The Evening Standard

With James Cracknell

For the past five years, James Cracknell has been living the life of a mythical Victorian Boys Own superman. He is one of the country’s most successful athletes, with two Olympic golds and six world championships, but since his retirement from rowing he has reinvented himself, constantly challenging his body to scale new endurance peaks.

In 2005, he rowed across the Atlantic in a seven-metre boat with Ben Fogle; a year later he ran the London Marathon in three hours and he has competed in the London Triathlon. Two years ago, he took part in the first attempt to recreate Robert Scott’s doomed 1911 race to the Antartic and last August he tried to break the mixed tandem record from John O’Groats to Land’s End.

However, all of this was put in the shade when just last week he completed his toughest-ever challenge — the 151-mile Marathon des Sables.

Sounds mad? The last excursion involved running across the Sahara Desert in Morocco in midday temperatures that can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit and which, in the past, has claimed the lives of two of its competitors.

At the end of stage four, having run for 18 hours to cover 50 miles, the 37 year old was suffering from dehydration, exhaustion and terrible blisters.

Despite all of this, he performed brilliantly, his 12th-place finish being the highest position a British runner has ever achieved in the event.

“This has been the toughest race of my life,” he tells me.

“I thought that after stepping out of the boat it could not get any tougher. This really has proved me horribly wrong.”

Testing himself to the limit has been challenging but also deeply rewarding. “You learn new skills which you can feed back into life at home,” he adds. “I enjoy getting stuck into something new and I hope I can educate and inspire people, to change society.”

His adventures have also helped the military. Quintec, the research company which was part of the Ministry of Defence, sponsored his trip to the South Pole and he worked closely with the Army for the Sahara marathon, which he could not have survived without dried powder food.

“Performing in hot climates is of use to the Army and it has been interesting understanding what they go through,” explains Cracknell. Working with the military is all the more satisfying because it makes up for his failure to fulfil his great ambition to be an Army officer.

At school he had done the potential officers’ course and his plan was to join the Marines after the 1996 Olympics.

“On the day of the opening ceremony we were on our way to the rowing lake in Atlanta when the driver, who had never driven on a freeway before, parked the bus on the hard shoulder,” he reveals.

“We were all stuck on this bus with air conditioning going full blast for two hours. When I got back to the Olympic village I had got tonsillitis and the doctor wanted to pull me out of the race.

“I then decided to go on to Sydney four years later. But that meant I was too old to go into the Marines. So, but for that driver, I wouldn’t have got ill and would have gone down a totally different life.”

Not that Cracknell, who has many friends in the Army, has regrets.

“I’ve had some of the most amazing experiences through rowing,” he says.

He is all too aware that, being in Sir Steve Redgrave’s boat in Sydney for his first gold in the coxless fours — Redgrave was winning his fifth — gave him a profile denied to other Britons who also won rowing gold at the 2000 Games down under.

“There were people in the mens’ eights who also won in Sydney and who are in a very different situation,” he says. “People retire from rowing in their early 30s, with no money and no career, which is not much of a catch, really.”

Cracknell, himself, feared this after Sydney. He had just cleared debts of £10,000 but his parents were still bailing him out.

As he celebrated his gold, his father said, “You should get a proper job now.” But with Redgrave retired he decided to carry on with Matthew Pinsent to another gold in Athens in 2004.

Cracknell could have carried on even to London but adds: “If I’d been a more talented athlete it would have been very tempting.”

Instead, he has used London winning the 2012 Games to construct a career which is part media work and part sports consulting.

But, fulfilling though all this is, he still hankers after a career that would give him power and responsibility. The Army is no longer an option so he has another institution in his sights. After 2012, Cracknell could acquire two more initials to go with the OBE as a Member of Parliament.

“I’d like to make a difference,” he says. “I would go into politics for a specific reason — the need for all of us to be healthy adults. This has been brought home by my children. When my son gets to 20, I want to be able to run around with him. But by then I’ll be 50. So I’m going to have to look after myself.”

Even as an Olympian, Cracknell didn’t want to be fit just to win medals but because he believes fitness is a fundamental requirement for a society to function properly.

He adds: “If you think how little the National Health Service spends on prevention and how much it spends on treatment, the only way we’re going to keep it functioning is by fewer people getting ill. The NHS can’t go on spending more money.”

And during his work for 2012 he even found a breed of MPs the rest of us think have vanished.

“I’ve been fortunate to meet some politicians that I’ve found incredibly inspiring.” Then, with a smile, he adds: “I know that’s interesting given what has happened over the last year and a half!”

If he takes to politics, there is no question where his loyalties will lie. With a father an accountant and a mother a physiotherapist he will be in the blue corner. “Both my parents believe in the ability to move up the social system.

“I fundamentally believe in people being able to determine what they do so my natural inclination is towards the Conservatives.”

Cracknell could be an ideal celebrity to help David Cameron in his attempts to get into No10 on 6 May but the former rower is aware that “with great power comes great responsibility”.

While many may see his personal expeditions as an attempt to stay in the spotlight, Cracknell insists he hopes anyone watching his endeavours will be inspired to greater heights.

What disappoints him are those sportsmen who waste their opportunity to change peoples’ lives.

“I remember five years ago David James and I, both trustees of a charity called Access Sport, had gone to a school and a kid literally reeled back and sat down on his backside at the shock of meeting the England goalkeeper,” he recalls.

“The effect that footballers have on children is massive, far in excess of a Sir Steve Redgrave.

“John Terry, Ashley Cole or Rio Ferdinand can walk into a classroom and dumbfound the kids.

They have an enormous capacity for positive change in a way other sportsmen don’t. It is such a massive shame they do not make the most of their power.”

Cracknell is now a man driven by his solo pursuits and yet what surprises him is how modern sportsmen appear to live their lives in a bubble.

“I feel sorry for Tiger Woods,” he adds. “He has all this money and all this power and nobody close enough to say no’. He hasn’t got any friends who could say, What are you doing?’ No one who could stand up to him. The same applies for Ashley Cole and John Terry. They must be very lonely.”

James Cracknell was running in the Marathon des Sables to show his support for The Royal British Legion. Toughest Race on Earth with James Cracknell will premiere on Discovery Channel and HD — Sky channel 520 / 536 and Virgin 212 / 214 — on 30 August at 9pm


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