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Run, Forrest run: Meet the man who ran across America five times

By
Sarah Pollok

Multimedia Journalist - Travel

When the barber from Fluke's Barbers asked Rob Pope what haircut he wanted, Pope simply held up a picture of the film character Forrest Gump.

"You wan' a 'high an' tight?'," the man asked with a raised eyebrow. 'Are you kidding me, man?'

The story of how a 38-year-old veterinarian from Liverpool found himself in Mobile Alabama on the morning of September 15, 2016, asking a barber to make him look like Forrest Gump is a long one.

Long enough to fill a whole book, which, after becoming the first person to run across America five times, is exactly what Rob Pope did.

The map marking Rob Pope's five legs across the US. File / Supplied
The map marking Rob Pope's five legs across the US. File / Supplied

The beginning

Few people wake up one day and decide to run across America five times. As Rob Pope rightly points out, no one apart from him ever has.

"It all stemmed from wanting to run across it once," Pope tells Herald Travel, of the idea he'd had for more than a decade.

"The earliest I can trace it back is to an email I sent to an English chap who had done it once, asking for tips," he said. The title of the email, sent in 2009, was 'Forrest Gump 2'.

Although, initial inspiration could be traced back even further, not to a moment but a person; Pope's best friend and mother, Cathy.

Before passing away in 2002 after a cancer diagnosis, Cathy made her son promise one thing: "Do one thing in your life that makes a difference".

Fourteen years later, on September 16, 2016, Pope would find himself in Mobile, Alabama, wearing tan chinos, a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co cap and a pair of fresh white Nike Cortez, ready to make good on his promise.

The inescapable popularity of Forrest Gump

Do enough research on running across America, Pope writes in his book 'Becoming Forrest', and you'll eventually happen upon Forrest Gump.

"If you're a runner who's had the pleasure of passing a gang of youths or a bar, especially if you have long hair and, God forbid, a beard, I'd be willing to bet you've heard the shouts of 'Run, Forrest, run!'" writes Pope.

After the 500th time, Pope lost count of passers-by who would yell it out to him as he jogged by.

The history of cross-America runs

According to the history books, the first person to run from one side of America to the other was Edward Payson Weston, in 1909. At the impressive age of 70, Weston's run earned him celebrity status but according to Martin Huber, it would take a few more decades until the journey became popular.

Writing for Outside magazine, Huber said it wasn't until the 1970s, when running picked up as a trend, that people tried crossing the country as quickly as possible.

In 1980, Frank Giannio Junior set the record of 46 days, eight hours and 36 minutes. It would be 36 years before Peter Kostelnick came along and beat him by 4 days, two hours and six minutes.

It was runners like Giannio Junior, Kostelnick and Baldock, who ran from San Francisco to New York in 1999, who inspired Pope to do the same.

In 2016, Rob Pope set out to run across America, along a route similar to that of the movie character Forrest Gump. Photo / Supplied
In 2016, Rob Pope set out to run across America, along a route similar to that of the movie character Forrest Gump. Photo / Supplied

From runner to ultramarathon runner

While his friends would have laughed off his claims of being "unfit", Pope said he wasn't nearly as well trained for this 25,300km journey as he had been for previous competitive marathons.

This wasn't due to poor organisation or laziness, but a counterintuitive piece of advice he'd gleaned from reading books about ultramarathon running.

"You actually do a lot of your training on the run," Pope says, adding that if you train for 10 hours a day "you may as well be making progress".

It's for this reason, he says the first 1000km were harder than the following 24,000.

A lack of sponsorship and shoestring budget meant Pope's simple approach also applied to his diet on the road.

Instead of expensive nutrition bars and electrolyte drinks, Pope was fuelled with a diet of home-cooked meals made by his partner Nadine and fast-food snacks. But, when Nadine was away, he says his diet was similar to what a 13-year-old might choose when home alone.

"It's hard when you're having a rough day to think 'oh, in 12 miles I'm gonna have a really nice walnut cereal bar, can't wait for that'," he said.

"But if you have a massive Dr Pepper and four doughnuts waiting for you, well that's different."

The 'why' behind it all

What got Pope through his gnarliest days and darkest doubts was the part of his endeavour that would truly "make a difference"; fundraising for charity.

"There were loads of times I wanted to quit either acutely due to an injury or chronically because of the strain, which was mostly financial," Pope admitted.

"There's no way I would have continued if it was just for me because there's no way I could have justified it."

After leg five, Pope had raised about £70,000 (NZ$140,500), for Peace Direct and the World Wildlife Fund. Ever the over-achiever, he says he wished it had been closer to a million.

Surprised by kindness

Spend 422 days running through progressive blue cities and traditional rural towns just before, then during, President Trump's term, and you'll get a pretty clear picture of what America is like.

Yet, for all the media stories of warring states and severe polarisation, hateful protests and mass distrust, Pope's journey left him with an unexpected perspective on the nation.

"I guess maybe there is just too much kindness in America to fit into a single book," Pope writes at the start of his acknowledgements.

"Everyone was generally kind," he says. "Not just people I had messaged in advance but the chance encounters that made me think 'this is a hopeful thing'."

It was what Pope described as the "philosophy" of Forrest Gump that inspired him to set aside stereotypes and believe the best in people.

"He didn't judge anyone on whether they were rich or poor, or famous or black or white, clever or not, especially because he had that prejudice against him in the past," Pope said.

While he wasn't out to imitate the movie character, Pope said he often asked himself how Gump would have approached certain situations.

"Forrest wouldn't have worried about running through South Chicago, he would have been like oh look at those nice folks over there, I might go over and say hello," he said.

A brief interlude before the final stretch

Many things will cross your mind while running across highways and deserts, through cities and farmland. On his third lap across the US, Pope's thoughts were largely consumed by one thing; the news of Nadine's pregnancy.

As he turned around to begin the fourth leg, Nadine flew home to prepare for the couple's next adventure.

A few months later, partway through leg number five, he flew home just six days before his daughter Bee was born.

After tucking a few local marathons under his belt, the family returned to Las Vegas in 2018 to finish what they had begun. For Pope, this meant not only completing the 15,700-mile route but proposing to Nadine.

Un-Becoming Forrest

A baby, wedding and book later, Pope is "chuffed" for how the adventure turned out and excited for what lays ahead.

In February he will fly to Boston to speak at a popular running expo before travelling to Monument Valley, where he will run a final 1600km to the ocean as a way to close that chapter of his life and "un-become Forrest".

"I'm not Forrest anymore, I'm Bee's dad and that's what I want to be known as," he said.

Although, this doesn't mean his running days are over. Offhandedly he mentions a run across Australia that "needs to happen" before adding it would be "an awful shame" not to visit New Zealand while he was there.

"I believe someone has just been running the length of the country," Pope muses aloud. "I'll have to see how fast they've done it."

Becoming Forrest by Rob Pope. Published by HarperCollins, RRP $37.99. Available now.