Mark Beaumont on breaking records, cheating death, and pedalling with purpose
June 30, 2023. Series 7. Episode 68
My conversation today will focus on a key crisis skill – endurance. And I’m thrilled to say that we have the perfect guest to help us – record-breaking, long-distance cyclist, adventurer, broadcaster and author Mark Beaumont.
Mark is a man who certainly knows what it means to endure. In 2008 he broke the world record for a circumnavigational bike tour of the world, travelling 18,000 miles from Paris to Paris. The new record was set at 194 days and 17 hours, beating the previous record of 276 days. His video diaries of that ride won him a BAFTA nomination.
Swapping the bike for a boat, Mark rowed through the Canadian Arctic to reach the North Magnetic Pole, the furthest north anyone had rowed. And then in early 2012 he joined another crew in an attempt to break the world record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. But after 27 days and over 2,000 miles into the expedition the boat capsized. Mark’s retelling of the terrifying 14-hour ordeal that followed – and the reactions of all involved – alone make this an episode worth listening to.
When someone had the nerve to break Mark’s circumnavigation record, his reaction of course was to get on his bike. And during the summer of 2017 he smashed the new record with a total time of 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes.
Mark has also authored a number of successful books including The Man Who Cycled the World, Around the World in 80 Days, Africa Solo and Endurance. In the 2018 New Year Honours he was awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to sport, broadcasting and charity.
Cycling fan or not, this is a valuable episode for anyone looking to push the limits of human potential and understand why increasing our endurance can transform our ability to survive and thrive in crisis.
Mark’s Crisis Comforts:
1. The Bach suites. I’m a cellist, I mastered the Bach suites when I was quite young, and they’ve always been an absolute go-to. I appreciate that familiarity, that comfort, they give me.
2. If you don’t like where you are, move. You’re not a tree. If you’re in a crisis, if things are going wrong. Move. Don’t sit with it, don’t dwell with it, don’t stew with it, move. You’ve got the choice to move, have the confidence to move.
3. My mum’s cheesecake. I often say to people, “If you’re having a psychological crisis, it’s normally connected to a nutritional crisis.” So, if you’re having trouble, eat something. That’s got me out of a lot of difficult places. It’s amazing, the power of food, to reframe your thinking, your stress.
Buy Mark’s latest book – Endurance – https://amzn.to/3JAWI2N
Mark’s website – https://markbeaumontonline.com/
Follow Mark on Twitter – https://twitter.com/MrMarkBeaumont
Follow Mark in Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/mrmarkbeaumont/?hl=en
Follow Mark on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/MarkBeaumontAdventures
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: https://www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Full episode transcript
Mark Beaumont: [0:00:00] I was in a motel, definitely in the wrong part of town, I was literally trying to get the bike fixed and get back on the road without losing time, and there was a fight happening outside my hotel room. I foolishly- well, I listened for a while thinking somebody’s going to get killed, and foolishly opened the door and tried to step in.
Andy Coulson: [0:00:27] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.
The conversation today will be focused on a particular aspect of crisis management: endurance. How can we, when faced with difficulty whatever its cause, endure and progress? And I’m delighted to say that we have the perfect guest to help us navigate this topic. Long-distance cyclist, adventurer, broadcaster and author Mark Beaumont.
Mark is a man who knows what it is to endure. The statistics tell the story. In 2008 Mark broke the world record for a circumnavigational bike tour of the world, travelling 18,000 miles from Paris to Paris. The new record was set at 194 days and 17 hours, beating the previous record of 276 days. Mark endured many hardships during that ride. One day of drama in particular in Louisiana that we will discuss later. Suffice to say, how he continued is beyond belief. His video diaries of that ride won him a BAFTA nomination.
Next up, Mark cycled the Americas, climbing the highest peaks in North and South America along the way, as you do.
Then he swapped the bike for a boat, first rowing through the Canadian Arctic to reach the North Magnetic Pole, the furthest north anyone had rowed. And then in early 2012 Mark joined another crew in an attempt to break the world record for rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. But after 27 days and over 2,000 miles into the expedition the boat capsized. What followed was an incredible, terrifying fourteen-hour ordeal. Again, we’ll talk about that later.
When someone had the audacity to break Mark’s circumnavigation record, his reaction of course was to get on his bike. And during the summer of 2017, this time with a support team, he smashed the new record with a total time of 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes. Incredible.
And there have been other adventures along the way, as well as a number of successful books including The Man Who Cycled the World, Around the World in 80 Days, Africa Solo and Endurance. In the 2018 New Year Honours he was awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to Sport, Broadcasting and Charity. And for those of you who have enjoyed Succession, Mark is also the man who actually succeeded Logan Roy when he replaced the actor Brian Cox as Rector of Dundee University.
Mark Beaumont, thanks for joining me. How are you?
Mark Beaumont: [0:03:09] I’m great. Great to be here.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:10] Now, you’ve just returned from another adventure, am I right?
Mark Beaumont: [0:03:15] Yes, it’s a bit of a shock being here in a heatwave in London, which time-stamps when we’re recording this, but I was in the Arctic a few days ago, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Svalbard. And yes, to say that’s another world is an understatement.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:30] My goodness. What was the challenge?
Mark Beaumont: [0:03:33] The challenge was a personal passion. I wasn’t filming this time, I wasn’t making a documentary, I love spending time in wilderness locations like that. We were doing ski mountaineering and sailing around the very remote western fjords of Svalbard. It’s a part of the world where the glaciers are carving into the ocean, and outside of Tierra del Feugo and parts of Chile I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where you’ve got the mountains and the glaciers rearing out of the water quite like that. It’s extraordinary.
I mean, within a few hours of sailing out from Longyearbyen, which is a small town at the heart of Svalbard, a blue whale crested alongside us and flicked its tail at us. You know, the world’s largest mammal. And the polar bears, the walrus, the wilderness, no Wi-Fi, no phones, completely off-grid for ten days. So it was pretty extraordinary.
So to come back, see the kids, see the family, put my suit on and come to London, it’s a-
Andy Coulson: [0:04:36] It’s a shock to the system.
Mark Beaumont: [0:04:37] It is a shock, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:04:38] Mark, as I was preparing for today’s conversation I wondered how many days of your life that you’ve spent either in a saddle or in a boat or with your boots on climbing a mountain, during the course of these adventures. Have you got any idea how much of your life you have spent enduring?
Mark Beaumont: [0:04:58] My career happily spans the digital age, so most of what I did, starting from being a twelve-year-old kid pedalling across Scotland was long before we had Strava or ways of tracking our activity. So a lot of it is lost and un- but as it should be, as it should be for adventurers.
To give you some simple numbers, of course I’ve spent thousands and thousands and thousands of hours, hundreds of days out there doing adventures. If you think that quite a few of these projects have taken half a year plus, I mean, in your introduction you mentioned Around the World in 80 Days. That was 1,100 hours of time-trialling. So on your own, on a bicycle, in your own head, thinking your way through that task for 1,100 hours. I should say, with an amazing team around me, always with the love and support and dedication of an amazing team.
But ultimately as the athlete you’ve still got to put yourself through, as you’ve rightly pointed out, a huge amount of time. And I think that’s the bit that people often miss when they see the BBC documentaries and the outputs, they often say things to me like, “Mark, I’d love to do what you do.” I always say to them, “I think you like the idea of what I do when you see it edited into a half-hour doc.”
Andy Coulson: [0:06:18] Yes, exactly right. I want to get into that in more detail.
This is a conversation about endurance. It’s a topic we’ve touched on in a different context with other guests, and those conversations have often gone to the nature vs nurture debate. Biology or biography. Which is it for you?
Mark Beaumont: [0:06:41] To give you a political answer, it’s both. It has to be both, it’s always both. I was home-schooled, I had a very unique start to life if I compare it to my friends, because I spent the first twelve years on a small organics farm in the foothills of the Highlands with my sisters. My two pals until I was twelve were my sisters. There was no playground, we had sixty goats, thirteen horses, two hundred free-range hens. We had a farm to run. And so I didn’t socialise, I didn’t interact, I didn’t build a sense of competition and playground antics until well into high school.
