News Satire People Food Other

The Man Who Ran Around The World… Tom Denniss

By Daniel Hutton on December 1, 2013 in People

Picture: Andrew Goldie

Picture: Andrew Goldie

The Beast caught up with Eastern Suburbs local Tom Denniss, who has just returned home from running around the world, literally…

Are you a born and bred Eastern Suburbs local?
I’m not. I was born in Wollongong and lived on the South Coast, but I’ve lived in the Eastern Suburbs since 1982, so longer here than I’ve lived anywhere else.

What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
Its proximity to everything, really. I mean you’ve got the beaches and you’ve got the spectacular coastline, but also the city, the harbour, the football stadium, the cricket ground, Centennial Park, and the airport – it’s just so handy to everything. There are some great restaurants too, and compared to other places like Sutherland Shire, for example, I think the restaurants are much better value.

Do you have any favourite local haunts?
We love going to Uyen, the Vietnamese restaurant up in Charing Cross, and Wet Paint in Bronte. We also like The Spanish Fly at The Spot and we often go down to Patitat Thai on Frenchmans Road.

You’ve recently returned from running around the world; at what stage did you wake up and say: “Rightio, I’m going to run around the world”?
I can’t really nail that down but I know roughly the time. It was about late 2009 and I thought to myself that I couldn’t do it on my own, I would need my wife Carmel to come along, and so if she was keen it would be a goer and if she wasn’t I’d just completely forget about it. I broached the subject with her and she immediately jumped at it.

How did you go about asking her?
I just said, “One thing I’d really like to do is run around the world, but I’d need you to come along as support, not just driving but all sorts of support, both physical, mental and emotional support.” She thought it was a fantastic idea and from then on I realised that it was a possibility. I really couldn’t have done it without her. She played as much of a role as me really. She obviously didn’t do the running but that was about all she didn’t do.

Was everyone super positive or did you have some doubters early on?
I think there were certain friends, actually quite a lot of friends, who just thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew. They were all supportive but many of them have now said, “Look, I really didn’t think you were going to be able to do it. I thought you’d get out there and do your best but you’d eventually fail; at some stage something would happen and it would be all over.” To be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure myself. That was part of the reason I decided to do it. In the past every new challenge I undertook I knew in the back of my mind that I could do it. With this one I just thought there was definitely a possibility that I was going to come unstuck. That was part of the thrill of it.

How much preparation went into the run?
A lot. I prepared basically over two years, but having said that it wasn’t full on, it was just in my spare time. I had to give it a lot of thought and I had to give the route a lot of thought because I had to be at the right places at the right time and time the seasons. You can’t run over the Andes in winter, for example.

In terms of training, what did you do to prepare yourself?
You can’t really train to be running 50 kilometres a day; the only way to do it is to run 50 kilometres a day, and if I was doing that I may as well have been out on the road doing it as part of the journey. I put in as many miles as I could in the year and a half before I set off. I know that in 2011 I averaged spot on 20 kilometres a day and that was about the most I could fit in and I was hoping that would be enough. It’s just a matter of lots of slow kilometres and using that as a base, then the actual event itself becomes the final bit of training that gets you to the level where you can sustain the distances day in, day out. The danger period is the early stage because you’re not fully trained up and the body’s not used to the 50 kilometres a day, so you have to ease your way up to that level. That’s when you’re most likely to get injured. I had run from Melbourne to Sydney in 2009, a 1,000 kilometre run, and I did get injured during that time and I learnt a lot about the warning signs and about going too fast. That helped me no end.

You ended up running a marathon every day for over 600 days, is that correct?
Well that was the average and it wasn’t quite coincidental. I worked out that I needed to run the equivalent of 622 marathons and soon after that I realised that was roughly my timeframe in days as well. So I sort of timed it to be the same number of days as marathons. In that respect it’s an average of a marathon a day, but if you take out the days in between continents and travelling and having to come back for visa reasons and a bit of a holiday over Christmas, you get the days I actually ran, which was 525 days, and on those days I averaged 50 kilometres a day.

Had you run any marathons before taking on your round the world challenge?
Yeah, I think I’ve done 12 or something like that, but I hadn’t done one for a long while. These days I don’t have the speed that I used to have so I don’t really see any point in running it for just a jog. I’d much rather be out there running in the countryside achieving something else.

How many kilometres did you end up clocking up on your run?
26,232 kilometres.

What were the parameters for breaking the world record?
There are several rules. The basic ones are that you have to start and finish at the same point, you have to cover at least 26,000 kilometres, you have to run completely from ocean to ocean across four continents, and you have to pass through two antipodal points, so points on opposite sides of the Earth, which for me was just north of Wellington in New Zealand and just west of Madrid in Spain. My four continents were North America, South America, Europe and Australia, although I did also run the length of New Zealand and I did a bit of running in Asia as well.

