Show Hide image

The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

CHARLIE FORGHAM-BAILEY FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

The man who could not stop running

How a survivor of child abuse redefined the limits of athletic endurance.

A Tuesday in mid-January. Grey skies, five degrees, one o’clock. A man stands outside his ­high-street flat in Richmond, west London. He wears a thin black jacket, black shorts, black socks and red size 11 trainers. With his winter fat he weighs nearly 15 stone.

The man starts to run, his footfall light and his breathing heavy. I always sound like this to start with, he says – after two miles you won’t hear me. After two miles he is silent. He has not planned a route or a distance, which is how he likes it. In Hammersmith the pavement is crowded and the man weaves between the pedestrians. No one gives him a second look. And why should they? I am an OK runner, he says.

Is this true? If speed is the only measure of athletic excellence, then yes. The man moves at his comfortable pace, eight minutes a mile, only half as fast as Roger Bannister did 62 years ago. But listen to his answer when asked about his endurance levels after nine weeks without exercise. “I could keep running like this for one and a half days,” he says, then corrects himself. “Two days.”

This is true. Less than two years ago the man was a 31-year-old office worker who had never run a marathon. Twelve months later he had completed a greater number of 26.2-milers in 365 days than anyone in history – more than one a day. Four months after that, he did something even more remarkable, and also unprecedented: ­running the equivalent of more than 14 marathons, back to back – a crow’s flight from Tunbridge Wells to Glasgow – without sleeping.

The man crosses one bridge over the Thames and then another the opposite way, looping back towards the high street, past the charity shop where he buys toys for his three-year-old son, to the flat where his pregnant fiancée is making cauliflower soup. He’s not a great runner, he insists. His gift is mental strength and an extraordinary ability to endure pain. He learned to do that a long time ago.

****

Where does the Rob Young story begin? Maybe it is on Sunday 13 April 2014, the day of the London Marathon. Thirty-six thousand men and women line up at the start. Most have trained for several months; for some, this will be the hardest thing they have ever done.

Young is on his sofa, a bag of crisps on his lap, watching the television coverage. The occasional 3.1-mile parkrun is the limit of his running ambition but he enjoys the spectacle of the marathon, seeing all those people raising money for charity. When Joanna, Young’s fiancée, asks him to go to the park with her and their infant son, Alexander, he protests, saying he plans to run the race some day.

“You can’t run a marathon,” she says.

“I bet you 20p I can,” he replies. “I reckon I could do 50.”

This is crazy, they both know. But that ­afternoon Young has a strange feeling, which, when he later describes it, sounds like an epiphany: “It was just complete relief. In that moment I found I broke through all the barriers holding me back.”

From the internet he prints out the route map of the Richmond Marathon, which goes around the park. That night he lays out a T-shirt, shorts and an old pair of trainers and packs his office clothes in a backpack. When his alarm rings at 2.30am he springs out of bed and cycles to the park. Joanna expects him back in a hour, perhaps two, after completing seven miles at the most. Nobody runs a marathon with zero training. Especially not in the dark, alone, on a course with more than 1,000 feet of climbing.

Young does not come home that morning. Although he has to walk part of the way, he completes the full distance in just over four hours. He changes clothes, rides to the train station and does a day’s work at the small auto parts business he manages in West Hampstead. In the evening, he calls Joanna and says he’ll be home late. He returns to Richmond Park and runs another 26 miles. This time he is 40 minutes faster. Young is shattered, and exhilarated.

The next morning at 2.30am he is up and running again. Twice more that week he does two marathons in a day. After seven days he has completed ten marathons. Maybe 50 is possible. Yet Young is no longer thinking about 50 – or only about himself.

****

Or maybe the story starts before then. It is the late 1980s. A six-year-old boy sits in his bedroom in a small village in Yorkshire. It is evening and soon his father will be home. The boy is terrified. His father is a drunk, prone to bouts of extreme physical and psychological violence. Rob Young knows what is coming, and he knows that he cannot run.

