It appeared at first to be the classic tale of a naive visitor finding cruel heartbreak on the mean streets of the big city. British runner Henry Weston, 24, was nearing completion of a round-the-world charity jog when he arrived in New York two weeks ago to be warmly greeted on the steps of City Hall by Mayor Ed Koch. The very next day, thieves broke into Weston's rented car and stole his belongings, including journals and photographs of his trip and an estimated $8,000 worth of video and camera equipment. "I'm totally devastated," Weston told reporters. "This is the end. My run finishes here."

Moved by Weston's misfortune, millionaire philanthropist Milton Petrie wrote him a check for $10,000. "He seemed like such a nice guy," says Petrie. Overcome with gratitude, Weston promptly left town—just ahead of disquieting rumors that he might not be the hapless innocent he seemed. Some people who befriended him at earlier stages of his two-year odyssey are now thoroughly disillusioned with Weston. They depict him as a freeloading faker who seemed to believe that a journey of 16,000 miles should be punctuated by frequent rests in free hotel rooms, with as little running as possible.

When he began his travels in London on April Fool's Day 1984, Weston sounded sincere and ambitious. His goal, he boasted, was to raise upwards of a quarter-million dollars for the World Wildlife Fund while winning a place for himself in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first runner in history to circle the globe. But along the way, according to Weston, the going got tough: In Yugoslavia he was detained on suspicion of spying when he inadvertently camped near a military base. In Turkey he was chased by wolves and robbed at gunpoint by border police. In India his jogging shoes were stolen by a mischievous monkey.

By the time he reached Bangkok in May 1985, Weston was turning into an adroit self-promoter with a very smooth rap. He talked his way into a free room at Bangkok's Hilton International Hotel, then ran up an unauthorized restaurant and bar tab, according to hotel executives. When Weston balked at paying for the extra charges, manager Philip Mermod told him to leave. "I asked myself whether I was being too hard on the meek, innocent-looking fellow," says Mermod. "He obviously was a first-class con man."

Unperturbed, Weston went ahead with a charity run for a Thai orphanage, rounding up a free rental car from Avis, free gas from Caltex and a bankroll of $800 from local Coca-Cola and Pepsi distributors. "I once had 200 deaf children running with me and helped put a roof on a school in the mountains," claims Weston. His Thai sponsors, however, remember the event as an embarrassing debacle. Though Weston claims he had only enough money for "a bowl of rice a day," the Thais say he insisted on eating in the most expensive restaurants and hustled women in local bars.

On the road, Weston was shameless, according to his angry hosts. He preferred to ride in the van, and when he did reluctantly dismount, it was usually not to run. He ambled along while reading a paperback book and listening to his Walkman. At one point, nearly a thousand school children were waiting to cheer the famous runner. To the dismay of his backers, Weston casually strolled past the children, then accepted a bouquet of roses with a scowl. One day, he was hospitalized, complaining of a sore throat and fever. A doctor found nothing wrong, but Weston was allowed a free night at the hospital anyway.

In the end, say the Thais, the orphanage didn't receive any money. Instead, Weston took his show on the road to Malaysia with Pet Lunakun, 25, a Thai girlfriend who has accompanied him ever since. He reportedly wangled seven free days in the Holiday Inn in Penang and five in the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. When Weston complained at a press conference that he had lost his passport and money, Malaysians generously opened their hearts and their wallets. He raised $3,000, most of which went to cover his personal expenses. But reports indicate that he never sought a new passport from the British High Commission in Malaysia.

Moving on to Australia, Weston bounced a few checks—an oversight, he says—before disaster struck yet again. As he tells it, he was attacked outside of Sydney by several drunks who cracked two of his ribs. After spending last Christmas in the hospital, Weston left for California via Hawaii on a free ticket supplied by Canon, the Japanese electronics giant.

Staying gratis at a Ramada hotel in San Francisco, Weston was welcomed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein and was loaned video equipment by a local Sony distributor. He also received a $1,000 sponsorship from the Del Monte Corp. and collected $50 from women in a Nevada brothel. For most of his journey east, Weston claims, he lived hand to mouth, yet in New York he managed again to find a free hotel room.

After hearing of Weston's woeful experience in their city, the New York Road Runners Club gave him a new set of running clothes and $400. But club president Fred Lebow grew suspicious when he invited Weston out for a casual run. "Even the average runner has a gaunt look with some muscle tone, and he had none of that," Lebow says. "I believe we were taken in."

When he surfaced in Great Britain a few days later, Weston made a limited public confession. He had not run the whole way, he admitted, and yes, he had left a trail of unpaid bills. So far, the World Wildlife Fund has received only $400 of the hoped-for quarter million. In explaining his numerous troubles, Weston pleaded naïveté. "I swear," he said, "I haven't made a penny for myself out of all this."

  • Contributors:
  • James Willwerth.