Monday, 2 July 2012

The Mystery of the Vanished Runner


John Lawton and wife at the start-line. Where is he now?

AS FAR as your running is concerned, what would be a ‘nightmare scenario’ for you? 

Sprinting for a finish-line only to fall flat on your face in front of hundreds of people?  Urgently needing a roadside toilet stop but finding everywhere constantly crowded?  Arriving in Hadleigh (Suffolk) to discover your race was actually in Hadleigh (Essex)?  Noticing your physio suddenly turn pale as he examines your latest injury?

Most of us would cringe at the mere thought of the above calamities, but there’s no doubt they all pale into utter insignificance compared to the horror that recently befell a runner called John Lawton and his family.

Earlier this year, John, an experienced 62-year-old trail runner, was in Greece for an Easter holiday which included a crack at the popular Taygetos 35k Challenge race. It promised to be a great day.

The sun shone brightly as he kissed wife Lynda and set off cheerfully from the start-line, waving to her from the middle of the pack as he went.  John was all smiles, doing what he loved and life felt good. He knew the upcoming 35km course was tough and might take more than six hours to cover, but the weather was perfect and he was fit and brimming with confidence.  

Applause rang out as John disappeared down the road in his bright yellow T-shirt and black lycra leggings, along with 150 other runners.

Poor Lynda hasn’t seen him since.

John, a member of Cheshire club Sandbach Striders, was logged in by marshals at the first four checkpoints, but the people at No.5 onwards have no trace of him. Extensive searches have yielded absolutely nothing, apart from a discarded energy-gel wrapper which DNA testing has apparently confirmed was used by him.

Local Greek search parties and experts from the UK have combed the route of the race, but with no luck. They are baffled how John could disappear without trace, even in such a hazardous area. The weeks are going by but Lynda is not giving up hope. But yesterday (July 2nd), some 85 days after he was last seen, the BBC reported that various bureaucratic and political issues are now hampering her wish for the search to be continued for her husband.

Speaking soon after the day of the race, Lynda told newspaper reporters: “My plan was to wait at the finish. It was probably about five o’clock before I really started to panic and started talking to the race organisers who said he hadn’t reached checkpoint number five and they were now starting to look for him. I don’t how much longer he could be out there and possibly still be alive with just a T-shirt on in the cold nights. He's got to be somewhere in the mountains, he's got to have fallen or become injured."

Locally-based teams, including police with a helicopter, fire crews, tourists and sniffer dogs launched searches in the days immediately after the Easter Sunday race. The Foreign Office provided consular assistance and liaised with the Greek authorities. John's brother, family friends and fellow runners flew out to join the search.

His son Steve, also a runner, went out too and attempted to retrace his father’s footsteps. He found the terrain "incredibly mountainous" with deep gorges and sheer drops, but added that his father "knew what he was doing."

Last month (June), John’s birthday came and went with no news. Lynda released a heart-rending statement that day: “Happy 63rd birthday to the love of my life, my husband and my best friend. Today, I just want to tell the world that I love you and miss you so much. I just pray that by some miracle you are still alive and we can share the life we planned together.”

Last week Lynda said she hoped another appearance on BBC radio would gain more public support as she was worried the campaign to find John was losing momentum as the weeks went by: “It's now 12 weeks since that fateful race and every day is getting harder for me. We really must use every resource and find him soon."

The quest to solve the mystery has found strong support on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other media, but there was a serious blow last week when a special search-and-rescue team assembled in Cheshire returned wearily from Greece having had no joy.

The matter has been raised in the UK Parliament, but now we hear that political sensitivities are hampering further progress. A highly-skilled Turkish search-and-rescue team has offered to look for John, but the Greek authorities don't seem keen to approve this. The Lawtons’ MP, Fiona Bruce, said the Foreign Office in the UK were doing all they could, but the attitude of the Greeks wasn’t helping.

To find out more, or to register your support, visit www.findjohnlawton.co.uk

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on running legends of yesteryear, at www.robhadgraft.com


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