This Sporting Life

It’s not always a walk in the park

Returning to base after an invigorating, three-hour walk, in soft, afternoon sunshine and a gentle soothing breeze, I felt… well, to be honest, I felt knackered. The terrain had been varied, though mostly smooth, the pace steady and undemanding with an occasional halt to admire the scenery, but I was more than ready for a sit down and a nice cup of tea.

As a kid I loved sport, every sport, the familiar and the yet to be discovered. When the Olympics came around, any niche pursuit could ignite my imagination. It’s a quirk that has stayed with me. So, while sitting back and sipping the restorative Darjeeling, my thoughts segued seamlessly from my own less than gruelling stroll, to the real McCoy, the hard stuff: the business end of walking.

Contrary to many people’s first impressions, long distance race walkers are tough. The exaggerated walking style, with rolling hips and pumping arms, may hint at Norman Wisdom at his knockabout best, but the close-up shot tells a different story. There’s the stretched, taught muscles and tendons, from neck to calves, a face that’s a mask of concentration with bulging eyes: all indicating athletic torture.

It continues for an agonising 50km (that’s over 31 miles) and, just to make it even more daunting, there’s the unnerving rule that one foot must always be in contact with the ground. This ensure that walkers, in the heat of ferocious competition, do not succumb to the almost irresistible urge to become runners. Any “lifting”, as the offence is called, gets the walker a warning, and three warnings means you’re out – disqualified.

The sport is changing for the next Olympics, with 50km races for men and women replaced by a mixed team event to achieve gender equality. The new racing distance is yet to be decided but, as I sipped tea, I recalled Don Thompson: our greatest 50km race walker and the only British man to claim gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (Incidentally, swimmer Anita Lonsbrough was the only British woman to win gold at those games, in the 200 metres breaststroke.) Don Thompson might have been considered as eccentric as the sport itself, but he was meticulous in his planning and preparation.

Anticipating the ferocious summer heat of Rome, he exercised regularly in his steam-filled bathroom while wearing a heavy tracksuit. At around the half-an-hour mark he would feel faint, which he first put down to the heat and humidity, but later realised was carbon monoxide poisoning from his paraffin heaters. His mother sewed a white handkerchief to the back of a cap, giving it the look of a Foreign Legion kepi.

The thinking was that it would both keep the sun off the back of Don’s neck and, when dowsed with cold water, keep him refreshed. But Don realised the stitching holding handkerchief to cap might not withstand frequent drenching, so he asked his mum to double it up. Unorthodox, yes, but it paid off as Don, just 5’5” in his walking shoes, strode to glory wearing the hat and a pair of over-sized sunglasses. Someone called him “II Topolino” – Little Mouse. The nickname stuck and a legend was born.

Contrary to many people’s first impressions, long distance race walkers are tough

Another legendary walk was far less planned to perfection. The SAS, the British Army’s elite special forces unit, prides itself on being ready for action. In the army there’s an unwritten rule, known as the seven Ps: “Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”. But the first three Ps were spectacular SAS failures in the famous Bravo Two Zero mission during the Gulf War. The eight-man patrol, led by Andy McNab (his writing pseudonym), was dropped behind enemy lines with orders to monitor enemy movements, especially Scud missile launchers. Soon after being set down in the wrong location with too much heavy equipment, the patrol discovered their radio communications gear was faulty. They were spotted by a young shepherd the following day and, believing the mission compromised, McNab decided they would try to escape to Syria.

As they fought their way towards the border one member of the patrol was killed, two died of hypothermia, four, including McNab, were eventually captured, while Chris Ryan (another writing pseudonym), walked 190 gruelling miles to freedom. Ryan didn’t eat for eight days apart from two packets of biscuits, or drink for three. He lost 36lbs in weight.

The mission has been the subject of numerous books and screen adaptations, with the veracity of some versions challenged. Whatever the absolute truth, McNab was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and three others, including Ryan, received the Military Medal. I worked with McNab when we co-wrote a series of novels and once asked him how, with all the odds stacked against them, these guys keep going, keep battling on? He shrugged, “You tell yourself over and over, it’s got to be done.” It’s got to be done. I suspect Don Thompson told himself that as he edged towards Olympic glory, as did Chris Ryan, nearing Syria and safety. Two epic walks, though both were nothing like a nice walk.

Postscript: I also questioned McNab about his pseudonym; “Is it because Andy McNab sounds hard,” I asked, “like some modern-day Celtic warrior?” “Nah, mate,” he answered, “it’s because it’s short.” “Short,” I said, “what’s special about short?” He laughed, “Means you can make it massive on a book’s front cover. Then it stands out from the rest in shops.” Now that’s what I call prior preparation and planning.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician


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