Interview: British expat Scott Thompson on his world-record breaking charity exploits across Indonesia

Imagine running 30 marathons across Indonesia back to back, starting on the idyllic volcanic island of Bali and finishing up in the bustling, crowded, can’t-catch-your-breath city of Jakarta. That’s 1,250 feet-swelling kilometres along the equator in a battle with searing humidity, all in the name of charity. How do you follow that up?

 

Break a world record, that’s how.

 

Scott Thompson, from the Ayrshire village of Dreghorn, completed a herculean trek, named BecakTerus, which saw him cycle the equivalent of London to Moscow on a rickshaw (2,597 kilometres). He raised nearly £300,000 for under-privileged children during the record-breaking distance, and in January of this year his endeavours were recognised with the awarding of the British Empire Medal for meritorious civil service.

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A becak: the rickshaw-bicycle hybrid that would accompany Scott on his record-breaking trek

But the 50-year-old mining engineer has an odd disdain for that sort of thing; he shies away from the limelight. Even before our interview starts, he’s anxious to stress that he doesn’t want to come across like he’s basking in individual glory. And throughout he’s insistent on the fact he’s not an athlete, just a man with a plan. That modesty perhaps stems from the humble town where he spent much of his school days.

 

Although Scott believes Ayrshire is very much part of his DNA, his childhood, like his recent long-distance adventures, took him far and wide. “My mum and dad spent a bit of time as expatriates so I lived overseas with them in India and in Zambia.

 

“I had a very fortunate upbringing. I got to grow up as an Ayrshire boy in a beautiful part of the world but I got to travel a fair bit too and escape to get some nice warm weather.”

 

Scott’s working life in Ayrshire only extended as far as pulling pints at the now dilapidated Ruby Tuesday’s bar in Irvine (a venue no doubt familiar to older residents), before moving south to study at the University of Exeter. Following in the footsteps of his father in the mining industry, Scott spent three years on the Cornish coast before moving to South Africa as a graduate of the renowned Camborne School of Mines.

 

Scott came to Indonesia for the first time twenty years ago, just before the boom of the coal rush. The place he left was (and arguably still is, in some areas) suffering from and trying to move on from the decline of the same industry. A generation ago, almost every small parish in Ayrshire was attached to a colliery. Towns like New Cumnock quite possibly wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for coal.

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The Jakarta that Scott came to in the 1990s was totally different to the metropolis it is today.

“For someone who studied mining engineering and from a part of the world where coal mining was so important, it was a fortuitous place to come to,” Scott explains gratuitously, in an accent that makes him sound like he’s never set foot in Ayrshire. His well spoken, eloquent articulation wouldn’t have been out of place on the BBC in the sixties. He tells me he may well finish his career here on the island country, depending on how things pan out.

 

After spending time in South Africa and Australia, Scott and his wife Laura returned to settle in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in 2003. Even by then there were huge changes. The country had gone from a “standing start”, as Scott puts it, to one of the world’s top exporters of coal and a fast-growing economy.

 

“It’s a fantastic place. You go anywhere that’s not your home and you’ll have a sense that things are done differently. A culture shock, perhaps. Laura’s also an expatriate so it was quite easy to adjust.”

 

That brings us on to Scott’s motivations behind these extraordinary quests. This is one subject he struggles to pinpoint initially. “You do things to try and fit in to your community…and to reflect on how fortunate you are,” something I find rather striking, in a pleasant way. The fact he started doing all of this just to fit in to the country that adopted him is remarkable, and the absence of any sort of vanity in his speech suggests it’s totally true. Scott also admits to me that he is an introverted character, not one known to be exuberant. So perhaps these phenomenal physical challenges were a way for a shy outsider to repay the country – and its people – for allowing him to make it his new home.

 

The first of the mammoth feats that Scott undertook was the Sahara Race, a seven-day footrace spanning 250 kilometres across the infamous African desert. Scott ran 40 blistering kilometres four days in a row before finishing with a blazing 95 kilometres on the last day. I ask him where the idea came from to take it up: “I’d been involved in different ways with the St Andrew’s Society, building community bridges and supporting local welfare projects here in Jakarta. For me it was then a natural progression as I found myself running more and more and playing less golf,” he jokes.

 

“Back then these multi-day marathon events were a lot less common,” he continues. “It certainly caught people’s imagination and I thought, ‘Well I should try – instead of just running off and doing marathons – just making up my own and doing something unique and attached to Indonesia – something companies and corporates could relate to and back’ – and I found that to be the case.” He raised 350 million Indonesian rupiahs (around £21,000).

 

“Is that what appeals to you? Doing something unique to inspire people?” I enquire.

 

“I don’t know. It was more ‘How can I raise awareness for these local charities that I see all of the good work they do?’

 

“But perhaps you do inspire people and the beautiful thing is if that’s the case then you hope you inspire people to go out and do what you’ve done – only do it quicker – and at the same time raise awareness for these charities and raise more than you were able to. I think that would be a wonderful legacy.”

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Scott being presented with a placard by one of the charity groups he supported.

About ten years ago, a legacy like that was barely comprehensible. Scott states that the reason he took up running at all was to keep fit, nothing else. Even after completing his Saharan journey and the monumental run mentioned at the top of this piece, Scott says he doesn’t class himself as a runner. “Waistline management,” he dubbed it.

 

With all due respect to Scott, not everyone who decides to go and get fit ends up breaking world records and running 30 marathons back to back.

 

“Do you have something in you that says: ‘I want to do more, I want a bigger challenge?’” I ask.

 

“I guess, erm, woah. That’s a very good question actually. It’s tough to articulate because sometimes you just stumble into things. That was particularly the case with the run we did from Bali.

