‘I WAS AMAZED HOW LIT­TLE I NEEDED TO SUR­VIVE’

Aleks Kashefi ex­pe­ri­enced the lone­li­ness of the long-dis­tance run­ner on his solo jour­ney through Europe

Runner's World (UK) - - In­jury -

EUROPE is a re­lent­less con­ti­nent,’ says Aleks Kashefi. He should know; he has just run its length, cov­er­ing 3,720 miles – un­sup­ported and alone – in 196 days. His north-to-south jour­ney took in some of the con­ti­nent’s most re­mote places.

‘I met no more than 20 peo­ple along the way and slept un­der a roof just a cou­ple of dozen times,’ says Aleks, 38, from Bux­ton, Der­byshire. Just get­ting to his start point, Nord­kapp (North Cape), deep in the Arc­tic Cir­cle, took 28 hours of trav­el­ling. ‘I had a lot of time to think – and mostly I was think­ing, “What the hell have I done?”

Aleks quit his job as a sec­ondary school teacher to take on the trip. It was a wrench to leave, but part of his mo­ti­va­tion was to in­spire his stu­dents through his ac­tions. ‘I wanted to show that fear – or the risk of fail­ure – shouldn’t stop us reach­ing be­yond our per­ceived abil­ity.’

And Aleks is no stranger to tough chal­lenges. He took up run­ning only five years ago to lose weight and in 2015 he ran from Land’s End to John O’groats – bare­foot. He wore min­i­mal­ist run­ning san­dals on his epic jour­ney through Europe.

From Nor­way, Aleks in­tended to snake south along the Nor­way/swe­den bor­der (with a dip into Fin­land) be­fore head­ing through Den­mark, Ger­many, France and Spain, fin­ish­ing at its south­ern­most point, Tar­ifa. Some of the route would fol­low the trans-europe E1 trail, but it also took in many other long-dis­tance trails, and some­times sim­ply en­tailed fol­low­ing his nose (for ex­am­ple, when he aban­doned his planned coastal route to Va­len­cia, in­stead travers­ing the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains).

‘My aim was to make 20 miles a day, trav­el­ling south as fast as pos­si­ble to out­run win­ter,’ says Aleks. ‘It turned out to be 20-40 miles a day. I had the odd ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing sea­sons re­vers­ing. The leaf­less trees in the Arc­tic Cir­cle were re­placed by au­tumn colours, and then, fur­ther south, the leaves turned green again.’

But the weather did not al­ways co­op­er­ate: ‘I was pre­pared for be­ing cold and wet in Nor­way and Swe­den but I ended up hy­pother­mic in Spain – there were hail­storms and snow in the Sierra ranges for the first time in 30 years.’

Things didn’t start well: on the first night of his trip, Aleks’s main tent pole broke. ‘I had to prop the tent up with sticks and rocks, then rely on an emer­gency bivvy bag un­til I got to Abisko in north­ern Swe­den, where I waited two weeks for a re­place­ment tent.’ It was worth wait­ing for: there were nights when Aleks would have been in real trou­ble with­out it. ‘I of­ten woke up with a layer of ice coat­ing my sleep­ing bag,’ he says.

The trail was tough in arc­tic Scan­di­navia – rocky hills and flat, wet marsh­land. ‘Of the first 10 days on the road, there were only three where my feet stayed dry. I some­times ended up waist-deep in sticky peat bog and, with the com­bi­na­tion of sweat and damp, usu­ally went to bed feel­ing cold and un­com­fort­able, de­spite the nev­er­set­ting sun. And it was just so de­void of peo­ple. The only sign of habi­ta­tion

When he reached Den­mark, Aleks took de­liv­ery of a stroller from friends. ‘Lots of longdis­tance run­ners use them to push their be­long­ings in, so I thought I’d give it a try,’ he says. ‘Though I ran with it through Den­mark, Ger­many and France I re­alised fairly early that I needed to ditch it be­fore the end. It al­tered my form and I ended up with a sore an­kle. It also made me feel more vul­ner­a­ble, since it lim­ited my op­tions for run­ning on trail, ex­pos­ing me to more road sec­tions and some near misses with ve­hi­cles.’

While sparsely pop­u­lated north­ern Scan­di­navia posed its own chal­lenges, more densely pop­u­lated ar­eas in Ger­many and Den­mark made it trick­ier to find some­where suit­able to sleep. ‘I’d look for bus shel­ters, aban­doned build­ings, farm­ers’ shacks – any­thing to avoid pitch­ing my tent so I could pass with­out be­ing no­ticed and avoid the rig­ma­role of dry­ing out my tent and sleep­ing bag.’

Aleks’s diet con­sisted of salami, cheese and the odd bun or pret­zel, plus toma­toes and av­o­ca­dos when he could get them. He picked fruit where it was avail­able – berries in Scan­di­navia and or­anges in Spain. He did carry a stove, but of­ten val­ued sleep over a hot meal. ‘I found I just wanted to get warm, eat and sleep while I still had some body heat from run­ning,’ he ex­plains. ‘I slept with a sponge cake next to me so that I could eat it when I woke up in the night. Hav­ing enough calo­ries made the dif­fer­ence be­tween feel­ing warm or cold.’

At the start of the trip, Aleks’s pack weighed around 15kg, but over time he re­alised that many

of the things he’d thought he needed were merely weigh­ing him down. ‘I gave my down jacket to a home­less man in France and dumped the in­ner of my tent, us­ing a bin liner split in half to keep me off the ground. By the time I reached Spain my pack weighed just 5kg. I was amazed by how lit­tle I needed to sur­vive and the low level of com­fort I could ac­cept. It makes

you re­alise how adapt­able the hu­man body is.’

Aleks spent much of his 196-day jour­ney alone. Was that harder than he ex­pected? ‘ When I reached Spain, I found out that a friend was there too, but only for a short time. I ran 386km in 15 days to have a chat in English and din­ner with some­one I knew,’ he grins.

Then it was on to Tar­ifa, his fin­ish­ing point. ‘There was a sense of, “Well, that’s that, then.” A kind of joy­ous melan­choly – happy I’d achieved my goal, but sad the trip was over. I even con­tem­plated get­ting a ferry to Africa and car­ry­ing on!’

A few weeks on, he’s back in Bux­ton, teach­ing again and try­ing to con­trol his crav­ings for curry and choco­late. ‘The trip taught me a lot about my­self,’ he re­flects. ‘I learned to stay in the mo­ment. It’s not about one day at a time, but one mo­ment. That mind­set got eas­ier. I feel more com­fort­able with my­self now and I’m more aware of what I’m ca­pa­ble of men­tally. But I don’t know if I’ve learned what I’m phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble of. The trip was tough – some­times ex­tremely so – but I’m still here, still run­ning and con­sid­er­ing my next chal­lenge…’

‘I slept with a sponge cake next to me so that I could eat it when I woke up in the night’

1 Aleks wraps up for another cold night. 2 A hut for trekkers in Nor­way. 3 Break­fast in a can, in a for­est. Again 4 Dried spaghetti bolog­nese: just add wa­ter for a lit­tle taste of Italy. 5 The snow is not yel­low, so it’s safe to eat. 6 Get­ting cold feet was not an op­tion. 7 Pick­ing or­anges in Spain. 8 Out for a stroll. 9 The end is in sight.

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