By Jürgen Ankenbrand - As a long distance runner myself and adventurer and published photojournalist, I had the opportunity to meet Jesper on his first day in Los Angeles and accompany him for sixteen days along the California Coast as well as on his last day in the United States in Manhattan. That's where I learned about Jesper the human being as well as Jesper the runner. In a world where being number one seems to be everything, Jesper's feat earned him a place in the "Guinness Book of World Records". Here is his story, that I pieced together, based on information from Jesper's daily dairy and from the personal experience accumulated during the 16 days I crewed him along the California Coast in 2005.
I didn't wake up one morning thinking "I am going to run around the world". I thought about it for a long time, carefully considering and planning every phase. Several runners had tried, but no one had completed the task before. But I was just the guy to do it. I started running when I was 15 years old. What happened to be just a physical activity soon became one of my passions in life. By the time I reached 29, on the threshold of my third decade, finding running-related exciting goals was becoming very difficult. Almost anything imaginable had been done, such as continent-crossings on foot in the U.S., Australia and Europe.
After that, what's left? I asked myself. Well, how about running around the world? Over the past few years several runners had attempted to run around the world, but all of them either failed or were caught cheating, like a guy I read about who took a train, thinking he could fool the public.
I was thrilled by the prospect of becoming the first human being to run around the globe and I knew it was the right time for me to do it. My career and studies as a political scientist at the Copenhagen University were only at a beginning stage and a leave of absence was granted. So in 2002 I made up my mind to run around the world. And here it is, October 21, 2005, 661 days later and I have "made it" and I am back in Greenwich, England. It's been a very, very long run.
Overcoming the initial public scorn and disbelief wasn't easy. Denmark is a socialist country where apparently any individual is allowed to dream, but you are not actually expected to try to make your dreams come true. Only a few very close friends and fellow runners, used to thinking outside the box, understood what I was trying to do and supported me from the very beginning. My parents eventually backed me up when they realized I was serious.
As all smart people know, excellent planning was to be key. I placed an ad on several international running lists to attract potential participants from all over the world. After a couple of weeks I received more than a dozen responses, but only two runners seemed suitable for the run. One was the Russian ultrarunner Alexander Korotkovs from St. Petersburg and the other one was the Japanese woman ultrarunner Kazuko Kaihata. She was an ultrarunner who two years earlier had completed a 5100 kilometers run from Lisbon to Moscow as part of the "Trans Europe Foot Race" where Ingo Schulze was the Race Director.
Next, I looked for sponsors. That took a while. I spent almost two years on this, until I was able to obtain several sponsors, mainly in the areas of running gear and communications.
With the adventure pretty much secured, Alexander, Kazuko and I got together for a three-week training camp in Denmark to test our equipment and the team as a unit. We planed another, tougher training run in Russia where runners and equipment received their final test. Everything worked well and all was set for January 1, 2004 start in Greenwich, England. Alexander and I would meet at the end of December in Greenwich, London and Kazuko would join us once we reached St. Petersburg. The adventure had begun.
On January 1, 2002 Alexander and I started our world run at 7:00 a.m. at the world famous Greenwich observatory near London on a typical cold and windy January day. Each of us ran with a baby jogger to carry our supplies such as tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food and water. Each day we would run from about 8 in the morning to around 4 or 5 in the afternoon hoping to average 40 to 45 kilometers or about 26 miles, with about 8 to 10 hours to rest, eat, sleep and hopefully, meet people and give interviews to local media. For the most part, we were successful. The most we ran in a single day was 50 miles in a day; the least was 25 miles a day when my blisters popped and I had to limp to the hospital.
But we set off with the vigor and enthusiasm that characterizes the outset of a quest. It only took us three days from Greenwich to Calais, where we caught the boat that took us across the English Channel to Dunkirk, France. The weather was terrible and our dinner even worse: cold canned ravioli & potatoes, chocolate pudding and biscuits. We slept in our tent to wake up to almost a hundred people staring at us. We had camped on the front lawn of a large office building in downtown Calais, France. Oops???
We continued towards Belgium. Along the road, friendly people invited us for free coffee and croissants. The rain had no mercy, though. It didn't stop for days and it was so strong once we arrived in Ghent, after 55 kilometers of non-stop running that we decided to find a cheap hotel to spend the night.