How many countries did you run through?
I’m not sure whether it’s 19 or 20 countries. It depends as to whether I count Singapore as one of the 20 or not.

Did you get to experience the countries beyond just running through them?
Running 50 kilometres per day might sound like a lot but you can run more than that. You can cover more ground on foot in a day if you want to, if you start at daybreak and finish after dark, but I chose not to do that. I chose to make it more of a 7 to 8 hour day, which included the breaks and everything, so that I was finished in time to do my blog and the statistics and the documentation, have a shower and then go out for dinner and meet the locals. We’d go out and have a few red wines or beers, depending on the location, and just meet locals and have a bit of a good time. It wasn’t necessarily every night; some nights we’d just stay in the motel room.

Did you have a favourite country?
They all had their good parts but I have to say I really did enjoy Australia, particularly across the Nullarbor. Australia is just an easier country to run in because you don’t have to get different SIM cards all the time, there’s no currency exchange, you know the culture, you know the food and so on, so it’s a bit easier in that respect. But I think it was more than that because I just really enjoyed the Nullarbor, just the remoteness of it and camping out around a campfire at night, and looking at the Milky Way. It’s the best view of the stars you will ever get out on the Nullarbor in the middle of nowhere, one hundred kilometres from the nearest roadhouse.

Did you have any secret lotions, potions or tonics that helped you get out there and do it, day in, day out?
No. Some people have asked if I took Nurofen or Voltaren and stuff like that. You can’t afford to do that when you’re doing something continuously like this because if you get a bit sore and you take painkillers they just mask the pain and the injury. If there’s an injury coming on it’s only going to get worse to the point where those painkillers won’t be able to keep it in check. People who go out for a day and do an Oxfam Trailwalker 100 kilometre event or something like that will get really sore and they’ll take some Voltaren and that’s fine. When it’s going to be over after a day you can rest, but when you’re doing it every single day it’s a fatal mistake. So no painkillers, no supplements, nothing like that. Just the red wine.

Has your wife become an expert masseuse?
No, I only had one massage the whole time, which was one that I was provided for free in San Sebastian in Spain. We had a really great welcome there. There was a running club that came out and they ran in with me along the promenade and gave me a free massage and a free pair of shoes then took us to dinner. I didn’t have to pay a thing the whole time we were there apart from our accommodation.

Speaking of paying for accommodation, was it an expensive journey?
Accommodation was the most expensive component. I haven’t gone into it in detail but I made an estimate that I slept in something like 550 different beds in the previous year and a half or more and each one of those costs, although we did get some freebies. Probably 5% of them were for free and quite a lot were discounted. I reckon it probably averaged out at about $60 or $70 a night on accommodation for 500-odd nights, so 30 or 40 grand on accommodation.

Did you have any near death experiences on the run?
Yes, I did, in the Andes. I mentioned earlier how I had to time the seasons and I thought I’d be right in early November to get to the top of the Andes, but as it turned out it was okay but not quite perfect. Right at the top the pass was still blocked by snow, but I could see about 100 metres further on, past where the road was blocked, that the road opened up again, so I had to try to get around this really steep slope of icy snow. Some of it had melted so there were these mini ravines in between the icy slopes, and luckily they were there because when trying to get around, digging my fingers into the ice to give myself a bit of a grip, I started slipping. Luckily I was able to slip down into one of these little furrows in the ice because otherwise there wouldn’t have been anything to stop me. I was just sitting on my bum in a hole looking around and I really only gave myself about a 50% chance of getting back. Luckily I made it, but it was definitely the scariest experience I’ve ever had in my life. Honestly it would have been about a 1,000 foot drop had I not slid into that furrow. It just got steeper and steeper. Carmel was freaking out because I’d been hours and hours trying to traverse this road. In terms of other near death experiences, Carmel actually had guns pointed at her in the US twice, including one time in the hills of Kentucky, real hillbilly country. She needed to turn the support vehicle around so she’s just turned the front of the car into the driveway of this property. She wasn’t even on the property and this guy just runs out, only about 10 metres away, with a big shot gun aimed right at her. I’m not sure how likely it was that he was going to pull the trigger. Someone later said that this was the old moonshine country where they had their stills and apparently now it’s all crystal meth that they’re producing. The last thing you want is some guy out of his head on that stuff with a gun in his hand aiming it at you.

That’s pretty hairy…
That was probably her scariest experience. I think she had a few others too, for instance driving through Chicago on a 14 lane freeway.

Did you miss the Eastern Suburbs lifestyle while you were away?
I used to quite often, particularly in more remote areas where we might not have been getting the sort of meals that we really wanted. I used to dream about coming back to some of the restaurants here and how nice it would be to be eating that food again. There were various places, particularly in the US, where the food left a lot to be desired. It was basically burgers or burgers and they were always just soaking in grease. And obviously we missed our friends and family too.

