The small world of synchro running

First Night: The Cyber Race - Two marathons 6,000 miles apart become one on the web

The students strolling to the dining hall at Leicester University were, it transpired, unaware that history was being made in their midst. It was 1.30pm on Thursday. A runner trotted along the narrow roadway next to the Charles Wilson Building. "Come on, William!" someone shouted. "An hour and a half to go." And William Sichel continued on his way, head slightly bowed, his facial expression set deep in enduring mode, his wiry frame maintaining its metronomic rhythm.

The students strolling to the dining hall at Leicester University were, it transpired, unaware that history was being made in their midst. It was 1.30pm on Thursday. A runner trotted along the narrow roadway next to the Charles Wilson Building. "Come on, William!" someone shouted. "An hour and a half to go." And William Sichel continued on his way, head slightly bowed, his facial expression set deep in enduring mode, his wiry frame maintaining its metronomic rhythm.

Three girls stopped at the corner of the block, where three students stood with clipboards, stopwatches, collection buckets and a lapcounting board. "An hour and a half to go!" one of the girls said. "How long has this bloke been running, then?" The answer left her in a state of shock. "Twenty-two and a half hours," she blurted. "I can't believe that. The same person can't have kept running for twenty-two and a half hours. I can't even run for for twenty-two and a half minutes."

She did, though, dig deep into her purse and dropped a coin or three into one of the buckets. So did her friends. And by the time the trio departed, a few pounds lighter before their lunchtime meal, the shortstriding Sichel was back within sight again. The next lap being the one in every six on which he slows to a brisk walk, First Night's man on the spot joined the durable Scot on one of his 617m circuits.

"It's been tough," he said. "Tougher than I imagined. It was cold and windy in the night and for a long period I was running on my own. I've had people helping me, people running so many laps for charity. But it's not like a normal race, where you've got people to run against and chase and leader boards to follow... Look out!" A Royal Mail van was bearing down rapidly. Some nimble footwork was required to keep my companion on course for a place in the ultradistance running record books.

The Leicester University World Aids Day 24-hour run was, indeed, no normal race. It was one half of the world's first cyber race. At the same time as Sichel was lapping up the ground in Leicester, 47 rivals were circling a 235m indoor track in Waterloo, near Toronto. The Canadians had set off at 10am their time on Wednesday - precisely the same time as Sichel's 3pm start in England. The two races, 6,000 miles and an ocean apart, merged into one on the internet.

Hourly updates on the distances covered were exchanged via the sports department computer at Leicester. At the 22-hour point Kath Newberry, one of the student helpers, came rushing down the Charles Wilson steps with the latest news. "He's in the lead!" she screamed excitedly. "He's in the lead!" Sichel was not only in the lead but running away from the opposition. "He's 6km ahead," Adrian Stott said. "But I'll tell him it's 3km - just so he doesn't slacken off too much."

Stott knows all about the psychology of ultra running. Two months ago he won the AAA 24-hour title. From 3pm on Wednesday to 3pm on Thursday, though, he was acting as Sichel's "handler", as ultra runners call their essential helper - furnishing him with drinks and food (bananas and energy bars), keeping him company for several laps, keeping him informed of his progress and generally keeping his spirits in as upward a state as possible.

They first met when Sichel bought a pair of shoes at Run and Become, an Edinburgh sports shop where Stott works as manager. "William's a wonderful character," Stott said. "He's so self-effacing. He takes everything in his stride. When his testicular cancer was diagnosed he never saw it as a problem. He just got on with things."

As Sichel took another lap in his stride, dodging cyclists, students and staff cars, precisely how self-effacing a chap he happens to be was confirmed by Emma Staniland, the Leicester student who organised the English half of the race. "I knew William was a remarkable character, because so many people had told me about him," she said. "But I didn't know he'd suffered from cancer."

Sichel, in fact, had a malignant testicle removed in July 1997. "Physiologically, you only need one testes for hormone production," he said. "The other one is for insurance. There is no great difference between having one or two. Obviously some people think it will affect their sense of maleness but that has never been a problem for me."

Cancer is not the only problem Sichel has overcome on his road to prominence in the ultra-distance running world. He happens to live on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney. It might be a suitable location for the mail order knitwear business he runs with his wife Elizabeth (they manufacture thermal clothing from the fur of Angora rabbits), but is hardly ideal for an international ultra runner. At this time of year Sichel needs three layers of clothing as he braves winds of up to 80mph to clock up 80 miles a week in training. "The wind-chill actually makes it about minus 20 degrees," he said, "so I wear a ski mask and smear my face with Vaseline."

The cold in England's East Midlands was not quite so acute but was nevertheless uncomfortably bitter for Sichel, who, at 46, has been a serious runner for only five years. His first sporting love was table tennis. He was a Scottish international.

At the stroke of 3pm on Thursday his latest test of endurance finally came to an end. Apart from emergency pit-stops, Sichel had stopped just twice in the preceding 24 hours - to change his socks. "It sounds daft," he said, "but nothing specifically hurts. I've done these races before and you do build up a hardness, a resistance, a toughness. My feet are a little bit sore, but not too bad."

Sichel's feat was not a bad one either. In 24 hours he had covered 139 miles 739 yards - 5.3 marathons in one day. It was the best 24-hour performance by a Briton in 1999, knocking Don Ritchie from top spot in the rankings. But as the multi-marathon man shuffled off towards the sports department and its showers it remained to be seen whether he had actually won the world's first cyber race.

The idea had been conceived by Ryne Melcher, the organiser at the Canadian end, and by Staniland when she worked as an interpreter at this year's 100km world championship race in France. Twenty minutes after the trans-Atlantic finish deadline their final e-mails crossed. Sichel had won his battle with the Waterloo runners - by a distance of eight miles. Victor Hickey, the best of the bunch in Canada, had completed 131 miles. "It's all turned out well, then," the Scottish victor said. "To win the cyber race and get the No 1 British ranking... I've ended the season on a high."

Not that the finish line was quite in sight for Sichel. Orkney's longdistance trail-blazer still had one ultra-marathon ahead of him. By train (to Edinburgh), by plane (to Kirkwall) and by boat (to Sanday), it would take him 41 hours to get home.

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