Magazine article Geographical

Marathon Man: Whether He's Crossing Antarctica, Braving the Heat of the Desert or Running Seven Marathons on the Trot, Dr Mike Stroud Is the Ultimate Man of Extremes. He Talks to Vicky Bamforth about His Career in Medicine and His Exploits as Sir Ranulph Fiennes's Running Mate

Magazine article Geographical

Marathon Man: Whether He's Crossing Antarctica, Braving the Heat of the Desert or Running Seven Marathons on the Trot, Dr Mike Stroud Is the Ultimate Man of Extremes. He Talks to Vicky Bamforth about His Career in Medicine and His Exploits as Sir Ranulph Fiennes's Running Mate

Article excerpt

Few Geographical readers will be unaware of Dr Mike Stroud, for he is well known as Sir Ranulph Fiennes's expedition partner. They teamed up in 1986 to make the first of five attempts to reach the North Pole unsupported and on foot. Then, in 1993, they made the first unsupported crossing of Antarctica, walking more than 2,000 kilometres in temperatures as low as -46[degrees]C and wind speeds of up to 160km/h.

Stroud's other achievements may be less publicised, but they're just as impressive. He was the first Briton to complete the punishing Marathon of the Sands, a seven-day 'ultra race' in the Sahara that is the equivalent of five marathons. Indeed, he apparently specialises in making challenges more difficult. He organised the first unsupported crossing of the Qatar Desert, which involved running just under 200 kilometres in 78 hours in temperatures of up to 45[degrees]C. He has also completed two Eco Challenge adventure races--running, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing and white-water rafting for almost 500 kilometres--and was doctor with the Footsteps of Scott expedition to the Antarctic in 1984.

In between these gruelling physical trials, Stroud has pursued a career as a doctor, specialising in nutrition and, naturally, endurance. As chief scientist at the Centre for Human Sciences, Farnborough, he advised the British Forces on nutrition and exercise performance in extreme conditions. He also advised the British Olympic Association on heat stress during the Atlanta Olympics. Now 49 years old and a practising consultant in Southampton, he still finds time to fit in ultra marathons during his holidays and to develop a television career--he was medical advisor for the first three series of Are You Tough Enough?, a BBC programme on SAS training.

Not surprisingly, finding time for an interview wasn't easy. We eventually decide to get together one Saturday, after he'd finished his run. When we meet, he's about to head off to the magnetic North Pole to act as an advisor for another BBC programme, The Challenge.

"Being fit has always been tremendously important to me," Stroud says. "I started rock climbing with my father when I was a child. Then, when I was 17, I took a year off. During that year I decided to study medicine after working as a hospital porter. And then I travelled overland to India and into Ladakh. Foreigners weren't permitted there and I spent ten days in prison. Despite that incident, I fell in love with travelling, so I decided to combine being a doctor with going on expeditions. I could see them working well together."

We're sitting on a sofa in Stroud's house in Hampshire, surrounded by souvenirs from his trips abroad. He turns over a carving made from the surprisingly delicate bones of a polar bear. Together we leaf through hundreds of trays of slides taken during his expeditions. In one photograph, he's trudging cheerfully through the searing heat of the Sahara Desert. In another he's standing on the ice with Fiennes: painfully thin after weeks on half rations, they're waiting to be picked up after their Antarctic crossing. Despite not finishing the trip, both are smiling broadly. "It was always an enormous relief as well as a huge disappointment," he says of the polar trips that he and Fiennes were forced to cut short because of illness, injury or lack of food.

Cheerfulness in the face of adversity is what we've come to expect from Stroud as he travels the world attempting to break various records. For one week in autumn 2003, he flashed across our television screens in a race that most people would describe as a descent into hell. Teaming up once more with Fiennes, he ran seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents. Just flying to seven continents in seven days would be enough for most people, let alone running 294 kilometres along the way.

So how did he feel during that week? "Terrible," he says with a hearty laugh. …

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