What do you do with yourself when you’re not running?
Originally I founded a company that has developed technology to convert the energy in ocean waves into electricity and that’s really coming together now. In fact last Friday I was in Adelaide for the official launch of the first commercial version of the technology that will be going in the water pretty soon off Mount Gambier in South Australia. It will demonstrate the ability of the technology to produce power for roughly 10 cents a kilowatt hour, which is right down there now. It’s actually better than any wind power and almost the same as coal fired power, I believe, so I’m pretty excited about that. Having said that, I haven’t been involved in it for the last two years so I’m a little bit out of the loop now.

Are you getting back into it now that you’ve finished your run?
Yeah, I’ll get back into it next year, but probably not on a full time basis. I do have a few other things to do. I’ve just started writing a book and there will be a few other requirements for my time just in terms of charity fundraising and various events associated with that.

Has it been hard settling back into a normal life since your return?
No, not really. I think because the Eastern Suburbs is so conducive to a relaxed style of life and I’m not working full time, it’s allowed me to take my time getting things done. I don’t have to rush around madly. The last thing I wanted to do was to come back from the relaxed lifestyle of being out on the road virtually on my own all day and then be thrown into a really busy, hectic city lifestyle again. I’m easing my way back into it.

How many kilometres a week are you clocking up now that you’ve completed your mission and you’re back in town?
Around 50 kilometres a week. I’m really not doing that much.

Do you have any other crazy challenges in the pipeline for the future?
I won’t do anything this big again, I wouldn’t think. I certainly have no intention of going out there and trying to beat my record. I will let others do that. Once a year I usually go on a cycling trip with a whole lot of friends through country NSW, Victoria or South Australia and quite a lot of those guys are now pushing me to organise a cycle around the world in a few years time, which will be a lot easier than running around the world but it’s still a pretty big challenge. So that might be the next thing. Carmel’s keen to come on that as well, along with some of the other wives.

Do you think your record will stand for quite a while?
No, I don’t. I think it’s a pretty soft record, to be honest. I think if you add up all my days off, or the days that didn’t count towards the run, there was 97. I could have, in theory, done that run pretty comfortably in 525 days and knowing what I know now, I do believe it wouldn’t take much to bring that down into the 400s. So from 622 I reckon personally I’d be capable of maybe 490 days or something like that. I know there are people out there who are more capable than that even. I reckon if a really talented runner was to give it their best they could almost do it in a year, which would be about an 80 kilometre a day average.

What was the previous record?
662 days. I beat it by 40 days. Like I said, I could have beaten it by 140 if that had been my aim but if I had I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. Physically it can be broken, but mentally it’s quite tough. It’s pretty challenging to get through all the logistics, the day to day problems with weather, communications, new SIM cards in every country in Europe, organising support vehicles, border crossings and visas and all that sort of stuff. When you’re chronically fatigued from all the running, the last thing you feel like doing is sitting down and going through paperwork and organising stuff like that. So anyone who thinks that they can run from dark to dark every day and not have to deal with this stuff is having themselves on, but they won’t know that until they try.

The run was in support of Oxfam; how much money did you end up raising?
It was over $60,000. I was hoping for about $100,000 but that was just a round number that I picked off the top of my head really. I knew $10,000 was too low a total to aim for and $1 million was too high so I went for $100,000 and I was pleased to get to 60% of that. Certainly they’ve been happy about it because they sent me a note to say that that money has helped feed 2,400 orphaned and vulnerable children for a year. That really puts it into perspective.

You were named as one of four NSW finalists for Australian of the Year recently; how did that come about?
A friend of Carmel’s nominated me without me knowing. I don’t know whether it’s normal to know that you are nominated or not but I certainly didn’t know until I was contacted by the committee to let me know that I was chosen as one of four finalists in NSW. If you have a look at the other finalists it will definitely be one of them that will win. I’m up against guys like Adam Goodes, who has just now become a Qantas Ambassador. My money would be on him.

He hasn’t run around the world though…
Well, true, but that’s just one thing. I’d rather be a bit more sort of multifaceted.

Do you have any role models?
For running, no. I don’t really have any heroes as such. I mean, I admire people, but I’m not one who hero worships.

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Tom Denniss?
I guess I’d just like to stay healthy and enjoy life and achieve more, but not necessarily at the running level. I just don’t know what more I could achieve at the running level. It’s a bit hard to back up on something like that. Obviously at the professional level I want to see the wave energy technology really take off and provide a meaningful part of the world’s sustainable energy. I mean it will take decades before it really gets to something truly meaningful but hopefully I’ll still be around to see it. It’s certainly looking promising at the moment.