Rosie Swale Pope MBE has been called various things in her 70 years. ‘A cross between Ranulph Fiennes and Jilly Cooper’ was one description; ‘spellbinding’; ‘simply awesome’.
However, the slight, ever-smiling woman across the table from me insists there is ‘nothing special’ about her, she is ‘a very ordinary woman’. An ordinary woman who ran 20,000 miles, unsupported, around the world on her own – the only person ever to do so – facing wolves and axemen along the way; sailed solo across the Atlantic; ran across Iceland, across Cuba; ran 27 marathons – and is now walking the width of America.
How does she do it? She is a granny, with no superhuman powers, and certainly no prodigious strength in her slender frame. Simply, she follows her dreams, and she wishes we might all do the same.
Since January 2015 she has been on a 3,371-mile walk from New York to San Francisco. She’s doing it in stages, returning to the UK to give talks, to help to pay her way and add to the coffers of the Prostate Cancer Charity, in memory of her second husband Clive Pope who died of the disease.
We meet at a posh hotel in Kensington, London. Rosie has parked her tattered trailer, loaded with kit – ‘my life-support system!’ – in the lobby, and set up base camp in the restaurant. She gives me an enthusiastic hug – and starts talking so fast I can hardly catch what she’s up to next. It entails dashing to East London to pick up a solar panel, collecting new trainers from Liverpool Street, back to left luggage in Euston. Then to Gatwick via Victoria for a flight just a few hours away.
I reflect that it’s impossible, but she is serene. ‘It’s okay,’ she says, ‘everything will work out.’
Somehow, everything does work out for Rosie, no matter how huge the challenge or how hopeless the odds. In the inspiring talks she gives to help fund her journeys, she describes climbing the mind’s mountains: seeing change, and big challenges, as friends; about giving up fear, being bold through life’s struggles.
Her 2003 run around the world – ‘a lovely little circle’, taking in Russia, Siberia, Alaska, Greenland – was her response to Clive’s death. Prostate cancer was discovered too late, when it had spread to his bones. She ran to publicise the need for early diagnosis, raising £250,000, but more than that, it was an inner voyage through grief. ‘It began as a journey of loneliness and heartbreak, but along the way it became about humanity. My message is, life is precious, and please get checked out. But also try to be joyful.’
Be joyful, and be fulfilled. She abhors the idea of a life of headaches and worry that, in Auden’s words, ‘vaguely leaks away’. She wants us to get out there and live. ‘You can jump out of an aeroplane, or go horse riding, or just give someone a hug. You don’t have to do brave or big things. It’s just as important to do lovely, nice things. Having a bad day? Make someone else’s day. Something wrong? Turn it around and do a good thing.’
Yes, there is pain, there is loss. Clive had been ‘so fit, so brave, so full of life’. She misses him deeply still. ‘Grief is natural. You don’t have to fight it. You’re meant to cry. Just go with it. If you’re despairing, hang on. Because the feeling changes. Don’t give up, don’t give in.’
If Rosie had given in, she would not be here today. She set off on her world odyssey – from her home in Tenby, South Wales – on her 57th birthday, returning home 20,000 miles and nearly five years later, eligible for her bus pass. On the way, alone in the frozen forests of Siberia, she faced a timber wolf who entered her tiny tent (he and his wolf pack ended up as her silent escorts through the forest), bears, wild dogs and a drunken axeman. (After she politely introduced herself, he invited her to a party: ‘There really is kindness in everyone.’)
She suffered broken ribs, near drowning, pneumonia, frostbite and her knees gave out running in the thick snow: she subsisted on snow porridge, birch-bark tea and spaghetti furred with reindeer hairs.
All these she describes in her book Just a Little Run Around the World. A gripping tale of survival, it is a celebration of the transcendent beauty of this planet, and the triumph of the human spirit, a tribute to all the kind strangers who took her into their homes.
‘People are overwhelmingly good,’ she says. ‘There are wonderful people around every corner, everywhere. The biggest adventure is everyday life. Make it count.’
Start with your dreams, not your circumstances
It was Rosie’s Irish granny, Carlie, who told her, ‘Start with your dreams, not your circumstances’. Rosie has been dreaming and doing ever since. She was born in Davos to a British Army major father and a Swiss mother already dying of TB, who could see her only through a clinic window. When she died, Rosie was fostered by the postman’s wife until she was three, then Carlie came to take her to rural Ireland.
A year later, Carlie was bedridden with osteoarthritis. Rosie’s father and his second wife moved to a cottage down the road with their four children, while Rosie became Carlie’s carer, answering to the thump of her stick on the floor. ‘I read the Bible to her, doled out her drugs, helped her on and off the commode.’
It would be rich material for a misery memoir, but Rosie sees it differently. ‘My life was like a magical true fairy story,’ she proclaims, ‘and I’m so grateful for it.’ Today, I say, they would probably take you into care.
‘I’m not an expert, but I do think if someone had given me counselling, I might have ended up worse than I am now,’ she laughs. ‘I had a lovely childhood. A rather unusual one. I had a great deal of responsibility and a great deal of freedom. And I’ve always put freedom and responsibility together.’
For everyone but Rosie, Carlie in her pain was a difficult woman. But she was cultured and imaginative, and took on Rosie’s education. ‘Her influence set me on a life of adventures.’
