Ben Lecomte is an ultra-endurance swimmer and the first person to complete a cross-Atlantic ocean swim without a kickboard.  He has also swum through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness for sustainability and the impact of plastic pollution.  He was named one of the World’s 50 Most Adventurous Open Water Swimmers in 2019 by the World Open Water Swimming Association.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • He swam over 3,500 miles from Massachusetts to Quiberon, France. The journey took him 73 days, swimming upwards of 10 hours a day, and fighting off sharks and battling 20 foot swells.
  • Swimming 3,500 miles across the Atlantic was about mind over matter. Swimming hours upon hours a day with limited stimuli, your mind has to be even stronger than your body.
  • As a coping mechanism, he had to learn to disassociate his mind from his body so while his physical body was suffering, his mind could be in an entirely different world.
  • He swam across the Atlantic in honor of his father and to raise awareness for cancer. His father’s passing was the kick in the butt he needed to pursue his dreams and not live life with any regrets.
  • Swimming the Pacific (until he had to abort the trip) was actually easier than his Atlantic crossing 20 years earlier since the older you get, the more you learn to control the mind and mentally deal with the obstacles along the way.
  • He swam 400 miles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the highest concentration of human made discarded plastic in the world. It was like looking at the sky at night during a snowstorm. You are surrounded by millions of little particles of plastic.
  • He cut open fish in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and found pieces of plastic.
  • “You cannot really know your limit until you challenge your limit.”
  • “Excellence is like beauty… it’s in the eyes of the beholder.”

Some interesting insights from this episode:

Ben Saunders is one of the world’s leading polar explorers, and a record-breaking long-distance skier who has covered more than 4,300 miles on foot in the Polar Region. His accomplishments include skiing solo to both the North and South poles, and leading The Scott Expedition, the longest human-powered polar journey in history, a 105-day, 1,800 mile round-trip from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again.

  • Hear the remarkable story of how he traveled the equivalent of 69 marathons, the distance from Maine to Miami, in frigid temperatures in near whiteout conditions, over the course of 3.5 months. 
  • Preparation entailed both extreme endurance and extreme weight training.  He was able to run a 2:55 marathon and deadlift 485 lbs. 
  • The key to staying motivated was to shorten the focus from the ultimate goal to something that felt achievable whether the end of the day or even the end of an hour.
  • One of his proudest moments on the journey was to make the call to have food delivered during their return.  That moment calling for help was when he matured as a leader as he learned to get priorities straight.
  • In hindsight, he made the mistake of often living too much in the future, thinking that success was defined by a finish line.
  • The cliché holds true that the journey is way more important than the destination.
  • Learn how he evolved from needing external validation to having more of an internal compass driving his motivations. 
  • “Self-belief is a malleable human quality. The more time you spend outside your comfort zone, the stronger it becomes.”
  • “Excellence is having the internal drive to make tomorrow better than today.”

Doug Ammons is a scientific editor and researcher, a business owner, an accomplished author and filmmaker and a classical guitarist. But what he’s most known for is being an extreme kayaker.  He’s run several first descents in the US and overseas and soloed multiple challenging class v runs that most people would never touch, most famously the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.  Because of his many incredible kayaking accomplishments, Outside Magazine has named him one of the ten greatest adventurists over the last century. He has degrees in mathematics and physics and has a PhD in Psychology.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • Kayaking extreme waters safely requires relaxation but also hyper awareness.
  • Learn why it’s important to have a “beginners mind”.
  • Water is the ultimate metaphor for life.
  • Why he takes extraordinary risks by soloing class v rapids.
  • The “Red Bullying” of America is bad for the sport.
  • If you could control everything in your life, life would be pretty boring.

 

Hearing Doug Ammons opine about water being the ultimate metaphor for life, you’d think you’re listening to a philosophy professor, not one of the most distinguished adventure athletes over the last century. Then again, this is no ordinary adventure athlete.  This kayaker, who holds dozens of first descents on treacherous Class V rivers, also holds a PhD in psychology and double degrees in math and physics.

At first blush, Doug may appear to be a study in contrasts.  His thirst for running incredibly dangerous rapids that could crush you juxtaposed with his intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and meaning.  But that’s not how Doug sees it.  To him, it’s all a continuum.  He is a classically trained guitarist and likes to use music as a metaphor.  He speaks of the fusion of the power, the complexity and the raw emotion of the water with the music that he loves. Kayaking is much more akin to music or even poetry for Doug than it is a thrill-seeking, adrenaline-fueled sport.

