Controversial Distance Runner Robert Garside Hits NYC

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On March 20,
Robert Garside is expected to arrive in New York City after running from Washington,
DC, and he’s bringing a lot of hell with him. The Brit claims he jogged
30,000 miles to get here, and at age 34 is attempting to win the Guinness World
Record for the first run around the world. He crossed Europe, Asia, Australia
and Latin America, and then the U.S. The feat won him Odor-Eaters’ endorsement,
among others. Along the way, Garside–who goes by "Runningman"–says
he’s also been a running crime victim, dodging bullets and bandits around
the globe.


Garside fled
London in December 1996 with £20 and a backpack, cataloguing his subsequent
near-death experiences on www.runningman.org: five days’ detention in China
by communist authorities for espionage (he even videotaped it); being shot at
by Russian gypsies; an angry mob throwing stones in one Indian town; an escape
from an ax attack in another.


His is a tremendous
story of courage and determination–if it’s true. But some tales of
derring-do were fabricated, the runner admitted recently, though he still insists
most really happened.


The most egregious
lie was a supposed trek through Pakistan in 1997, where he reported a run-in
with thieves. "I was robbed, my tent slashed with a knife and all my contents
taken," he wrote in his online diary. Weeks later, when Internet fans thought
he was skirting peril in Afghanistan, he was in another hemisphere altogether,
Britain’s Sunday Express revealed in February.


Garside confesses
that he jetted back to London three years ago to console a girlfriend with a
family crisis. Fibbing about the Pakistan-Afghanistan leg was to avoid tipping
off "competitors" about his detour, he tells me.


"As with
any competitive sport, there must be tactics," Garside says, comparing
his lying to "dummy runs" in American football. He adds: "I’m
a sportsman, I can do that."


That wasn’t
the first time he covertly took flight, however. Airplanes carried him over
part of Brazil and a significant chunk of Mexico. He also planned to jog through
Colombia last May, but turned tail for his girlfriend in Venezuela at the first
sight of tanks and troops–wire services reported he flew to Panama in that
instance.


Guinness Records
officials say they never expected Garside to run where there were no roads,
or through impenetrable jungle, or walk on water. But the British press considered
Garside’s air jaunts skullduggery, ripping into him. "The Deviousness
of the Long Distance Runner," and "My Secret Plane Trips," blared
headlines in UK papers last month.


In the London
Guardian, reporter Oliver Burkeman asked why Garside was "claiming
in his diaries to have been ‘alone and heading up to the Amazon jungle,’
when a witness could confirm that he was sunbathing on Copacabana beach in Rio
de Janeiro, more than 2000 km away, with the former great train robber Ronnie
Biggs?" Biggs is Britain’s most famous felon, and has been a fugitive
from justice for 30 years. The runner said his three-month visa expired during
his run in the Amazon (which Guardian correspondent Alex Bellos, in Brazil,
confirmed). He flew back and forth between several cities in Brazil and Argentina
to straighten out the visa matter, running his planned route with a flight between
Santarem and Manaus. Garside said he erred by not correcting his schedule on
runningman.org while touring urban Amazonia. But his critics cried "Fraud!"


By the time
Garside hit the world capital of equivocation, Washington DC, on Mar. 7, his
credibility was shot up. It didn’t help that he called ex-Canadian Press
reporter David Blaikie 26 times in one night in February, snapping off invectives.
Blaikie has been a huge critic of Garside, posting dozens of Runningman exposes
on his "Ultramarathon World" website for more than a year. "Robert
Garside is a liar and a cheat," reads one typical editorial by Blaikie,
who has never met his quarry. Such a world run isn’t possible without support,
Blaikie argues.


Blaikie, who
says his UW site is just a "hobby," doesn’t recognize Guinness
as a legitimate record-keeper for distance running anyway. "These things
are essentially unprovable," he says from his home in Manotick, Ontario.
"The only thing an athlete has at the end of the day is his or her credibility.
Garside has no credibility." The Canadian says he cares passionately about
genuine journey runners. "If somebody is a fraud and cheats, and gets credibility
for it, I don’t think that’s fair," he says.


Garside is
convinced that Blaikie, sidelined from marathons with a bum knee, secretly wishes
he could be his official biographer. "He obviously feels physically trapped
in some way, and I’m an expression of freedom," he says. He accuses
Blaikie of campaigning to kill his world run by haranguing his sponsors and
the news media.


Garside’s
only remaining sponsor is Kemwel Holiday Autos, which provides the support van
piloted by Garside’s Venezuelan lady. Company officials who met his arrival
outside the White House say Blaikie’s vitriolic e-mails offended them,
and they have no plans to pull their sponsorship.


David Walker,
cofounder of Firestone Walker Brewery in Los Olivos, CA, sponsored Garside across
part of the state and saw the athlete run 60 miles in one day. A dozen employees
took turns jogging with Garside, following him in a support car for almost a
week. "This guy is massively eccentric, but he’s as genuine as the
miles he’s run," Walker says.


Bellos says
he witnessed Garside running through Brazil, and watched him documenting it
with signed statements by roadside acquaintances. Jay Wind, a Washington-area
veteran of 86 marathons, found Garside on northern Virginia’s Rte. 50 last
week and ran with him into the capital. He said just watching Garside–who
at times outpaced Wind, I observed–gave evidence the critics are wrong.


Just don’t
bother the nice folks at Guinness with all this. Company spokesman Stewart Newport
said the "odd" controversy hasn’t dissuaded the record-keepers
from considering Garside’s evidence at the conclusion of his five-year
journey.


"It’s
unfortunate that some people feel quite strongly about what Robert is up to,"
says Newport in a phone call from London. "We feel it’s unfair to
get somebody to prove [the record attempt] halfway through."


Trailrunner
magazine senior editor Monique Cole says Garside’s problems are really
political: several respected distance runners were told to sod off when they
offered to join him on legs of his journey. He has so alienated the U.S. running
community that even if Guinness grants him the record, "A lot of people
are going to say, so what?"


And yet Cole
admires Garside. "It’s obvious he has run a huge amount of the world,
more than anyone else has," she says.

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