Swiss Forrest Gump logs 4 years of running

Serge Roetheli has seen six continents with his wife

Health & Fitness

December 03, 2004|By Lisa Gutierrez | Lisa Gutierrez,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

It's like in the movie, when Forrest Gump just takes off running, all across America.

He runs and runs along highways and byways.

Then, one day, he stops. Just stops. Yeah, it's kind of like that.

Four years ago, a Swiss long-distance runner named Serge Roetheli sold his home in the shadow of the Alps, laced up his Nikes and took off running. All across the world.

He's going to run until early May, right before his 50th birthday, when he and his wife, Nicole, who rides beside him on a motorcycle hauling their belongings in a trailer, return to their hometown near the Matterhorn.

By then, this running nomad will have logged 25,000 miles on six continents and enough memories and digital video hours to fill a book or make a movie. It's certainly Hollywood fodder - traveling through war zones, Nicole's brush with malaria, his run-in with a boa constrictor and a collision with a taxi in India that left him bleeding on the road.

No doubt there will be mention, too, of one particularly proud follower in the Kansas City, Mo., area, Joe Roetheli. Joe, who tracked down Serge while doing genealogical research, has been keeping track of Serge and Nicole via cell phone, and last fall he set up a foundation to support the charitable organization for which Serge is raising money.

In May, Joe Roetheli (pronounced RATE-lee), who owns a Kansas City company that makes dog treats, plans to be in Switzerland to help welcome his family members home.

"What Serge has," Joe says, "is something we can all use, in terms of passion and persistence."

Finding family

They started at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, traveled through the Middle East, then Asia, up the east coast of Australia and on to New Zealand and South America. They're in the United States now, probably somewhere near New York City. Serge and Nicole arrived in August in Miami for the U.S. leg of their journey up the Eastern seaboard.

The path bypassed the Midwest. But a few weeks ago, they took four days off and flew to Kansas City to spend time with Joe Roetheli and his family. It was only the second time the relatives had met. The first was in 1997 as Serge ran through California on another long-distance run.

"I didn't know exist a Roetheli in the United States. I was so surprised to hear," Serge, a French speaker, said in his best English.

The American Roethelis knew little about their kin on the other side of the ocean before Joe Roetheli went to Zurich on business in 1992.

Looking for something to do on a rainy day, he picked up a phone book and started calling Roethelis. Eventually a man told him about a village near Zurich where a group of Roethelis lived. From that point on, Roetheli was on a mission, conducting Internet searches, even going door to door on his next business trip to Switzerland.

On a trip to Albuquerque, N.M., in 1995 he came across a newspaper clipping about this guy named Serge Roetheli who was running the American Challenge, a 15,000-mile run along the Pan-American Highway from Argentina to Alaska.

"Then I was trying to find out how to get in contact with this crazy guy running," Roetheli says. "I have a little crazy gene in my body, too. I was just curious."

He searched for months. Nothing. One morning, while pondering a list of Swiss Roethelis a computer search had generated, he randomly called one.

A man answered. "He was Serge's only brother. I had tracked him down," Roetheli says.

Telling his story

"I run five days a week for the last four years of my life. Sixty-six countries, six continents," Serge told his Kansas City audience. "I begin to get tired!"

Laughter erupted around the cafeteria of the Marillac Center in Overland Park, Kan., where Serge and Nicole told their story to about 70 young people.

This is Serge's constituency, the passion stoking his engine.

"So many of you have dreams in your head that you think cannot exist," he told the kids. But my story, he said, will show you that they can happen. "You will not change the world, but you will be happy."

He took off around the world to raise money for a Swiss children's charity. He then hooked up with International Vision Quest, an Alaskan nonprofit organization that provides eye care for children and adults in Third World countries. He has raised more than $250,000 for the causes.

"I haven't a very big reason" for doing this, says Serge, the father of a teenage son and daughter from his first marriage. "It's just because we love the kids."

Nicole, who speaks little English, added: "In this world, the kids are paying the hard price."

Her husband of 10 years seems to love a thrill. In his 20s, he was one of his country's top boxers and represented Switzerland in the Olympics. At 27, he became a mountain guide.

He took off running, too - extreme distances. After the American Challenge, he wrote a book about it and became a popular public speaker.

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