In 2003, at the age of 57, Rosie Swale-Pope began a journey around the world that would cover 20,000 miles (32,187 KM) in 5 years. Not by car, not by motorcycle, not even by bicycle, but by running. Her quest was to raise awareness and fund for the early diagnosis of cancer, a disease that had just recently claimed the life of her beloved husband.
Carrying all of her belongings in a backpack (and later on in various different small carts), she embarked on the journey from her own front door in Tenby, Wales, to London and Harwich, crossed the English channel by ferry to the Netherlands, then ran the vast length of Western and Eastern Europe to Moscow and all the way to the far end of Siberia, before crossing the Bering Sea. She then continued running through the wilderness of the far north of Alaska, head across to North America towards Nova Scotia where she crossed to Greenland and then north of Iceland, before finally ran down the length of Great Britain back to the doorstep of her home.
While there were quite a few that have attempted a trip around the world by land before, and succeeded, she became the only person in the world that have completed this solo challenge with no support crew following her, while running. So, who is she and why can she get so “crazy”? (with the best possible intention of the word).
Rosie had an interesting childhood. Born in Davos, Switzerland, her mother was suffering from tubercolosis while her Irish father was away on duty serving for the British Army, so Rosie was raised by the wife of a local postman. She was 2 years old when her mother passed away, and little Rosie moved to Ireland to live with her paternal grandmother, and later with his father and his new French wife who loves Rosie. She grew up loving animals and took care of 4 orphaned donkeys, 7 goats, and a pet cow named Cleopatra. She also often go out exploring the countryside riding a black horse named Columbine.
To say that she’s an adventurer may be an understatement. She hitch-hiked her way to India, Nepal and Russia when she was a teenager with almost no money. Trekked 3000 miles (4800 KM) alone through Chile on a horseback. She walked around the entire coast of Wales, and ran a lot of exotic marathon races alongside the usual ones including one in Siberia, Romania, Albania, Cuba, Nepal, South Africa, ran 151 miles (243 KM) at the Sahara Desert, ran 1000 miles (1610 KM) from Arctic Circle to Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, and at one point ran 27 marathon races in 27 days.
Moreover, she once sailed single-handedly across the Atlantic ocean on a small boat. In fact, it was during sailing in 1982 when she met her husband Clive. Together, they had a happy, loving, and adventurous life, including living in a boat at one period of time and sailed around the world, even giving birth on the boat on Italian waters. That is, until Clive was diagnosed of prostate cancer a little too late and he passed away not long after. Rosie remarked of her last few moments with him, “[t]ime generously stopped its bitter headlong race; and stood still, just for a little while. It was time’s gift that meant everything. Things last for ever, not in years, but in the moments in which they happen.”
The run around the world was her way of grieving, and her way of battling against the very disease and awareness (or the lack thereof) that could have saved her husband’s life a little sooner. And what a touching journey. In that 5 years period, she didn’t run continuously but had plenty of stops and was welcomed by a lot of strangers and supporters of her cause. All the people she met, all the many weird and wonderful encounters, occurrences and even tragedies all made the run such a memorable adventure.
There was the 25 KM “Rosie’s Run” organised by her supporters in Netherlands to run alongside her, there was this one occasion where she entered a stranded place in the middle of the woods in Germany and proceeded to be served a delicious breakfast, when she’s serenaded in Poland, invited home by a Polish family during Christmas Eve, and by a Lithuanian family during New Year’s Eve, waking up with 6 other people in a random house, getting 2 Russian god-granddaughters, got ill several times including getting a double pneumonia and hospitalised in Irkutsk and suffered from broken ribs in Alaska, being protected by old men in a dangerous mountain, rescuing a dog that was about to be shot dead and took it with her for a while before giving it to a little girl in the next town, being proposed to get married, twice, almost losing a toe due to frostbite, making friends with the Amish, waking up surprised with a snake with her in bed, and appearing in the Martha Steward Show while in New York, among many others.
And perhaps the craziest ones for me, in between the run around the world she stopped at Omsk to run a marathon race, and halted the run once more to participate in the Chicago marathon (and finished 14th place in her age category). Remember, at this point she’s 60 years old!
While the journey was hers, the lessons were for everyone. And they are profound. Rosie is an incredibly kind soul with a positive outlook on life whom sees the best in people. Now this doesn’t mean that she’s naive and ignorant of the nasty sides of people and the violence occurring around the world (she even encountered violence few times herself in this journey, including getting chased by a murderer). But through her story she shows us and teaches us that even in the poorest and most desperate corners of the world people are naturally nice, and those who are desperate enough to become violent can be softened if we approach them with kindness and care. Even the murderer.
This is reflected in the so many people that she met along the way during those 5 years, who have so little but want to share or help her, all the doctors that helped her nurse back to health (for free), and the many people across many small towns that helped her with her broken equipments and so very often took her home and spoiled her with food and comfy bed. She might be running solo, but she got help from strangers almost in every step of the way. Rosie concluded, “I believe animals and people everywhere don’t just make the journey, they are the journey. It’s true in Siberia, Alaska, Canada, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania. You never know what will happen next. The most enchanting encounters can end up startling you.”
It’s been years since this journey began and ended safely, and since then the British progressive rock band Big Big Train had wrote a song about this journey in their song “the passing widow”, she has since embarked on another charity-awereness run from England to Nepal, and Rosie received an MBE honour from the Queen of England in 2008 for her charity work. She’s simply an amazing human being.