2am with people with lots of guns nearby and I was basically manhandled and put in a cell, but that did mean I was safe!
“I was mugged in Lagos market – the biggest open air market in the world. I was attacked by people with knives and guns; they pushed me to the floor and gave me a bit of a kicking. We had to pay them off to leave me alone.
“The other one that stands out is the dog bite in Tunisia. I was in mile 24, five dogs attacked my friend Andy and I, who has run a few marathons with me over the course of this trip, and they jumped up and bit my left bumcheek.”
Now Nick is briefly back in Bristol as he prepares for the final leg of his journey, taking in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, amongst others, before the finish in Athens where Kevin will be there on the finish line to greet him.
He will document it all in a book published by Penguin next year, and already has speaking dates in schools and theatres around the UK and Europe planned.
Nick, who to date has completed 582 marathons and more than 100 ultramarathons over his running career, says: “Now I’m towards the end, every now and then I’ll let a slither of my emotion get in there and I’ll start to get excited and allow myself to look back at the bigger picture, but I’m not letting myself do that too much yet.
‘It’s not a euphoric feeling, it’s a fear’
“I want to savour it at the end and I’ve got the rest of my life to enjoy what I’ve done. I’ve still got to be pretty focused. It’s not a euphoric feeling, it’s a fear.
“We are so close, the pressure is mounting. There are times when I’ve stopped, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed. Pretty much every emotion under the sun because it means so much and it’s such a long period of time.
“I was 28 when I started, I’m 30 now and I’ve still not finished so it’s a big chunk of time and it does change your perspective on things.”
You can follow the final phase of Nick’s adventure on Instagram and Twitter – @nickbutterrun and Facebook – Running The World 196
If you’d like to donate to Prostate Cancer UK, his Just Giving page can be found at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/runningtheworld
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