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Who runs the world? Rosie Swale Pope MBE, of course

It’s a cold, dark, rainy night and global adventurer Rosie Swale Pope MBE has parked up the jogpod and is drying her sodden socks on a hot water bottle.

She’s on the road to St Andrew’s in Scotland, a world away from her final destination of Kathmandu, but it seems even a global pandemic can’t dampen this lady’s enthusiasm.

“The people here in Kirkcaldy are really suffering as a result of the pandemic, but they still manage to smile. There’s one thing more infectious than Covid and that’s a smile,” she says.

Rosie is 74 and recognised as one of the world’s most courageous and fittest women having undertaken an epic solo, unsupported run around the world – over 20,000 miles – in 2009.

She was 57 when she started and it took her five years. Her aim was to raise money for the early diagnosis of cancer and a Russian orphanage. Her beloved husband Clive had died of prostate cancer the previous year.

Rosie in her jogpod

She says: “I was utterly heartbroken and this gave me something to do. I knew I couldn’t just tear around the world on a whim. It had to be properly researched.”

On the trip she faced extreme danger, bitter Siberian winters, wolves, a naked gun man and intense loneliness. Her international best-selling book Just a little Run Around the World is her account of the monumental trip.

But it was a slip on ice in the lesser extreme terrain of Brighton that almost put her out of action four years ago. It was a bad break of her left hip which had to be pinned, but she was relieved when her surgeon said activity was the best healing.

Covid struck when she’d run through 12 countries on her latest expedition and she was forced to leave her jog pod in Turkey to return home.

“But adversity makes you find another path, so I set off to John O’Groats and when things improve with Covid I’m hoping to continue to Kathmandu.

‘Every moment I live I want to help other people. I feel very blessed to be alive’

“Life is even more precious now I’ve turned 74. Every moment I live I want to help other people. I feel very blessed to be alive. My mother died of TB when she was young. She never got to know what it was like to be 37, let alone 74.”

Since her fall, Rosie is ever more conscious of nutrition and its effect on the body. In Russia and Siberia, she dined on buckwheat, morning, noon and night. But now she’s conscious of the need for extra calcium for her bones.

White Mountain, Alaska

“I love cheese and spaghetti. And sometimes I just boil some water, get some good wholemeal bread, pour on organic olive oil, add some apple cider vinegar and some honey and Marmite if I can get it. Mix it all together and it tastes very delicious.”

She cooks on a small stove in the jog pod and has one saucepan. She recycles water for drinking, then washing up.

“I meet heroes every single day, young and old. One lady brought me a cheeseboard at midnight, another half a pint of IPA beer. These people are worried about their lives and their jobs, but they still show amazing kindness. I try to use the small shops to help them out. Every step is a celebration.”

‘When Rosie ran around the world she wore out 53 pairs of shoes and ended up running in her carpet slippers’

When Rosie ran around the world she wore out 53 pairs of shoes and ended up running in her carpet slippers.

Throughout her life she has completed numerous marathons in some of the world’s most challenging terrains and has embarked upon many adventures including trekking across Chile on horseback and sailing across the globe in a small boat.

The daughter of an English Army officer and his Swiss wife, Rosie’s mother died of tuberculosis when she was two. She was raised by her grandmother who ran a donkey sanctuary.

In her early 20s she made national news when she sailed to Australia and back in a small boat with her first husband and their young daughter, Eve. Their son James was born on board the boat in 1971.

By 1983, Rosie was divorced and planning a sailing trip across the Atlantic in aid of the Royal Marsden Hospital when she met Clive, her second husband, who wholeheartedly supported her endeavour. When she returned they got married.

“We had 20 wonderful years together. We had so many plans for the future. When Clive fell ill, he had just trained as a cameraman, as we planned to make documentary films together.

“Clive was an outdoors man and he had these wonderful twinkling blue eyes and always looked so happy. He never wanted to go and see doctors because he didn’t want to waste their time.

