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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 January 2021

Jordan Wylie: the man who has run through Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia

The former soldier has also just rowed across the Bab Al Mandeb Strait – just don't call him an adrenaline junkie

Jordan Wylie recently became the first person in history to row the most dangerous strait of water in the world. Courtesy Jordan Wylie
Jordan Wylie recently became the first person in history to row the most dangerous strait of water in the world. Courtesy Jordan Wylie

Jordan Wylie is keen to stress that he is not an “adrenalin junkie”. This, I have to say, is hard to believe. The former soldier, 36, recently became the first person to row solo across the Bab Al Mandeb Strait ­between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Often described as the most dangerous stretch of water on the planet, it is busy with oil tankers and ­teeming with pirates. “People told me you couldn’t do it, that it’s impossible,” says Wylie, triumphantly.

His latest book, Running for My Life, recounts the long-distance races he ran last year in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, all countries he has previously worked or served in. Wylie endured 45-degree heat and dehydration. He risked treading on landmines in Iraq and being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The 10-kilometre run in Somalia had to be relocated from Mogadishu to Somaliland when a suicide bomber killed 600 people in the capital just before Wylie’s arrival.

“I saw more guns and bullets in my 48 hours in ‘The Mog’ than I saw anywhere else in the last five years on my travels,” Wylie wrote on his blog in February. The man who advised Wylie not to do the run in Mogadishu, a hotel manager called Abdifatah Abdirashid, was killed a few months later in another suicide attack.

Wylie, who suffers from epilepsy, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro barefoot and next year, he will attempt to run a marathon in both the North and South Pole. But he’s not an adrenaline junkie? Really? “I wouldn’t say I buzz off taking risks,” he explains at the Sharjah International Book Fair. “I wouldn’t say I’m reckless at all. The buzz for me is the impact of the adventure. The adventure is interesting, it’s cool, it’s a short-term fix. But it’s about the impact. All of my adventures have a charitable narrative to them.”

Wylie has so far raised more than £1 million (Dh4.7 million) for charities, including War Child and Unicef. Having served with the British Army in Iraq in 2005 and 2007, he has seen first-hand the devastating effects of conflict, particularly for children (one in nine children are raised in conflict zones worldwide), and has suffered from mental health problems himself. “Let’s shine a spotlight on a region of the world that’s suffering. Let’s try and help the children,” he says. “The way to shine that spotlight is to do something a bit crazy. How many people have run marathons? Lots. How many people have been to war zones? Lots. But not a lot of people have run marathons in war zones.

All the expeditions and adventures that I do, they help me as much as the people I’m helping," he continues. "It helps me from a mental health perspective. I think when you leave the military, you lose that sense of purpose, pride and belonging. You’re looking for that again, every veteran out there is looking to find that again."

Echoes of Wylie’s experiences as a soldier in Iraq haunted him as he ran the half marathon through Baghdad. There were tanks in the streets, war memorials and soldiers standing at checkpoints. “It fuelled me to keep going,” says Wylie. “I was tired pretty quickly, but you’re thinking: ‘Well, actually, I’m still here, I’m still breathing.’ There are people who would do anything for one more breath or one more moment with their family. So what am I worrying about? Giving up, when people have made the ultimate sacrifice? Get on with it, keep going, one foot in front of the other. I never worry about finishing times, I worry about finishing lines.”

The real challenge, though, was not physical but logistical. The potential security threat was so high, each run took months of planning. “As a white, western former soldier, you’re quite a high-profile target,” says Wylie. “You need the PR and media support, but it’s a double-edged sword because everyone knows what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. The Taliban, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda – everyone wants to have a pop.”

There are people who would do anything for one more breath or one more moment with their family. So what am I worrying about? Giving up, when people have made the ultimate sacrifice?

Jordan Wylie

Wylie understands these threats better than most. After leaving the army because of a back injury, he entered the world of maritime security. While working on the security team for an oil tanker passing through the Gulf of Aden – or “Pirate Alley” – Wylie was taken hostage by Somali pirates, an experience he recounted in his 2017 book Citadel. “To me, a pirate was Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow,” he wrote. “Certainly not a skinny African kid, in a sweaty T-shirt and grubby trainers, headphones in his ears. But those skinny kids were the pirates of the 21st century. Not remotely entertaining. In fact, no laughs at all.”

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Wylie’s plans to travel from Kabul to Bamiyan, where the marathon was taking place, were unexpectedly disrupted. All domestic flights were grounded after a suicide bomb in Kabul killed two airline staff. In desperation, Wylie emailed the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service to ask if he could squeeze onto one of their aeroplanes. “They said: ‘Yeah, you can have a seat, but we don’t know when the plane will come back,’” he says. “So we jumped on the plane and I stayed with the local people there.”

For all the tales of derring-do, all the fear and the exhaustion, it is the hospitality of the people Wylie encountered along the way that has left the deepest impression. He is determined that his adventures help to redefine the reputation of these countries in the eyes of the West. Think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia and we tend to think of rolling news coverage of tanks, mass protests and the aftermath of terrorist attacks. But this is only part of the story.

“In all three countries, people took me into their homes, let me stay with them,” says Wylie. “You wouldn’t find a stranger in the UK inviting you in for a coffee and saying: ‘Do you want to stay in the spare room?’ And that’s all I received throughout.”

Wylie even forgives the Somali pirates who took him hostage all those years ago. “Breaking away from the media narrative, pirates aren’t all bad guys,” he says. “There are high levels of unemployment [in Somalia]. The West and Far East have been stealing fish out of their waters, dumping toxic waste, destroying their economy. But no one wants to talk about that, they want to talk about the pirates that hijacked the ship.”

These sorts of prejudices and preconceived ideas are increasingly prevalent. Wylie recalls an interview he did with the BBC soon after he returned from the marathon in Afghanistan. The reporter suggested that it was reckless of Wylie to travel to Afghanistan. “Well actually, no,” he says. “I saw lots of kindness and acts of humanity. [But] when I switched on the news in the UK, I saw there had been three stabbings here and two shootings there, knife crime was through the roof. I’ve seen more bad things in the UK than I have in those countries in the last year.”

Wylie now hopes that the alternative picture presented in Running for My Life will have just as much impact on the countries he visited as the money raised for charity. “We know these are dangerous countries, and that there have been wars and conflict,” he says. “But what we need to see is some of the positives that these countries offer, the natural beauty and landscapes. The Band-e Amir National Park would be included in holiday magazines’ top 10 places to visit if it weren't in Afghanistan.”

I still think I’ll probably leave the marathons to him, though.

Running for My Life by Jordan Wylie is out now, published by Biteback Publishing

Updated: November 11, 2019 05:59 PM

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