Thirty three year old Danish ultra distance runner Jesper Olsen is attempting to become the first human being to run the circumference of the earth. In December 2004, whilst running through Adelaide, South Australia, he met with Anubha Baird from the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team (SCMT) to share some insight into this extraordinary journey.
SCMT: Jesper on behalf of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team I would like to congratulate you on your efforts so far and present to you this banner (pictured).
Jesper: WOW! This is really great. REALLY GREAT! Thank you so much. I am so moved. I have done your races. In Germany I did your 24 Hour Run and I follow your ultra events on the internet. Every year I take great interest in the 3100 mile race. Of course your races are always superb.
SCMT: Jesper, how is this run planned? Do you have a whole schedule prepared?
Jesper: Actually, only for Europe and Russia did we do a schedule ourselves. In Russia and Europe, with about twelve Russian runners we did about two years of training and preparation for this Run – the daily distance and cumulative distances etc. What we have done for Australia and I hope USA and Canada is that I have one general contact. Here in Australia Phil Essam has done the great work of doing a detailed schedule. When I get to countries very far away from home then it is better that I connect with the knowledge of local runners and they advise me what would be a realistic distance, what would be the right route to take. For instance, in one country I can run on the highway, in another one I can’t…
SCMT: You commenced this journey with Russian ultra runner, Alexander Korotkov and you have been planning it with him for a couple of years?
Jesper: Yes, leading up to the Run we actually did two training camps in 2002 and 2003. Three weeks where the mileage wasn’t enormous, we did about fifty km a day in both Copenhagen and in Russia, but especially in Russia we got to know the Russian mentality a little bit more. It was very important. Because if you don’t understand the people that is going to wear you down much more than the running. Once you understand how the culture works you can begin to enter into their culture and really benefit from it. Again, Russia was and it will be the main part of the Run – 10,000 km so if you can’t get by in Russia you won’t make it.
We also had a couple of other runners that were interested in being a part of the Run, just them and ourselves. We all had to see if we were ready to do the Run. You will find that many excellent runners perform very well when they have all kinds of support. When however, you are living from your tent and you have to live off camp food week after week, then it is quite a different thing. You wake up and your running clothes are wet and rain is falling on the tent… for all of us it wasn’t easy. After that Alexander and I decided to try together.
SCMT: So when did you commence the World Run?
Jesper: We started together on January 1st from London, we ran through Europe, then we crossed the border between Finland and Russia, running up through Scandinavia around late February. We did a twelve hour race in Helsinki, an international invitational competition. Alexander did extremely well but unfortunately got injured. He ran 146 km after having run about fifty km a day for so many days. His effort was huge, he is a much stronger runner than I but unfortunately he was injured and after this 12 Hour race he dragged that injury for so long. For about five months Alexander continued with this injury. He was amazing, he ran another 7,500 km. In total he nearly reached 10,000 km. It was so sad. We tried so hard but he had to stop about 200 km short of 10,000! The problem is, of course, when you have one injury and you keep running, you try to compensate and alter your style and then you get other injuries.
SCMT: With the preparations did you make all the contacts with people in the countries before or did you do this when you arrived in each country?
Jesper: Basically, the two years preparation for this Run was about three to four hours work everyday after work. I am most inspired by the North Pole type expeditions of the past – so many of them. They have done it all without any of the technology we have today. However, this kind of planning couldn’t be done without the internet. Every night I sent a lot of emails. This way I made contacts in most countries.
SCMT: As you are running in most parts alone, how do you carry all your things?
Jesper: I push every thing in a baby pusher…
SCMT: How many kilos does this weigh?
Jesper: The baby pusher is five kilos and my things, including my tent etc. are thirty five kilos. It is excellent quality and rolls really easily. The problem is however that by having to push it I lose a lot of extra energy. After doing the 6 Day Race in Colac* I was unwell for a couple of days and lost in ten days about six kilos, so I have to be careful. In Russia, when I was running with Alexander every hour we would take it in turns. Then it was no problem because you would have a rest from pushing it for an hour. You would look forward to pushing it when you had your hour and when you had a rest you also enjoyed it. Mentally it was good for us because we had some change in our running.
