Before 2016, Rickey Gates had visited more places around the world than the US. After the election of Donald Trump, he decided it was time to hit the ground running and re-discover his home country.
“I had probably done close to 40 miles that day. I had gotten into this town, Stafford, Kansas, right when everything was closing down. But I was starving and so I went to the first bar I could find, despite it being very clear that they had already closed up the kitchen,” Rickey recalls.
Hungry, tired, sweaty and dirty from the long day, he walked in, looking very out-of-place. The room fell silent, many heads turning a scrutinising look, staring at him as he made his way to the counter. With the expression of those who already know the answer to their question, he asked the lady at the bar: “Are you still serving food?” She took one more look at him and then said: “Whatever you want.”
“I can tell you, no one person in that room had voted Hillary Clinton – I felt like an outsider – but after I had stuffed my face with food, the owner came up to me and asked about what I was doing,” Rickey explains, his face lighting up as the happy memory unfolds.
He tells me about the owner shushing the room and asking him to tell his story. As Rickey spoke about his 3,700-mile run across America – now just under half-way – about his motives and the many difficulties he’d been encountering, astonished faces listened carefully and then asked interested questions. After he’d finished, the owner went up to him once again, moved by his words, and said: “Where are you staying tonight?”.
Rickey responded: “There’s a city park nearby, I am going to camp there.” The man shook his head and said: “There’s a nice hotel in the centre, the owner is a friend of mine, I’ll get you a room there, it’s on me.
“Oh, and get yourself a nice breakfast in the morning,” he added.
Rickey Gates, a 39-year-old professional runner from Colorado, had been planning to take on this challenge for a while now, but when Donald Trump was elected in 2016 – much to his surprise – he realised how much he needed this journey to reconnect with his country and understand the deep, blistering differences that divided America.
He had been a professional runner for most of his life, from joining the cross-country team at the early age of 13, primarily for the social aspects and perhaps because “there were ladies on the teams,” he admits, to trialling three years in a row, and failing to make the cross-country team at Colorado University Boulder (which, in his defence was and still is, the fastest team in the US).
“After three years trying to make the time to get in the cross-country team at CU Boulder, I was left a bit frustrated and I had all this fitness that I had been building,” he tells me. “And so I decided to sign up for the Imogene Pass Run – a point-to-point mountain race within the western San Juan mountains of Colorado – which I ended up winning.”
The race propelled Rickey into the mountain running scene and soon after his victory on the Imogene Pass, he started travelling and racing all over Europe and brought him to be sponsored by Salomon.
“When I got tired of racing, I begun to take part in project runs, film-making and photography adventures which took me all over the world, and then on my run across America,” Rickey says.
It took Rickey months of preparation before he actually headed off to Folly Beach, South Carolina, where his journey begun. He remembers preparing the route and his kit were the hardest parts – the running was actually something he didn’t really train too much for.
“I primarily focused on slowing down my miles and putting on some weight because I knew I was going to lose a lot of it.” He normally weighs about 145 pounds, but increased to 160 before the journey began and came back weighing 130 pounds.
His kit and the route were where most of Rickey’s energy went into. Developing a strategy to have the least equipment possible and utilise it in the most efficient way. He ended up carrying only a small, 10-pound backpack with him, including his tent, sleeping bag and one change of socks and underwear.
“I had to think cleverly about a lot of my kit – for example, with the help of Salomon we developed a tarp that was also a poncho, so it would be my rain gear during the day and then it could cover me from some rain during the night – not a lot of rain as it proved not to be super successful in the really rainy times,” Rickey jokes.
On 1st March 2017, Rickey arrived in Folly Beach, South Carolina sold his car and started running his way through the USA. Day in day out Rickey would wake up in the morning, have some breakfast and then hit the trails, or the roads.
“I mixed running in the trails with some road running because I wanted to pass through cities and towns, and speak to people,” he explains. He was often surprised by the good heart of the people he met, from those buying him a dinner to those offering some money to use on the way, he quickly realised that what is a very divided country was, nonetheless, united in these simple acts of kindness.
His journey ran smoothly for the most part but when he arrived in the state of Utah, where he was running across the desert things became a lot harder. “I was never in danger of life, luckily, but there was one moment when I was weeing blood and I was worried I would have to go to the hospital for a few days.” By the time he’d got to Utah, Rickey says he had developed this approach to his journey that it was something worth dying for, and that certainly strengthened his resilience and determination to come out the other end.
The 2020 US Election were also one heck of a ride, and so I dare to ask Rickey one final question – what do you make of Biden’s election?
He tells me it’s something he’s still trying to wrap his head around, but that from his experience running across America he’s learned of the dangers of the ‘Trump voters are Nazis’ narrative.
He explains: “It was a very close election and Trump has actually expanded his voter base. I think his appeal will continue on into the foreseeable future, if not longer.”
Rickey’s documentary about his run across America is now available to watch on the Salomon TV on YouTube. You can also buy his book, 'Cross Country: A 3,700-mile Run to Explore Unseen America', at this link.