Meet the Man Who's Just Run an Ultra Marathon on All Seven Continents
Joel Runyon completed the challenge to raise money for Pencils of Promise, a charity that builds schools in the developing world.
All images used courtesy of Joel Runyon
"My background isn't as a runner," explains Joel Runyon, the founder of Impossible X. In fact, the Illinois native readily admits: "I don't like running so much."
Though not unusual among the general population, this is a curious statement from someone who earlier this year ran four ultra marathons in the space of six weeks to complete a total of seven ultras on all seven continents.
"I don't love running as much as what running gives me from the mental aspect," Joel told VICE Sports in June, not long after completing his 777 challenge. "It forces you to be out there on your own and decide if you're going to keep going or if you're going to quit, because there's points where everybody wants to quit."
Unsurprisingly, his journey to this unique juncture was not straightforward. In fact, it began with an unemployed college graduate living in his parents' basement.
"I graduated school in 2009 and I couldn't get a job," Joel explains. "I ended up working at a postal delivery service for three months around Christmas. I was in a pretty bad mental space. I wanted to start a business, travel the world – all these different things – and I couldn't do any of them because I had no money; I was living in my parents' basement and nothing was really going right.
"I looked at the things I'd wanted to do and one of them was a triathlon. But I didn't know anything about triathlons – I didn't know which three sports were in a triathlon!
"So I decided to do an indoor triathlon where you swim for 10 minutes, bike for 30 and run for 20. It's not even an actual triathlon – it's about as low-level as I could get.
"But when I did it, I distinctly remember having this feeling. I'd thought this was impossible, but then I'd trained and managed to do it. So, what else was out there that might seem impossible but, if you went after it, you might be able to do?"
From these very humble beginnings, Joel's competitive endeavours began to escalate. He ran more triathlons, graduated to running Olympic distance, and progressed up to a half Ironman. "I realised then that I'd tricked myself into running," he says.
In 2012 Pencils of Promise – a New York-based non-profit – reached out to Joel and challenged him to run an ultra marathon in support of their organisation, which builds schools and provides educational programming in the developing world.
"As soon as that seed got planted I just had to do it, so back in 2012 I ran my first ultra and we ended up raising about $27,000 for charity," Joel recalls.
"After doing that we got to go to Guatemala and see the school we'd built and meet the kids. I thought: 'How can we take this to another level and do something that actually seems physically impossible to me?'
"So I decided that the next project I would do was 777. I kept finding out about these ridiculous-cool ultras across the world, so we picked out seven on seven different continents and just decided to go after it. That's how I got to wanting to do the project."
And so 777 was born, the full project name referring to the fact that the money raised from running seven ultras on seven continents would be put towards building seven schools with Pencils of Promise.
Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the undertaking, this would prove to be far from simple.
Ultra #1 – September 2014 – Patagonia International Marathon (South America)
Joel's first ultra took him to Patagonia, a region in South America that encompasses southern parts of both Argentina and Chile. The race itself takes place on the Chilean side, in Torres del Paine National Park. If Joel had been hoping for a smooth take-off for the project, he was out of luck.
"I was 26 miles into a 40-mile race. I was coming around a curve and there were 25mph winds, which shifted and blew me across the road," he recalls. "I ended up coming down this hill way off balance and rolling my ankle pretty badly. But at the time I thought: 'Okay, it's just a little messed up.' So I ran-slash-hobbled the last 13 or 14 miles on it and thought I'd be okay…
"When I went to the doctor they said I'd torn my peroneal tendon pretty bad – it's the tendon that goes from your toe to your knee – so I had to do six months of rehab after the first race!
"It was just one of those things; I'd done all this work to announce it, to get ready for the first race and have everything planned, and then immediately had to change everything."
Ultra #2 – October 2016 – Chicago Ultra 50k (North America)
The project was put on hold while Joel went through six months of rehab and dealt with some challenges affecting his businesses (which he has explained in more detail by way of video and blog post).
Some might have suspected the 777 project was dead in the water, but after a long period lying dormant it started up again without warning.
"We lined up the races and knocked them out in like five months. It was pretty quick once we decided to go after it," says Joel, who was targeting completing all seven before he turned 30.
The first was Chicago.
"It was kind of a race to figure out if I could still do this. I didn't tell anybody I was going to do it, I just showed up with my brother. It was a race for my confidence levels, to say: 'Hey, even if this is really tough you can still run these.' Chicago is my hometown, it's where I ran my first ultra, and it's where I got my confidence back."
Ultra #3 – December 2016-January 2017 – Narrabeen All Night Marathon (Australia)
Having got back in the saddle, things began to move quickly. Ultra number three was a 12-hour overnight relay event in Sydney that began in 2016 and ended in 2017. Here, the challenge was as much mental as physical.
"Starting on New Year's Eve at 6pm, you run 1.5 miles out and 1.5 miles back as many times as possible," explains Joel. "It's like a mind game – you pass the same tree 20 times and by the end you think: 'I never want to see that tree again!'
