Runner Rosie Swale-Pope is a hard lady to pin down. The first time I tried to interview her she was getting her hair done in a hairdresser’s ready for a fancy event she was presenting at. The next time I heard from her was a voicemail message sent from where she was sleeping in some bushes in Central Park during her 3000 mile run from New York to San Francisco. Impressive, perhaps, but she has already run 20,000 miles round the world. Impressive, perhaps, but even more so when you know that Rosie is 68 years old…
I eventually tracked her down for a chat…
Alastair: Running around the world is extraordinary. Can you summarise such an experience in a few sentences? [Clearly a stupid question to ask! Read Rosie’s excellent book for a full answer.]
Rosie: I spent 4 years running 20,000 miles round the world. I did the run in memory of my dear husband, Clive, who had recently passed away from prostate cancer. I wanted to raise money and awareness [you can donate here, now] as well to help me grieve and to begin to move on with my life. The idea was crazy, of course. But you fight darkness with light. And crazy gets attention. If the press, on a quiet news day, covered my story and if that could help to save just one life, then it would all be worth it.
My record day I covered 30 miles. On the slowest day, when I had to shuttle all my kit through deep snow so I was moving backwards and forwards repeatedly, I made only 100 yards of progress through the snow. At times it was very cold – down to -62C in Alaska, although the damp cold of the two Russian winters I ran through at -20C often felt colder than that.
Alastair: It sounds miserable!
Rosie: It was wonderful! My husband wanted me to look to the future. Step by step. I got going bit by bit. I can’t stand it when adventurers complain about how tough and miserable things are – we choose to do it! It was fun!
Alastair: [laughing] You are the most positive, upbeat person that I know! Why are you now taking on another run?
Rosie: My last run was turning my sorrow around. This one, running across America from New York to San Francisco, is happy! It’s full of joy, and the wonderful, fantastic people I am meeting along the way. Running with Icebird [her trailer] is just a catalyst to meeting interesting people. Christmas on the road will be special – people have a different way of thinking at this time of year. Recently someone let me use their restroom – it turned out to be the restroom for the Congressman in Delaware! Icebird opens many doors. I talk to so many people that it’s sometimes hard to get any miles done! I love all the random encounters and tales.
When I dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean I’m going to have my 22nd birthday party to celebrate. You’re definitely invited!
Alastair: You’re going to be 22?
Rosie: Yes! I’ve been 21 for ages so now I am going to be 22. I say that, but I’m not avoiding reality. I’m 68. But I’m overjoyed to be the age I am, who I am. You can be 21 and 68. I haven’t grown up yet!
Alastair: How do you feel about getting older?
Rosie: Age is one of the worst things. Most of my friends now are younger than my daughter! People are amazing. But as people get older they need to ask themselves ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I want?’ Life is not a rehearsal! People just give up. There are so many real barriers in life that we should stop making false ones. Don’t make yourself get stuck. It’s a well-off people’s problem: poor people in the world just get on with life when they are older. We give up. Of course, people are different biologically and there’s a reality to aging. When Paula Radcliffe is old she won’t be able to run as fast. But she can do something different and amazing instead. She could make her garden a glory. It doesn’t matter what it is.
You shouldn’t have to grieve, or to lose a limb or something to be spurred into being forced to do your best. It’s nothing to do with age or gender. It’s just a frame of mind. You’re a long time dead, so you might as well get on and do it whilst you are alive!
Alastair: How do you fund your adventure?
Rosie: Like you, this is my job. I earn a living from my adventures. I can’t think of a finer way to earn my money.
Alastair: Why is that? Adventurers often fear the opposite: that earning money somehow sullies the purity of the adventure…
Rosie: But you’ve got to eat, haven’t you?! I’m on a crazy tight budget. But running is so cheap. I’m not sponsored. The sort of companies I’d be willing to have sponsor me, like Peter Hutchinson who makes wonderful sleeping bags, people who I like – they don’t have cash to spare! So I just live cheap. I re-use a tea bag 10 times. I’m not frugal though – I dream of decadence and wine! But the reason I like it is because it’s real. I’m on the same wavelength as real people because they have to work too. How could I be swanning around all sponsored and everything and hope to connect with people at my talks? It’s real adventure, real life. I earn my own money, through speaking and writing. I don’t depend on people.
Alastair: That’s a really good way of looking at it.
Rosie: People come up to me after my talks and say “I’d love to do this, but I’ve got to earn a living…” I say they can do both. Life is an adventure. Whether it’s coping with cancer, coping in Siberia in winter, or whatever adventures normal life throws up. Even just sleeping outdoors is an adventure. This is all fun. It’s why we love climbing mountains – either in our heads or in reality. I can connect with these people because I’m living in reality. I don’t accept food from people in poor countries – they work to earn, and so do I. When I do get invited in I often hide money in their home. It should cost you – just like if I came to dinner at your house I’d come laden with wine and chocolates for you. I accept hugs though – you get a lot of hugs and kindness out on adventures!
Alastair: Women often suggest to me that they couldn’t do the things I’ve done because it’s harder for women…
Rosie: It’s rubbish! For any age, any gender, somethings are more do-able than others. But I believe that a woman travelling alone is safer. You have to obey the laws of the wild, certainly – to be polite and tidy, to pay your own way, to act unafraid. I’ve had murderers in Siberia teach me how to light fires. I’ve been to places far too dangerous for men to travel – they’d have been shot. But I’m not a threat, so again and again I have been OK. And I’m happy too – that radiates to people.
There’s lots of great lady travellers – Freya Stark and so on. It’s not a man’s game. Life is anybody’s game.
You have to do what you are good at. I could never run fast. But I could run far. A racehorse can’t make marmalade, however hard you try. But whatever you choose to do, you just need to start. I met a man in a Travelodge recently. He was longing to travel. I just said “Go on then! Get going!”
Alastair: What do you know now that you wish you’d known before you began your first big run?
Rosie: So much! You should pull or push the weight you need, not carry it on your back. You should keep your kit and your plan as simple as possible. Planning is everything – it really is. Remember that it’s fun – you’ve chosen to do this so jolly well enjoy it! And remind yourself each day what you have achieved, and hold your head up high.
Alastair: If I was to give you £1000 for an adventure, what would you do?
Rosie: I would spend it on this adventure right now. I’m running across America and it is marvellous!
Alastair: Thank you!
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!