logo

The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

image

Athletes & Explorers

Oct 30, 2019

For the Lives of Others; Ultra Running Through Hell and Back

Two brothers from Cardiff, Wales create a life of purpose by being of service to others through their extreme ultra running challenges.

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Like a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, the nine-year running careers of Scott and Rhys Jenkins read like epic quests composed of challenges that grant the characters new levels of personal growth.

“Ultra running is a microcosm for life in that you face a series of problems and challenges and it’s how you overcome those that get you to your goal.” – Scott

But instead of facing Tolkien’s man-eating trolls and cave-dwelling goblins that represent man’s demons within, the Jenkins brothers conquer their inner demons by setting out on ultra challenges in the harshest places on Earth – from Iceland to Death Valley. Their motivation to push through the pain comes from their commitment to causes that have personal meaning for them. Among other charities, Scott has been a longtime ambassador for Operation Smile, an international organization that benefits people born in developing countries with cleft palates. Rhys runs for CF Warriors, a charity that improves the quality of life for children with Cystic Fibrosis. (Listen to their podcast episode here).

“When we grow old in life, I strongly believe that the things we will remember will be the times where we tried to improve the lives of others.” – Scott

In addition to raising money and awareness for charitable causes, Scott and Rhys are proud to represent their home country of Wales, a nation within the UK that is roughly the size of New Jersey. Scott is eight years older than Rhys, but there is no competition between them, as they, along with the help of their support team, carry each other through the inevitable low moments of each race.

“I do feel a great pride in coming from a small country and wanting to represent the community, my friends and my family in a positive way.” Scott

2015: Jenkins brothers Running across Death Valley.

Together, Scott and Rhys have survived freezing temperatures on a 250 mile run across Iceland in only five days, endured the suffocating heat on multiple crossings of Death Valley and even ran 2000 miles across the United States from Boston to Austin in 75 days. In addition to the sheer distances, these runners battle through altitude, extreme temperature swings, and bewildering sleep deprivation. Their adventurous endurance accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but some of their recent highlights include:

Scott:

Hiked up Mount Whitney (14,000 ft) and down the other side in 10 hours toting a 60 lb backpack and carried on hiking self supported for another four days on the John Muir trail summiting Forresters Pass (13,000 ft), Glens pass (12,500 ft) and Baxter’s pass (12, 500 ft) covering 80 miles over the five days at altitude.

Completed the Grand Union Canal 145 mile race in 44 hours and the Liverpool to Leeds 130 mile canal race in 33 hours 38 mins.

Rhys:

Became the first Welshman to complete the Badwater 135.

Completed the Grand Union Canal in 42 hours, the Bristol to London 145 mile race in 36 hours and the Liverpool to Leeds canal race in 33 hours 38 mins.

Ran 24 marathons in 24 days.

2015: The duo running across Iceland towards Reykjavik – 250miles in 5 days

BADWATER

“Badwater is the holy grail. It’s the ultimate challenge of the human spirit.“ – Rhys

To the Jenkins Brothers, Badwater is the holy grail of ultra running. The grueling trail starts at 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin, Death Valley and ends at an elevation of 8,360 feet at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. Only 100 runners are accepted to run through the 120-degree heat each year and they must accumulate a minimum of three 100 mile races for consideration. To earn his invite to the event, Rhys ran the route four times unofficially – twice with Scott – including a double-crossing which covered 270 miles in 107 hours. This year, Rhys became the first Welshman to ever complete the 135-mile fire-breathing behemoth, and he did so in 40 hours 47 minutes.

UK CANAL RACES

Can you remember what you did last weekend? Scott and Rhys Jenkins can. They ran 44 hours straight, through day and night. Only 10 days after traversing Death Valley in the scorching heat, Rhys teamed up with his brother to run from Bristol to London, the second leg of a three-part series of canal races totaling over 400 miles. By finishing all three races this season, the brothers hope to complete the canal grand slam, or “canalslam.”