But don’t be fooled. While Doug may like to wax poetic about being on the river, elite-level kayaking is an extremely demanding and potentially catastrophic adventure sport.  Any single wrong move while navigating through explosive whitewater can have fatal consequences. And he knows this reality firsthand.  Doug has lost way too many friends on the water, friends who were highly skilled, experienced and even cautious kayakers.  Doug will be the first to admit the role that serendipity plays in one’s fate on the water.  The difference between life and death can be a matter of inches.  He has had his share of near-death experiences himself.  Even with the best training and most thoughtful planning, you can only control so much.  The river has a mind of its own and cannot ever be tamed.

So what exactly does it take to kayak at the elite level? Years and years of training for starters. Of course, that goes without saying.  But what’s really critical is that you have a “beginner’s mind”, according to Doug.  That is, an openness and readiness to learn something new with each run.  No two rivers are the same and for that matter, no one river ever looks the same with each run.  Running rivers over and over will increase one’s confidence for sure but if that confidence ever turns into cockiness, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The other critical ingredient for success on the water is the ability to be both incredibly relaxed yet hyper aware at the same time.  If you’re too tense, you’re sure to make mistakes.  But you still need to be very focused and able to react without hesitation to whatever the river throws your way.  If there’s one thing that’s predictable about the water, it’s its unpredictability.  That’s what makes it so appealing but so dangerous.

While Doug’s reflective, philosophical nature pushes him far away from the adventure athlete stereotype, there’s a very good reason Outside Magazine named him one of the ten greatest adventurists over the 1900’s.  One could easily make the argument that he has done as much for the sport of kayaking as any athlete has done for any other sport on this planet.  The unexplored runs he conquered and the way he went about them – being the first and being alone – will forever brand Doug Ammons as a pioneer in kayaking and a pioneer in the world of extreme sports.

Mandy-Rae is an accomplished freediver based in Vancouver, British Columbia.  She holds 7 freediving world records and 13 national records.  She owns Performance Freediving International where she teaches freediving courses to the general public.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • Entering a flow state allows you to hyper focus and achieve amazing results.
  • The mammalian dive reflex is a survival mechanism we share with whales and dolphins.
  • Visualization plays a critical role in the pre-dive planning.
  • She views the 14 underwater blackouts including one trip to the ER not as deterrents but as learning experiences.
  • Success is as much mental as it is physical.
  • Working toward achieving ambitious goals should be fun and enjoyable, not feel like a chore.
  • Anyone can be trained to hold their breath for several minutes and dive deep. We all have the potential to push ourselves further than we think possible.

 

What’s so special about holding your breath under water?  Not much if your plan is to dive down 10 feet in a pool while holding your breath for a few seconds. But try going down 500 feet in the ocean while holding your breath for several minutes.  That’s what the competitive sport of freediving is all about.  It’s about as “pure” a sport as you’ll find.  No fancy equipment.  No burdensome rules.  No crowds.  It’s just you and the water and your willingness to see just how far you can push yourself.

So how is Mandy-Rae able to do it?  How is she able to submerse herself to depths fifteen times the pressure we experience on dry land while holding her breath many times the average human breath hold?  It turns out there’s both a physiological component and a mental one.

Let’s start with the physical.  There’s something known as the mammalian dive reflex that humans share with whales, dolphins and most mammalian sea creatures.  It’s essentially a survival mechanism that kicks in the minute you submerse yourself in the water. First our heart rate slows way down which reduces oxygen consumption.  Next, the blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to the limbs while maximizing blood flow and oxygen to the most critical organs in the body – the heart, brain and lungs. Finally, the blood accumulation in the lungs acts as a protective barrier, preventing the lungs from collapsing under extremely high pressure.

As with any endurance sport, the physical element is just half the battle, sometimes even less.  The mental toughness is what separates the wheat from the chaff.  It is the mental edge which gives champions like Mandy-Rae the ability to set new world records over and over again.

First there is the pre-dive prep.  For Mandy-Rae, there is a mental shift that occurs from being a land-based human to a marine animal. It’s not just about the physiological transformation but the mental one. In her own words, you must learn to “become part of the water”.  For the next few moments, that underwater world is one in which you must feel very much at home.

