What started off as a jolly to see Italy and bank some training miles got harder with every day, every step and with every set back, not to mention the hailstorms, the van being broken into repeatedly, the tiny factor of the pandemic, oh and of course the occasional car driving into me.

The Challenge

Our mission was to run north to south of Italy zigzagging the countries best bits. From the very north to the absolute south. We gave ourselves 100 days. Nikki, Poppy and I would live every day in the van. My girls (Nikki, my better half and Poppy our 1 year old Vizsla puppy) would act as my ‘on the road support’. In principle it was nice and simple – get to the most northerly point of Italy, hop out of the van (which is also our permanent home even when we’re not on a challenge), and run a marathon in a general southerly direction meeting the van (which we named Christopher after my brother who built it for us), 26.2 miles later I’d hop back in, have some food, sleep, and then hop out the next day, run south for another 26.2 miles and so on and so on. I’d repeat that every day for 100 days culminating with my final day reaching the southernmost point of Italy on Christmas Eve. That was the plan anyway. Once we’d finished we’d then turn around and drive back north to spend some time in the French Alps before beginning planning for the next adventure early in January.

Needless to say, we did just that, and we did indeed complete our challenge. Nikki drove every mile from north to south, weaving through the unruly Italian madmen drivers. Meanwhile I completed just over 2620 miles from north to south of Italy entirely on foot, never travelling south in the van whilst it was moving. We even managed to reach the southerly tip of Sicily too, which was a bonus. There were however setbacks and countless hurdles to overcome. Having now finished I can proudly say I’m rather chuffed with our efforts – it made us stronger, and I learnt a lot about running and endurance which I thought I already knew. For a couple with a young but massive puppy, living in a converted van (even if it is luxurious), while I ran for 4 hours a day without the chance of a day off, all during a pandemic (safely and legally but not without its restrictions), I think we did pretty well. It was however occasionally very tough to manage the juggling act between being a partner, a puppy parent and sorting my head space out to keep getting up every day to run when frequently I didn’t have the energy to do so. Nikki also faced her own battles – living together in a small space, while I became more and more tired and therefore unreasonable and demanding, did take its toll – but we got there in the end – and we both have fond memories with just a little smattering of stress and frustration thrown in for good measure. The views were beautiful, and we can say with no hesitation we saw Italy. Not just a bit, and not just the touristy bits, and actually in a fuller way than if you lived there. We covered the whole lot.

Expectations

Our expectations were like many trips, adventures or challenges. We knew the stuff that could potentially get in our way or cause us physical or mental discomfort, and of course we glossed over the ‘maybe bad bits’, and focused on the views we’d be seeing or the sweeping drone shots we get with us standing on the roof on a mountain side somewhere. It’s very easy to forget the faff or the time that goes into even finding a nice, safe and view friendly spot to park, let alone setting up a little fold out table, and doing the obligatory tidying and sorting before we could rest for the eventual much shorter evening.

On the whole though our expectations of the Dolomites, the beautiful lakes, and the landscape of the mountainous of northern Italy were pretty close to what we’d hoped, and in many places even better. Prasger Wildsee lake, and the various stunning night stops in the Dolomites region along with the Stelvio pass and wine region days were glorious and with great weather most of the time.

My responsibility of taking Poppy on several hours of running every day, so Nikki could work (online business), was thwarted almost immediately. We love Poppy to bits, but her ability to understand cars are dangerous machines manned by potential idiots, was, and still is, something we as parents failed to teach her. This meant my idolised dream of running next to her off the lead through beautiful landscape was cut back from every day, to most days. It was then cut further from most days, to some days, to eventually deciding that trying to run with a puppy on busy roads while my legs take an extra battering from constantly counterbalancing her weight and pull was frankly crazy and dangerous for us both. Poppy was then largely Nikki’s responsibility for far too many days – something I felt terrible about and she let me know too. This was a lesson learnt – big time.

Instead of planning set routes throughout the journey we took each day as it came. This I still feel is the right approach because it gave us freedom to pick a destination each day, and even stay in the same place for multiple days. After all, north to south of Italy was only about 1000 miles as the crow flies, and so we have 1600 miles of zigzagging to pick and choose our daily destinations. (26.2 miles x 100 days = 2620 miles) Perfect. What this didn’t account for though was the elevation gains and sometimes the roads which were unsuitable for the van – i.e. tiny tunnels or badly kept tar, or no tar at all. This caused Nikki with the van to detour and arrange to find me later. If Poppy was with me, I’d then have to pick a route that was safe enough for her even on the lead, and also in the general direction we wanted to go aka South. If I was on my own and Nikki had the dog, she then had to take care of her while I was nowhere to be seen. This got a bit much from time to time. It was unfair and I knew it – but our options were limited – and so Nikki stepped up and did what I couldn’t. Thanks Nikki.

