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Between torture sessions, Bill Emmerton has but one mission—to spread the gospel of physical fitness. Anyone who speaks with him for a while has his ear bent on the virtues of wheat germ, exercise, fresh fruit and the evils of smoking and sedentary living. A pet hate is the hippies he sees all over Los Angeles, where he has lived since his first Death Valley run. "I don't know what's going to happen to that sort of people," he says. "They're like sheep lost in a storm, wandering around, not knowing where to go, what to do." Then he really gets worked up, lighting into the Beatles, Maharishi, the Rolling Stones. "Their example has ruined many potentially fine athletes," he says, "kids who could be representing their country in the Olympics, but they're infatuated with those clowns going around the world wearing beads, throwing flowers, smoking pot, preaching free love. Maybe I can set a better example. When I was their age I was running 10 miles in 50 minutes. If I can run through Death Valley at 48 years of age in 125� heat, surely these younger people can get out of their idiotic way of living."
This evangelism is new. When Emmerton was younger, just running was enough. There were no crusades, although once in Australia he upbraided a reporter who called him a madman. "What's mad about me?" he raged. "If anyone is a madman you're one, not me. You're 36 years of age, you're grossly overweight and to my way of thinking you're a slob." Usually, though, he lived a one-track life. At 18 he would run four miles home from his factory job for lunch and gobble down a standing order of boiled carrots, rice, steak and custard while reading Bernarr Macfadden's latest opus. At 25, needing more time to train, he took a job with an insurance company. He was called the running insurance man. Each day he would run a 15-mile route to collect his premiums.
In 1952, needing more money, he accepted $1,000 to turn professional. "If your name was on the boards at 5 or 10 to 1, you might go out and plunk $100 on yourself," he says. "Besides, unlike a horse, I could tell my friends when I felt a good day coming." Once, in consecutive two-mile races, he put $1,000 on himself at 33 to 1. He lost the first race by two feet, the second by less than six inches.
Between 1953 and 1956 Emmerton won 40 titles over distances from one half to 60 miles and set new Australian records at 30 miles and in the marathon. But he wasn't making enough money, so he turned to broadcasting sports for Tasmanian radio stations.
Pictures of Bill Emmerton from those days, and even earlier, could almost have been taken today. His crow-black hair hasn't thinned and his 162 pounds are still distributed in the same way over his six-foot frame. There really isn't much that age can do to a face dominated by bones and angles or to a body that moves about 130 miles in an average week at speeds up to 10 mph.
In 1958 Emmerton ran 11 miles and 1,039 yards in one hour, then a professional world record. But Percy Cerutty, Herb Elliott's trainer, kept hounding him. "No one's a runner until he's covered 100 miles in 24 hours or less," he would say. Finally, in 1959, Emmerton ran, jogged and hobbled from Launceston to Hobart in Tasmania—100 miles in 20 hours and 41 minutes. Lesser distances no longer gratified him. He went 125 miles in 26 hours without sleep. "You start to doze a little around 3 or 4 a.m.," he told disbelieving reporters, "but you shake it off. You can close your eyes and keep moving along."
In 1962 he ran 168� miles in 42� hours, without sleep, although he rested for two hours. His route took him over Tasmania's highest plateau. It rained all the way up, turning to snow near the summit. "I'll never forget going up that mountain," he says. "My bones and legs and muscles were aching. It was freezing cold. People were taking bets that I couldn't do it in less than 48 hours. The men in the two official cars said it was too tough, that I'd better give up. Sometimes they seemed more worn out than I was, probably from taking pity on me."
A year later he ran two 158-milers in consecutive months, one in 36 hours, the other over Tasmania's Mountain of Death, Mt. Wellington, where two men once died of exposure during a marathon. Soon afterward Emmerton headed for England, stopping in Singapore on the way. While there, a well-dressed Chinese approached him after a workout. "Have you ever thought of running in China?" he asked.
"Sure," said Emmerton, without giving it much thought. He hesitated though when told the run would be 1,000 miles.
"You'll be paid well," the Chinese said, "a thousand dollars," and then, as if to offer further incentive, he added, "and you'll be meeting Chairman Mao."