“Then one day in 2000 he went to the GP because he was having trouble going to the toilet. The doctor diagnosed prostate cancer, but the prognosis still looked good.

“But one night in June 2002, he just slipped away in his sleep. He was only 73. I climbed into bed with him and hugged him all night long. I have never felt so much grief in all my life.

“As a child, I had lost my mother and father, but losing Clive was like having part of me just torn away. I think I knew that night that I had to do something – anything – to increase awareness of this awful disease and to try to stop just one woman going through the misery that I was experiencing.”

A year later and Rosie was setting off on the challenge of a lifetime. She’d trained hard, 30-mile runs daily with a weighted backpack.

But it wasn’t until she reached Russia that a friend gifted her a Mothercare baby jogger to use as a mobile luggage holder. It was far better than a backpack.

She called it Columbine and when it retired, a new cart/sled, created for Siberia, was made by Steve Holland and Giles Dyson, who made equipment for Sir Ranulph Fiennes for his polar expeditions. Sir Ranulph kindly donated a red harness.

Rosie called her mighty steed Hercules because it was big and strong and she could pull it along when she ran. It converted into a sled for the snow.

Rosie says: “I funded the trip myself by renting out my cottage, using my small pension and digging into my savings. I said goodbye to my son in Tenby, but it wasn’t until I had run down to London – stopping overnight at hotels on the way – and spent a final night with my daughter that the enormity of what I had done finally hit me.”

In Russia she was hit by a bus and knocked unconscious, resisted a mugging at knifepoint and was confronted by a naked man waving a gun.

“He wasn’t a pretty sight at all. I knew the area was dangerous, and I had been warned that people are brought in from asylums to work in the mines.

‘So I acted as if I met naked gunmen every day of the week, wished him a very cheerful good morning and shook hands with him’

“One morning, there was a noise outside my tent and I saw this man, completely naked, waving a gun. He was quite mad, but I knew I couldn’t just run off and leave my equipment.

“So I acted as if I met naked gunmen every day of the week, wished him a very cheerful good morning and shook hands with him. He walked off looking slightly mystified – but I did pack up rather hastily after that.”

Wild dogs, wolves and bears followed. “In Siberia, I was walking alone for ten days with no other human in sight, and a pack of wolves began to follow me. During the day, they would disappear, but at night they came to find me again.

“One of them stuck his head inside my tent and I said: ‘Oh, please don’t eat me.’ But I think they were just curious – I don’t know if they had even seen a human before.

“I was scared to start with, then I told myself that they were protecting me, and I honestly believe that they were.”

A fall on ice in Iceland broke several ribs and cracked her hip, but her spirit remained intact.

Rosie thought she’d never run again

She reached England in August 2008, and was 32 miles from home when the pain in her hip became unbearable and she feared her dream was over.

“When the consultant came around, I told him about Clive and literally begged him to let me go. He asked the physiotherapists to give me crutches, and very gingerly I set off on my travels again. I don’t think I felt the pain at all because I was so excited about seeing my family again.”

On August 25, 2008, Rosie finally reached home – to waiting family, friends and TV cameras.

She’s not lost any of her enthusiasm for running or fundraising since. “I’m 74 and I feel a sense of liberty, but I’m no Indiana Jones. I’m not a great athlete or an intensely tough person, but I don’t want to be sitting on the sofa watching TV. So I don’t see any point in stopping running. This way I can make a difference. I can be an example to my children and I’m trying to lend a hand and I will do that to my dying breath. If I can’t run I’ll do something else.

Rosie Swale Pope MBE

“Life can be very hard and it can make us or destroy us. We can’t bring back people who have died, we can’t forget sorrow or pain, but we can help one another.”

But before she goes she regales me with one last tale: “In Alaska I decided to wash my hair in a pool in honour of my son coming to see me. I set off to meet him feeling really gorgeous and clean and suddenly a fish jumped out of my hair.”

Who runs the world? Well, Rosie Swale Pope, of course.

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Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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