Serge Roetheli ran around the world accompanied by then-wife Nicole on motorcycle. A new film and book document their five-year journey.
By Chris Erskine July 17, 2013, 5:46 p.m.
What do I know of life? For years, I thought Taco Bell was a Mexican phone company. I thought Hash Tag was a mouthy wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons.
So when I got wind of the Swiss Forrest Gump, an adventurer who ran 25,422 miles over five years till he’d circled the world, his beautiful green-eyed wife riding along on a motorcycle the whole time with their supplies, I wasn’t sure if I had a column or a Nobel Prize candidate.
A marathon a day, five days a week, for five years.
Then I learned they divorced after it was over. So it’s also a love story — sort of. And a near-death experience, as true love frequently is. In the course of their adventure, they both nearly died. African civil wars were an issue, as were jungle attacks and hostile Middle Easterners.
Their charity sponsor pulled out about halfway in. To fend off water-borne disease in undeveloped parts of the world — which is a lot of the world, turns out — Serge Roetheli drank Coke most of the time, a gallon a day, de-bubbling it first to ease digestion.
If this isn’t a Sandra Bullock movie, I’ll eat my pocket protector. If this doesn’t make you sit up in your easy chair and say, “Whaaa-huh?” then I’ll eat your fuzzy slippers.
Roetheli might be the toughest man I ever met, rawboned in that way of Swiss mountaineers, his trade when he’s not out running or rowing around the world. He was in town the other day promoting a new John Davies documentary about his feat, and his new book, “The 25,000 Mile Love Story.”
He is, quite probably, the greatest endurance athlete of all time, belonging in the same sentence as Edmund Hillary, Thor Heyerdahl and Moses.
His ex-wife, Nicole, exhibited an almost mythic devotion and was in some ways even braver, for she was more vulnerable in the world’s most unpredictable regions.
“We were surrounded all the time by kids,” Serge explained of what kept them going.
In Mumbai, India, Serge was hit by a truck. In Madagascar, a 20-foot boa constrictor almost took out his eye.
They were constantly swarmed by the world’s most lethal critter, the malarial mosquito, purported killer of millions, including four popes, Alexander the Great and the poet Dante.
“If you’re going to spend a year and a half in Africa, you have to accept the fact you’ll get malaria,” Serge said over lunch the other day.
Which captures the spirit of an adventure that began in Switzerland, moved easily to France, then continued by ferry to Africa, where they camped most nights. “Hotels,” he said, “were not in the budget.”
In Mali, Serge came down with malaria; in Madagascar, so did Nicole, and she would suffer occasional seizures from the disease the entire journey — and perhaps will the rest of her life.
From there, they went on to the Middle East, where they learned their charitable sponsor, Terres des Hommes, pulled out of their attempt to run the world. Now, from the road, Serge and Nicole had to try to line up another sponsor, which they were able to finally do through American doctor Ron Zamber.
But everything was agony.
In the jungles of Malaysia, humidity was so intense Serge could run only in the mornings. In Thailand and Laos, Nicole wrestled the motorcycle through muck and raging creeks during the rainy season.
Relief from the humidity came in Australia, but by then Serge’s ankles were buzzing with tendinitis.
By the time they were finished, Serge had gone through 64 pairs of running shoes, spent 1,200 nights in a pup tent and raised $400,000 for children’s charities.
Why? He’s an adventurer, a modern-day Marco Polo. Tough as ship rope. And uneasy anywhere but the great outdoors.
The unhinging of their marriage added a bittersweet coda to this “love story,” as much an ode to the freedom of the road as it is to marital romance.
“I am no longer with Nicole,” Serge wrote in the book. “This fact always shocks people to a degree and saddens them, especially those who know and understand our journey.
“They think the world tour tore us apart. It is quite the opposite. The world tour is what held us together for so long.”
Today, Serge continues his career as a guide in the Alps. Nicole works in a hospital in Sion, Switzerland.
There is no animosity, he said. Just the understanding that you have to follow wherever the road may lead.