Any morning you just don’t feel like like lacing up your running sneaks and hitting the pavement, you will forever think of Serge Roetheli and his amazing, inspirational journey.
In April, 2009, the documentary, Beyond the Epic Run, is coming to select theaters. It is about Serge and Nicole Roetheli, of Switzerland, who sold all of their worldy pocessions to run around the world. Serge ran while Nicole, his wife, followed behind him on a motorcycle and filmed the entire journey.
Serge ran more than 25,000 miles over five years with Nicole behind him- literally and figuratively. I had the amazing opportunity to interview Serge about his unbelievable story. His is a story of an athlete’s strength, and how you can do the seemingly impossible.
EGN: When/why did you start running?
Serge: Nicole and I started our World Run in February 2000 starting off in Scion, Switzerland, our home town. When I look back now, I begin to think we were crazy to want to run the world. But I would rather be crazy than boring.
I have been doing sports all my life. I have always been a runner, boxer, biker, mountain climber. I believe those activities helped me prepare my body for the World Run.
Boxing was a big part of my life. I was a lightweight on the Swiss team in the 1976 Olympics. At the end of my boxing career I preferred running more and more. I would go run at 5, 6 o’clock in the morning before boxing practice. I did this to be free and outside with nature instead of to be inside the closed, dirty, sweaty room, which is exactly the opposite than a normal boxer. Normal boxers hate to run and want to train. I get stressed from being inside too long. I have to go outside. So I started running more and more.
Before the World Run, I ran Death Valley (100 miles); The Grand Canyon in one day (20 miles, 5200 feet of altitude change), Europe in the winter from Gibraltar to Norway (4,375 miles); Palermo, Italy to Milan (1,100 miles); and ran from ran from the southern tip of Argentina to Fairbanks, Ala. in what became known as the Americas Challenge (15,000 miles). It was at the end of the Americas Challenge that Nicole and I decided we would leave in two year to run the world.
I realize now that choosing to run around the world was the best thing I have every done in my life.
I love to run because it is a fantastic way to feel free!
EGN:What on earth (ha- pun!) possessed you to sell all your belongings to try and run around the world? Did your wife take a lot of convincing? How much thought went into your decision?
Serge: We did the World Run to be free. To help kids in the suffering parts of the world and to have an amazing journey. We had to sell our apartment, our furniture—everything. We raised 60 percent of the funds we needed, the rest came from donations from friends, family and our sponsors. Half-way through our trip our first sponsor wasn’t able to continue, but we were able to get support from International Vision Quest to continue.
I had the idea first to run the world, but Nicole wanted to do it as well. When I met Nicole 19 years ago, I met a volcano. She was full of life and energy. We realized very quickly that together we can do anything we want. We both had good, normal lives in Switzerland, but wanted to have unique lives as well. We realized we have to do something else. We didn’t want to die one day and miss something. Nicole knew it would be a life change, but she chose it anyway. We did not debate much over whether or not to run the world. We decided to do it and we did! That’s it.
EGN: How did you plan this? Did you run into any snags with different governments/customs?
Serge: We planned that it would take us one year on each continent, 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) - Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and America(South and North America). When we completed the World Run, we arrived one day after we had planned to finish.
We changed twice the direction of our course, once in West Africa due to war between two countries and then again in the Middle East. During the war in West Africa, we had to stay in the Swiss Embassy for four days while it continued. Houses were burned, people killed, and women were raped.
Because of the change of direction, we both caught Malaria while taking a route that was rainy and infested with mosquitoes. While in Madagascar, the Malaria hit Nicole. It was bad, she got a very bad fever and feel into a comma. She had contracted one of the worst kinds of Malaria. When I came down with it as well, I went to the doctor in Africa and he told Nicole that if they don’t give me a shot, I will die. But, we knew before leaving for our World Run that catching Malaria was a very big possibility.
The Middle East was a very interesting part of our trip. We ran through it two weeks after Sept. 11. Our visas would not be accepted there because of the increasing tension in that area, so we were forced to change our course. Originally we planned to run through Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait. Instead we went through Egypt (Sinai Desert), Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria where we caught a plane and flew over Iraq and Iran and continued our run in Bangladesh.
