Where in the World Is Robert Garside?
As he races to lay claim to the first around-the-world run, Britain's Robert Garside is losing ground to a growing pack of skeptics
Robert Garside has spent the last six years telling the world he is jogging around it. In a bid to complete the planet's first solo loop and claim a place in Guinness World Records, the 35-year-old Englishman maintains that he has covered more than 30,000 miles and six continents. In December 1996 he set out from London's Piccadilly Circus, to considerable fanfare, with only $30 in his pocket and a 17-pound pack on his back. Since then Garside says he has traversed mountains, jungles and deserts, been shot at by gypsies in Russia, pelted with stones in India, jailed as a suspected spy in China and pounced on by thieves in Panama. Scores of newspapers, magazines and TV news shows have breathlessly reported how the astounding Garside lives a hand-to-mouth existence, persevering through donations and sheer pluck.
"During my travels I must have woken up 70 or 80 times regretting I was alive," he says, "but I've never once contemplated suicide. As hard as this odyssey has been, apparently it's what I've opted for in life. It's my claim to fame."
Well, not exactly. Runningman, as the former psychology student calls himself, has been on the run from critics since late 2000, when Canadian journalist David Blaikie accused him of making fraudulent claims about his journey. On his Ultramarathon World website (ultramarathonworld.com), Blaikie detailed inconsistencies in Garside's own Internet accounts and questioned how a man with little ultrarunning background and no logistical support could run what amounted to nearly a marathon a day for not just days and days but years and years.
With doubts about his mighty feats mounting, Garside admitted in February 2001 to having skipped thousands of miles in 1997 during the Eurasian leg of his journey and having made up a dramatic trek through Afghanistan and harrowing encounters with Pakistani bandits in his Web diary. Both yarns, he confessed, were cooked up in London -- he had hopped on a plane in Moscow and flown home to be with his then girlfriend. These "little white lies" (Garside's words) have led to bigger and grayer ones (he has been forced to retract claims for, among other things, the British and world distance records), so that now nobody knows what, if anything, he says is true.
No one disputes that Garside has racked up many, many miles on his trek. The question is, how many has he missed? "Robert has deluded himself into believing that he has not cheated," says Tokyo-based journalist Peter Hadfield, an early ally who has soured on him. "Every time his fabrications are exposed, he invents a new story and convinces himself it is true. When his cover is blown again, he invents another story and then convinces himself of that."
Like Crowhurst, Garside is the kind of flawed self-mythologizer you find in Joseph Conrad novels. Unlike Crowhurst, he's still plugging along. After the scandal broke, Garside retroactively rerouted his journey. The miles he logged from London to Moscow would not count toward the record; instead he considered New Delhi -- where he resumed his eastward run in late '97 -- to be the official starting and ending point. In Spain, as of last week, he hopes to reach the finish line, the India Gate arch, by the end of this year. Upon entering the sacred city, he says, he expects to be joined by "500 Hindu runners" and be hailed as a hero. "He will not get there," predicts British photo agent Mike Soulsby, Garside's principal patron (to the tune of more than $10,000) since '97. "I had thought Robert was credible but now realize I have been totally and utterly conned. He's a miserable little two-faced shyster."
That isn't to say Garside is without redeeming qualities. "He could've achieved so much because his drive and determination are incredibly strong," says Hadfield. "Instead, it's his lack of moral character -- his readiness to deceive -- that's destroyed him."
Garside shrugs and says, "There's an expression in England: You can't get anything in life without pissing a few people off."
On a sun-baked June afternoon Runningman is minimizing the enormity of his deceit at a café on the east coast of Spain. He has been hanging out in Valencia with his girlfriend, Endrina Angarita Perez, and working the phones. To bankroll what he calls his "mission," Garside badgers and wheedles everyone from sunglasses salesmen to magazine photo editors.
The bistro is an egg toss from Parque Gulliver, a circular playground dominated by an enormous man-mountain of slides and chutes pinned to the ground by ropes. The Lilliputians are children, who scamper in and out of Gulliver's hollow body and scramble over his limbs. "At times I feel like Gulliver," says the harried globetrotter, who believes the skeptics want to entangle him in myriad discrepancies to keep him tied down and off the road. "A run around the world has never been done, and frankly, it scares people," he continues. "They can't handle the idea. Neither can I. But I am living this nightmare until India, and I hope that I will arrive without a psychological disorder."
