James Zarei was 39 when he pulled on a pair of running shoes for the first time. "I could only manage 100 metres," he recalled. Thirteen years later, distance has become no object to the British running hero who is not so much unsung as unheard of.
It might have been different had he stuck to 100m. As Alan Storey, former British marathon coach and now general manager of the London Marathon, put it: "He'd probably be a millionaire if he were a sprinter." It is Zarei's misfortune - good fortune, he would insist - that he has found his running feet at the other end of the scale. He is idolised in Greece, where he has twice won the 164-mile Spartathlon race. And he is big in Japan, where he has won the 279-mile Hiroshima to Nagasaki Peace Run three times. But in Britain, where he won the most recent six-day race by 55 miles, averaging just a few yards short of four marathons a day, Zarei is an unknown foot-soldier, just another face in the running crowd.
When Britain's Athlete of the Year is crowned at the Park Lane Hotel, central London, in November, he will be far from the madding, cork-popping crowd, more than likely tucked up early in bed in readiness for the four- hour run he makes from his Croydon home at 5am each Sunday. Yet the unassuming 52-year-old, who starts his weekdays with a three-and-a-half-hour run before working as a sales assistant at a leather goods shop near Victoria Station, is as worthy a candidate for recognition as the gold-less Olympians about to be feted.
Consider Zarei's remarkable run in the Hiroshima to Nagasaki event in August. He led until two miles from the finish of the four-day event, at which point he collapsed and was taken to hospital suffering from heat- stroke and dehydration. He was attached to two saline drips for six hours, then returned to the course and completed the distance. Such had been his lead, he still finished runner-up.
This is a man who at 38 - two years older than the current age of Linford Christie, the far-from-shy but possibly retiring captain of the British track and field team - was a 20-a-day smoker who could not run to catch a bus. Yet even those from the conventional side of the British athletics track, let alone the public at large, have a long-held apathy for ultra- distance runners, those eccentric souls who inhabit the twilight zone beyond the 26-mile limit of the common marathon.
"For one thing," Storey said, "all of the big ultra-distance races are abroad. And it's hard for people to relate to, a bit like motor racing. Until you've had a go it's just cars whizzing past. No one in Britain, except James, has any idea what it's like to run four marathons a day for six days. He'd receive significant public acclaim in other countries. He's a hero in Greece."
That much was evident by the widespread disappointment when dawn broke on Friday and Zarei was not among the field assembled in the shadow of the Acropolis for the start of this year's Spartathlon. Though he stood to make history as the first man to win the event three years in succession, he felt the need to help his 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, settle into university digs of greater import. It was typical of such a serene, philosophical soul.
He can always return to Greece to attempt a third win next year, he reasons. And, in the meantime, the memories are still warm of his particularly resonant successes in the race that commemorates the historic long-distance run. Zarei has lived in England since 1966 and has been a British citizen for 15 years, but as a native Iranian he is a descendant of the Persians whose invasion of Marathon in 490BC was, according to Greek legend, the reason Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta in search of help.
The Athenian messenger took two days. In last year's Spartathlon, Zarei completed the 164-mile route, over five mountain passes, in 25 hours 59 minutes and 42 seconds. "It was wonderful," he said. "I remember the first year I ran, one article in a Greek newspaper said, 'In ancient days Persians could not reach Sparta but in the modern day James Zarei, sportsman, proves it is possible'."
As well as headlines, the Greeks gave Croydon's longest, though not necessarily loneliest, long- distance runner a pair of shoes. That is more than he has ever received in his adopted homeland, and under whose national flag he runs. "I am not crying about it," he said. "The Queen Mother Sports Centre in Victoria welcome me after my morning run. They let me shower and change for work. They are the only ones who help me. But I do not want to moan. I never make myself big- headed. I run because it gives me enjoyment. My age does not matter.
"The longer the distance, the more I enjoy it. When I started running races I found the farther I went I still felt strong at the end. I have run a marathon, in 2 hours 45 minutes I think, but I ran 10 miles to warm up first. That is not denigrating the marathon. Every distance has its own beauty. With me, it's like an old car: the longer it goes, the better it cruises along."
That was certainly the case at Gateshead Stadium in 1990 when Zarei won the last six-day race held in Britain. Halting only for brief naps, and essential food and pit-stops, he beat his rivals by a staggering 55 miles. His winning distance, 622 miles, was a tantalising one mile short of the total which stood as a world record from 1888 until 1984 and which remains the British record today. What compounded Zarei's frustration was the fact that he would have smashed it had he, and the other competitors, not lost two and a quarter hours because the stadium hosted a football "friendly" between Gateshead and Rangers. He would have added some 15 miles to his total.
The surviving British record was set in an era when six-day races between professional runners, or "pedestrians," as they were then known, drew huge crowds in Britain and the United States. The 623 miles 1,320 yards George Littlewood covered at Madison Square Garden, New York, earned him a world championship belt and a $5,400 purse that allowed him to retire at 29 and buy a pub in Sheffield.
James Zarei, should he erase Littlewood's name from the record books, would probably have to settle for a mention in Athletics Weekly and a pat on the back from those who recognise a truly great British runner when they see one.
Four to the fore in the ultra-marathon
Won the world 100km challenge in 1993 and the European 100km title in August. Set world bests for 30 miles and 50km this year. Played hockey for South of England at school. Works at a cycle shop in York.
Has set more world bests and records than any other runner. Won world 100km challenge in 1990 and international 24 hour championship. Still one of the world's best at 49. Member of the Carlisle club Border Harriers.
Awarded MBE last year. Took 15 minutes off the 100km track world best in 1978, a record that still stands. The 51-year-old from Elgin is still an international and also holds the John O'Groats to Land's End record: 840 miles in 10 days 15 hours.
Suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Took up jogging six years ago when her 5ft 4in frame topped 13 stone. The 37-year-old Scot finished second in the 100km world championship race two years ago and ran in the world championship marathon in Gothenburg last year, finishing 22nd, three places behind Fatuma Roba, who won the Olympic marathon title in Atlanta.
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