****

On 30 November 2013, a 68-year-old American lawyer named Larry Macon broke his own Guinness World Record when he completed his 239th marathon in a year. Other people had run more 26-milers over 365 days, but not in organised races: in the year to October 2011 the Spaniard Ricardo Abad ran one every day, equalling a record set that February by the Belgian Stefaan Engels. This is the unofficial record Young targets. He builds a website, Marathon Man UK, with a page for donations to children’s charities. To raise awareness of his appeal he decides to do all his runs wearing a kilt. When he tells his friends what he is doing they say two things. The first is: that’s impossible. So he invites them to come to see for themselves, and they do, rising before dawn to head to various points in Richmond Park, waiting for Young to emerge from the gloom, and then running or cycling with him part of the way. Others bring food or drinks for him, which they stash in tree trunks or at the park gates.

The second thing people say is: Rob, you are going to harm yourself. When Ricardo Abad set his record he was also working full-time, in a factory. He told the Spanish sports newspaper Marca that the key to his success was sleeping eight hours a night and eating healthily. Young is sleeping three to four hours, running on an empty stomach and then consuming whatever food he can find – burgers and milkshakes are his favourites – to replace the more than 3,000 calories he burns during each marathon. Ali Parkes, a friend who agrees to help him fundraise for the charities, ropes in a team of medical experts to offer counsel – a sports doctor, a physiotherapist, and a dietician who draws up a ten-page eating plan. Young listens patiently to all the advice and ignores most of it.

He prefers to figure things out for himself. The usual long-distance strategies – keeping a consistent pace, or accelerating slightly towards to the end – do not work when you are running one or two marathons a day, he finds. Instead, he divides each run in half. For the first-half 13.1 miles he pushes himself, aiming to finish in about 90 minutes. Then he jogs the rest of the way in two hours or more; this is his recovery for the next run.

He suffers silently: his nipples bleed from the chafing, and he loses a few toenails and nearly three stone. But after a month of running his confidence is high. A few weeks is all you need to get used to a marathon a day, he tells people. This should make Young happy, but he is troubled: his challenge has become too easy.

On weekends he enters official marathons, and he begins to seek out ever more demanding events, involving hills and off-road trails, or ultramarathons, which range from 31 miles to 140 miles. (His rule is that each race, no matter how far, counts as only one marathon for the purposes of the record.)

If no ultra is scheduled, Young creates his own. One evening in July, he catches a train to Watford, alights and jogs 56 miles alone through the night to the start line of a marathon in Northampton, and then on to the finish.

A few weeks later he takes what looks like a casual stroll. Shortly after midnight on a Friday, he runs his usual solo marathon in Richmond Park. A friend then drives him straight to the start of the North Downs Way 100-miler, one of the toughest races in the country, with nearly 10,000 feet of ascent. The goal is to finish in less than 24 hours. Thirty-six out of the 180 starters do, including Young, in a time of 23 hours and 53 minutes. A photo included in the official race report shows him running in his kilt, chin raised, wide smile, arms spread out like a child frolicking in a fountain. At the end he gets a lift to Salisbury and completes a trail marathon. In a day and a half, he has run more than 152 miles on less than two hours’ sleep.

When he does get a bit more rest it is ­seldom comfortable. Because he needs to limit his expenses, and has little time to look into logistics, he regularly sleeps rough before a race. Arriving in Somerset before the Cheddar Gorge Marathon, he calls Pippa Rollitt, the physiotherapist who has been advising him. It is evening and the weather is terrible. He has a tent but thinks the wind will blow it away.

“I’m going to sleep in a cave,” he tells her. “I’ll be OK, it’s close to the start line.”

