MAN BELIEVED SANE RUNS 105,000 MILES - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Bill Emmerton, a 49-year-old Australian who lives in Los Angeles, rarely stops running—unless a grizzly bear stands in his path or he passes out. Sometimes he even gets paid for it

The scene on Route 46 near Cape Kennedy last July 15 was so odd that many who witnessed it still wonder if the 97° heat had boiled their brains. A car was parked on the shoulder, and two bare feet dangled from an open window, all 10 toenails blue and falling off. A woman stood beside the car, cooing love words and brushing the soles with a brown liquid that smelled like creosote. That done, she dusted both feet with talcum powder until they looked like some sort of exotic pastry. Finally she slipped a pair of track shoes on them. To curious motorists, on their way to witness the lift-off of Apollo 11, she chattered away about her husband who had run all the way from Houston, Texas. Since Houston is more than 1,000 miles from Cape Kennedy, a number of the motorists suggested that she get out of the sun, and drove on. But the feet did belong to a man, and at last he emerged from the car, his face twitching and drawn, and began running and stumbling down the steaming road. It was the 28th consecutive day that he would run 40 miles and he had, in fact, started in Houston. His name was Bill Emmerton, he was a 49-year-old professional distance runner from Australia, he was honoring the astronauts in his own fashion and he was very, very happy.

It was not the most difficult run of his career. He didn't even collapse, as he had on some runs, and compared to other occasions the weather was nearly tolerable. In 32 years of running Bill Emmerton has covered more than 105,000 miles. "I reckon I've put more physical strain on my frame than any man alive," he says, and who is there to dispute him? Running 35, 40 and 45 miles day after day after day overwhelms one's nervous system. On long runs, when Emmerton needs sleep most, he often lies awake twitching. If pleasures exist after the first day, they are subtle, perhaps perverse. "Yes, I'm suffering. I'm in pain," he has said, "but no one else can withstand it as I do."

In 1968 Emmerton announced that he was undertaking a 125-mile run through Death Valley. Run along with me, he said to America. No one accepted. Still, the idea fascinated him. Back in green Tasmania, where he was born, Coffin Peak, Deadman's Pass and Starvation Canyon all sounded like great places for a run. "A couple of chaps have died in Death Valley," he said, "but it's a real challenge to me. I might be killed, but people will sit up and take notice."

"He's got guts," said a spokesman for Death Valley National Monument, "but the valley demands more. Something will give, and it's a tossup whether it'll be his feet or his lungs."

"I'll get there, even if it's on my knees," said Emmerton.

It was 106° when the run began at Shoshone, Calif. Thirty miles out, a stinging, blinding sandstorm blew up, and Emmerton was lifted off his feet and bounced 15 feet along the road. He arose and continued, but a few miles later he inhaled sulfur fumes, his legs began wobbling and he collapsed. His wife Norma was following in a camper. "Dear God," she thought, "this is it." She soaked his clothes with cold water, massaged his legs and neck and bathed his temples. Three minutes later Emmerton was on his feet. He finished with the front cut out of one shoe to allow the free flow of blood. MAN BELIEVED SANE RUNS THROUGH DEATH VALLEY headlined the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Four months later, convinced the run hadn't been tough enough, Emmerton did it again, this time lengthening the distance to 211 miles. Six weeks earlier a woman had died of sunstroke in Death Valley when her car broke down. On the first day of the run a thermometer laid on the road burst at 135°. "It was like running through hell," he recalls.

There could have been few better foundations for a career as a very long-distance runner than a boyhood in Australia's rugged island state of Tasmania, where Emmerton's heroes were the great distance cyclists and runners. "I knew what it was to suffer a little," he says, "to really work to get a feed. I always wanted to do something that demanded a lot of physical effort."

Emmerton began serious running at 17. "My mother expected me to die after each workout," he says. "I can still hear her yelling, 'You'll kill yourself with that blimey running.' At first, when I came in, I did look near death. I would fall through the back door and my parents would have to carry me to a chair."

Still, one of the last things Emmerton's father told him before he died was to keep at it. "In a way I've kept running for my dad's sake," he says. The day after the funeral Emmerton entered a 10-mile race and broke the record by 3½ minutes. "I felt so bad I didn't care if it killed me," he recalls.

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 168½ miles in 42½ 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."

"Chairman Mao!" Emmerton said. "I don't want to meet your bloody Chairman Mao!"

