Rob Pope, AKA the Real Forrest Gump, reveals his toughest challenge yet
© Ian Beamish
With both of his parents-in-law suffering major strokes within the space of a year, the runner and Red Bull podcast host is embarking on a unique ‘two summit' ultra run to raise money for charity.
Rob Pope knows more than most about the limits of the human body. After all, he's the 'Real Forrest Gump' who once ran across America four times in a single year. He’s also the host of Red Bull’s How to be Superhuman podcast, where you can hear him deep in conversation with endurance athletes who share a similar dedication to testing the limits of their physical and mental potential.
And yet, for all this, nothing could have prepared him for the great unknown that befell both of his parents-in-law when they suffered major strokes within the space of 12 months, each losing the power of speech and physical movement to varying degrees.
"When a stroke strikes, part of your brain shuts down. And so does a part of you. Life changes instantly and recovery is tough," says Rob.
“I was out in Morocco midway through 2019’s edition of the six-part Marathon des Sables, when I got a letter from my partner, Nadine, saying her mother Sue had suffered a stroke and was in a coma."
As the months passed, Sue would go on to make a solid recovery thanks to support from the Stroke Association and her family, most notably her longtime husband Dave, who became her live-in carer. She eventually became able to walk and communicate once again, only for another cruel blow to strike in August 2020, when Dave himself suffered a major stroke.
“The chances are now that they will never return home together, after 40 years of marriage. This cruel story will seem familiar in one way or another for too many of us. I couldn't stand by and do nothing."
So, within the space of a few weeks, Rob struck upon the idea of running a peak for each of them, with proceeds going to the Stroke Association. On September 15, he's going to run up and down Mount Snowdon in North Wales, before running the 72 miles to his house in Liverpool in a single day. The following day will see him attempt a 95-mile run from his house to Scafell Pike in the Lake District.
Far from a walk in the (national) park, here he tells Redbull.com how he's readying himself and just what the Summit2Summit run will take to complete.
I wanted to do something close to home but still unique
"From John Kelly and Damian Hall both breaking the record on the Pennine Way, to Dan Lawson setting a FKT between Land’s End and John O’ Groats, there have been great moments in endurance running this summer. For my challenge, however, I wanted to do something closer to home, even if it'll be the biggest distance I've ever ran in two days. I’ve ran coast to coast before but never peak to peak, and Scafell Pike and Mount Snowdon are nearest to me. I always knew I would be doing something to celebrate the anniversary of the Forrest Gump run on September 15 [the date Rob started his crazy US challenge in 2016], but I'd imagined it would be enjoying a craft beer and a plate of shrimp, not with another run, but here we are.
It's all new terrain for me
"These sorts of ultra distances aren’t something I’ve previously encountered. I was averaging 37 miles every day on my USA run, but this is about 70 miles from Snowdon to my house, followed by 90 miles to Scafell on the second day. Depending on the weather, I’ll run up Snowdon in the dark, so I can get there for a nice sunrise before heading off back towards England. Much about the second day's run will depend on how I feel in the morning, but it would take something exceptional to stop me from trying to reach that final peak.
From an endurance stand point it's my toughest test yet
"Running-wise, I’d already upped my weekly mileage to 40 miles before I even decided to do this challenge because it looked as though major races were beginning again post lockdown. I’ll probably reach 75 miles per week before the race, but I’m cautious not to overdo it and extend myself too much. If I'm going to break down, it can be as I finish the run.
The elevation will be gruelling
"With Snowdon [1,085m] and Scafell Pike [978m] both a lungful at either end of the route, I'm taking the elevation into account too. I’m not a hugely experienced mountain runner. With Snowdon it will very much be a case of reminding myself not to rush it, as it's so early in the challenge, and if I do reach Scafell Pike I’ll need to save some energy to reach the summit. Good trainers could be key for both peaks – especially if the conditions are damp and I'm running up or down rock. The joints will take a battering if I go too fast. Lucky for me, I’ve just bought some new running shoes with good cushioning and grip for this reason.
My route will be off the cuff
"Unfortunately, stroke patients don’t get to plan their recovery, so I don’t actually want to plan the route too much. I’m just going to engage Google Maps when I get to the bottom of Mount Snowdon and go for it. There’s no support team either, just a rucksack, waterproofs, a phone and a change of kit, liquids and some nutrition.
"At the same time, extreme running through the years has taught me to always expect the unexpected. In the Marathon des Sables, I got pneumonitis [inflammation of the lung tissue] because I didn’t put my face scarf on during a sandstorm so I could save some time. It gave me a collapsed lung lobe. Naturally, I can’t see sandstorms being much of a problem in rural Wales, but there may be external factors I can’t control which I have to mentally prepare myself for regardless.
