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The Podcast – #1 – Geoff Wilson – Polar Explorer

Geoff Wilson - podcast

Geoff Wilson - podcastGeoff Wilson Podcast Show Notes

Introducing Geoff Wilson

Imagine being caught out in a storm overnight, but not just any storm. It’s a 1 in 50 year storm and you are in Antarctica. The winds are howling like wolves all around you, there is only a 1 mm wall of nylon between you and death and you are 30 kilometres into a 3428 klm endurance event.

Today on the fitbits podcast I am joined by Geoff Wilson from 5th element expeditions who is an ultra endurance athlete and professional explorer. You will be thinking laterally in this podcast as he talks about diet, training, the role of coaches and going past where the mind thinks it can.

My Favourite Points:

  1. [7:35] How much should you train before an event?
  2. [8:48] How important is flexibility?
  3. [11:45] How to use adversity to craft a win?
  4. [12:21] How do you design a polar diet plan?
  5. [15:21] What is the impact on your mind when you get food wrong?
  6. [17:16] Geoff Wilson on the role of coaches.
  7. [20:00] Who Geoff thinks is the best coach / leader.

Books Recommended

Questions Timing:

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  1. [1:04] Epic journeys in the Sahara, Kite Surfing from Australia to PNG, Running the Kokoda Trail as an out and back track, then a 55 day haul across Antarctica. Where does all this fire in the belly come from?
  2. [2:08] How does your family cope with you putting yourself in extreme danger?
  3. [3:44] Some incredible depths you take yourself to before breaking through for the win. Can you tell me what does it feel like to make these achievements part of your life? Is there one that was particularly special for you, which one and why?
  4. [5:44] You have some really strong people in and around your team. Can you please tell us about the physical preparation you go through – how long do you train, what techniques do you use and how do you know when your body is ready without going too far?
  5. [9:45] Reading your last book I was constantly aware of how the fight was every bit as mentally tough as physically tough. Can you tell us about one of your darkest places you found yourself in ? How did you arrive there, what approach did you take to climb out of the hole you were in to move forward?
  6. [12:00] When you were on the polar ice I think your plan was to eat around 6000 calories a day. Without having ever been there can you tell us how did you make decisions as to what to eat & drink? What was the typical days food plan and was it for endurance or strength power?
  7. [14:37] Can you tell us how your plan was changed by bad luck and how did you adapt and re-tune your approach? What mental effects did you go through as a result of the nutritional challenges?
  8. [16:44] We have spoken a little bit off air and it seems to me you are also the kind of guy who likes to try the unconventional, chase different or unique approaches to problems. Can you tell us how your training, recovery or nutrition has changed over time and what new approaches to physical or mental training you can see on the horizon that are different or unique?
  9. [18:51] Thinking about your heroes past and present who is it that inspires you and what behaviour or personality traits did or do they have that make them so good in your eyes?
  10. [21:15] Do you have any favourite books, programs or resources that you think people might be inspired by?
  11. [23:30] Lastly if people want to find out more about your adventures and approaches where should they go to learn more about you?




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Female: Welcome to the Podcast, where we show people who want to be happy and healthy how to get the maximum from their training and nutrition, even if they hate to exercise or diet.

Anthony: Imagine being caught out in a storm overnight but it’s not just any storm, it’s a 1 in 50 year storm and you’re in Antarctica. The winds are howling like wolves all around you. There’s only a one-millimeter wall of nylon between you and death and you’re 30km into a 3,428km endurance event. Today on the FitBits Podcast, I’m joined by Geoff Wilson from 5th Element Expeditions, who is an ultra-endurance athlete and professional explorer. He’ll be thinking laterally in this podcast as he talks about diet, training, the role of coaches, and going past where the mind thinks it can. Thank you all for joining us on the Podcast this morning.

Geoff: Yeah, and good to be here.

Anthony: So I’ve got to ask straightaway, epic journeys in the Sahara, kite-surfing from Australia to Papua New Guinea, running Kokoda Trials, it’s an Outback trial, and then a 55-day haul across Antarctica, where the hell does all this fire in the belly come from?

