Exclusive Interview: Ash Dykes - Three-Time World Record Holding Athlete & Adventurer
Three-time world-first record holder, Ash Dykes is an extreme athlete with an infectious passion for adventure. The first person to complete an unsupported walk across Mongolia and the first recorded person to traverse Madagascar’s length, Ash has encountered some of the most extreme environments on the planet.
Applauded by the likes of Ranulph Fiennes for his “great determination”, Ash was awarded National Adventurer of the year in 2015 and continues to inspire greatness, most recently becoming the first person to walk the length of the longest river in the world – the Yangtze River. Taking 352 days to complete, he walked over 4,000 kilometres of terrain so treacherous, it sent 10 of his 16 teammates home.
In this exclusive interview, Ash reveals all about his latest and greatest expedition. He shares the lessons he learnt from his numerous near-death experiences and how he maintains motivation when faced with extreme adversity.
Q: How do you manage loneliness and isolation?
“I take it a day at a time. I break the goals down, I try to manage my expectations and I don’t focus on the long-term, which can sometimes seem overwhelming. For example, when lockdown first started, we were looking at two or three months, and that was overwhelming. I focused on breaking it down and taking it one day at a time and I maintained a routine.
“I always love visualisation techniques, so I would visualise where I want to be in a week from now or at the end of the day or at the end of lockdown. I try to stay positive, eat healthy, train to keep the endorphins going, and remember that the storm hasn't come to stay, it's come to pass - you've just got to ride on through and persist.”
Q: Could you tell me about the National Geographic series ‘Walking the Yangtze River with Ash Dykes’?
“That expedition was a 352-day journey, 4 thousand miles long. I didn't want it to just be the record of one man and his endeavour, I wanted it to be about the culture, the traditions, the people I met, the delicacies, and the changing diversity throughout.
“I was also keen on making it one of the world's most interactive ‘world firsts’. So, I involved the locals throughout. I was on about 12 Chinese social media platforms because they don't have Facebook or Instagram, and I also kept my Western social media platform updated.
“It was engaging, the locals were able to see exactly where I was within five meters. Then we opened it up, so we said put your phones down and come and join me. I had people fly all the way from Mexico, for example, to join me. Chinese celebrities, brands - it was really interactive.
“Some of the dark times were definitely up on the Tibetan plateau towards the source. It's over 5,100 meters and it was minus 20 degrees Celsius. Before the end of day one, I'd already lost 4 different members of the film crew. And my guide, the Tibetan guide who was there to get me off the mountains in case I suffered, he started suffering and I had to get him off the mountain!
“It just seemed that the mission was chewing up and spitting people out. It went from mission Yangtze to mission escape and evade. I was pulled in by the police five times, I was followed by a pack of wolves, there were landslides. One landslide sent my UK photographer home after six hours on day one - he was supposed to join me for two weeks! In the four months of the journey, I had 10 of the 16 people that joined me at different parts for different reasons, abandon the trip. My team just kept disappearing, so that was hard.
"As well as those challenges, we also faced snow, blizzards, and bears. The bears were coming off the mountains because it was getting too cold for them. They came off the mountains looking for food and calories before they go into hibernation, and of course, we were food, we were calories. So that was scary as well. A lot of difficult times, but a lot of highs as well.”
Q: How do you maintain motivation and stay mentally fit?
"It's all in the training. I try to visualise everything. With my early adventures, it was all very reckless. I crossed borders with no visas, I climbed mountains with no permits, hacking through the jungles with a machete - just 19-year-old, very reckless, dangerous stuff. Now the expeditions are a lot bigger and a lot more dangerous, they are well managed.
"It's all about the planning and logistics and it’s about teamwork as well. Before an expedition now, I visualise the worst-case scenario. I look at what could go wrong and try to mentally put myself in that scenario and to almost feel it. Before Mongolia, which was my first world-record, I was terrified. A Navy soldier, desert explorer had attempted it three times and failed on all occasions. It was a world-first up for grabs, but I was just a scuba diver living in Thailand. So I thought, 'what chance do I have?'.