So that gave me a complete sort of Swallows and Amazons existence.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:23] Was it just geography that led your parents to make that decision about you, or was it- there was obviously more to it than that? They were determined that you would have that start in life?
Mark Beaumont: [0:07:31] Yes, they were. I think very much led by my mum. You know, she was very interested in everything from alternative education, alternative medicine, organics. You can paint the picture. It was in the ‘80s.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:47] A forward-thinking woman.
Mark Beaumont: [0:07:48] Yes, very independently minded.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:51] Had she been brought up in that kind of environment?
Mark Beaumont: [0:07:52] Not really, no. She grew up on a farm, but not really. No, it was very much…
So back to your point on nature or nurture, I guess if there’s one theme that I think we’re likely to return to with endurance, it’s being independently minded. Forget the specifics of what you do, whether it’s sport, business, public life, it’s the ability to stand on your own two feet, action your own ideas, and have the gumption to step out when often it’s not the done thing.
I’ve been in the game of first and fastest my whole life, so by definition I’m trying to do things where there’s no track record, there’s nobody to follow.
And so to your question of nature or nurture, that’s got to come from somewhere. It’s not just because I’m technically the best bike rider, I’m not. I’m a big 6’ 3”, 92kg lump of an athlete. So you know, it’s not because I think I’m God’s given talent to cycling, far from it. It’s got to be something else.
So the quiet confidence, and I always use that phrase, the quiet confidence to step out, try things that are not being tried elsewhere, back yourself, build a plan, build a team, that is at the heart of your question of nature or nurture. As opposed to like, “Am I physiologically the strongest or most gifted at what I do?”
Clearly you’ve got to have the core competence, you’ve got to have the make-up. You know, whether that’s the intelligence, the physicality, you’ve got to have the toolkit to be able to operate well in the world that you take on.
Andy Coulson: [0:09:27] And the discipline to make the most of that.
Mark Beaumont: [0:09:29] And discipline. Discipline. Process is often overlooked, because again people just look at outcomes, they look at the result. But actually the boring bit, the diary planning, the process, what it actually takes to pull off anything significant in life is something you’ve got to learn.
I’ve got two amazing sisters who had exactly the same formative years as I did, same parents, same environment, and we’ve all ended up in completely different walks of life, different jobs, different politics, almost different values. So I think it’s too-
Andy Coulson: [0:09:59] Can I ask? From that same upbringing, just professionally, what do you sisters do?
Mark Beaumont: [0:10:03] One is a midwife and one is an educational psychologist. So one works in education and one is in healthcare. And we all have very different outlooks on life. Mine is a lot more entrepreneurial, and I look at what my little sister does, doing twelve-hour nightshifts, bringing human beings into this world, and think, “My goodness, I’ve got a silly job compared to that.”
Andy Coulson: [0:10:28] That’s the frontline of resilience.
Mark Beaumont: [0:10:30] Incredible, absolutely incredible. But clearly a very different approach to entrepreneurial risk, which I think is at the heart of what I do in both sides of my life. I often joke that I spend half my life in Lycra and half my life in a suit, and whether I’m in Lycra or a suit I’m in that leadership role where I’m making decisions that other people look at me and go, “Really? Can we do that?”
Nature or nurture, where does that come from? I think you’ve got to learn that. Most of that you’ve got to learn. You’ve got to learn to back yourself, you’ve got to learn to step out. We’re creatures of habit at the end of the day, aren’t we?
Andy Coulson: [0:11:08] We are. So you mentioned it, but I think you’re eleven when you move from home-schooling and that environment at home into school. That’s a massive thing for an eleven-year-old boy. I mean, you had not really had what we would consider to be a connected upbringing, a socialised upbringing, and you’re then put into a high school in Scotland.
And it’s not that long after, I don’t think, I think you’re twelve when you then decide to ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
Mark Beaumont: [0:11:43] Yes, that’s right.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:44] Are those two things connected? Without wishing to get too analytical about it, but was the kind of challenge of seeing if you could do that related to this, I imagine fairly epic challenge of trying to find your place in that school?
Mark Beaumont: [0:12:00] Yes, that’s a positive spin on it. I think the reality is that the cycling and the adventure was a bit of a coping mechanism. My daughters are nine and seven, and we live in Edinburgh, we live a very sociable life. Dinner parties, play dates, every weekend like a lot of us is busy. I didn’t have any of that. You know, the big event a couple of times a year was when Grandpa came to visit and took us to the Bridge of Cally Hotel for Sunday lunch.
I’m being glib, but there wasn’t a huge amount of interaction. We went to Alyth, the local town, on a Saturday lunchtime to art class, and I went for some cello lessons. But you know, normal social interactions, learning to fend for yourself, didn’t happen in the same way. It was life on the farm, and we spent an hour or two a day around the kitchen table learning, but-
I’ve got a pretty relaxed view on primary school. I know a lot of listeners might disagree on this point, but it doesn’t take seven years to learn to read and write. Primary school is basically a construct so grown-ups can go to work and so children can be suitably entertained and educated. It doesn’t focus education the way high school does, clearly.
So you know, I literally spent an hour or two a day doing what was necessary around the kitchen table and the rest of the time was working on the farm. We had sixty goats to milk every morning, and horse boxes to muck out.
So then to be dropped into a school of 1,300 kids at the age of whatever I was, eleven going on twelve, was a heck of a shock. A heck of a shock. And it was a real sink or swim, because there was nothing to really prepare me for that. And playgrounds are tough. You know, I had the wrong colour shoes, I had the wrong haircut, the wrong backpack, just simple things.
And the irony of course with school is, you know, it’s about conforming. It’s about fitting in, it’s about doing what the crowd does. And then you realise in life after school that it’s your individual interests and personality that defines you. So it’s often taught out of you in the playground to be individual, to pursue your interests, and I always saw that sort of with interest, because I hadn’t been institutionalised by school for my first eleven years. So I got bullied, I laugh about it because it wasn’t that serious, but it wasn’t fun either.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:36] How did it manifest itself? Because the kids knew, presumably?
Mark Beaumont: [0:14:42] Yes. Put simply, the cool kids were in the front playground and what was defined as the geeky kids were in the back playground. And for my first year and a half I was neither in the front playground or the back playground. There were just a few who were left wandering the corridors because they didn’t fit into any crowd. That horrible social hierarchy that exists in high schools can be crushing.
And as I say, I can laugh about it now and I’ve got very fond memories and life-long friends from high school, but it took me a while to find my feet because I was socially inept. I didn’t have a clue. I knew how to interact with the horses and the farm animals, but I had no idea how to interact with kids of my own age.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:26] Tell me how that leads to cycling being your coping mechanism. Because there’s an obvious kind of metaphor of, “I’m literally on the road and I’m not going to stop.”
Mark Beaumont: [0:15:37] Yes. I went to a school where the religion was rugby, so there wasn’t a lot of other choice around sports. And certainly to be good at the things that I was passionate about, which was skiing, riding ponies and cycling bicycles, sort of adventure sports, didn’t really count.
So I was not considered a sporty kid at school, far from it. Very much the last picked at football and rugby and anything that counted at school. And I very much did these things not to be competitive but just because throughout my childhood to that point I’d pursued the ambition and I just loved time in the outdoors. But it wasn’t like I was having to join the Scouts to do it, life was in the outdoors. Because everything I did was on the farm until I was eleven, and I was given a huge amount of freedom to go off to overnight adventure, to do journeys on my own.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:28] So the confidence bit was there.
Mark Beaumont: [0:16:30] Yes, it was there. I was eleven years old when I said to my parents, “Can I cycle to Pitlochry?” which was eighteen miles away. I mean, I can’t quite imagine in a year and a half, two years’ time, my daughter just disappearing off on her own for an eighteen-mile cycle.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:43] Yes.
