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Norwegian sailor Mensen Ernst, a 19th century ultrarunner of great renown, was one of the world’s first professional athletes, and is said to have performed feats of endurance over incredible distances. Tony O’Donnell looks at his extraordinary life, and considers what is fact and what may be fiction.
On a hot, dusty afternoon in June 1832, two peasants – let’s call them Gaston and Pierre – sat by the main road through the village of Ay, 200 miles east of Paris, enjoying an aperitif. In this time between planting and harvest there was little else to do but watch the midsummer sun cross the sky. A dog dozed on a doorstep nearby; the only sounds were the singing of the birds and the chirping of the crickets. Gaston yawned, spat and scratched an armpit. To his right, through the haze, something in the distance caught his eye. A man? He rubbed his eyes and squinted. Yes, a man. A lone figure, approaching at a pace that seemed entirely unnecessary in this heat.
Gaston nudged Pierre and gestured towards the approaching figure. Pierre frowned into the distance. Yes, the man was running. By now he was close enough for Gaston and Pierre to take a good look at him. He was compact and muscular, squat even. His attire of white tunic and black trousers was topped by a hat accessorised with a large plume feather, which bobbed comically as he ran with a peculiarly long and loping gait. The two men strained to see what chasing beast or robber might be bringing about his evident haste; but behind him the road was empty.
By now the stranger was almost upon them. He did not acknowledge his small audience, if he was aware of their presence at all. His eyes gazed into the middle distance along the road ahead. The two men craned their necks and looked to the left; if the man wasn’t running away from something, then surely he must be running towards something. But there was nothing to be seen. He was just, well, running. Gaston shrugged. “Alors,” he said to his friend, “ça doit être fou, lui!” He must be a madman. He and Pierre grappled the man to the ground, and ignoring his unintelligible protestations, manhandled him to the nearest pigsty, wherein they locked him for his own safety.
Fortunately, the madman was able to engineer his escape (he wagered with his captors that he could outrun a horse, and took the opportunity to scarper in the opposite direction, or so the story goes). Thirteen days later, ragged but unbowed, he arrived in Moscow, having swum 13 rivers and covered over 1600 miles on roads that were poorly paved, if they were paved at all. That is, the equivalent of four-and-a-half marathons.
For two weeks.
And this was by no means the craziest thing this particular madman is said to have done in his particularly colourful lifetime.
Mons Monsen Øyri was born in the village of Fresvik, in the fjordlands of Norway, in June 1795, the son of a poor tenant farmer who died that same year (a census of the time says that the family was dependent on charity). Fresvik today is a small village of some 200 souls, situated on an arrowhead of flat land on the southern shore of the Sognefjord, 100 miles east of the city of Bergen. Nowadays the fields around the village are given over to the production of raspberries. In the early 19th century, Fresvik would have been no larger and no more cosmopolitan. Then as now, the mountains rising like walls from the waters of the fjord obscured the distant horizons. Young Mons was afflicted by the urge to wander from an early age, and must have spent his early years wondering what lay behind the peaks that crowded around the village.
In 1810, Mons left Fresvik to become a blacksmith’s apprentice in Bergen. Whether by accident or design, this appointment was a mere stepping stone to the outside world, as he almost immediately enrolled at the Royal Navigation School in Copenhagen (which at that time was the capital city of the Dano-Norwegian union). Here he would learn the navigation skills that proved so useful during his later career. Mons is thought to have been present as a ship’s boy at the Battle of Tromsø in July 1812; shortly afterwards he joined the British merchant navy, anglicised his name (sort of), and at the age of 18 left Norway, never to return.
The young sailor’s wanderings now began in earnest. Mensen Ernst, as he was now known, spent the next five years at sea aboard HMS Caledon, sailing around the Mediterranean and making at least three voyages to India via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1817, while on shore leave in Cape Province, Ernst took part in a race against local runners, and won. Evidently having found his vocation, the following year he began racing in London. At that time foot racing or “pedestrianism” was enjoying a great deal of popularity both in America and in Europe. A good living was to be made by a capable pedestrian, both in prize money and in wagers (it was perfectly acceptable to bet on oneself). Clearly recognising the value of a good gimmick, Ernst ran in his sailor’s outfit and soon attracted something of a following among the sizable crowds turning out to watch the races.
In 1819, Mensen Ernst took part in his first major race, from London to the naval town of Portsmouth, a distance of 72 miles, which he won in nine hours of running – maintaining a remarkable average pace of eight minutes per mile over the distance. He then took part in and won a race from London to Liverpool, covering the 150 mile distance in 32 hours. Having made his name in England, Ernst turned his eyes towards Europe.
