Photographer and filmmaker William Woodward had met Tom Whittle while both men were doing what they loved: experiencing the outdoors. Whittle had been in the middle of a nine-month cycle tour the length of South America and had decided to take a week long break from the physical stress of the ride by, as only an endurance athlete would do, backpacking for week in the Patagonia backcountry. On the W-trek, he crossed paths with Woodward where the two men bonded over their love of outdoor adventure. They wound up spending the next three days hiking and camping together and a friendship was born.
When both returned home, the talked about different ideas that they could collaborate on to tell an adventure story. Woodward doesn’t remember when the idea of running across Iceland came up, but once it did, there was no turning back. There was only one problem. Whittle was not much of a runner. In his life, he had finished a couple 5k and 10k runs, and even a marathon five years earlier, but by no means was he a ultra runner. But once the idea was hatched, they couldn’t get their minds off it. To make it even more interesting, the team applied to make this a Guinness World Record attempt.
Whittle didn’t want to do this just for himself though. The 28-year old and his family suffered a devastating loss when Whittle’s nephew Sonny lost his battle to a rare form of cancer at just one year old. Whittle was determined to accomplish this challenging feat in Sonny’s name and to help raise awareness and donations for CLIC Sargent, a UK-based organization that supports families of children with cancer.
With all of the high level work done, the team started planning the details of the run. They would cover 450 miles of roads (both paved and dirt) as well as hiking trails. The Dyrhólaey lighthouse in the south was the desired starting point and the Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse in the north was where the team wanted to end their adventure.
When they arrived in Iceland, the typical Arctic weather already began to throw a wrench in their plans. Heavy rain had washed out a bridge just 80 miles from the starting point at the Dyrhólaey lighthouse that, if not repaired by the time the team got there, would end their quest for the Guinness World Record. Once the clock starts, there is no stopping it, even if your route is blocked. Making a last minute decision, they decided to flip the route and start at the Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse in the north and work their way south, which should give them enough time to arrive at the bridge after it was reopened. Once in the north, the team started the stopwatch and Tom Whittle began his run across the desolate Icelandic landscape.
The film is a beautiful look into the journey, and Woodward wrote an exceptional blog post about the details of the run over on the Backcountry website, who sponsored their ambassador’s bold attempt to run across Iceland on foot. The film is painful to watch at times, as us viewers can literally see the athlete’s body giving out throughout the course of the run. Even though they had brought multiple pairs of shoes for Whittle, they didn’t anticipate that his feet would grow over a full size throughout the journey due to the extensive swelling that running 40-50 miles a day would cause. But that wasn’t the only challenge the team faced, as the film shows, but they endured. Ten days, 13 hours, and 11 minutes after they started, Whittle channeled enough energy to jog across the final couple hundred feet to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse.
It is hard to put into words how inspiring this feat was, and especially for the reason why Whittle was compelled to achieve it. Eager to know more about the challenging journey, we sat down with Woodward to talk about this amazing accomplishment and his stunning film and photos that brought us along for the ride.
This story is truly remarkable. You have done some pretty cool stuff on your travels. Where does this adventure stack up?
This adventure was one of the most unique that I’ve been on. While many have an objective, few have had the cumulative number of moving pieces that we had to manage each day that this proved to challenge us with. This trip was also amazingly special in the goal, not just crossing Iceland, but honoring the passing of Sonny, Tom’s nephew.
At any point were you fearful that Tom wouldn’t be able to finish the route?
Absolutely. The first days were by far the hardest. The night before we were meant to start, the rain flooded the field we camped in, and continued on into the morning as we headed to our starting point. Whipping winds and cold rain chased us the entire first day, and by day three we were almost a full day behind our schedule. As Tom’s body adjusted slowly, the third day we were concerned that his knees wouldn’t hold out for the remainder. But each day we started he hobbled from his tent, ate breakfast in the truck, and began slowly down the path.
We can see in the film what the hardest parts for Tom was, but, as the filmmaker, what was the most challenging aspect of this record attempt?
We all shared many roles on this attempt. Mandy was in charge of logistics, Jason handled driving and most meal prep, and my main focus was filming and shooting, but that quickly changed to assisting during the transitions where Tom would need to change shoes or socks, as well as restocking food and water in his pack. We quickly realized that his feet would need medical attention each day, and that landed on my shoulders as well. As much as we wanted to document the journey, I was torn between the tasks that would help us towards the finish line and those that would allow us to do more than just write the story when it was finished.
What inspires you most about what Tom, and the team behind him, accomplished?
I think the most inspiring thing for me is how willing the team was to jump into the unknown. Tom wasn’t a long distance runner, we weren’t a trained support team. We all braved a lot during the trip that tested our limits to act at the edge of our comfort zones. It taught me to never assume that just because you may not have all the answers ahead of time, that it doesn’t mean that the risk isn’t worth taking. We learn the most about ourselves when we take a chance to find the limits to what we can accomplish.
The story is remarkable, and we applaud Whittle, Woodward and the addition team members Mandy Marr and Jason Sivyer for fighting off weather, pain, fatigue, and doubt to complete this challenge. And most importantly, to help raise awareness about childhood cancer and help support the families affected.
See the rest of the incredible photo essay below.