Next is the visualization.  Just like with skiers going through an entire slalom race, turn by turn, in their heads before they leave the gate, so too does Mandy-Rae go through an entire dive before she ever submerses herself.  This exercise includes working through potential issues that may arise during the dive so if and when they happen, she’s already dealt with them and can be calm while working through them.

Finally, she enters what is commonly known as the flow state.  This will allow her to focus 100% of her mental abilities on the task at hand.  This will remove all external distractions as well as the internal ones – those voices in our head that give us pause and make us second guess ourselves.   In the flow state, there is no thinking and there is no feeling.  There is just doing.  It’s a hyper-focused mental state that allows her to push herself to the limits and achieve extraordinary results.

Why does she do it?  What drives her to go deeper toward the ocean depths again and again?  For one, it’s fun for her.  She truly enjoys going through the rigorous training and discipline it takes to set a new record.  She likes seeing how hard she can push herself. But just as importantly, achieving something you once thought impossible can be life changing.  She sees this in many of her first time dive students. The breakthroughs they have in the pool change them in profound ways by giving them the confidence to try new things in life and achieve other breakthroughs outside the water.

Mandy-Rae is the first to admit that she has a few physiological advantages that give her a slight edge on her record setting dives.  Her lung volume is larger than average and she’s able to equalize her ears rather easily.  But her confidence, her attitude, her mindset and her belief in herself are the advantages that any of us can share with her.  If there’s something you want in your life and you believe in yourself and apply yourself, there’s nothing holding you back.

 

Andrew Skurka is an accomplished adventure athlete, known for his solo ultra-long-distance backpacking trips.  In total he has traveled by foot, ski and raft over 30,000 miles.  He has been named “Adventurer of the year” by Outside Magazine and National Geographic Adventure and “Person of the year” by Backpacker magazine.  And he’s also an ultra-runner with top 3 finishes in a couple of the big 100 mile races.

 

Some interesting insights from this episode:

  • Learn about his Alaska/Yukon hike which covered over 4,700 miles in the frigid temps of the Alaskan backcountry without using any trails or guidebooks.
  • How he learned to follow his heart and pursue happiness despite all the pressure from family and friends.
  • “Fun” is when you’re pushing yourself to the limit, both physically and mentally.
  • It’s not just about the destination but the journey that matters.
  • The key to accomplishing something incredibly challenging is to simply start small and figure things out one step at a time.
  • How he feels so strongly about his expeditions that he’s willing to risk his life.
  • The steps he took to turn his passion into a full time career.

 

You’ve likely heard of the Appalachian Trail (commonly called the A.T.), a 2,200 mile trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It’s considered the granddaddy of long distance trails and quite an impressive feat if you can hike the entire thing.  Andrew knocked that one off just for fun one summer during college.  And he loved it.  It was at that moment that he knew he was hooked.

But always seeking a greater challenge to push the envelope, he later hiked a 7,800 mile Sea to Sea trail connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the northern United States.  That’s the equivalent of doing the entire A.T. three times over and then throwing on another 1,200 miles for good measure.  What’s even more amazing is that this incredible accomplishment wasn’t the culmination of a long hiking career, but rather, just the beginning of it.

Never wanting to stay too long in his comfort zone, he would continue to discover and conquer even bigger challenges. When marked trails became too boring, he bushwhacked his way in the untouched backcountry.  When the weather became too comfortable, he moved his expeditions to regions with sub-zero temperatures.  And when hiking wasn’t enough, he added skiing and rafting to the mix.

You might be wondering how in the world someone can balance these multi-month expeditions with a career.  The answer is simple.  These adventures are his career.  He’s figured out how to monetize his passion and feels anyone can do the same if you’re entrepreneurial and resourceful enough.

It was in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains over the summer during college when he was first exposed to people who were living life much more spontaneously and pursuing happiness above everything else.  Life was about climbing mountains and running rapids, not about pursuing careers and accumulating wealth.  That was when he had his first aha moment.  That’s when the tired cliché “life is short” came into sharp focus.

So instead of caving into the peer pressure and following the herd, he decided to follow his heart.  And he’s been following it ever since.  Have you ever felt such joy and pleasure about something that you’d be willing to risk your life for it?  Very few of us have.  Andrew Skurka has.