We also stumbled over ‘schoolboy errors’, which we really should have thought about. Internet connection, phone signal, and phone battery. Think for a moment of a major marathon; let’s say London. If you are spectating and arrange to meet your runner friend at particular points on the route, it is often much more difficult; be it due to the crowds, transport, or phone signal not working, or battery. This was our situation, except we were somewhere new every day that we’d never been, didn’t have a 50 year route to follow, and I was often much slower than a usual marathon – meaning my battery would occasionally die or I’d be deep in a valley without signal or use of my maps. This caused no end of hassle until we got our act together and made some back up plans on days where we thought we may have issues. Frankly it was all just a big learning curve. You can imagine the frustration and exhaustion of being lost in the rain running another marathon, and not really knowing if you’re going in the right direction or if you’ll win the battle with the sun setting before you finish. I’m glossing over these issues somewhat because there’s just so many little factors that compounded to make some days (and nights) stressful and unrelenting for all 3 of us. Thankfully Poppy has only ever known van-life and is very comfortable in our home on wheels – so let’s count our blessings there.

North South Divide

If you’ve seen beautiful travel blogs and brochures describing Italy as an idyllic, classically Italian cultural stereotype of sun, great food, and colourful lake side resorts – then think again. These places of course exist and in fact we were fortunate enough to experience many, if not all of them… But, and it’s a big but, the bits in between these picture postcard places are far from any kind of postcard and it’s my belief that the Italian government have somewhat dropped the ball on many aspects of regional distribution of funds.

Anywhere we went north of Rome ranged from lovely-ish to totally stunning. Anywhere south of Rome however ranged from at best neglected to at worst a colossal mess.

As I ran up and over the famous Stelvio pass it’s hard not to see the beauty. Unimaginably tall and perfectly straight trees covered in fluffy snow with a clean snaking line of black tar sweeping through the hills disappearing high into the mountain ahead. It was a brilliant introduction to the incredible mountainous reaches of the Italian Alps. Similarly, was the Dolomites, and various northern lakes. The cities were largely pretty crap and dirty, but on the whole the north was well kept and ready at any moment for tourists hunting for the wonders of the outdoors. Once we were south of Rome, I would say 90% of our night stops were in places we felt unsafe. It feels very much like the government has just taken all the money from the south and dumped it in the north. I’ve seen my fair share of rich/poor divides – the likes of Turkmenistan as an example – but here in a country that I thought I understood – I soon learnt that the south appears to have been deprioritised or simply forgotten by the authorities. It’s actually pretty shocking. Every day I’d step out of the van and Nikki would wish me a safe run. Not because of the traffic or without purpose, but specifically directed to the feeling of lawlessness.

Having travelled to every worn torn country, I’m aware of the feeling of unease and therefore was taken aback by just how unsafe some of the small coastal towns and villages felt. Run down shop frontages, burnt out cars and trucks, young kids resembling street kids in developing countries and visibly poor families struggling to get by. It was honestly shocking, sad and made me want to write to the government and stamp my feet. In fact, I did just that. My thoughts were – how could a country so close to home, and with a tourist industry and economy not dissimilar to the UK or other central European nations have such a stark contrast of rich and poor. I appreciate the obvious geographical challenges the south faces v’s the north plus the dreaded ‘m word’ aka Mafia – but come on Italian Government – it’s ludicrous. I can probably do more to help and understand – but in the moment it was a case of getting through without issues. I turned around and changed my route upwards of 20 times because I felt unsafe in certain areas -this was something I rarely did when I ran in known war zones. Maybe I was just taken by surprise- who knows. Enough about ranting of my shock of the Italians development issues and let’s talk about the ups and downs of living in a tin box on wheels while trying to run 2620 miles.