Then we headed off to Holland to where the rain just followed us all the way. Two flat tires on our baby joggers and an empty GPS batteries were not what we had planned on. Just as we were getting tired of the rain we met a friendly Dutchman named Kees Maarsne and his wife Wilma, who invited us to stay in their house.
After that we spent seven days in Germany, where we met several well-known local runners who accompanied us and provided us with food and accommodation. Tnen we headed north to my home country of Denmark and family, seven weeks from our departure from Greenwich.
After eight days of rest and a television interview, we ran along the beaches of Oresund to catch the 30-minute ferry that brought us to Sweden. Right on our first day we got lost but the Swedes are friendly and helpful and eventually we got back on track. One day we woke up at 4:00 a.m. It was cold and snowy, resulting in a beautiful run in a winter fairy tale landscape. Temperatures got down to -11 °C (12 °F) so we couldn't allow ourselves to stop along the route as the water in our bottles was frozen. The running was great but the road somewhat dangerous, lots of traffic and little space to avoid cars.
The next country we visited was Finland, where media attention was overwhelming for such a small country. Radio, television and newspapers – big and small – wanted to talk to us. We participated in a 12-hour non-stop race in Helsinki, competing against 21 runners from several countries. Alexander and I did well, finishing in number 4 and 1 respectively. Not bad for two runners who had already run 2,000 kilometers.
Next came Russia, and Russia was a tough one. Heavy snow all day, border crossing troubles, dangerous traffic and icy roads were the norm. "Better get used to it... we'll be here several months". The Russian border authorities didn't go out of their way to be hospitable. They confiscated our Asics shoe shipment because they considered it to be a luxury item and asked for $1,300 in taxes. Without appropriate shoes for the next 9000 kilometers we headed off to St. Petersburg, where we finally got our shoes and met Kazuka Kaihata, who would continue with us up to Tokyo. The three of us started running towards Moscow. Despite the dangerous five-lane traffic roads without any shoulders to run on, we made it to the Kremlin. Moscow and the Kremlin were breathtaking even when our presence was hardly noticed. After a couple of days we left Moscow and turned East towards the fast expanse of Russia and Siberia.
It was already April when we arrived to Siberia. Kazuka and I celebrated our arrival by tasting a Siberian specialty called "kvas". It is an orange home-brewed drink made from bread that tastes like weak beer, smoked salmon and coffee, all at the same time. Yes, we were now in Siberia, a huge place with roads that seemed to have no end. It's wild too. One evening, for example, I saw two gray wolves taking a walk about 200 meters from our tents in the white birch forest. Running through Siberia was a real challenge. Solitude is the word that comes to mind every time I remember that part of the trip. Few towns or villages, inclement weather and practically no stores to restock supplies, were the rule. Fortunately, Siberians were extremely supportive. Many times they invited us into their home and fed us typical basic Russian food, such as borcscht (the famous cold soup made of beet and sour cream), sausages and sauerkraut. I think that Russia was friendlier than I expected, especially when compared to other European countries. In fact, this was the only country where we had help from local administration almost daily. To our delight and surprise, they provided us with accommodation, police escort, meals and many gifts. The Russian winter was not as cold as expected, but longer. We were also more than a little worried about the supposed lawlessness of post-Soviet Russia, but we never encountered any real danger. On average, prices were about 50% lower than in Western Europe, but salaries were much lower as well. Russia presented by far the most social contrasts with few people living in luxury while the rest endured hardship and economic difficulties. By October Alexander, Kazuka and I reached Vladivostok, becoming the first runners in history to cross the entire Russian territory from West to East. It was time to catch a plane and flight to Japan.
More than 700 kilometers, from Toyama Harbor to Hiroshima Harbor. That was our plan for Japan. Unfortunately, Alexander had to quit before running that circuit, due to several injuries, physical and mental fatigue. Then Kazuka decided to call it quits due to some injuries and, especially, the pressure of her family, who did not want her to continue, thus leaving me as the sole runner to continue. So, there I was, alone with my dream of running around the world as a team and the challenge of understanding Japan and its roads. Not being able to read or speak Japanese was a major problem. I would get easily lost and didn't have a way to ask for directions. Once, for example, I was given the name of a hotel to stay at, but I was unable to find it until very late at night, when all the rooms were already taken. It was a very frustrating episode.
