The tortoise and the hare are both heroes

THE FASTEST man in the world will tomorrow romp home to victory.

The winner will then join a fabled group of people who stand out from the multitudes of inhabitants of earth. Who will it be? The current holder of the title, Usain Bolt, or the pretender breathing down his neck, Yohan Blake? An outsider may well steal in to take the crown, but such an upset would represent a major shock.

Either way, it will all be over in less than 10 seconds. Upwards of two billion people are expected to tune into a race that has a mythic standing, which has increased exponentially in the digital era. They will tune in everywhere, from the boreens of Knocknagoshel to the slums of Kinshasa, from the Antrim highlands to the dusty plains of Western Australia, from the slums of Mexico city, to the villages of inner Mongolia. These men, will, for those few seconds, have the world focused on their feet.

Down in northern Argentina, in a place called Jujuy, the race will be watched by a runner who will never be the fastest man in the world, but one who defines the term old dog for the hard road. Tony Mangan, a Dubliner, is now into the second year of his run around the world. He has covered 15,000 miles, and has endured extremities of climate and terrain. He is aiming to become only the second man ever to complete a verified round-the-world race.

Back in 2005, a Dane by the name of Olsen traversed the globe east to west over a distance of 16,100 miles in 22 months. That was a stroll in the park on a soft afternoon compared to what Mangan has embarked on.

What others might regard as an enduring form of cruel and unusual punishment, Mangan considers the fulfilment of a dream. He has a long career as an ultra runner, a sport which involves running seriously long distances.

Once the economy turned, and he was laid off from his construction job a few years ago, he saw the opportunity to fulfil the dream. He’s 53 now, and it was time to ride the wind.

“The World Run is not something that was thought up overnight over a few pints,” he said in an interview before his departure. “It’s an idea that’s been incubating in my mind for the last 20 years and it’s grown and grown to an absolute monster. I feel like I am a prisoner of this idea and ambition.”

The world looks at powerful athletes such as Bolt and Blake and wonders at how such creatures were created to walk among us. Their achievements and celebrity will be rewarded with great material wealth. But the Tony Mangans of this world — and they are pretty unique too — are also cut from a different cloth. It takes some levels of obsession, perseverance and sheer bloody-mindedness to head off with the intention of circumnavigating the globe for the sake of nothing more than a sense of achievement.

Mangan began his race in the days after the Dublin City Marathon — which he completed as a warm-up — in Oct 2010. His first leg involved running from his native city to the most westerly point on the island, Dunquin, Co Kerry.

He remembers the first days of his expedition as he made his way west. The weather was cat as he headed off down the N7, past Limerick and over the border into the Kingdom. By the time he got to Abbeyfeale, the downpour was complemented by howling winds and the threat of a real storm. Seeking both shelter and body fuel, he stopped into a convenience shop in the town. A woman behind the counter took a look at the get-up of him.

“What has you out on a day like today,” she asked.

“I’m running around the world,” Mangan replied.

“You picked a bad day for it,” she said.

Mangan has kept that little exchange close to the mouth of his memory bank, and retrieves it for a chuckle on days that the tropical downpours or scalding heat prompted him to pine for some good old, terrible Irish weather.

He flew to the USA and made his way to the most northerly point of the continent, St John’s in Newfoundland. And then he put on his shoes and began to eat up road.

He has done an average of 27 miles every day he’s been on the road since. Twenty seven miles every day, the horizon stretching out ahead like a mirage. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Usain.

Unlike Olsen, who was accompanied by a support vehicle, Mangan is travelling alone, although in Mexico his race attracted the support of a police escort for a number of legs. During his run through Canada and the US, he often camped outdoors and cooked his own meals. He was also fortunate to have a network of contacts in the ultra-running community who put him up at points along the way. Since crossing over into Central America and heading down south, he’s been largely on his own.

When he’s done with the American continent, he’ll cross over to New Zealand and Australia, get his feet on dry land again in Asia and make his way back home through Europe. He is using the run to raise funds for the charity Aware, but at this stage of the game he also requires funds to keep the show on the road. Remarkably, considering his endeavour, no corporate sponsor has come forward to lend support.

The idea is to keep going until he completes his trek of a hoped-for 26,000 km, which should see him home towards the latter end of next year. If all goes according to plan.

The faint-hearted would have been left behind in a ditch by now, and even the stout-hearted would have surrendered, conceding defeat to the road. That’s what is different about people like Mangan. They take an obsession and turn it into achievement.

He would be the first to admit that he was never possessed the talent that might have taken him to the Olympic Games and international glory. Instead of parading in a stadium at an opening ceremony, with over one billion people looking on, he finds himself on a dusty road, accompanied by little more than the sound of his thighs pumping against the heat, the ebb and flow of his breath as constant as the road.

When contacted by email during the week, Mangan had this to say about where he’s at.

“The world is like a giant boulder. Every day I take a small chip off it... One day I will be able to lift that same boulder high over my head.”

On an occasion like today’s 100m final, when glamour, glory and talent come together to be celebrated by the world, spare a thought for the loneliness of the long distance runner.

He’s out there, living his own dream, eyes always on a prize that’s shimmering on the horizon.

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