A Turbulent Year – Setting a new World Record for Most No of Countries in One Year
By Dan Micola
About the Author:
Dan Micola started running in the second half of 2014, after changing his life’s priorities and making an effort to lose 40kg (88lbs) of weight over three months. He ran his first marathon, reluctantly and with no specific marathon training, in December 2014 along the icy Thames Path and across six bridges over the river Thames from Shepperton, Surrey to Chelsea, London, UK (3:50). Four months later he set himself a goal to complete 100 marathons within three years. Fairly soon thereafter he started breaking up the monotony of racing week in, week out around the southeast of England by occasionally venturing out of the UK for a race or two. Long before he completed his 100th marathon in August 2016, only 17 months after this target was initially set and less than 20 months from his first marathon, his focus had permanently changed. His love of running would from then on be combined with his love of travelling, and international marathons would make up the vast majority of his future races. To date Dan Micola completed 173 marathons/ultra-marathons in 70 different countries on four continents, of which 100 were outside of the United Kingdom. Member of the Marathon Globetrotters (qualified on 8 November 2015 in Athens, Greece) and the Country Club (qualified on his birthday, 2 October 2016, in Lisbon, Portugal), he is also a Titanium Level Marathon Maniac.
A Turbulent Year
After running marathons in 29 different countries in 2016, it was brought to my attention by John Maddog Wallace that a world record category existed for the most countries to run a marathon within a year and 29 countries ranked me at 4th place overall. Initially, I had no intention to give in to his and others’ enticement for me to try and improve on my own count, let alone on Tristan Miller’s world record of 42 countries, which had stood head and shoulders above everyone else’s effort. Nevertheless, a seed was sewn in my mind. When my friends chimed in on social media, suggesting I run 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 52 countries, I was still rather hostile to the idea and, to put it to sleep, I sat down at my computer, intending to prove once and for all that it is not even theoretically possible to achieve such a goal. As it turns out, I was wrong and the more I researched available races in far-flung corners of the world, the faster my hostility towards the idea evaporated, until shortly before Christmas 2016 I turned a full 180 degrees, formulated a detailed plan and started turning it into reality by booking races, flights, hotels and rental cars.
I identified the planning stages as the most important aspect of the project. I used a whiteboard to insert races into individual weeks’ squares. I had to erase the board many times when I’d hit a dead end that left a week blank with no new country to fill a box with. I spent several evenings trying to solve this puzzle. I speak six languages and am able to read a few more, which allowed me to search the web for smaller local races that might have websites only in their own language. I am particularly proud of myself for finding an alternative for the Taipei Marathon, where I wasn’t successful in obtaining a place through their ballot, and I had to scour the depths of the Chinese-language Taiwanese web to eventually discover the Kaohsiung Marathon on the very same day in a different part of the country. It turned out to be one of my favorite races of the year as well.
Prior to starting the challenge, I felt fairly confident in my ability to handle the entire logistics side of things with ease. I had thought of myself as a seasoned marathon traveller, having completed races in 37 different countries by then, some of which I would be visiting again in the course of the record attempt. In hindsight, I was pretty naïve about the scale and complexity of the undertaking. On the other hand, had I not been, it would probably have dissuaded me from ever attempting it.
My logistics skills would be put through a thorough test in the course of the entire year, as I had to deal with a number of setbacks. A cancelled return flight from Skopje, Macedonia to Hamburg was the easiest to deal with, even though I was forced to buy a new flight from Hamburg to London for the following day, after I forfeited my original, unofficial connection. One of the trickiest situations I faced was when the RNR Montreal Marathon was cancelled with just a few days’ notice due to extreme heat. I immediately found a race across the US border in Schroon Lake, NY, just over two hours’ drive from Montreal, only to be informed the day after I entered and paid my fee that it, too, had been cancelled. The next nearest race I could find was more than 4 hours’ drive from Montreal in Keene, NH, and I had to run sub-5 hours to stand any chance of making my return flight from Montreal. I made it with just a couple of minutes to spare.
The most tumultuous weekend though was the last weekend in October, when I was registered for marathons in Erbil, Iraq on Friday and Nairobi, Kenya on Sunday. They were both cancelled for political reasons in such an unfortunate way (Nairobi because of presidential election rerun, Erbil due to restrictions from the Iraqi government as a reaction to a Kurdish independence referendum held a month earlier), that I had to spend more than 40 hours travelling to my replacement race in Magog, QC, Canada from London via Istanbul, Doha (Qatar), London again (landing at Heathrow 27 hours after leaving there) and Montreal. There were several other occasions on which I was literally seconds from missing flights – Moscow, Manila and Zurich to name but a few.
Despite what it might sound like so far, I actually did some running as well, on top of all the travelling. I had good races and bad, and all of them, due to an injury I was carrying with me, were pretty slow and more or less painful. But I never doubted my ability to make the races’ time limits, even if only by a few minutes. This challenge wasn’t about speed, it was about survival and nursing my creaking body through one race after another.
Most of the year’s races were road marathons, which made the few trail runs all the more special for me, and I really enjoyed Marató dels Cims in Andorra, the Golden Ring Ultra 50k in Russia and especially the brutal Ultra-Trail Tai Mo Shan in Hong Kong, hands down the hardest race of my year.
As far as the road races are concerned, my favourites include the already mentioned Kaohsiung Marathon in Taiwan, Tórshavn Marathon in the Faroe Islands, Jerusalem Marathon in Israel and the tough and tricky Port-au-Prince Marathon in the troubled country of Haiti. On the opposite side of the spectrum for me lies the awful Tehran Marathon, whose first and probably last instalment was a prime example of how not to organise an international road race.
So, in the end, over the 365 days between 15 January 2017 in Mumbai, India and 14 January 2018 in Cebu City, Philippines, I visited 60 different countries and completed 56 marathons and 3 ultra-marathons in a total of 58 of those countries, England being the only country where I finished more than one race, a Saturday-Sunday double on the first weekend in February 2017. Despite suffering two DNFs and once having to drop down to half marathon during a race, I obliterated the old world record, increasing it by 16 countries, or 38%.
I am pretty sure that there is still a little room for improvement of the world record and, for anyone who would like to have a go at it, I would like to say the following: Plan well, make sure you have worked out all details of your plan A before you board the first flight. Apply for your visas in good time – you may be asked for additional documents, which might delay the issuing of your visa. Be prepared for everything and anything. There will be setbacks; it is how you deal with them that will make the difference between success and failure. Always plan for contingencies – have plans B, C, D, etc. at the ready. Accept from the beginning that there will be extra costs and have a financial reserve for those eventualities when the unexpected inevitably happens. And lastly: enjoy it!
It is a hell of a ride and an adventure of a lifetime.