(C) Jeremy Hemming, press conference for Flora 1000 Mile Challenge at the Tower, London (November 2002)
(C) Jeremy Hemming, press conference for Flora 1000 Mile Challenge at the Tower, London (November 2002)

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The Ultimate Challenge?
Athletics Weekly 20/11/02

Next March, six people will attempt the Mount Everest of athletic challenges.

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Organised by the London Marathon and first completed almost 200 years ago by the legendary professional runner Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, participants must cover 1000 miles in 1000 hours, a gruelling six-week footrace designed to test the very limits of human endurance.

Ultra-runner Gayter first in line

Great Britain ultra-distance international Sharon Gayter has been the first athlete formally unveiled as a contender to tackle the gruelling Flora 1000 Mile Challenge.

An experienced 100km and 24-hour runner, the 39-year-old New Marske Harrier admits the undertaking is 'a journey in the unknown', but she is totally confident in her ability to withstand the incredible physical and mental demands of the unique challenge.

She said: "I'm 99.9 percent certain I can complete the course, my biggest fear is not being woken up to run the next mile."

Gayter has eight years experience as an ultra-distance international but views the feat of emulating the accomplishments of Captain Barclay almost 200 years ago as her greatest challenge.

"Representing my country is not as appealing as it used to be, the buzz and excitement is no longer there. "The 1000 mile challenge is a journey into the unknown and the incentive is to see how far the body can be pushed."

The college lecturer, who also has her own sports massage company, has established a reputation as a positive and bubbly personality - and that positivity will be needed every step of the way as she faces living in a double-decker bus with five other athletes for six weeks.

Indeed, life on a double-decker bus is another of her fears. "Ideally," she admitted, "I would not like to see six athletes on one bus. You can imagine with frayed tempers and everyone going out to run and probably going to the toilet at the same time, it could be very difficult. You can imagine how cramped it's going to be."

She jokes Captain Barclay had it easy, as he completed the task on peaceful Newmarket Heath, unlike the modern-day contenders who will be up and down the busy and noisy London Marathon route 38 times.

She hopes to run one mile at the end of the hour and one mile at the start of the next hour, which she believes could give her a maximum stint of one hour 25 minutes of sleep before having to wake up to complete the next mile. Naturally, sleep deprivation is the most difficult part of the challenge, and Gayter admits she becomes very irritable during a 24-hour race.

"When I'm tired, I can't tolerate anything which isn't perfect, if I have a drink which isn't at the perfect temperature I become irritable. I've spoken to Peter Radford about the challenge and he says the tiredness does not necessarily escalate two times as bad one day and then three time as bad the next day. You can be four times as tired one day and the 16 times as tired the next."

The challenge can be completed by walking or running, and although Gayter intends to run, as this will allow more time for sleeping, it could also exact a greater toll on the body with a greater potential for injury.

She hopes to carry out a five-day dummy run under the rules of the challenge at her home in Guisborough, in the North East with the support of her husband Bill between Christmas and New Year.

However, she was keen to add: "I'm not doing this for the fame or to be remembered as the mad person who did 'that challenge'. I love my running and what I want, is to be given recognition as an athlete.

"I think I'm the right age for the challenge. I don't think anyone in their early to mid-twenties would have the mental ability."

Akin to climbing Everest

Amazingly, the 1000-mile challenge has been completed on several occasions since Captain Barclay's march into immortality in 1809. Yet the author of the book that tells the story of Barclay's feats, Professor Peter Radford,says this should not detract from a challenge which he likens to climbing Mount Everest.

"Achieving it is not diminished simply because someone else has done it, " said Radford, "This is, after all, a challenge. There are no records and cannot be any. It is a bit like climbing Mount Everest."

There are reports that the feat of completing two miles every hour for 1000 hours has been completed, plus similar challenges. Radford says the first attempt to go one better than Captain Barclay started barely before Barclay had finished, with someone trying to cover one-and-a-half miles an hour for 1000 hours.