Geoff: I often get asked that and for me, it’s just the way I’m wired. It’s certainly not that I’m going through a prolonged, early-to-midlife crisis but it’s definitely…I think if I look back at my history, it’s always been about journeys, and crossings, and cycling, you know, from London to Africa or…at the age of 17 was probably my most significant sort of early journey but it never really changed, which is a good thing because it means that family are kind of accustomed to it and it’s not a shock when you suddenly say you’re going to do something outlandish. They’re quite used to it. So yeah, it’s just in that part of my DNA, I suppose.

Anthony: That’s an interesting point there, talking about the family. I can’t imagine how Sarah and some of the family feel when you find yourself, you know, you put yourself in life-threatening situations regularly. How does Sarah come to cope with those moments? How does she deal with that?

Geoff: I think, at the moment, it’s all right because probably I’m still physically and mentally at the peak. I think there’s definitely a crossover between 30 and 50, where mentally you’re sharp as you are but physically you’re not as quick or as agile. So I think doing what I’m doing can get more dangerous as you start to get old if you don’t recognize it’s time to slow down. The problem with my type of personality is that you become obsessed with a particular journey and for me, it’s the longest crossing of Antarctica. It’s the obsession. I’ve gotta recognize at some point if we don’t get that journey complete, then I’m gonna lay it down before I do what Henry Worsley did this season, which is push himself beyond what your body’s capable of enduring and then you come home in a bag.

So yeah, it’s certainly, you know, for family, when they’re confident that you’re at your peak, you can evaluate and make good decisions, I think it’s easy for them to justify that he’s good at getting into trouble and good at getting out of trouble. I think when it’ll get difficult is when they recognize before I do that, “Hey, you’re not at the top of your game anymore. This is getting dangerous.” And my promise to them is the minute I see myself becoming less agile, less able to stay alive out there, then it’s time to tip the boots up.

Anthony: That’s interesting, you talk about that being agile. You put yourself through some incredible depths. You take yourself into it before breaking through for your achievements or your wins. Can you tell me what does it feel like to make these achievements part of your life? Is there one that was particularly special for you? Which one and why?

Geoff: Yeah, there’s so many varied. I mean, crossing the finish, getting to the coast of Antarctica, January 2014, and then realizing suddenly that despite all the rigors of that journey, that I’d prevailed and I’d gone home and was going to see my family again was the absolute highlight for sure of my adventuring career. But then just this summer, we’ve been, my son and I have been adventuring together just off the coast here, on the Gold Coast, just learning how to free dive and sharing time with the masters, learning how to breath hold, and increase lung capacity, and spend time down there, which fish you can eat, which fish you can’t, and how to spear them, how to track them.

Just this morning, my 15-year-old son got his first pelagic fish, which is the ocean-growing migratory fish, the Spanish mackerel. So that was another high. That’s something we’ve been training to do for 12 weeks now. And today, we see the fish we’ve been chasing all summer. It’s not like fishing, where you just go out there and drag a lure and it’s a potluck. This is actually learning to be in their environment. You’re suddenly part of the food chain and you can get eaten just as much as you’re trying to eat something. So it’s real magic. This morning was just another one of those wilderness highs, where you come to the end of the training process and you feel like you’re getting it.

Anthony: Fun. Wonderful. You’re just talking about the training process. You’ve got some real strong people in and around your team. Could you tell us about the physical preparation you go through? How long do you train for? What techniques do you use? And how do you know when your body’s ready without going too far?

Geoff: That’s always a difficult balance because, with each part of these journeys, there’s usually a very difficult permissions process. Because for me, I have no interest in joining a line of climbers, shackled under a rake [SP] to go to a peak that’s been climbed 6,000 times before. For me, it’s about finding a journey that either has incredible historical significance like it was done in the early 1800s by an explorer that I respect and admire. That really tickles my fancy. Or finding a continent, or deserts, or a nation that’s never been crossed using, particularly wind power and skies, or wind power and a kiteboard, or a buggy. That’s really my interest area. So the permissions process is often difficult because nobody’s done it before, but during that permissions process, you go train as though everything is going to plan.

The difficulty with this next journey, the longest journey across Antarctica, is that it’s never been done before. There’s no precedent, so the permissions process is really long-winded. We’ve been going for two years now. I just had another setback, and I’m training as though I’m going in October, but it may not happen. So you’re kind of keeping your body prepared so that at a moment’s notice, you can ramp up the training. I occasionally carry injuries and your support team, a physio doctor, become very important. They’re not injuries you want ever to happen during a long crossing because if they’d stop you getting home. And I think I over trained for Antarctica. I just went so hard because there’s a big element of doubt. I wasn’t sure how tough it would be, but I’ve trained so hard that there were times on the journey that I thought back to my training and really felt that nothing had been as tough as what I put myself through in the training phase. And that’s really what every training program should be like. The actual event should be easier than the training program. Sorry it’s less joy on the journey instead of more joy on the journey.