- Jesper won this race outright and went on to create a new Danish record along the way.
SCMT: Running across Russia did you have any support crew?
Jesper: We had car support and crew from Finland for some time. A Russian driver and his eastern European car. There were all sorts of problems however. Naturally, it was very tough for him. When it gets really hard, of course, you begin to see there is a difference in motivation. When you are running you have one hundred percent motivation. When you are support crew you have good motivation when everything is good. But, for instance, we had about two months where we had no real road, only very, very bad gravel road going down the mountains. Then, of course, the motivation of our support driver, quite understandably would be about trying to get his car to survive. Every day he would see new broken down four wheel drives, expensive cars and he would wonder: “how can I survive….”
SCMT: Who determines the rules and guidelines for this World Run? I read on your website that you can not take more than two weeks off at any given point?
Jesper: These are basically guidelines that I set down. Nobody has ever done this before so there is no precedent. If someone had done it we could have learnt from their logistics, on the other hand there is one very positive thing and that is I don’t really have do anything in any particular time. What I do is keep the distance down when I am tired… What I make myself do is a minimum distance of twenty km every day and so far the longest day was actually in Canberra, Australia. It was ninety four km. I had a crew that day. When you have a crew it is a completely different thing.
SCMT: How have you found running in Australia?
Jesper: If I compare it overall then in Australia the people are so friendly! I am not just trying to be polite. I am still getting to understand it. I mean in nine out of ten countries I have run in I have been stunned at how friendly and positive the people are about this journey I am doing. But in Australia and in Finland, in these two countries it has been simply outstanding. In Australia people have just stopped on the side of the road and have been so generous. People would just stop on the side of the road and want to give me money. At first I couldn’t understand what was going on. The sociality in Australia is so different.
SCMT: Have your family been able to stay in contact with you?
I have a mobile phone so the best thing is to send a text message. That is safer when I am on the run. It means that sometimes when I don’t have signal then I will still get the message.
SCMT: I noticed on your website you have had over 180,000 clicks (at the time of typing this article there was over 200,000). This is staggering. Jesper I doubt you will have any idea how many people you are inspiring. There must be so many people from all over the world that are following your amazing journey.
Jesper: That has become one of the main reasons for running. I mean, in the beginning, of course, the main reason , being inspired by so many adventurers of the past, was to become the first people to run around the world, but now it is so great that so many people have become a part of this.
SCMT: Jesper, how are you financing the Run?
Jesper: The bulk of the funding has come from my personal finances. However we do have some financial sponsorship, it’s not a big amount but we get paid every time we (well now it’s just “I:) reached certain points. Getting to Moscow for example, then getting to Japan, getting to Australia, finishing Australia, finishing America. With my shoes ASICS have sponsored me.
SCMT: How many shoes have you been through so far?
Jesper: I have been through seventeen pairs, I think so far.
SCMT: How far through the Run are you?
Jesper: Usually I don’t have internet but yesterday I saw the internet. Everyday I send a web report to my father in Denmark and he posts it for me. Back home my father does all the calculations. My little sister’s husband does all the website coding and so on… I set up the website before we started but of course, I can’t maintain it whilst I am on the run. They are doing a great job and I really love that the family has become so involved with it. It is a lot of work too. That’s the way it works. So I saw yesterday that I have just past 15,000kms. I didn’t know that! I was really pleased.
SCMT: Can you start counting down now? Oh my god, only 11,000kms to go!
Jesper: That was good to see. In Japan I passed 13,500 (half way), so from there… Of course, mentally, when I reached 1,000km it was great. For me, thinking about it now can be a trap. So now I have really lost count and that’s why I send my report to my family to calculate. I remember we celebrated the 8,000km mark in Siberia. Now passing 9,000, 10,000, 11,000. For me 11,000 is the same as 9,000 – it is long and you are tired. While with 1,000 and 2,000 you think: “WOW!”
