Mystery of the marathon man

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The Independent Online
AN interesting invitation came through this week: how did I fancy going on a walking holiday to the base camp of Everest? Trouble is, whenever I mention it to friends, they scoff at the idea of me walking more than 100 yards unless there's water containing fish to justify such effort.

Sadly, they're probably right - though they are wrong to mock. I know a far more unlikely walker who once tramped 20 miles in appalling conditions with all his tackle. The only thing was, he didn't mean to. And it was sort of my fault.

It all resulted from a fishing competition on the Royal Military Canal in Kent. Alan (I'll scrub his surname to save embarrassment) and I were at opposite ends of the contest, so I drove him close to his peg and promised to meet him on the same bridge when the event was over.

When I drove back, he wasn't there. I waited around, then walked to where he had fished. No sign. I figured he must have returned to the headquarters with someone else, so I went back too.

But he wasn't there either. I checked with others who knew him. Yes, he'd fished all day but they hadn't seen him afterwards. I checked with the local hospital. No Alan. By now the other anglers had dispersed. Puzzled, but not altogether surprised (he was always a little unreliable), I drove home. A little later I phoned his flat, but the answering machine was on. Not seeing what else I could do, I went out to a party.

It wasn't until the next day, when an enraged Alan phoned enquiring where the hell I had been, that we solved the mystery. He had waited at the wrong bridge for two hours. He didn't know it then, but his troubles were only just starting.

All the anglers had long departed, so he started walking to find the nearest bus stop. But buses are rare as Eskimo pole-vaulters in that part of Kent late on Saturday afternoons. Worse, Alan discovered with horror that his coat and wallet were in my car.

Although it was a cold evening, he was soon sweating. He was scarcely dressed for a hike: bulky one-piece thermal suit, thigh waders and about 50lb of fishing tackle.

A local eventually directed him to the nearest train station. Unfortunately, Alan misunderstood the directions, and instead of walking a couple of miles, he had covered about seven before he found the station. By now, he was not in the best of moods. Raking through his fishing box and searching all his pockets, he found just enough money for the single train fare to London. He tried a couple of unsuccessful phone calls, but they just reduced his spare cash to a mere 2p.

Trains from that part of Kent come into London Bridge. By then, it was 10.30pm, and he had to get to Hendon. It doesn't look very far on the map, but it's still a good 10 miles. When you're wearing waders and a thermal suit, loaded up with rods, a fishing box, a net bag and a biscuit tin full of maggots, it must seem like walking a marathon backwards. To make it worse, the most direct way is through London's busiest areas - Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Baker Street.

Late revellers, clubgoers and people of the night may still recall that evening in late July, when a small fat man staggered past them dressed up as a fisherman. It must have been quite a sight. Certainly his appearance attracted a lot of ribald comments. He made Piccadilly Circus by midnight, Baker Street by 1.30am and the end of the Finchley Road by 3am. He might have done it a little faster but he was stopped twice by police cars, who wanted to know what this idiot was doing staggering around in full fishing regalia like a salmon angler who has lost a river.

There came a time when he could not go on. He found a bus shelter, took off his waders and went to sleep. Alan woke up at 5am when rain started to drip through the bus shelter roof. While he had slept, someone had stolen all his tackle and his waders - though they had left the biscuit tin of maggots. It was the final cruel blow. He had to walk the rest of the way home through the sodden streets in bare feet (his socks still being in the waders). He was not best pleased when he phoned me.

I was, of course, hugely sympathetic once I had finished rolling round on the floor holding my stomach. But there's a serious lesson here. If unfit Alan could manage such a distance with all his tackle (albeit not the last couple of miles), I'm certain Everest would be a Sunday afternoon stroll.

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