Alastair: I think epic is a really tedious and overused word in the adventure world. But I think your run across Canada was definitely epic. It really was. It was an amazing thing. You did a lot of your run in a superhero costume. Are you some sort of hero, athletic superstar Olympic runner?
Jamie: Absolutely not. Before I actually started the run I had never really run before. I’m definitely not an athlete. I’m literally just like your everyday bloke. A Go-to-the-gym-a-couple-of-times-a-week kind of human really. I chose to take on a challenge because I felt like I had a shot at pulling it off.
Alastair: How far had you run before you set off to run 5000 miles across Canada?
Jamie: I ran a marathon about 7 years ago. I didn’t do any training for it and I completed it, just. At the end I was in such a state and I was all, “I am never ever doing that again!”
Alastair: What was your time for the marathon?
Jamie: I think it was something like 5 hours but it was very hilly.
Alastair: Very hilly… OK. We can now say that if someone can run a marathon in 5 hours, they can run across Canada…?
Alastair: I ran the Marathon des Sables once. People often contact me about that saying, “Do I have to be some sort of amazing runner to do it?” And my theory is if you can run a marathon, you can run the MDS. I think you’ve now upped the ante on that. If you can run a marathon in 5 hours, you can run across a continent.
Alastair: Going way back in time now, you were quite poorly as a kid. Can you give us an outline of that?
Jamie: Yeah. For the first 9 years of my life, I spent most of my time in hospital. I’ve got a very rare condition called syringomyelia. I had epilepsy, an immune deficiency, sometimes I couldn’t move my legs. And then, at 9 years old, I started to move. I started to play tennis. And I’m really lucky that the symptoms disappeared because they should’ve progressed. Lots of people end up losing their mobility and their life. Whether loving to move cured me or not, I don’t know. But I feel like it did. And so, I just carried on moving.
I just think you’ve only got to see a kid’s face when they’re moving. The first thing you see is that they’re smiling.
Alastair: Absolutely. Later, you started working as a tennis coach, in your words, to “save up for a deposit for a house you didn’t end up buying.” Why didn’t you buy that house?
Jamie: I spent 3 years saving up for the house and I started to feel as if I had to get really career driven and I needed a house. And the only reason why was because everyone else around me was doing that. I realised I didn’t want to buy the house after all. I was just choosing it for someone else’s sake. So with that money, I bought a second hand bicycle for 50 quid out of the newspaper and I flew to Bangkok. And then, I cycled home back to Gloucester.
Alastair: You can’t have been doing very well with your house saving if you traded it all for a 50 quid bike! (laughing)
Jamie: Ha! What I will mention, is something I didn’t realise at the time. I was quite inspired by the fact that my dad had been a bricklayer all his life. And while I was saving up for the house, he came in and said, “Do you know what? I hate what I do. I’ve been doing it for 25 years. Why am I doing it?”
I said, “Well, just quit.”
So he did, and he started working with people with mental health and learning difficulties. And my mum has said all her life, “I really want to foster children.”
So together they went through the process and now they’re fostering. My dad’s on minimum wage but he’s the happiest bloke on the planet. That goes for my mum and my dad. They’re so happy because they’ve chosen something that they just really, really love.
And I don’t think I recognised it at the time but I watched that whole process and then I didn’t get the house and I bought the bike and off I went!
Alastair: What did your parents think about you cycling from Bangkok to home? A regular concern of people going off on adventures is the worry of their friends and family, parents in particular.
Jamie: Yeah. My mum hated the fact that I was leaving. If she had her way, I’d be living next door to her, married with kids. My dad is on the other end of the spectrum, and he’s so passionate. He’s just like, “Get out there and just love life.” My mum’s supportive in her own way. She just worries about me. She’s a mother. That’s what mothers do.
Alastair: That’s a mum’s job isn’t.
Alastair: And, you probably didn’t make things much easier for her managing, on your cycle ride, to get shot at and arrested. And then, when you ran across Canada, you managed to get beaten up. You seem to attract bad luck!
Jamie: I think when you’re just constantly winging it, and you really embrace everything, every kind of opportunity in front of you and you’re not scared about what parts of the world you go to, then it’s inevitable that one or two things are going to happen on an adventure that are a little bit unlucky.
But now, I actually look back on all those experiences and they’re not unlucky at all, because it was an experience. The silver lining is that I feel everything works like a catapult. It doesn’t go your way and you feel like you’re moving backwards – when you’re shot at, when you’re being robbed. But then, you end up being propelled forwards.