Anthony: And specifically that training, I know you’re up in the Arctic Circle, was that… I wonder about you. It’s such ultra-endurance, but then when you’re pulling, what is it…800 pounds or is it 800… How heavy is that sled that you pull?

Geoff: The sled is about 180 kilos, so what’s that? About 500 pounds?

Anthony: So that’s pretty much a strength workout? Is it lower body and core strength that you need to drag that thing along?

Geoff: Yeah, it’s a lot of your quads, your hip flexors, and your lower back, and that’s where the training comes in. You can’t… We recently did a two-week training in Norway, and I don’t think I took it seriously enough in the pre-training and I did my back on the second day. So this is part of recognizing that, as you go older, you’ve gotta put more time into flexibility and strength work. It doesn’t mean you have to back off. It just means it’s not like when you’re in your 20s. You can’t just hop out of bed and go pull a sled. You’ve got to warm up and circuit. Yeah, it’s definitely tough on the quads and lower back. I think mentally, it’s probably more of a challenge as a solo traveler. And mental anguish, some people just love their own company. It’s never a problem. But Matty McNair who I trained with in the Arctic, said to me, “Geoff, I’m happy with your skills. I’m happy with your endurance. I worry that you’re a people person and you’ll find solitude to be a challenge.”

Anthony: Just on that mental, that mental file, would you mean telling us a little about one of your darkest places you found yourself in, how’d you arrive there, and what approach did you take to climb out of that hole so that you’re able to move forward?

Geoff: Yeah, I think in every journey, there’s a low point. And I think in the Sahara Desert journey, we were 20 days into a 2,500-kilometer desert crossing, and we had covered less than 500 kilometers. It was just arduous, and it just…you get to a point where it seems impossible to complete the task, the journey. And at that point, having had enough journeys with bad starts, you develop a bit of a resilience or fight that the right balance of determination, prayer, whatever you call it, fight, you can pull yourself out of any hole and carry on going. There’s obviously a breaking point where gear breaks beyond repair or body breaks, or you know, you run out of time physically, and it’s a no win situation. B

But in Antarctica, I think the lowest point was losing two weeks’ worth of food and realizing I didn’t have enough to get across the continent without a re-supply. That was probably the lowest point in that journey. And you go from feeling like you’ve struggled for 25, 30 days to get to this point, and then made a monumental mistake, lost food and put yourself in a difficult situation. It can be very easy to go into a self-blame kind of cycle. And how stupid that was. And then you sort of come out…as long as you rest enough to regroup, come out and go, “Okay, what do I have to do to make this without a re-supply? And in that particular journey, it was all about traveling for longer each day. In the end, the losing of the food forced me to double my daily mileage, which allowed me to break the record. So what you often see is a massive valley and sometimes it can be a triumph without you seeing it at the time.

Anthony: When you were on the polar ice, I think your plan was to eat around 6,000 calories a day. Without having ever been there, can you tell us how did you make decisions as to what to eat and drink? What was a good day’s food plan? And were you…when you’re putting that food plan together, was it for strength, or endurance, or…? How did you go about making your food plan?

Geoff: The hardest thing with a polar diet is that you basically want to carry the maximum amount of calories in the lowest amount of weight. The only way you can do that is to have a fat-based diet. So nine kilocalories per gram of fat as opposed to five kilocalories per gram of carbohydrate. So the reality is most of your diet is fat-based. You can start the morning with 50 grams of butter in porridge with dehydrated milk. Coffee with a chunk of 50 grams of butter. It takes time for your bowel to get used to consuming that amount of fat. You go straight on to that level of fat, you give yourself the runs particularly, which is tragic because you’re losing calories [inaudible 00:13:06]. So it’s got to be managed really well, slightly ramped up, takes about two weeks to get your polar diet. Once you get two weeks in, you feel like you can consume everything you see. You’re just continually hungry and despite eating three times what a normal, adult male would eat in a home environment, you’re still losing weight. So on that journey, I lost 22 kilos in 53 days.

