Around the world in however many days

Record: As he scratches off one more continent from his list, Robert Garside is on his way, he says, to becoming the first person to run around the world.

March 20, 2001|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Robert Garside tells an exceptional story.

Departing London in December 1996 with the equivalent of $30 in his pocket and a digital camera, the former police officer who calls himself the Runningman is aiming to run 43,000 miles over seven continents (including, somehow, Antarctica) in five years, becoming, essentially, the first person to run around the world.

His route, he says, has already led across Western and Eastern Europe, through China, Japan, Australia and South America, and now across Mexico and the United States. He passed through Baltimore last week, and the finale of his North American run is scheduled today in New York. He then heads for Africa.

The Runningman says he averages 30 miles to 40 miles of running per day, relying heavily on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging to supplement his few sponsors and his own mettle.

"Running is not a science, it's an art," he said during an overnight stop in Baltimore, which included a visit to the Cheesecake Factory at Harborplace. "If it is a science, it can get very boring."

For Garside, 34, the Baltimore pit stop was brief. But perhaps more than the occasional break from the road, Garside would like to get a break from the questions that follow him about his achievements. As he puts it: "Some runners spoil running because they criticize too much."

Indeed, Garside has several vocal critics who are not as interested in the "art" of his exploits as in the scientific evidence that would explain his ambitious journey. As he has gained publicity, some skeptical news outlets have raised questions about Garside's activities and one very vocal Canadian distance runner with a Web site has "partly spoiled" the experience with strong criticisms.

One major issue is the superhuman nature of his run. An amateur runner when he started out, Garside has run with only a backpack as his support system most of the way.

Even now he is accompanied full-time only by his girlfriend, who he met in Venezuela, and who joined him in a sponsor-donated van for the American leg of the trip. He does take occasional days to rest, he says, but some days runs 60 miles to 100 miles, including two 24-hour runs per week for two months of his U.S. crossing.

And he's done all this, he says, without a single injury.

Along the way, he says, he also has persevered through numerous life-threatening difficulties: being shot at in Russia; attempted muggings in Panama and Mexico; and hostile environments ranging from the poverty of India to the heights of the Himalayas to the wilds of the Amazon rainforest.

Garside tries to keep his weight steady and rest when his body feels the stress of his run, but he has no specific regimen for keeping fit. He has slept in some unusual places, he says, from police stations in India to a monastery in Tibet to a motel in Los Angeles, relying most often on friendly fans who invite him to their homes and donations to pay for hotels. The van serves as a last resort.

"I treat this with admiration and skepticism," said Dr. Bill Howard, director of Union Memorial Hospital Sports Medicine Center, when told the Runningman's story.

Howard believes 30 miles of running every day is impossible, but says a person in good shape -- and with perfect body structure to avoid stress fractures -- could average 15 miles to 20 miles a day with lots of rest in between, a rate that still corresponds with Garside's stated distance.

For Howard, the biggest questions are about the equipment and the conditions -- things like new shoes, socks, rain gear and warm clothes would be very important.

Not quite accurate

Garside's problems with his doubters really heated up when he fabricated some stories in the diary he keeps on his Web site at the beginning of his trip. He has admitted that he did not run about 2,400 scheduled miles in order to go home for personal business. But on the Web site, he created fictional accounts of that leg, including stories of evading bandits in Pakistan and guerrillas in Afghanistan.

While he regrets the lies, he says it was a tactic to keep possible rivals for the record from knowing his true activities.

His Web site -- www.running- -- tends to add to the confusion. While it offers overview information and a map of cities he's been through, it does not include the detailed dates and times for each leg of the journey that some critics would like to see. (Last week the schedule was updated with specific times and routes from Baltimore to New York.)

On the site, exciting tales about his trip, including one about time spent in a Chinese prison, end abruptly. That's to keep readers of a book Garside plans to write in suspense, he says. And his posted schedule is always subject to change. London's Guardian newspaper reported that Garside shortened his planned route from Mexico City to the United States, and just this past week, he delayed his arrival in Delaware and abandoned plans to run to Atlantic City.

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