Ultra #4 – January 2017 – Antarctica Ice Marathon (Antarctica)
From Australia's high summer, Joel next pitched up in Antarctica less than three weeks later for what sounds like the loneliest marathon on the planet.
"There were 10 of us running the race. Antarctica is surreal – a really weird place – and I ended up running the 100k, which was easily the farthest I'd done up to that point."
The event is not just lonely in terms of the small entry list. Picture a marathon and you'll probably imagine streets lined with cheering supporters, urging the runners on. Unsurprisingly, there's not a great deal of fan participation this close to the South Pole.
"Nobody's out there," says Joel. "There's no crowd support and no sound anywhere. If you stop and hold your breath for a few seconds you don't hear anything. I've never experienced anything like that – it's a crazy place."
Ultra #5 – February 2017 – The North Face 50k Thailand (Asia)
Asia was ticked off the list with a 50k in Thailand. And, though not the longest event, Joel remembers this as the greatest challenge.
"People have asked me what the toughest part of 777 was. I had all these crazy, weird experiences, but the toughest one for me was this 50k, which isn't even that far." (Speak for yourself, mate).
"It was relatively hilly, but I came into it feeling confident after doing the 100k. There were a lot of hills in the first half, but there was only supposed to be one on the back half.
"I'd misread the elevation chart and everything about it, so apparently this last hill, instead of being a relatively wide dirt road that we'd been running on, transformed into a single-track, straight up for two miles. You couldn't run it – you had to pretty much power-hike it and there were tree branches to move out of the way. It took a decent amount of mental energy just to make sure your footing was okay.
"I thought more about quitting during that one section than in the whole project. In my mind I was like: 'You could just turn around…'
"That race was short but it tried to break me. Between the heat and the climbing and the type of track, it was just gnarly."
Ultra #6 – February 2017 – Rovaniemi 66k (Europe)
Despite his suffering in Thailand, Joel's next ultra took place just 13 days later, in the considerably colder climes of Finland. "It was 66k, mostly on ice: frozen rivers and ponds," he says, before explaining that this event also posed some big challenges.
"The water bladder that I was going to take broke 10 minutes before the race, so I took another water bottle instead. I ran out of water a little way into the race, so I started eating snow.
"Halfway through we got to a stopping point and I was able to melt snow over a camp fire and put it into my water bottle. After two miles that water was so cold – I think it was minus 16 out there – and the bottle froze solid. I got lost two times, and when I finished my entire right foot was swollen and purple; I thought I'd fractured it, but the doctors said I'd just worked it too hard.
"That race is probably my favourite story – in fact, I tell people it was more of an expedition than a race."
Ultra #7 – April 2017 – Two Oceans Marathon 56km (Africa)
After injury, isolation and an expedition, the challenge ended with a comparatively – though not entirely trouble-free – 56km ultra in South Africa. By completing it, Joel became one of just five people to run an ultra on all seven continents.
"After Finland I gave myself a month to heal up and feel good about the foot, then went down to do the Two Oceans. I ended up running it with a buddy. It was nice to finish the whole project at a big race. There were 11,000 people running the race and crowd support the whole way. So it was cool to finish in that environment."
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Having initially raised $156,000 – just short of the targeted $175,000 and enough for six schools – Joel partnered up with Jesse Itzler, an entrepreneur and fellow ultra runner.
"Jesse has a fitness challenge that he puts out on the internet called We Do Hard Stuff. For every finisher that month he'll donate $100 to a charity. I'd known him for a year or so and I reached out and said: 'Hey, what do you think about making Pencils of Promise and 777 your charity of the month, and anything that you guys raise I'll match.'"
Jesse agreed, and brought a friend on board who also agreed to put in $100 per finisher. Through this a further $36,000 was raised, bringing the 777 total to a little over $192,000. With Joel having completed seven ultras on seven continents, the next step will be to see seven new schools built in the developing world.
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While raising money for Pencils of Promise was the main goal of this project, Joel's approach sheds light on the mindset of ultra runners.
Running is therapeutic, and potentially very addictive. If you asked every person on an ultra why they did it, you'd get a whole range of responses. For Joel, it's more about what they give you psychologically than physically.
"There's always a point where you hurt; there's always going to be something that comes up," he says. "Like, it's minus 16 and my water's frozen; or I'm overheating in a Thai jungle; or I'm in Australia and I can't see a couple of feet in front of me. There's always that option to quit, go home, not deal with the pain anymore. The reason I run ultras is to get to that point and then keep going. Because every single time I do it I get stronger, I become a better runner. And I try to take that mindset and put it into my life. Because when I'm really uncomfortable, in pain and tired but can figure out how to keep going, in my day-to-day life it's so much easier to recognise that same mindset of 'this is tough, I want to quit and go home.' That's why I run.
"If you decide it doesn't matter what happens – 'If I have to crawl for 20 hours that's what I'm going to do' – then when stuff does show up you're not surprised. It's a case of: 'I'm in pain and I was expecting that, so let's keep going.'
While his doctors may not be entirely on board with that attitude, seven new schools in the developing world seems like an outcome well worth suffering for.