The sun sets on a flat, featureless Earth. A week ago, this dusty plain promised triumph, adventure, even justice. All that has burned away in the desert heat, along with the soles of my feet – scorched through my shoes by searing asphalt. I’ve got nothing left. But I have to go on. I’ve been waiting a decade to do this, and the wait has been even more tortuous than the run.Whatever happens, I must finish it.
Australia’s Nullarbor Plain is traversed by the only road between Adelaide and Perth. It’s bordered to the south by cliffs that tower above the Southern Ocean. North, there’s brutal desert. Nullarbor means ‘no trees’, but the dryness and vastness also mean nearly no people. The Nullarbor is bigger than England, but it’s so sparsely inhabited that no official population records are kept. The Eyre Highway is busy, though. Crossing the plain is an iconic road trip and camper vans dart between massive, triple-loader trucks, speeding by me in air-conditioned bliss, the gusting wakes suctioning away flies and the persistent odour of road-kill kangaroo. My goal is to run the heart of the Nullarbor – the loneliest, driest, emptiest 200 miles at the centre. I’ve got two weeks.
You might think crossing somewhere so formidable under one’s own power would lead to acclaim, but history shows it’s just as likely that you’ll be disbelieved – or worse. Edward John Eyre made the first traverse in 1841; his partner, John Baxter, perished en route. Arthur Mason survived his 1896 journey by eating his pet dog. That same decade, Henri Gilbert vanished following his apparent arrival at the eastern terminus, meaning he never completed his planned circumnavigation. I was following in more recent footsteps.
A century after Gilbert, Robert Garside also attempted to circle the globe on foot. But Garside disappeared, too; not physically, but via an angry incredulity that led him to be labelled a fraud. I came here because I’d been part of a media lynch mob that destroyed his reputation. And of all the places Garside ran, his doubters argued, the impossible, wasted, torrid Nullarbor was where his biggest lies played out. But Robert Garside really did run the Nullarbor. Or so I believed after meeting him a year after he finished his journey. And I realised that the attacks had wiped out one of the most incredible things a runner has ever done. Almost eight years on foot erased because people had been too willing to believe somebody else’s definition of a ‘real runner’ – and decided that Garside couldn’t possibly be one.
So I came to make amends, to prove that running this place is possible, and to burn away a decade of remorse. In Ceduna, at the plain’s eastern edge, my running buddy Morgan Beeby and I spent a pre-run night in a trailer that reeked of cigarettes. After hearing our plan, the owner pegged me: ‘You must have something to atone for.’
Robert Garside was born in 1967, in Stockport. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, his mother returning to her native Slovakia. ‘I remember the day she left,’ says Garside. ‘She was so happy, leaving all that stuff behind.’ The freedom of that escape, Garside says, is what gave birth to his own inner wanderlust. ‘[I wanted to see] the world because it’s a way of understanding things,’ he says.
As a kid he ran in the woods near his house, in ‘a huge forest stretching for miles’, he says. ‘I had some of my best times there.’ Running as a young adult brought him back to that state. ‘You have a good experience as a kid, and it affects the rest of your life,’ he says. Despite this, Garside felt he was at ‘a crossroads’, looking for a ‘way forward’. In 1993, as a psychology student at the University of London, he found it. Thumbing through The Guinness Book of Records he came across the story of Dave Kunst, who, between 1970 and 1974, walked around the world. Garside wondered if anyone had ever tried to run it. When Guinness informed him no such record existed, Garside began training, planned a route and lined up sponsors. He gave himself the nickname ‘The Runningman’.
In December 1995, Garside flew to Cape Town and ran north, to Namibia. His plan was to curve up the western coast of Africa, fly north to Spain, and turn east at the Mediterranean. But, unprepared for the difficulties and complications with his girlfriend, Joanna, back in London, he only managed around 1,000 miles. By March 1996, he was back home again. He wasn’t finished though. He planned a new route that would take him from London, east through Europe and into Russia. Next he’d veer south across Asia, then traverse Australia and the Americas lengthwise before returning to Europe. Garside departed London on December 7, 1996. This time, there was a media fanfare and Greenpeace sponsorship. ‘It felt
good to be a star,’ he says.
The decisions he made next though, would stain his record, causing outrage among the media and the running world. Garside posted his route online, and made entries in a ‘web diary’ whenever possible (internet access not being so ubiquitous back then). In January he arrived in Slovakia, where he was reunited with his mother. But then he stalled, preoccupied with his relationship in London. Guinness allowed pauses of up to 30 days, but as the weeks wore on, he began to falsify his diaries. His biggest fear was that somebody would set out and beat him by taking a more direct route (the Kunst record of 14,452 miles bypassed Africa and South America). Garside wanted to traverse every continent. ‘I wanted to see the world by going the long way,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t want anyone to beat me. If they knew I was having trouble, everything could go down the drain.’
Ultimately, Garside had to admit failure. But by autumn 1997, he was ready for a third attempt. His relationship had ended, which was a relief. ‘She wanted me to get on with my life,’ he says. But by then the run was his life. The third try would be done with less fanfare and limited sponsorship; his plan was to start in New Delhi, rely on local support and keep the effort low-key. This meant less pressure. But the online diaries of his second attempt were a ticking bomb. There would be danger and adventure ahead – but on October 20, 1997, as he left Delhi, running towards China, he didn’t realise that the biggest threat would come from his past actions.