“Oh, I know the person you mean”. Ben Evans is always at least half a lap ahead of me at our local parkrun so it’s no wonder that it took a while before our paths actually crossed. But when we did meet I found a bundle of energy, derring-do and beautiful words. Ben currently holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon in a full body dinosaur outfit and has cycled from Cairo to Cape Town.
These are his words telling how our epiphanies may be subtler than we expect, and describing the freedom that we feel when we follow our dreams, even if we don’t know what will happen when we get there.
“I’m on a bicycle. On one side of the road is the River Nile, on the other the Sahara Desert. Kids run into the street and shout at us in Arabic and men in robes smile and wave Kalashnikovs. I have 800km to go until the Sudanese border, 11,000km to Cape Town and no idea what I’m going to do at the end. I can’t stop smiling. What’s a guy from Guildford, with no exceptional talents, doing cycling from Cairo to Cape Town?
Rewind five years.
It’s a Monday morning. I’m walking to work, about to light up my usual morning cigarette. Its raining. I’m thinking about a programme that I watched last night about a guy from Scotland who’d cycled from Cairo to Cape Town. I’d like to do that one day, I thought. I don’t think I will, but it would be a damn sight better than downing pints in an empty pub on Sunday night.
My cigarette tastes terrible. Why do I do this? It doesn’t make me feel good.
I throw the cigarette in the river. Maybe I won’t do this anymore. Maybe I need to do something more interesting.
I know that sometimes people have these profound epiphanies when they decide to change their lives, but this was all that happened to me. I gave up smoking, I stopped going to the pub on a Sunday (still only Friday and Saturday) and I bought myself a bike and started riding it at the weekends. That was it. My life stayed pretty much the same, but took a slight change in direction, from the bottom of a pint glass to the possibility of an amazing adventure, cycling around the world.
A few months later, I was made redundant from my job. I thought this was a sign, so I decided to book a flight to California and cycle from San Francisco to L.A. I didn’t know how to fix a puncture, I hadn’t ridden over thirty miles before and the longest I’d spent abroad was a four day bender at Oktoberfest in Munich, but it felt like something I needed to do. I’d be 30 in two months, so it seemed like I had to this now, or I never would.
It was the best few weeks I’d ever had. Although I was riding around a hundred miles a day, up mountains, along highways, through some insalubrious areas of downtown Los Angeles, I experienced the world like never before. The California coast was stunning and cycling felt like the best way to experience it – breathing the air, listening to the sound of the waves, feeling every climb and descent as the highway snaked along the Pacific.
Then I returned home, and suddenly the pub, a pizza and twenty B&H didn’t seem so appealing anymore. I’d done something pretty awesome. I could do something else even more awesome. Cycling around the world seemed like something I could really do.
For the time being I had a new job to start, so this wasn’t an immediate proposition. I didn’t want to lose the fitness I’d built up however, so I decided to enter a half marathon instead. With all the cycling, I felt that I’d be able to hold my own.
I ran in 1hr 29mins. It hurt, but then at the end of it I felt great. Running was brilliant – kinda like drinking, except with a couple of hours of pain for good feeling for the rest of the day. I wanted to do more of it.
I ran another half marathon and joined a running club. Then, after a year of training and competing, I ran my first marathon – Brussels, in 2 hrs 43 mins. It was an amazing experience and it meant I could qualify for the London Marathon, something I’d never even dreamed of doing.
I ran it the next year in 2 hrs 38 mins. Over the next four years I ran around fifteen marathons – London, Berlin, New York – and completed them at elite – sub-2.45 level. I hit a 2hrs 37 mins at the Boston Marathon – the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the world; I was invited to run the Test Marathon for the Olympics; I beat Paula Radcliffe in a 10k. Each time it felt more amazing and each time I felt privileged to be able to be doing it.
The main dream though, was still eluding me. Everything had started from that dream – to cycle around the world, but now my life was okay – I had a steady job, I lived in a nice, Surrey town and I had a great new hobby that I was really good at. I couldn’t just quit it all, could I?
It took another year for me to finally build up the courage. I’d run a couple more marathons but the feeling wasn’t quite the same as it was at the start. I was doing the same training routes, day in day out, and I was running the same races, week-in week-out. I had one more ambition – to break a fancy dress world record at the London Marathon, but it didn’t feel like the right time to do it. I was also scared – of quitting my job, of leaving my home, of doing something out of the ordinary and not knowing what would happen at the end.
I found a company called Tour De Afrique that organised a group cycle ride from Cairo to Cape Town. They had a trip leaving in five months. I tried to convince myself of all the reasons that I couldn’t do it, but I couldn’t really think of any. I had no ties, no mortgage, no wife and kids, a job that was going nowhere. I was young enough, fit enough, stupid enough.
So I booked myself on, and suddenly a huge weight fell from my shoulders. It was right. This is what I’d wanted to do, for so long. I’d finally done it.
I quit my job, gave notice on my house, sold all my possessions and booked myself a flight to Cairo.
Cycling the continent of Africa was hard, harder than I could ever have imagined. In Sudan the daytime temperature reached over 50 degrees, in Ethiopia we climbed mountains over 5000m, in Namibia and Tanzania there were no roads for thousands of miles. I got sick; I was bitten by a spider; I was run over. I broke three ribs, had five stitches and had my leg lanced and drained in the back of a truck. Cycling was hard and 12,000km is an unimaginably long way. And yet, every day I was smiling. How could I not? The desert was serene, the mountains sublime, the night sky filled with stars and there were elephants and giraffes on the side of the road. Every day was the best day of my life.
Four months later I was cycling towards Table Mountain, my bike, my legs, my body still operating, and my mind as happy as it had ever been. I’d seen the world. I’d done what I dreamed of doing.
This is wrote in my diary that night:
The tour cycling existence is one of perfect liberation – no bills, no work, no responsibilities, no hours or days – which leaves only two things to discover – Africa and yourself. While you are experiencing the former it’s amazing how the latter comes out. If you are lucky, that person will be someone you like, and if you are even luckier other people will like it to.
I am lucky. I’ve found that person. I need to make sure I keep it, forever.
I didn’t do anything amazing – I just stayed true to myself, and did what I thought was right. Intuitively I knew who I was, but it took the something like the tour across Africa to remind me of this.
When I got home and I booked myself into the London Marathon and applied to break the world record for a marathon dressed as a dinosaur. A year later I was running past Buckingham Palace in a full body Tyrannosaurus Rex outfit, while a woman from Guinness waited with TV Cameras and a certificate. For some reason it didn’t feel that strange.
Now I have new dreams and new ideas. I’m about to cycle the Camino de Santiago in Spain and next year I’m looking to cycle from Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet. Everyone has dreams, but so many times we tell ourselves that we can’t do what we need to do to achieve them. I know now that those limits don’t exist and it’s only when we live those dreams that we really feel alive.