At 13, Rosie was sent away to boarding school. ‘Tall, thin and gangly’, she must have cut a quaint Pippi Longstocking figure. ‘I had lice in my hair, woolly stockings that my grandmother thought girls should wear, and knickers down to my knees. You can’t blame people, but it was horrible to start with.’ Yet the only hint of unhappiness is when she says, of her solitary pilgrimages, ‘The worst loneliness is among people who aren’t nice to you.’
She recalls getting nought out of 100 in a test, but she can quote philosophers, from Aristotle to Marcus Aurelius. ‘He observed that to dwell on disaster is to repeat it. Don’t go on about things that went wrong.’
Love is the secret of life
Love, in the broadest sense, she believes, is the secret of life. ‘I used to think the great thing was determination and resolution. Now I realise that it’s love and gentleness.’
Wherever she goes, Rosie has the support of Eve and James, her children from her first marriage, to Colin Swale. She has grandchildren, countless friends, and allows she is ‘very loved’.
Then there’s money – because ends must be made to meet. She accepts some equipment from manufacturers, she has emotional and practical support from Runner’s World magazine, but otherwise she pays her way. ‘I’m not a stray puppy, I’m earning my living. And I’ve a very strict code about what I’ll accept.’ Her global run was part-funded by rent from her cottage in Wales. But she no longer has a house; she lives in (and out of) Ice Chick, the latest in a line of increasingly sophisticated survival trailers she’s had specially made.
As she hauls her supplies behind her, Rosie finds that Ice Chick is also Ice-Breaker. People do not hesitate to approach her. ‘All I do is run and talk to people. And I hope they’ll say, “God, there’s that stupid woman pulling a cart. I’m going to get a job/go to the dentist/give up smoking.”’ She laughs.
With Ice Chick, every gram counts. In the USA, land of death by chocolate and bottomless fries, she will spend days alone in the searing desert heat, living off dried pasta with garlic and bouillon, coffee and vitamin pills. A flask of ice cubes would be nice – but too heavy. A plastic bin bag won’t keep the rain off as well as a mac, but it’s almost weightless. The logistics are calculated to a nicety. She aims to finish by Christmas, with her 70th on October 2 probably spent in Death Valley in temperatures around 40C (100F).
On an easy day she might jog 10 or 13 miles, but 17, even 27 are not unusual. In July, as the mercury climbed, she ran 68 miles in two and a half days, to a bar, to see Wales play in the Euro quarter-finals, to honour a promise to her family, who were watching back in Tenby.
In 2009, Rosie was awarded the MBE. She is an author, broadcaster and motivational speaker. So why is she not as famous as, say, Sir Ranulph Fiennes? It could be down to her personal style. Sir Ranulph has a winning line in self-deprecation, but his website styles him ‘the greatest living explorer’. You cannot quite imagine him describing himself as ‘very ordinary’, still less comparing himself, as Rosie does, to ‘a little pussycat with nine lives’.
Not to worry. Rosie merely wants to spread the word and save lives. She takes ageing, as she is taking America, in her stride, saying, ‘Don’t build barriers around yourself. Look after yourself in a common-sense way. You can be stopped by poor health, but you can’t be stopped simply by age.’
Now she must be off if she’s to pick up her solar charger, sort out her shoes, collect her luggage, get to Gatwick, fly across the Atlantic and hoof it across the desert.
Tonight Dagenham, tomorrow Death Valley. Everything will work out fine.
Rosie’s lessons from life
1 As you get older, do more, not less.
2 It’s easier to be the best you can than to give up.
3 You never give yourself a break going uphill but only when you are over the top of the mountain.
4 The real road of life is always in the head and in the spirit.
5 You don’t win a battle because of how it turns out. You win by the way you face it.
6 Good is stronger than evil, hope is stronger than despair, life is more precious than anything.
A lifetime of adventures
1971 Rosie sets sail around the world by catamaran with first husband Colin Swale and daughter Eve, from Gibraltar via Australia.
1983 Sails solo from the UK to the US, aboard a 15ft cutter that she found in a cowshed.
1984 3,000 miles on horseback through Chile.
1987 Walks 1,375 miles around Wales.
1997 Runs the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara, which is the equivalent of five and a half marathons in six days, carrying all her equipment. Runs the length of Romania to the border with Hungary.
1999 Runs solo 1,000 miles across Iceland (top) from the Arctic Circle to Reykjavik.
2000 Runs the Comrades Marathon, in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa – 56 miles in 11 hours, 1 minute, 1 second.
2000-2001 Runs through the Balkans from Macedonia to the border, held up at gunpoint en route. Flies to Skopje; runs across closed borders into Kosovo and through Montenegro to northern Albania.
Runs 1,360 miles across Cuba in 46 days and completes the Havana Marathon along the way.
2003 In April, begins a run across Nepal to raise money for the Nepal Trust, 1,060 miles in a record 68 days. On October 2, her birthday (centre), sets off to run around the world. Four years later she arrived in New York City (left).
2015 Begins a 3,371 mile run across America from New York to San Francisco.
Rosie is running across America to spread cancer awareness, not in aid of a charity. But if you’d like to help her cover expenses, visit gofundme/RosieDeathValley. Follow Rosie’s run across America online at rosieswalepope.co.uk, at facebook.com/rosieschallenges and at twitter.com/rosieswalepope.
Just a Little Run Around the World (HarperCollins, £9.99).
This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.