There’s a tipping point beyond which you start losing too much. You’re not able to pull the sled and your mileage starts to drop. So that’s just the challenge with solo polar travel. You’re managing so many facets. You’re navigating, you’re keeping your moral up, you’re looking after your body, you’re controlling your calories, making sure your nutrients are in the food. You’re looking at your body and suddenly you get all in a panic because you don’t recognize what you seeing. You’re starting to see ribs poke out where you never saw ribs before. And just controlling your emotional state over a massive expanse of ice, no color, no form, no shape, it’s a wild place. Of all the places I have adventured, there’s something about Antarctica that draws people back. And I think that’s why I’ve got the obsession to do this journey, you know, the longest solo polar journey in human history. And I believe that with the right level of persistence, we’ll get the permission, and get it done.

Anthony: I think that for you, it must be like an addiction. When you’re on the ice and you lost the food, and then you had to backtrack for 30 kilometers, and then realized you were burning calories, that would have broken a lot of people. I guess, you talked a little bit about making an adjustment at that point. So what was the mental effects of having changed your food after you had less of it? What were the mental effects of changing your diet in the middle of your event?

Geoff: Yeah, that was a dangerous decision. I made the decision to try and operate on half ration for a period, so I dropped to 3,000 kilocalories per day. Three days into that program, I was breaking gear. I added some miles so I mis-navigated. I was starting to slur my speech on the daily phone call to home. Sarah actually picked it and said, “Listen, whatever you’re doing, you’re on a dangerous slope. I don’t know what’s going on down there but you sound awful.” It was only an external sort of prompt going. I was too fatigued and too malnourished to really recognize the change. That’s where this is a [inaudible 00:16:00] modern traveler being able to speak on the cell phone and having someone saying, “You don’t sound so good.” It’s hard to change back to what you’re doing.

At that point, I went back to four rations and increased the amount of hours a day I was traveling. So I was traveling between 16 and 20 kilometers in a 24 hour period. So 24 hours of sunlight, so you’re able to push, and then sleep for four hours, and then push, and then sleep for eight hours, and then do it all again, thinking I’d be able to do that for two or three days. But I managed to keep that up for a full 10 days, which meant I sort of covered 20 days’ worth of distance during that 10 days. That got me back on track.

Anthony: Amazing. So we spoke a little bit off the air, and it seems to me you’re also the kind of guy who likes to try the unconventional, chase different or unique approaches to problems. Can you tell us how your training, recovery, or nutrition has changed over time and what new approaches to physical or mental training you can see on the horizon that are different or unique?

Geoff: Yeah, I think in the early days it was really amateur, and over [inaudible 00:17:08] journey, and I’d kind of run my own program, and get there, and realize that there were inadequacies in my pre-prep training. I sort of developed the concept of having an up-link for every journey. So whatever journey I’m doing, I’ll find someone who’s done something similar or best in the world at that particular endeavor, and uplink to them, make contact with them, and then get them to generate the training program.

For example, for the Antarctic journey, it was Borge Ousland, Norway’s toughest polar explorer, who held the record for the fastest crossing of Antarctica to that point. He basically generated, very humble guy, and he helped me get fit enough, get strong enough, put on the right amount of muscle and fat, and get in there. But the change there was that I had a physio. I had a nutritionist. We had considered the [inaudible 00:18:03] nutrition, followed a diet. I had a strength and skills instructor. So it was much more professional. I think to get the degree of success we had, it’s in no small way attributed to this uplink process where, in every area of weakness, you find someone who’s the best in the world. With Google now, it’s so easy. Whatever your endeavor is, you can find the best person in the world, contact them, and say, “Hey, my name’s Joe Blogs. I wanna be better than you.” Most people, unless they’re a little bit of a nob [SP], love the fact that they’re being recognized for their skills and want to contribute.

Anthony: Absolutely. There’s so many interesting professionals out there as well. It’s really good. Just talking about your heroes for a moment. Thinking about your heroes, past and present, who is it that inspires you? And what behavioral personality traits do they have that make them so good in your eyes?

