Apart from acquiring "a bit of a nasty sun blister" on his decidedly stiff upper British lip, Dr. Robin Tattersall swears he's no worse for the wear from walking the grueling 132.5-mile U.K. super-challenge known as "The Forces March."
Speaking from the home in Essex that he shares with his American wife, Martha, the 82-year-old surgeon insists he was not daunted by age or the prospect of completing the equivalent of five marathons in five days (May 23-27), but the unusually sunny, warm English weather, he says, almost did him in.
"It was quite warm for England," says the Cheshire native, sounding almost bewildered, "the temperature actually went up into the nineties, which is almost unheard of in May. That made it very uncomfortable — but nowhere near as uncomfortable as it was for the men who did the first Forces March."
That march took place in the summer of 1943, and those men were members of the newly formed British 6th Airborne Division. Following weeks on the moors of North Devon in total immersion training for D-Day, the exhausted airmen were told they would have to walk back to base at Bulford Camp on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, a distance of some 130 odd miles.
For the British, D-Day was, of course, defined by Winston Churchill, a man who was famous for saying "If you're going through hell, keep going." And that is exactly what the men of the 6th Airborne division did. "Over the next five days," recounts Dr. Robin Tattersall, "they walked that 130 odd miles, dressed in full, sweltering kit, each carrying up to 80 lbs. in equipment."
That march and those men became legendary in the annals of modern British military history, says Tattersall, when that degree of military discipline paid off in the early hours of June 6, 1944, when the British 6th Airborne Division seized and secured a bridge in northern France; a major strategic triumph that allowed the Allies to disrupt the Germans' ability to bring in reinforcements to the Normandy beaches.
"I was in the military, my father and grandfather were in the military, I come from a military family," says Tattersall, by way of explaining what prompted him, at the age of 82, to take on the challenge of the Forces March, circa 2012, "and it's all for a very important cause."
That cause is the Veterans Charity, an organization that provides direct "life support provisions" to veterans in the form of handicapped equipment like wheelchairs and bath lifts, and everyday items like TVs, microwaves, clothing, food and even bicycles, says Tattersall, who, despite his military background, missed the D-Day invasion; he was a 14-year-old schoolboy at the time.
Founded in 2010, "The Forces March" grew out of "Project 65," a major UK fundraising initiative formed in 2009 to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day, and to support "the disabled and damaged men and women who have served in today's Armed Forces."
A faithful re-enactment of the 6th Airborn's legendary march, "The Forces March" follows the original route from Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast, across Exmoor, the Quantock Hills, and on through rural Somerset to the Salisbury Plain and Bulford Camp, and has grown into a benchmark endurance event in the UK, attracting ultra-marathon fans, long distance hill walkers, and people who — like Robin Tattersall — just want to challenge themselves.
Participants must commit to raising at least 1,000 pounds, but are otherwise free to commit to one day, two days or all five days, and can walk, run, or — as was often, inevitably the case — limp.
Limping was definitely the order of the day on Day Four for Robin Tattersall, when an old spinal problem had him "listing to starboard" and threatened to end his run. But after half a day out for corrective physiotherapy, he was back on course and on his way to the finish line.
The entire five days of the event, says Tattersall, was organized as efficiently as a well-planned military operation, with physiotherapists on hand 24/7, nightly "tent encampments" materializing in picturesque pastures along the way, and "support teams" in the form of friends or family, recruited to help along the way.
For Tattersall, that "support team" came in the form of his four sons and several grandchildren, including his grandson Ben. At 15, Ben is about the same age his grandfather was on D-Day, and talked with his grandfather for the entire 32.2 miles of the first day's leg.
Tattersall was also joined by another recruit, this one plucked from the Manchester Athletic Club, where he works out religiously when he's in Essex.
Brenda Ernst, a program/fitness consultant and personal trainer, was "inspired" by Tattersall to join him on the march, and pledged $8,000 to The Veteran's Charity.
Tattersall himself, who has participated "in several marathons over the past few years," finds nothing out of the ordinary about an 82-year-old man taking on such herculean challenges. But then, he has never been one to lead an ordinary life.
Dividing his time between homes in Essex and the British Virgin Islands, where he still maintains the active surgical practice he founded more than 40 years ago, he has no plans of retiring "from anything." That would include sailing, the lifelong passion which has taken him to two Olympics, crewing on BWI teams.
While he never took home an Olympic medal, his world class performance at The Forces March won him something he may very well treasure more. "The Mark Hale Cup," awarded to the "overall outstanding entrant."
Not bad, for an 82-year-old.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.