One of the few things in life I've ever been genuinely good at is writing history essays. For some unknown genetic reason, my high school career was marked by an ability to analyze what had gone before. I was as good at describing the origins of the First World War as I was bad at talking to members of the opposite sex. Then I went to Oxford University and life changed. On the two-hour drive from my hometown to the fabled city, I became an also-ran. I was suddenly introduced to people who used words I didn't understand and whose essays were from a different stratosphere. While I read car magazines and worried about the oversteer characteristics of the new 911 Turbo, they read Aristotle and worried about whether he was an empiricist or not. My only consolation was that they were even worse at talking to nubile young blondes than I.
For an ultra-competitive young male, it was an important reality check. Just like the brilliant young racer who arrives in Formula One only to find that his teammate is three-tenths quicker, I had taken on the best of the best and been found wanting. Faced with Ayrton Senna, I had become Michael Andretti.
More than a decade has passed since I first went up to university, but my professional career continues to bring me into contact with some extraordinary people. In the past month, for example, I've spent time in the company of Dame Ellen MacArthur and Wing Commander Andy Green, OBE.
Green remains "the fastest man on earth" having reached 763 mph at the wheel of the Thrust SSC jet car in 1997. And he's an extraordinary character. A brilliantly analytical mind-he has a First Class Mathematics degree from Oxford-is matched by an even temperament and the most astonishing reflexes. This is the man who flies Harrier jets for a living, pilots stunt planes for fun and famously applied opposite lock at 650 mph. The in-car footage from Thrust SSC shows Green applying 90 degrees of counter-steer as the car slides across the Black Rock Desert. "I reduced the thrust, applied the corrective steering and then re-applied the power," says Green, as we chat over lunch. "All I asked myself was: Am I still in control of the vehicle?"
Green has a clipped, militaristic way of speaking that has led some critics to call him dull, but this is unfair. Even though he has been asked the same questions a million times over the past decade, he remains a fascinating companion. "It is all about knowing what performance you have in hand, knowing your limits and recognizing when and where to back off. Record breaking is incredibly easy to screw up."
He talks about extraordinary things in a matter-of-fact way. Only when talking of Formula One does he betray a whiff of arrogance: "Record breaking is more interesting than driving round in circles on a Sunday afternoon."
Andy Green is not just mentally sharp, he's also phenomenally fit. In Thrust, he endured cockpit temperatures of 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees F) and trained for the JCB land speed record attempt (look for it in an upcoming issue) by running for an hour in the heat of the midday sun. Green has the lean, hungry look of the genuinely athletic.
So too does Ellen MacArthur. Two weeks after my lunch with Green, I found myself on B&Q, the trimaran yacht MacArthur sailed single-handedly around the globe in just 71 days. Nobody has ever done it quicker.
Thirty years old, MacArthur is tiny-just over 5 feet tall-peppered with muscle and much prettier in real life than she appears in photographs. Just as Green had talked casually of drifting at the speed of sound, so MacArthur took me on to the so-called "trampoline" that links the hulls. Even on the flat, calm English Channel I found it almost impossible to stand up, but MacArthur refuses to wear a harness, even in the fearsome Southern Ocean. "If you're strapped on and the boat capsizes, you drown," she casually explains. B&Q has no means of righting itself should it overturn. MacArthur's only hope would be to cling on, scramble into the tiny cabin through one of the escape hatches and wait up to five days for a possible rescue. Even the lady herself admits that living at such intensity for 71 days is not good for the soul.
MacArthur and Green are extraordinary people. Just as my college days were characterized by a mix of awe and bewilderment, so I found myself, in the space of a fortnight, confronted by two people who appeared quantifiably better than me in every department. Muhammad Ali once told a British interviewer that he was both mentally and physically stronger, but Green and MacArthur needn't make such blatant boasts. Their achievements are still writ large in the history books and in every sinew of their finely-honed physiques.