SCMT: It seems to me that you don’t have to struggle with motivation. Are there days when just don’t want to get up and start running again? Are there days when your mind says that you just can’t go on?
Jesper: Well actually, I have been very lucky. The running itself, you just get out and do it. I love running. I am very careful about keeping that basic joy in running. But what can cause a few problems, for instance yesterday, is when there is too much media attention. I am not that kind of person that really loves to appear in media. I love to live quietly and enjoy my running, my work and so on. I like to stay focused on my running. When there are too many interruptions and commitments that are a part of the run, especially now it has become better known… that, for me, is what is difficult. I think back to the Europe part of the Run when I was just running alone with the Russian runner. It was raining and it was cold and no one knew about us and we just had to concentrate on getting by with everyday running. It was excellent. It was wonderful. Then you can put all your strength, all your attention on getting the running done. When there are other expectations of you it is harder.
SCMT: Are a lot of people expecting that you are raising money for a charity or something?
Jesper: In Australia they have asked this a lot. In my country it is different. We pay sixty to seventy five percent income tax… It means if there is any problem the government in Denmark will take care of it. We are not used to the charity thing. We are a small country so it is possible. Of course, whilst running through Russia we tried to stop many times at orphanages and children’s homes. In the cases when I see that there is something where I can make a difference we definitely try to do it and we tried to inspire them. There were so many orphanages in Russia. They have had so much suffering. We tried to make meetings with them and tell them about the Run… show them pictures of the Run and basically say to them that you can have everyday really, really hard conditions but you can still really achieve something and follow your dreams (and so on).
There is also another reason too why I don’t do one official charity. It is because a little part of my aim of the Run is to try hopefully to give ultra running an image like any other sport. As an ultra runner I will get that question: “what charity are you doing this for?’ A long distance walker will get the same question. It seems to me that a football player or any of the other established big sports will never get this question. When journalists ask me this question I like to tell them that ultra running is a sport like any other sport. We take it very seriously and while I like to do charity when I see there is a worthy cause it is actually a serious sport like any other sport and sometimes you can do it just for the sport.
SCMT: How do you feel about the idea that you will become the first person to have ever run around the world? Does this enter into your mind?
Jesper: (laughs) Mainly, I feel this way. I’m definitely not sure I am going to be the first person yet, not until I see the finish line! Mainly I think about the logistics of the Run. For instance, I have to think about my visas to America and Canada and my flight from Perth to USA etc. There are a number of logistic things for instance. I have to get the sponsors to send me my shoes in Australia. They have arrived in Adelaide but I really needed them in Sydney. These sorts of things. I do every day planning and long term planning. I don’t think about the distance because unless I am really, really close to the finish line it does really matter so much.
SCMT: Jesper, you have been planning this Run for two years, but was this Run something you thought about before that?
Jesper: That is the funny thing. We had about ten runners planning this project in the beginning. I would have guessed that I was one of them who had the shortest number of years of having this kind of dream. Though I have been running since I was twelve, for me it hadn’t been a lifetime dream. Again, for the Russian runner (it is such a pity he was injured), he had been dreaming of running around the world since he was a small child. For many of the other runners that were involved it was the same. For me, I heard about another runner that had previously tried, but had cheated. There had been a lot of discussion about that. I followed that discussion for two years on the internet. Then one day at University (I used to work at the University in political science) I proposed on the web forum that instead of criticizing this guy at least recognize the effort to try. It is very bad to cheat, I don’t like that of course. I just proposed, more theoretically, that wouldn’t it be more sporting for some ultra runners to show that it is possible, instead of criticizing the one that tries. You know it was more theoretically. I thought it would be more correct. Then the day after I sent this it was a Canadian ultra runner who was the first to send a message back. He said: “when are we going to start, I am ready”. The idea was too much for me – I couldn’t bring myself to read these messages again for about two weeks.
