Editor's Note: Pat Farmer finished his run from the North Pole to the South Pole on January 19, 2012.
IT'S THE LONGEST distance you can run in a single direction—start at the North Pole, stop at the South—so the last thing you need is painfully infected toes. Pat Farmer is wincing along with that affliction when I reach him by phone, in northwestern Peru, about two-thirds of the way to his destination, having covered roughly 10,000 miles of the 13,000 he’ll log.
The 49-year-old Farmer, a longtime ultrarunner and former member of Australia’s parliament, is covering more than 50 miles a day, running through all sorts of agony. His lower lip is split from the constant wind. He’s suffered blisters, shin splints, nerve twinges. His toes became infected in the dank jungles of Colombia, where he got separated from his support team and couldn’t change socks. He sleeps between four and six hours per night, eats on the run, and, as I find out, talks on the run, too.
“Peru hasn’t been too kind to us,” he tells me, his voice crackling down the line as he hoofs it through the desert 125 miles north of Lima and 20 miles into the day’s run. “There’s the desert and headwinds, of course, and then we got robbed.” On two occasions, he says, bandits pilfered gear from the RVs. “I’ll be glad when we get to Chile.”
What makes Farmer’s run so remarkable isn’t just the huge distance he’s covering—other endurance athletes have gone farther (see “Globe-Trotting”). But in an age when all the great firsts have been done, the new measure of adventure excellence is often the level of protracted agony. And no one has perfected the art of the suffer-fest quite like Farmer. To reach the South Pole by February, he’s running two marathons per day—through jungles, over ice, up mountains. And he’s not taking a single day off.
“That’s a shitload,” says Marshall Ulrich, author of Running on Empty, who has raced more than 100 ultramarathons and climbed the Seven Summits. “I have no idea how he’s doing it. Any time you top 50 miles a day, you’re in a whole different class. Your body never has time to recover.”
Farmer, a onetime car mechanic, started running long distances in 1984 while working as a landscaper. He made a name for himself in the ultra world in 1993 by finishing second in the Trans-American footrace, a 2,912-miler across the U.S.; in 1995, he placed fourth after running for 50 days on a stress fracture.
His wife, Lisa, died of heart disease in 1998, leaving him to raise their two kids, but that didn’t slow him down. In 1999, he ran a circle around Australia—literally—covering 9,111 miles over six months. Buoyed by the celebrity that generated, he successfully campaigned for office in 2001 and served nine years in Australia’s House of Representatives. In 2010, his kids away at boarding school, he decided to leave office and announced his plan to run from the North Pole to the South Pole to raise $100 million for the International Red Cross. Farmer has a couple dozen corporate sponsors, but the trip is also a labor of love: he sold his house to help cover expenses, which will total $3 million.
The mission started on April 6, when a helicopter dropped Farmer and three team members at the North Pole. During the first month, they shuffled more than ran, covering barely 13 miles a day in snowshoes while man-hauling 220 pounds of gear each in combination kayak-sledges. At Ward Hunt Island, Canada, Farmer ditched his sledge and snowshoes and met up with his full support team: two RVs and a crew of five, including a nurse, a logistics coordinator and fitness trainer, and a cameraman. Since then he’s been doing half-centuries every day, from Radisson, Quebec; through Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., Georgia, and Texas; and into Mexico and South America. (He took this circuitous route so he could hit key Red Cross offices along the way.) He’s raised only $100,000 so far, and media coverage in the U.S. was tepid.
Is he disappointed about being so far behind his fundraising goal? “Absolutely,” Farmer says, but he’s also optimistic about the exposure he’s bringing to the Red Cross in places like Colombia, where, he says, “this is the first time they’ve gotten coverage not in response to a cyclone or mudslide.”
Before he got to Colombia, though, there were some obstacles to overcome. On a freeway in eastern Mexico, one of his support RVs was clipped by a passing semi, which flipped. Farmer, who was running nearby, dived safely into the roadside weeds. “There’s got to be an angel looking after me, or I’d be dead now,” he says. In the Colombian jungle, the RVs were delayed, and Farmer, who ran ahead, was forced to sleep by the side of the trail. His feet remained damp and dirty for days, which led to the infected toes. You can watch a graphic video at Poletopolerun.com of a Red Cross crew doing impromptu surgery.
Through it all, Farmer hasn’t taken a day off, ingesting 8,000 to 10,000 calories per day in olive oil, porridge, canned tuna, chocolate, chicken, and eggs. The continual punishment may put the ultrarunner into unmapped physiological territory. What happens to a cardiovascular system—not to mention a set of knees—abused like this without any opportunity for recovery? “The short answer is that no one really knows,” says Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, who specializes in endurance sports. “In general, the data shows that people who exercise throughout life have better joints as they age. However, this is so far out of typical range that it’s really impossible to say.”
For his part, Farmer maintains that there’s nothing special about him. “People think I’m some kind of superman,” he says. “But I hurt all night. And in the morning I’m like a cripple until I get going and loosened up. Anybody can do what I’m doing, but you’ve got to want it with all your heart.”
In late December, Farmer plans to catch an airlift from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Antarctica’s Ronne Ice Shelf. From there, accompanied by a three-man team, he’ll snowshoe 466 miles to the South Pole. “Touch wood,” Farmer tells me, “we will finish this thing.” Then he hangs up. After all, he’s got another marathon to go before the day is over.