Controversy over whether Russ Cook is the first or only fourth athlete to run the length of Africa

“Hardest Geezer” Russ Cook on his ultramarathon from the south to the north of Africa
(Image credit: Russ Cook / Instagram)

Yesterday, after 352 days and 10,130 miles, 'Hardest Geezer' Russ Cook finished his epic ultra marathon the length of Africa from Cape Agulhas in South Africa to Ras Angela, Tunisia. It’s a feat that been publicized as “The first person ever to run the entire length of Africa,”  not least on Cook’s own social media accounts.

But according to some experts, Cook’s not the first. He’s not even the second. He’s the fourth. Though there is one way in which he can claim to have achieved a first… if you look at things from a certain direction (more n that later)

So who’s objecting? It’s a body called the World Runners Association (WRA), an elite group of just seven members. They claim that Danish athlete Jesper Olsen was the first man to run the length of Africa in 2010, as part of a larger, two-year global marathon. His African odyssey started in Taba in Egypt and ended 7,949 miles and 434 days later at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

So Cook definitely had the longer marathon (longer than intended as he was forced to make detours from his planned route for various political reasons) but the WRA remains skeptical about his “first” claims. They point out that that, as Africa’s length “is calculated at 8,000km / 4,971 miles as the crow flies,” the extra distance Cook covered is irrelevant.

Russ Cook Hardest Geezer finishes his African marathon challenge

Russ Cook being cheered over the finish line in Tunisia (Image credit: Russ Cook / X)

WRA president Phil Essam, says, “The WRA recognizes Mr Jesper Kenn Olsen of Denmark as the first person to have run the full length of Africa.”

In an interview with The Telegraph, Olsen also pointed out that Cook took breaks during his Africa run (some forced on him by health issues) while also noting that two other WRA members, Serge Girard from France and Tony Mangan from Ireland, have also run the length of Africa.

“Serge Girard in his world run crossed five continents and completed his run without one single day off during the entire run,” he says. “To compare this with Russ Cook’s run through Africa where there were several days off – I think, with all respect – is in itself a bit of a stretch, to compare a half marathon with a full marathon.

“So for me it’s not about putting attention on myself. But to put the right scale to things so recreational runners can get an idea of where the maximal limits are in ultra-running. And hopefully get inspired.”

Marie Leautey, a WRA member who circumnavigated the globe in 2022, disclosed says the group made numerous attempts to reach out to Mr Cook during his run.

“We really congratulate Russ, we just do not want Jesper’s achievement to be denied,” she says. “I can accept that maybe he did not know about it or didn’t do the research or he really thought he was the first person, for some reason. We contacted him [Cook] on social media, on Instagram, before this. We have tried, and now we have seen the press in the UK, saying he was the first.”

But the WRA is happy to offer a compromise and acknowledge that Cook can make one undisputed claim

“We have no problem with him claiming to be the first to run from the most southern [point] to the most northern,” says Leautey.

Despite all the quibbling, Cook’s feat is still an amazing achievement and he’s raised $820,000/£650,000 for his chosen charities, so we wholeheartedly congratulate him. But maybe he should just change his social media blurb to: “The first person ever to run the entire length of Africa bottom to top”.