It will come as no surprise that, given the cover of 220 Triathlon’s issue 401 and the images below, Jonas Deichmann has been renamed ‘the German Forrest Gump’.
In 14 Hollywood-mirroring months, the 34-year-old from Stuttgart cultivated a Gump-esque beard after swimming, cycling and running across the planet and collecting a fan group of runners as he crossed Mexico.
But just who is Jonas Deichmann? And whatever possessed him to take on such a feat?
Who is Jonas Deichmann?
Multiple world-record holder, speaker and adventurer, Deichmann first caught the adventure bug in university, when he completed a two-year, around-the-world bikepacking journey. Ever since, he’s thrown himself into extreme, record-breaking endurance challenges.
In 2017, he became the first cyclist in history to ride across Eurasia, travelling the entire 14,331km landmass of Europe and Asia from west to east in just 64 days.
The next year, Deichmann cycled 23,000km across the Americas in 97 days, from the Arctic Ocean in north Alaska to Argentina’s Ushuaia, AKA the ‘End of the World’.
Ever restless, Deichmann then completed an ambitious Cape to Cape expedition in 2019, cycling 18,000km from Norway’s Cape North to Cape Town in South Africa, overcoming violent conflicts, food poisoning and police harassment to complete his mission 72 days later – that’s an average of 250km a day.
Yearning for an even more extreme challenge and undeterred by a pandemic, Jonas set his sights on the gold standard for adventurers – a human-powered, aroundthe-world trip.
Aiming to complete the equivalent of 120 Iron-distance triathlons in just one year, Deichmann departed Munich on 26 September 2020, on an epic journey that would involve swimming 460km along the Croatian coast, battling a Siberian winter on the bike and surviving a brutal 5,000km run across Mexico. In short, the ultimate test of human endurance.
So, over to Herr Forrest himself, as he relives the tri to end all tri’s…
Swim, bike and run around the world
Day one: It begins
From the Odeonsplatz in Munich we cycle with good company in the pouring rain. It’s actually still the end of summer here, but somehow, it’s started like it’ll end – in heavy snowfall and floods.
Reaching the Adriatic Sea at Karlobag marks the start of the swim leg. I’ve never really swum in the open sea, and never with a raft. My training was swimming 60km across Lake Constance.
And already on day one, I’ve figured out that the sea is something very, very different. There’s the salt water, currents, wind… the first few days turn out to be hell.
I always think that if you can swim for one day, you can also swim 460km, it just takes a bit longer. But ever since day one, I’ve struggled heavily with open wounds from the wetsuit, everything’s super-painful especially in the neck and arms. I can’t drink anything apart from water.
The scariest moment I’ve ever had in my life happens a week into my swim leg, during a big crossing. Usually I swim along the shore, but at one point, I have to cross over to the island of Pag. It’s extremely scary; there’s around seven kilometres of open water to cross. There are boats too, so it’s dangerous.
This is my very first crossing, and… I’ve miscalculated. There are some currents I didn’t know about. As it begins to get dark, I find myself in the middle of the sea, far away from the coast, completely alone. I didn’t plan to swim in the dark, so there’s no lights on my raft. Eventually I make it, scared but alive.
Day 60: Back to the bike
A lot of triathletes say it, that the best moment of the triathlon is when you get out of the water, and for me it’s absolutely true. After 54 days, I end my short but successful swimming career, and I’m just happy to be back on the bike.
While I’ve been swimming, the second coronavirus wave has started across Europe, so suddenly everything is very uncertain. I set off from Dubrovnik with company from Marcus my cameraman and Ivan, who swam with me yesterday.
We soon pass the border into Montenegro, which is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries. It takes me about two days for the legs to adapt. I struggle a bit on the climbs at first. But the body remembers and I’m soon in shape.
The countryside’s particularly beautiful in the high mountains along Lake Skadar, shortly before we reach Albania. The few locals we pass are super nice and everyone waves us on our way to North Macedonia. We start to get a lot of snow and it becomes super cold.
The first big challenge is that I need to do a PCR test now to cross every border. And the border between North Macedonia and Bulgaria’s 1,300m high.
I’m stood at the border and it’s -10°C at night. I did my Covid test in the capital of Skopje yesterday, before cycling up to the border. But the test [result] didn’t arrive. I wait for four hours before finally I’m allowed into Bulgaria, and can cycle down the mountain.
Day 72: The waiting game
The situation looks pretty bad when I get into Istanbul, but I still have some hope of getting a special permit into Russia thanks to my political connections. It quickly becomes clear that there’s no special permit for now, everything’s closed.
Strangely, there’s a lockdown in Turkey on the weekends, but only for the Turkish people because they want to protect the tourism industry. Tourists and foreigners can do whatever they want! It’s bizarre and the only country I’ve ever heard doing this.
I decide to go south and wait it out, so I cycle out of Istanbul on a 12-lane highway, in one of the biggest cities in the world, which is usually always completely traffic jammed. But I’m cycling in the middle of the road, with no cars in sight. It’s like riding out of London on the main roads at 5pm, alone.
Seven weeks later, and I get a special permit and sports visa from the Russian Triathlon Union and Olympic Committee. I get back on the bike and turn back into Bulgaria and Romania, through Moldova and the separatist province of Transnistria, which is a self-declared republic that’s not internationally recognised. Here, they still believe that the Soviet Union exists. It’s a pretty strange place.
From here, I continue onto Ukraine, and after another 10 days waiting and a letter from the Russian Minister of Interior (somehow, I’ve gotten into high politics), I’m finally allowed to cross the Russian border. Now it’s just one country, no borders, and I’ll be at the Pacific.