The following year Ernst left Britain for the continent, sailing to Hamburg and from there making his way on foot to Berlin. After a three day sojourn in the capital he progressed eastwards to Silesia, near to the Polish border. There he became a guest of the Wedemeyr family at their manor house “Anrode” near Dingelstädt. Ernst and the Wedemayr family became very close, and Anrode became his home for the next four years, interrupted by only a few wanderings during that time. But this rural idyll was unable to tie him down, and in 1824 he took to the road once more.
The next three years were characterised by a series of journeys to the four corners of Europe, where Ernst pursued parallel careers as athlete, gambler and circus act. Some of these trips proved to be very lucrative for Ernst, others less so. His travels in Italy and, later, Spain and Portugal brought great crowds of spectators, but modest financial reward. While in Spain, he was unable to earn enough money from racing to live on, and had to request for money to be sent from Germany. He made his way to Portugal, where he was able to scrape together barely enough money to get back over the Pyrenees into France. Other trips were more profitable; en route to Denmark from Anrode he ran a number of lucrative races, including one where he is said to have outrun a horse. Ever the showman. In Copenhagen, the crowds that turned out to watch Ernst were so large and excitable that the Royal Guards had to hold them back while, watched by the King of Denmark, he took part in a race of 13 laps of a course measuring 900 paces. Ernst won the race with a time of 21 minutes. He raced his way through France, and spent three lucrative months in Paris where he ran a number well-attended exhibition races. And from there, Ernst made his way back to England. In Portsmouth, he signed up with the Royal Navy and sailed off to war.
Of the many colourful episodes in the story of Mensen Ernst, this is one of the most extraordinary. Of course, with his naval background this was by no means the first time Ernst had seen the larger world, but it was almost as if Europe was simply not big enough to contain the man. On October 20th 1827, Ernst’s ship, part of a combined British, French and Russian fleet, engaged the Turkish-Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino, a key naval battle of the Greek War of Independence and history’s last major battle between sailing ships. Though heavily outnumbered, the allied fleet succeeded in almost completely destroying the enemy armada, thus hastening the independence of the Kingdom of Greece from the Ottoman Empire. Mensen Ernst reportedly distinguished himself with his bravery during the battle. His duties fulfilled, instead of returning to Europe he left the ship in Malta; we can only guess whether this was an impulsive act, or if hitching a lift to the Mediterranean with the Royal Navy was a premeditated plan. From there he sailed to Alexandria and, having visited the Pyramids, travelled overland to Jerusalem, Damascus and Constantinople (now Istanbul), where he took part in a number of well-attended exhibition races; he progressed from there to Bucharest, Vienna, Prague and Dresden, and after a journey lasting almost a year, Ernst finally arrived back “home” at Anrode.
Once rested, Ernst undertook his final racing trip, taking in Belgium, Holland, Scotland and, once more, France. But by this time he had become dissatisfied with the life of the itinerant foot racer, and had set his sights on more ambitious goals.
At the start of the 1830s, Mensen Ernst hatched a plan for the first of his “great races”. Aided by Count Gustav Carl Fredrik Löwenhielm, the Royal Swedish envoy in Paris, he planned a journey on foot from Paris to Moscow, which he would attempt to complete in only 15 days. The departure date was set for 11th June, 1832, the twentieth anniversary year of Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous march on Moscow (which, taking into account the showman’s flair we have already seen in Ernst, is unlikely to have been a coincidence). Ernst started out from Paris at 4am. Despite the early hour enormous crowds turned out to cheer him off. Never at ease with crowds, he was much more comfortable once clear of the city and on the open road. He made good progress, passing through Châlons-sur-Marne, 90 miles east of Paris, that same evening. And the next day, he met our friends Gaston and Pierre.
Ernst was given a hero’s welcome on his arrival in Moscow, once his identity had been established (with his dishevelled appearance he had been mistaken for a beggar; and in any case, he turned up a day earlier than anyone expected). After days of banquets and receptions in Moscow, he travelled to St. Petersburg, where he was presented by no less than Tsar Nicholas I himself. Add to this the 4,000 Francs that Ernst won from wagers, and it might be considered a good couple of weeks’ work.