 

“I just got thinking about what I could do that hadn’t been done before.

 

“Isn’t it like anything? However high you want to go, the higher the peak you can reach?

 

“Once you get your mind round it and keep your mind strong then the body just follows.”

 

Scott’s Bali to Jakarta run spanned most of March 2012 (25 days), taking in picturesque scenery and tourist hotspots as well as isolated farmland and industrial townscapes. Along the way he fought with temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, tropical thunderstorms, treacherous potholed roads that caused injuries to his knee and ankle, and the horns and exhaust fumes of traffic that hurtled by. He jokes that if I ever do come to Indonesia, I’ll realise quite quickly that the traffic is “something special.” I watched a video on YouTube. It’s like a battle scene from Braveheart.  With motorbikes.

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Scott on the final leg of his Baki-Jakarta run.

Scott crossed the line in a white t-shirt stained with sweat in shoes three sizes bigger than his usual because of swollen feet, and half a stone lighter. A throng of friends and supporters and family members greeted him and the rest of the team as they finished, in their hundreds. Despite confessing that he’s not an overly emotional person, Scott says “It was lovely to see the family” and that he was touched when one of the charities he supported, Mary’s Cancer Kiddies, brought a band of thankful children to sing him home.

 

In an article from the Jakarta Globe printed just after his race, Scott said he had no plans for another run. But that didn’t mean his spectacular ventures in the name of charity were over. Far from it (2,597 kilometres far, to be precise).

 

I was supplied with a fantastic book full of gorgeous pictures charting Scott’s expedition on the becak. A becak is essentially the Indonesian version of the rickshaw, which itself is a centuries-old bike-cart hybrid. “They [the becaks] are iconic here in Indonesia,” Scott begins. “They were banned from the city centre about 30 years ago – in fact the whole of Jakarta – but if you venture out from the city to the countryside and you’ll find these rickshaws. I thought it would be good to try and do something with a becak, so I went out of Jakarta and bought one off the rack, so to speak.”

 

Scott put together a team to modify the bike to make it suitable for the pedicab voyage he was thinking of going on. It would take him the length of the island of Sumatra, from Aceh in the north to the ferry port at the south, where he would cross to the island of Java and finish in the urban area outside of Jakarta.

 

Scott started the ride on September 27th, at the Tsunami Museum in Aceh. His first mountain to climb (literally) was Seulawah Agam, a stratovolcano almost 6,000ft in height. Scott had to alter between pedalling and pulling the becak up the hills, and rain began to fall later in the afternoon. The journey would overlap with the onset of the rainy season; temperatures remained in the mid thirties but humidity increased to above 70 percent.

 

The miles rumbled on. Scott had his moments where his strength and willpower were tested, but intrigued locals and smiling kids were enough to buoy him on. “You search out people along the way, you look into their eyes and it gives you such an uplift,” he recalls fondly. In Aceh, he and his team met many people from the different native ethnic groups (Acehnese, Alas, Gayo and Tamiang-Malays) who all tended to wear traditional clothing, likely home-made. They also popped into many warung kopis, cafes that served the famous local coffee.

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Scott bonds with one of the locals.

As Scott pedalled through north Sumatra, the troublesome traffic brought back bad memories from his jaunt across the other side of the country. The rain teemed down as the trucks roared past, carrying heavy loads of the region’s abundance of natural resources. As Scott ploughed southward, his knees rattling on the rutted roads, the haze began to thicken. Scott entered Jambi province as the 2015 Southeast Asian haze crisis worsened. Scott wrapped bandanas around his mouth to shield the suffocating smog. This was a particularly bleak period, with schools closed and people refusing to leave their homes. But animals like goats and monkeys were spotted hopping across the roads and between branches.

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As they entered south Sumatra, Scott and the team were treated to lunch with students from one of the charities he supported, and left to signs of good luck and thank you on their way to Lampung. This served as a pick-me-up to what was beginning to feel like a never-ending journey, despite the fact the finish was almost in sight. I ask Scott what the most enduring moment of the ride was. He tells me that on the way to catching the ferry to take them from Sumatra over to Banten province on Java, he was able to freewheel for five kilometres downhill and really absorb it all. “It wasn’t so much a sense of achievement but more of relief. Being able to coast down there and yes, get a bit emotional, before I was waved onto the ferry, leaving this wonderful island behind me.”

 

As Scott boarded the ship he remembers exchanging glances with a security guard. The man looked at him with a sense of acknowledgement of achievement, despite having no idea what he’d been through. The team clapped and cheered Scott on but all was quiet during this minute of reflection. “It was a special moment. Even thinking about it now makes me feel quite emotional, as you can probably tell from my voice,” I could.

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These small, seemingly insignificant interactions provided sources of energy for Scott throughout. Scott tells me that thinking about “the folks who are working in these charity organisations, day in, day out,” inspired him. “They’re the real stars.” The charities supported by Scott were Mary’s Cancer Kiddies, who raise money for poor families who can’t afford medical treatment; YCAB (which, when spelled out, translates to ‘Loving the Children’s Youth), who educate underprivileged children about personal development, healthy lifestyles and economic independence; Wisma Cheshire, a charity that cares for the disabled, and Laura is involved in; and the Puspita Foundation, a volunteer organisation for deprived children.

 

“They’re all very different but tackling that same issue of the poverty cycle that, through the accident of birth as Robert Burns once remarked as saying, they were just dealt a bum hand.”

 

Robert Burns was born poor, lived poor and died poor. But Ayrshire’s most famous son lived an enriching life. So too does Scott Thompson, who waxes lyrical about the work these charities put in to help transform previously poor lives. But little does he know, or at least acknowledge, that what he has done will transform lives too.

 

A Man’s a Man for A’ That.

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