Ted Jackson's iron will overcomes lack of training, all obstacles

With minimal training, an unlikely athlete takes on the World Marathon Challenge -- seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.

But try it when you're middle-aged and pudgy, when you eat fast food night after night and train sporadically. Now that is an achievement.

Ted Jackson's kind of achievement.

Remember the John Belushi skit on "Saturday Night Live"? Looking nothing like Bruce Jenner, the Olympic decathlon champion at the time, Belushi laps the field to capture a gold medal. Then, with a cigarette in one hand, he looks into the camera and attributes his victory to the breakfast of champions: little chocolate donuts.

Ted Jackson is that guy -- but for real.

If you identify less with Channing Tatum and more with Seth Rogen, if your pants never feel loose in the waist and healthy eating is something you always put off until tomorrow, then Jackson might be your kind of hero.

A forty-three-year-old Englishman, Jackson is about 20 pounds overweight and not terribly athletic. He frequently indulges in his favorite meal: greasy gyros on pita bread, plus French fries, served from a food truck about five miles from his house.

The life of the long-distance runner is supposed to be monastic. It's all about denial and discipline. These aren't Jackson's strong suits. He denies himself little -- and discipline just isn't his thing.

But Jackson has achieved remarkable feats of endurance. There have been the polar marathons and the grueling Marathon des Sables, a weeklong 200-mile footrace across the Sahara that has proved too stern a test for some of the world's most finely honed athletes. Defying all the conventional wisdom, Jackson also finished the UK Ironman, having spent only a few weeks training to cycle and swim.

How does he do it? How does he keep going when most mortals would give up?

Well, it helps that he's British.

He is eccentric in that way unique to his countrymen -- a born adventurer, and fearless. You can imagine him charging with the Light Brigade at Balaclava, or setting off with Livingstone to find the source of the Nile, or with Shackleton to reach the South Pole.

He has been known to run in a bright pink suit. An accomplished baritone who has sung with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, he sometimes breaks out into arias on the course, when others would be struggling to catch their breath.

Then there's the stiff upper lip.

And surrendering -- on any front, in any way -- is anathema to him. He believes, really believes, that he can do whatever he sets out to.

Still, there is the essential question: How does he keep putting one foot in front of the other long after his body has demanded that he quit?

It's a trick, he says, of mind over matter.

"The mind is an incredibly strong thing, and it can overcome physical problems," Jackson told me one day last winter.

We were spending the day in Surrey, about 30 miles south of London -- a middling jog for Jackson -- in the house that he shares with his wife, Sophie, and their four children. Technically, they also share it with a few dozen students who live at Hurtwood House, the boarding school founded and still owned by Jackson's parents. Jackson is a housemaster at the school, which is surrounded by ancient hedgerows near a small village dotted with mint condition Tudor-era homes.

This is where movies set in typically quaint English villages are filmed. Confirming all of my worst fears about the English and their relationship with climate control, the Jacksons' house was freezing. To keep warm, I spent as much time as possible leaning up against their ancient stove, an Aga, which is like the Rolls Royce of ovens, always lit, and apparently great for cooking, too.

Jackson went on:

"You can almost do anything if you need too, if it was a life-and-death situation, you hear about it all the time -- people almost get superhuman strength when they need to. You hear stories of people lifting cars, and they got the strength just at that moment when they needed it, I think a combination of adrenaline and calling on resources from the past."

But I was unsatisfied with Jackson's answer. As a very casual longtime runner, I find it hard to fathom how someone can just wake up one morning and run 50 or more miles in extreme heat, as Jackson has done, without the proper physical preparation or, for that matter, with it. There must be something more that allows him to do what he does, so I pressed him.

I asked, "What is it that you say to yourself? What is that you think? What is that you think to keep taking that next step?"

He replied: "Quite often it's as simple as one step at a time, simple as that. Keep it simple, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, keep on going, don't stop."

But I knew that Jackson also liked to create a specific scenario in his head to keep his legs churning. He was reluctant to talk about it, but finally he was willing to share.

"It's not one that I normally like to share with people, because sometimes it can be a bit gruesome and I don't really go into details either in my mind," Jackson said, "I think I have to not really put the details in my mind, but it's ... I've got four kids ... if one of my kids was in trouble and if one of my kids is in danger or one of my kids was trapped under a tractor 30 miles away and I had to get there, then I would get there. You wouldn't stop, you would keep going, anyone would. Even people with one leg would go, people with no legs would go ... you would do it, you would find the strength.

"If one of your kids was in trouble, one of my kids in trouble, there at the finish line, I've got to get to them, I'm going to get there. It's quite simple, it's not particularly pleasant but I use that trick in my mind."

And apparently it works.

At those moments when most of us would say "Forget it," Jackson says "I must save my child." Which is also interesting, because his kids told me that they are quite often concerned that he won't survive these insane tests of his will.

Of course, when it seems he can't go on, Jackson can also say to himself, "But I've done this before."

Well, most of the time he can say that. But not this past January, when he set off on the first World Marathon Challenge with a dozen other runners who were conspicuously fitter than Jackson. In seven days, they would run marathons in Antarctica, Chile, Miami, Madrid, Morocco, Dubai and Sydney. That's 183.4 miles in a week. On all seven continents. With only a single night spent in a real bed, the rest on planes, or on the floors of airports.

Why would a human being subject himself to such torment? For Jackson, it's just what he does, to feel alive, but it is also to raise money for a charity that promotes an alternative treatment for multiple sclerosis, the degenerative condition that afflicts his wife. She says that the dietary regimen promoted by Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis (OMS), which she first learned about a few years ago, has changed her life, halting the progression of the disease.

All told, Jackson has raised more than $300,000 for OMS.

Because of the travel involved and the changing climates, Jackson says the World Marathon Challenge is the hardest thing he has ever attempted. At the exact midway point -- the middle of the fourth marathon, in Madrid -- Sophie and his daughter Alabama (named for the character in "True Romance" played by Patricia Arquette) surprised him.

That was a lift he needed. But the next day, in Marrakech, he seemed to be at the breaking point. Apparently convincing himself that Alabama or one of her brothers was in trouble, he willed himself to finish in a cold rain. Then he had an easy run the next day on the Persian Gulf. And then finally, the day after that in Sydney. He did it.

Jackson is slow, typically running his marathons in about six hours. But he is indefatigable and, literally, unstoppable. Why keep punishing himself with these tests?

"I'm looking for a strength that I know is there," he says. "I wouldn't do these things if I didn't know I could do it. I know they are going to be tough, I know they are going to hurt, but I know I'm going to do it."

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