“I’m a simple person. Dream It. Plan it. Do it.”
- Jukka Viljanen
What does determination mean to you? Could it be the willingness to be a better person every day? Or, forcing yourself to work doubly hard at your job to rise up in the ranks for better pay? We hear success stories like these often enough - but then there are individuals like Jukka Viljanen. Jukka left a lucrative career in Media & Marketing in order to learn the ways and means of becoming a full-fledged adventure runner. And that, as fellow endurance runner David Goggins would say, is a determination to be uncommon amongst uncommon people.
An adventurer who has traversed many landscapes, Jukka’s latest venture is to run solo across Rub’ al Khali, the idea of which actually germinated back in 2014. However, planning a running expedition is not a straightforward affair - years passed while waiting for the necessary permissions to come through amidst capricious officials and broken promises. In 2020 after conquering a 600km trek in Greenland, he was ready for Rub’ al Khali when the pandemic forced a postponement. After borders began to open, Jukka realized his vision to be in the desert, but yet again, tragedy struck - within three days of running he felt his knee starting to give out beneath him, and the entire run had to be abandoned.
At this point, virtually any 58 year-old adventurer may take these as warning signs from nature, hinting that it’s ‘time to hang up one’s boots’. Not Jukka - as I write this, plans are already in place for another attempt to conquer Rub’ al Khali come January 7th 2023.
My conversation with Jukka was insightful, humbling, and refreshingly casual; I got the impression that he was more youthful than a 25-year old but as wise as a revered monk. As our newest BOLDR Ambassador, Jukka will be accompanied by a brand new Expedition Rub’ al Khali as he navigates 1300 kilometers through unforgiving sand & dune terrain.
Tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Espoo, Finland. Back then it was quite a rural area so we had plenty of room to run around as kids. My father was a business executive and my Mum was a homemaker, so she had her work cut out with my brother & I. Today I still live in Espoo but in the National Park area, close to the great lake highlands.
Were you a good student in school?
I wasn’t interested in school much at all, but I managed to do my matriculation somehow. I then went to study abroad in the Schiller International University in Heidelberg, Germany. That’s where I got my Bachelor’s in International Business & Economics (BBA). After that I came back to Finland and worked for companies like 3M, which again I did not quite enjoy - especially the taking orders part. Then I moved to the Media & Advertising industry for about 10 years doing various jobs like sales manager, marketing manager, etc. I also did a small stint in a Helsinki-based ad agency for a year.
How did you find adventurer running as a passion & profession?
I got quite fed up with my work - the hierarchy, repetitive meetings, and getting bored easily. My love for running actually started back in university. At the time I was quite the ‘party animal’, voted Most Rambunctious Person in the yearbook. I had many hangovers and didn’t really pay attention to my classes; that carried on long enough until one day I decided to actively make running a part of my life again. I always ran with my father as a kid and was pretty sporty - cross country skiing, ice hockey, tennis, badminton, you name it. So, after being disillusioned and nearing 40 years of age, I took an active stance on running and worked towards my dream of being a professional runner.
When I started, my friends told me I was crazy, of course. Giving up a good salary, company car, and all the creature comforts. But it was a deep desire, plus my wife supported my decision so I went for it. I approached a running magazine in Finland to offer my experience in Media & Marketing which could help their sales and distribution. I worked with them for free while absorbing as much as possible about being a runner. After almost 2 years my hard work began paying off, and I began receiving some cheques, eventually becoming a co-owner of the magazine. I spent a total of 16 years with them.
Can you trace your love for adventure back to childhood?
I’ve always been curious about history and read books about explorers like Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, to name a few. I guess I felt “if they can do it, so can I”.
It’s really about having fun as well. I don’t go anywhere unless I really feel like it. I went to the North Pole, Antarctica, Rub’ al Khali, Sahara Desert, etc. because of a genuine passion for knowing the land and the people. Going to those places has given me a lifetime of memories, experiences and friends, from desert tribes in Saudi Arabia and Africa to the Inuits in Greenland.
Why begin your expedition career at the North Pole?
Back in 2006, I was browsing the internet and saw a picture in a magazine showing a near-frozen man running in snow shoes, and it struck me like a thunderbolt. I simply had to go where he was. The accompanying article was about an ultra-level race happening called the North Pole Marathon organized by Richard Donovan. I excitedly told my wife Kirsi that I was going there, and she casually replied “Ok” (laughs).
I called Richard the next day and tried to negotiate my way into the marathon. I couldn’t get into that one, but he offered me a half running, half biking marathon that was coming up, covering 84km in minus 30 degrees (Celcius) weather. To get there, I took a 5-hour flight from Spitsbergen, and then another short flight in a Russian Antonov An-74 plane. I remember the landing being very bumpy.
We first ran a 10km loop 4 times, and that took me 4 hours and 32 minutes before moving on to the biking stage of the marathon. That went on for over 3 hours and that was really difficult with my feet being stationary. I lost feeling in my toes - and that’s a very scary feeling. Luckily I didn’t lose any toes, just faced extreme exhaustion. Afterwards, I was carried to the mess tent where a nurse helped me recuperate.
How long did it take for you to recover and go on another expedition?
Just a couple of weeks or so. I just let the body do its healing and was back on my feet relatively soon. I then wanted to go somewhere warm like the Sahara Desert, and I ended up in the Libyan section of the desert for a 200 km non-stop ultra race. They give you a map and you need to find checkpoints every 20-25 kms. I got lost many times (laughs), the sand was harsh and gave me blisters, the nighttime cold was freezing, but eventually I made it to the finish line. I wasn’t too happy about my performance but I’m glad I stuck through it because many lessons were learnt.
How did you keep yourself going in the scorching heat?