SCMT: This is how it all started?!*
Jesper: Yes, then I got to thinking: well now it’s the right time, not in ten years. I thought: I have been running for twenty one years. With ultra running I have already reached many of my goals, so I thought this could be a perfect opportunity for me to get a really great run, to see the different cultures and nature. That is about fifty percent of the motivation and for me the logistics of doing it the right way, of doing the right organisation; that actually was more of the motivation than thinking: wow! I could be the first person to run around the world. If you understand.
SCMT: What an amazing surprise for you!
Jesper: (laughs) I hope this doesn’t take all of the illusion out of it for you! I had never been dreaming of this really.
SCMT: Do you feel sometimes it is better like that? When you don’t have time to think about it too much there’s no time for all the fears and things to come forward?
Jesper: Exactly, and you don’t have any expectations about what it is going to be like.
SMCT: Jesper, this is so extraordinary. You are so humble. You have inspired so many people.
Jesper: Definitely that is a good thing. There are so many things that when you start you have one motivation and then later another motivation takes its place. Again, if I have inspired someone to reach their goal with ultra running then it is really, really great. We had some stages, especially in Russia when we had people for the first time try ultra running. Or some tried just five km or 50 km. We had one runner his longest distance previously had been a half marathon, then he ended up running with us for two days…that was really great. This inspiration kept us going for a week or two weeks.
SCMT: How do you feel about the prospect of running across the Australian Nullabor, it is so barren and deserted!
Jesper: I have researched this. Basically since I have been running in Siberia I have been SMSing Phil Essam and we started planning the Nullabor from then!
SCMT: You are kidding! You are in the middle of running across Siberia and you are planning running across the Nullabor of Australia!?!
Jesper: Yes, you have to do this. Again for the planning type of runner which I am, very often this worked positively. You put your mind into a plan and you forget about the problems you have now. I
thought the Nullabor sounded so interesting and knew there I really had to plan right, get the logistics right, the support and when to run, when not to run and what to eat. Often it was quite horrible in
Siberia and this helped me to forget about my problems.
SCMT: When you run how do people passing by know what you are doing?
Jesper: In Australia I am wearing this t-shirt that has “Worldrun” on it. But mostly, there has been a lot of media in Australia so sometimes people just know what I am doing. But other times they stop and are curious and just ask.
SCMT: You ran the Australian 6 Day Race. Not only did you win it outright but you also set a new Danish record along the way. Are these kilometres included any where in your total distances?
Jesper: No, they were rest days! Perhaps they are not rest days for the body but they are rest days for the mind. That was one of the ideas for trying to do races along the way. You know running competitions I really love so much. It is so friendly. Running races and of course my family are two of the things I have missed the most since starting this Run. I REALLY love racing. Every month before this Run I would do a race. I really like the basic competition. I think it is probably the most simple sport in the world. It gets to the basic joy of what is having a competition. I mean, just seeing who is fastest to the finish line. You get enormous joy from this. This was the idea along the Run to do as many races. In Helsinki we did the 12 hour, in Omsk a half marathon, then in Australia the 6 day race. I loved Omsk, Russia, Siberia. Just being in Siberia I can’t guarantee it but I am almost certain if you go there it will change you. Just being there. It is SO different. The life is so hard there and still they are so positive. Their positive-survival-spirit is something I have not seen anywhere else.
SMCT: WOW! You really get such a feeling for the country, don’t you!
Jesper: While I was running there I had many, many days where I wasn’t so positive about Siberia. You know you are tired and it is so difficult there. I would think I can’t wait to get back to ‘real’ civilization. It is so simple there. They are slow. They don’t have the modern things we consider necessities. I think they have a very good perspective about what is and what isn’t important.
SCMT: Jesper, this is all so fascinating – everything! I hope you have a wonderful experience in the rest of Australia. Thank you so much for your time. This is a truly remarkable story. We will do whatever we can to assist you for the remainder of your phenomenal journey.