Van Life Living – The Ups and Downs

Living in a van is unconventional and it goes without saying it’s not socially acceptable to announce that you live in a van.  ‘I live in a van’ is something I say in most interviews and am proud of it, but there are of course certain accurate or inaccurate preconceived ideas about living a nomadic life. The words Gypsy or trailer trash come to mind. Campervan goers and Caravan owners get a pass somehow but that’s ok. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that I think living in a van is one of the most exciting, and levelling experiences you can do as an educated privileged westerner. Why anyone would swap warm cosy walls with TV, a washing machine, showers, hot running water, space and separate rooms, could be seen as mad – but what is easy to forget is that there’s many up sides too. Principally the cutting back on everything and realising life is still pretty cool, happy and if anything even more rewarding. If you live in a house and brush your teeth every morning, I would assume you rarely think about the water being heated, or even coming out of the tap in the first place. By doing so you’ve already got out of your warm bed in a centrally heated walled home and transitioned sleepily to another room.

For van life, for us anyway, there’s no separate rooms or smart under floor heating, and water is something we fill up from petrol stations or people gardens (with permission). We heat our water with the sun using our solar panels, and we pump our water from our tiny tank up into the tap using power from the solar too. To wash our face we are sparing with water, we consider how much we have left in the tank, we heat it in advance, we share it, and we recycle it. This may seem like stepping backwards, and in many ways it is, BUT IT IS SO POWERFUL to be reminded of what we have had so easily for so long and what we take for granted. Couple this example of water and heating with space, the number of items of clothing you need, the gadgets you can do without and much more and you realise van life isn’t about living minimally or simply, it’s just living with what you need.

The bonus which I’m sure is the elephant in the room – is that unlike a normal home we can move ours anywhere in the world (more or less) We can even go to sleep if we are stationary in a traffic jam. That, in my tired state is bliss. The whole van life thing is of course also much cheaper. Traditional homes tend to require hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy or build. For us our home was bought and built for far less and let’s face it – it’s pretty cool to have a different view, a different neighbour and a different morning walk with the dog every day.

In my opinion the only way to make van life challenging or in any way hard work is to try and run the length of a country marathon after marathon – oh and do it in winter.

Our struggles involved a number of day-to-day frustrations. Our kitchen drawers broke fairly early on in the challenge and had to be wedged closed with a dishcloth to save them flying out when we drove around corners. We’d set off, and with a crash and a bang they would fly open with that horrible cutlery clang and we’d have to pull over and sort it out, over and over again. Simply but annoying. The next was our sliding door – our front door if you may; this would shut and stay shut but sometime jam and we’d have to escape out the driver’s door – not an issue but again annoying and adding to the already frayed patience of all 3 of us.

We were broken into in Rome – this was the first of 3 occasions on this journey actually. Parked in Rome, we’d booked a hotel for the night (we planned to stay in hotels in Rome, Venice and Sicily as a kind of rare treat). Once settled we got changed and went to take the dog for a walk. Me being me, and outrageously tired, I forgot my mask (being Covid times in Italy we had to wear masks everywhere), and so we left the hotel and instead of going back up to the room when I remembered I’d left my mask behind, I just went across the street to the van where we have many spares. This was when Nikki saw two guys leaving our van and dashing to their old battered mini van parked in front of us. They vanished very quickly (I assumed scared of the dog not me or Nikki, or that fact they were caught), but not without taking things and annoyingly breaking a bloody window first. The police were called, and details taken (allbeit begrudgingly by the rude police – both officers smoked while taking our details, and one played a game on his phone). We were then left with a broken window and working out what they’d taken. The place, (remember this is our home), was a mess. Nikki was shook up, and I was just angry.

Once we understood what was taken – I jogged around to the police station to collect various insurance paperwork and forms etc (taking the rest of the evening) while Nikki was back at the van keeping it safe as best she could. We couldn’t leave the van because we had a window that had been popped out of the front passenger side and therefore had to be put back in. With a marathon already run that day and another the next day, and of course for months after, I was tired and now we were without a working or safe van. I called a local friend of mine for advice and he supported with offers of safe car parks etc – but to my surprise Nikki had used the wonders of You Tube to learn how to put a window back into a Mercedes Sprinter. A job I thought was well out of our reach. It was not. Within 20 minutes we used rope and lots of pushing and pulling to wedge the window back into place – literally as good as new. A huge win out of a horribly exhausting evening. We still hadn’t taken the dog for a walk or had dinner. The following days marathon was made worse by torrential rain. Typical.

