How many counties do you think there are in England? Take a moment.
If you guessed a number a fair bit lower than 48, you’re not alone. John Clark reckoned ‘around 25, 30 at a push,’ which wouldn’t be that embarrassing except for the fact that he’d just announced at a friend’s barbeque that he was going to run a marathon in every one.
The Worcester coach and gym owner, 35, was inspired by the 2008 film about Californian ultrarunner Dean Karnazes, UltraMarathon Man: 50 Marathons, 50 States, 50 Days. The realities of his homegrown challenge, to run 48 marathon distances in 48 consecutive days everywhere from Cumbria to Cornwall, were more prosaic. ‘Sometimes locals would suggest a beautiful mountain route, and I was absolutely not interested. I’d rather do loops around a car park,’ he says. It was never his plan to see the sights. The goal was to raise awareness of child food poverty in the UK and £48,000 for his charity that supports food banks, Miles4Meals.
At the time of writing he’s three-quarters of the way towards his fundraising target. The marathons finished on 21 August 2021 in his home county of Worcestershire, having started on 5 July in Northumberland. Surprisingly he was almost entirely self-supported, completing his distance each day and then somehow using those aching legs to drive himself back to one of a series of bases afterwards. He spent spells staying roughly in the middle of different ‘super regions’, as he puts it, driving to one of the six or seven surrounding counties for his daily 26.2. That meant he could spend the first few days at his mum’s in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and the final 10 days at home in Worcester, where he has lived since studying Sport Science at the university.
Few people really believed he could run. At school and in early adulthood he was a rugby star, rising to semi-professional level with Malvern before a scrum collapse fractured his neck in two places. He then switched to strongman competitions and won Britain’s Natural Strongest Man in 2015 and 2016. That means he was doing the same challenges you see bulging hulks doing on Channel 5 – pulling a fully loaded tractor and so on – but there’s a drug test at the finish. Then an injury to his patellar tendon put paid to his weight lifting too.
At his biggest he was consuming close to 7,000 calories a day and weighed 185kg (29 stone) which he doesn’t recommend. ‘Being that big is only useful for lifting heavy things. Everything else – tying your shoelaces, walking up stairs, getting in and out of a car – become major inconveniences.’
After retiring from the strongman world he lost a bit of weight and began to find that running was possible. In 2018 he completed a 10k race for charity, ‘Just to prove a few people wrong who said that I couldn’t do it,’ and here we are. When he started the 48 marathons he was 108kg (17 stone) and by the end he was 98kg (15.4 stone). ‘There’s a photo of me when I finished and I look like a withered old man in a child’s body,’ he says.
He’s often asked whether he has a greater tolerance for pain than most people, but says that isn’t what explains his achievements. ‘The body and mind are capable of far more than we give them credit for, and we often stop not because we need to, but because we want to,’ he explains. ‘It’s not about your ability to suffer. It’s about how much the reason for your suffering means to you. Ultimately, my “why” was incrediby strong because of my history growing up in food poverty.’
Around the time Clark was starting secondary school, his dad, a roofer, fell three storeys when some scaffolding collapsed, broke his back in multiple places and became paralyzed for the rest of his life. His mum had to stop work to become his dad’s full-time carer. ‘Benefits, food banks, you name it, we had to use it to get by,’ he says. ‘It was a Sunday treat to have butter on my toast. I was bullied at school because we had so little. I feel so passionate about this cause because we never ended up in that situation because my parents didn’t want to work. Life just dealt us a shitty hand, and there are so many people like that.’
Favouring practicality over scenery didn’t make the marathons much fun, but did allow for group participation and thus a wider spread of his message. He split his runs into repeated flat loops of 10k, meaning he didn’t have to carry much as he kept returning to his van, and anyone could join him without feeling too intimidated by the distance. He estimates over a thousand people ran with him during the challenge.
With the 48/48/48 ticked off, the fundraising goes on. In late March he’s doing the Marathon des Sables, then joining a team rowing across the Atlantic in December. He almost forgets to mention there’s an Iron Man in the mix too. But in between these extremes, there’s a simpler joy found in regular running.
‘I’m never going to set any records. Some days you feel like a baby rhino. But other days you feel like you’ve found a rhythm and you could run forever. You’ve found your happy place.’