Mark Beaumont: [0:16:43] But I had that. And I sort of said it was a coping mechanism. When I suggested to my parents that I cycle Land’s End to John O’Groats as a first year at high school, they rightly pointed out, “Look Mark, you’ve not really cycled off the farm before, why don’t you try something smaller first?” So you know, that’s why it got sort of pared back to cycling coast to coast across Scotland, which was a 130-miler.
And I loved it. It wasn’t just the ride that I enjoyed, because it was my thing, it was something I was good at when I was having a tough time at school. It was something positive in this sort of new, slightly scary world. And it was also the planning of it, going door to door, doing some charity fundraising, afterwards handing a charity cheque to Princess Royal. I mean, what a buzz as a twelve-year-old, to do the whole cycle from planning, creating, story-telling, seeing the positive impact that could create, and getting a note of recognition for that.
Now, of course I grasped onto that. Of course, as a twelve-year-old I thought, “Here’s something positive. What’s next?” And by the time I was a few years older I was ready to do my first solo ride, 1,000 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and on we go.
So you can look back, I’m forty now, you can look back on my career and it looks slightly inevitable. It looks quite professional, it looks like one thing led to the next quite systematically, but that’s how most careers look in reverse.
Andy Coulson: [0:18:06] Of course.
Mark Beaumont: [0:18:09] I was not there as a high schooler going, “One day I’m going to be the fastest person to pedal around the planet.” There is nothing in my world that tells me that is even possible, let alone it’s a job. And so it’s interesting how in life you work furiously at that next horizon, and only once you achieve that, sort of summit that horizon, does it sort of unlock that next level, what that next horizon is. And you do that consistently over time and you continue to push yourself out your comfort zone and push your endurance and push your psychological endurance as well, and you know, you look back after ten years or twenty years or thirty years and you go, “Wow, that all makes sense in reverse.”
And I think that’s always the risk when you listen to people on podcasts like this, or you meet people who you look at their career and go, “How did you do that?” Just realise that how I see me is very different to how you see me. Very different. You live your life in a far more complicated way. We all have insecurities, we all have massive setbacks, we all look around us and go, “Am I the best qualified person to do this?” And having that quiet confidence to step out and try stuff, and not getting too worried about the big picture because it’ll take care of itself as long as you’re furiously involved in things that you’re passionate about and can be relevant to.
Andy Coulson: [0:19:27] One aspect of this I suppose is the need for affirmation. Because you’ve got this incredible confidence that’s- you’ve explained how that may have come to pass. As a twelve-year-old boy to have the confidence, never mind anything else, to get on your bike and ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End. You know, I did it as a fifty-four-year-old man the other way, which is much easier. And it was properly hairy in places, as a grown-up.
As a twelve-year-old kid, I suppose there’s the ignorance of not knowing really, but your parents knew full well, an incredible sort of danger element to it as well, which obviously then develops and develops and develops, and we’ll get into that in more detail.
But it’s this kind of combination of confidence and the internal commentary that clearly gives you a kind of- I don’t know whether these are the right words. Is it right that you don’t really need that much from other people? When you say I don’t see you the way that you see you, do you need sort of- I know one of the reasons you would want to do this is the acknowledgement of it, but I sense that that is not the driver for you. You don’t really need the affirmation.
Mark Beaumont: [0:20:51] No, it’s not the driver. It’s not the driver. I think as human beings we are social animals. I think it’s ironic considering the childhood that I had, and how I didn’t interact socially for the first eleven or twelve years in what I would now consider a normal way, that I’ve now got a public profile, I’ve been a broadcaster, I spend a lot of my life being asked to stand at the front of a room in front of thousands.
So that’s not lost on me. I could easily be completely introverted, living in a cave somewhere.
I enjoy social interaction. I absolutely love- it’s ironic if you look at the other side of my life, I’m the people and performance guy. I’m the person who is passionate about building teams and doing stuff in an interactive way, and so I’m incredibly collaborative, I’m incredibly strong on values and making sure that people are suitably motivated, and delegating responsibilities, I love all of that.
So I think what being home-schooled and that independence gave me was that phrase that I used before and I’ll come back to, that quiet confidence. I don’t particularly mind if what I’m doing is not the status quo. And I’m quite- there’s a childhood mischief about that. I quite like stepping out and doing things that other people think is not they way things are meant to be done.
I remember being given the opportunity when I was at university in Glasgow to go and do an internship in Boston. What a privilege, what an amazing time to go across. And a lot of people thought it was about what they were doing, the task, the actual job they were given as an intern. That didn’t really matter to me. I was in corporate HR, I had no interest in corporate HR. For me it was about the network, the experience, the ability to step out from my peer group and just explore.
I remember one day we were staying in the halls of residence and I spotted Shakespeare in the Park was advertised, Shakespeare on the Common, on Boston Common, was advertised. And I said to the group, and it shows that sort of playground mentality, I said to the group, “Who wants to go and get some beers and watch Shakespeare on Sunday?” And you know, one of the strong characters said, “Ah, how silly, how daft, how geeky,” and everyone put their head down and nobody did it.
I went off and had a wonderful afternoon on my own, drinking beers and watching Shakespeare. I’m not a theatre guy really, I don’t have a deep understanding of Shakespeare, but I loved that experience and I didn’t care too much that nobody else wanted to come with me. It didn’t even cross my mind that nobody else came with me.
And do you know the amount of people in that internship who came up to me afterwards and said, “I really wanted to do that, but you know, given the reaction and the signals from other people in the group I didn’t have the confidence to do it”?
I know that might sound like a silly example, but it stuck with me my whole career. Life is full of people who want to do stuff, who are looking around them for people to tell them it’s okay. And if you can, without being unkind about it, not care too much, have the idea, invite people to be a part of it but do it anyway, I think that’s far, far more important than being book smart or you know, any other gift you might be given.
Because ultimately at the heart of human happiness is a sense that you’re in the driving seat. Is feeling like what you do matters. How you interact with the world matters.
In my mind, there’s three spheres to your life. There’s your work, there’s your family and there’s the community you’re a part of. And you don’t interact with those spaces just because you’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to be helpful, but because the arrows come back to you. The arrows come back to you and it sort of reaffirms the role that you have in each of those worlds.
So actually if you’re having a bit of a mental crisis, if you’re having a bad time, if you’re having a bad day, the worst thing to do is to think too much about yourself, get too introspective about it. If you’re having a bad day, if you’re having a crisis, help somebody else. Do an act of kindness. Do something which is utterly selfless. Because what it does in a very selfish way is puts an arrow out into the world which comes straight back at you to reaffirm your identity, your values, your place, the fact that what you do matters.
I remember working with the grate late David Peat, BBC film maker, a great friend of mine who was a mentor for me in my first six or seven years of my career. He said to me, “Mark, in your career try to become valued because of who you are not because of what you do.” So the technical competence, being a great cameraman, being a great accountant, is a given. Let’s assume you’re great at your job. Then what? People don’t value you because of that technical skillset, that’s what sits on your CV and that’s what gets you started.
But actually the personal value, the personal worth and how you value other people is their integrity, their decision-making under pressure, all that good stuff.
Andy Coulson: [0:26:09] And how you make people feel.
Mark Beaumont: [0:26:10] And how you make people feel. So once you unlock that level, you realise that it’s not just about turning up and being a robot and doing a job but it’s very much about that quiet confidence you bring to the job. The fact that people look at you and go-
I remember it acutely in all of my expeditions, where I’ll delegate everything. I’ll delegate everything. I don’t have anything to do except for just be the athlete when we come to the job. But people are still looking at me for that sort of, “Are we okay, boss? Can we do this?” You know, if I smile everyone smiles. If I look worried my team look worried, and it affects their behaviour. And as soon as you realise that, it changes how you interact with the world. You stop trying to do everything and you realise it’s more about composure, it’s more about having that- you know, what you can unlock in other people.
