the 25,000 mile love story

Reviewed by Chris Risker, Webster University

11 june 2013       archive

Far from the edgy start lines and the finishing chutes of competitive road racing, far even from the rutted ground and twisted roots of cross country, stride those who run just to run. These are people who run farther than ultra-runners who, themselves, traverse 100 miles to 200 miles in single effort competition. It is running in its original form: Running as transportation, or running as a way of life, as among the Tarahumara of Copper Canyon, Mexico. Serge Roetheli is one such runner. Roetheli roams the earth restlessly. Though he claims he will eventually slip into a side chair at 100 years of age, his readers will have reason to doubt it.

Roetheli ran the world, as that can best be accomplished on a planet covered two-thirds by water. Specifically, he ran 25, 422 miles, but only after he ran Pan America, the world's longest highway. And before that? He ran from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and back again in a single day. He runs high and low, having run the eighty miles that connect five of the major mountain peaks in the Swiss Alps. But before settling on Roetheli as a runner, also know that he has been a world class mountain guide, boxer, kayak rower, and cyclist. As Lance Armstrong famously said, "It's not about the bike." For Roetheli, it's not about the running. It's about movement, it's about challenge, but staying alive is not high on his list: On his Pan American run, he macheteed his way through the Darien Gap, one of the most dangerous places on earth, a rain forest inspired swamp, infested with dangerous animals and deadly drug traffickers. For once his wife had it easy … if staying in a five star hotel and waiting to see if her husband ever emerged from a life-threatening jungle was easy.

Roetheli frames challenges in broad existential terms; he might have stolen George Sheehan's classic title, Running and Being, for his own. He declares "But I'm able to pay the maximum price, because my mother was kind enough to show me a world where it was worth it. To risk it all means you can gain it all," (28) [and] "… if there is anything I hate to be it's average. You are bad or you are great. You are committed or you are not. The murky place is for nobodies." (35) His high risk strategy puts him on a personal mission to rid the world of the 'impossible.' In fact he complains that "impossible is a stupid word." (Flyleaf) He means to make the case for putting it all on the line every time. As he did when he ran the world, yet he acknowledges that he was not first, though he may have been the first to run the world with his wife on a motorbike at his side. Roetheli's 'creative team' identifies Robert Garside as having achieved it first. Garside, a Brit, inhabits The Guinness Book of World Records for his accomplishment.

However, Roetheli's 'creative team' is not a running team, so it has overlooked the Marathon Monks of Hiei, Japan. Arguably, the gait of the monks is more like ritualized speed walking, still they cover marathon distances wearing only straw sandals on their feet in their quest to become living Buddhas. To accomplish this, they run 24,000 to 28,000 miles, depending on the route in the "1,000 day trial." So, others have traveled these distances in Japan for centuries, but if they failed, they were obligated to kill themselves. Not obligated to kill himself, Roetheli could have certainly quit with dignity multiple times. He could have quit when a python bit through his eyelid. He might have quit after he was involved in a nasty crash in India. He and his wife understandably could have quit when she developed cerebral malaria and its symptomatic seizures, but they did not.

The accomplishment of running the world, of course, impresses. Simply day after day of running the approximate distance of a marathon through deserts, hurricanes, and even down Fifth Avenue in New York City, serenaded by the horns of cabbies in the know (they thought he was a Swiss Forrest Gump), commands a certain awe. But the real jaw dropper that Roetheli presents, as simply an excuse-me-moment-while-I-climb-a-mountain, occurs in Argentina. Realizing in Mendoza that he is near the highest mountain in the Americas, he suspends the world tour long enough to summit Aconcagua, descend, and continue on his run around the world. Here, he bests the Marathon Monks of Hiei, and just about everyone else.

Is it then any wonder that a quick 10k on the track or road fails to ruffle the imagination? With Dean Karnazes having run a marathon in fifty states in fifty days, among other feats; Marshall Ulrich having run the Bad Water course across Death Valley twice both ways, pulling his own supplies in a trailer, only after having had his toe nails surgically removed so the beds would not blister in the desert; Pam Reed having been the first to run 300 miles continuously without sleep; and, with Zoe Romano poised to run the Tour de France this year, what can be left? Perhaps a lung-gom-pa (a meditation trained Tibetan runner) will run to the moon and back, striding on cosmic dust and sipping ice crystals as he runs with that 'unbearable lightness of being' that purportedly required lung-gom-pas to drape themselves in chains to remain earthbound.

And oh, yes, the prose is as straightforward as the man. This is no To a Mountain in Tibet. Or as one of the recent publications in marathon training states "Hope you like carbs." Well, Roetheli hopes you like short sentences.

Roetheli, Serge. The 25,000 Mile Love Story. Nashville: Dunham, 2012. 202 pp. $25.99.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris Risker

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