The challenge starts and finishes with a peak for both of my parents-in-law – Sue gets Snowdon, and Dave gets Scafell – and this will drive me on more than any PBs or new records ever could
Calculating the perfect pace is crucial
"The key to completing the run will be to find a resting pace that works for me. My easy running pace is a seven-minute mile. I feel like I can run forever on that, but 60 miles into the run at that speed I’m not going to be in a pretty place, so perhaps I’ll be looking to eat a minute off that time and run at eight minutes per mile instead. There’s a well-known ultrarunning strategy of running for 25 minutes and walking for five, so that’s also a method I'm looking at utilising."
The symbolism of the run will mentally drive me on
"The challenge starts and finishes with a peak for both of my parents-in-law – Sue gets Snowdon, and Dave gets Scafell – and this will drive me on more than any PBs or new records ever could. Just thinking of their own battles will put any pain I feel into perspective. Sue has always been a fighter. Doctors doubted she would walk again but six months after the stroke she made it to our wedding and has been making a steady recovery since, even if her arm movement and speech are still affected. Dave, meanwhile, has major cognitive disfunction. It can be so frustrating for stroke patients trying to speak because when they reply their pathways can be jumbled. It’s as if somebody’s thrown a jigsaw puzzle up in the air – it’s a struggle.
I have to listen to my body
"People do 100-milers, and I’m a relatively fit and a seasoned marathon runner who's ran across America 4.6 times, so in theory I should be able to do this. But from an endurance stand point it's my toughest test yet. If I’m stopped by something it won’t be due to stamina, it’ll be a weird injury kicking in. I picked up a lot of niggles on my big US run, even tearing a quad.
"As any really good endurance athlete does, I’ll have to listen to my body a lot over the two days, and if it tells me it feels too tight then I’ll probably start taking smaller steps than I normally do when I run. I’ve also been doing a lot of yoga of late, which I think could really help.
Donuts and Red Bull will keep me energised
"Elite ultrarunners tend to have cool nicknames, like Brad Lombardi, who is known as The Peacock. Well, I’ve decided I want to be known as the Donut King! When I was running across America, I was doing my damnedest to keep my heart rate below 130. Below this, your body actually uses fat as a fuel, and donuts are perfect for ultra snacking as they have the sugar to help give you little boosts as well as the fat to fuel you during your run. So expect me to have donut or two handy!
"When I was in the States, I’d regularly suffer from mid-day crashes and scheduling a decent caffeine or energy drink break would help me massively. Because I’m self-supported, I will be carrying mostly water but also a single can of Red Bull. As I venture further and further on both days, I’ll be popping into shops along the way to grab more Red Bull to fuel me on.
Turbo trainers are a godsend for training
"I had injury troubles when I got back from the Marathon des Sables – I was entered for the Berlin Marathon five months later and really messed myself up. I’ve had microtears to try to heal, so I’ve found indoor cycling on a turbo trainer – everyone's favourite lockdown purchase – very helpful alongside running. I’ve also got my friend Susan Maire giving me some massages to help prepare my body for the onslaught of asphalt to come.
My secret weapon is a music playlist
"On my US run I picked a song of the day every day. Very recently I put them all into one Spotify playlist, which is about 31 hours long, so it should be enough to get me to Snowdown to my house to the Lake District! Music has always helped me with the mental side of things, either with aches and stamina or just with enjoying the moment that bit more.
"My playlist is also very important for setting a rhythm, as I’ll use it to [schedule] a drink of water after each song and maybe a bite to eat after every three. Mind you, I had an important rule on the run in America that if AC/DC were ever playing that I had to run flatout. So It’s A Long Way To The Top is probably quite an appropriate track. Well, either that or Highway to Scafell.
When the going gets tough I'll remember who this run is for
"Not just my parents-in-law, but everyone who's suffered or will suffer from strokes is why I'm running. I once met a chap called Chris Conlon at the start of the Boston Marathon. He had a major stroke in his late 20s that left him in a coma and since then he's recovered physically. Even if he still has severe aphasia that he's battling to overcome, he's completed multiple marathons and even an Ironman. It just shows that while the level of recovery in stroke patients is different, it is possible to come back from a severe one. Organisations like the Stroke Association are doing a lot to help this.
I've no idea what will happen if I reach Scafell Pike...
"Perhaps like Forrest I'll say I'm pretty tired and go home. Will I run there? Depends how tired I am, I guess? All I can say is that if anyone wants to come and join me for part of the run (socially distanced of course), or even just to cheer me on and show support, they’d be more than welcome"