So back to your question, it’s very much about having that ability to sort of see yourself differently so you can- the kid in me wanted to do things which weren’t necessarily that cool at the time, I had no idea it could become my job. It did become my job, I remember having those hard conversations with my dad when I was at university, with him saying you know, “You’re going to take a perfectly useful economics and politics degree and a future in finance and you’re going to cycle round the world?” And I said, “Yes, I’m going to that. I’m going to take on my biggest dream and adventure.”
Andy Coulson: [0:27:33] How much resistance was there?
Mark Beaumont: [0:27:35] I can understand from his perspective as a farmer, and having had his challenges in business, that it seemed very risky. I was in a class of three hundred, the sensible thing to do would be to go off and get my CA, become an accountant, work in finance, take a straight line into big corporate. That was what he imagined I would do, I had the grades to do it.
And so to quote unquote, “Risk it all,” with this idea of cycling around the planet, with no idea of how you can make that a business.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:08] We had an interesting conversation recently with one of your fellow Scots, Rory Stewart, who had a similar conversation with his father at a similar stage of his life. And he went on to do something in its own way quite similar to you as well, he walked across Asia.
Mark Beaumont: [0:28:26] A great book, Places In Between.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:28] A fantastic book, and a fantastic story. You got on your bike and decided to cycle around the world. When I asked Rory what the motivation was for him, among other things some of which very similar to what you’ve been saying to us, was also an admission that there was a bit of an addiction to the risk element of it.
Was there, is there for you?
Mark Beaumont: [0:28:51] I think you’ve got to have that mischief. You’ve got to- I know it’s a very un-corporate thing to say, but you’ve got to want to do stuff. The thing that scares the hell out of me more than anything else in life is just existing, is just sort of marking time. I can’t define it any better than that. I hate the idea of just existing.
And this is not for acknowledgement, to go back to one of your previous questions. It’s not like I’m out there, even though I do have a broadcast career, I’m not necessarily doing it for other people to acknowledge or- you know, I’m a terrible social media user because I don’t really do things for reactions or interactions even though I’m passionate about sharing my stories.
At the heart of any big expedition you’ve got to fundamentally want to do it. It’s not because people are paying you to do it or you’re going to have a profile from doing it.
So to Rory’s point, at the heart of any journey or expedition is a very personal want, to figure out something about yourself, to find out something about the world, a genuine intrigue in terms of people and place. What Rory did, and I guess what I did at a similar stage is to go through a part of the world which we read about all the time in the news, but to actually meet it first-hand.
He walked through Northern Afghanistan, I cycled through Iran and around the Balochi desert on the border of the Helmand province. You know, you’re interacting with people in a completely different way than you would read in the paper, and you get to re-frame a lot of how you see the world.
Andy Coulson: [0:30:27] You were also doing it at a similar time, 2007 you set off?
Mark Beaumont: [0:30:31] Yes, very similar. 2007, 2008. So I’m not sure I would agree that- I’m not an adrenaline junkie, I don’t jump out of planes and do- I don’t like doing things where I feel like I’m out of control. I do like doing things which make me feel alive, where I feel like there’s an edge to it, where I feel like my actions matter, my composure matters.
You know, five days ago you would have found me on a narrow ridgeline five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle with my crampons on trying to get to a peak to ski off. It’s not massively dangerous, but if it goes wrong you’re a long way from rescue. And there’s an element there that I like that personal responsibility, I like that being responsible for your colleagues and friends around you, I like doing things that haven’t been done before.
And I think if there’s an addictive part, it’s that. It’s not necessarily the danger but it’s the responsibility that comes with trying to do difficult things.
Andy Coulson: [0:31:33] Brilliant. Let’s talk about that first bike ride, or the first circumnavigation. There were some dramas, as we’ll talk about in a second, but first can I just ask you about the slog, the grind?
You rode through twenty countries across Europe, the Middle East, India, Asia as you’ve just mentioned, Australasia, North America. You carried sixty-six pounds of equipment on this bike of yours. Sat in the saddle. The slog. How much of that do you remember now? Or is it like any woman who has given birth, it kind of gets erased somehow from your memory?
Mark Beaumont: [0:32:13] Well, you made that comparison, I’m not going to be that risky. The durations of these expeditions do blur, of course they do. I think when you’re in your own head for months on end, time and your perspective on time is very, very interesting. It’s another podcast in itself. Because we’re distracted all the time, we never finish the jobs we start, we’re juggling our very busy lives.
Whereas the incredible thing about journeys is you’re doing one thing. It’s all about progress, it’s all about momentum. So it’s unbroken, there’s an unbroken task there, if you’re cycling around the world, length of the Americas, length of Africa, whatever it is.
So your perception of time changes massively because depending on where you are in your head, there’s hours, I can think of some of those pre-dawn rides, what I call the graveyard shift, that just last forever. I would define them in my memory as weeks even though they were hours. And then there are weeks that pass in moments.
So the concept of time is very fluid when you’ve got a linear journey and you’re basically in your own head, because it’s how you punctuate time, it’s what’s happening. Whereas our everyday busy lives here are very different to that. And I’ve never found anything else in live that has that what they often call flow state, that simple- you know, you’ve got to think your way through the task. And you know, you’re either doing it or you’re not.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:44] So when you’re on a day like that, or you’re in a session like that, are you just chunking up the time?
Mark Beaumont: [0:33:50] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:51] Are you just- is the internal commentary simply, “Right, the next hundred miles,” probably for you? I’m sure you work on a timeframe that’s unlike most other people. The rest of us are thinking about the next five miles, but you’re in what, two-hundred-mile chunks in your mind? And you just disappear into it? How does it work?
Mark Beaumont: [0:34:10] I’m not thinking about distance, because distance is ultimately an output that you can’t control. Distance has to factor in topography, road condition, wind direction, all sorts of things you don’t control. People in expeditions and people in business, their entire time define their success by things they don’t control. And you really, really need to get good at focusing on behaviours around things you can control, and then mitigate and understand things which you can’t.
So I never ride by distance, even though I know what I need to cover to hit certain targets. So time is a far better metric for focus.
It’s interesting thinking back to the first time I cycled around the world. Because what I did then, if you’d interviewed me on the finishing line in Paris at the Arc de Triomphe, I would have said to you, “I left it all out there. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’ve just broken the world record by over two months.” I remember the headlines going, “This will never be broken,” and other funny reactions, you know. It now looks like kindergarten. Talk about baby steps.
Andy Coulson: [0:35:17] Really, is that how you look back on it?
Mark Beaumont: [0:35:18] Oh yes, you cannot even compare that first cycle around the world to what we, and I say ‘we’ collectively, are doing in ultra endurance now. Jenny Graham with the female Round the World record, mine with the male, it’s another ballpark. If you’d said to me on the finishing line in Paris when I was twenty three years old, “One day you will go over a hundred days quicker,” impossible. There’s no reference point for that, because human nature, you justify where you end up. I did the best I could, you always justify where you end up.
So it’s very hard to have that objectivity and go, “How could you fundamentally do it differently?” and that’s where you have to learn from others, time needs to pass, etc.
So you know, how I thought about it the first time around the world, yes, I was thinking roughly that I would need to average out at a century a day, a hundred miles a day. But if I’m honest about it now, with nearly twenty years’ hindsight, the first time around the world, even though it was a record attempt, was far more about what happened off the bike than on the bike. It was much more about, “Where’s my next meal? Where am I going to sleep tonight?” You know, sleeping in mosques and having armed escorts, all the exciting stuff which as a twenty-two, twenty-three year old, when your reference point is school and university, is a proper coming of age.
I recently was asked to do the audiobook for The Man Who Cycled the World, a good fifteen years after I’d written the book, and it was like reading somebody else’s story. I almost didn’t recognise myself. And I think the wonderful thing is, you’ll never have the raw emotions and reactions than the first time you go on a big journey like that. It could be your first start-up, it doesn’t need to be your first physical journey. But you know, as life goes on you know more, you’re harder to impress, you’re harder to surprise, you’ve got a toolkit to deal with what life throws at you.