Further frustrations with this annoying break emerged that amongst the things they stole was our spare van key. We had obviously interrupted them mid-way, and had stopped them from driving off with our van thank goodness. Another big win kind of… BUT they had also got away with other keys – namely the key to our water tank. This ultimately led to the remaining 40 days of our journey being without water and therefore washing. (ok so we did wash but really, it was bad – and we were smelling and felt dirty for weeks). There were other problems about them tracking us using our website, finding the van later on in the journey and just driving off with it – so we also had to disable the tracking system and arrange to get new expensive keys.

With all the van life perks, I now understand why there are so many van life ‘making your van safe’ tutorials on You Tube which include all sorts of professional and makeshift ingenious methods of keeping your home safe. We were subsequently broken into (or attempted to) twice more while we were sleeping in the van outside Naples. This was more than starting to get us fed up with Italy. A steering lock was purchased mid run shortly after and we picked our sleeping spots more wisely.

I’ve touched on showering, washing and the brilliance and drawback of van life – but I’ve not mentioned the toilet. We opted to avoid the chemical (faffy mc faff) toilet system and instead opted for a simple toilet shaped bucket with a bag system. Some big ultra races give you a bag to do your business in and so I knew it was actually pretty hygienic and we wouldn’t be carting around our own poo unnecessarily (not sure it’s ever necessary). This does however mean that you poo, wee and wipe in front of each other. Lovely. We simply find a dog poo bin and add ours to it. With all the drawback of how disgusting it might sound its actually very hygienic and we’ve grown to cope with it. Note to all van lifers – just remember to dispose of it straight away. 

Fractured Shin

Looking back, it seems that our idyllic tour of Italy (with a bit of jogging thrown in) has had its fair share of setbacks. My fractured shin was one of them. All things considered, legs are pretty important for running and so this was a tough one to find a work around.

On day 33, with still 67 days left to run my leg buckled and I came to an eye wateringly painful stop on the side of the road about 8 miles from the finish of that particular days marathon.

I’d had some shin pain for a few days, and I’d been icing it, elevating and trying to stay off it as much as possible (not easy in a van with a dog).

Needless to say, the pain got worse day after day, and I was pretty sure some form of muscle/ligament/tendons were pulling away from my lower left tibia. Shin splints definitely but how bad.

When you’re an endurance athlete and your day job is to shut up and get on with it – it always feels like I’m doing something wrong if I can’t take it anymore. Multiple pain killer days, multiple limp run scenarios, plus many days of putting on a brave face – I then realised I was doing myself more harm than good. I am a big believer in using the mind to conquer pain – after all the mind creates the feeling of pain, but alas, my leg, along with my new shoes, my additional walking sticks to try and take some of the weight – none of it was working and then on the 5th day of severe pain I crumbled to the floor and winced every step until I reached a dingy car park where Nikki was waiting at that days finish line.

After many chats with lots of medical friends plus a lovely chap called Chris (a podiatrist – foot guy) who helped give me the facts, it was confirmed as a likely stress fracture with a minimum of 6 weeks rest to fully recover. He and I both knew that was not happening.

A marathon a day every day for 100 days was the plan – and now there was only one way to keep that dream alive. I’d have to run double marathons on some days to be able to tot up the magic 100 marathons by Christmas eve – the 100th day.

I realised the best thing to save the journey, and my leg was to be still for a week and then try again. On day one, two and three of rest I didn’t move out of bed at all. I even peed in a bottle. My leg was useless – no weight on it at all.

After 7 days that was that – I couldn’t just sit around and not try – so I got kitted up and went for it. I 100% believed that it was too soon – I could still feel the pain – but with the help from You Tube I learned of various posture changes and stride changes to enable a less impactful run – so I tried it. And yes, every day is a learning day. I know how to run, but not always very well. To my amazement I managed the entire 26.2 miles before any severe pain. Could I do it again the next day was the question on my mind all evening… and I was going to give it a shot – and so yes, that too worked. Was I fixed? The answer very clearly ‘no’ but it worked wonders for my mind-set. My positive mind-set was back, and I was ready for the rest of the journey – if a little sore. Every day, all the way to the finish line, I had my shin, posture and the thought my shin could splinter again in the forefront of my mind, plus the knowledge that I’d need to run at least 7 double marathon in order to reach the magic 100.

I could have easily downgraded the journey and finished on 93 marathons – but that’s crap and not what I’m about. If you start, you finish, nothing else matters. Headstrong stubbornness causes injuries, arguments, and a lot of pain – but that’s the name of the game and makes the finish line all that more sweet.

