When Rickey Gates and I speak via video call, he is at home in New Mexico where he and his wife have recently bought a house. And Rickey seems pretty house-proud actually. Which strikes me initially as a little curious for someone who has lived a life that involves so much travel and movement. But then reading his book, Cross Country, about a 2,700 mile trot from east to west across the US, putting down roots suddenly doesn’t seem so strange. In fact perhaps the extraordinary run was all about getting to this point after all.
Rickey carries his laptop out into the garden. It is clearly a lovely day in New Mexico. And despite telling me that he still has a lot of work to do on renovating the house, Rickey seems very happy to talk. And he is a very engaging storyteller indeed.
My initial question is almost more of an observation. In Cross Country, Gates is open about many aspects of his life – the struggles of being a full-time athlete, his relationships (especially with his girlfriend at the time of the run, who is now his wife) and the toll that running has taken on his mind and body. He’s also seemingly happy to talk about the things he sees and the people he meets on the run warts-and-all. So, I ask, was there anything that he left out of the book?
“I guess I did leave out quite a bit.” Rickey tells me “The aim was to include an overarching version of the journey – the good, bad and ugly. Once I had that well-rounded picture of the country, I felt I was good to go.
“I did consider leaving out my relationship with my wife. But in order to paint a picture of the sort of person who runs across America you need context. Really I am a social creature, so she was a presence throughout the adventure. But ultimately me and my relationship with my wife sort of reflected where we are as a country with our government.”
Taking Rickey back a bit from where he is now, I ask him about how he came to make a living from running. He sits back in the garden chair and thinks for a moment before saying;
“I never really wanted to get a real job. Actually I never thought in a million years that I’d be a professional athlete. And whilst technically I was a full-time professional athlete seven or eight years ago, for many of those years I got really good at living on $10,000 per year. I simply trained and travelled to race.
“For the past five years Salomon has paid me so I have a living. But before that I spent three seasons in Europe just cycling from race to race because I needed to save money.
“After a while I realised that I had to switch to ultras. Because no one focused on the short uphill races that I excelled at. So by the time I reached 36 years of age, I knew that I didn’t have many years racing left in me. That is when I started focusing on ‘project runs’ and out of that the idea to run across America was born.”
Obviously running across a continent is no mean feat. But it is also not enough to consume all of Rickey’s time. So I ask about what else he does as a full-time runner.
“Part of my job is two projects I have: Run-Bus-Run and Run-Hut-Run. These are me leading people on running adventures – the first we travel around in a bus exploring different places. The second involves running from one mountain hut to another.
“These are my way of helping people recover from racing experiences!
“Racing is so binary for many people. My position is to try to get people who think running is not for them, to try it. I’m even trying to move away from the word ‘run’. What matters to me is movement and getting to know people and places.”
As we keep talking, I am reminded that Rickey is a man with very impressive racing results to his name. And yet … it seems that for Rickey running is hugely multi-dimensional. It is a way to connect – with other runners, with place and with loved ones. It is a creative expression (check out Rickey’s Every Single Street project for an example of that). And it is a way to help people. It is everything to Rickey. And in that sense, if nothing else, Rickey Gates is the embodiment of the runner. We are grateful for his generosity in giving us his time and allowing us to share his stories.
Interview by Simon Freeman.
Rickey Gates’ book Cross Country is available to order here.
And you can read the full interview and excerpts from Cross Country (along with over 100 pages of other stories) in the latest edition of Like the Wind available to order here.