Alastair: Now you’ve done a run and bike, can you compare and contrast the two methods a bit?
Jamie: Cycling is a lot easier. The impact physically is just easier and you can cover great distances which means there’s always food and water you can get. The run was a lot more demanding.
Alastair: Which one is better?
Jamie: Personally, I’ve realised that I like suffering. I like the challenge. I look at the run across Canada and it was just so much more physically challenging that at the end of it all, I feel like it’s more memorable.
Alastair: Have you heard the phrase, “Type 2 fun”?
Jamie: No. Sounds interesting.
Alastair: Yeah, it’s good. Type 1 fun is just instantaneous fun like eating cake. Type 2 fun is stuff that is awful and you hate it, and you do it purely on the basis of retrospective pleasures, hoping that someday in the future, it will make you happy.
Jamie: Right. I’m definitely a Type 2 then!
Alastair: Running across Canada, I imagine the name Terry Fox popped up quite lot.
Jamie: Yeah. Terry Fox is a massive inspiration to me. I didn’t really know who he was before I left for the run but as soon as I got on Google, this bloke just popped up everywhere. He had one leg and cancer, and in the 1980s, he chose to run across Canada. Unfortunately, he died on the run. Today, he’s raised $600,000,000 and every single Canadian that I met, every single person that you speak with, they well up because they’re so inspired. He really is the national hero and rightly so.
Alastair: Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it. Brilliant story. Can you paint a bit of a picture of the run you did? Can you just describe the run in terms of key facts and figures: distance, time, blah, blah, blah…?
Jamie: Yup. It was 5,000 miles or 192 marathons. It was coast to coast without a support crew pushing a baby pram. I’d literally just camp in ditches, toilets, and people’s homes along the way. I think it took about 320 days.
Alastair: Camping in toilets is great. En suite!
Jamie: Ah, it’s like the Hilton. You get the hair dryer and everything.
Alastair: I love the hair dryer to warm the room or dry your stuff out… You also raised £200,000 for charity.
Jamie: Yeah. It was trying to give back really for the hospitals that helped me.
Alastair: When you started the trip, I saw this on YouTube, you dipped your hand in the cold water then you set off running with this slightly crazy, manic, delirious, laughing, whooping noise as you began. What were those emotions and what were you thinking?
Jamie: Quite a few people have told me when they watch it looks like I’m having an orgasm.
Alastair: I hadn’t considered that…
Jamie: I went through so much emotional turmoil before that moment. It was the first time I ever got media attention and having to deal with the expectations of me announcing, “I’m going to run across Canada.”
The the first two weeks of that attention, I spent nearly vomiting on the toilet. I was so stressed because I had no idea what I’d got myself into. Because I didn’t plan. I didn’t even think about anything! And so that moment of putting my hand in the water and then finally getting to run was the release of all the pressure I was under. You find that the moment you start, the pressure always goes away and everything is simplified.
Alastair: Did you notice a very different mindset between before that moment of dipping your hand in the water versus the minute after you’d done it and started running?
Jamie: Yeah. Totally. I still felt the pressure and the expectation, but the minute that I started running, that’s all I had to do: just run. It was so simple.
Alastair: It’s crazy isn’t it? I spent years cycling around the world so I was quite used to travel, and the developing world, and all that sort of stuff. Then, I set off to walk across southern India which was a tiny little trip, only six weeks. When I was at the coast though, before I began, I was absolutely petrified, nervous, and wanted to go home: all these sort of things. I couldn’t believe that after my years on the road, I still felt so full of doubt. And then, when I set off, within moments, I was just thrilled to be in motion again.
Jamie: Yeah. It’s amazing. Are you a planner or are you kind of naive?
Alastair: I’m a planner and I try to make myself naive. I try to make myself plan less, relax more, be spontaneous, which is partly one of the reasons I did that India trip. I deliberately did very little planning but it was a consciously having to do force myself to do that.
Jamie: OK. There’s a lot more stress involved. But actually, once you get started, you can actually embrace that uncertainty.
Alastair: I think the more you can embrace the uncertainty and just roll with the flow of your trip then the better, really.
Jamie: Yeah. I think people are either a “planner” or “naive”. It doesn’t matter which one you are, it’s just about recognising it. You’re a planner and what you do really well is you take a pinch of naivety at times. The same with the naive, to make it less stressful, you need pinch of planning.
