IT WAS around 40 degrees in Kerang when Ruslan Shakin jogged into town pushing a pram one Tuesday afternoon in January.
The 38-year-old Russian, who lives in Los Angeles, was approximately 3000km into a 4300km journey from Perth to Sydney, which he deliberately embarked on in the hottest months.
“I wanted to feel the thirst,” says Mr Shakin, who is running to raise money for a charity that builds clean water projects in 24 countries, mostly in Africa.
“I knew it was the hardest time of year and would be very challenging. I wanted to feel myself what those people feel. Because we in the First World countries, we don’t really feel it, we don’t really know. You just turn the faucet on and the water is there.”
In the Royal Hotel two blokes come over to give the runner cash donations, and others greet him warmly and offer encouragement.
Parked in a corner, his bulging pram contains all his equipment and bears a sign explaining the mission.
Everything he needs for the journey – from clothes to tent to tins of beans – he pushes.
There is no support crew, which probably explains a fundraising total of just $US1400 so far.
“I didn’t have that much media coverage,” Mr Shakin says. “Ceduna was the first time after Perth pretty much – in almost 2000km. They call it Nullarbor-ing for a reason I guess.”
Travelling at between 5 and 10 km an hour – and running 80 per cent of the time, the “ultra-runner” – the term describes someone tackling distances greater than marathon length – averages around 50km a day.
“In December it was 53.9km on average. Now I slow down a bit because of the heatwave.”
This is his second epic run, and it wasn’t originally planned as a charity mission, Mr Shakin said.
That came about after he extended his horizons on the first one.
“I started running three and a half, almost four years ago,” he said. “I’d never run before. I wanted to run a marathon. It was a bucket list item and I wanted to do it before I was 35.”
After going on to stair-climb all the major American skyscrapers and complete a 100-mile race, the former university exchange student set his sights on Japan.
“I’d never been to Japan. I always wanted to visit it. I loved Japanese food and culture and had a few Japanese friends.”
The visit was unusual, to say the least.
“I ran the length of Japan from the northernmost point to the southernmost point, from Cape Sōya to Cape Sata.”
“If you go there and rent a car, you’ll go from one tourist attraction to another and you’re not going to see how people live, what they’re about. When you run you can see every kilometer,” he said.
The journey, which took 53.5 days, was pure personal challenge.
But close to the end of it he found a bigger motivation.
“When I was finishing up running across Japan I listened to this book Thirst, by Scott Harrison, which just came out, and it inspired me to do it for water projects.”
“Six hundred and sixty-three million people in the world live without clean water. One water project costs about $10,000 and it provides a community of up to 300 people with clean water access. It could be a water filtration system, it could be a water pump.”
A trans-Australian challenge was always on the agenda.
But after tuning in to water issues and making contact with Scott Harrison, who founded NGO ‘charity: water’, Mr Shakin refocused his purpose.
“What’s good about charity: water in comparison to other charities is that 100 per cent goes directly to water projects. For their overhead expenses such as salaries they have people who donate separately.”
“Thirty American dollars can provide clean water for one person for about five years.”
The runner finished the Japan journey in November and started his Australian epic the same month, this time with a fundraising agenda.
Despite what people imagine, the day-to-day experience of it can be pretty banal, Mr Shakin says.
“Honestly what I think about is how I feel – am I thirsty or not, am I hungry or not, how far have you come so far, how far do you have to go. Sometimes you just run and listen to the steps and you’re just in the zone. They call it the runner’s high.”
“I went through quite a few heat waves but the hardest was probably from Renmark to Mildura. I literally felt like I was running in a pool with hot water in it. The air was so heavy, like water, and it was hot. When I was drinking my water I felt I could brew coffee without heating it up. But you have to drink it because you have no other water.”
“People will stop and give me water sometimes. Road trains hardly ever stop because it will take them a long time. Ninety-nine per cent of people are very decent. But one woman had like a panic attack because I left my pram parked on the side of the road and went to take a picture. When I came back she’d got out of her car and was looking at the pram. She was sort of screaming at me, ‘I thought it was a baby!’ That wasn’t a pleasant experience.
But other aspects of the journey are positive on a personal level.
“It teaches you a lot when you run every day. It teaches you to be happy about small things as well. We are so concerned about what’s going on with our emotions and stuff, but deeper down it’s not that much that a human being needs to be happy.”
Quite a few people on the journey had talked water with him in Australia, Mr Shakin said, but he wasn’t well versed yet in the problems of the Murray Darling Basin.
A couple of blokes had seen his sign and pulled up but driven away when they heard his water charity wasn’t an Australian one, he said.
On 9am on Thursday morning his GPS tracker showed Ruslan Shakin stopped in Gunbower, 50-odd kilometres from Kerang, possibly enjoying a big egg breakfast before hitting the road.
With another 1000km ahead, including the slopes of Mt Kosciuszko, he would need all the energy he could get.
After arriving in Sydney, Mr Shakin plans to head straight to New Zealand and carry on working towards his $6000 fundraising target, he said.
With half the money raised going to fund his journey, that figure will provide water for 1000 people, he said.
“I think it’s a human right to have clean water access in any country. And come on, it’s 2019, it’s the 21st century!”