When people see how hard Young is pushing himself – even in the highly driven,  obsessive world of ultrarunning he is a freak, wearing through a pair of running shoes in two weeks or less – they wonder: what is driving him? He does not seem interested in glory and plays down his achievements: it’s a little bit of running, a little of pain. When there are opportunities for self-promotion, he is hard to reach – he dislikes mobile phones, much to the frustration of those trying to help raise ­publicity, and of Joanna, who often has little idea how he is faring on his epic weekend adventures.

Then when people hear the story of his childhood, they think they know why he is running – Rob Young must be trying to escape his past.

****

The boy’s father likes sadistic games. One of his favourites is locking his son in a hard suitcase and pushing it down the stairs, leaving him battered and bruised. Another is dangling him over the ­banister by one foot. If the boy makes a sound, he is dropped. Young learns to control his breathing, exhaling slowly in a sort of silent scream. “I would block everything out: it was like pushing my eyes to the back of my head, putting all the pressure there,” he says.

One day, Young picks up a church leaflet that comes through the letter box and takes it to his bedroom. When his father finds it there he drags his son to the top of the staircase and gets a hammer and a nail. He drives the nail through the boy’s foot, and then into the banister.

Young’s sister is also victimised – sexually abused by her father while the brother is made to watch – and then dragged into the violence as a perpetrator. When Young takes one of her sweets, their father instructs her to stab her brother in the leg with a fork, which she does.

So when the father ties a rope around Young’s neck, and loops it around the metal coat hook behind a door, the boy feels a sense of relief. His father has already killed the family dog in a similar way. Young cannot breathe, he is going to die, it will all be over. His father loosens the rope and lets him down.

****

As the summer goes on Young’s body takes the strain. When his knee balloons he has the fluid drained out of it and runs a marathon the next day. In the office he always looks tired, and although he insists that his work is not suffering, the boss urges him to cut down on his running. Young quits his job instead.

To help him and his family save money, his friend Ali Parkes invites them to move out of their rented flat and into his home. Parkes has three children; his daughter gives up her bedroom. Young often sleeps on the living-room sofa in his running clothes, but is so tired that his alarm goes off six or seven times before he rises. Parkes takes to working until 3am, so he can shake Young from his slumber. “He would put on his shoes with his eyes closed,” Parkes says. “He always said that was the hardest thing: getting out the door.”

By the time Young reaches the park he is fully awake. He never runs with music – he regards it as a stimulant and wants to run on willpower alone – and prefers the dim light of the moon to a head torch. Some mornings, when the mist is thick, he finds himself among a herd of deer, or face to face with a stag. No harm comes, and Young thinks that the animals have got used to him.

With his working hours now free, Young gives talks in schools and community groups. Children listen with rapt attention as he tells them how an ordinary man runs extraordinary distances – and about overcoming the abuse he suffered as a child. Shame is the thing that holds victims back, he says. “What happened to me was not my fault. And if something like that happened to you, it is not your fault either.”

One morning, a woman waits for him at Richmond Park to tell him that her son killed himself after being abused by his father. Please carry on what you are doing, she says – you are getting through to people. Another time, after a talk at a Women’s Institute, a mother approaches him to say that her child, also a victim of paternal violence, had heard Young speak at his school and drawn strength from his story.

Young is deeply moved. His marathon quest was never a way of escaping from his past, as some people assumed – he made his peace with that long ago, and had spoken openly to friends about his terrible childhood for years. For a long time he believed that the reason he survived was so he would be able to help other people, especially children, one day. And now he has found a way to do so: he is running to “inspire people and to bring hope”.

And, of course, trying to test his limits. Towards the end of November 2014, seven months in to his record attempt, he finds them. His left shin and ankle swell so much that he runs with a limp. He is persuaded to call again on Courtney Kipps, a sports doctor and assistant medical director of the London Marathon, who has monitored his progress since a month after he began his challenge. Kipps has been sufficiently astounded by Young’s casual approach and ability to withstand injury to want to study him in his laboratory at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health.

