Jim Plunkett-Cole answered the phone with a huff.
“I’m just trying to catch my breath,” he told The Washington Post on Thursday morning from an RV park in Mobile, Ala. Plunkett-Cole had just gotten back from his daily 10-kilometer run, a routine he hasn’t missed in 1,368 days, since he took up the sport on Jan. 1, 2013.
The 47-year-old Englishman will up the ante on Saturday, however, when he begins what he calls “the biggest thing that I ever attempted.” Inspired by “Forrest Gump,” Plunkett-Cole will embark on a three-year, 20,000-mile run in an effort to encourage kids to be more active from the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile at 10 a.m. local time. He chose the location as an homage to the fictional character’s service in Vietnam.
“I’m not trying to be Forrest Gump,” Plunkett-Cole clarified, however. His run won’t follow the fictional character’s path exactly, nor the distance. Gump, who Tom Hanks portrayed in the story’s film version in 1994, only ran 19,024, according to the Week, which in 2013, attempted to analyze the feasibility of Gump’s fictional run.
Plunkett-Cole, who says he’s watched that seven minute running scene from the film “countless times,” has some things in common with the character of Gump, and not just that the two share a love of traveling on foot.
“He had his issues, and I have my own things that are important to me that are different than his,” Plunkett-Cole explained, referring to Gump’s sometimes challenged social interactions. “I have a condition called Asperger’s Syndrome.”
The condition makes it difficult for Plunkett-Cole to interact socially with people, especially strangers.
“I can’t do small talk,” he said, adding that the idea of striking up a conversation with someone at a bar or networking event is his “biggest fear.”
Until now, Plunkett-Cole has structured his life around avoiding social interactions. He lives alone in a cottage in the tranquil Somerset region of England, where he works out of his home as an economics analyst.
“It suits me,” he said, adding that his main companions have been animals as an adult.
Since arriving in the United States last week, however, his world’s been turned inside out. Plunkett-Cole doesn’t have either of his two cats with him or his dog, a border collie named Alf, who had to be put to sleep due to an immune disorder three months ago. Instead, Plunkett-Cole’s been living in an RV with his support crew, a fellow ultra-runner from England named Arthur Hayford-Taylor. Both are relying on crowdfund donations to keep the dream alive. So far, they’ve raised roughly $3,150 through PledgeSports.org.
Plunkett-Cole says he’s preparing to run mostly alone while Hayford-Taylor, a 25-year-old musician, travels ahead to the agreed-upon destination with the RV each night. There, the runner can re-up his supplies and get some rest each day.
“Arthur’s really got his work cut out [for him],” Plunkett-Cole said, admitting that his Asperger’s can make him a difficult person to be around for long periods of time.
Ironically, it’s other people that Plunkett-Cole hopes to reach as he runs toward his goal that he aims to complete by the time he gets into his early 50s because “things get an awful lot harder.”
Plunkett-Cole is aware of the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and he’s hoping his run might help curb the trend. One of the things he hopes to do during the run is visit schools along the way to talk about his journey, show pictures and inspire kids to get moving. Plunkett-Cole has already been doing that in the United Kingdom with great success.
“I don’t refer to weight issues, but underneath it all it is a fact that we have an obesity epidemic… and one of the key drivers of that is a lack of exercise and activity,” he said. “The school visits are the difference I want to make.”
He’s also hoping to inspire kids on the autism spectrum that their conditions don’t need to be viewed negatively.
“If there are kids out there who do have similar issues, it’s to show them you can challenge those and you can do quite cool things,” he said.
Plunkett-Cole broke the three-hour mark at the London Marathon earlier this year, but says he’ll have to scrap his plans, however, if he can’t last. Although he doesn’t like using the word “failure,” he says he’s prepared to handle the disappointment should he be unable to complete the run, either due to a serious injury or because of the strict parameters he’s set for himself regarding distances and times.
To accomplish the 20,000-mile run, he said he’ll need to carefully pace himself. Plunkett-Cole has no intention of attempting to replicate his admirable London Marathon time, but he won’t allow himself to go any slower than 15 minutes per mile.
“[That’s] the difference between a run and a walk,” he said, and “powerwalking isn’t something that I’ve ever done.”
Plunkett-Cole also said he plans to impose a minimum distance for himself of 17 miles per day, to be done in one chunk. He said he’ll go further per day if he can, but definitely not less.
“If I miss a single day of this minimum, then I stop,” he wrote on Wednesday on his Facebook page, where he’ll blog about his journey as it unfolds.
Plunkett-Cole, who brought along three pairs of running shoes to cover the first few months of his trip (none of them Nikes like Gump wore), says he doesn’t plan on minor injuries, such as blisters, muscle aches or sprains to stop him. He says he’s successfully run through a variety of injuries already, including a set of bruised ribs sustained once having to clamber over a large gate to escape a charging bull.
“I strained all of my chest muscles,” he said, but it didn’t disrupt his daily routine.
“If you just go easy the next day, then you can recover,” he said.
Plunkett-Cole plans to fuel himself with a two-liter backpack full of water, fruit and breakfast bars, and “jelly babies,” a British sweet that’s a cross between a gumdrop and a jelly bean.
“I love those,” he said, adding that he can be a pretty picky eater.
He said he’ll grab larger meals after his daily runs because he prefers running on an emptier stomach, and added that he’ll definitely make time to see some sights. On his list are the national parks, larger cities and several music-related sights, including the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Ala., where artists like Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and countless other stars recorded tracks. Given its location, this will likely be one of Plunkett-Cole’s early destinations, but he’s aiming to eventually make it out to Graceland to pay homage to another idol of his, Elvis Presley.
A PledgeSports.org spokesman claims that if Plunkett-Cole completes his 20,000-mile journey it will have been the longest run in the world, but the runner’s not very interested in achieving that stat.
“Records are not something that I’ve really thought about,” he said. “What I’m here is to do something that hopefully people will be quite interested in, have some fun along the way, look after myself and not take risks.
“Also to enjoy the running,” he added. “I’ve always enjoyed my running so far and I don’t intend that to stop. My thing is to keep going.”