Running the Earth Pole to Pole

Apr 15, 2012

PAT FARMER has been running for most of his life.

In his youth he kept motors running as a mechanic in Sydney's working-class west. Later, he picked up a swag of world records for endurance running after discovering a love for ultra-marathons.

He successfully ran for Federal Parliament in 2001, he ran across Australia for the Centenary of Federation - and, in his most recent adventure, the 48-year-old former Member for Macarthur became the first person to run from one end of the world to the other, raising funds for the Red Cross so they can make running water available in developing countries.

The 20,919-kilometre journey took Farmer to 14 countries over 10½ gruelling months of relentless physical punishment.

But from the time the widowed single father to two teens started the trip in April last year, to his long-awaited return to Sydney earlier this year, he refused to take a single day off to rest, driven by his passion for the cause, his love for his children Brooke, 17, and Dillon, 14, and an intense desire to eat a meat pie with chips when he got home.

Averaging about 80 kilometres a day - the equivalent of two back-to-back marathons - and facing an 80 degree temperature range as conditions soared into the 40s around the equator and plunged to -40 degrees at the poles, Farmer took on freezing Arctic blizzards and dangerous polar bears when he was dropped at the North Pole by a Russian military helicopter, ran alongside a heavily armed security detail in South America to avoid dangerous militia and rebel gunmen, was almost killed by an out-of-control truck in the snake and crocodile-infested jungles of Panama's Darien Gap, and suffered potentially deadly dehydration and disorientation on the desiccated high plains of Peru.

''We crossed many rivers and literally had to climb mountains,'' he says.

''Many times we had to scramble to higher ground when flash floods threatened the camps.

''The only relief from flesh eating flies, ants and mosquitoes was the cool mud that quickly gathered around the lower half of our legs.

''In some areas, where there was flooding, the earth would swallow us up in a muddy swamp that would rival any quicksand.''

But Farmer says the difficulties posed by the jungle pale in comparison to his experiences at the poles.

''The Arctic ice cap is humbling,'' he says.

''Trying to cross it was the hardest thing I have ever done.

''It involved climbing three-metre-high walls caused by sheets of ice smashing into each other, swimming across icy water for up to 40 metres and suffering hypothermia from falling into the ice, each obstacle beaten while dragging a kayak.''

''I stood at one end of the Earth and I gazed down at the other and by simply putting one foot in front of the other I achieved this enormous goal.''

The trip took its toll on Farmer's physique, forcing him to take on Antarctica after losing a significant amount of weight running across North and South America.

''This run has been my dream for more than half my life and will take a toll on my body for as long as I live,'' he says.

''But every step, every frustration, and every moment when I've considered but rejected the thought of lying down and not running another kilometre, has been worth it.

''The thing that inspires me to push on through aches and pains and the incredible distance is the constant reminder that there are people in the world that are holding on waiting for help, and the longer they wait the more of them die.

''I've endured a lot on this run, but the people of Africa and East Timor and South America who have no clean water or have been victims of flood, earthquake, fire and famine do it very tough too.

''Something as simple as a glass of water and clean sanitation can mean the difference between life or death.''

Farmer says his feet ''will never be the same'' after taking the trip's estimated 20 million steps - and wearing through 22 pairs of running shoes, one pair of snow shoes and two pairs of hiking boots.

Farmer's focus throughout remained firmly on the 880 million people around the world who do not have access to clean water, as well as the tragic reality that unsanitary conditions have claimed more lives over the past 100 years than any other cause.

''This run isn't about me, and it's not even really about running a route that has never been attempted before,'' he says.

''It's about getting funds to thousands of needy people worldwide - the rest is details.''

Among the details was a new world record for running at the South Pole, with Farmer averaging over 50 kilometres a day in -40 degree temperatures.

And, in a final hurdle just eight kilometres from the South Pole, his support vehicle broke down, forcing Farmer to abandon his crew and run on alone.

Reaching the Pole in a moment of solitude, he was overcome with emotion and wept before planting a flag bearing the universally recognised emblem of the Red Cross.

''I can't help but feel I am a better person as a result of what we have been able to achieve over this run,'' he said from the US Antarctic base, while drinking a well-earned bottle of bubbly.

''During the course of this run there have been moments when I've pondered being in the extreme cold of the Arctic and the heat of the deserts of Peru, and then I think about the moments before I began when we were in Timor and I visited the hospital and saw young babies dying because they couldn't get clean water.

''There's something about doing distance, something about fighting the elements … there's something special about doing something for another person, hurting yourself to be able to improve their quality of life.

''You can't go through these sorts of experiences without it affecting you.''

Having achieved his goal to last the distance, but falling $20,000 short of his fundraising target, Farmer finally let some of his focus return to the life he'd left behind.

''I'm going home to be with my children Brooke and Dillon in Sydney, rest up at the beach and have that meat pie with potatoes I've dreamed about,'' he told reporters from the Pole.

''I was asked by many people what did I miss most about Australia and I have to say a meat pie, I absolutely craved a meat pie.''

But Farmer was never one to take much time out for himself, returning to the road in a matter of weeks to promote Pole to Pole, the diary of his adventure, at bookshops across Australia.

Launching the novel, former prime minister John Howard said the trek put his famed morning walks around Kirribilli House in his tracksuit to shame.

''People used to say to me 'Isn't that terrific, you walk every day','' Howard - who named Farmer Achiever of the Year for the Australia Day Awards in 2000, before personally inviting him to run for Parliament - says.

''You set a wonderful example, not only to other politicians but to the rest of the country.

''But then of course Tony Abbott comes along, he starts getting into these triathlons and swimming miles and riding bikes.

''Of course somebody then comes along and puts Tony and me, both of us, into the wimp category.

''The personal commitment was immense, the physical endurance unbelievable but the cause quite magnificent.''

Red Cross Australia chief executive Robert Tickner says Farmer ''is an inspiration to all humanity''.

''There are not many people who would undertake such a gruelling physical challenge and when you take into account Pat's altruistic intentions, you can't help but admire him,'' he says.

''With the money he has raised so far, Red Cross is pleased to begin a major life-saving water sanitation project in East Timor, but we still need $20,000 to complete this project and unfortunately there are many more projects on the list that are yet to start due to lack of funding.''

The money will also be used to build extra latrines at the village of Com's school and to fund hygiene education for the students and teachers.

Com's village chief says the new infrastructure will make a huge difference to the health of the local people.

The Red Cross provides access to water and sanitation in 64 countries, aiming to improve water, sanitation and hygiene outcomes for 15 million people by 2015.

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