Human Race: ‘5,000 miles? Me? Really?’

Photo by Rupert Fowler

When Wayne Russell lost his sister Carmel to a rare heart and lung condition three years ago, he resolved to do something in her honour. ‘Although she’d been diagnosed with the terminal condition 10 years before, it never stopped her working ceaselessly for others, even when she was in a wheelchair,’ says the 35-year-old from Gloucester. ‘She set up numerous charities and community projects including a grants scheme, a lunch club for senior citizens and a youth group.’

In the lead-up to Carmel’s funeral, Wayne started to perform what he calls ‘random acts of kindness’ in her name. He set up a Facebook page, Carma, inviting people to do a good deed to celebrate Carmel’s life. ‘Friends, family and strangers from all over the world took up the challenge,’ he says. ‘It got me thinking about something bigger.’

It needed to be something that would challenge Wayne as well as raising money for a worthy cause in honour of Carmel. He decided he would run the British coastline. ‘I only took up running four years ago, but it changed everything for me,’ he explains. ‘I’ve suffered from depression all my adult life, but running helps so much. I got a high on my very first run – five miles in Converse shoes and denim shorts.’

After almost two years of planning, he quit his IT job, gave up his flat and embarked on the 5,000-mile journey – solo, unsupported and with £1,000 in his bank account.

‘The day before I was setting off I packed my rucksack and put it on,’ he remembers. ‘I could barely walk, let alone run and the whole trip went from romantic ideal to blind panic. I had to unpack loads of stuff – a pillow, hair wax, surplus clothing…’

At first, Wayne ran alone each day, pitching his tent where he could at night, though sometimes he slept in bus shelters, doorways or on church porches. Once, he woke up to a horde of children throwing stones at his tent and shouting ‘tramp!’

Wayne carried a small stove and had a food budget of £3 a day. ‘I ate a lot of tinned fish, instant noodles, nuts and chocolate,’ he says. ‘I also foraged where I could, picking berries and apples.’ In some places, such as the far north of Scotland, he’d run miles without coming across anywhere to get food.

Such challenges proved wearing. ‘I knew the running would be tough, but what I hadn’t factored in was things like how I’d dry out when everything was soaked, how I’d charge my phone, how not getting a good night’s sleep, night after night, would affect me…’ There were physical woes, too – blisters and chafing from wet clothes. (It rained for four solid weeks in Wales.)

There were times when he came close to giving up. ‘I’d forked out for a B&B two nights running in Cornwall because it was so cold and wet. But I just couldn’t afford to do it again and I ended up sleeping in a cave near Tintagel. I lay there at 2am worrying how I would tell the charity I was stopping.’ The next day, he simply carried on. ‘I began to realise that I was strong enough to put one foot in front of the other. And I got braver about telling people what I was doing and asking for help. By overcoming my shyness I’d often be rewarded with somewhere to pitch my tent or a bed for the night, conversation, a donation – and best of all, a cup of tea in the morning.’

With the help of social media, news spread of Wayne’s challenge – messages and offers of support began to trickle, then flood, in. ‘I hadn’t done much to publicise what I was doing – I expected I’d just have a few friends and family and people associated with the charity following my Facebook and Twitter pages,’ he says. ‘But the response was phenomenal. I had people join me who ended up running further than they’d ever run before, I even had people who weren’t able to run turn up on bikes or to walk a section with me. People really opened up and shared their stories and it enabled me to be more open about my depression and grief.’

In February, when Wayne had been running for over five months, he was joined for two days by Patrick, a watch manager for the fire station in Blackpool, and a keen ultra runner. ‘When we were parting, he asked me where I was sleeping that night. I said it would probably be the bus shelter and he said “Nope!”.’ Patrick made contact with fire stations further along Wayne’s route and for the rest of the trip, wherever there was a fire station, there would be somewhere dry and warm to sleep.

‘It made all the difference,’ says Wayne. ‘I’d arrive in an unfamiliar place, someone would let me in or have left a key for me and there’d always be food and a note. One time I was left six cream cakes. I ate all of them! I say the run was unsupported but I had so much unexpected support on the way.’

On July 9, 307 days, 5,058 miles and nine worn-out pairs of trainers after setting off along the Thames from Greenwich, Wayne’s final run took him under the same river through the foot tunnel; supporters waited on the other side to greet him. ‘Having set out determined to do it but with no way of knowing if I could, it was surreal reaching the finish,’ he says. ‘I’d put my whole life into it for two years. Part of me just wanted to keep going.’

Wayne’s epic trip has raised £28,000 for the Superhero Foundation, which supports people through extraordinary challenges. He says it’s also given him more faith in humanity and taught him a lot about himself. ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ he says.’ I keep thinking – 5,000 miles? Me? Really? But you know what the hardest part was? After years of reading about other people’s adventures and wishing I could do something like that, it was saying, “I’m going to do this” – and really meaning it.’


To make a donation, visit virginmoneygiving.com/fund/waynerussell