Sweltering deserts, giant rainforests and dangerous wildlife are just some of the hurdles that Russell Cook says he’ll encounter as he attempts to complete the gargantuan task of running the length of Africa.
Starting at the most southerly point in South Africa, the 26-year-old Briton is aiming to reach the most northerly point in Tunisia by Christmas – that’s the equivalent of running 360 marathons in 240 days.
Supported by a small skeleton crew of friends, Cook will pass through 16 countries in what promises to be a physically demanding, mentally exhausting and logistically challenging expedition as he raises money for both The Running Charity and Water Aid.
“Honestly, I’m actually not daunted by any of it,” Cook told CNN Sport on day 13 of his odyssey.
“There’s no point worrying about it until it’s right in your face. We can plan and try to mitigate as much as we can along the way but none of these things keep me up at night. Handle the day, wake up, and handle tomorrow.”
In the first two weeks of his trip, Cook ran over 50 kilometers per day through South Africa and has now crossed into Namibia where he’ll face the unrelenting Namib Desert.
It’s a challenge beyond most people’s imaginations but not for Cook, who has earned the nickname “The Hardest Geezer.”
He only found his running legs later in life, but has already completed some incredible feats – running from Istanbul to London and completing a marathon while pulling a car.
But life hasn’t always been so remarkable for Cook and it’s the memory of a previous world that still motivates him.
Like many young men, Cook struggled with his mental health as a teenager.
Unable to find value in the multiple jobs he was doing to make a living, Cook says he felt trapped and would spend his time at weekends drinking with friends and gambling.
His Damascene moment came at a nightclub in Brighton, England.
Cook still remembers looking around at 3 a.m. and thinking that there must be more to life than this “proper dingy place.” It was a time to “fix up” and, in search of new horizons, he decided to run home.
“It was like 12 miles and it took me probably three hours,” he says, laughing at his hazy memories of that night, as well as admitting to “taking little power naps on the pavement on the way home.”
After that, a friend asked Cook to run a local half marathon. He completed it. He then thought he’d try a full marathon a few weeks later. He completed that as well.
“For the first time in a long time, I felt confident,” says Cook.
“That whole process of achieving something that previously seemed like I couldn’t do or that marathons are for crazy fit people. That could never be me. I’m not that guy. But then I became that guy.”
Riding his new wave of motivation, Cook saved up enough money to go traveling. It was to be the next step on his journey of personal discovery and, in hindsight, one that would eventually lead him to his latest feat: Project Africa.
On his travels, he visited the Kenyan town of Iten – home to some of the world’s very best long-distance athletes.
Cook began to immerse himself in the local way of life and despite not being as quick as the professionals, he fell deeper in love with the “primal” art of running and the way it made his mind and body feel.
The final piece of his jigsaw fell into place when, still in Africa, he met an Italian cyclist who was riding non-stop around the world.
That conversation motivated Cook to start planning how he’d run the entire length of Africa – something he says has never been done before.
“It just took a few years of smashing rock bottom, to start thinking: the only way I’m going to get out of this is by taking absolute responsibility for the situation that I’m in,” he says.
“Trying to improve myself and then putting more positive energy out there, putting the work in, working on myself and and then slowly but surely, climbing the ladder.
“Six years later and I’m in a bus in Africa getting beat down every day on the road instead!”
Cook’s small team has run into problems at almost every part of the planning process, including visa issues and flying the support vehicle halfway across the world.
The trip was initially going to be done in reverse but, always happy to adapt, Cook eventually arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, in late April and was excited to get going.
From there, he has been chipping into the mammoth challenge one day at a time, overcoming any problems he encounters along the way.
From blisters to smelly feet, there is seemingly nothing, big or small, that can throw him off his mission – so far.
Cook even says that he persuaded two men not to rob him while he was running alone in South Africa and, such is his charming nature, he asked his team to give one of the would-be thieves a lift home.
But when it comes to dealing with Africa’s often wildlife, he has a plan – or so he says.
“What if I saw a lion? Now, the answer I’d give to the internet is that I’d give it a firm double jab, right hook, left uppercut,” he says, laughing at his own bravado.
“But if I’m being real with you, I’ll poo myself. I’ll say my final words to Jesus and then just close my eyes and hope for the best.”
Cook spoke to CNN at the end of yet another grueling day of running. He had barely finished the last of his 50 kilometers before being bundled into the back of the support vehicle and having a laptop shoved under his nose.
He even apologized for being slightly late – testament to a man who, despite his growing presence online, is grateful to anyone willing to show support.
“I’m getting into the rhythm of things. The body has taken a few little niggles on the way to adjusting, but give it a couple more weeks and I’ll be swinging around every day,” the ever-positive Cook says, speaking of the physical demands of his challenge.
“The nature of the beast is that this is never going to be comfortable. I try to remember that the situation I’m in is a blessed situation. I’ve worked so hard for so long to be able to get here.
“From where I’ve come from to have this opportunity is absolutely incredible. What’s a few little sore bits in the legs? It’s all minor at the end of the day.
“When I’m an old man, sitting in my rocking chair, with 18 grandchildren running around, I’ll have a few stories to knock back. So that will be good.”
Social media presence
If Cook says he’s not worried about some of the obstacles – such as the Congo rainforest and Sahara desert – along the way, he does admit to worrying about funding his challenge.
He says he’s currently running on fumes in that department, still using money given to him from a friend of a friend who had made his money in cryptocurrency.
In the hope of getting more sponsorship, Cook and his team are documenting his journey on social media and have seen his online presence grow rapidly; his latest weekly YouTube video has over 50,000 views so far.
While the outside world sees him posting daily motivational videos and posing for photos for his team, Cook spends hours on end with just his footsteps for company.
“You obviously do get used to it. It’s like anything, you practice it enough and you just get better,” he says, explaining where his mind goes for long periods of the day.
“I can pass through whole days just sitting in my own head. Part of the growth journey for me is becoming quite a peaceful person in myself.
“I do often think about the future, you know, think about how we can make this better. A big stress is how are we going to get funding. So I’m always thinking about that.”
With over seven months of the trip still to go, and with some of the hardest challenges still to come, Cook is not thinking about the finish line.
Instead, he’s focused on “putting another brick in the wall” every day and making sure he enjoys the adventure when he can.
Asked for his favorite moment to date, he recalled the time he was joined temporarily by a local 18-year-old boy who gave him the necessary boost while he was beginning to struggle in his first week of the trip.
“Just having the opportunity to fly halfway around the world, get a few kilometers in with a boy who can give you a boost like that at the end of the day,” he says.
“We’re from totally different worlds but, at that moment, we were just two lads running along.”
Cook says he understands that people will be worried about him during the trip, but also says that loved ones know they can’t stop him.
His appetite for adventure is ferocious but what’s most stark is his ability to strip back any pretense or sense of grandeur.
Maybe as a way of managing the seemingly impossible task ahead, he simplifies everything he does.
As long as his heart is beating, Cook says, he will be moving down the road; whether that be jogging, walking or crawling.