Alastair: I think a good thing to do is to do as much planning as you need to give yourself the courage to get out the front door and begin. And nothing more than that.
Jamie: I like that.
Alastair: It’s funny how little planning you did. There’s a lot of “winging” involved in many people’s adventures. But it was such a hard trip you did. You clearly suffered physically and also mentally. Sometime just around Christmas I think, you had a bit of a complete meltdown. I don’t remember if I saw that on Twitter or YouTube or somewhere. That, I presume, was one of the low points. Can you just describe that because it’s good to remember that adventure is not all sunshine and butterflies is it?
Jamie: No. So I could feel everything kind of building up and it’d been coming on for months. I’d been holding it back and almost avoiding the fact that I felt really lonely and I felt like all I wanted to do was go home. I picked up chronic tendonitis in my foot so it meant every step was painful. So lots of my focus was down there and not actually enjoying the journey. My whole goal was actually to get to the end and fly home for Christmas to see my parents and spend it with my family. But I was so slow it didn’t work out. I was battling -40 and really unimaginable depths inside myself that I didn’t even know existed. And eventually I cracked, it all came to the surface but it wasn’t just a bit of a trickle. It just poured out. I spent the entire day crying my eyes out. I knew that I had to keep going so I even ran the entire time, I ran a whole marathon in floods of tears.
I actually put out a couple of Tweets just to say how I felt. Some people drove four hours just to come and see if I was OK. They arrived at the side of the road and were like, “Hi Jamie, how are ya?” and I was like “Wa-psshhh!” [impression of uncontrollable crying]. And so I broke down again, but this time it was the fact that strangers were coming to see if I was alright.
I think when you do a big adventure it’s inevitable. I think you actually sent me a tweet saying it has to happen. Just accept it. And so I did. By the end of the day I accepted it and a couple days went on and I thought if I can get through that what else can I get through?
Alastair: Yeah, yeah. Gosh. That really resonates with me as when I cycled around the world I spent about two and a half years in that sort of state! Ridiculous way to live my life. I’m quite glad there wasn’t Twitter when I did that. Yeah, I could definitely feel your pain there.
Jamie: It’s like the emotion is heightened all the time, isn’t it? Edge of tears, edge of laughter?
Alastair: The highs are higher and the lows are lower.
Jamie: Yeah, yeah. It’s a nice place to be.
Alastair: Well not always nice but it’s better than being boring. It’s better than comfortable mediocrity…
Alastair: Everyone I interview about this Adventure 1000 ends up talking about the wonderful generosity and kindness of strangers along the way. Tell me what happened on Christmas Day?
Jamie: Christmas Day, I woke up in my tent in the morning and I was spooning tinned fish and butter into my mouth which was pretty much my staple diet and I just thought, you know what, there’s no point beating around the bush. I need to just crack on. It might be Christmas Day but I need to just knock out another marathon.
So I just got running.
Later, these people just turned up on the side of the road and said, “Just round that corner there’s a turkey dinner waiting for you.” So I just ran around the corner into the home and spent the whole Christmas with them and yes, they were amazing.
I must have spent about 150 nights in family homes out of 300 and that was simply by knocking on people’s door and just saying, “Any chance I can camp on your lawn?” And it would lead on from there. I’d walk in as a stranger and walk out in the morning as a friend.
Alastair: It’s incredible isn’t it? Towards the end you go running up the final pass before the end of the journey. You’re running up the hill and you’re just yelling, “Who’s the daddy!? Who’s the daddy?!” [watch it here.]
Watching that did make wish I’d videoed my ’round the world trip’ because it brought back so many memories of that. Just this extraordinary feeling of knowing in that moment that you’re actually going to make it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful sight. But, the really best bit of that is we are seeing incredible jubilation, this triumph, this heroic journey and then you get absolutely sprayed in the face by a snowplough. It brings you right back to earth.
Jamie: Oh, with a massive bump. It’s like I ran my whole heart out for that pinnacle moment. It was the last summit; it was all downhill from there into Vancouver, the finish. And you’re right, it’s just utter elation that I’d done it and I really did think I was the daddy at that point. But it was the biggest lesson of the trip, is that you should never think you’re the daddy because there’s always something to bring you back down to earth.
Alastair: I love that. There are so many metaphors for life in that little clip. But the best bit is you get sprayed in the face with a pile of snow and grit and salt, but then, I love this; you mutter just more little, “I’m the daddy.”