But when you’re straight out of university and you decide to pedal around the planet, my goodness. I just remember all those situations I ended up in, which you know, I was just a kid. I was a kid. I don’t mean to patronise myself, but I was. And then I came back over ten years later with this dream of being the first person to get around the planet under their own steam in eighty days, you know, that Victorian fiction, and you can’t compare.
I was then averaging 240 miles a day every day for two and a half months. I was down to five hours’ sleep, I had a team of forty, every moment was accounted for. It was two and a half years planning, it was a seven-figure budget, it was a huge professional endeavour. But it was just a stepping stone from the twelve year old kid who peddled across Scotland, it’s just a bigger, bolder version of the same thing.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:54] It’s just the next part of the same road.
Can we peddle back a bit, if you’ll forgive me? The drama on that first ride, and there were a few, we haven’t got time to cover them all. I know you got dysentery at one stage, how you continue with dysentery I’ve no idea. But the day in Louisiana, if we can just talk about that. Because it is in a way one day that kind of captures everything that can happen to you on a bike ride.
Just give us the highlights, and then obviously I want to ask you how you managed it.
Mark Beaumont: [0:38:20] Well, in a sentence it was all going fine until 11 o’clock, and then at a crossroads I went over the bonnet of a car and smashed the bike up, I was pretty hurt. And then in the city of Lafayette trying to get things fixed later that day I was attacked and mugged, so a lot of my kit was stolen from me.
Andy Coulson: [0:38:37] What happened? Just describe it to me.
Mark Beaumont: [0:38:40] I was in a motel, definitely in the wrong part of town. I was literally trying to get the bike fixed and get back on the road without losing time, and there was a fight happening outside my hotel room. I foolishly- well, I listened for a while thinking somebody’s going to get killed, and foolishly opened the door and tried to step in.
At which point the bystanders to the fight turned to me and you know, pushed the door open, pinned me against the wall, ransacked my room, duffed me up a bit. I was left incredibly scared, I wasn’t too hurt but you know, realising that I’d made a pretty silly mistake albeit it for the right motivations. And you know, if you were to summarise a bad day on expedition, being run over and mugged is pretty bad.
Andy Coulson: [0:39:31] Yes. How do you then, metaphorically and literally, get in the saddle after a day like that?
Mark Beaumont: [0:39:39] Well, what’s interesting there is of course I’m 16,000 miles into an 18,000 mile race around the planet. Everyone is starting to think I’ve done it, everyone is starting to celebrate it’s over, and it’s often then that things go wrong.
So what can you do? What can you do? I mean, you go from thinking about the finish and having a mindset of the next week or two to the next hour, the next few moments, the next whatever.
I think it’s always interesting, when people always ask me about crisis points they expect some sort of super-inspired motivated person, they expect some incredible positivity. And I’m always the first to point out that most of that rhetoric that exists around inspiration and positivity is absolutely nonsense. It’s just- I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s just not to be human, it’s not real. I mean, you’ve got to call a good day good and a bad day bad. When it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, when-
Andy Coulson: [0:40:38] It is what it is.
Mark Beaumont: [0:40:39] When I’m injured, when everything is going wrong, don’t give me a Mohammed Ali quote. Don’t tell me to be happy, don’t tell me to be positive. You know, I’m scared. It’s the carrot and the stick. The fear of failure is far, far greater than the inspiration of success. It’s so abstract in a crisis point talking about the success you might well have if you fight hard for it, that it’s not motivating at all. It’s demotivating.
So the consequence of failing, a reminder of what you’ve built and what you’ll lose if you don’t do what’s necessary, that deep accountability to put one step in front of another brings a real dark humour to it. A genuine accountability. But it doesn’t make you positive, inspired, happy. And I think it’s so important to call it what it is, and to stop in high pressure situations just telling people to you know, high five, be happy and be more positive. That’s not helpful.
I always talk to my team about being performance mindset not positive mindset, because positive mindset you know, we have good days bad days, good hours bad hours. Just be accountable. Realise that what you think, what you say and what you do matters. That’s it.
So back to Louisiana, I’m scared, I’m in a position I’ve never been in in my life. I’ve just been beaten up a bit and you know. But the fear of failure at that point, given the success that I’ve built in the project, you just do everything you can to get back on the road.
I can think of so many points on expeditions where I think, “This is the hardest moment. And whilst it’s hell and I could cry, this is the bit that I’ll look back on most fondly.” And it doesn’t make me a sort of sadist, I just have the awareness to know that the things which are toughest at the time become the life-affirming, career-defining bits.
You know, I sort of joke with the big races. Anyone can race hard at midday, who races hard at midnight?
I took on an amazing gravel race the length of Britain a few years ago. So it was Land’s End to John O’Groats off road. 2,000 kilometres off road. Sixty people started and thirteen people finished. Thirteen. You had to be sort of pre-qualified to be involved, so everyone was good. Everyone was a good bike rider. Why did forty-seven people quit? They didn’t quit because their bikes broke, they quit because at some point in those 2,000 kilometres they stopped riding the road in front of them.
And I think that’s a really important thing to remember. They all knew how to do it, they all had the technical competence, but the psychology around understanding-
Andy Coulson: [0:43:26] So not injuries?
Mark Beaumont: [0:43:27] Not injuries. I mean, sure, one or two must have had injuries, but forty-seven didn’t have injuries. And we all have the dreamer side of the brain, the aspirational, “This is what I want my life to be.” You then need to have the really boring, practical, diary-planning part of the brain which can back it up and understands, what’s the day-to-day life you need to lead that will give you those outcomes, those dreams?
You know, so ideas are cheap. Actions. What do you actually do every day that gives you that? And I think when it comes to these big expeditions, having that wry smile, having that ability in your lowest ebb to sort of go, “Ah, I’m there again.” And not in a competitive sense, but knowing you can out-suffer.
And you don’t go looking for it, that would be weird. But knowing when you’re there that you can cope, I think is fundamentally important.
Andy Coulson: [0:44:19] And from the age of twelve, from the age of eleven when you crossed Scotland, to that moment and beyond which we’ll get to, it’s all- it’s a horrible cliché when people talk about life as a journey, I can’t stand it. But it really is for you, it’s absolutely the right terminology for you. You’re digging into those memories every time you hit another wall, right? You’re digging into the muscle memory I suspect, sort of a physical kind of manifestation of that, but you’re also able to- are you? I’m asking a question. Are you then able to say, “Ah no, this is like this time before”?
The problem with that of course is that you’re always- invariably your destination is something new, is something unknown.
Mark Beaumont: [0:45:04] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:45:04] So how do you dig into that sort of memory bank and say to yourself, “No, I can do this because I’ve done it before”?
Mark Beaumont: [0:45:13] On the physical side, which is maybe easier, I think a lot of athletes, even though they would have incredible functional threshold power and, you know, pathway ratio as a bike-rider, for those listening, a lot of athletes would struggle with the sheer attrition of what I do. So they might be able to do a 240-mile day once, but could you do it twice, three times for months on end? So the physicality is having that deep- fitness is two things. It’s clearly the physical strength, but then the conditioning. And conditioning is your neural system, your ability to physically endure.
And I say that first before answering the psychology bit, because it’s actually quite important, because it’s related. Because a lot of what you go through on these big expeditions is physical suffering. And so if you’re going to be spending 1,100 hours time-trialling, pedalling for sixteen hours a day back to back to back and you’re sleep-deprived, you’ve got to physically be able to do that, and understand how to manage your own body.
I couldn’t do the Tour de France, and Tour de France riders couldn’t do what I do. We’re just different sorts of athletes.