From Japan I took a two-hour flight to Korea with a 10-hour wait for the evening connection to Sydney my starting line in Australia. A local ultrarunner guided me through town onto the road to Melbourne. At last, English speaking people again, very friendly, helpful and interested in my running adventure. Kangaroos – dead and alive – abounded on the road. Australia rivaled Siberia for endless long roads (without the snow and cold). At least the truckers were runner-friendly and gave me lots of space to run. The hot Aussie weather didn't exactly put me in a Christmas mood but I met a couple that invited me to spend Christmas Eve with them in their home, a welcome change from camping out. After that I made the 1500 kilometer trek across the great Nullabor desert, Australia's largest, which was uncomfortably hot, up to 35 °C (95 °F) every day. I encountered some cyclists there, some coming as far as from Vancouver, Canada. I realized I was not the only one who aimed high.
From Perth in Western Australia I flew to the United States. In Los Angeles I spent two nights at a German family's home, re-supplying for my U.S. crossing. This is also where I met Jürgen Ankenbrand (in the U.S. & Europe also known as the Ultra Kraut) who would crew me along the California Coast. He had a wild sense of humor and was an experienced crew person. After three weeks of togetherness, we became good friends. As all good things must come to an end, Jürgen left me a few days after San Francisco. Running along the Californian Coast is an experience in itself. Magnificent scenery, many up and down hills and famous places, such as scenic Santa Monica, Venice Beach and "Muscle Beach", birthplace of the American fitness culture. Being solo again, I made my way slowly up to Seattle where I had a family reunion with my little sister and her husband. This gave me energy I needed to finish the trip as planned.
Crossing into Canada was uneventful but once again, things got a little lonelier since there are far stretches with very few towns and finding lodging is not always easy. Fortunately when things got tough there was always somebody ready to help me out.
It is my experience that loneliness is the main thing to worry about in a run like this. I try to remember to use the common strategy of ultrarunning to always focus on the short term and intermediate goals and not be too intimidated by the long term perspective of hundreds or thousands of miles ahead. In the world run this meant motivating myself to reach the next major city, competition or runner to meet with me to accompany me for some distance. I could not contemplate the distance still between me and the finish line in total kilometers or time I had left to go.
Despite all the help and support I got, mental stress symptoms of being on the road for over a year and a half, started to be evident. I went through several days of upset stomach, weakness and a sense of hopelessness. I was about to quit and that was a big paradox, considering there was a relatively short stretch (about 20% of the total distance) to go. Fortunately things got better, thanks to the stunning Canadian and American landscapes and the people I met. As I was getting close to New York I had almost always people to help me, either running along with me or carrying some of my stuff. It lightened the load, in more ways than one.
I arrived in New York on October 6, 2005. Several local runners, Sebastian my mayor sponsor and my friend Jürgen, who just arrived from Germany the previous day, joined me there for the last U.S. stage. It ended at the United Nations building, a very befitting ending indeed.
By the end of the month, after nearly two years of exciting experiences and hard but joyful running, I returned to Europe. In Ireland and England I had many friends with me most every day who helped me with lodging, running alongside to make sure that nothing would happen so close to "home". After two weeks of moderate running across England I arrived in London, heading for Greenwich and the finish line at the old observatory at 2:41 p.m. BST on October 23, 2005. I had covered more than 26,000 kilometers in one year, 10 months and 23 days after I set off from the same spot, becoming the very first human being to run all around the world.
Several month later Jesper surprised me by telling me that he had concocted an new adventure. He planed to run from Europe's Northern most part at the Norwegian cape to South Africa's Cape Town. Within a couple of hours I sent him an e-mail, saying count me in as a crew member and driver, which he accepted. The clincher came when a few weeks later Jesper announced that from Cape Town he would fly over to Ushuaia, South America's Southern most town and run up the North American continent. The start is planed for the summer of 2008 and the entire adventure should take over two years. Giving all involved about two and a half years to plan this unprecedented running adventure. Is it insane? You decide and let me know. Jesper and all those helping him are open for suggestions, advise and any sponsorships that may result from making this story public. Please send any reply to: ankenbrand(at)aol.com (Jürgen Ankenbrand). Jesper's website is www.worldrun.org.