We had a few troubles along the way. We were robbed in South Morocco and then again in Albany, N.Y. But, war, Malaria, theft- that was the price were willing to pay to live our dream of running the world.
EGN: What kept you motivated? Where there any days you just didn’t want to run?
Serge: No, I never wanted to quit. When it was really tough, like when we got Malaria, or when our things were stolen, or when I thought I didn’t have the spirit, or I wasn’t good enough, I would think to myself- your life is hard, because it is a free choice. I chose to pay this price. I met thousands of people whose lives are so hard all of the time because they just to want to survive– they are sick, poor, or they have no food– when you realize that your life is good and you met so many people whose lives are so hard, you shut up and keep going. That is a good question; because many people ask me how I keep going. Most of the people tell me when they go run for one hour, they are almost dead, you know. And I say I understand you, but the way I decide to run is completely different, it is not the sports for me, it is a way of life. And that makes a very big difference. But, I tell people never to give up. The mind quits before the body.
EGN: You mentioned you both caught Malaria. Were there any other illnesses or injuries? I’m sure the blisters alone were enough to make most people quit…
Serge: Yes, catching Malaria is very bad. You have it for the rest of your life. But, like I say, it was the price to live our dream. While on the World Run I suffered from severe tendinitis and had to spend quite a few days in bed to recover. I also had trouble with my sciatic nerve. And, while running through India, a car hit me and I broke a bone in my elbow.
I went through 64 pairs of shoes during the World Run and more than 100 pairs of socks. I always had small injuries on my feet, including losing toe nails and getting blisters. ( Video of Injuries )
The run also had a huge effect on my knees. They are very bad now. During the World Tour I tried to take care of my knees in three different ways- I slept nine to 10 hours a night, drank lots of water and tea, and kept stretching.
EGN: What was your daily schedule like?
Serge: I would run around five or more hours a days. The rest of the time we were buying food, fixing the bike, taking pictures- it was important to take a rest during the day. I would try to sleep nine to ten hours a night. While we were going through the Sahara, I ran during the night from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. and after we found retreat in our tent, or a dirty, old house. I drank water all the time; a minimum of two to four gallons a day. It took us three months to get through the Sahara. 2,000 miles total, running 30 miles every night.
EGN: How did you fuel your runs? Did you eat mostly the country’s cuisine or did you pack food along?
Serge: It was hard to keep fresh products on our trip, because we weren’t able to keep fresh food cold for very long. We were eating the same kind of food all the time– spaghetti, pasta, tomato sauce, and tuna. That gave us protein and energy. In addition to that, McDonald’s was kind of a safe refuge for us, because we knew there would be a toilet with toilet paper and we could find water to wash our face and bodies. Every where in the world when we saw McDonald’s, were excited and many travelers say the same things. Not because the food is better. Not because you love McDonald’s or Burger King (we sometimes found a Burger King, too). But that means you will be sure to find air conditioning when most of the time it was crazy hot outside.
During the World Run, I drank lots of water and lots of Coke. While running through the Sahara, I drank at least two to four gallons of water a day. I believe we calculated that the whole trip I drank about 14,667 cans of Coke Cola.
EGN: What was your favorite place to run, and why?
Serge: The country closest to my heart is Madagascar. A lot of things happened to us in that country- that is where Nicole came down with Malaria, and a snake bit my eye. ( Snake Attack Video.) But, I loved the people there. They are very poor, but they are very friendly. I also enjoyed meeting people in Laos and Nepal. Nepal had the toughest terrain, because it is in the Himalaya Mountains. The people in the U.S. are very nice as well. When I ran in the U.S., everyone had an open mind and everyone wants to know you and ask questions.
EGN: So what’s next?
Serge: Right now I am a motivational speaker. I travel all around Europe. But, six to eight months out of the year, I am a mountain guide. Being in the mountains is a love of mine. My mother taught me this love. I run three to five times a week to stay in shape. I don’t run like I used to, because I don’t want to hurt my body anymore. I have ran more than 50,000 miles in my life and had three operations on my knees and one operation on my ankle.
Nicole currently operates our coffee shop in Scion called 40,912, which is the number of kilometers completed for our World Run.
Our trip is over, but we are not sad. We like sharing the stories of this adventure.
To read more about Serge and Nicole’s run around the world, and where you can catch a screening, visit the Beyond the Epic Run Blog