BY GLENN OSTLING
Open any newspaper and sports news covers page after page. Television
long been bitten by the same bug. We could fritter away our lives viewing
others schussing down mountain slopes, skating round after round on tracks,
or playing various team sports involving balls and uniformed enemies.
Unfortunately, the one Norwegian athlete who really merits a sports
interview lies beneath the Nile River - the incredible runner known as
Mensen Ernst.Ernst was the first professional Norwegian athlete, and
probably the greatest to date. In the first half of the 19th century he was
recognized across Europe for his long-distance running feats. Like the
best-paid professionals of the 1990s, he was also a master crowd-pleaser
with an aptitude for promotion and raising prize money.
He was born in 1795 on a west coast fjord at Leikanger and christened
Monsen Øyri. His father died in the same year and the Øyri family scraped by
on a tiny farm with financial help from the local community. As a teenager
he moved to Bergen where he soon shipped out as a seaman. In the British
merchant marine his name was semi-anglicised to Mensen Ernst. That was the
name he used on shore-leave when he ran and won his first race, in Cape
Province, South Africa in 1813. In 1818 he left the sea and went ashore in
London.There were always bets on in pubs and he found that he could make a
living running races. For the next few years in England he continued to run
in his blue sailor suit, and the only known portrait of him (above) shows
him as a mate, sextant in hand, against an exotic background.
In the course of history, as agriculture replaced hunting, and horses
over for human legs, running became a sport rather than a necessity - except
perhaps in times of war. From the late 1600s to the mid-1800s a phenomenon
called pedestrianism took hold in Europe, particularly in England. In its
contemporary connotation, a pedestrian was a professional runner. Noblemen
not only raced their horses, they also raced their footmen, or even their
sons. Pedestrianism evolved into organized games such as the annual
athletics contests that started in 1864 between Oxford and Cambridge.
Had college athletic scholarships existed in his day, Mensen Ernst would
have topped the recruiters' lists. He was a true globetrotter, curious about
foreign cultures and quick-witted as well as fleet-footed. He never forgot
his native Norwegian, but he grew fluent in English, German and French, and
could also converse in Italian and Turkish. He probably learned how to ask
directions in many more.
Like a long-distance runner today, Ernst was slightly built. He was
sleep just four hours a day, preferably outdoors. He drank wine but ate only
bread, fruit and cold food, seldom any meat. The British Isles couldn't
satisfy Ernst's wanderlust and he moved his talents to the Continent.
In the summer of 1832 he became the talk of Paris when he spread rumours
about a prospective 15-day jaunt to Moscow. By then Ernst was well known for
running incredible stretches in Germany, France, the Iberian peninsula and
elsewhere. But the Paris-Moscow run roused the popular spirit because he
chose much the same route taken two decades earlier by Napoleon.
Even today, the agony of running such a distance seems prohibitive.
overland travel was hazardous in those days, with epidemics, international
and regional political hostilities, and definitiely no Michelin guidebooks.
Border guards and others were understandably suspicious about a "mad"
Norwegian running like the devil across their territory.
Wagers for and against his success totalling 100,000 francs were made
time he left Place de Vendôme in Paris. He arrived at the gates of the
Kremlin, 2,500 km as the crow flies, two weeks later. His clothes were in
tatters and he was a day ahead of schedule so it took a few hours before
Russian nobles realized that he had arrived.
The stunt secured his reputation and he made the rounds from city to
across Europe, a one-man circus and folk hero.
In 1836 the East India Company paid him £250 to run from Constantinople
Calcutta. He did it in four weeks. After a three-day rest in India, he ran
back again - 8,900 km in 59 days.
According to a contemporary German biographer, Ernst's motto was "Motion
life, stagnation is death." In the spring of 1842 he ran from Muskau in
Prussia down through the Ottoman Empire to Jerusalem in 30 days. He
continued to Cairo, intent on following the Nile to its source, 30 years
before Stanley and Livingstone arrived on the scene. By January 1843 he was
close to the present border between Egypt and Sudan when he succumbed to
dysentery. Mensen Ernst was found dead in the sand a few days later and
buried under some stones at a spot now submerged by the Aswan Dam.