As Emmerton strode off, he could hear the Chinese protesting. "But Chairman Mao is a very famous long-distance swimmer."

But for Bill Emmerton, Singapore will always mean a different sort of intrigue, a flirtation with an attractive Canadian, then, a week later, a luncheon date in London. "I'll be back for afternoon tea," he said. "I have my training to do." Norma Arkles, on holiday from a teaching job in Malaysia, couldn't figure out the brash Australian. "He didn't know what my plans were," she says. "He just presumed everything." At best it was an unlikely match, of college classrooms and lonely roads, concert halls and locker rooms. Emmerton went to concerts for the first time in his life, and Norma started jogging. "I thought he was a madman," she confesses. "But then I became very interested in what he was doing. He believed it was right to keep fit and I admired that."

Marrying Norma worked wonders on Bill Emmerton. Piddling one-day, 100-mile runs would no longer do. Within a year of his wedding a brewery paid him $250 to practically kill himself running 500 miles across the Australian desert in 100° heat, wearing COOPER'S STOUT FOR STAMINA on his T shirt. Then, six months later, the International Wool Secretariat dressed him in wool shorts and paid his expenses to run the length of Britain (952 miles) from John o'Groat's, Scotland to Land's End. The run would take 18 days 10½ hours and, as Emmerton says, he was near death more than once. In Devonshire he ran with an umbrella to deflect sleet, hail and snow. Going across the moors at 3 a.m., he could hear the hounds howling from distant Dartmoor prison—The Hound of the Baskervilles, he thought. When it got tough he would debate with himself: "God, what the hell am I doing? My feet are bleeding, my muscles are sore. I'd give anything to lie down on a soft bed, to have a good meal." Then, as he says, "I'd think of the thousands of miles I'd traveled and of all the training. 'Just 500 miles to go,' I'd say when I really got down. 'Just 400 miles to go.' After all, I'm the sort of bloke doesn't like to admit defeat." The town of Launceston was 80 miles from the finish, at the top of a hill, and Emmerton carried a scroll for the mayor, given him by the mayor of Launceston, Tasmania, his home town. He sprinted up the hill, met the mayor, began giving a speech to 4,000 people who'd gathered to meet him and passed out for five minutes. He recovered and ran the last 36 hours with only two hours' sleep. Norma had followed all the way in a jeep, ready to massage cramped legs, to wash 10 pairs of socks a day and to dispense her peculiar brand of encouragement. "I'm sufferin' with ya, honey." she would yell from the jeep. "but please go a little faster."

More pleasant, more adaptable women than Norma Emmerton would be too good for mortal men. How else could she be part of this story? "When I start thinking of it, I've got all kinds of grounds," she says, gibing her husband. "But he was very honest before we got married. He said the main interest in our life would be running. 'Does it take all your time?' I asked. 'Yes,' he replied." Their wedding morning was no different from any other. "I couldn't neglect my 10-mile run just because I was getting married," Emmerton says. "If you can get away with it the morning you're married, you can get away with it anytime, 'cause then they know you mean business."

Norma's relatives had been apprehensive. The facts seemed to indicate that the bridegroom was something of a wild man. Fifty of Norma's clan were at the Toronto airport to greet them on their first visit, lined up behind a glass wall like new fathers, peering curiously for some sort of creature with long legs. The plane finally unloaded and the man-beast jogged through the doorway and began doing laps around the luggage rack. "Stop it," Norma whispered nervously. "No running in here. They'll think you're crazy."

All the Canadians were very proud, though, when plans for the longest run in their country's history were announced—390 miles from Toronto to Montreal's Expo 67. As it turned out, they almost lost their hero. One morning Emmerton was doing a 10-mile training run on a lonely road in Banff.... But let him tell it: "When you're belting along you're oblivious to everything. Suddenly, about two yards in front of me, this monster grizzly bear rears up on its hind legs. It looked about 10 feet tall, it did, and I just stood there afraid to move. I think my heart stopped beating. I turned around and ran as fast as I could. I don't know what happened to the bear. I never looked back for about a mile." Two days later Emmerton read in the paper that two people had been killed by a grizzly in Glacier Park, only about 250 miles away (SI, May 12 et seq.).

The worst moment, though, came near the end of the run, outside Montreal. A policeman told Emmerton he had only six miles to go and he stepped up his pace. Exhausted after about 5½ miles, he slowed down to find out that he had been misled. There were still 12 miles to go. The shock was too much. For the first time in his life his nerves went completely. He couldn't stop crying. Finally he recovered and ran on. The last 10 miles were on freeways, and though he was suffering, the police refused to allow any rests. They said it would be too dangerous. By the end of the run both of his big toenails had fallen off.