Geoff: Probably, two in particular for us. Mawson, Sir Douglas Mawson, just because he showed incredible endurance getting home when all his mates had died, and he’d lost his food. He had scurvy and terrible frostbite. He had probably [inaudible 00:19:28] from eating dog livers had addled his brain. But he still managed to get home, so it was an incredible journey. For anyone who doesn’t know that journey, look up Mawson. Wikipedia’s got a good, short summary of that journey. I think his resilience in the face of hardship has got to be admired, especially the fact that we own 41% of Antarctica is obviously because of Mawson’s hard work down there, mapping that coastline. So we owe him a lot.

Then, probably, the second guy would be Shackleton just because of his leadership qualities. He led the most successful filed [SP] expedition, ever really. It was a terrible tragedy. They never even got to the starting line of their Antarctic crossing. He was trying to do what I became the third man to do in history, was to do a continental crossing of Antarctica. The [inaudible 00:20:32] in the ice. The Endurance sank with everything on board, basically, they had. They scrounged up enough for all 17 men to get back and home, over basically a six month period, to get home. He did that without loss of life but largely because his family motto was, “Through endurance we conquer.” And he [inaudible 00:20:56] believed that basically, but he was also an incredible recognizer of how to maintain morale in a team, how to give men honor in even the worst of conditions, and make sure that the troublemakers are kept busy. That’s really what he did to get everybody home.

Anthony: Yeah, fantastic, do you have any favorite books, programs, or resources, that you think people might be inspired by?

Geoff: Yeah, I think those two stories are phenomenal, Shackleton and Mawson. Another great story is the Fridtjof Nansen story. Fridtjof Nansen was Norway’s greatest navigator. Anybody that’s into this sort of stuff, his story is one that we don’t hear because he’s not an Australian or British hero. But Fridtjof Nansen is just phenomenal. He basically taught Amundsen-Scott all of those guys, Shackleton, Mawson, they all looked to him on how to navigate and stay alive in a polar environment. There’s so many great adventure stories. I don’t have time to read fiction. There’s just too many incredible guys who have gone before, guys and girls.

Off the top of my head, those are probably the two. Scott’s stories are phenomenal to read, and to get an understanding of how and why he died. It’s phenomenal. But the thing is, in Australian culture, there is a death of the love of adventure. Love of adventure comes from our pioneering spirit, from the fact that we…the way that we were birthed as a nation. I think it’s up to me and people like me to remind Aussies that adventure’s important. It’s not a luxury. We need to keep pushing boundaries if we’re going to stay healthy as a country.

Anthony: I think we got plenty of great outdoor events. Me personally, I love all the outdoor adventure racing and that sort of stuff. I think that with Australia just being so…having such wild outdoors, it’s really good for that.

Geoff: Ah, yeah. It’s phenomenal. Even on the busy Gold Coast, 15 minutes off-shore and we’re swimming with sharks, and turtles, and pelagic Spanish mackerel. Oahu, the ocean’s alive, and it’s just fantastic. There’s parts of the world where they’ve just denuded their natural resource, and there’s nothing like it. Yet, you go the other way, and you’re in the mountains, and half an hour, 40 minutes, you’re in deep jungle. It’s phenomenal. We are very, very blessed.

Anthony: Lastly Geoff, if people want to find out more about your adventures and approaches, where should they go to learn more about you?

Geoff: 5th Element Expeditions so 5 T-H We’ve always got a review and if there’s an expedition live, there’ll be a tracking beacon on there. At the moment, we’re hoping for October for Antarctica, but permissions are looking doubtful. It might be Greenland in April so stay tuned. There’s always something on. And honestly, if there’s anything you want to do or dream of, contact us. We’ll help you make it happen. There’s so many phenomenal adventures out there still to be done. We’d love to take you on one.

The next one we’re running is a polar supply [inaudible 00:24:19] and kite-skiing clinic. It’s a seven-day course in the backcountry of New Zealand. It is some of the wildest, most beautiful terrain in all of adventuring. For a pretty small fee, you’re gonna learn. You can come and join us as we train for the Greenland expedition slash Antarctica, whichever comes first, and be part of the live expedition warm-up, and learn some skills yourself. We’d love to see you there.

Anthony: That sounds absolutely stunning. Geoff, thanks very much for being our guest on the FitBits Podcast today. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you.

Geoff: Thanks, Anthony, and have a great day. It’s magic out there. Let’s go on an adventure.

Anthony: Can’t wait to get out there. Thanks for that.

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