Why did Nick Butter set himself the challenge of running a marathon in every country in the world?
Words by Jonathan Whiley
Nobody said running the world would be easy.
Nick Butter has been savaged by wild dogs, mugged (twice) and locked up in jail (once – for his own safety).
Plus there's the small matter of being shot at.
The extraordinary feat, a Guinness World Record, was achieved when Nick completed a marathon in 196 countries in two years. That's up to three a week.
While the stats alone are astonishing – 455 flights, nearly 5,000 miles, 10 passports and 15 pairs of trainers – they tell only half the story.
Inspired by one man
For 30-year-old Nick, a journey that began in Canada in January 2018 and ended in Athens in November last year, was inspired by one man.
Kevin Webber was diagnosed with prostate cancer and given two years to live when he met Nick.
Their encounter during the Marathon des Sables, a six-day ultramarathon, in 2014, changed Nick's life.
“There was this strange disconnect,” recalls Nick.
“He was saying he was dying and he was only going to live for two years, yet he was so happy and enthusiastic about life.
“I realised he was valuing what he had and when he said to me, ‘Don’t wait for a diagnosis’ – meaning don’t wait for something to happen to make a change – I thought, ‘Right, let’s do something’.”
Running for a cause
Nick realised he needed to find a headline-grabbing challenge to raise a large amount for Prostate Cancer UK. So far he has raised £200,000 of his £250,000 target.
“As soon as I thought of it, and realised it hadn’t been done, it didn’t leave my mind despite the cost and dangers,” he says.
“A lot of people have no idea how close we came to not completing the trip on many, many occasions.”
Touch and go
“Five or six weeks before the end we were refused visas and there were people shot on the routes I was supposed to be travelling.”
“It was touch and go for a long, long time.”
The challenge took two years of planning alone. Most of the time was taken up by countries his team referred to as “dangerous and dodgy”. This included North Korea, Bhutan, Somalia, Iran and the Yemen.
But they discovered that even good preparation didn’t make life any easier.
“It went out the window,” Nick says.
“Things change, like going into Syria from Beirut and those huge protests. That is where one of the drivers I was supposed to have was shot the day before.”
Mugging and food poisoning
Unforeseen circumstances included a mugging in the centre of Lagos, Nigeria.
Nick also ran 22 marathons while suffering from food poisoning and one with a kidney infection.
But Nick says the element that surprised him the most was “just how wrong his preconceived ideas of countries and cultures were”.
“People talked about North Korea and how dangerous it was and all I remember was that it was really cold and it was really clean.
“In Mogadishu [Somalia], where there were car bombs and gunfire going off all night every night, after two or three nights I felt like I didn’t want to leave because of the people I was with,” he says.
Escaping the grind
It’s all a far cry from his previous life as a banker.
“Although it put money in the bank, it degraded my soul somewhat,” he says.
“Eventually I took to running again as an escape.”
Nick says his world view has changed dramatically now.
“I don’t need a house or fancy things, I just want to live simply.”
He lives in a van and is planning to do so for the foreseeable future as he tours the country talking about his record-breaking challenge.
There is a book and documentary in the pipeline and he is already looking ahead to his next big challenge in north America.
“I’m going to go for 1,000 days to set the world record for running a marathon in all of the national parks,” he says. “It’s starting in January 2021.”
As for his friend and inspiration Kevin Webber?
Mercifully and miraculously he is still alive and joined Nick to complete his last marathon in Athens. (See the picture of them crossing the finish line together.)
Nick will appear at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on March 25 from 7pm. Visit nightofadventure. co.uk
A longer version of this article appeared in Victoria.