The bomb drops
When I first heard of Robert Garside, the evidence against him seemed clear. He’d refused all chances to prove himself. And Blaikie’s reconstruction of his route would make him the fastest ultra runner ever.
His claims seemed delusional.
Blaikie built a perfect campaign against him, but even all this might not have condemned Garside. Then, on February 11, 2001, the bomb went off. Halfway across the United States, Garside admitted in a Sunday Express story that he’d falsified his 1997 diaries. It didn’t matter that this occurred during an abortive attempt: Robert Garside was a liar, so nothing he did had credibility. Sponsorships dried up, and anyone contemplating an association received protests from angry ultra runners. Good Morning America cancelled his appearance.
Did Garside’s earlier lies disqualify him? In 2001, I thought so – as did much of the running community. But the question that seems obvious now is why not wait until he finished, when he could submit his evidence? Garside was being prosecuted for not running round the world before he’d even run round the world. The other question that we failed to ask was even more basic: if Garside was faking it, what had he been doing all that time? Nobody could give an answer. And when I saw the evidence, he’d clearly been to all the places he claimed – and moved at a runner’s pace.
In March 2001, broken and almost broke, he left the US for South Africa. ‘I had to go on,’ he says, ‘but I didn’t know how.’Garside arrived in South Africa in spring 2001. He headed north, planning to skirt the Indian Ocean up to the Middle East. But the 9/11 attacks changed all that. He continued running into Mozambique but, he says, was denied entry to Malawi.
The journey was at breaking point. Frontiers were closing, he wasn’t sure how he could cross the Middle East; he was exhausted and almost out of money. Though he’d always planned to run across every continent, the Guinness guidelines didn’t require it, so he flew to Morocco, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and spent most of 2002 traversing Europe, reaching Antalya in southern Turkey by autumn.
Then, determined to make an African traverse – though one wasn’t required – he reprised his route that ended in 2001 by returning to the Mozambique-Malawi border and running southeast to the sea.
By connecting the run from Cape Town, he could draw a straight line on his Africa map, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. (This terrestrial hopscotching may not seem entirely legitimate, but other round-the-world efforts, including Kunst’s Guinness-certified walk, skipped continents entirely). He then flew to Mumbai and took a train to Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of India, from where he ran 1,500 miles in two months to arrive in New Delhi on June 13, 2003. The finish was covered by the press, but the reports cast his effort as tainted at the very least.
In 2004, I contacted Garside asking to hear his story. He refused. I persisted. I named a meeting place and promised that if he didn’t show, I’d never bother him again. But he did. He’d gained weight and he looked nervous, but after 10 cautious minutes he agreed to meet the next day. It wasn’t a shock to discover that I liked Garside. His charm, his opponents said, was what he used to cover his lies. But what surprised me was Garside’s openness. Everything I asked for, he delivered. He gave me full access to his logbooks, records, photographs and travel documents.