Human Race: ‘I was amazed how little I needed to survive’

'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.’

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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 never-setting sun. And it was just so devoid of people. The only sign of habitation would be the odd footprint or fence line.’

This posed a challenge in terms of finding shelter, food and other supplies. ‘I averaged 700 calories a day in Norway, limited by how much I could carry and the distances between food,’ he says. Even water wasn’t always freely available: ‘The temperature dropped to minus 10C for a few days, causing every water source to freeze – I had to restock from a very nasty-looking roadside stream a couple of days later.’

Just 12 days into the trip, Aleks had to cross a wooden bridge across a deep, fast-flowing river. As he stepped on to it, the bridge sank into the water: Aleks was soaked. ‘The next day, I came to a similar bridge so I chose to use the rocks to get across instead,’ he says. ‘I slipped and fell in, this time badly injuring my shin. The pain intensified over the next few days, reducing him to a limping shuffle. ‘I had an SOS button on my GPS tracker and I had a battle with myself over whether to press it,’ he remembers. ‘I opted to carry on but it slowed my progress right down.’

His enforced stay in Abisko was a blessing for Aleks in more ways than one. ‘It was frustrating, but looking back it was a good thing because it allowed my leg to heal properly.’

When he reached Denmark, Aleks took delivery of a stroller from friends. ‘Lots of long-distance 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.’

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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…’