When I first started running properly I was in the school cross country team at prep school. I was ten years old and loved the competitiveness of hitting the hills, running through mud and constantly trying to beat the clock. I had no idea that 25 years later I would literally be running across countries.
On the 14th of August 2014 I took the first strides of what would end up being a 17,000km run across two continents and during the course of 16.5 months I would run clear across the 12 countries that lay in between Canada and Argentina.
When I started I had one focus and that was getting to the finish line safely and in one piece but it was while running I realised what a privileged position I was in. I have loved travelling ever since I first strapped a backpack to my back in 1998. Since then I have used planes, trains, buses, motorbikes, bicycles and cars to visit some of the extraordinary places the world has to offer. But it wasn’t until I was running that I realised just how much I had been missing.
I met so many amazing travellers on my adventure and loved listening to their wonderful stories but it became apparent that many of them where missing so much by merely jumping from one tourist destination to the next. They were ticking more boxes but it made me ask the question, who was getting a better idea of the DNA of a country.
Running gives you the full sensory experience. I only ran during daylight hours and that guaranteed that I was visually taking in every cm of the scenery around me. Now that I am back I catch myself replaying stretches of road in my mind. I bring up an image and try and replay every km in each direction to see just how far I can relive the experience through my memory.
Smells bring the scenery to life and some of them can never be experienced unless you are there. I was lucky enough to run through Baja after a brief period of rain and the flowers were in full bloom. When you emerge from a desert and your nostrils are filled with the sweet smell of flowers if leaves a huge impression. Obviously smell can have the opposite effect and there are so many I will try my hardest to forget but it is worth experiencing them all the same.
When running there is no protection from the sounds and smells that are thrown at you on a daily basis. I can assure you that not every smell is pleasant and some sounds can be irritating but when paired up with what you are seeing it gives you the fullest picture of a country.
Too often our lives are deafened by the sounds of big city life. But when you are running through a jungle, desert or over a mountain range there are so many individual sounds that tell stories about where you are.
And that leaves touch. When you are running you are exposed to the elements and that forces you to have a very hands-on experience with your environment. Sheltering from the wind behind rocks, sleeping in tall grass or walking bare foot alone deserted beaches all add the final ingredient to experiencing the landscape around you.
Running across a country also affords you the truest cross section of a country. When using any other form of transport, you have the ability to make detours or to avoid less desirable areas but believe me, when you are running you chose the most direct route between A and B. This keeps your travelling experience real and pure and forces us to face up to the fact that even countries that are spectacularly beautiful and full of must see tourist destinations have darker sides. Poverty and hardship cannot be hidden from the foot traveller and it is by seeing the bad that you appreciate the good. It also opens our eyes to real threats to the world and those who live in it.
Being a runner means you are more a part of the scenery rather than just passing through. People cheer you, people engage with you, people help you and people make your travelling experience all the better. When people ask me about the highlights of my travels there is no hiding the fact that it was the people. There were the people that took me in, those how fed me and those who just stopped to have a chat. People and the living, breathing embodiment of the country you are a guest in.
Running across a country also allows you to make a huge internal journey. You take in your environment, process it and there is no escaping the fact that you compare it to the world you come from. You extract the good, learn from the bad and make decisions on how you are going to better your life by what you are witnessed and experienced around you.
Being a literal cross country runner is a privilege that many can’t experience but by taking your running shoes on your next holiday and jogging off the beaten track may just be more rewarding than ordering the next cocktail from the all-inclusive bar.
Run Free, Live Free.
Blog by Jamie Ramsey. British Adventurer Athlete, Scottish Adventurer of the Year.