Basically just that - keep going. One foot in front of the other. Not a single thought was in my head. I experienced hallucinations at a few instances; I knew I wasn’t quite sane when I saw Finnish rabbits in the Libyan Desert (laughs). I was quite careless, actually - not emptying my shoes of sand, not eating at regular intervals, no race plan whatsoever. I learned a lot in hindsight about keeping my feet safe from abrasions, and how to eat better, etc. Thus I was much better prepared to cross the entire Sahara Desert four years later (see below).
How was your experience in Antarctica?
That was an interesting Christmas in 2008. I did a 100 km run with 3 other participants that I had met in Punta Arenas, Chile (before flying to Antarctica). Most of the other attendees chose to run the marathon organized by ALE Company, but four of us took a different path. After the marathon, we got stuck there for longer than expected due to bad weather, which is why Christmas was celebrated with lots of laughter and ski trips near the American Patriot Hills Base Camp.
How do you decide where to go next?
Well I just wanted to keep realizing my dreams to do full crossings over deserts and ice caps, but I could not find anyone who would organize such trips. So, I began organizing them on my own.
In 2010, we set off for the Kalahari Desert. We came through Botswana with my wife and a great friend I met in Antarctica, Greg Maud. In Antarctica, he was looking to conquer Mount Winson while the rest of us were running in the cold. Later I visited him in Johannesburg, we talked about our next adventure and decided on the Kalahari Desert.
We had a local navigator called Chris Crewdson driving our supplies and guiding us. We had loads of fun running through small villages, meeting nomads who were very curious about us - they even started running alongside us at one point! I felt like Forrest Gump. During my last 50km in the Kalahari, I vowed to run across the entire Sahara Desert next.
Tell us about your Sahara Desert adventure.
I did a solo run over 31 days from North to South Sahara, a total of 1,628 km. We started at a village called Tan Tan, which is close to the Atlas Mountains; the dividing line between urban Morocco and the desert. I had a crew of 3 guys from Finland, 2 of which were from the Special Forces. The third person was a technical advisor who took care of the satellite and communication devices.
We had to have a local crew for security in the desert, as it was a politically unstable time in the surrounding countries. They kept an eye on us up till Mauritania, after which another team took their place. I also had an escort of armed guards that followed me from Mauritiana all the way to Senegalese border. With these technicalities in place, I was able to run a good distance each day and had a good night’s sleep in our spacious bedouin tent at night.
As I mentioned before, running across the Libyan desert 4 years earlier helped me a great deal to prepare and keep myself motivated, resulting in the best event I ever had up to that point. I was really happy with the overall outcome
Do you listen to music to accompany you on the daily 50+ km runs?
No music, just me and my thoughts. I just let my mind do its thing and try to keep myself in a positive state.
Have you ever had adventures closer to us in Asia?
Yes, around ten years ago I did a short stint in Pokhara, near Kathmandu as tour guide to the locals in the National Park. It was really fun, Kathmandu is a lively place with a lot of noise. Pokhara is calmer with a big lake, and I enjoyed my time there very much.
In 2019 you ran across the ice sheets of Greenland. What was that experience like?
I knew of the Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen who was the first person to reach the ice caps via sledge in Greenland, so I asked myself why not cross on foot? My friend Greg (Maud) was game to join me, so we made the necessary plans and geared up to start from Isortoq in 2013.
We had a Danish guide with us named Jens Erik, who was meant to ski alongside us while Greg and I ran. Unfortunately after a day, one of Jens Erik’s skis broke, so he had to be pulled on a sledge until we set up camp. He had a bad time as the cold gets to you quicker when the body is not moving,
After 5 days of running, we camped as we always did. During the evening, Jens Erik was unfortunately hit by carbon monoxide poisoning in his tent. Luckily we found out that same evening and were able to recover him. However, we knew that we could not continue with him and thus it was best to abandon the expedition. Before that we faced a 5 day storm caused by Piteraq; merciless bouts of wind that attack you at high speeds and can be fatal. We waited 5 days for the storm to blow over and trekked a further 3 days back to Isortoq.
These are the kinds of incidents that adventurers should be prepared for, it can happen to virtually anyone.
I went back alone later in 2019, covering just under 600 km. While I was chugging away on foot, I remember thinking “I really should have brought my skis” (laughs). I did make it to the ice cap though, so I was happy.
What’s the most unconventional meal you’ve eaten on your travels?
I met some Kalahari bushmen who offered me some seed-looking things, which I ate out of courtesy. To this day, I still have no idea what it was. I’ve also tried seal meat and polar bear meat that was offered by the families I stayed with - it tasted ok (not mind-blowing) but it was offered genuinely by people who don’t have much.
What’s animal are you most afraid of?
Puff adders. I spotted about 16 in one day at the Kalahari, which is probably what made me run faster. They’re pretty relaxed if you don’t step on them, but I’m not a fan.
Which countries are you most keen to visit next?
I really like South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. The people I met there were just so welcoming and interesting; it would be really nice to see them again.
What has running thousands of kms alone taught you about the nature of consciousness?
‘Stuff’ is not meaningful; places and people are meaningful. I value that, and also find tremendous value in durable goods that have some quality, over any kind of expensive & flashy stuff.
What do you think happens when we die?
No idea, but It would be a great adventure for sure!
I’d say the story of Ernest Shackleton and his ship Endurance. It’s a great read about leadership, friendship, and survival.
What do you love most about people?
Friendliness and loyalty.
What characteristics do you despise?
The opposite. I can gauge whether I like someone by asking myself, “Would I take this person with me on an expedition?” (laughs).
Any last thoughts for our readers?
You owe it to yourself to live life to the fullest.