As in the British run, Norma was always nearby. "I don't miss decent clothes or hairdos," she says. "All that can wait. I'm like a pit boss who has to think quick to keep the machine in good shape."

Norma has recently earned a degree in Swedish massage, and at least twice a day she lovingly kneads her husband's toes, arches, calves, ankles and thighs with a concoction of olive and rubbing oils, vinegar and an analgesic.

"I feel like a green salad," says Emmerton.

"I can be hard about some things." says Norma, "but when it comes to a blister I just melt."

When she finishes a pre-workout massage, Emmerton lies dreamily on the table for about five minutes. Then he slips into his running togs and warmup suit. He swaths his middle, next to the skin, in brown wrapping paper, "to keep me from getting a cramp," he explains, "to keep the muscles warm."

In Los Angeles, Emmerton often works out at a college track near his apartment. Typically, he jogs the first quarter mile with a sliding, almost flat-footed gait, arms bobbing loosely up and down. Norma sits on the grass, watching. Suddenly she grabs her purse, and without a word, as if caught up in a dream, shuffles off around the track for two or three miles. Emmerton is moving powerfully now, at a five-minute-mile pace, a pleasure he can't afford on a very long run. He leans forward, looking as if he could run through a wall. He glides, like a cross-country skier on level ground.

Back in their apartment after a workout late last spring, the Emmertons sat with a map of Australia. He drew a line from Perth on the west coast, east and then southeast to Melbourne, a distance of 2,200 miles, much of it across the Null-arbor Plain, one of the bleakest, most inhospitable stretches of desert in the world. "I'm going to make this run next year," he said with a blissful look. "As far as physical effort is concerned, it will be equal to anything man has undertaken. A party of English people ran out of water there several years ago, and they found their bodies two weeks later." Norma could hardly contain her glee. "Ooh, what a ghastly place that Nullarbor Plain will be," she said.

The planning was sincere, but other thoughts soon intruded. Bill Emmerton was nearing 50, and perhaps running was no longer enough. Within a year he might return to Australia, possibly to open a boys' camp or to try sports announcing once again, and he spoke of fishing and camping, different pleasures—sweet, painless ones. "I want to have some fun in the time I have left," he said, and it was strange to hear him speak that way, for while the faces of friends had changed, their bodies grown heavy, Bill Emmerton had endured, almost as always. How would it be to slow down, he wondered, to be molded by inactivity and the passage of time? And what of pride? Wouldn't it keep him going? But pride, too, made him think of Norma. She had worked in a large book-distributing firm since their marriage, gladly, uncomplainingly, while he had contributed very little to the household. "Norma should be taken out to nice places," he said.

He didn't feel right. It appeared unlikely that he could ever make a living as a runner in the U.S. To be sure, he had earned $850 by wearing wool products and drinking fruit juices during the first Death Valley run, and another $900 or so for wearing Sungard lotion on the second run—one of the most convincing product endorsements of all time; he didn't even get pink.

But running wasn't paying off as he thought it should. And the attitude of others hurt more than he admitted. "When a guy starts out he works for peanuts," a representative of Sungard had remarked, "but he usually starts out at 19. Bill didn't get his break till he was 48. We didn't create his ability, but we did make him a marketable commodity."

He thought a great deal through the spring and early summer, and following the Houston-to-Cape Kennedy run he even rested for a few days. Running didn't seem so much fun anymore. Then, in the first part of August, he did a fast five miles and on the way home, suddenly responding to something deep within him, he bolted 300 yards up the steep hill to his apartment, happy as a kid on the last day of school. He startled a much younger man who had stopped walking halfway up to catch his breath. "If I tried to run even 50 feet like that I'd have a heart attack," the man told Norma, who was following. Emmerton was gleeful when he heard about it. He went 15 miles every day for the next week and was enthusiastic about the income he would get from a TV commercial he made for Olds-mobile. At dinner after one run, a friend posed a hypothetical question: "What would you do," he asked, "if a doctor ordered you to stop running or face possible death?" Bill Emmerton didn't hesitate. "Why I'd go out the next day and do my 10 miles," he said. "Can you think of a better way to die?"


WORKING OUT in West Hollywood, Emmerton whips past the intersection of Sunset and Horn.