Redhead Redemption

Russ Cook is running the entire length of Africa – and, he tells Lola Katz Roberts, it’s even more demanding and chaotic than you’d imagine…

While you’re eating, sleeping, working, meeting up with friends and generally living your life, somewhere in Africa’s vast midst, Russ Cook is running. He has been running for more than 200 days – marathons, ultra-marathons in the heat, in the rain, in the dark – and he won’t stop until he reaches the northernmost tip of Cape Angela in Tunisia.

His face has grown gaunt and lean, his ginger beard now swamping his shrinking features. But he will not allow himself to contemplate failure, for the simple reason that it would require him to get on a plane and fly home. He will use his own two legs and, as he puts it, “run the length of Africa or die trying”.

“There was no doubt in my mind that I could do it,” he says. “I didn’t know what was coming. But what I did know in my heart, my mind and my soul that there was no way I’d be giving up.”

He hopes to become the first person to run the length of Africa – almost 15,000km across 16 countries, 360 marathons in 250 days – and aims to finish before Christmas. We caught up with him on day 194 from a sweltering hotel room in Nigeria. “It’s about 40 degrees and I’m sweating my nuts off,” he says. “I’ve eaten nothing but biscuits for like three weeks straight. So, still got a few hills to climb.” A sentence like this pretty much sums up his mentality. Insurmountable problems for most are simply hills to climb for the man from Worthing who calls himself ‘Hardest Geezer’.

‘We’re out here, boys and girls, and when a gun gets pointed in your face that’s a bit of a get real moment.’

Of course, the mission hasn’t been plain sailing. Cook and his team have been robbed at gunpoint and have suffered from the bureaucratic grind of visa issues and health scares – including a flirtation with kidney failure.

“It’s an interesting one when someone sticks a gun in your face. My initial reaction was just to try and control the moment. I remember vividly the guy cracking open the door and the gun coming up, and I just tried to start a dialogue and delay his action as much as possible. My thoughts were just about damage limitation: try to keep everyone safe and try to keep as much of our stuff.

“That was the first real disaster we’d had, and that was a bit of a moment where I thought, ‘This ain’t the seaside town of Worthing any more.’ We are out here, boys and girls, and when a gun gets pointed in your face that’s a bit of a get real moment.”

In a world of gimmicky influencers, Cook is its antithesis. What he’s doing is extremely hard, and he’s not afraid to share that with his audience. For context, one recent YouTube video is entitled: “Was it even a proper day’s graft if you didn’t have poo dribbling down your leg?” Cook has even continued to run marathon distances while suffering with severe food poisoning.

“I can’t lie: the first time I was weeing blood I was a bit like, ‘That’s actually red coming out of my willy, that’s a bit mad.’ I’m no scientist, but I knew it wasn’t good. It was concerning, but I just thought, ‘OK then, let’s see where this road goes. I guess I’ll just carry on stomping and hope for the best.’

“I got food poisoning badly and I was absolutely delirious on about day 24. It was probably the first day where I thought, ‘I cannot conceive of how I’m going to be able to run.’ There were about three days where I couldn’t eat – I couldn’t keep anything down and I was just continuing to run marathons. In truth there have been moments where I’ve thought my body is at breaking point; little niggles that I’ve thought really have the potential to develop into something catastrophic. But I honestly believe God is on my side with this one.

‘One thing that I’ve learned is that I’m both immensely powerful and pathetically weak in almost equal measure.’

Despite demonstrating copious reserves of mental fortitude, Cook still believes there is room for more.

“I think one thing I’ve learnt is I’m both immensely powerful and pathetically weak in almost equal measure. When you take on something like this, you’re forced to hold yourself up to the flame, and a lot of the times you see where you’re not so good, where things have gone wrong.

“One of the things I’ve learned about myself is how leadership is and how difficult it is to be a good leader. Before this I would have thought it’s simply a matter of being strong, showing direction and leading by example. Turns out it’s a lot more complicated than that. To be a great leader you’ve got to be so well balanced as an individual, and obviously I’m a bit tapped in the head so it’s a bit difficult!”

The desire to prove himself – to leave a permanent mark on the African tarmac – is evidently still burning strong, but when thoughts turn to what’s next, there is perhaps the sense Cook has pushed himself as far as he can go (at least for now).

“You’re so motivated to tunnel vision on one particular goal for such a long time that when you achieve it, you do kind of think, ‘What do I do with myself?’ That loss of a sense of purpose is really hard to deal with. I’m entering a new stage of life. I’ve got a partner and it’s a pretty serious relationship, and I feel like I’m gaining a lot more responsibility. But I’m excited to come back, to explore what options are on the table for me in my career and personal life, and just be there and be present to enjoy things.

Cook only briefly allows himself to contemplate what he might do when it’s all over. “I think immediately post-finish line I’ll probably just break into a nice steady two-step. Hopefully someone will pass me a strawberry daiquiri, followed by at least two and a half pints of beer. I’ll probably just get a bit drunk, make a bit of a tit of myself, sing a bit and then just hold my girlfriend’s hand and just pass out somewhere on the beach in Tunisia. Oh, and I’d love to eat a pizza as well, a proper good cheesy, garlicky, tomato pizza would be fantastic…”

Just when it seems he is drifting away into that future moment, he regains his composure. “I think I knew this before I started, but it’s really been hammered home by this experience, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. No one said this would be easy, but I know if I just keep going long enough, that light will show itself to me, even if it’s just for a moment. So that’s what I’m striving for right now.

“Whether I’ve been out running and thought, ‘There’s just no way I can make this,’ whether we’ve just been robbed, or I’ve got really ill and I’ve got pretty dark and not known where I’m going – just keeping on going and finding a way to show up tomorrow no matter what state you’re in, and just giving it everything you’ve got. For me, if you do that, things have a way of sorting themselves out.”

Russ Cook is completing the challenge to support two charities: the Running Charity and WaterAid. He has raised £85,000 of his £100,000 target. To support him and donate to his mission, head to

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