We’re used to taking on challenging tasks and punishing deadlines. But after meeting endurance swimmer Adam Walker and legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, we’ve reframed our definition of ‘impossible’ – and learned that we’re all tougher than we think.
We all need heroes: people to look up to, who challenge our notion of what’s possible, and encourage us to test and redefine our own physical and mental limits. The trouble is, the word ‘hero’ is bandied around so much these days, it’s lost much of its power (the same could be said of ‘epic’, ‘tragedy’, ‘disaster’ and ‘celebrity’).
Our image of the hero originates, of course, in classical literature. To the Greeks and Romans, and later the Vikings, he was a warrior, often a demi-god or blessed with amazing powers, who lived and died in the pursuit of honour. Today, we tend to think of heroes as those who have done great deeds, or undertaken perilous journeys and assignments and lived to tell the tale.
In November 2016, we had the amazing privilege of meeting two people who definitely meet the second requirement. We were invited to a Breakfast Club event, organised by Kruger Cowne, to hear two modern-day adventurers talk about their lives, challenges and expeditions, and their personal viewpoints on overcoming the challenges they’d set themselves.
Of the two, Adam Walker was the less well-known, at least to us. A self-professed ‘ordinary guy’, he was working as a toaster salesman, of all things, when he suddenly decided to change his life and take on the ultimate endurance swimming challenge, the Oceans Seven. This involves swimming seven sea crossings: the English Channel; the Strait of Gibraltar; the Molokai Strait in Hawaii; the Catalina Channel in California; the Tsugaru Strait, where the Sea of Japan meets the Pacific; the Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand; and the North Channel, running between north-eastern Ireland and south-western Scotland, connecting the Irish Sea with the Atlantic. He became the first Briton and only the fifth person in history to complete this incredible endeavour, and just the second to swim all seven at the first attempt.
Walker really impressed us with his dedication. He gave up everything to achieve his first goal, which was to swim the English Channel, but having suffered near-hypothermia in the attempt, he was advised by doctors not to continue his Oceans Seven quest. Naturally, he ignored them: during subsequent swims, he suffered a ruptured tendon, was hunted by sharks, and got stung by a Portuguese man-o’-war jellyfish, but never quit. He now shares his incredible motivation and drive to overcome pain where most would give up to help others tackle similar open-water challenges of their own. His success is built on replacing negative thoughts (“I’m cold”, “I’m tired”) with positive thoughts (“I’m strong”, “I can do this”) – through his experiences, he’s learned that mental fitness is as important as physical stamina. He’s not a household name, but that didn’t seem to worry him: he does it for himself, not for the glory.
In contrast, the second speaker was someone we definitely HAD heard of. Even getting round his full name – Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, OBE – is quite daunting, while his life story reads like one of his own numerous, and highly successful adventure novels.
Born into an aristocratic family, Fiennes was educated at Eton College, where he made the first ascent of Lupton’s Tower without ropes. He told us the only Etonian to emulate him since, Bear Grylls, had claimed it was harder now because of the barbed wire the school authorities had put in place. To which Sir Ranulph haughtily retorted that this actually made it easier!
True to the classical warrior-hero tradition, ‘Ran’ went on to serve in the Royal Scots Greys and the SAS, before becoming a full-time explorer and adventurer. He was the first person to reach both the North and South Poles by surface means, and the first, with Dr Mike Stroud, to cross Antarctica on foot. In 2009, aged 65, he became the oldest Briton to conquer Everest, raising over £2.5 million for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Sharp-witted and very charismatic, he had some great stories to tell – not for self-glorification, but just to explain the harshness and extremity of what he had endured and achieved. (He once sawed off the frostbitten fingers of his left hand with a hacksaw to RELIEVE the pain). He reminded us that many had lost their lives attempting these challenges, but that the desire to just keep on going had enabled him to succeed.
If any people could motivate you to push your personal limits, it would be these two.