“Here’s a guy under great stress, not sleeping or eating well, with financial and family worries – it’s a perfect storm,” Kipps says. “Yet he carries on. Day by day he defies expectations.”

When Kipps looks at Young’s ankle he orders a scan, which shows bruising in the bone. If he carries on running he will surely get a stress fracture, which can become a full fracture if he pushes through the pain. His quest is over.

****

After the hanging scare, Young’s mother, who suffers her own abuse at the hands of her husband, finds the courage to call social services. She and the two children are moved to a safe house, and then travel to Hampshire – walking part of the way and sleeping overnight in a ditch – to be near her parents. But she is unable to look after two children and so, aged eight, Young is put in a care home, where he is bullied, and in turn becomes a bully.

When he is 12, Young meets a deputy headmaster and part-time coach named Peter Wells at a sports club. Wells applies to foster Young, and becomes the father he never had, helping him with his schoolwork and teaching him about manners, respect and life.

On finishing secondary school, Young joins the army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals. Competitive and headstrong, he spends much of the time in a tracksuit, doing triathlons and biathlons. He is good enough to make the junior GB team. But one discipline always lets him down – the run, which he hates. Aged 23, he leaves the army and briefly rides with the Milram professional cycling team in Italy before returning to the UK to be with his pregnant girlfriend. After a few years, they split up. Young re-establishes contact with his mother and sister, though they never become close. He meets Joanna on a dating site, bringing her a salmon covered in wrapping paper and a bow as a gift the first time they meet. “She said she likes fish!”

They fall in love and he becomes a father for the second time. They lead a quiet, contented life. And then they make the bet.

****

Never give up. That is Young’s motto, and he lives it. Kipps tells him that the injury usually requires a minimum of three to four weeks of complete rest, and then a gradual reintroduction to running. That would rule Young out of the Race Across USA, in which 12 amateur athletes will run the equivalent of 117 marathons over four and a half months, from Los Angeles to Washington, DC.

Twenty-three days after the scan he runs a marathon. Though he can no longer break the record for the number of marathons run on consecutive days over a year, his habit of completing two 26-milers on some days gives him room still to improve the mark for the total number of marathons.

He arrives in Los Angeles keen to make up for lost time, and quickly takes the overall lead in the race. His fellow competitors soon learn what anyone who runs with Young does: the man who never had a proper childhood is a kid at heart. He loves to play the fool (lying down in the road so others have to jump over him), to dance (a fairy jig) and to sing (“I love you baby . . .”). And he does not like to do his homework: while the others study the daily route maps and download directions on to their GPS watches, he prefers to wing it – and repeatedly gets lost.

It is also obvious to all that Young is stressed. He knows he is an absent husband and father who is putting the family’s future in jeopardy. Since leaving his job, he has used up his savings. There is no cash coming in, which worries Joanna, who has moved back to Poland with Alexander to stay with her parents. Though she is greatly supportive of Young’s running, she hates being so far away from him, and being dependent on others. “We were fighting all the time,” Joanna says. “We were on the border of splitting up.”

She asks him to come home, and he agrees. They talk some more and decide he should carry on. “To have quit would have ruined me as a person,” he says.

He does not hide it when he thinks the race organisation is lacking. Bryce Carlson, an American ultrarunner who eventually finishes second, describes Young as the most volatile runner in the group, playful one moment, yelling and pouting the next. “He probably ‘quit’ the race at least five times, always making a bit of a fuss, but he always managed to show up at the starting line again the next morning,” Carlson writes in an email.

He notes that they do not always see eye to eye, but also that he became very fond of Young, who would often slow down in order to chat to the other runners. “Another small thing: he was extremely generous with his food. He would routinely purchase more food than he needed or wanted so that he could share with others. I remember a number of occasions where he would want to stop mid-run for a soda, ice cream, or Popsicle and offer to pay. If you said no thanks, he’d often stop and buy you one anyway.”

