34 years ago today, or thereabouts, I just about made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. Thank you. It was nothing.
Actually, it almost wasnothing. I was serving for five months at the tax payers’ expense about 7400 miles from home in the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. To be fair, just about anything you did on South Georgia those days was potentially a world record, provided you did it in uniform. But the world record we decided to go for was the southernmost marathon ever run, a feat which had the benefit of being both achievable and verifiable.
We waited until shortly towards the end of our tour when we were visited by Sir Rex and Lady Hunt, the outgoing governor of the Falkland Islands who, unlike most civil servants at the time, had enjoyed a ‘good’ war a couple of years before, by repeatedly telling the Argentine invaders, in so many words, to bugger off.
‘Lady Mavis,’ I asked through a haze of alcohol the night before at the dinner we threw for them, (in as much as 41 people in a hut by a deserted whaling station canthrow a dinner). ‘Would you fire the starting gun for our marathon, please.’
‘You bet I will,’ said Lady Mavis, who knew how to party with the best of them.
We were keen to get some good publicity for our little detachment at the time, as we had managed to host our very own road traffic accident a couple of days before and weren’t in the best of favour. No casualties, but when I tell you that there were only two vehicles on the entire island, two drivers and just half a mile of road, it was some achievement.
Decanting Sir Rex and Lady Hunt back onto the ship they were sleeping on at 3.00 in the morning, 25 units of Blue Nun to the good, suddenly the marathon planned for five hours later looked like a new chart entry in a very long list of ridiculous ideas I had come up with. But at 8.00 a.m, there we were, and there she was, armed with a giant fog horn, and looking dangerously un-hungover.
‘All ready, boys?’ she called out, and off we went. Our marathon consisted of five of us running from King Edward Point to the far side of Grytviken and back thirteen times, skipping lightly over any nesting King Penguins or Elephant Seals who had strayed off the beach and onto the path. At the far end, we ran around Ernest Shackleton’s grave, and at the home end, we ran around Lady Mavis sitting on a rock reading her Tom Sharpe novel. At one point one of the runners was chased for 50 metres or so by an angry bull fur seal, but we discounted his record lap time as having benefited from artificial stimulants.
‘Looking a bit green about the gills, I think, Captain Morgan-Grenville’ she roared with laughter on my third pass, and passed me her hip flask. True marathon runners have water tables as refreshment; I had sloe gin.
We finished, but God knows what time we got round in, because wecertainly didn’t. I think we chose a bracketed figure of 4 hours 32 minutes, duly submitted it to Mr McWhirter for inclusion in his tome, who duly published it.
And then a week later, twelve of us recreated Ernest Shackleton’s iconic escape across the island and appeared on the front of most of the national newspapers, whose editors were deeply in love with the heroic age of Antarctic exploration at the time.
Publicity seemed so bloody easy back then.