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From PTSD to “Fearvana”: Akshay Nanavati’s Quest to Run Across Every Country

This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Akshay Nanavati’s life story is a quest all in itself, but when we heard about his decision to run across every country in the world, I wanted to highlight this particular experience.

Tell us about yourself:

At age 13, I moved to the U.S. from India and almost immediately squandered away over a year of my life with drugs and alcohol. So I joined the Marines to leave that lifestyle behind, despite two doctors telling me I’d never survive boot camp (I have a blood condition called thalasemmia).

I not only survived, but found an inner strength I didn’t know I had, pushing myself and graduating with honors. But three years after I returned home from fighting in Iraq, the VA diagnosed me with PTSD. I chose not to abide by that label and instead created a new one for myself: Fearvana—a state of unity and bliss without fear that is only achieved through immersion in fear.

My quest is to run across every country in the world.

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Why did you decide to undertake your quest?

To reignite the fire in my spirit after getting so busy in the day-to-day grind of working I had lost sense of who I was.

To show that the human potential is truly limitless. I have flat feet, scoliosis and Thalassemia, and I am still successfully embarking on this endeavor because biology is not destiny.

To connect the people on this planet with each other and consequently put an end to conflict by creating a space for peace and community in this world.

To partner with numerous nonprofit organizations throughout the world and help them not only raise funds to continue their work, but to actually get on the ground and do the work with them as well.

Running across every country was not something I have always wanted to do, but this quest feels like the inevitable result of all my varied life experiences. Athletics has always been a great way to unite people from different worlds. The Olympics is a great example of this. Yes, people from different nations compete against each other, but there is a mutual respect and admiration for each other within this competition. So imagine how powerful it would be for people to see men, women and children from Palestine and Israel or India and Pakistan running together in service of each other and the global good.

What was it about the PTSD label that didn’t resonate with you?

Just because I don’t like crowds, I jump when I hear loud noises, I am more vigilant than the average person and to this day I feel like I should have died in Iraq instead of my friend Corporal Jacob Neal, it doesn’t mean I have a disorder. These are all very natural and human reactions to an experience as violent and shocking as war.



The problem is that we set our veterans up for failure by creating a global belief that says war and trauma leads to disorder, instead of a belief that says war and trauma leads to growth. So we send our veterans to war essentially telling them they will come back with PTSD and that becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

I didn’t like that at all. So despite having the symptoms of PTSD, I simply chose not to believe that it meant I have a disorder. I am just a normal human being with a normal reaction to war. Vocabulary is very powerful in shaping our states of being which in turn shapes our experience of life. I chose “Fearvana” as a way to depict fear as a positive state.

What does Fearvana feel like to you?

Fearvana is most closely associated to the state athlete’s refer to as “The Zone”—where people have suppressed and ignored negative thoughts, but also have higher self-esteem and confidence. To me, Fearvana is that moment when I am putting one foot in front of the other on a long run or when I start climbing a rock wall or when I begin a journey to the summit of a mountain. It is a state of being always prefaced by fear, anxiety, tension and/or nervousness.

On the night before every country I cross, I am filled with fear in expectation of pain, hardship, and a long day of running. Yet, as soon as I begin the run, I am in it. I am immersed into the moment and the fear dissipates. I revel in the beauty, simplicity and clarity of purpose I experience in that moment. Often in these moments, there is no past or future, there is only the now.

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Can you recommend how someone would find themselves in Fearvana?

Fearvana can only be achieved by immersion in fear, because I believe it is only through acts that scare us do we find immense clarity of purpose and simplicity of action. For example, let’s say I want to start and build a business. At that moment, I am confused, unclear on the next step to take and there are hundreds of different ideas floating around in my head.

Now let’s say, I know exactly what I want to create and I know that I need to speak with someone like Sir Richard Branson about this idea. Then it would be very normal for me to be afraid or nervous about making that call, but as soon as I am on the phone with him, I would be immersed into the moment and be fully present.

What are the costs associated with running across every country (and how do you cover them)?

Based on some research I’ve done on ultra-marathon expeditions (like one ultra marathoner ran from the North Pole to the South Pole in 10.5 months) I think this journey will cost me at least $5 million dollars. I intend to fund the rest of this journey through corporate partnerships, in-kind sponsorships, and from my own pocketbook.

That’s a big number. Does it intimidate you to think about that cost?

Honestly, the cost is the least of my worries. My wife and I are both 100% confident that we will either make enough money to afford this journey ourselves or find partners/sponsors to help make it possible. I know that when we go to our graves, it won’t matter how much money we have in the bank, so we intend to live our lives fully until that moment.

Most importantly, the impact I believe this expedition will have makes any dollar we spend more than worth it. The impact not only in terms of the global unity I hope to create, but also with the people inspired by this project. I already know numerous kids and adults who are changing the course of their lives as a result of seeing what I am doing. If I can change even one life through this project, that is priceless.

Also, I am taking every part of this quest one step at a time. I am not yet even thinking about how much it will cost me to cross some of the larger countries, I am only thinking about the next few I have lined up.

How do you keep your mind occupied while running?

I sometimes listen to early 90’s boy bands while I run. The other music I listen to ranges from 80’s metal to country to Bollywood music to trance to slow love songs and everything in between, it all depends upon my mood. I am a terrible and very slow runner, it took me 9 hours to run a 31 mile race earlier this year, but I just enjoy the process of running long distances. It’s a form of meditation for me.

Tell us about a low point in your journey:

The hardest part of my journey has been the loneliness. When I finish a crossing, there is no one cheering for me. It is just me. During each run, through all the highs and the lows, it is just me. Me and my mind. That is when I miss my wife, family and friends the most. Those moments of deep mental and spiritual loneliness are far tougher than any physical pain I have faced in all my journeys up to this point.

I overcome each one of these challenges through the realization that these are ultimately the experiences that lead to the greatest inner satisfaction and reward. Growth happens when we leap outside our comfort zones. The moments of discomfort, fear and pain have significantly contributed to my personal growth and they are what inspire me to continue growing in the never-ending quest to discover the boundaries of the human spirit.

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What advice would you give to someone else considering a quest?

First, clarify what your quest is. You can’t be confused about what it will look like, no matter how audacious it is. Once you know the long term outcome, you want to switch to working through your quest one milestone at a time, otherwise you will feel like it’s not possible.

Second, don’t try and be fearless. Fear is a very human emotion, a part of our life journey. When people perceive fear as a negative and they try to be fearless, they simply avoid anything that will lead to the experience of fear. They end up living out their lives nestled safely in their comfort zone, not leaping into the unknown.

Don’t worry about whether you get to the end of your quest or not; instead, focus and enjoy the journey which is itself the destination.

Finally, embrace your mortality. Steve Jobs said “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Meditate on and imagine your death. Would you be happy with how you have lived? Mortality is our greatest ally.

What’s next?

In September I will be running across these countries:

  • 27-30 miles across Andorra
  • 2 miles across Monaco
  • 55-60 miles across Luxembourg
  • 17 miles across Liechtenstein
  • 10 miles across San Marino
  • 1 mile across Vatican City
  • 20 miles across Malta

And my non-profit, The Fearvana Foundation, will also be up and running by October of this year.

Keep up to date on Akshay and his quest at his site, Existing2Live, or follow along with him on Twitter @existing2living.

Learn more about quests and adventure in my new book, The Happiness of Pursuit. It’s available from Amazon.com and your favorite local bookstore.

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