I get plenty of email, but it’s rare to get one from a reader who, on first contact, invites me to climb one of the tallest mountains in the world with him.
But that’s the kind of guy Akshay Nanavati is—full speed from the starting line or stay home.
At first, I thought it was a joke. “Sure dude, let me book my ticket today.” But after a few emails, I was convinced he was serious.
We haven’t worked out the details for a mountain climb yet but, in the mean time, he’s taken on all kinds of inspiring challenges. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with him a few times at WDS over the years and, when he told me what his latest project is, I knew I had to share it with you.
Last year, Akshay started the biggest quest of his life: to run across every country in the world. If it were anyone else, I’d have laughed them out of the room when I heard that but, knowing Akshay, I don’t doubt for a second he’ll make it. The last time we spoke, he’d finished eight countries already.
Taking on big, difficult challenges is one of the most important things you can do with your life (in this writer’s not-so-humble opinion), and hearing the stories of others who are taking action on their biggest goals in life can make taking action on your own feel a little less lonely and a little less intimidating.
I sat down with Akshay (read: sent him an email) to try to understand the motivations, logistics, and the highs and lows of such a quest. The result is below in the form of an interview, edited for length.
If you find Akshay’s story interesting, we’ll be doing our first Riskologist AMA (ask me anything) in The Lab. Leave a question on this thread and Akshay will answer as he has time.
Akshay Nanavati: The Man Who Will Run Across The World
Do you now or have you ever had a mustache? A mustache is like a hallmark of trust. All other answers will be judged on this answer.
I do have a goatee with a mustache, does that count? I tried a solo mustache in Iraq and I don’t think anyone liked what they saw, especially my senior staff NCOs and officers.
Doesn’t count but, for a service member, we’re making a one-time exception. You’re attempting to run across every country in the world. This is a two-part question: 1) What? 2) Huh?
I know. I ask myself the same questions repeatedly!
The goal is to reveal the limitlessness of the human spirit, and create a peaceful global community. I want to show people that, no matter what our race, religion or background we’re all part of the same human family. Perhaps it is impossible to achieve this, but I think its at least worth trying for.
I think you’re crazy. But crazy in the way I wish more people were. Where did this challenge even come from? How did you dream this up?
A few things led to this insane endeavor:
I got bored with how mundane daily life can get so I decided to come up with something that would inspire and excite me. I wanted a lifelong project to focus on and give me direction. One that nobody has ever accomplished, to push my own limits and inspire others to push theirs.
I also just love traveling, so I figured what better way to see every country than cross it on foot.
But the biggest reason was that, after serving in Iraq, I kept trying to figure out a way to continue serving people and help make the world a better place. Eventually I thought to myself if I want to make an impact, I will do something audacious enough to get people to notice.
This run is a way for me to accomplish everything I want – travel the world, engage with these lands and the people who live on it, test my limits, and serve humanity.
How do you measure “across” a country?
The route selection is ultimately up to me. The rules I have set for myself are that I have to cross from one border to the other or one end to the other if it is an island.
I know what you’re thinking; I could just run across the shortest part of every country right? I decided to run across the length of each country, not the width. These routes will not be the exact longest distance from point to point across each country; that would get tedious. But the route will generally cross most of the length of the country. I will also choose places of note within each country, not only so I get to see these places, but so others who follow my journey get to see them as well. Possibly even in the TV show I am hoping to create.
I intend to do this for every country, except Russia. That is, of course, a pretty big one and a personal rule I have set for myself is not to leave my family for more than three months at a time. That means I need to build enough endurance to run each country in that time frame, and Russia would take longer.
How many have you completed now? How long do you expect this to take? Are there enough years in a lifetime?
So far, I’ve completed eight. The biggest was a 350 mile ski crossing of Greenland. The smallest was 3.2 miles across Monaco. Eventually, the smallest one will be half a mile across Vatican City, but that hardly counts as a run.
I expect the journey to take at least 20 years, maybe more. It’s my lifelong project. It’s exciting to have something to devote the rest of my life too.
Not only do I not know when I will complete this, I don’t even know if I will. That doesn’t really matter though, because I feel like the journey itself is the destination. If I complete 100 by the end of my life, that would be a worthy accomplishment. But the best part would be the impact I’ll make.
Well, I believe in you. A few readers here probably do, too. You have a wife and kid, right? Do they come with you on these adventures?
I’ve been married for three years, but I don’t have a kid yet. We’re planning one for next year, which is definitely my scariest adventure yet.
Believe it or not, my wife has no desire to run across countries. Crazy, right? So she does not join me on the runs and, so far, has not come with me on my travels, either.
In the coming years, as I start to get partners who support this endeavor and the mission behind it, I do plan on having her and my future kid join me for some of the runs. They’ll join the support team so we can be together and see many of these countries together. The best part will be getting to see them after a long day of pain and misery.