So I think that sort of training over my lifetime to be able to do what I do physically is important, and then you lay out they psychology on top. Because I think a lot of people would have psychological relevance, a suitable mental toolkit based on other things they’ve done in their lives, but then they wouldn’t have the physicality to back it up. So there’s no point in it.
So the psychology I think is really interesting, because it goes back to that phrase I’ve repeated now, that quiet confidence. It really is. It’s not an arrogance and it’s not something that you need to talk about unless you’re trying to explain it, but it is knowing in those difficult points how to be relevant. You know, the accountability around-
Andy Coulson: [0:47:06] How to be relevant?
Mark Beaumont: [0:47:07] Yes. It’s so easy to distract yourself when things go wrong, It’s so easy to do something else.
Okay, I’ll give you a very quick example. Let’s stick to the Around the World in 80 Days for a minute. So the normal psychology around cycling around the planet faster than anyone has ever done it before is I’m going to- everyone has got familiarity bias. Familiarity bias is the bit that you know best. So as an athlete most people just train harder than they’ve ever trained before, get to the start line and then, “Let’s figure out what’s possible.” That’s a normal way of racing, and you almost leave it to the race to figure out what the result is.
I don’t do that. I’ve never done that. I’ve pre-planned it, I’ve pre-meditated it, and we then read it off script. It’s very boring. But the first time around the world I came home within eight hours of what I said I would, and the second time around the world I hit my target by 1.44%. Broke the target by 37, hit my target by 1.44.
So that very simple idea, you’ll never do better than what you set out to do, so you’ve got to be very clear on what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it. So being relevant for me is not leaving it up to chance.
So for example if your focus was, “Right, let’s cycle around the world, and then let’s see how I feel every day. Let’s see which way the wind’s blowing, let’s see how things go,” you’ll end up doing more when the goings are good, and then when it’s hard you’ll start to say things to yourself like, “Ah, I’ll make it up. I’ll make it up. Today wasn’t the best of days, I’ll protect myself. I’m hurting like hell but I’ll make it up tomorrow because my luck will turn.”
The moment you do anything like that, you’ve jumped through the escape hatch. You’re never going to hit your best possible average unless you have the self-discipline to execute on the plan, regardless of the things which are outside of your control.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:54] So where does positivity have its place, from your perspective?
Mark Beaumont: [0:49:00] Positivity has its place in making sure that you’re doing things that you have a fundamental enjoyment for. It doesn’t mean that life needs to be a bundle of laughs and easy and great fun, in fact I think-
Andy Coulson: [0:49:15] So it’s meaning, not positivity?
Mark Beaumont: [0:49:17] Yes. I mean, I think humans are best when they’re struggling. Not in a sort of negative, “I’m about to lose it all,” way, but I think the human condition is at its best when it’s got something to strive for, strive to. And it goes back to my point about sort of being in the driving seat and feeling like your existence matters. It matters to your family, it matters to your community and it matters to your work.
So if you’re striving for something in a positive manner, that’s incredibly positive. That’s incredibly positive and it will give you meaning. But it doesn’t mean that you’re happy clappy.
I was on that GBDURO race, the length of Britain. The oldest finisher in the race, I think he was fifty-eight at the time, a friend of mine, he’s called Howard Perkins. I hope he doesn’t mind the name-check. At the finishing line I looked down at his bike and he’d written three words on his front light, and it said, “Safe. Finish. Fun.” I said, “What does that mean?” Because not being unkind to Howard, but if you’d looked at sixty athletes on the start line, all younger than him, many sort of semi-professional, and you’d said to me, “Only thirteen are going to finish,” I’m not sure I would have picked out Howard as one of the finishers. I’m just being honest.
So there he was at the finish, and I said you know, “What’s your story, how did it go?” And he said, “That’s my decision-making matrix.” And in all my time I’ve never found a better way of describing how you think when you’re on a big, hard project. And he said, “Safety comes first. Whenever I’m doing something big, bold and difficult like this, my own wellbeing and for those that care about me comes top of the pile. Secondly, finish. Finishing is fundamentally important. If I set out to do something, getting to the end is important. The only reason I would not finish is if it was unsafe to do so. And at the bottom of the pile is Fun.”
“Why’s it at the bottom?” He said, “Well, somewhere along the line remember that through the suffering, through the difficulty, I’m doing this because I want to do it. It’s purposeful. So try and have fun. Even if it’s dark humour, try and sort of enjoy the sunrises and enjoy the privilege.” And it is a privilege being out there doing these things.
But here’s the important bit. Not having fun is not a reason not to finish. So for the forty-seven that didn’t finish I think there’s a conversation to be had around where the fun inter-reacts with their overall passion to get to the end.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:45] Let’s take all this, and we’re going to skip over some of your adventures including the Americas for time, and let’s go to the mid-Atlantic that we touched on in the intro.
You’re a crew member on an attempt to break the Guiness World Record for rowing the mid-Atlantic from Morrocco to Barbados. After twenty-eight days, and I think you were only 500 miles, only 500 miles from the finish, you think you’re pretty much made it, right? You’re in Caribbean waters, and you capsize.
Now, all that that you’ve explained so brilliantly for us, all that psychology and the preparation and the planning, here you are in a capsized boat in the mid-Atlantic. Try and first of all, please just explain what happened, and then again I want to have that conversation about how you managed that process.
Mark Beaumont: [0:52:46] So we’d been going for twenty-eight days, we were trying to do the first sub-one-month crossing of the Atlantic. That dream had slipped away, we were going to break the record but not go sub-one-month. We were within four or five days of the finish in Barbados, and we’d been going two hours on, two hours off, two hours on, two hours off, for nearly a month. So imagine the sleep deprivation around that, and you’re rowing hard for twelve hours a day.
Andy Coulson: [0:53:10] How many of you?
Mark Beaumont: [0:53:10] Triple scull, so there’s six of us. I’m not the expert, I’m not the ocean rowing- I couldn’t skipper a project like that, I was there as usual as the film maker and as an equal member of the crew, but I certainly wasn’t the expedition leader. So I think that’s important to say, because the natural hierarchy was around those who had a lot more ocean rowing experience.
We’d been in big, big seas. I’m talking about valleys of water where it’s ten, twelve seconds between peak and trough. The average speed for a mid-Atlantic crossing then was 3.8 knots and we would accelerate down the front of waves to 16, 17 knots. So it’s just extraordinary, the force of the water, compared to your futile strength through the oars.
But when we capsized it was none of that. We capsized in what I would call sort of angry water. Much smaller seas but confused chop, and we capsized right on a change of shift. So normally the boat would go turtle, go upside down, but then reemerge quite quickly because of the buoyancy in it. But with the change of shift and somebody coming out the cabin and the stern hatch door being open, the cabin flooded and the boat stayed upside down.
So that’s what happened. And you’re in very confused waters. Not massive, massive waves like valleys of water, but you know, it’s hard to see where your friends are as they emerge from the upturned cabin. One of my crewmates nearly drowned in the process, and our first priority was keeping him on the surface. And it then took forty-five minutes to get the life raft out and get everyone into it.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:47] Almost drowned, because you’re sort of strapped in.
Mark Beaumont: [0:54:50] Yes, strapped in underneath, and one was trapped in the cabin. So getting everyone onto the surface, accounting for everyone, you know, nobody-
Andy Coulson: [0:54:59] Sorry, just to dwell on that just for a second. How did he escape from that situation?
Mark Beaumont: [0:55:07] One of the guys trapped in the cabin waited for the boat to self-right, and then after a couple of minutes- and we couldn’t see him, we didn’t know where he was, we didn’t know he was still inside the cabin. Because I was on the rowing deck rowing, my feet were strapped in when- I literally left my shoes strapped into the- if anyone has been in a rowing boat, strapped in, and swam out. And to swim out you’ve got to swim down underneath the safety rails and the grab rails and then swim back to the surface.
The guy who was in the cabin space waited for the boat to self-right, it didn’t after a couple of minutes, so he had to flood his own cabin to swim out. Very claustrophobic, very dangerous, very difficult.