Round-shouldered and thin, Garside has a white, hard face and colorless eyes. An air of befuddled sadness clings to him. He can be charming and chirpy until confronted with one of his little white lies. Thrown off script, he becomes monosyllabic, graceless, bitter.
Though Garside argues that "words can't hurt," they certainly get under his skin. Mention Blaikie, who tracks his movements as relentlessly as Javert dogged Jean Valjean, and Garside's nostrils twitch as if at an offensive smell. "Blaikie is my Osama bin Laden," he says with righteous indignation. "I've been watching this terrorist every step of the way. This faceless coward is conducting psychological warfare, testing me. You're not supposed to write such things based on theory. You write on evidence."
Garside says his own evidence -- which he says is in storage at his mother's home in Slovakia -- proves Blaikie launched a mass e-mail and phone campaign to discredit him and "sent out Ultramarathon World Taliban posing as journalists" to disrupt his press conferences. In retaliation Garside made abusive phone calls to Blaikie's home, including 26 in a single evening in early 2001. "I have the moral right to call up this cold, cognitive bastard a million times and keep him up all night and ruin his life," Garside says. "He's ruined mine."
Told that Blaikie denies dispatching any mass e-mails, Garside sputters, "Hello! That's absurd! Why ... why ... it's got to be Blaikie. Who else could it be?"
There's a flash of panic behind his eyes, but he gets a grip on himself to say, "The truth is, my run is too much of an outlandish, wild, wonderful thing to believe. That's why I'm being persecuted. People have been persecuting me my whole life, here and there in all sorts of ways."
Since leaving home at age 17 after a falling-out with his father, Garside says he "has just been trying to survive." Alas, his survival instincts have reduced an improbable run to a series of impossible journeys. Asked why he pretended his run had continued unbroken across Asia, Garside says impishly, "I was naughty. I shot myself in the foot."
He blew off a few more toes last year when he admitted to lying about running from Russia into Kazakhstan in 1997; in truth, he said, he turned back at the Kazakhstan border. He now says that the run ended several hundred miles before, in Moscow, and that his subsequent hiatus in London lasted not seven weeks, but six months. It was only after Garside's girlfriend dumped him and he chose not to return to his college, Royal Holloway University, that he flew to India to begin his quest anew. The fictional passages in his diary at www.runningman.info were a "psychological tactic" intended to convince potential competitors that he was too far along to catch. "When you're running around the world," he says, "you do anything to survive."
Anything includes duping the media in both Japan and Australia by announcing in 1998 that he had broken the world distance record, neglecting to mention the fact that he had started over in India. "If you added all my distances together," says Garside, "I would have set the record."
Anything includes asserting that in 1999 he jogged the 700 miles from Brasília to the Brazilian city of Marabá in two weeks, averaging 50 miles a day with gear in tropical heat along a clogged highway. Implausible, carp Garside's critics. "Bad p.r. doesn't mean a damn thing," he insists and insists and insists. "Who cares?"
Guinness, perhaps. Before he began, Garside was told that to qualify for the record he simply had to travel 18,000 miles over at least four continents -- presumably finishing at the same longitude at which he began. As proof of his run, Garside says, he's gathering witness statements, log books and time-coded videotape that he has shot roughly every hour. He plans to submit this evidence to Guinness after he finishes.
But Andy Milroy, who has been authenticating ultramarathon claims for Guinness for 25 years, cautions, "On tape, one bit of jungle, one bit of shrub, one bit of road looks like any other. You could be anywhere." Which is why it's important to have a support team (Garside doesn't) and map out your route in advance for the public (Garside won't). Milroy says there's another important criterion: a runner's credibility.
So, what if Garside gets to India and Guinness rejects his claim? Runningman puts his head in his hands and groans alarmingly. "My God!" he says. "I fear for this world if I'm denied the record. The Taliban will have taken over. That would be the biggest con in history."
Issue date: July 1, 2002
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