By that time, Ernst had for some years been couriering messages of “congratulation, condolence or greater importance” between diplomats and members of the nobility. His next great race was even more ambitious than the first, not just in distance but in the dangerous territories through which the indefatigable runner would have to pass. On 6th June 1833, Ernst left Munich, bearing documents from King Ludvig I of Bavaria for his son, the newly installed King Otto of Greece, whose court was situated in the then capital city, Napflion. A crowd of 20,000 people is said to have gathered to see off the messenger (Queen Therese, seemingly quite smitten by the colourful Norwegian, referred to him affectionately as “the littlest man with the longest legs”). Ernst arrived at his destination 24 days, 42 minutes and 30 seconds later, having covered over 2000 miles of largely inhospitable territory at an average of 85 miles per day. On the way he had been robbed by bandits and arrested (and detained for three days) near the Greek border as a suspected spy. Following a royal reception and receipt of a financial consideration, he progressed by ship to the Italian port of Trieste, and from there spent a year once more plying his trade as an itinerant racer. And once more, he returned to Anrode to rest and plot his next adventure.
In 1836, now 41 years old, Mensen Ernst travelled to Constantinople to begin his greatest journey yet. The British East India Company wished to send important and urgent documents to Calcutta. Ernst, who by now was well-known as a courier of speed and reliability, offered to deliver the documents within six weeks, a suggestion which met with considerable scepticism. A proposal was made: if Ernst succeeded in delivering the documents within eight weeks, he would be paid the sum of 150 pounds sterling. Needless to say, he took the bet.
Ernst set off from Constantinople on 28th July 1836, and arrived in Calcutta at nine in the morning on 27th August, thus comfortably beating his target. And after spending a few days in Calcutta to rest, there was little else to do but run home again. Taking a more northerly route, he ran back to Constantinople, where he arrived 28 days later. That is, Mensen Ernst completed the round trip of some 5,200 miles in 59 days, an average of almost 90 miles each day. An astonishing achievement.
That is, if the story is true.
Much of what we know about Mensen Ernst comes from his biography, snappily entitled Des Steuermannes Mensen Ernst aus Bergen in Norwegen; See- Land- und Schnell-Reisen in allen fünf Welttheilen (literally “The Helmsman Mensen Ernst from Bergen in Norway; Sea, Land and Quick Journeys on all Five Continents”), written by one Gustav Rieck. Ernst met Rieck in 1837, and the two men found that they had compatible aims. The runner wanted to enhance his reputation as an athlete of almost superhuman ability, while the writer wanted to shift as many copies of his book as possible. The truth, as the old adage goes, should never be allowed to get in the way of a good story, and so Rieck set about embellishing the Mensen Ernst myth from the very start. Ernst’s humble and prosaic origins in rural Norway were clearly not considered exciting enough, so Rieck came up with an alternative version of events: Ernst was born in Bergen, the son of a British naval captain and a Norwegian woman whose lineage could be traced all the way back to the warrior and seafarer, Erik the Red. Alas, the couple perished in a shipwreck on the North Sea when Mensen was just a boy, and so the lad was condemned to a lifetime of restless, rootless wanderings. Unfortunately this rewriting of Ernst’s early life (which for his part Ernst, with his knack for self-promotion, never sought to correct) casts doubt over everything else that Rieck wrote. We do not know if Gaston and Pierre, or whatever their names really were, ever existed, just as we do not know if later that same trip Ernst really escaped from a second incarceration (this time for being possessed by the devil) by climbing up a chimney. Studies of newspapers of the time have found no mention of his races from London to Portsmouth and Liverpool, or of his great journey to Moscow, although the London Times carries a brief report on the three “great races” in 1837, that is before the publication of Rieck’s biography. There is no irrefutable proof that Ernst was ever in Calcutta, although he reportedly presented a credible (if crumpled) map of his route on his return to Constantinople by way of evidence.
The challenge is to separate Mons the man from Mensen the myth. What do we know of the man himself? Mensen Ernst is said to have been abstemious, eschewing hot meals and home comforts for a diet of bread, cheese, vegetables, and, occasionally, cold meat. He preferred to sleep on a hard bench, or outdoors on the ground, believing it to keep the body supple. His taste in drink was less puritan, as he drank wine by the bottle, even when on the move. He spoke German well but with an accent, and presumably had a good command of English having spent years in that country’s service, but also spoke a peculiar jargon made up of words he had picked up from different languages on his travels. So far, so believable.
A rather breathless piece about Mensen Ernst appeared in the New York Times in March 1879, over three decades after his death. It refers to his fictional birth in Bergen, so presumably uses the Rieck biography as its source, directly or indirectly. The writer reports that during his great races Ernst subsisted solely on biscuits and raspberry syrup; one of the former, and an ounce of the latter, every 24 hours, in which time he needed no more than two short rests of ten to fifteen minutes, usually standing or leaning against a tree. We are asked, then, to believe that Ernst performed improbable feats of endurance, with a negligible calorific intake and almost no rest.