Day 172: A Siberian Winter
To be honest, cycling through Russia’s just horrible. This is the most dangerous place you can be in the world as a cyclist because there’s no infrastructure. There’s too much traffic and the trucks don’t respect you. It’s super, super dangerous.
For this reason, I decide to take very small roads through western Russia, and often get completely stuck in the snow. Everyday there’s another bad surprise. Storms, blizzards, and long distances on the bike.
After a couple of weeks, I make it across the Ural Mountains and from there it’s just the same one road – the Tran Siberian Highway – all the way to Vladivostock and the Sea of Japan.
The further east I get, the less traffic I see, and the more nature emerges. Things get more interesting after Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, that’s where the wilderness of Russia starts. And it’s just incredible.
Arriving at the massive Lake Baikal, I first make a hole into the lake with stones and go ice swimming. Then, I make a fire next to the lake and camp out, right there in the middle of the ice. It’s one of the best nights ever.
Around 800km later, after 10 hours in the -10°C snowy rain and cold and a remote stretch of 200km with only one house, I reach a place called Mogotcha. It’s the middle of nowhere. Even the Russians say, ‘God created Sochi, and the devil created Mogotcha’.
There’s a military checkpoint here, and if you really did something bad, they could send you to Mogotcha. It’s the place where nobody wants to be. Now I know why.
Coming to the end of the bike leg’s incredible. Vladivostok’s a really beautiful place and my favourite city in Russia. Originally, I wanted to sail across the Pacific. But upon reaching Vladivostock it becomes clear that this isn’t going to happen, there’s not a single sailing boat on the entire Russian Pacific coast. So, I make a choice and pay to carbon-offset a flight to Mexico, from there the run begins.
Day 262: Hello Mexico
The first few marathons are absolute hell. At this point, I haven’t run for seven months because I’ve been busy cycling and swimming.
Setting off from Tijuana with a local called Leonardo, it takes me five days for the muscles to gradually adapt, but after this I start feeling stronger with each step.
At this point, no one knows me. I’m running alone most days and absolutely loving it. Baja California’s full of beautiful desert and beaches.
I’m able to find the perfect sleeping spots everywhere, often behind cactus trees. It’s simply amazing. I start to get into regional news, running along this one road, but I’m not national news. Not yet.
Five weeks later and I cross over from La Paz to the mainland. I’ve been running in dry 40°C heat, but here it’s humid and everything is green. From desert to rainforest. Sinaloa is narcos country, it’s very different.
I immediately started to climb from the coast for safety reasons, through the Sierra Madre mountains. In one climb I go from sea level to 2,800m.
A local drugs cartel controls this area and they’re waiting for me. One moment I’m running up a mountain, and the next two guys on motorbikes come towards me with guns. They say, “Jonas, welcome, we’re already waiting for you. We’re the bosses here and you don’t have to worry”. They want to take a selfie with me. The local drugs cartel.
Five days later, I meet La Coqueta. She’s a street dog and she doesn’t stop following me for 130km, sleeping outside my tent at night. I can’t get rid of her.
In Durango I manage to arrange for adoption in her hometown of El Salto, where she’s made an honorary member of the community. She’s national news. And the next day, I am too. They’re calling me the ‘German Forrest Gump’. From that day on, I was never alone again.
Day 328: The German Forrest Gump
At the beginning, the crowd’s pretty motivating. But then, it gets busier and crazier. It’s something that would never happen in Europe, but this is Mexico.
Coming into Mexico City, I’ve got nine police pick-ups in front of me and an armoured car with a machine gun on the top. Eleven police motorbikes are up ahead, blocking the traffic on the main road to a city with millions of people, just so that I can run through. In Germany, even our president doesn’t get this kind of service.
In Mexico, I’m fed a lot of exotic dishes, scorpion for example. And in Oaxcaca and Tchiapas, I eat different worms, they even offer me rat soup – that’s a soup with an entire rat swimming on top.
Entering the state of Oaxaca on day 345, I reach marathon 90. The next day I’m in the town of Juchitan. It’s here that the police get bored of driving at 10kmph after me, so an entire police force of 30 men decides to join in.
They’re not allowed to leave their guns behind, so they’re with their machine guns running next to me, singing songs. It’s pretty crazy.
In the end, it takes me 117 days to run 120 marathons, with no rest days. My dad and some friends join me for the last marathons, and coming into Cancun we get a big reception. It’s just incredible.
For me, in that moment, I knew I’d made it. The challenge was done…
Day 417: Final leg with a legend
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After cycling through Portugal I reach Spain, which is just incredible. In Girona, I ‘pick up’ [Olympic and Ironman world champion] Jan Frodeno. He invites me to his hotel to stay and the next day he joins me for 50km. It’s super fun, we talk a lot about motivation and mindset.
Day 427: A hero’s reception
It takes me just over three weeks to cycle from Portugal back to Munich. Coming into Munich in the snow, ice and cold, we finally reach the Odeonsplatz.
There’s a lot of people here and TV, I see parts of my family that I haven’t seen for a year. It’s a very special moment.
Plus, I can finally shave. I always say, ‘a big adventure needs a big beard’. But after 14 months, I’m happy for it to be gone.
Most projects fail before they even start because it’s always easier to stay in your comfort zone, to not take risks, to not change. In my case, I couldn’t swim. And with the Covid-19 pandemic, there were so many reasons why this was a bad idea.
The hardest thing’s always to get to the start line, but if you really believe you can do it, you will make it possible. If you have a dream, just do it. Do it now.
Top image credit: Markus Weinburg