Nick Butter: 196 Countries, 196 Marathons

Butter in Panama. Photo: Nick Butter

When you decide to do a marathon in every country on earth within a year and a half, it’s not just about the running: There is the logistical nightmare of booking 220 flights, acquiring 90 visas and lining up a couple of hundred hotel rooms. At the same time, you have to meet with countless potential sponsors in an attempt to pay for everything.

In 2016, endurance athlete Nick Butter learned that a close friend and fellow runner had prostate cancer. This sparked the idea to organize an 18-month expedition in which Butter runs a marathon in every one of the 196 countries on the map. This would be a world record — no one has done a marathon in every country. It would also raise awareness and £250,000 for research into this all-too-common form of cancer.

The expedition took Butter two years to plan. On January 6, 2018, he set off from the United Kingdom on the most challenging journey of his life.

Butter says that the “hundreds of miles a week” he ran to prepare for these marathons was the easy part.  To help with booking a year and a half’s worth of hotel rooms, Butter has “a team of about 19 people…who basically manage my life”. They also manage his social media accounts. As of now, Butter has run 63 marathons, been on 125 flights, travelled 140,000 miles and gone through three passports. (He runs out of pages to stamp.)

Butter in Brazil. Photo: Nick Butter

His marathon routes are flexible and he doesn’t decide on them until arriving in the country, but he stays fairly close to civilization, food and water. He eats only one energy bar during each marathon.

About his overall diet, “ultimately, I just need calories,” says Butter. He expects to burn one million calories during this project. While he isn’t choosy about how he gets this, he tends naturally to seek out good nutrition: high protein energy bars, cod liver oil, vitamin supplements and foods high in amino acids. He remains cautious of sugar and caffeine and does not drink alcohol. He tries to eat about the same amount every day but occasionally goes a few days without food. So far, he has lost 10kg and has become ill and severely exhausted on several occasions. During his runs, his priority is finding water and drinking as much as he can.

He was mugged in Nigeria and had his drone confiscated briefly in Cuba. However, the social and political mores of each country, so varied and unpredictable, create the most pitfalls. “You never know when you’re doing something wrong,” he says. Luckily, he’s not only a strong athlete, but culturally and politically sensitive.

He had an unforgettable experience running through North Korea. He describes it as “controlled” and “incredibly clean” and took care to respect their rigidity. He finished his marathon in a stadium, where he was greeted by 80,000 North Koreans clapping in sync for him, guided by a conductor. Then in El Salvador, not the wealthiest country, many citizens donated money and signed up to run with him. For Butter, it has not been just about the expedition but also learning about those many countries.

As of late last week, Butter was in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). Shortly after he finishes all 196 marathons and returns home, his legs may stop moving but the publicity machine will continue full throttle: He has a book deal, an exhibition of his photography will travel around the world and he will release a Netflix documentary. For now, you can follow his journey on Instagram and on his website.