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Mensen Ernst: the Ultra-marathoner

MENSEN ERNST was found dead beside the Nile in 1843 by British travellers, who buried him in the sand. Today the river bank is gone, swallowed in the water held behind Egypt’s Aswan Dam. No one could have vanished more totally than this man. Yet nearly 170 years after his death, Mensen Ernst still holds unchallenged claim to have been the greatest long-distance runner the world has ever known. All Europe once knew of this short stocky Norwegian and his phenomenally fast journeys on foot. Turks and Arabs called him “the Eagle of the Desert”; the Queen of Bavaria dubbed him “the shortest man with the longest legs.”

Fortunes were staked on his races across Europe and Asia, hundreds of thousands hailed his performances and medical men of the day attempted-rather unsuccessfully–to explain his seemingly superhuman feats.

Born in Bergen in 1799, Mensen was sent off at the age of eight to naval school in Copenhagen–and after 1812 became an expatriate for the rest of his life. ‘When his parents perished in a shipwreck, he vowed never to go home again. Several years of world-wide voyages with a British skipper helped instill his never-to-be satisfied taste for strange countries. And it was on one of his travels that he got his first opportunity to race against African runners in Cape Town.

At the age of 20, tired of a seaman’s life, he signed off in London to begin his running career. In those days when communications were slow and unreliable, well-to-do families kept “running-footmen” as messengers. Foot-running was also a popular sport, with a good deal of lively betting on the competitors. Mensen had always excelled at running. Surely he could make a living from wagers and prizes, and commissions as a messager? As it proved, he out-ran everyone, and even beat the postal vans. His fame was assured when he ran a 116 kilometre race from London to Portsmouth in nine hours-an incredible average speed of 13 kilometres an hour.

For the next 20 years he astounded all who saw him. Wearing his sailor’s uniform, he raced before big crowds in at least 70 European and Asian cities, including Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Paris, Munich, Madrid, St Petersburg, Venice, Vienna and Budapest. But what really set him apart and made him a great runner, as well as a great adventurer, were three big races that combined distance, cross-country, steeplechase, orienteering, marathon and any other known kind of running. They have no parallel in sports history.

With a hundred thousand francs placed in bets, Mensen set out from the Place Vendome in Paris at 4.10 on the morning of June 11, 1832. His pledge: Moscow on foot in 15 days. He had mapped out a route that covered 2,600 kilometres. He reached the main gate of the Kremlin in 14 days, 5 hours and 50 minutes.

The following year, he pledged to the King and Queen of Bavaria to carry a personal message to their son, King Otto, in the then Greek royal capital of Nafplion, within one month. The estimated distance: 2,000 kilometres.

Setting out from the castle of Nymphenburg, just outside Munich, at 1.05 p.m. on June 6, 1833, Mensen soon faced steep mountains, trackless forests, numerous streams. Robbers caught him, the terrain forced him to make detours, he was twice arrested and held for several days. But on July1, at 9.48 a.m., Mensen reported to the guard of the royal, castle in Nafplion. It had taken him 24 days and 20 hours and 43 minutes.

Three years later, for a fee of 150 pounds, Ernst promised to take important letters from British merchants in Constantinople to their correspondents in Calcutta, then return to Constantinople, all within two months. The estimated distance' more than 8,300 kilometres. He set out at 5 a.m. on July 28, 1836, and made it to Calcutta in 30 days and 4 hours. True to his word, after a four-day rest, he ran all the way back to Constantinople, returning on September 28.

Nagging doubts that such prodigious running feats are possible must be weighed against evidence from contemporary sources. His exploits were mentioned in newspaper all over Europe, and a German writer published a book based on Ernst’s diaries and on interviews with him.

Cheating along the way hardly enters the question, since only the very best relay of horses could possibly have carried Mensen faster than his own legs. Indeed, when in 1840, he entered the service of Germany’s Prince of Puckler-Muskau, as a messenger between the Prince’s estate and Berlin, Ernst would cover the distance in 14 hours; while the regular mail coach took 24.

For Mensen Ernst, running must have been  a natural  urge; it is known that he frequently ran more than 150 kilometres a day. While top marathoners today cover 42 kilometres in a little over two hours, at an average speed of 18 to 19 kilometres an hour, Ernst could maintain a pace of 8 to 10 kilometres an hour for hundreds of kilometres, day after day, week after week.

In his diary, he mentions a special “jumping step” with which, it appears, he could cover up to two metres in one springy stride-despite his short legs. Mensen actually found a way to add to their length: running on stilts, to cross streams.

A mostly Spartan way of life helped keep his muscular body trim. On his race from Paris to Moscow he consumed only about two kilos of cold meat, concentrating on white bread, and drinking a good deal of wine–his one weakness. He preferred to sleep outdoors on the bare ground. When indoors, he insisted on having a plain, wooden bench for a bed.

For Ernst, running was mainly a way to see the world. Wherever he went, he tried to choose new routes. His years at sea were not wasted, since he could never have found his way through often trackless land without his maps, compass, ship’s chronometer, quadrant and his ability to navigate by the sun and stars.

He wrote in his diary: “I chose a calling that, however strange and I fruitless most people may find it, did bring me much honour and wealth in addition to a rich harvest of all pleasures of travelling. Though, I must admit, also some of its sorrows and hardships.”

At 40, he looked aged and worn. Long exposure to the sun and wind, plus constant physical effort, had turned his hair grey and his face to deeply wrinkled parchment. And he had begun to search for a higher purpose than just running fast. He staged races for charity, donating the proceeds to poor people he met.

In 1843, Ernst set out to run the length of Africa, from Alexandria to the Cape. But he wanted the venture to be more than a race. Sponsored by the Prince of Puckler-Muskau, Mensen determined to find the source of the Nile.

He did not get further than the river’s first cataract. Then disease, presumably dysentery, halted his steps for ever.

Later, the prince is said to have gone to great trouble and expense to have a stone erected over the grave, with the following epitaph: “Swift as the deer, restless as the swallow. Earth, his arena, never saw his like.” And no one else did.

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