Double marathons weren’t the plan – but the purpose of the journey, or at least one of them was to train, improve, and learn and in many ways the injury had ticked all the boxes. I learned my lesson. Don’t get complacent with stretching, don’t get complacent with form, don’t underestimate the power of negative and positive mind-set, and know when stopping to recover is the right decision – this was the hardest of all. Not stopping is the only rule in endurance sports in my mind.

So, the shin had caused a backlog of 7 marathons resulting in a choice – make up the distance of 7 marathons over many days – for example running 33 miles a day instead of 26.2. But for me that wasn’t the aim I wanted to run 26.2 miles 100 times, and that’s what I would do. I also had to consider the risk of getting back on track too early and risking the shin fracturing again. It certainly wasn’t fully recovered – and even now, many months after completing the Italian Grand Tour, it’s probably not perfect. The doubles took place right at the end, running 4 marathons in 2 days up over steep passes, and another 8 marathons in torrential rain, hail and lightning storms. My remaining double took 10 long hours through endless tunnels finishing at night just minutes before the imposed Covid curfew clocked in. In all honesty those miles were unpleasant, and my energy and body fat levels were doing nothing but falling, even with a decent plan of action to fuel. I believe it was only the years of experience before that meant we made it through. I had more moments of wanting to stop during this trip than I did Running The World. And that’s saying something.

The Pandemic

Doing the right thing, being seen to do the right thing, not really knowing what the rules were, and actually completing our mission was the dilemma. I was very adamant that we would only complete the journey if it meant no rules were broken. I’m talking about Covid rules – it goes without saying not breaking the law is usually a given. When we set off in early September our destination of Sicily was the only region in Italy locked down as a RED zone. Nobody in, and nobody out. This was obviously an issue to finish – but I had a feeling (probably a blind hope) that it would open by the time we got there.

Driving to the tunnel in the UK was allowed, leaving the country wasn’t any problem at that point, and even passing through 5 other countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Switzerland, and Austria) wasn’t a problem at all either. We had shown our passport a few times, and very few questions were asked. Remember that this was also just months before the UK would leave the EU after decades of togetherness. Sad to now look back at some of those border-post conversations and know we’ll likely not be treated so gently in the future. We would of course need other papers, other documents and can’t wave that friendly blue starred flag anymore. Sad and shameful in my opinion.

Throughout the tour and as we plodded further down the country the UK was back in lockdown, Italy had initiated a traffic light system to put their 20 regions into RED, AMBER, and GREEN sections. Red was a no go, amber more lenient but still no travel in or out, and green was open but with curfews and mandatory masks at all times. They were of course hit hard in the first wave (if you can call it that).

We were in Umbria when another van life couple knocked on our door to say that the region was to turn red at midnight and we’d need to leave pretty swiftly. How were we to know? Where should we be getting translated news from? Were we being irresponsible and breaking rules? We thought we were obeying all the rules and monitoring the regions well – but we’d missed this.

By the time we reached Sicily after the 14 weeks of running marathons every day, we had passed zero region checkpoints, and hadn’t been stopped by the police for Covid reasons at all. We had miraculously avoided breaking any rules by happening to be in the right place at the right time. This was fortunate beyond belief.

We did however have the risk of now not getting into Sicily – but better still Sicily had turned green 4 days before we arrived, and amazingly we turned up to the ferry port with our ticket, faffed around a little with various lanes of traffic and one way systems, and before we knew it we were in Sicily. A massive win. We were on a huge high. As we drove off the ferry we discussed the fact that we hadn’t been Covid tested coming onto the island – odd considering the recently tight measures. As we said that the islands Forestry Commission Officer pulled us over while still in the exit queue of the ferry and gestured to complete some forms and wait for a Covid test. (apparently in Sicily it’s the Forestry Commission that do the tests). We were actually elated. Other than the fact it was very late, and we were knackered, plus we really didn’t want to be turned around so close to the finish. To our amazement an assortment of futuristic looking men and women gathered under a gazebo in their head to toe white hazmat suits. A guy approached the van, took our forms and shoved the swab up our noses. Painful but efficient. Within no more than 10 minutes a different person, a young girl this time appeared at the window and gave us our ‘Covid Negativo’ certificates. We were negative, free, and almost unbelievably we were now set loose to travel to the southernmost point of Sicily. We had made it. Our last obstacle. And better still it was a relief to be out of the poor and actually scary at times, southern parts of the mainland. Sicily was far more the postcard scenario and in line with our expectations.