On 10 April 2015, in Mississippi, 362 days after his first marathon, Young celebrates breaking Abad’s record. (He has in fact run 367 marathons at this point, believing Abad to have run 366 in a year, not 365). He wins the Race Across USA by 30 hours.

****

Daniel Lieberman is a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and an expert on the biomechanics of endurance running. At the start and end of the Race Across USA he performs tests on the competitors. He finds that Young has “the perfect running form”: good posture, a relaxed upper body, a seemingly effortless glide. Many amateur runners crash into the ground with their feet. When Lieberman asks Young to run on a pressure pad, there is very little impact.

“That’s important when you are having thousands of collisions, or millions in Rob’s case,” Lieberman says. “You cannot be a thumper and a great runner.”

In London, Courtney Kipps had observed something else about Young’s footfall. When the typical recreational athlete runs on a treadmill their feet seldom land in the same place. With Young, the landing map looks like a single pair of soles – he strikes the same spot every time. This is a strong ­indication of running efficiency; Young uses no additional energy in trying to balance or push off.

But other results are “remarkable for how unremarkable they are”, Kipps says. Young’s VO2 Max – a measure of how much oxygen a person’s body can use during exercise – is average for a three-hour, 30-minute marathoner. (His personal best is two hours and 41 minutes, but most of his runs are slower.) His anaerobic threshold, the point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the muscles, is good, but not exceptional.

And so science alone cannot explain Young’s ability to run and run. His mindset may. Kipps notes that Young never shows long-term concerns; he is always enjoying the moment. “It’s like kids who don’t know danger or fear – they have no limits. That only comes later. Rob has a brain that does not all allow him to say: I cannot do that,” Kipps says.

And then there is his high pain threshold. Kipps and the other medical experts who have worked with Young wonder where it comes from. Does he not feel pain, or does he just ignore it? Is it genetic, or is it all down to what he experienced as a boy, and how he trained himself to deal with it?

Young himself has few answers. “If you look at many ultrarunners, they have come through something,” he says. “Maybe learning to control pain as a kid allows me to cope better now.”

He knows, for instance, that when one part of his body is sore he can apply hurt to another – pinching, biting his lip – as a distraction. And that he can trick his brain: 20 miles in to a run he tells himself he has only covered five miles, and thus should feel fresh.

This he can say for certain: “I run with my heart and my mind.”

****

How far can a person run without sleep? Two hundred miles? Three hundred miles? Surfing the internet, Young realises it’s further. In 2005 Dean Karnazes, one of America’s best-known ultrarunners at the time, ran 350 miles through northern California. Back from the US, Young makes plans to run 500 miles in one go. He plots a roundabout, 420-mile route from Eastbourne to Birmingham, which he reckons will take him four days. If he times it right, he’ll then be able to line up for an 80-mile race.

It will be a shoestring attempt; he and Joanna have just £80 between them when he leaves to catch an early train to Eastbourne on Tuesday 21 July 2015. She keeps £40 to get her through the week, and Young takes the rest to buy food along the run. If he has to sustain himself on bread and jam, he will.

The first 24 hours go well, as he clocks 130 miles. The next 150 miles are more of a slog. As he nears 300 miles, he is in a bad way. It is the middle of Thursday night. First his legs feel dead, then his shoulders, lower back and arms. Pain shoots up through his shins, knees and thighs. His head feels as if it will explode. He stoops and shuffles like an old man; a mile takes 20 minutes.

In the middle of the road he spots a seal, and then human outlines in the distance, glowing white. He was expecting to hallucinate at some point, so he doesn’t feel panic. But the two members of his rotating support team do.

“Both of us on the crew were nearly 50 years old and responsible people,” says Ben Thornton, a friend who knows Young well. “We kept saying to each other: should we be trying to convince him to stop?”