But the guy who took on water, so was being sick, our first priority- because he was pretty weakened by having taken on so much water, having swallowed so much water and then being sick, was his strength to survive what we needed to do next. So getting him onto the top of the boat, literally hanging onto the dagger board whilst we got back into the water and tried to pull the life raft out.
And all those things which seemed very simple in the training drills were a lot, lot, lot harder in reality.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:20] You’d done all this in the- weeks and months in advance.
Mark Beaumont: [0:56:22] We knew the theory, but there were mistakes. There were things which worked in theory and worked in training, but didn’t work in reality. We found that the boat was sealed into its hatch on the rowing deck with an airlock. So whereas it should have just popped out, and had easily popped out because it’s in an easy access hatch on the rowing deck, when you open that hatch and it’s now below the water level, and the way it would be packed, it was sealed in. It’s rubber, and it was sealed in around the plastic edges. So we couldn’t pull it down and out because it was literally stuck in there with an air lock.
So what should have taken sort of a minute to get the life raft out, self-inflate and we’re all safe, took forty-five minutes, which time you’re paddling around in boxer shorts, no life jackets, trying to make sure that everyone stays on the surface.
We had an axe, which the theory was if things went the wrong way up and we had cut in from the top into the cabin space we could do so, rather than the danger of having to swim down and back into the flooded cabins. It just bounced. I used all my strength, kneeling on top of the cabin trying to cut in from the top for half an hour, there was no way to cut into the cabin.
So there was a number of theories of survival which just didn’t work in reality.
Andy Coulson: [0:57:36] So how are you communicating with each other? Just tell me about- because you’re not in charge, right?
Mark Beaumont: [0:57:40] Well I’m not in charge, but-
Andy Coulson: [0:57:42] So the skipper continues in that situation to be in charge?
Mark Beaumont: [0:57:50] In a crisis situation like a capsize, initially you’re just trying to count heads. Is everyone alive? And when- everyone is action stations, nobody is waiting for the skipper’s order on anything, everyone is just sort of doing what’s necessary to stay on the surface and stay alive.
Andy Coulson: [0:58:05] In the immediate moments.
Mark Beaumont: [0:58:06] In the immediate moments. Once we got everyone into the life raft, we tied a 50 metre line rope between the upturned vessel and the life raft, because we didn’t want the riggers to puncture the life raft. You know, you can imagine the rowing riggers. We then had a very sensible conversation. What do we need, and in what order? What are we going to do? We’re alive, but we’re not going to be found. Unless they send a plane out from Florida to do grid searches of the ocean, which is real needle in a haystack stuff, we’re not going to be found.
So we need to get back into the water, we need to swim back to the upturned vessel, we need to dive down, we need to go back into the flooded spaces and retrieve the satellite phone, the flares, the VHF, the grab bag with the medical supplies. All the obvious stuff. The de-salinater.
So Matt the skipper talked thought what needed done, we all kind of knew because we’d been on the training, but here’s the knock. There’s a big difference between knowing what to do and doing it. And what scared me the most, looking back on the Atlantic, is only two of the six of us ever got back into the water. Only two of us did what was necessary to be rescued and ultimately, you know, save the lives of the six.
So, it was very, very difficult. Getting back in the first time I felt full strength, the adrenaline’s flowing, it takes ages in rough waters like that to swim back across. When you dive down, you’re opening your eyes in salt water, you’re trying to navigate that dark space, re-open the hatch doors, swim in, hold your breath. There’s a small gap in the footwell that’s trapped air, but every time the waves come through that closes out, so when you’re underneath you’re trying to get more air in. And you’re just absolutely working on a priority basis, trying to find things. The first thing-
Andy Coulson: [1:00:04] Each one of those dives is kind of- just to give people a sense of the time you were there?
Mark Beaumont: [1:00:08] Each time I was down I was probably down for two or three minutes. But trying to grab snatches of air.
The first time I was down there I salvaged what I thought was the satellite phone, and I came to the surface and I was holding a flare. So it’s quite hard in that dark space down there to figure out what you’re looking for. It all makes sense in training, it all makes sense when things are the right way up, but in the confusion 500 miles offshore in that dark space it’s very, very hard.
And as the swims went on, and I did this for six hours, I got weaker and weaker. My last swim back to the boat, there was a wooden slat that sat in the footwell that was floating alongside, and I was struggling to get back to the life raft. I was so weak and the sea was pretty rough. And I swam towards the floating bit of wood thinking it would give me a bit of buoyancy. I don’t think I reached it, and I can’t quite remember the next minute or two, but the last time I did the swim the team had to literally grab me and pull me in. I was absolutely finished. I was utterly finished.
Andy Coulson: [1:01:24] And you’d done this how many times?
Mark Beaumont: [1:01:27] In truth I can’t remember. Over six hours perhaps, perhaps I’d done five or six trips. But each time I’d been at the boat there had been numerous dives. And the truth was, and again I think this is a really interesting thing about leadership and how people interact in teams. When people start to do things it gives the space for other people not to. So if hadn’t done what it did, would other people have stepped up? So maybe it’s unfair for me to sort of say, “Well, the guy who sat in the corner and closed his eyes and prayed for fourteen hours,” you know, would have been more relevant if I hadn’t done what I’d done. It’s all about that sort of interaction. Now, maybe praying helped, but I think finding the satellite phone probably helped more.
But what really scarred me afterwards was that big void that existed between knowing what to do, having the physicality and the education to do it.
Andy Coulson: [1:02:19] Everyone there knew what to do?
Mark Beaumont: [1:02:21] Everyone knew what to do. And the personal accountability, and behavioural change under pressure, where quite a few of the team just- once that sort of safety cell was there, that safety cell of the life raft, they just never left it. We did what we did, we were very practical about it at the time-
Andy Coulson: [1:02:38] How did you feel in the moment about that?
Mark Beaumont: [1:02:41] Fine. Absolutely fine. In the moment you go into a very analytical mindset. I go into a very analytical mindset.
Andy Coulson: [1:02:50] I know you’re fighting for your life and other people’s lives, and one might say that that probably doesn’t leave an awful lot of room for resentment in the moment.
Mark Beaumont: [1:03:01] I think the upset comes afterwards. So I remember coming back, landing- we got picked up at 1 o’clock in the morning by a Taiwanese cargo vessel which had rerouted to find us, clambering up a 9 metre rope ladder onto this 180 metre ship in the middle of the night.
Andy Coulson: [1:03:17] Because you’d managed to get sufficient gear out, you managed to send up a flare, you’d managed to make clear your position.
Mark Beaumont: [1:03:23] Yes. Contacted the life guards on the satellite phone. So we got rescued at 1 o’clock in the morning, which is another story. Incredibly dangerous getting off a life raft which is, you know, four times the size of this table in front of us. In the middle of the night, onto a cargo ship the size of a-
Andy Coulson: [1:03:42] A rope ladder down the side of a cargo ship.
Mark Beaumont: [1:03:43] Yes, incredibly dangerous. It nearly ran us over a couple of times, because how do you spot a life raft in the dark in the middle of the night? We’re all human and we all have to deal with the pressures we put ourselves under, but it’s quite nice to know in the moment you can deal with it. And I think that’s the bit that- to be able to park the emotions when things go wrong, and to find that absolute clarity.
And again, only through extreme pressure do you have the opportunity to find such clarity, because we’re normally distracted by other things. But when your life is literally on the line, and I’ve been in a number of situations, mountaineering in particular, where I’ve been with people who have sadly paid that price and lost their lives, and-
Andy Coulson: [1:04:23] Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What were the circumstances?
Mark Beaumont: [1:04:31] To give you one example then, I was climbing Denali, the highest mountain in North America, in Alaska, and we were climbing the headwall above advanced base camp, so you’re just above 14,000 feet going up to-
Andy Coulson: [1:04:46] This is when you’re on your ride through the Americas, you stopped off to climb a mountain.
