On June 11, 1832, at 2:30 a.m., Mensen Ernst was wide awake. Although he had been out until midnight, he felt fit and alert. He never slept more than three or four hours at a time anyway, and he was anxious for the day to begin. Ernst, 32, was a long-distance runner, and he had bet 100,000 francs he could run from Paris to Moscow in 15 days. He would start his 1,660-mile journey this day.
The early 19th century saw an upsurge in the sport of foot racing, as it was then called. Runners seized any occasion as an excuse for a run and a wager, and Ernst had chosen June because it marked the 20th anniversary of the start of Napoleon's Russian campaign.
Ernst himself was an expatriate Norwegian who had been a lieutenant in the English Royal Navy. He was a short man, barely 5'7", with a compact, muscular frame, and he had been a distance runner for 13 years. Ernst's other obsession was travel. Marathoning enabled him to see the world at little expense. In fact, the heavy betting on his adventures usually kept him well supplied with cash.
Ernst emerged from a small inn about 3 a.m. wearing a running outfit that consisted of a loose white tunic over tight black trousers, accented by a broad belt. His shoes were soft leather, and on his head sat a derby with a huge feathered plume. The hat was his good-luck piece; it had bobbed along with him on every run since his first—a 65-mile jaunt from London to Portsmouth in 1819 that had earned him ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£1,875.
The Paris-Moscow run began at the Place Vend‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me, where Ernst received a sealed envelope addressed to the commander of the Kremlin and then jogged off.
Along the crowd-filled city streets, running was difficult, but once Ernst was out on the country road to Meaux, he could employ his usual stride. The most convenient route had been chosen, and Ernst planned to run day and night, resting whenever he felt tired. His training diet of wine, bread, raw meat and rum was readily available at inns along his route.
At the village of Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau-Thierry an enormous crowd came out to cheer him on. But outside the village of Ay, he ran into a decidedly less hospitable group. Despite the publicity surrounding the event, there were those who had never heard of Ernst. Among them were two peasants who were sitting by the roadside enjoying an afternoon aperitif, and when they saw a man in a white tunic and peculiar hat rushing toward them, they captured him. Believing Ernst to be a madman, they tossed him into a dark pigsty. A day out of Paris, and already the race was in jeopardy. Ernst vainly pleaded for his release. Finally, clinking some coins, he said he could outrun the best horse they had. Not too proud to take a lunatic's money, one of the men mounted his best steed and off they went. But the rider headed in one direction and Ernst in the other—toward Chalons-sur-Marne, and there he sent word to Paris of the delay that had cost him five hours. To make up the time, Ernst ran far into the night, passing the ramparts of Verdun at sunrise and soon thereafter arriving in Metz. Using all known shortcuts, he came to Kaiserslautem in Germany on the morning of the 13th. In two days of running, he had covered more than 240 miles, a pace that modern distance runners might find unbelievable.
At noon the next day he entered Mainz and paused for bread and wine. Then he resumed the trip, heading through Frankfurt and into Jena, in what is now East Germany. Jena had seen many famous men before Ernst. Here Martin Luther had slept, Napoleon had fought, Goethe had written and Hegel had taught.
Still feeling fit, and not bothered by the hilly terrain, Ernst ran on to Tinz, where he slept for three hours. It was now June 16, the fifth day of the run.
Ernst progressed smoothly until he began crossing Galicia in Poland. There the summer heat and humidity sapped his strength. For the first time he considered quitting. But his despair vanished as he crossed the Russian border near Chelm. Now he sensed victory. He came to the Dnieper on June 21 at 11 p.m., crossed at Mogilev and headed for Moscow.
In late afternoon on June 24, a disheveled but euphoric runner entered a tavern in the village of Mozhaisk. Moscow was only about 60 miles away, and Ernst was two days ahead of schedule. He stopped for rest and a drink. But the locals considered this stranger an emissary of the devil. They ran from the tavern and locked Ernst inside. Realizing that an investigation would take days, Ernst tried to escape. There were no windows in the tavern; the only way out was through the fireplace. He took it. Terrified villagers crossed themselves as Ernst emerged black and sooty from the chimney and dashed out of town, vowing not to stop until he reached his destination.
On the morning of June 25, Ernst jogged up to the Kremlin gate. The guard mistook him for a beggar and tried to chase him away, but an officer came out to see what was causing the commotion. With a sweep of his derby and an elegant bow, Ernst said, "Votre serviteur, Mensen Ernst à Paris." The officer embraced him and replied, "Welcome to Moscow, Monsieur Ernst. We did not expect you so early!"