In 2019, two men crossed a finish line, hand in hand, in Athens, Greece. The crowd cheered as a finish-line tape reading “Running the World 196” fluttered around the runners’ ankles.

It was the emotional end not just of a single marathon, but of an epic, global journey that began when the two men met in the Sahara Desert. One of the men, Nick Butter, had just completed a marathon in every country on Earth.

It was a task that took him two years to complete, after hundreds of flights, several kidney infections, a dog bite, two muggings and 10 passports. 

A portrait of a man in front of a lake
Nick was already a long-distance runner when he decided to run a marathon in every country in the world © Courtesy Nick Butter

Finding inspiration

It began while Nick, a former skier, was running the Marathon des Sables, a grueling ultramarathon held in the Sahara Desert. There he met Kevin Webber.

“Kevin is my whole inspiration behind this journey,” Nick says. Kevin had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, with a life expectancy of just two years. Kevin was running the Marathon des Sables as part of his bucket list after diagnosis. “It was incredible for him to do it,” Nick recalls. “And he made it look easy.”

“I was moaning about having blisters or being tired,” Nick says. "He was facing death, and he was just happy and jolly because he understood the value of life.”

Meeting Kevin was the inspiration Nick needed to do something big.

“I was like, ‘I have the opportunity to do anything I want. I’m so privileged and lucky,’” Nick says. “So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to do something that will raise some money for him. And I want to do something that nobody’s really done before in the running world.’”

Inspired to run? Check out Lonely Planet's Epic Runs of the World.

A man running in a desert environment
Nick ran through punishing temperatures and conditions © Courtesy Nick Butter

The challenge of running the world

Nick’s first task was administrative. “I didn’t even know how many countries there were.” So Nick set about researching and planning.

“Everybody assumes that I didn’t do the dangerous countries," Nick says. "Everybody assumes I just did the nice ones. But no, every country means every country.” That meant sorting out visas to warzones and hermit countries (yep, North Korea has a marathon).

Nick’s first marathon was in Toronto, and it wasn’t exactly a smooth start to the journey. “It was about 15 degrees colder than I was expecting,” Nick says. “I had to borrow a load of kit and clothes from local people. But before I knew it, I was weeks into the trip and heading further south to the Caribbean.”

The most difficult run? Hard to say. “Yemen was pretty tough because it was obviously very volatile, very dangerous, and also hot and hilly. And I didn't have much water.”

Then there was Iran, where he was promised water was just around the corner, but there wasn’t. “I did 24 miles without any water,” Nick says.

Or Bangladesh, where he ran through food poisoning and a kidney infection. “I was throwing up every single mile of the run.”

A man lies on his back on the floor
Running through through illnesses and injuries, Nick became the first to run a marathon in 196 countries © Courtesy Nick Butter

Often it wasn’t the physicality of the challenge that made him want to throw in the towel. It was the frustration and stress of dealing with a multi-year journey around the world aimed at raising money for cancer research.

“It wasn't that we just had this endless pot of money and endless time to do this,” Nick says. “We needed to do this in a particular time and we only have this much money. Very quickly we knew we weren't going to do it in the money we had, like within a few months. So when you get towards 23 months, which was the end of the trip and you've spent like 800% of what you're expecting to spend, it's stressful, and you think, ‘Should we stop now?’”

But his friend Kevin continued to serve as inspiration.

“Ultimately I kept going because it was a very clear message from Kevin, just completely ingrained in me that you start this and we get to the end. It was a matter of you start a marathon, you finish it. You start another marathon, you finish it and you keep going until you've done the world.”

The home stretch

And so we return to Athens, chosen as Nick’s last race due to its history as the birthplace of the marathon. According to legend, the Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BCE.

Nick arrived the day of the race, but he wasn’t even certain the Greeks would let him in to the country. “I didn't know if I was going to be allowed into the country because of my visa stamps from different places.”

Two men embrace at a finish line reading "Athens"
Nick was joined by Kevin Webber (right) for the last marathon in Athens, Greece © Courtesy Nick Butter

But he was allowed to race, and he wasn’t alone.

“Loads of people from around the world that I met along the journey came out to Athens to meet me and run with me,” Nick recalls. “It was probably one of the best days of my life.”

And Kevin was there, too, a full five years and six days after his diagnosis.

“I felt a combination of relief, absolutely euphoric kind of joy from experiencing the last few footsteps with Kevin, because Kevin was only given two years to live,” Nick says. ”And we crossed the finish line hand in hand in Greece. It was emotional. We cried, we laughed, we sang, we cheered, we had every emotion under the sun during that run.”

After running the world

Nick’s not stopping at one world record. “I'm doing some smaller world records where I'm setting some world firsts and some world records by running around countries and running the length of countries,” Nick says.

He’s circumnavigating Iceland and Bali, as well as planning to run the length of Malawi and Italy. In 2022, he’s planning a major expedition, but mum’s the world. “I can't say too much about the big one, but another four world records are in the pipeline.”

Nick’s book about his experience, Running the World, is on bookshelves around the world. And next year, he’s embarking on a tour to talk about his experience running the world.

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