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 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 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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