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Virginia Fiennes, at 56; was wife of British explorer

LONDON -- Virginia Fiennes, wife of explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and instigator of one of his greatest adventures, has died. She was 56.

Mrs. Fiennes died Friday in a hospital in Exeter, southwest England, with her husband at her bedside, family friend Oliver Shepard said yesterday. No cause of death was given.

Born Virginia Pepper in Godalming, southern England, in 1947, she married Fiennes, an army officer and adventurer, in 1970.

She is credited with giving her husband the idea of voyaging by land and sea around the world and across both poles. The couple and a small team set off on the 35,000-mile journey from London in 1979. They finished three years later, having survived everything from a polar bear attack to desert sunburn.

As the mission's main organizer, Mrs. Fiennes traveled much of the way with her husband and ran bases at the North and South poles.

In 1987, she was awarded the Polar Medal by Queen Elizabeth II, the first woman to receive the honor.

"I'm not the sort to throw myself on the floor and burst into tears each time he sets off on one of his expeditions," she said in 1998. "I married Ran knowing what he's like and what he does. I just keep extremely busy. And because I've been on polar expeditions with him, I can relate to what he's doing."

Her husband went on more than 30 expeditions.

He suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery last year. Months later, he ran seven marathons on six continents in seven days. He had planned to run on seven continents, but bad weather forced an Antarctic marathon to be relocated.

The couple lived on a farm in southwest England, where Mrs. Fiennes bred pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle and Black Welsh Mountain sheep.

The couple had no children.

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