“I had never understood depression. I had never understood anxiety. But then I experienced it myself, and I dealt with it almost like self-harm...through the pain of a physical challenge.”
This is how the documentary, An Act of Will, begins, which details how Will Goodge took on the challenge of running the length of the UK in 2019. Raising money for charity was the goal, but his reason for pushing his body to its absolute physical and emotional limit came from a deeper place of pain and loss. The film not only follows Will’s unrelenting focus to complete this seemingly impossible challenge, but also the grief he experienced from the recent loss of his mother to cancer. This loss was the reason Will took on such a pursuit, and the ultimate motivator to do whatever necessary to cross that finish line.
Over 16 days, Will covered more than 850 miles over Scotland and England, beginning at John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland and ending at The Lands’ End in Southern England.
After watching the film, I caught up with Will to hear firsthand about his experience. Considering we were 17,000kms apart, his openness and ambition to inspire was palpable, even via a glitchy Zoom call.
Will started by laying out the details of his training leading up to the challenge in August 2019. He had completed his first marathon 8 months before he set out from John O’Groats, and subsequently only went on to run a further two marathons and two ultra-marathons before the 850-mile challenge kicked-off. Now, he confidently admits he did not quite train enough.
“I was just trying to run as much as I could. I would never run less than 10kms. But I never did enough in training really. My strategy was not smart at all. I was still working and travelling between LA and London, which is not an excuse, but for whatever reason I just didn’t train as much as I could have. I just trusted I would figure it out, and mum would help me out along the way.”
In the end, Will averaged 55 miles per day, the equivalent of running just over two marathons. On his best day he ran 70 miles within a 24-hour period, and on what he calls his “worst day”, he ran 32 miles. No easy feat, even for a seasoned marathon runner.
It was a real challenge allowing his body to get used to the pain over the first couple of days. When recounting early days of the run, Will shares that Day Three was a game-changer.
“It went downhill on the third day; I was really struggling. My ankles and knees were super swollen. So, at this time I thought it was a good idea to take codeine...a very strong pain killer. In retrospect, it was a horrific idea. It was actually my mother’s medication; it was what she was taking during her therapy. Anyway, I read the packet, but in the end, [my support team and I] were all naïve to its effects. The packet said, ‘May Cause Drowsiness’ but I thought, I am going to be tired anyway and I am in a lot of pain.”
The pain and the emotional toll were not helped by the choice to go off course to avoid a dangerous part of the freeway in rural Scotland. Will and his team ended up leading themselves to a dead end, and Will then had to traverse through knee deep water multiple times, cross a paddock of sheep and navigate mole hills, leading to him subsequently rolling his ankle twice.
“When I got back to the road, you could say I was less than happy. It was the most aggravated I was on the entire trip. The support van eventually turned up and my friend and logistics manager, Josh, unfortunately took the brunt of my feelings that day. We essentially had to drive back to where I had originally set off from, meaning we'd wasted 3.5 hours that day.”
He continued, back on the freeway after his support team assessed his ankles and knees and applied bio freeze to slow the swelling.
“That was the toughest point of the whole trip. I questioned what I was doing, or what I was being told to do, because I thought it could jeopardise me the next day. I never thought I wouldn’t complete the trip, but when my ankle was blown up, I thought ‘damage limitation’ - I need to stop now so I can carry on tomorrow.”
“Even still, I begrudgingly carried on that day, and it really sucked. I do not think I ran much at all that day. We eventually came off the freeway and ended up on country roads. We passed a pub and the team went in to get me a vegan burger. You could say by this time I had a ‘runners high’, so I continued without them, but I was so dazed. I was falling asleep in the road as I was walking. I had taken the codeine earlier and I was hallucinating a lot too. It's like thinking back to a dream, I just remember lights passing by and cars swerving. One of them was a local delivery guy delivering a curry down the road, he passed the support crew and told them he nearly ran me over. He donated me a fiver and when I found out after they caught up to me, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.”
Despite Will somehow wanting to press on after the stop, his foot was so swollen it couldn’t fit inside his Hoka’s. So, while keeping on his socks and a 2XU calf sleeve, he donned a pair of white Birkenstocks and set off again into the night. After a mile hobbling in the slip-on sandals, his friend Josh called it for the day and made him get some rest.
Days later in the trip, Wills support team made the decision to take away the codeine as they could see that he was not himself.
“The whole premise was to run with the pain, but that’s exactly what I didn’t do. The drugs clouded me. To overcome the pain, I had to face the pain. That was my reality. What I had to face was the breakdown from the glossy exterior that I’m handling things well, that I’m okay, when really, I’m not. To be able to show that, is true strength.”
Reflecting on what he discovered on the trip, Will believes that he learnt most about his resilience and what the human body is capable of.
“The best thing about this is that eleven or so people ran at least a marathon distance with me on this trip, and these people probably would have never run a marathon distance had it not been for this. The lesson in this is that I am capable to do more than I think I can do. Human endeavour is insane. My brother Alex ran the whole last day with me. He had never run more than 10 miles. On that day, he ran 45 miles with me.”
In the final 5 miles of the run, Will was joined by his father and support crew Josh and Robbie.
"The whole trip I just wanted it to be over, but on that day and in those last 5 miles, I never wanted it to end. I felt like I was losing something by finishing. I was losing this little team we had, losing not having to make decisions for myself, other than to keep going.”
During the trip, the emotional connection Will had forged with end destination of Lands’ End grew and grew. He likened the build-up to when he needed to prepare himself for his mum’s funeral.
“During the whole trip, I would get emotional when I thought about finishing at Lands' End. I gave a speech at my Mum’s funeral, and the night before when I was thinking about it and trying to write I was just crying in hysterics. I couldn’t even get three words out when I tried to practice. But when it came to the time and in the moment of delivering the speech, I delivered it well, because I did it for her.”
“When I arrived at my final destination for the run, I had friends and family there all crying, but I actually felt happy. I was very proud to do this in her name and I never would have done anything like this, or even gotten into ultra-running, if it weren’t for my mother.”
Will ended up raising over £20,000 for Save the Children.
You can watch his documentary on YouTube below:
What’s next from the larger than life ultra-runner from Bedfordshire? In the summer of 2020 in the UK, he plans to raise awareness and money for mental health charities by running a marathon in all 48 counties of the UK, all within 30 days. The final marathon will be the London Marathon on October 4th 2020. With an original plan to run a marathon in every European country within 30 days, the current global situation has altered his goal, but not his ambition. Will’s Finish Line may have changed, but his journey to test the limits of the human mind and body continue.