If you are a runner, you have undoubtedly seen the popular “Run a marathon, they said. It will be fun, they said” meme with a fella collapsed in a heap at a finish line. That picture is of Rob Pope, a Liverpudlian champion marathoner, veterinarian surgeon and Forrest Gump cosplayer (of sorts). Full disclosure, that meme was actually a comedy pratfall he did after completing a marathon. But he might be more famous in the popluar imagination by pictures of him competing in the London Marathon decked out in the Tom Hanks role; Pope was subsequently awarded a Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon (two hours 36 minutes) by someone dressed as a film character. He laughs: “Ah, fame. There’s also another meme doing the rounds now that has one picture of this handsome, clean-shaven guy setting out on the road, saying, ‘My running look pre-pandemic’ and one of scruffy old me in America as Forrest saying, ‘My look now’.”
Pope did not just run London as Forrest Gump, he ran America—re-creating the scenes in the film when Hanks one day gets up from his porch in Alabama, starts jogging and doesn’t stop, criss-crossing the country several times. Though Pope did not match Forrest’s time—“I ran for three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours,” Hanks drawls—he managed an incredible 15,700 miles in 422 days, traversing the continental US five times while raising £40,000 for the World Wildlife Fund and Peace Direct. The run was an ambition he held for 15 years and he was encouraged to do it by his then girlfriend, now wife Nadine, after a new job fell through and he suddenly had time on his hands. Incidentally, he proposed to Nadine as he ended his US trek in Monument Valley, Utah, at the same spot Forrest suddenly decides to stop running in the film.
If you do the maths, Pope covered 37 miles a day. How did his body cope? “To be honest, it really didn’t,” he says. “But I wasn’t going out and trying to do those miles as fast as possible. I stopped a lot for breaks and that was the best part, where you got to meet and speak to people.” It also provides some of the best parts of Becoming Forrest, Pope’s funny, insightful book of his journey across the US, which is less a running memoir and more an anthropological study of Americans. It has the added spice that he set off from Mobile, Alabama, at a time of great societal divide: just a couple of months before Donald Trump’s election. He arrived on election day 2016 in Tombstone, Arizona (site of the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral), and watched the coverage in an Old West saloon, but by that time was pretty certain of the result: “I knew it was a foregone conclusion. I saw so many Trump signs—in the thousands—that I stopped counting. And 18 for Hillary, and one for Bernie Sanders.” (The Sanders poster was outside a store selling Trump pinatas in the liberal oasis of Austin, Texas).
Because of the electoral spread of the country—broadly, Democrats huddled on the coasts, Republicans laying across the great expanse in the middle—it meant that much of Pope’s run was through conservative “red states”, the media coverage of which he thinks could be more nuanced: “In almost all of my encounters with these people, I found a huge amount of kindness. I have a deep affection for what I would call the typical Trump voter, because you never really see the typical voter on TV—you just see the extremes, the caricatures. Most I encountered were family people who felt they had been failed by traditional politics, and they just wanted something, anything, to cling to. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the very charismatic, enigmatic and sociopathic President Trump.”
The Trump supporters he meets are happy to courteously engage him on all manner of issues (though Britain’s universal healthcare comes up a lot). And there are more perilous encounters, several including rampaging wildlife, such as being charged by a bull moose: Pope scrambled to the side of the road, hiding behind a far-too-thin tree until the one-ton animal veered away at the last second. On his first Southern swing, the only pedestrian bridge crossing of the Mississippi River was a four-lane highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with cars careening by at 70mph and only a rickety metal grate protecting him from a 200ft drop: “I put my headphones on, turned up Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’—you know the part that says ‘Welcome to the jungle/You’re gonna die’—and sprinted. I did my fastest mile of the whole trip.”
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