To make everything that much more special, we had news from local friends of ours in Sicily that Mt Etna was erupting with a spectacular display of lava and plumes of smoke. This happens, but rarely to this extend and so we made a dash driving south to spend the night with a view of the red glow of the crater. It was a perfect evening if a little tired. Of course, we then had to drive back north the following day to start my run from the ferry terminal. Nikki by now, having never before driven on the wrong (righthand) side of the road – was well and truly a hard-core Italian driver – not taking any crap from anyone – and rather enjoying it. From fearful to ‘the feared’ on the roads.

Being hit by a car

On day 87 of 100 I was running in the rain against the flow of traffic when a small white car overtook the car on the other side of the road from behind. He pulled out to overtake and obviously didn’t see me – had I been a few inches to my right (towards the middle of the road), I would have likely been a goner. I was on the phone to Yas my manager at the time talking planning for future trips and sponsorship stuff. With an instant and hefty bash I took the wing mirror off the car with my wrist. My watch snapped and my arm felt like it had been shattered. Had I not seen the tiny car with my own eyes, I would have been convinced the impact was from an articulated lorry. It hurt and I was obviously in shock. Amazingly the car stopped, and a couple in their 60s got out and waited for me to hobble towards them. I couldn’t help but vent my pain and frustration – with words like – how didn’t you see me – and then with their expressions of horror I calmed down and realised these people were also in pain. Not physically but they had just hit a pedestrian with their car. Something nobody every wants to experience. In fact, once I took my mind above the situation and looked down to realign my thoughts – I realised I would much rather be the one that’s been hit than to hit someone else.

I calmed down, thanked them for stopping and waved them on explaining I was fine. I wasn’t and at that point I was convinced I should be in hospital – thankfully with some painkillers and the remaining 10 miles of the marathon run, the pain subsided and the swelling was doing its best to heal my arm. I was shaken and looking over my shoulder every 5 minutes – but all in all I was counting my blessings. I was a lucky man. I never did go to the hospital – I was likely fine – the only sadness was for my watch. It was working but this watch had run every marathon around the world with me – and now it will be retired to a frame with no more miles. A 10-year-old watch served me well.

Weather

Besides from Poppy sleeping in our bed and causing us no end of sleepless nights (we love her too much to kick her out), the weather not only kept us awake due to the sheer scale of thunder and lightning week after week, (literally), but the wetness of my clothes meant we had to get up and exchange clothes on our tiny heating area below our kitchen table. Everything was wet, cold and it got pretty grim from time to time.

The weather also caused us issues with directions – my phone if it got too wet, would stop working, and I had no part of me that was dry enough to wipe the screen dry and swipe up. I can’t tell you how many times I ran around finding a cafe or a Tabaco corner shop to find tissue to wipe my phone so I could open Google maps and work out the right direction. The weather truly was horrible for a good few weeks towards the end and I was genuinely fearful of being hit by lightning. Running on coastal roads, in the mountains, with the sea crashing down below, and the skies smashing together above me gave me this looming feeling. Not to mention I was frequently running in ankle deep floods for hours – thus ruining the carefully formed hardness on my feet. This might seem trivial but actually this was a game changer – constantly wet feet resulted in blisters, sores and a lot of uncomfortable running. Wet feet and running is a big no no. With no means of washing clothes we bought new socks more or less every time we went for a food shop. That and new pants. By the end of the journey we were basically driving a massive unwashable washing machine around. A huge tin can with hundreds of items of dirty and wet clothes, with a dog and two humans. Ridiculous but fun.

Phone Breaking

Towards the end of Sicily – with less than a week to run – my phone decided to turn off and not turn back on again. It told me I must reset my phone. This would lose everything and I wanted to at least try and fix it when we finished before just carelessly removing what was over 60,000 photos and 5000 videos. Not to mention contacts from all over the world.

