This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
While it's well known that exercise can be just as beneficial for a person's mental health as for their physical wellbeing, there seems to be a particularly strong link between psychological welfare and long-distance running. For some, racking up the miles can be an almost Zen-like form of relaxation, the rhythmic workout becoming calming and sometimes even addictive. While running can develop into an obsession, when harnessed properly it has clear physical and psychological benefits.
It seems appropriate, then, that one man is about to embark on a challenge that will combine long-distance running with a fundraising effort for mental health charities.
Beginning on 1 April, 32-year-old Englishman Peter Thompson will attempt to run a marathon in every European country on consecutive days. That adds up to a total of 44 marathons over a period of six weeks, a journey that will take in everywhere from Russia (population: 144 million) to Vatican City (population: 800).
"I wanted to do something different and it was a case of racking my brain to think what that could be," explains Peter, who was inspired by the likes of Ben Smith – who completed a staggering 401 marathons in 401 days – and ultrarunning comedian Eddie Izzard. "So I came up with the idea of doing all the countries in Europe, googled how many there were, and started thinking about whether it could be done, logistically.
"After many, many hours of work and planning I managed to find a route and itinerary that, on paper, should make it happen."
Just what constitutes Europe is not as clear cut as you might expect. In fact, there are various definitions with varying numbers of nations, as Peter explains: "Some have it at 51, which includes Kazakhstan and other countries that can come under Asia as well; others say it's quite a lot less. I've gone with the United Nations definition, which is 44 countries." This includes the tiny landlocked principality of San Marino, rather optimistically defines the UK as a single unified country, and is the reason why Peter has been trying to contact the Vatican about their running facilities.
The biggest challenge is the logistical undertaking that such a trip represents. Making stop-offs in 44 countries in as many days is tricky enough, but it becomes considerably more complex when you are required to run a marathon during your brief time on the ground. Suffice to say, any sights he takes in will need to be enjoyed at a brisk pace. "It's about finding the easiest route," says a remarkably calm sounding Peter. "When I first had this idea I thought it would be [easiest] travelling by plane, because you can fly around quicker. But from speaking to a few other people and looking at how I'd get to an airport, and how I'd be there two hours before [take-off], it actually made it a lot harder. So I've looked more towards trains. I can get a train to a central station, stay nearby, do my run from that point, come back, and then get back on at the same station. I think it works out as 22 trains, 12 planes, five buses, a couple of car journeys, and a ferry from Finland to Estonia – it's a real mix."
He won't be making the trek alone though. "Loads of people have helped in lots of different ways," he says, explaining that a variety of friends and family will be on hand at different points of the journey. Some will even be running with him. "That support is massive," he adds. "Without these people around me it wouldn't be happening."
Peter also intends to link up with a number of running clubs along the way. "People will meet with me so that I've got a sort of 'guide' for that country. There are probably about 10 on board who have been amazing in terms of offering to put me up for the night and get a group to run with me. That's been a massive part of it as well."
In some instances he'll use the marathon route that already exists in the city, though in others this simply won't be possible. Case in point: Peter's somewhat fluid plan to run a marathon in the minuscule walled enclave that is Vatican City.
"I'm still trying to get official permission to do it," he says, sounding as though this is a question he's fielded more than once before. "I want to run at night, because of the crowds," he says. "Realistically, the only area that's open to the public is St. Peter's Square, which is probably the size of an athletics track. If I don't get a response the plan will be to go there at midnight – because I know that it's closed at night – and speak to a police officer. If they let me, they let me; if not, it opens at seven in the morning. If I just can't do it, I'll run around the border of Vatican City, going in at some point on every lap. It'll be an experience..."
Peter's attempt to run rings around the Pope takes place on 1 May. One month prior, his journey will begin in Russia with a trip to St. Petersburg. "I kind of want to get the hardest places out of the way first," he explains. "We're linking up with a Parkrun in Russia. It's a great event that's got so many people running in England and has spread worldwide, so to start at a Parkrun is quite fitting, really.
"I'm really excited to go to Iceland," he continues. "It's somewhere I've always wanted to go and it's the penultimate marathon, so if I can get there I'll nearly be home.
"I'm also coming back [to England] in the middle to do the London Marathon. I fly in from Poland the night before, run the marathon, then fly out to Portugal the morning after. The London Marathon is basically what got me into running; I've done it a few times before and my brother will be doing it as well, for the first time."
While he's undertaking this challenge for positive reasons, Peter acknowledges that running once dominated his life – perhaps even to a negative degree. After getting into long-distance competition around 10 years ago, his devotion to the sport grew gradually over time. With his commitment increasing he spent three months living and training in Kenya and contested a variety of marathons, eventually clocking a personal best of 2 hours 25 minutes in Amsterdam in 2015. At this stage he was running huge distances each week, though he is now trying to take a more relaxed approach.
"Part of why I want to do [the 44 marathons] is because I felt that running, at that point [in my life], was a double-edged sword. I put so much into it that I felt that it almost took over; it became all or nothing. I've tried to withdraw that a little bit. I know that might sound strange given that I'm doing this, which is taking up a huge part of my life! But I used to wear a GPS watch and analyse all my data, I had heart-rate monitors... but I don't anymore. I've just got a Casio watch and I don't even look at it. Running is still a very big part of my life and I think it always will be, but I don't get as anxious about it, or think I need to eat at certain times, or do however many miles at a certain pace. It's about trying to get back to basics and take the focus off the intensity."
And while the challenge he is embarking on holds the obvious appeal of traversing Europe in little over a month, Peter is clear about his primary motivation.
"As much as I love running and am looking forward to this experience, the charities are at the forefront of my mind. They're the reason I'm doing this," he explains.
"On a personal level, mental health has affected family and friends. I've seen first-hand how much it impacts on people's lives and I think it's really sad that, among people my age, suicide is the biggest killer."
He will be raising money for nationwide mental health charity Mind, and a second cause that is closer to home. "It's a social prescription service, which I work with through my job, that tries to help isolated people. We're getting more and more referrals for people with mental health issues, because services are being cut and there's an ever-increasing need. So I'm raising money for a local garden project. They grow vegetables, they go on bird walks, and they have areas where people can just get away from things. The staff there are so calm and supportive that it really can change people's lives. The charity has lost a lot of funding for that specific project, so I know the money is going to make a real difference."
Raising funds for such important causes should sustain Peter's motivation throughout the challenge, be it laps of Vatican City at three o'clock in the morning or the final few miles in Dublin on 14 May.
You can find out more about Peter's marathon challenge on his website – which includes details of how to donate – by clicking here