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ONE BIG RUNAROUND

In the beginning there was a simple idea: Run around the world. People thought he was nutty. But what do you say now? What do you say after three years, 25 pairs of sneakers and 23,612 miles? After four continents, 24 countries and all those Forrest Gump jokes? Well, okay, you still say he's nutty. But in a good way. In an "I hope he makes it" kind of way.

This is the story of 33-year-old Robert Garside-a.k.a. The Runningman-from Stockport, England, who decided to combine his love for long-distance running with his thirst for adventure. Back in 1995, Garside figured it would be cool to run across the planet, make some dough for charity, get his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The charity thing didn't pan out the way he wanted. But when he looked at his map, at his 42,253-mile course over 55 countries on all seven continents, he decided to go anyway. So, on Dec. 7, 1996, with a backpack full of survival gear and $30 in his pocket, he did just that. From Picadilly Square in London, Garside ran east. In two days he was in Dover-and broke. A reporter spotted him the ferry fare to France. Ever since, Garside has relied on his own savvy and the kindness of strangers for food, shelter and support across Europe, Asia, Australia and now, South America.

Here are a few things that have gone into his journal: He was greeted by fireworks in Lindau, Germany. He was shot at in Vyazima, Russia. Bandits in China gave him $700. He was jailed in Shanghai for spying; a friend sprung him and paid his airfare from Japan to Australia. He sipped yak tea, slept in monasteries and brothels, gave his T-shirt to an Aborigine.

In Pakistan, he was robbed of everything but the clothes he was wearing and his passport. And that was right after his long-time girlfriend dumped him, about a year into his trip. "That was the first time I wanted to give up," Garside says. "Believe it or not, it was the girlfriend, not the bullets."

He misses friends. He has felt pain he didn't think possible-three days without food or clean water in India left him doubled over on a dirt roadside. But he hasn't stopped. He meets 10 new people a day (over 40,000 since he started). When he was lying by the roadside in India, a banana seller pulled his wooden cart over and fed him. In Tibet, a man named Carmelo abandoned his long-distance moped ride to run with Garside through eyelash-freezing weather. A kid in the Australian outback offered him money from his piggy bank. He has crossed paths with Steven Segal, Richard Gere, the Crown Prince of Nepal, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo. He doesn't run every day, but most days. When he does run, he averages more than a marathon each time. He has not had any serious injuries, which makes him an impressive specimen. "He's in very good shape, he's got an extraordinary body or he's lucky," says Dr. Charles Brown, chief of sports medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Garside credits karma for his stamina, and he hopes karma gets him through a difficult stretch of Colombia, where he is now. After that, he'll run through the United States, Africa and Antarctica. The finish line, which he hopes to cross in 2001, is back in London. When he gets there, he'll spend a drunken week "wandering around and kissing everybody." He'll have his spot in history.

When a person runs so much, Garside says, the endorphins that pulse through the brain heighten emotion and crystalize thought. The difficult sometimes feels easy. He has run 23,612 miles. He has 18,641 to go. Keep the legs pumping. It's as simple as that.