And so, for the first time in my adult memory I was without a phone for just over 10 days. This, I would usually promote. It’s great to have time without your phone. We get obsessed and some would say addicted to them. However, I used my phone on this challenge for navigation, photos, videos, contact with Nikki, for emergencies, for transferring money, for managing and speaking with my entire team, plus all the boring admin of calendars and recording notes etc. Not to mention social media. My phone had died a week too early and caused us no end of hassle. Because I couldn’t navigate Nikki, bless her, had to drive behind me for the final week of running. Many of these days were double marathons and long 10- or 15-hour running days of hills and more bad weather. Without the means of navigating or speaking with Nikki – even if she went a little way ahead, she couldn’t veer off the road or go the wrong way because we may never find each other. Never is a bit strong, but it would mean a long protracted day whereby I’d be more tired than usual plus time and daylight became a big factor. On my double marathon days, I wanted to at least finish the majority of the miles (maybe 45 of my 52.4 miles) before it got dark so as to prevent any issues with safety on some dangerous roads, and tunnels.

Various Finish Lines

It goes without saying – no phone, double marathons, wet horrible weather, a frustrated dog, an exhausted Nikki, and me totally numb with tiredness and sore legs – by the end we both wanted it to stop asap. Luckily we made it.

Due to the nature of the challenge we had multiple finish lines. Almost like objectives to tick off as we progressed. We made it to our first finish line by reaching Sicily. That was a big win. The next was to reach the southernmost point of Sicily. We made that – in the dark and without the views we hoped for, but even so. The next was reaching the magical 2620 miles. This came a little before the end because I’d been running a few more miles or maybe just 0.2 of a mile more every day, which meant I actually eventually ran around 2800 miles. That being done was a good moment, but I still wanted to also reach the southernmost point of the mainland, and so once back from Sicily I had just 2 marathons to run. The final day, on day 100, we made it to the most southerly point of Italy – and again it was dark and without a view plus some angry dogs chased us to the finish line of finish lines.

Nikki followed me for the final time, and with elation and relief I threw my hands up in the air in the lights of the main beam of the van – and we cheered and whooped. We did it. And it couldn’t have come soon enough. Exhausted but triumphant. Nikki was done with the journey long before the finish, long before we stopped, and I owe her a great deal. Now I believe she is starting to see my love of struggling through to get to a finish line of our own design. A feeling to complete a mission through the hard times is one everyone could benefit from. It builds strength of mind and heart, and it bonded us even more. Thanks to Nikki doesn’t quite cut it.

Making a dash for Christmas

The final few marathons were tough going, and 5 of the last 8 days were doubles in bad weather with Nikki painstakingly following me behind. Thanks to Jaybird who had sent out some new fancy ear buds – and with my phone still out of action – Nikki played music on her phone to the ear buds – she wore one while driving behind me, and I wore the other trudging slowly in front soaked through. It was Christmas eve after all, and so with Nikki cheering out of the window occasionally most of those last days were run slowly with Christmas music playing in one ear with the sound of traffic honking and beeping their horns as they impatiently overtook the van to see me running and dancing in the road with my florescent jacket and flashing lights. They rightly thought we were mad. Mad but in the midst of a joyous, painful and largely uncomfortable wet and windy end to 100 days running through Italy. This however now sets a bar for the next mission. And no, I think Nikki and Poppy may give it a miss.

Once we finished, with an unspoken agreement I ripped the wet clothes of my tired body, Nikki turned the van around, and without question we made a dash for the French Alps. This was always the plan, but I don’t think we realised quite how ready we were for a break. Within 20 hours we’d driven the entire length of Italy and spent Christmas afternoon in a tiny village in the French Alps. A village I’d spent many of my childhood winter seasons growing up. It snowed heavily, the roads were empty, and we were on an emotional and an exhausted high. We made it, and it was Christmas day, and I didn’t have to run, and Nikki didn’t have to drive. We ate, we laughed, we discussed the ridiculousness of some of our days, and before long we were asleep, the dog too.

Thanks goes to our friend Colin who allowed us to stay in his beautiful chalet in the mountains at short notice, and on Christmas day. We are still there now.

My final thanks must be to Nikki’s wavering but ultimately enduring support to make this mission possible, enjoyable and something we will look back on with great memories, misadventure, and plenty of lessons learned. We love van life, but it’s who you share the moment with that make them all the more special. 

If you haven’t got your hands on my book ‘Running The World’ it’s on Amazon or Bookshop.org and in every major bookshop around the world. Thanks to Penguin and of course everyone who’s already got a copy we made it to Best Seller list and many have rather enjoyed reading it. Thanks to you too.

Click Here to get your copy. Or share this page with someone who may enjoy our journeys.

Thanks for reading. Shh I’m working on another book, another 4 challenges this year and we have our speaking tour at the end of the year. If you’d like to get in touch please email – nick@nickbutter.co.uk