When we talk about a man running fifty miles, a hundred, a thousand, the numbers soon begin to lose their meaning, so let’s put Mensen Ernst’s supposed achievements into some kind of context. If Ernst were alive today, he would be known not as a pedestrian, but as an ultrarunner. The commonly accepted definition of ultrarunning is running distances in excess of the marathon, that is 26 miles, 385 yards. To run “just” a marathon is generally considered a formidable athletic challenge, for which most runners prepare with the appropriate training. Ultrarunners are a different breed altogether.
Ultrarunning involves travelling at speed, on foot, over improbable distances, usually in excess of 30 miles, often over 50 and sometimes of more than 100. While the popularity of “ultra” has exploded in recent years, it remains an underground sport, somehow distinct and separate from “ordinary” athletics, which seems to suit the participants just fine; they are often unconventional, free-spirited types. Elite level runners, the Mensen Ernsts of the 21st century, take part in races like the Badwater Ultramarathon, a cheery 135 mile jaunt across California’s Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth; the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 100-mile loop around Europe’s highest mountain, using a trail that walkers usually take up to a week to complete, not least due to the 30,000 feet of climbing involved; and, in Greece, the Spartathlon, a race so tough that a number of stringent entry conditions weed out those unlikely to be able to complete the 153 mile course within the 36 hour time limit (the course record currently stands at a little over 20 hours).
Distance running is nothing new, of course. In his best-selling barefoot bible Born to Run (wherein Ernst is mentioned in passing), Christopher McDougall argues convincingly that man is engineered to run long distances. At the dawn of the human race, our forefathers ran improbable distances to hunt; and even today, running is central to the culture of some peoples, such as the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, whose feats of endurance McDougall had to see to believe. But their exploits, as well as those of elite ultrarunners, pale improbably into insignificance when compared with the deeds of Mensen Ernst, who it is claimed not only ran spectacular distances through hostile, sometimes uncharted, often robber-infested territory, but did so with no support, and little in the way of food and rest. He was either superhuman, or simply a freak of nature. Little wonder that suggestions of madness, possession and the supernatural clung to him in his time. Sadly, his next great race would prove Ernst to be as mortal as any man.
In 1842 Ernst found a new patron. Prince Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau was something of a renaissance man. As well as being recognised as a leading European authority in the art of landscape gardening, he had journeyed extensively in Africa and Asia, and was the author of a number of books about his travels under the nom de plume “Semilasso”. On one of his expeditions he had tried, and failed, to locate the source of the Nile. Could the celebrated pedestrian Mensen Ernst succeed where he had not? For his part, Ernst had toyed with the idea of running the length of Africa, but had been discouraged by the war in Algeria. The expedition to the source of the Nile, when it was proposed to him, was immediately appealing. With the Prince’s financial backing, the race was on.
Mensen Ernst’s third and final great race began when he left the Prince’s residence in Bad Muskau late that year. He reached Jerusalem in a typically brisk 30 days. From there he progressed southwards to Cairo, where he began to follow the course of the Nile. By January 22nd 1843, he had reached the village of Syane, some 300 miles upriver from Cairo, where he paused to take one of his characteristic short rests. He leaned against a tree, put a handkerchief over his face, and there Mensen Ernst died, most likely from the effects of dysentery. His body was found by some tourists, who buried him at that same spot. His grave lies beneath what is now the lake formed by the Aswan dam. It was years before his friends in Europe learned what had become of him.
As popular and successful as he was in his lifetime, Mensen Ernst is now almost completely forgotten outside his native land. Each summer a race in his memory takes place in Fresvik, the place of his birth. In the village there stands a handsome memorial to its most famous son. Only two copies of the Rieck biography are known to remain in existence, one of which is in the University Library in Oslo, and the other in the Berlin State Library. An abridged version, translated into Danish, appeared a decade after Ernst’s death. In 1986, Mensen Ernst Løperkongen (“Mensen Ernst, King of the Runners”), a slim volume about Ernst’s life was published in Norway, and in 2006 a novel loosely based on his exploits met modest success in Germany; neither of these recent volumes, nor the contemporary biography, has been translated into English. Everything that can be known about Mensen Ernst we already know, and of that, it is difficult to separate the truth from the fiction. There is enough reliable evidence for us to be sure that in the early 19th century there lived a Norwegian sailor whose extraordinary athletic ability was matched only by his talent for self-promotion, and that in his time he performed some astonishing feats of endurance. If Mensen Ernst never encountered Gaston and Pierre on the road to Moscow, we shouldn’t be too dejected. We will never know if King Arthur really drew the sword from the stone, or if Robin Hood ever shot the arrow that marked his final resting place. But without these episodes, their stories would be that bit poorer in the telling.