From 2000 to 2005, Swiss endurance athlete Serge Roetheli and his wife Nicole traveled 25,000 miles around the world, from Europe, down around Africa, across the Middle East and South Asia, through East Asia and Australia, then over to South America and up into North America before finishing up back in Europe.
The catch? Serge ran the entire way with Nicole following behind on a motorcycle loaded down with supplies.
It was not Serge Roetheli’s first such feat of endurance—a former Olympic boxer as well as a runner, cyclist, and rower, he’d previously run across Europe and the length of both South and North America, as well as logged numerous mountain climbing achievements.
But this time he was running with a purpose: to raise both money for and awareness of the health and educational needs of impoverished children around the world.
Half a dozen years later, producer and filmmaker John Davies worked alongside producer and editor Brian Kallies to take Serge and Nicole’s thousands of hours of footage from the run and shape it into The 25,000 Mile Love Story, an inspirational documentary that sets out to capture both the emotional and physical challenges of the feat. A feat that included fighting the life-threatening effects of malaria, numerous encounters with snakes, and traveling on foot through the Middle East in the months after 9/11.
I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about both the run and the film with Davies, Kallies, and Serge Roetheli himself as they toured the country showing their film and raising more money for children’s charities.
From a creative point of view, how did you guys approach and get inside this subject?
Writer-director-producer John Davies: We love weird characters—they’re so much more interesting than “normal” people, and Serge is an abnormal individual. Very few people in the world do what he does. We’re always interested in quirky guys—they don’t have to be show-biz people, though that’s where my background is. That’s what drew us to this—we looked at this footage and kept scratching our heads going, “Why? Who would go through this? Why put yourself through this?” We were really drawn to it.
Brian and I had both been runners at one point in our lives, and I do remember what I went through mentally to win a five-mile race. It’s not about the physical, it’s totally mental. We approached this from that runner’s mentality to make this film and get inside Serge’s head a bit.
Producer-editor Brian Kallies: When you first look at the project, you almost don’t believe it. A guy ran around the world? What does that mean? Then you see the footage and you realize this guy’s in the Sahara, in the Himalayas, with his wife behind him on a little motorcycle. So from there you build what it feels like to begin this, to be two years into it, how do you feel at the end? What goes on in your head?
Davies: Serge isn’t a native English speaker, nor is he walking around being self-aware all the time—he’s a doer not a reflector. So we had John Ridley, who wrote 12 Years a Slave, be the voice of the movie and say a lot of the things Serge couldn’t.
We used John’s voice over to keep reminding the viewers of the stakes, of the dangers of some of these countries they were running through. How dangerous this was—no map, no GPS. You keep reminding people how really extraordinary this is.
Do you feel like they got it right, Serge?
Serge Roetheli: Absolutely. I feel very comfortable with the spirit behind the scenes. Of course there are thousands more stories, but it was a 90-minute movie covering five years. I feel it captured the emotions. I was very happy because the movie can bring some hopes and dreams to the audience. People who see the movie who have a dream can feel encouraged to start pursuing their dream. I don’t want to be an example or teacher or guru, but I want to tell people that if they have a goal or challenge, they have no excuse to not try to achieve it.
Having literally run through so much of the world and seen so many different cultures up close, what impressions did you come away with? What similarities and differences did you see?
Roetheli: The biggest difference is between our rich lives and the poor. Millions of people are surviving with no choices, while I was privileged to have choices.
Davies: Serge says if you can’t stand to see real poverty, you can’t do what he does. They saw things that break your heart, the suffering on all sides.
For me being rich isn’t about having money in the bank or a nice house or car. To me to be rich is to make free choices in life, and to make free choices you need to receive love as a child and have access to education and health care. We forget that it’s not normal everywhere to have access to hospitals and education.
The film has some shots of amazing vistas around the world, but much more of it documents the street level poverty you saw.
Davies: We could have made this a beautiful travelogue. Serge shot some beautiful footage. But that would have missed the point. This isn’t National Geographic with HD cameras; this is a movie about his struggle and the pains of it. We worked hard to find a balance.
Kallies: It’s all point of view, from their perspective. Nothing was fabricated.
How do you balance that tone between the inspirational and the sometimes harsh realities?
Davies: Every day we and others would look at the film and, like Billy Friedkin says, the footage did start to talk to us. We’d see footage of kids with injuries and deformities, and we knew we had to put it in. That was what Serge was doing out there, trying to draw attention to the world’s poverty.
Kallies: On the other hand, there were joyful and humorous moments on the trip. So it’s not all somber, it’s not one tone.
Davies: Like when they would come to a McDonald’s, it was almost a religious experience.
Roetheli: You suddenly have bathrooms, toilet paper, air conditioning, water. It’s fantastic! I’m not doing advertising for them, but that’s the truth. Same thing with Coke—around the world you have three regular choices to drink: water, Coke, and beer. I’ve never had a drop of alcohol in my life, so I drank a lot of water and Coke.
But half a gallon of water, when you’re running, you feel like a balloon for an hour. With Coke you feel okay after 10 minutes, plus you need the thousand calories. But to be clear, if you run 25 to 30 miles a day, then you can drink Coke.
How many hours a day did you spend actually running?
Roetheli: We spent five to eight hours on the road every day. We stopped often to speak to people along the road, to buy supplies, take care of injuries.
What were the toughest parts physically and emotionally?
Roetheli: Physically, the toughest stuff was malaria in Africa, where we both almost died. You’re scared—you think you could die. But the toughest thing is realizing how rich you are when the rest of the planet is poor.
Roetheli: It’s not about money. Yes, I know I need money—it takes money to do these things. But I have a shit car, I have a base camp for an apartment, I own no houses and have no interest in owning one. I want to stay free and live and probably I’ll finish my life on the road.
Davies: He probably wouldn’t like it in Beverly Hills with my crowd.
Roetheli: Oh, I don’t know. If I found a nice woman there… I could set up my base camp there with a nice woman.