“But by overthinking about the wolves, the dehydration, the snow blizzards, sandstorms, etc., I terrified myself. So, when those things happened out in Mongolia, I had already visualised it, so it didn't come as a shock. There’s no feeling sorry for myself, I've put myself in this scenario, so I'll learn, crack on and try to tackle on through it. It’s a lot of mental preparation. It’s about 70% mindset and 30% physical with all of these expeditions.
“With any career, you start at the bottom of the ladder and you learn through experience as you climb up that ladder. Same with me and these expeditions, there's a lot of things that could have gone wrong, there's a lot of times I almost died, but I do believe it's down to that preparation beforehand, that visualisation and knowing that we are far more capable than we give ourselves credit for as people.”
Q: What have you learnt from your near-death experiences?
“Mongolia was the first scary near-death experience, I almost died of dehydration and heatstroke. I was delirious, I was hallucinating, my organs felt like they were drying up. I was rationing my last remaining dribbles of water. I kept hiding underneath my trailer for an hour at a time and I realised if I didn't keep getting up and pushing on, there's no backup here - I'm going to die out in the Gobi Desert.
"Part of me was feeling sorry for myself, thinking of loved ones, family, and friends, thinking this might be the end. But then there was another part that tapped into the survival instinct, and that side was the focused side- as focused as you can be in so much agony. I remember focusing on 100 meters in front of me. I had four days to get to the next water source, which was crazy, and I couldn't visualise 4 days, but I could visualise 100 meters. So, I decided to rest underneath my trailer for five minutes and then push on for 100 meters. By doing that, I did just about make it. That was the first journey I realised I was far more capable than I gave myself credit for.
“Madagascar was another close one. I got lost in the jungle and couldn't find my way out. I was bitten by spiders, leeches, and had already been held up at gunpoint by the military, crossed crocodile-infested rivers. I hated it; I just didn't want to be there. I did not want to be there at all. But that taught me, no matter what we face in life we can't always be motivated, but we can be disciplined, and it was the discipline that just kept me pushing on.
"When I caught malaria, I think it was just stubbornness that got me through. Yes, I almost died but I look at the positive aspect. Unfortunately, I did catch the deadly strain, which usually kills within 24 hours, but fortunately, the deadliest strain is the only one that you can rid out of your system completely. I lost 13 kilograms in the first month of the 5-month journey, but I didn't think of giving up.
“Maybe it was because of the previous experience in Mongolia, and that's why experience counts for everything, but I just remained dogged. I thought, ‘I'm going to put on the weight, I'm going to get back up, get my rucksack on, and I'm going to crack on and complete it’. We’re just so resilient as people. We can't always be motivated, but we can be disciplined - we're just super capable.
"Sometimes the dreadful times are the best stories. Of course, I didn't want malaria but now it's allowed me to do so much in terms of raising awareness. I spoke on stage at Parliament with Annie Lennox addressing the Global Fund and why they need to increase their budget to help save lives from malaria. We succeeded as a joint team which went onto help over eight million lives within five years. So that negative was worth it because I turned it into a positive.”
Q: What got you into exploration and who inspired you growing up?
“I had a normal upbringing, I don't come from money, I don’t have a university degree and I don't have a military background. I went straight from high school into college, and it was on that college course I realised I was more of a kinaesthetic learner – I learn far more from hands-on, practical experience, and from making mistakes than being in the classroom and learning.
“I think I was the only student in my college that didn’t go to university. I did feel that pressure on me and I often thought, ‘am I doing the right thing here?’. I sold my little cheap naff car, got myself a bicycle, found work as a lifeguard after working in a fish and chip shop, and I was doing about 240 hours a month.
"I wanted to save up as much money as I could and go off travelling. For me, traveling was a way I could really learn, not just about myself, but about the world. I wanted to explore this big, beautiful place we live on, learn from different people and their stories, test myself in certain scenarios, whether they be dangerous, embarrassing, awkward, and just get out there amongst it.
“As a kid, I used to hear travel stories, see pictures, read magazines, watch David Attenborough shows, and think, ‘I don't want to just be sat here watching, I want to be out there amongst it’. It was lots of little things throughout my life, I can't pinpoint exactly what it was that inspired me.