Radford added: "Disputes and disagreements seem to follow this event. One of the difficulties is the length of time it takes. Many claims are merely that - unsubstantiated claims. Very few have been watched day and night for six weeks, and contemporaries were often scornful of claims that were made some were merely stunts.

"It is, of course, hugely difficult to arrange the logistic support to convince everyone of the legitimacy of an event that takes place every hour for nearly six weeks. This is still the case. One infamous attempt in Victorian times involved the athlete completing his night-time miles in a large marquee 'for his protection'. The trouble was that no independent person could verify that every mile had been completed at all, let alone on time."

Radford believes next March's challenge might be 'won' by someone who is 'not necessarily an athlete in the conventional sense'. He said: "Broken sleep is as much of a challenge as completing the miles, that is what makes it such a puzzle to work out. It is obviously not conventional track and field or road running or race walking.

"I think the 1000 miles in 1000 hours is still a significant challenge, particularly as in this case it is immediately followed by a marathon."

1000-mile challenge could be like 'Big Brother'

The Flora 1000 Mile Challenge could face Big Brother style coverage should TV decide to screen nightly updates of the epic.

Event organiser Dave Bedford admitted: "We are currently in talks with the BBC and Independent Television to screen the event and we will announce the TV details at the press conference to unveil the contenders on December 17th."

The precise make-up of the television format is still shrouded in mystery but there is every possibility that nightly bulletins of the event, which has already attracted huge media interest could be screened.

Indeed, the six challengers could become media stars in their own right.
The event starts from Buckingham Palace at 4pm on Sunday March 2nd.

Colourful background of the 1000-mile challenge

When the gruelling feat of walking or running 1000 miles in 1000 hours was first attempted in 1809, the Prince of Wales was among the thousands of gamblers who laid side bets amounting to the modern-day equivalent of £40 million. Such was the huge interest surrounding the event.

The man at the centre of this bizarre challenge of sleep deprivation and physical endurance, the flamboyant Scotsman, Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, stood to win a staggering 16,000 guineas. Or in layman's terms, his prize for covering a mile every hour, of every day and night, for almost six full weeks, was an amazing 320 years' worth of wages for a normal working man of that era.

It took an extraordinary man to tackle this extraordinary challenge. Born in 1779, Captain Barclay led a colourful and energetic life. With a physical appetite that could see off an 8lb leg of mutton in 10 minutes flat, he had a sexual appetite to match, not to mention an ego that saw him build a classic, nude statue of himself in the hallway of his baronial home near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire.

In those days, before the advent of the railway, and long before the automobile, he routinely walked long distances and was thus well prepared for his marathon of marathons around Newmarket Heath.

Modern 'track and field' athletics as we know did not begin to develop until midway through the 19th century. Instead, crowds flocked to see pedestrians - or professional runners - such as Captain Barclay race over classic distances such as one mile or 10 miles, or attempt to complete huge feats of endurance.

Yet Captain Barclay was not simply competing against the ticking clock and the formidable distance of 1000 miles. His very life was at danger during the hours of darkness, when betting gangs took potshots at him in an effort to thwart the challenge. In an effort to counter this, he marched with two loaded pistols in his belt.
Further tactics involved starting at 10 to the hour and walking briskly before the hour struck, before continuing for another mile before enjoying, at most, a one-hour-and-40-minute break.

Often, his supporters had to bash him around the neck to wake him up. Eventually, after successfully completing the challenge amid great jubilation, he discovered he had lost more than two stones in weight.

Then, completely undeterred and in keeping with his indomitable spirit, Captain Barclay enjoyed a mere week's rest and then headed to Deal on the Kent coastline to board a ship bound for the Napoleonic Wars.

Unsurprisingly, he returned to a hero's welcome and went on to father a child at the age of 70.

The inspiration for this challenge came from a book by Peter Radford, the former world record holder for 200m and Olympic bronze medalist in the 1960 who went on to be chief executive of the British Athletic Federation and currently lectures in sports science at Brunel University.

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