Mark Beaumont: [1:04:48] Yes, and there’s this amazing sort of ridgeline that you’ve got to climb, and as we climbed up- it’s about an 800 metre headwall, two climbers off to our right slipped. They were roped together, and sadly fell a very, very long way. And as we watched them falling down the mountain we knew immediately that there was no way that they would survive that.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:17] These are not people that you’d met before?
Mark Beaumont: [1:05:21] Well, they weren’t in our team but we were on the mountain together and we’d spent time in camp, so you know, we knew who they were.
And we climbed back down, called the rescue, it’s about the highest point you can get the helicopter in so we managed to help with that process. But how it affected my team was really interesting, because for some people it completely reframed what we were doing. They didn’t want to carry on because they’d witnessed people paying that ultimate price.
I guess my view on it was, not to be unkind, but nothing had changed. I know climbing some of the world’s highest mountains is an endeavour that carries risk, and watching somebody paying that price doesn’t change the risk profile for me, even though I then need to go and do exactly the same thing. So it’s not like I’m sitting there going, “Well, unlucky,” or “It won’t happen to me,” or any of that nonsense, but I’ve fully acknowledged and owned the risk before I’ve done it.
And I think that bit about how fear, or how emotions override people’s behaviour, you see it with businesses all the time as well, you know, around job security and financial risk, or it could be something about your family life. How, when you turn the heat up, do you continue to be relevant when the consequences are perceived to be higher and the emotional impact on your decision is greater? And I think the thing which I enjoy in business and I enjoy in sport is having a high pressure situation where you get to acknowledge the emotions but not be controlled by them.
I find it really important in life to have people who I can chat to who are not connected to me at all. They’re not family, they’re not business partners, they’re completely- they’re not connected to the outcomes of my choices. They’re the sort of wise counsel. They’re people I trust and admire but are not ultimately connected with what I’m doing. So when I talk about big setbacks or big upsets or whatnot, I think to default to just chatting it through with your wife or husband, or chatting it through with your business partner, is not always going to give you what you want because there’s no objectivity there.
And to also default to professional support immediately doesn’t give time to stand on your own two feet, be kind to yourself and have space.
Andy Coulson: [1:08:03] That’s really interesting.
Mark Beaumont: [1:08:04] And I think wilderness experiences, time in the outdoors, time where you can be undistracted and sort of not thinking in a conscious way but thinking in a far more unconscious, natural way is hugely important. Because I have seen a lot of trauma, I’ve seen a lot of upset.
I’ve also seen the world in a way that I think a lot of people read about, and so because I’ve literally travelled to 130 countries and experienced things, it has informed what I do in my life now in a way that it wouldn’t have if it was just sort of observing things from afar.
And again, I can’t assume that the people I work with or live with have the same perspective, because they’re not lived in my shoes. You know, I can’t do what they do, they can’t do what I do. And I try and remember that before I sort of lump people close to me and assume that they’re going to have the same perspective or the same framework to help me with these decision makings.
Andy Coulson: [1:09:01] So this point that you make about needing, or not needing, relying and indeed seeking out a group of, you said wise counsel, that have no skin in your game, either from a family or economic perspective or from a professional advisory perspective. That’s really interesting. And you’ve purposely set out to create that kind of counsel for yourself, because that’s you think the most effective way to be able to get out what you need to get out, to analyse what you need to analyse, and to plan what you need to plan.
Mark Beaumont: [1:09:42] Yes. I always joke that they’re my unofficial non-execs. Yes, I’ve got a group of people, they know who they are, who I really value their input and counsel. And hopefully I can do that for others as well.
Andy Coulson: [1:09:56] And if they become friends, great, but that’s not actually the motivation. Friendship isn’t the motivation.
Mark Beaumont: [1:10:02] No, it’s not.
Andy Coulson: [1:10:05] It’s the honesty of the exchange.
Mark Beaumont: [1:10:07] Yes, and I think there’s got to be a personal interest. I’ve been very lucky in my life that people- because I have had the quiet confidence to step out, people have taken an interest in what I do. And you know, I’ve been able to ask people who I really respect, across industries, at those big crossroads situations in my life, not really for their opinion but that old sort of, think out loud, I need to think out loud. And they’re happy to do that, and they’re interested enough to give me their time.
Andy Coulson: [1:10:38] Mark this has been a fantastic conversation, thanks so much for joining us. I think there’s so much, as I said earlier, that’s translatable to other people’s challenges in life. Just thank you for your time, thank you for your perspective on all this and for sharing your story with us.
I’m going to end as we always end, by asking you for your three Crisis Comforts. Before I do, we’ve only very recently called them comforts on the advice of a lady called Julia Samuel who is a very eminent psychotherapist. She got quite cross with me that I used the word ‘cure’ because there is no cure when you’re facing difficult- it’s about comfort. Would you agree with that?
Mark Beaumont: [1:11:20] I think it’s an astute point. I think a cure makes it sound like there’s an end goal and you stop. Whereas, as we all know, you never stop. So yes, maybe this idea of continuing to address things is more helpful, maybe that’s what she was getting at.
Andy Coulson: [1:11:37] I think it is. Just give me your three comforts.
Mark Beaumont: [1:11:40] This is not going to be massively original, but music has always been very important to me. I’m a cellist and one of the first proper bits of music in terms of Baroque music that I-
Andy Coulson: [1:11:51] You could have made it easier for yourself, it could have been a guitar or a flute.
Mark Beaumont: [1:11:54] I know, it wasn’t my choice. Home-schooled kid here, big cello. It was the Bach suites. So I mastered the Bach suites when I was quite young, and they’ve always been an absolute go-to. I’m sure a lot of listeners will know what the Bach suites are, look them up if you don’t. But I think that familiarity, that comfort, that sort of being able to take myself back. I mean a) I can still play most of them and do when I’m stressed, but just listening to Yo-Yo Ma or somebody, an absolute master playing the Bach suites would be a good crisis coping mechanism for me.
I guess the second would be more of a mantra, would be more of a reminder. Not a bit one for quotes, but that very simple idea that- and I’m sure we’ve all heard it and remembered it, but you know, I’ll misquote it, but that idea of, “If you don’t like where you are, move. You’re not a tree.” And I’ve always used that idea of, if you’re in a crisis, if things are going wrong, move. Move. And move is often about time in the wilderness, changing your perspective. But the big reminder for me whenever I’m in a corner, whenever I’m upset, whenever I’m having a difficult time, is move. Don’t sit with it, don’t dwell with it, don’t stew with it, move. You’ve got the choice to move, have the confidence to move.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:17] Very good.
Mark Beaumont: [1:13:17] So what have we done? We’ve done a bit of music, these are meant to be one-word answers aren’t they? Third, third.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:24] When you’re on a long ride and you’re off the bike and you’ve refuelled, you’ve got that small amount of time before presumably head hits pillow and you’ve just got to get the rest in. What do you do? Do you go to Netflix, do you read a book, are you a podcast fan? What is it?
Mark Beaumont: [1:13:42] I am a podcast fan, absolutely. I’m going to go- it’s not the one you suggested there. Food, nutrition. It’s amazing the connection between what you feed yourself and your psychology. I often say to people, “If you’re having a psychological crisis it’s normally connected to a nutritional crisis.” So if you’re having trouble, eat something. And that’s got me out of a lot of difficult places. It’s amazing, the power of food, to reframe your thinking, your stress.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:17] I’m going to give you one item so that we can be specific. It is a gel or is it a-?
Mark Beaumont: [1:14:24] No, I’m going to go more unhealthy than that. I’m going to go to my mum’s cheesecake.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:28] Superb, perfect.
Mark Beaumont: [1:14:29] We got there eventually.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:30] Mark Beaumont, thanks so much for joining us.
Mark Beaumont: [1:14:32] Pleasure, great fun. Thank you.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:34] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit subscribe wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com
Thanks again for joining us.