“In terms of who inspired me, there's not any one set person. It’s so many different people from so many different industries, from the Olympic, boxing, business, finance, and entrepreneurial world, it’s just people that go against all the odds stacked against them and still manage to achieve. I was always inspired by those people.
"My travelling started in Vietnam and that was the catalyst. I was two weeks into my travels and me and my friend said, 'this is great, but we have the same photos, stories, and experiences as everyone else’. So, we decided to purchase a cheap bicycle, and I think it was a mix of our sense of adventure and our lack of budget that ultimately led me to the path I'm on today.
“We purchased cheap bicycles with no gears or suspension, we had no tent, no map, no technology, and we cycled over 1,100 miles. We were hit by mopeds, dodged by lorries, chased by dogs – it was crazy. But after that, I thought, ‘wow, I love adventure’. I found my passion and I wanted to continue.”
Q: What advice could you give to those struggling in these unprecedented times?
“It is tough and I know people have lost family and friends so it is super sensitive, and I can't approach it in my super positive way. But what I would say is, stay persistent.
"Try to think positive and understand that these times will pass. There are better times and lessons to be learned and hopefully, we can all adapt. For me personally, I always think, ‘how can I use all that's going on now to my advantage? How can I come out the other side stronger?’. Unfortunately and fortunately, there are lessons to be learnt in everything.
“Focus on the good stuff. Watch movies, read books, learn a new language, develop yourself, get outside and write a list, set yourself goals, and plan for the future. There's nothing wrong with making plans for once this is all over because it will all be over. Every red light turns green, right? So bear with it, stick it out, and be ready for when it's game time.”
Q: Have you seen the effects of global warming first-hand?
“Yes, I have. I would say Mongolia was where I saw it the most. Due to the winter being so much harsher now because of climate change, most of the livestock where the nomads live are dying off. This means the nomads are unable to sustain their way of life out in the countryside, so they migrate to the capital city, Bator, to look for work.
"They live in white, felt tents, and now there's a huge district of white tents surrounding the capital city. It's the coldest capital city in the world that drops to minus 30, minus 40 degrees Celsius, and they're in their tent, they have to stay warm. So to stay warm, they burn anything they can get their hands-on, and that includes a heck of a lot of plastic.
“So now in the winter, you'll find a lot of people will try to escape the city because there's this big smog that lies over the capital city. Due to this, babies are living two, three days before they suffocate, and the only advice the doctor can give is to evacuate the city.
"I've been trying to raise awareness about that because surprisingly it's a story that not many people know of. I have also been raising funds for a charity and these funds will be used to find and build shelter for the livestock to shelter them during the harsh winter conditions and provide extra thermal for the tents to help the nomads survive.
"That was really hard-hitting and was right in front of your eyes, strictly down to global warming. The sun is getting hotter, the winter is getting colder, and nomads are not able to survive how they survived for thousands upon thousands of years. So it's a crazy, crazy place to be in the winter.
“I've also noticed more fires in Madagascar, and I actually had to run from a forest fire. There was a fire in the canopy behind us, we had to pick up our bags, and we were running from a forest fire, which was insane. That is killing off so many beautiful species. 80% of all plant life and wildlife found in Madagascar is found nowhere else in the world, which makes it the most unique country in the world. But I like to focus on the positives. They are doing amazing; they're trying to expand the national parks and they’re trying to provide the locals with better education and better means of work.
“Also, in China, travelling from the West all the way East, I saw the difference between the urban and the wilderness. But it was fairly positive with China. I saw loads of wind farms being assembled, lots of solar panels. The Yangtze River has the porpoise dolphin and the species has always been on the decrease in recent times because of pollution but in the last few years, the numbers have started to steady because the Yangtze’s getting cleaner and soon the numbers will begin to increase again.
“So, positives as well. The right things are being done, but there's still a long way to go.”
Q: If you could give your younger self any advice now, what would it be?
"You're about to do crazy, reckless, and dangerous stuff, but it will lead you onto the career that you absolutely love, so I won't interfere. I won't give myself any tips or advice, because all of the mistakes - and I have made many mistakes - are needed to get me where I am today.
“It would be a whisper to my 19-year-old self, you are far more capable than you realise, and you will eventually realise that. That's a message to the audience as well, they too are far more capable than they give themselves credit for.”
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