“Day 102 of running the entire length of Africa,” a ginger Englishman bellows while crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s a daily update that has become somewhat of a meme over the past year as Russ Cook, aka Hardest Geezer, attempts to become the first man to run across the world’s largest continent.
Yes, you read that right. Dubbed ‘Project Africa’, this challenge is just a chapter in the series of outlandish and impressive stunts this athlete has under his belt. The concept is simple: run from the Southern tip of Africa, in South Africa, to the very most Northern point of the continent, in Tunisia.
Cook and his crew are raw-dogging this mission, equipped with only a van, a camera and a shitload of willpower. While they now have three sponsors under their belt, up until recently, the team had little to zero funding—relying entirely on fans of the mission and the kindness of the African public for support. We’re only a few months into Cook’s journey but so far he’s fallen seriously ill, been robbed at gunpoint, kidnapped in the Congo, and so much more.
Don’t worry though, these setbacks haven’t stopped this tenacious ginger from attempting to achieve his end goal. Here’s everything you need to know about the Hardest Geezer out there and his mission to become the first person to run the length of Africa.
Russ Cook is a 26-year-old ultra-endurance athlete from Worthing, England. It’s safe to say this man is no stranger to discomfort having previously completed a number of challenges including running from Asia to London, burying himself alive for a whole week, and completing a marathon while pulling a car on his back… You get the idea.
Cook is a bit of a philanthropist-slash-activist too, raising money for The Running Charity and WaterAid, as well as speaking openly about his own struggles with mental health as a teenager. But his latest challenge is his biggest yet, aiming to run 9,320 miles (14,500 kilometres), crossing 16 borders, and even traversing through rainforests, as well as a three-month stretch through the scorching Sahara Desert.
The Geezer’s challenge has understandably caught worldwide attention, even garnering the support of Olympic GB athlete Mo Farah, who sent him a personal video message expressing his support. Cook’s also become somewhat of a viral sensation since starting his mission, going from less than 10,000 followers on Twitter to over 100,000, as well as over 100,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Although his journey was originally planned to traverse the length of Africa from North to South, issues with visas meant that Cook had to flip the mission on its head. As of August 2023, he’s around a third of the way through his journey. If you want to follow along, you can track the Hardest Geezer’s mission on Strava.
His 9,320-mile mission started in South Africa at Cape Agulhas, the Southernmost point of the continent. Cook has since passed through South Africa, Namibia, and Angola—currently working through the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It’s an impressive feat, but Cook still has a while to go before completing the mission. In the coming months, if all goes to plan, Hardest Geezer will run through the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, and Angola before finishing in Tunisia at Ras ben Sakka, Africa’s most Northern point.
And if the sheer distance of the mission wasn’t hard enough, the English athlete will also have to navigate through some of the planet’s most hostile conditions, including rainforests, deserts, cities, and the list goes on.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Cook noted: “I think that going through the Congo rainforest in rainy season is going to be pretty dicey. One, just because the weather’s going to be atrocious and two, because I don’t know if the van is going to make it through that. There is also some civil unrest and geopolitical issues in various countries so there are always potential problems.”
Hardest Geezer currently runs around 40 kilometres a day, which clocks to roughly the length of a marathon. Yep, I’m being serious. Initially, Cook opted for a ‘no rest day’ policy, telling the British tabloid: “Rest days don’t exist in my world. We don’t do rest days. They just take away from the purity of the physical challenge. I’m out here to suffer and rest days make it easy.”
However, that mentality didn’t last too long. In June, Cook fell ill from the sheer exertion of the challenge and was forced to put the mission on standby while he recovered.
Then in July again, Cook and his crew were robbed at gunpoint in Angola, putting the mission on hold while the team acquired new passports and visas. In his recent setback, arguably the most sketchy yet, the athlete was kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
None of these knock-backs have steered Cook away from his goal though, the infamous Hardest Geezer is still plucking away at his Africa route, one step at a time.
So, with countless obstacles in the way and months of gruelling miles through some of the hardest environments on the planet, it begs the question: why is Hardest Geezer running the length of Africa in the first place?
“To speculate, I can imagine the challenge is incredibly exciting,” Dr Danny Longman, ultra-endurance athlete and lecturer in Physiology at Loughborough University, told SCREENSHOT. “It’s something that I don’t think anyone’s ever done before, which has to be a lot to do with it for sure. One of the things I’ve learned in the ultra-endurance world is that everyone has their motivations, and it varies from person to person,” Longman noted.
In a recent interview with TalkTV, Cook hinted that the mission was about finding meaning in his own life. “I’ve lived some experiences before that didn’t sound meaningful at the time,” he said. “I’m going all guns blazing to try and make a difference, try and make something meaningful of my life and live life to the absolute fullest.” Fair play.
Is such a mammoth challenge even possible to complete? Will Cook manage to run the length of Africa? The answer isn’t black-and-white. According to Longman, “it’s impossible to give a definite answer [as to whether the mission is doable] as it depends on several different factors.”
“In theory, yes, it’s possible,” the expert continued. “But things out of his control could stop him too: injuries, freak weather events, geopolitical issues, for example. There’s a level of geopolitical instability in the areas he’s running through which could, in theory, stop him in his tracks.”
That said, as long as factors in his control are well managed, and with a healthy dose of luck, it’s possible he can complete the mission. As Longman noted, “assuming that everything in his environment is playing ball and if he’s prepared for it, [ie] if he’s got the right biomechanics, if he’s injury resistant, then he has the potential to do it.”
External factors aside, there are many ways this laborious task will impact Cook’s body too. Dehydration is a huge concern for any ultra-endurance athlete, let alone one who is running every day through some of the planet’s hottest climates.
If your body isn’t hydrated properly, it can cause deterioration of muscle function, as well as impairment to reaction time and concretion. But it’s not just about the water itself, as Dr Julien Louis, a lecturer in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Liverpool John Moores University highlights: “It’s also important to maintain the electrolytes and minerals [as] they’re very important for muscle contraction.”
Following a recent sponsorship from Huel, Cook is now using the meal-replacement plant-based powder to fuel his mission. However, Louis notes in a challenge like this: “It’s impossible to eat enough to replenish the calories your body stores. Running this way will put an extreme demand on your body with extreme energy expenditure—you will lose muscle mass, for example, which isn’t healthy.”
“Long term, it can lead to a complete depletion of glycogen stores, which is the main source of energy muscles use—causing the body to tap more into fat stores and amino acids, which could lead to a decrease in muscle mass. Every day [he’s] going to lose muscle mass, even with very good nutrition, it’s impossible to maintain muscle mass when running this length of time,” the expert explained.
Drawing on his experience working with ultra-endurance athletes completing 300-kilometre races, Longman recalls that “over the five days their muscle tissues break down badly, so much so you can detect muscle tissue in the blood.”
Kidney damage is “also a concern,” he continued. Cook has shown tell-tale signs of kidney damage during his mission already. While running through Angola, he started to see blood in his urine, which ultimately put the mission on hold and stopped him from achieving his ‘no rest day’ goal.
Despite the many challenges that he’s faced on his way, so far he’s continued to pace his way through the gigantic route through Africa. If there’s anyone who could complete this record-breaking feat, it’ll be Cook. He is, after all, the Hardest Geezer. And, as he once put it, in life “sometimes you have to risk it for a choccy biscuit.”