That is going to be one badass future-kid! Quick question: How do you run across, say, North Korea or Somalia.
That will definitely present a challenge! Funny you mention it though, because I recently reached out to a North Korean tour operator and even read about how they are launching numerous campaigns to increase tourism within the country. We’ll see how that plays out.
Of course, there are a few countries with a great deal of violence and instability. As a Marine veteran, there’s also concern about how these countries would receive me.
That said, the goal of this mission is to connect our human family to each other and show people we are inherently good. If we just start seeing more stories of our goodness, instead of all the negativity we are bombarded with in the news, that would set a new precedent for us to follow. Those are the stories I want to share. I am by no means naïve about this, but if you want to make radical changes, some risk will have to be taken.
I do not intend to take foolish risks, though. For the other countries plagued by daily violence, I will probably not put them on my list for the coming years. I would hope peace might prevail enough for my family and I to feel more comfortable running there.
Sports and athletics have always been an effective and powerful way to unite two groups of people. My hope is to create an environment to do just that.
Now that you’ve started, is there any part of you that quietly wonders, “Why the hell am I doing this?” If your answer is no, my follow-up question will be, “Are you a liar? Did you lie about the mustache?”
There is a huge part of me that wonders why the hell I’m doing this. It happens constantly. When I experience low points on my runs or when I am sitting at home on google maps planning routes. That’s when I’m reminded how many big countries there are. What the hell was I thinking announcing this to the world!
Yet, I believe in any worthwhile endeavor there will be moments you question why you began it in the first place. I’ve felt that with my business, in the Marines, while dragging a 190 pound sled through Greenland and on every one of my runs.
But the reward of accomplishing something that required so much hardship is priceless. Those have been some of the greatest moments of my life. That’s what keeps me going when I start to question the insanity of it all.
I did not lie about the mustache either, it really did look that stupid.
What are some highs and lows you’ve experienced so far?
I would say the greatest high has been experiencing the beauty of humanity. Like when a complete stranger saw me struggling while running 55 miles across Luxembourg. He welcomed me into his home for water. We managed to communicate with each other and, when we parted ways, he gave me a huge hug and wished me the best on my journey. There have been many moments like that in every country when people have been supportive and encouraging. Every time I encountered one of these people, it always gave me a burst of energy to keep moving forward. That’s why I do this.
The greatest low has been the loneliness. Unlike in a race, there’s no one to run with, congratulate you at the end or celebrate your success. While I’ve had people support me logistically, its lonely out there during the run and sometimes, at the finish line, too.
You’re doing all this craziness to raise awareness for a non-profit you’ve founded called The Fearvana Foundation. What is Fearvana? Sounds like a Halloween-themed drink at Starbucks.
That is a great idea, Tyler, especially since Starbucks is my dream partner for this endeavor. Maybe one day that will be a drink
I coined the term Fearvana because fear has a negative connotation to most of us. I am just one man, so it would be arrogant to think I could change the subconscious effect the word fear has on people. (I lied, my wife coined the term—I just take credit for it.)
The truth is fear is not a negative emotion, it is a natural and human response to the unknown. Fear is a sign you are about to do something amazing. Since the word carries a negative connotation, my wife and I decided to create a new one to transform society’s relationship to fear.
Fearvana is “a state of unity and bliss without fear that is only achieved through immersion in fear.” It is that moment when you are about to jump off a plane and your heart is pounding. You wonder why you are up here in the first place, but as soon as you jump, you are in heaven! Or before every crossing I find myself filled with fear, but as soon as I begin the journey, I am so immersed in the moment that my mind, body, heart and spirit are one.
Are you listening, Starbucks? This guy needs a sponsorship. You need a halloween-themed drink. This could be a beautiful partnership.
If someone reading this were to get interested in what you’re doing, what can they do get involved?
A few things:
- You could join me on a run if you are so inclined. I would love to run with you to discover the world together.
- You could check out my website and join me virtually. As I said, it gets very lonely. Words of encouragement make more of a difference than you’d believe.
- You could get involved by putting one foot in front of the other toward your own seemingly impossible goals and telling me all about them. It would be great if we could support each other and hold each other accountable.
- Finally, you could support the work my team and I will be doing with The Fearvana Foundation. The website is still being built and we are nearing completion in officially getting non-profit certified so, until then, just reach out to me on my personal site, so I can keep you in the loop.
I would love for you to get involved in any way you choose and join me, in person or online, on this journey to end inhumanity, strife and indifference. I can’t wait to connect with you.
There you have it, folks. I hope Akshay’s journey inspires you to a great quest in your own life and makes you feel a little less lonely knowing there are others out there taking action on a big dream most people would laugh at.