Taking the Long Way Home
Extraordinary Welsh adventuress Rosie Swale Pope celebrated her 57th birthday last year by setting out on a 32,000-kilometer journey on foot around the world. In March, her run brought her to Moscow, where she talked with Martine Self about what it’s like to be on the ultimate ‘road’ trip.
At 57, one would think Rosie Swale Pope would be ready to rest. She has sailed around the world via Cape Horn with her young family, crossed the Atlantic in a tiny sailboat, run more than 20 marathons in Romania, Iceland, Kosovo, Cuba, and Nepal and tackled the trans-Saharan Marathon des Sables twice.
But the tall, lithe Rosie hasn’t had enough of extreme adventure and grueling challenge. So, to celebrate her birthday last October, she set off from her home in Wales to begin a 32,000-kilometer run around the world. When she reached Moscow on March 20, she estimated she had run 4,000 kilometers — through the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania before crossing into Russia in late February.
She is known as the United Kingdom’s top extreme female adventurer, a label she rejects. “I’m just a very ordinary person who’s lucky enough to be able to do something I really enjoy. Life is the real adventure and many people have lives which are far more arduous than running round the world.”
It’s an enormous challenge, which she says she has taken on for two reasons: to promote awareness of prostate cancer, which claimed her husband of 20 years, Clive, two years ago, and to raise money to help the Kitezh orphan community, 300 kilometers south of Moscow.
Her motivation? “Insanity motivates me. No, seriously, I discovered long ago that it’s not what you do that counts, but the way you do it. I’m not doing this because I’m a particularly tough person,” she says. “I believe in trying to push yourself to see beyond your own personal horizons. Horizons are not only of land and sea, horizons are inside yourself and it is important to go a little further than you think you can. The inner journeys often count more than the physical journeys.”
That’s not to say the physical journey is easy: Rosie’s abiding rule is that while she’s on land, every step must be on foot — no cheating by taking rides. “I’ve had to fight off people who insist on giving me a lift and try to get me into their car so that I don’t have to run anymore. I’ve even had a marriage proposal from someone who must have had a couple vodkas,” she says of her adventures. “People say hello, they say I’m like a donkey with a pack on my back, or that I need a doctor for my head because I’m going ‘peshkom’ for such a long distance. One of the most touching moments was a lady I encountered who worked in a little shop who gave me 100 rubles for the Kitezh community which she could ill afford. I once left my reading specs behind in a motel and a man drove 40 kilometers to find me and return them.”
Keeping clean is another serious challenge: “I wash the important bits whenever I can, a pair of socks in one cafe, and wash nooks and crannies or brush my teeth in another, I hardly ever get the chance to wash my hair. Occasionally I’ll check into a small hotel along the way and have a shower.”
Rosie herself was an orphan; her mother died two days after she was born. She was advertised in a paper and 45 people answered and she was given to a postmaster. But her Anglo-Irish granny found her and took her back to Britain. She didn’t start school until she was 13.
Rosie is the author of four books about her adventures: Children of Cape Horn (1975), Libras Don’t Say No (1980); Rosie, Darling (1981), and Back to Cape Horn (1986).
Follow Rosie’s run on her regularly updated web site at www.rosiearoundtheworld.co.uk.
To make a donation to the Kitezh orphan community, contact Carrie Disney (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dena Fisher (email@example.com). Visit Kitezh online at www.kitezh.org.
But her worst experience was trying to get into her bivouac tent at -22 degrees Celsius. “The tent zip was frozen and I couldn’t open it up. I knew that there was no shelter for 50 kilometers and if I didn’t get into the tent, I would freeze to death. It has been frightening and tough being in blizzards and sleeping in three meters of snow. I’ve also slept in the most beautiful forests and have had owls, foxes, and wolves as my companions.” Rosie’s journey in the coming months will take her to Perm, on the edge of Siberia, and then along the Trans-Siberian railway route to Magadan. That journey may be interrupted by a few months’ work in a hospital until the coldest temperatures pass; she estimates the run across Russia will take her about a year. After Magadan, she’ll cross to Alaska via the Bering Strait, then cross Canada and the United States, Greenland, Iceland and Ireland and Scotland before returning to Wales.
Before leaving Russia, Rosie plans to run a marathon in Omsk in Siberia in August, and through sponsorship of that marathon, to raise funds for the Siberian Railway Cancer Hospital there.
She is paying for the trip herself: “I hope to raise money along the way by giving speeches. I don’t feel it is appropriate to do it with a shiny Jeep and fully equipped support team driving just behind me.” But this independence means she must squeeze a tent, two sleeping bags, a portable stove, dried pasta, two flashlights, extra running shoes, Vaseline for her feet, sunglasses, sunblock, and mittens into her rucksack — no books, no music, no luxuries. She keeps the weight of her pack at 17 kilograms; for a time she carried a five-kilogram satellite phone to file stories to Runner’s World magazine, but sent it ahead in hope of easing aching knees.
But she says she wants for little. “There is really no such thing as unsupported. People are always willing to be helpful along the way and that is so much better than bringing support with you.”
Rosie says the trip has proved to be a very steep learning curve, and says she has felt afraid many times. “There’s not a night when I don’t wonder what will happen to me. It does take a bit of nerve to sleep on your own in a lonely forest.
But she says she doesn’t regret a minute of her journey. “The biggest lessons I’ve learnt are all about humility. So many people have so little and I feel so humbled by all the things we so often take for granted.
“I’ve confirmed for myself that survival often depends on the way you look at things.”