The British adventurer who made a record-breaking run across America – in a cape.

Overcoming a rare spinal condition in childhood, Jamie McDonald, aka ‘Adventureman’, became the first person to run unsupported the 5,500 miles from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic. It was an adventure indeed.

Published 11 Nov 2021, 16:49 GMT
Jamie McDonald - aka 'Adventureman' – made his year-long run of 5,500 miles, the equivalent of ...

Jamie McDonald - aka 'Adventureman' – made his year-long run of 5,500 miles, the equivalent of 210 marathons, to raise money for children living with illness. He claims his fortitude is down to what he calls the 'keep going gene.'  

Photograph by Jamie McDonald

TRACED on an atlas, the route resembles a giant, if slightly wonky smile. A closer look reveals it to be a 6,000-mile trail from Cape Alava, in the far north west of the United States, down the Pacific coastline, across the southern states and back up the east coast to Gloucester, Massachusetts. Why Gloucester? Because the adventurer who set out to run the route is from Gloucester, UK.

On his 12-month odyssey, Jamie McDonald would encounter a mountain lion, coyotes, tarantulas and rattlesnakes; face lightning storms and a hurricane; suffer agonising injuries and rely on the limitless kindness of strangers.

A one-year visa made the maths simple – he would have to run the equivalent of 210 marathons before his deadline to fly home. And he would undertake the epic challenge dressed as his alter-ego, Adventureman, all in green with a red cape and shorts, and pushing all the kit he needed (60kg of tent, sleeping bag, tinned food and water) in a buggy designed for a toddler.

Even to reach the start at the westernmost point of the United States (the 48 contiguous states), represents a mammoth achievement for McDonald, who spend the first nine years of his life in and out of hospital with syringomyelia, a rare spinal condition.

“I had immune deficiency, epilepsy and sometimes I couldn’t move my legs, so it was a pretty rough start to life,” says McDonald.

McDonald used a pushchair designed for a toddler to carry his 60kg of living and camping equipment.

Photograph by Jamie McDonald

It was a pretty rough start to his run around the US, too, after he suffered acute plantar fasciitis, the nemesis of runners, on the first day of his adventure. The injury forced him to rest for a fortnight and then to run ‘barefoot’ in rubber shoes designed for watersports with no padding, grip or support for the first 300 miles.

While many adventurers might have spent months preparing physically for a challenge of this scale, McDonald had channelled the spirit of his previous adventure, a 5,000-mile run across Canada.

“About two weeks before I set off, someone said to me, ‘You’re running all that way, you need to get training,’ but I thought to myself, I’ve got 5,000 miles to run and I don’t want to add any more to them!” he laughs.

Night running

Behind schedule right from the start, he would aim to run at least a marathon a day, often breaking his effort for a rest at midday. But some runs stretched longer and longer, depending on conditions and the availability of supplies.

“The beauty in adventure is that it shouldn’t come with many rules, restrictions and a strict plan,” says McDonald. “The furthest I ran was 75 miles in one go, across a desolate desert.”

The the stifling heat of the desert, where daytime temperatures soared to a mind-melting 55 degrees Celsius, forced him into a routine of night runs for three months straight, taking advantage of cooler 40 °C overnight temperatures.

“Once you realise you can keep going, it’s a magical place to be. ”

Jamie McDonald

The darkness would test him in other ways, too, leaving him jittery at the creatures and critters patrolling after sunset. On one occasion in the Arizona desert a car stopped at 2am to warn him of a mountain lion up ahead.

“It was one of those moments when I had to decide, should I run back? But I had nowhere to run back to, so I got out my penknife and listened to the desert,” remembers McDonald. “And at night it seems as if every single noise wants to kill you! My headtorch was picking out every single detail, including an enormous tarantula by the side of the road; forget mountain lions, I’m petrified of spiders. I put my foot down close to it to act as a scale for a photo, and it started running at me. I lost my mind and started to sprint like Usain Bolt. And then another tarantula came and another and suddenly there were hundreds across the road. I have never screamed so loudly or run so fast.”

He later learnt that he’d encountered a tarantula nest, an exceptionally rare occurrence that people travel the world to witness.

The ‘keep going’ gene

Whatever the obstacles in his path or discomfort that he has faced, McDonald’s varied expeditions have taught him that he possesses the ‘keep going gene’. Initially, he traced this perseverance to his difficult start to life and his determination to prove to other people that he could rise to any challenge. More recently his motivation has stemmed from raising money for children’s hospitals – he visited 21 children’s hospitals along his run across America and brought in more than £250,000, taking his fundraising for children living with illness to more than £1 million through the charity he founded, Superhero Foundation. In 2019, McDonald was crowned Fundraiser of the Year at the Pride of Britain awards.

McDonald's journey was not without its hazards - from routes ill-suited to pedestrians, to desert tarantulas. 

Photograph by Jamie McDonald

“I didn’t realise I had the keep going gene and it’s really important that I share that fact,” says McDonald. “Throughout my life I had not done anything big or challenging; I worked in a supermarket stacking shelves. But on my first adventure to cycle from Bangkok to Gloucester, the moment I crossed the border into China and no one spoke a word of English, the food became a mystery, the mountains started to become bigger and the landscape became desolate, I had to decide whether to fly home or keep going. That was the start of me pushing my boundaries.”

His biggest test to date came arguably not on his monster US run, but on a treadmill – the ‘dreadmill’ as McDonald calls it – 10 days after his return to Gloucester, when he attempted to break the Guinness World Record for the farthest distance run in seven days. After three days his ankles were swollen, he could barely walk, and he realised that he was well below the pace required to break the record. Yet somehow, fuelled by messages of support, ibuprofen and a ready supply of food and drink, McDonald got back on the dreadmill and eventually covered 524.2 miles by the time the clock reached the end of the seventh day.

“Once you realise you can keep going, it’s a magical place to be,” he says.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco. 

Photograph by Jamie McDonald

It has also won him a legion of famous fans – legendary endurance runner Dean Karnazes joined him as he ran through San Francisco (and advised him to wear ear plugs and an eye mask to get a better night’s sleep in his tent); explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes called McDonald ‘extremely tough’; Prince Harry wrote to say, ‘very impressed by your appetite for pain’; and multiple gold medal winning runner Dame Kelly Holmes said, “As a double Olympic champion, I know what it’s exactly like, to push yourself to the limit to achieve something incredible. And you’ve done just that. I could never do what you do – mad.”


Paying it forward

His dogged energy and endless enthusiasm, however heavy the rain or steep the climb, also won the hearts of the everyday people he met along the US route, and there were countless occasions when strangers simply wanted to ‘pay it forward’, passing on the help, support and friendship that they had received in their own lives, including the guy in Alabama who lived on Machinegun Road and invited McDonald to a burger, beans, beer and a bed for the night after watching the Superbowl.

“I have always been optimistic that when you are on the road people will always open up their homes and open up their hearts,” says McDonald.

Children in particular were thrilled to see him in his costume – designed by an 11-year old and made by a supporter from the same material used for ice hockey kits – even if its condition and colour faded as his run progressed around the US.

“I remember one kid asked if I was a superhero, so I had to say ‘yes’,” says McDonald. “He was really inquisitive and kept asking questions. As I was leaving, he asked one final question: ‘When you get to the end of America, are you going to run back to the start?’ I needed to leave there and then before a superhero fibbed!”

Adventureman: Running America by Jamie McDonald is published by Summersdale and is out now.

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