For all the patriotic fanfare of the 2012 Summer Olympics – the championing of Farahs and Hoys, the Wiggins’ and the Pendletons – Great Britain’s finest achievement might have come weeks later.
Due to a complication in rules set down by the International Paralympic Committee, Richard Whitehead, the world’s fastest marathoner on no legs, was forced to turn to sprinting in order to compete in the 2012 Paralympics.
(How would you fancy Usain Bolt going from spikes to a 42.2k?)
Reconditioning his body to an entirely new distance, Whitehead qualified for the final.
He had a terrible start. Awful. Nightmarish. Slow, flat, dead-last.
Deep into the race, Whitehead looked like a victim, overwhelmed and in alien territory. It seemed forgone that he would fall somewhere in the lower-middle of the bunch, a good runner lost in a pack of great runners – maybe an Olympian’s nastiest fate.
And then, there he was: a violent, swinging freight-train of limbs and carbon fibre and grit, powering – over-powering – the final stretch, an insane amount of daylight between him and second place. It was Britain’s only Olympic world record of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
You need to see the footage to begin to comprehend how astonishing a display of power it was. Whitehead, whose legs are amputated above the knee, generates his running force through his core, thighs and arse.
Anyone witness to those last ten seconds would conclude that Whitehead has, surely, the country’s most powerful buttocks.
And for the 37-year-old's next challenge? Running the length of Britain – 977 miles. A marathon a day for 40 days, from John O'Groats to Land's End.
Esquire spoke to the man on the eve of his epic, charitable run.
Esquire: Tell us about Terry Fox – your inspiration behind the challenge
Richard Whitehead: Terry Fox was an amputee and cancer sufferer who tried to run from the east to the west of Canada, and died before achieving his dream. I’m supporting a cancer charity, scope.org.uk. Both Terry Fox and my friend Simon Mellows died from cancer.
Esquire: Has anyone ever done this?
Esquire: Aren’t you a little bit insane to be attempting this?
RW: You have to put yourself forward. I feel that all those athletes who wore the GB tracksuit in 2012 have a responsibility to not only be winners, but also to be role models. For me it’s about giving up 40 days of my life to provide hope and inspiration to other people. I’ve got lots of friends and family that have been touched by cancer. Now that I’m a new Dad and I’ve got a 6-month-old I realise the real importance of life itself.
Esquire: Let’s talk practicalities. A month in, what parts of your body will be the sorest?
RW: When I run, my hip flexors get smashed. I run quite a lot through my arse, my hamstrings and quad. I’ve got no pivot points through the knees at all. My upper body works really hard, energy systems are going to be wrecked – I’ll be having between 5 and 6,000 calories a day.
Esquire: What will you do when you get to the finish?
RW: I’ve not been on holiday for a few years, so maybe go on holiday. You know, go out and buy myself some clothes and chill out.
Esquire: What’s the most uncomfortable thing about running a marathon?
RW: Probably the 0.2 [miles] at the end. You’ve done 26 miles and you think, fucking hell, I’ve got point-2 miles to do still.
Esquire: What’s your self-talk like on a marathon?
RW: You don’t need to get pumped up to run a 26-mile marathon. You need to be patient. That’s what’s really important.
Esquire: When you are getting mentally fatigued after a week or two, what will be the thing you’ll remind yourself of?
RW: The real reason why I’m doing it: the people that have inspired me, the people that I’ve lost through cancer, and the people that I’m going to hopefully inspire to take up sport – whether they’re able-bodied or disabled.
For more information about Richard Whitehead’s epic run: richardwhiteheadrunsbritain.com