Alastair: You still had that moment. Nobody could take it away.
Jamie: That’s it. You can’t give up.
Alastair: Okay. I’ve got a few practical questions now. I’m guessing that you’re not much of an outdoor gear kit expert judging by the size of your rucksack at the start.
Jamie: What makes you think that? (laughing!) No, listen, I really don’t plan. I’m the naive one. I don’t think about anything. I think anywhere we go, there’re people there that live in that environment that will have the gear to survive there. So I just don’t think. I don’t look into brand clothing. I just go. That’s kind of why I stuck a superhero outfit on. And people were great. They’d turn up on the side of the road giving me trainers, giving me warm clothes, to make sure I was all right, because I do do it quite stupidly.
Alastair: Perhaps that was why you ended up with tendonitis and various other injuries.
Jamie: Yeah, yeah. It’s got the pros and cons because I didn’t think about it; I’d probably not have the courage to start it if I did.
Alastair: With that in mind then what do you wish you knew then that you know now? What would you have done differently?
Jamie: Absolutely nothing.
Alastair: In that case then what sort of advice would you offer to someone who is in some sort of normal job, normal life, who’s just reading these interviews and kind of thinking “I want to be doing this and I need to be doing this, but how do I actually make it happen?”
Jamie: Hopefully if they’re reading this and they’re thinking, “Wow this is such a monumental challenge. How can somebody do that?” I think I’d like to just say that I am no more special than anyone else. I am so ordinary it’s untrue. And I really do believe that anyone can be a superhero and it’s just about the courage to make the first step.
Alastair: I completely agree with that. But what happens if you’d set off on your run after telling everyone you were going to do it and you failed. After 2000 miles you thought “I really can’t do this.”
Jamie: That’s a really, really good point. The moment that I was able to take this challenge on was the moment that I accepted failure. We often try and avoid it, especially as we get older. You can’t fail, you shouldn’t fail, and it’s a mistake if you do. But the truth of it is, failure exists. So once you accept that you might fail, I think that will give you a lot more courage to then jump on and do it. Having said that, once you start it, just don’t bloody give up.
Alastair: So were you driven on by fear of failure?
Jamie: No, I was driven on by it all becoming way bigger than me. And it became a journey about everyone else and what they could get from the journey. I didn’t realise that actually just me being out there trying was enough to inspire people to hopefully do what they want to do out of life. I received an amazing message in the Rocky Mountains. I had been told that I shouldn’t go. The rangers, the police, everyone said, “Do not cross the Rocky Mountains. It’s winter. You’re going to die.” And then I received this message from a woman who I’d met, her and her son en route. She said, “I just want you to know and remind you what you’re running for.” She said, “Do you remember my little boy called Samuel?”
And I remember him like he was yesterday. And she said “His cancer has returned now and he’s out of treatment options.” And she said, “As a mother I’m so, so worried for you. But as a mother that’s about to lose her child’s life, I just say keep going.”
It brought me to tears. It didn’t matter how much money I raised, it didn’t matter whether I was succeeding or not. It just mattered that I was out there trying.
Alastair: That’s a very good answer. Thank you.
OK. Another devil’s advocate question for you. It’s all very well to say all this “I’ve run across Canada type stuff” but I’m a normal person and there’s no way I can afford to run across a continent…
Jamie: Yeah, you can do it very cheaply though.
Alastair: How much did it cost you? Do you know, roughly? I’m guessing you weren’t keeping spreadsheets.
Jamie: No. I’m just going to like throw a figure out there that I think it would have cost. Maybe, say £8000. I didn’t have sponsorships. I had sponsorship for clothing, and that was it.
Alastair: I think generally most people if they do something big, can get sponsorship for clothing and kit without that much difficulty.
Jamie: Yeah. That’s true.
Alastair: Getting sponsorship for cash is very, very hard.
Jamie: Is the tough one. Yep, yep.
Alastair: The premise of this project is “adventures for £1000”. How far could you run for £1000?
Jamie: Okay. I think you could go for five months on that. Let’s say 2000 miles in five months.
Alastair: If I was to give you £1000 for an adventure what would be a cool thing to do?
Jamie: I would maybe jump on a skateboard and go around India.
Alastair: You could go around India for a long time on £1000. Last question then. How can people find out more about you?
Jamie: My website is jamiemcdonald.org and it has links to social media and donating to charity as well.
Alastair: Thanks so much, Jamie.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!