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‘Hardest Geezer’ completes momentous run along length of Africa

Russ Cook crosses the finish line at Tunisia's Cape Angela
Russ Cook crosses the finish line at Tunisia's Cape Angela - Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

British athlete Russ Cook has completed his momentous run along the entire length of Africa covering over 10,100 miles (16,300km) in 352 days.

Mr Cook – nicknamed the “Hardest Geezer” – crossed 16 countries while running the equivalent of 385 marathons.

Along the way, the 27-year-old from Worthing, West Sussex, survived machete-wielding villagers, armed robbers and crippling bouts of food poisoning.

At the finish line he said phlegmatically: “I’m a little tired.”

But his claim to be the first person to run the full length of Africa has been thrown into doubt by a tiny group of ultra-long distance runners.

Comprising just seven members, the World Runners Association (WRA) claims that Danish athlete Jesper Olsen had achieved the feat in 2010 when he ran 7,949 miles from Taba in Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 434 days.

Mr Cook, however, chose a route that took him from Africa’s most southern to most northern point, a journey that was longer by more than 2,113 miles than the Dane’s.

But the group is adamant that Mr Olsen’s record as the first person to achieve the feat still stands.

Mr Olsen was 37 years old when he ran the length of Africa as part of a two-year-long “world run”, beginning in the North Cape of Norway on Dec 28, 2008, and finishing in Cape Spear, Canada on March 15, 2010.

The WRA said that as the length of Africa “is calculated at 8,000km [4,971 miles] as the crow flies”, it does not matter that Mr Cook’s distance was longer.

Phil Essam, its president, said: “The WRA recognises Mr Jesper Kenn Olsen of Denmark as the first person to have run the full length of Africa.

“The World Runners Association therefore contests the claim made by British national Mr Russ Cook to be the first person to run the length of Africa.”

Speaking to The Telegraph, Mr Olsen gently chided Mr Cook for taking days off during the Africa run and said two other WRA members, Serge Girard from France and Tony Mangan from Ireland, had also completed the feat.

Mr Olsen said: “Serge Girard in his world run crossed five continents and completed his run without one single day off during the entire run.

“To compare this with Russ Cook’s run through Africa where there were several days off – I think, with all respect – is in itself a bit of a stretch, to compare a half-marathon with a full marathon.

“So for me it’s not about putting attention on myself. But to put the right scale to things so recreational runners can get an idea of where the maximal limits are in ultra-running. And hopefully get inspired.”

Marie Leautey, a WRA member who ran around the world in September 2022, said the group had repeatedly tried to contact Mr Cook during his run.

“He cannot say he is the first person to run the length of Africa. We really congratulate Russ, we just do not want Jesper’s achievement to be denied.

Russ Cook crossed 16 different countries while running the equivalent of 385 marathons
Russ Cook crossed 16 different countries while running the equivalent of 385 marathons - Instagram

“I can accept that maybe he did not know about it or didn’t do the research or he really thought he was the first person, for some reason.

“We contacted him [Mr Cook] on social media, on Instagram, social media, before this. We have tried and now we have seen the press in the UK, saying he was the first.

“We should get the facts right. We have no problem with him claiming to be the first to run from the most southern [point] to the most northern.

“But when we read he is the first man to run the entire length of Africa it is just not true, from a facts perspective.”

Guinness World Records have been asked to confirm which record they will confirm as being the first.

Russ Cook has raised more than £690,000 for two charities
Russ Cook has raised more than £690,000 for two charities - Instagram

Hundreds of fans

However, the comments from the WRA mattered little to the hundreds of fans who had flown in to accompany Mr Cook on his final run. He has raised almost £700,000 for charity.

Mr Cook told a reporter from Sky News jogging alongside him: “One more day, one final push to get this thing done. Three hundred and fifty-two days on the road is a long time without seeing family, my girlfriend.

“My body is in a lot of pain but I’ve only got one day. I’m not about to complain.”

Day one of Russ Cook's incredible feat, in a rainy South Africa
Day one of Russ Cook's incredible feat, in a rainy South Africa

The journey has not been without its hardships.

On day 26, Mr Cook and the team came down with food poisoning while travelling through Namibia.

An ashen-faced Mr Cook told the camera: “The day that was always coming. Woke up with muddy water falling out my arse and vomit falling out my face. Not ideal.”

Sustained on four squares of chocolate and a few sips of orange squash, Mr Cook managed to continue.

Two weeks later, doctors told Mr Cook to take the first rest day of his run after he passed blood in his urine for four consecutive days.

He recuperated with a safari trip around Gondwana Reserve, posting pictures of lions, elephants, rhino and giraffes on social media.

‘Blokes with machetes’

On day 102, while running through the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr Cook became separated from his team and wound up stumbling into a village in the jungle.

Confronted by “lots of game blokes with machetes” he was then taken to the village chief and told to hand over his money. All Mr Cook could offer was a half-eaten biscuit from his otherwise empty backpack.

The closest Russ Cook came to failing in his bid to run Africa was difficulty gaining entry to Morocco from Mauritania
The closest Russ Cook came to failing in his bid to run Africa was difficulty gaining entry to Morocco from Mauritania

Moments after he had been escorted out of the village, two men on a motorcycle accosted Mr Cook and drove him even deeper into the jungle.

In a video to his followers afterwards, he said: “In my head I thought this was it. Me. The self-proclaimed hardest geezer. About to get held in a Congo gulag before being ripped apart limb by limb and eaten.”

After much arguing between his captors, Mr Cook was set free and allowed to continue his run.

On day 279, Mr Cook was nearly forced to abandon the entire run when he and the team struggled to secure visas to cross the border into Algeria from Mauritania.

Kidnappers and terrorist attacks

The UK Foreign Office had warned travelling through the border regions of Algeria, citing the risk of kidnappers and terrorist attacks.

Mr Cook posted a video on Twitter saying: “If we don’t get the visas, then it is game over.”

His pleas for help were picked up by Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing, who promised to help through the Foreign Office and Algerian Embassy.

Alexander Stafford MP, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Algeria, also said he would help by raising the issue with the Algerian ambassador.

Mr Cook was later granted a visa from the Algerian embassy and wished “good luck”.

To celebrate his mammoth feat, Mr Cook will be throwing a finish-line party at a hotel in Bizerte, Tunisia.

Throughout the venture, called Project Africa, Mr Cook has raised more than £690,000 for two charities, the Running Charity and Sandblast, the latter of which is a UK-registered charity raising awareness of the indigenous Saharawi people of Western Sahara.

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