Thornton rides ahead on his bicycle, finds a petrol station with a vending machine, and fills up several drinking bottles with black coffee laced with sugar. Young downs a bottle, and soon after runs a mile in less than six minutes. When he is again spent, he drinks more coffee. In this way he keeps going, edging ever closer to the record as the rain comes down. After pausing for a roadside game of quoits, he passes the 350-mile mark, celebrating with a McDonald’s burger and more caffeine.

The rain gets heavier, and the Friday evening light fades. Young vomits. His face turns bright red and feels like it’s on fire. His throat closes up. The support crew calls for an ambulance. Paramedics check his heart rate and, fearing he might be having a mild heart attack, say he should go to hospital. Young tries to dissuade them. “What if you just drive along as I keep running, and when I collapse you restart my heart and get me to hospital?” he asks.

The run is over. He has covered 373.75 miles in 88 hours. Six weeks later, he is at it again, running 2,250 miles around the UK in 25 days with Adam Holland, a British ­ultrarunner, to raise money for a charity promoting peace in Kenya.

****

It’s January 2016, and Young is back from his run to Hammersmith. As Alexander plays with toy trains at his father’s feet, Joanna serves the cauliflower soup. They chat about how their lives have changed over the past 21 months, and laugh at how bad Young is at keeping his telephone charged. “For Joanna to put up with me . . . It takes a lot,” he says. “But now we are good.”

When Peter Wells, Young’s foster carer, visited at Christmas he gave him two pieces of advice: make sure that you look after Joanna, and don’t do anything too silly with your body. Young intends to honour the first of those. Having a stable family of his own helped him move on even more from his past. Though he will never forget – he still has a small white scar on the outside of his right knee and another on top of his right foot, from the fork and the nail – he made the decision in his teens to forgive his father. (His father was in jail then and remains there today, Young says.)

“I got to a point where I was no longer scared of him, or controlled by him. There was no shame, and I did not want the anger to hold me back,” he says.

Sponsorship by the sportswear company Skins – he also gets modest support from Lucozade – and a small advance for his autobiography have relieved some of the financial pressure, but to cover the rent he still needs more endorsements, which means planning new feats of endurance.

His first big event this year, assuming he can find the cash for a flight to the US, will be the Vol State 500K Relay, a 314-mile adventure race that he will do with Adam Holland, starting in late April. Then he’ll embark on his main challenge, perhaps his most ambitious yet – to break the transcontinental record for running across the United States from west to east. Unlike the Race Across USA, which had set stages each day, this will be one long run against the clock.

The record has stood since 1980, when Frank Giannino, Jr ran the 3,100 miles from San Francisco to New York in 46 days, eight hours and 36 minutes. If Young betters it he will receive widespread coverage in the US, improving his profile and that of his charity appeal. (He says he has raised more than £200,000 to date for Dreams Come True, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NSPCC and other organisations – and hopes to set up his own charity one day.) “Physically, other guys are better than me,” Young says, referring to failed attempts by other ultrarunners to break Giannino’s record. “But I have the ability to suffer and cope when others break apart.”

He also wants to test himself in more hostile environments. Last year, he met the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and discussed solo expeditions. When Fiennes mentioned a North Pole crossing that nobody had yet done, Young said: “Get me the gear and I’ll try it.” There are great mountain ranges to be traversed, vast rivers to be swum. When he talks about the risks, Joanna looks up, and he lowers his voice. “I am slowly realising that this is who I am. It might lead to death but you cannot change when you have found who you are.”

****

The man is running. It is now late February. He is lighter, stronger. Any day now he will become a father for the third time. Entering Richmond Park he veers off the gravel trail, across the grass, through a knee-deep river and up the bank. Ahead is a hilly area covered in trees and webbed with muddy footpaths where he likes to train, doing repeats of a figure-of-eight circuit.

Charging up a sharp ascent, he tumbles, landing heavily. In a flash Rob Young is back on his feet, legs pumping. He does not look back to see what made him fall.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue