Let Us Now Praise Crazy Mofos

A 2,360-Mile Swim

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Martin Strel: Swim & Swill
THE NAME OF MARTIN STREL’S hometown in Slovenia—Mokronog—translates as “Wet Feet,” an appropriate birthplace for a man who, over the past four years, has swum a total of 5,427 miles down three of the planet’s major rivers.

Strel, 49, doesn’t look like Aquaman: At five foot 11 and 230 pounds, he’s a potbellied fireplug. But for 58 days on central Europe’s Danube, in 2000, 68 days on the Mississippi, in 2002, and 24 days on Argentina’s Paraná, in 2003, Strel—wearing a wetsuit and goggles, swimming freestyle, and escorted by a support team in kayaks and a motorboat—stroked an average of 12 hours and 40 miles a day. Along the way, he racked up world records for the longest nonstop swim (313 miles over 84 hours, set on the Danube) and the longest continous swim (the 2,360 miles he stroked down the Mississippi).

On all three rivers, Strel allowed himself just one daily creature comfort: a bottle of Slovenian wine called Cvicek, half of which he drank during onshore lunches to wash down his energy bars, the other half with dinner at a hotel. “I like it,” he says, “because it doesn’t get me drunk right away.”

Even with a buzz, marathon swimming is rough. One dark morning on the Danube, Strel collided with a barge and was trapped underwater for more than a minute. On day 41 of the Mississippi swim, lightning struck a buoy three feet from Strel, blasting him halfway out of the water. (He kept going.) Two weeks later, a stomach infection forced him to switch to the backstroke so he could roll to one side and barf.

Strel says he first began dreaming of epic swims as a young boy. At 23, he quit teaching guitar and began racing in open-water swimming events, but didn’t feel “psychologically mature” enough to take on extreme distances until 1997, when, at 42, he raised $50,000 to make a 48-mile crawl from Cape Bon, Tunisia, to the Italian island of Pantelleria.

Thousands of miles and millions of dollars in sponsorships later, Strel says the swimming will continue until his body falls apart. “It’s taken me over like a drug,” he admits. He’ll get his next fix this summer in China, where he plans to swim 2,610 miles of the Yangtze—and down ten gallons of Cvicek along the way.

Walking the Seven Seas

Rémy Bricka: Stalking the 7 Seas

RÉMY BRICKA FIRST CROSSED the Atlantic Ocean in 1972, sailing luxury-class aboard France, a 1,035-foot passenger steamer. For his second trip, he decided to walk.

The French-born Bricka, then 38, left the Canary Islands on April 2, 1988, with his feet lashed to a pair of 14-foot fiberglass pontoons. Behind him, he towed a raft outfitted with a coffin-size sleeping compartment and carrying fishing tackle, compass, sextant, and three portable water desalinators. Walking 50 miles a day with a precarious upright rowing technique that made him look like a drunk nordic skier, Bricka aimed for the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, subsisting on fish and plankton he scooped up from drifting schools.

Strange as it seems, given these foolproof preparations, there were problems. Two of Bricka’s desalinators bonked halfway through his stroll, so he supplemented his hydration with a daily quart of seawater. Two months in, a Japanese trawler plucked him from the Caribbean near Trinidad. Emaciated and hallucinating (“I saw trolls attack my legs!” he recalls), he’d dwindled from 160 pounds to 110.

The feat—a 3,502-mile hike over open ocean—earned Bricka a Guinness world record but grabbed few headlines in France, where he’s famous for another form of performance art. Clad entirely in white, Bricka tours the country with two dozen instruments strapped to his body and a pet dove and rabbit riding shotgun on his shoulders. He’s known to one and all as L’homme Orchestre, or the One-Man Band.

So far, the only person to challenge Bricka’s water-walking record is Bricka himself. In April 2000, he left Los Angeles, planning to walk the Pacific and arrive in Sydney in time to crash the Summer Olympics. Stoeffler, a French deli-foods company, donated an 11-pound tub of sauerkraut and put up $100,000 for equipment, including freeze-dried meals, an Iridium satellite phone, and a GPS unit.

En route, Bricka ran out of food and his Iridium service shut down. A cyclone packing 50-foot swells thrashed his raft. Using a handheld messaging device, he e-mailed a plea to his wife, in Paris: “Come pick me up now or I’ll have to hitchhike.”

Ten days later, an American tuna boat found Bricka 500 miles south of Hawaii. He’d failed, but it was a grand failure: The oompah man of the sea had covered 4,847 miles in 153 days.

Jogging for 27,705 Miles

Genshin Fujinami Ajari: Jogging for Buddha

“THE ONLY ADVICE I GOT before setting out was to keep my feet warm,” says Genshin Fujinami Ajari, a 46-year-old Buddhist monk in Japan. “Of course, the day before I started, it snowed. I thought to myself, Oh, this is going to be tough.”

Well, nobody ever said enlightenment was easy. Last September, Fujinami, a member of Japan’s devout Tendai sect, finished the ultimate ceremonial slog: a seven-year, 27,705-mile series of laps around the five peaks northeast of Kyoto. He’s only the 49th monk since 1585 to complete the Hieizan Sennichi Kaihogyo, or “Mount Hiei Thousand-Day Circumambulation Practice”—and when you break down what he did, it’s easy to see why so few have triumphed.

For 100 consecutive days in each of his first three years as a pilgrim, Fujinami rose at midnight, prayed, ran and walked 18 miles (stopping 250 times to pray), did chores back at the monastery, ate, and hit the sack. In years four and five, he upped his total to 200 consecutive days. Year six saw him complete a 37-mile course every day for 100 consecutive days, then endure the doiri—seven days without food, water, or sleep while sitting upright and chanting 100,000 mantras. In year seven, he trekked 52 miles a day for 100 straight days, usually from 1 a.m. to 5 p.m., then 18 miles a day for 100 consecutive days.

Fujinami looped Mount Hiei through sweltering humidity, typhoons, and snowstorms, wearing only white cotton layers, straw sandals, and (when needed) a straw raincoat. He also carried a rope and a knife—so he could hang or stab himself if he failed on his quest. (Records don’t indicate whether a Tendai runner has ever killed himself, but you’re required to be ready to take this step.)

“The fourth, fifth, and seventh years were the toughest times,” says Fujinami, who hasn’t visited his family since 1996 and won’t for another five years. “No. The sixth year was the toughest, actually, because of the doiri. But also the seventh year: The distance was extended, so that was the hardest part, also.” Pause. “Actually, there was no year that was easy.”

“But,” chirps the saintly master of the severe practice, “I’m thinking of going back to walking the 100 days this year. Why? Because it’s so beneficial to my appreciation.”

Running Seven Marathons in Seven Days on Seven Continents

Sir Ranulph Fiennes & Dr. Michael Stroud: Marathon Madmen

ON JUNE 7, 2003, famed British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 59, suffered a heart attack so severe that he underwent immediate double-bypass surgery and didn’t come to for three days. And yet on October 21, 2003, with only two and a half months of training under his belt—and post-op wires still in place to keep his chest cavity shut—Fiennes and his longtime comrade-in-extremes, Dr. Michael Stroud, 48, stashed a defibrillator in a duffel, flew to Chilean Patagonia, and set out to complete seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.

“Originally, I’d rung Mike up to see if he might have any interest in climbing Everest,” says Fiennes, a gallant gent who insists you call him “Ran.” “But when he learned you can’t do it in under three months, he proposed the marathons instead, to keep it short and sweet.”

Short and sweet? Only for a pair who in 1993 spent 95 days dragging 500-pound sleds across Antarctica. On the marathon trip, air transport alone would have crushed most mortals: 11 flights, 45,000 miles, and 75 hours in the sky.

British Airways helped by comping the men with first-class seats, but Fiennes and Stroud still had to make their flights if they were going to stay on track. Twice, they had only six hours to land, get through customs, run a marathon, and catch their next plane. Their itinerary took them on an east-north-west horseshoe, from Tierra del Fuego, in Chile, out and back to the Falkland Islands (a last-minute substitute for Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands, where a storm had halted flights), then on to Sydney, Singapore, London, Cairo, and, finally, New York, for the only formal, everyone-else-is-doing-it marathon of the lot. They ran their first marathon in 3:45; they crossed the finish line in Central Park in 5:25. Both men nearly quit after the heat and humidity of Singapore, where Stroud started passing “brown muck” in his urine.

“Myoglobin,” he recalls. “My muscle-tissue destruction had reached 500 times the normal rate.” A gastroenterologist, Stroud is one of the world’s leading experts on physical responses to extreme conditions. He says he and Ran made fine guinea pigs for his research, which, he points out, suggests that some runners may not require extended periods of recovery.

“The day after we returned, I went straight back to work,” he says. “Not a problem.”

Heinz Stücke: Pedaling the Planet

Heinz Stucke: Pedaling the Planet

IN 1962, 22-YEAR-OLD tool and die maker Heinz Stücke rode out of Hövelhof, Germany, on a three-speed bicycle, with $300 in his pocket and a plan to see the world. After 42 years and 300,000 miles, there’s still more he wants to see. Sometime in the early eighties, after two decades with no fixed address, Stücke decided to extend his trip to every country on the globe.

“It was clear that I wasn’t going to stop,” he says. “One day I said, ‘I am going to drop dead on my bicycle.’ ” So in 1996, when he notched his last country—the Seychelles—he just kept going.

At first, he pedaled simply to “see around the next corner.” But as the years piled up, he was driven as much by not wanting to return home, citing “the fear of going back to the factory, and to the very small-minded people in my village.”

Stücke, a compact man with a friendly smile, says he averages 68 miles a day, lugging 80-plus pounds of gear. He’s spent around $130,000 in all, funding his travels with sales of an autobiographical booklet and photographs, and occasional donations—including, in 1963, $500 from Ethiopia’s emperor at the time, Haile Selassie. Along the way, he’s been hit by a truck in Chile’s Atacama Desert, chased by an angry Haitian mob, beaten unconscious by Egyptian soldiers, detained by Cameroon’s military for “slandering the state” (“I have no idea what I did wrong,” says Stücke), and attacked by bees while bathing in a river in Mozambique. But even when Zimbabwean rebels shot him in the foot, in 1980, Stücke never considered quitting. “In the middle of Africa, you don’t have a choice, anyway,” he says. “You don’t go to the nearest airport and fly home.”

Now 64, Stücke has set up temporary shop in Paris to sort through souvenirs, photos, and letters he accumulated during his days on the road. Since 2001, finances have limited his travels to half the year, but he’s chasing the 22 or so remaining territories—like Greenland and Christmas Island—that he needs to capture the title of world’s most traveled person.

“It is not my real ambition, but it is something to keep your eyes on,” he says of the record. “Which is what we all need, isn’t it?”

Hiking Britain Naked

Steve Gough: Go Nude

“THERE’S A PART OF ME that says, Don’t be stupid,” Steve Gough confided to a reporter from the Glasgow-based Sunday Herald shortly before he strode into the hamlet of John o’Groat’s, at the northern tip of Scotland, this past January 22. “Just sort of go home and sort of be normal. But part of me thinks, Go on, Steve, go on.”

Seven months earlier, in June 2003, the rangy ex–Royal Marine turned New Ager, then 44, had departed Land’s End, Cornwall, on a bold mission—to walk the 900-mile length of Britain wearing naught but boots, a hat, and a rucksack, regardless of weather—and John o’Groat’s was the end of the road. The man Fleet Street calls “the Naked Rambler” had been arrested 14 times, spent nearly five months behind bars, had his nose broken by a gang of thugs, and suffered public excoriation at the hands of his estranged common-law wife, Alison Ward, for deserting their two children, ages six and seven. (Her tart assessment in the Scottish Daily Record: “I think he was struggling with the anonymity of his life.”)

There’s no law in the UK against public nudity (Gough was arrested for breaching the peace, among other charges), but in recent years emboldened nudists—including one who chained himself to a gate at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s London residence—have adopted the language of the American civil rights movement, aiming to “stop the segregation” of people who prefer to let it all hang out. In line with this loosely knit group, the soft-spoken, occasionally stuttering Gough insists he’s neither streaker nor naturist but an advocate of “the freedom to be yourself.”

“If there was a catalyst, it was one summer when I was looking after my children,” says Gough, speaking by telephone from his girlfriend’s London flat. “They’d strip off and run around naked, and I thought it was great. But I started to notice how often other adults would suggest, in subtle ways, that they put their clothes back on. It really galvanized me. I realized that most of us are damaged in that way from childhood—taught to feel shame.”

What’s next for Gough? A documentary, a book deal, and, no doubt, ongoing legal hassles. “The walk hasn’t ended,” he insists. “The question—do I want to be me or what others want me to be?—didn’t end at John o’Groat’s. It continues.”

Vacation in War-Time Iraq

Derick Williams & Harvey Gough: “Baghdad Sounded Like Fun”

“THERE I WAS, OUTSIDE the Palestine Hotel, sitting in front of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and sipping an Amstel tall boy,” recalls 35-year-old Texan Derick Williams of his first hours cruising wartime Baghdad, in April 2003. “Then somebody started shooting at us. It was a little surreal.”

Probably so. At the time, Baghdad had just fallen and was rife with looting and potshots. Some 135 U.S. soldiers had been killed and another 495 reportedly wounded. Williams wasn’t in town as an aid worker, journalist, or human shield—he was a freelance risk enthusiast, making him a prime candidate to be shot or arrested. But Williams, a burly Dallas home restorer, didn’t mind at all. “I went for the adventure,” he says, “and I just felt like everything would be OK.”

Williams was traveling with a partner, a 65-year-old Army vet, superpatriot, and burger-joint tycoon named Harvey Gough, who was on a quest to find a Saddam Hussein statue to match the one of Vladimir Lenin perched outside his Dallas restaurant. (“I went because Tommy Franks said I couldn’t,” scowls Gough. He served with the original leader of Operation Iraqi Freedom during the first Gulf war, when Franks was an assistant division commander in the First Cavalry.) After flying to Jordan, the two hired a driver and a Chevy Suburban and bluffed their way into Iraq, claiming to be from a Texas food bank. Their first stop was an isolated airstrip called H3, which was guarded by U.S. Special Forces in tricked-out dune buggies.

“They were big, buff guys in caps and sunglasses, and their guns were drawn,” Williams says. “They were really edgy.”

Other highlights from the five-day tour included browsing for AK-47s at the Baghdad souk and whistling their way into the heavily guarded HQ of the Army’s V Corps. Their hairiest moment came during a day trip to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, when Gough tried to swipe a flag from an abandoned police station. A pissed-off mob chased him away. “That was Harvey’s thing,” sighs Williams. “These guys thought he was being disrespectful, and I thought they were right.”

In the end, Gough didn’t find his statue, but Williams certainly scored a lifetime of adventure. “I’d do it again,” he says. “In a second.”

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