Until last night, I’d not run properly for a couple of weeks - a cold, cough and stomach bug interspersed with a weekend of far too much sampling of the fine beers of Munich. But lack of running has given me time to finish reading, for the umpteenth time, a book which I still find mind-boggling. In fact after nearly 18 months of ‘serious’ running (i.e. actually finding excuses to run rather than finding excuses not to) the book in question is more mind-boggling than ever.
I guess until you’ve tried anything properly you never quite realise how difficult it can be. Modern media plays its part in tempting us into being armchair experts in one thing or another, whether it’s cookery, dancing, singing, general knowledge or, of course, sport. They’re all easy on TV. We all ‘know’ that we ‘could do that’ with a bit of time, investment, and maybe age, on our side. If, however, we get the opportunity to try to dance a foxtrot, sing a hit song, hit a golf ball, or run a flat-out 400 metres for the first time we realise that perhaps the pros we see on our screens are actually pretty damn good.
So anyway, back to the book. I’ve read Closing the Distance several times. Not for the writing which varies from the excellent to the much less so. I’ve read it for the story, and most recently for the story and its inspirational properties.
Closing the Distance is the story of a 17 month run from Stoke-on-Trent to Sydney, Australia. Kelvin Bowers was no stranger to distance running. He ran his first marathon in 1960 at the age of 14 with lap after lap of a track in his local park, clocking a time of 3 hours 54 minutes. Running to Australia later became a dream for Bowers, and he finally set off on the mother of all marathons in April 1974 . For support he had his wife, his two year old son and two friends, all in a small Bedford van. Remarkably, he had a support team throughout the journey, with the original friends replaced in Turkey by a new driver and a fellow runner, Barry Bowler (who went on to complete 7,600 miles and the remainder of the journey with Bowers).
The sense of inspiration and astonishment one gets from the book is two-fold. First, the fact that four adults and one child could live in such confined quarters for so long and with so little money is amazing. The fact that they did this in the mid-1970s, crossing not only former Eastern Bloc countries but also Iran, Afghanistan (and passing through the Khyber Pass), Pakistan, and India is astounding. And then there is the fact that Bowers ran it.
Early starts, 10 miles or so before breakfast, sometimes 40 miles plus per day and often 200 miles plus per week, with limited food rations, limited water supplies and sometimes days without access to washing facilities.
The book does not particularly dwell on the low points but there are plenty of references to the tedium of mile-after-mile on longer straight roads, and less inspiring featureless landscapes, than most of us could even imagine. But Bowers , in places, then paints breathtaking images of mountain passes, the buzz of busy city streets, and the fear felt in brushes with local police. Then there are the extremes of weather from intense heat to sub-zero winter running. Throughout the journey there were intermittent threats, whether it was the crowds of children trying to beg or steal from their van whenever they stopped in the poorer countries, the many instances of locals throwing stones at Bowers and Bowler, or the bandits and wild dogs they encountered. There was even a curse from an Indian holy man to contend with.
Then of course are the humerous moments, my personal favourite being when, as the support van suddenly accelerated to place itself between the runners and three large mastiffs, the van doors swung open and a bottle of washing-up liquid fell to the road. A nomad immediately grabbed the bottle and swigged the lot!
The most striking thing though is the strength of the human spirit to, against the odds, cover such vast distances – week after relentless week, 210, 130, 269, 213, 230, 184, 220 miles, and on and on. And of course, being young people on the road-trip of a life time, they were occasionally tempted by alcohol from the more hospitable people they met. However, even after these well-deserved bouts of imbibing until the early hours, they still managed to cover good distances, albeit at a slower pace, the next day.
You would imagine that when the ship they had boarded in Madras, arrived in Perth there could have been some sense of almost reaching the final goal. Yet even then there were nearly 3,000 miles left to cover, much of which would be through hostile Australian desert.
On first reading Closing the Distance nearly 30 years ago, and then on other occasions since, I was always wowed but more-or-less just considered it a bit of an adventure which would suit anyone with itchy feet, who could run a bit and had plenty of time on their hands. I’m under no such illusion now. I know how demanding it can be to run 30-40 miles in a week, never mind day-after-day for weeks and months on end. An incredible achievement and a fantastic read. It’s out of print now but here’s the ISBN number if anyone wants to try to get hold of a copy – ISBN 0 90507403 3
Of course, next time I’ve just had an easy 5 mile run, I’ll be convinced that I have what it takes to run to Australia myself (and back again)! Then I’ll have a really bad three miler the next day and realise that what Kelvin Bowers and Barry Bowler achieved was nothing short of an incredible sporting feat.