With a resting heart rate of 30 – less than half of the average for a man his age – it’s hard to understand how Russ Cook is still upright. He, however, might argue he’s never felt more alive.
In April, the 26-year-old from Worthing, West Sussex began “Project Africa”, a jaw-dropping attempt to become the first human being to run the entire length of the African continent for charity.
Nicknamed the “Hardest Geezer” for his love of extreme challenges, Cook’s current feat of endurance aims to see him run from the southernmost point in South Africa, eventually reaching the top of Tunisia, the northernmost country.
At the time of writing, Cook and his support team have made it to The Democratic Republic of Congo, but the journey thus far has not been without its challenges.
On day 77, Cook and his team were robbed at gunpoint, the thieves taking phones, passports, cash and camera. A health scare saw his urine turn red. And, Cook was kidnapped after becoming separated from his support crew.
Despite the hair-raising moments, Cook told indy100 there is only one thing that would stop him from completing the challenge.
“Death. That is all. Chop both my legs off, I’ll crawl,” he explained.
The physical training for the challenge took place in The Gran Canarias, to best replicate the climate and conditions he would be facing on the African continent. His mental resilience, Cook explained, has come from the many challenges he has undertaken prior, including becoming the first man to run from Asia to London.
Cook said: “Mentally my prep has come from years of challenges. Heading face-first into the unknown and finding a way to stay in the fight and overcome it. It’s always going to be hard to prepare for specific unknowns that running Africa was going to hand me.
“The only consistency is that no matter where I am in the world, or however difficult the moment I’m in is, I always have to live in my head. So, if I can make my head a nice place to be in, and protect the peaceful corner of it, even in the most challenging circumstances, then nothing can really break me.”
It is running itself that helped Cook get to a place of calm and provided a path out of some “challenging years”. Running 12 miles home after a night out, a friend persuaded him to sign up for a half marathon. A few weeks after running it, Cook was signed up for his first full marathon.
He explained: “The process of overcoming something difficult, and actually succeeding made a huge difference for me. Running was the start of a positive spiral for me that made me believe in myself. It was really powerful.”
If he didn’t have running in his life, Cook said, “Sometimes I like to think I would’ve applied myself in a positive way eventually. Sometimes I think I might not have been here altogether”.
Given his experience, it is no surprise that he is running Project Africa to raise money for two charities close to his heart – The Running Charity and WaterAid.
As it stands, Project Africa has raised almost £50,000 and the total amount at the end will be split 50/50 between both charities.
“I’ve worked with The Running Charity for a long time. I wholeheartedly believe in everything the charity stands for. Running took me on a journey that was pivotal in laying the foundations for a more meaningful life and I know it has the power to do that for others going through difficult times,” Cook explained.
It was also “vital” that his fundraising support those living on the African continent, with access to clean water being important as “one of the essentials of life”.
As Cook has progressed through Africa, he has seen the support for his journey grow. The runner praised the “incredible” support he has had, both from the public and brands who are helping to keep him on the move.
“I can’t look at everything but seeing messages from people that have felt inspired to run is amazing to hear - I hope that continues! Also, the support I’ve been getting from big brands such as Represent 247 has made a huge difference and helped to keep me going,” he said.
Despite the gruelling days of running and living out of a van, Cook has experienced many “special” moments that have highlighted his trip. In the streets of Windhoek, Namibia, he was joined on his run by “what felt like half the city” who came out to support his efforts.
Still, set in his sights is the end goal of Tunisia, where he hopes it is safe enough that he will be able to be joined by family and friends to celebrate the end of his incredible challenge.
On his return to the UK, the endurance runner looks forward to eating, drinking and reconnecting with loved ones. Asked what is at the top of his list, Cook added, “Good lord that’s a dangerous question to think about.”
But, he concluded: “I’m big on Italian food. So, anything cheesy and garlic doughy creamy sounds power. I’m not a big drinker these days either but an ice-cold lager would hit. Other than it’ll be nice to maybe chill out with my girlfriend for a couple of hours before planning the next adventure.”