“I feel like there’s a responsibility in all of this to have fun with our lives and have an adventure, but ultimately do something to help others along the way.” – Scott

The Outdoor Journal connected with Scott and Rhys just days after completing the 145 mile Bristol to London canal race in the height of their summer running schedule to discuss the holy grail of ultra running events, their motivations for pushing their bodies through suffering, and the cathartic benefits that ultra running provides in becoming a better person. (Listen to the full discussion on this episode of The Outdoor Journal Podcast).

2019: Scott pacing Rhys at this year’s Badwater race.

TOJ: One of the things that shocked me was that your first introduction to long-distance ultra-running was by committing to run more than 2000 miles from Boston to Austin. How did you go from having very little competition experience to committing to such a big challenge?

Rhys: It started for both of us on a half marathon in South Wales, and both of us thought we could go a little bit further. And a couple of years later I ended up doing the Las Vegas Marathon. I’m not the fastest, I’m never going to win a race, but when I got to the end of that, again, I thought I could go a little bit further. Being quite young wanting to see the world, what better way to do it than on foot, exploring the USA? The idea of running from Boston to Austin was formed in about a week and then it took about a year and a half of planning and getting sponsors and so on. That was literally throwing ourselves into the deep end. I learned a lot from that trip which has shaped me and I still carry it through today.

“We’ve raised quite a lot of money over the years and it’s simply because of putting one foot in front of the other.” – Rhys

Scott: There’s another aspect to it as well. We had already realized we were decent at running distances, but we also wanted to do something to help others. With Boston to Austin, we recognized that there was an opportunity for us to do something that we’re good at, see the world and have an adventure, but also help other people along the way. We each picked a charity that we wanted to support touring Boston to Austin. For me it was British Heart Foundation, for Rhys it was Help for Heroes, so it was double motivated in that it was about having an adventure but also about doing some good along the way as well.

2018: Mile 130 of Liverpool to Leeds finishing joint 11th whilst raising awareness for CF Warriors.

ULTRA MINDSET

TOJ: I’ve seen people who are very well trained collapse after finishing just one marathon and I’m struggling to comprehend how you are able to do 75 in a row.

Rhys: Mindset. If I tell myself I’m going out for a five-mile run and I get to five miles and I’m done, I’m happy. I’m feeling like I’m good to go and rest. But, if I tell myself I’m going out for a 145-mile run, it may not be as simple as that, but my expectations are that I need to get to that mile before I’m allowed to relax. You just give yourself little things to hang on to, every mile, every checkpoint. You don’t let your body get excited. For us now a marathon is an incredible achievement, it is a milestone for the distance that it is, but for what we’re doing, it just has to be another number.

Scott: I completely agree with what Rhys said. It is all about mindset. These ultra-marathons are almost 75% mindset, 25% physical because you can train yourself to the highest level in the world and you’re going to have bad days when things go wrong. But what I’ve found is that your mind will quit way before your body ever will. These ultra-marathons are like a series of peaks and troughs. We just did Bristol to London on the weekend, which is a 145-mile ultra-marathon down one of the canal paths here in the UK. We experienced highs and lows, but we had the foresight to be able to recognize when we were in a low spot and get through it by eating some food or thinking about our reasons for doing the run.

Rhys: I sort of had a weird experience recently whereby I finished Badwater over in the USA. In Death Valley, California. Finishing that race has been a lifetime dream of mine. But then to know that 10 days later we’ve got a 145-mile race was a weird sensation to know my body has to go again and I’ve never run such large distances that close together. It was quite hellacious in places. It was painful throughout. But whilst you’re falling apart, the other guys pick you up, and when they start falling apart you pick them up. We’re blessed in a way because we’ve got each other. We’ve got friends and family who come with us on the trip and they take care of you when you’re in a bad place and then you return the favor when you’re in a good place. It is a team sport. For our crew, sitting in a car for 48 hours, it’s got to be unbearable. Your body would tell you to go to sleep, but they can’t. They have to be on their toes. They have to be looking after these two “prima donnas” who are waltzing their way along the canal requesting McDonald’s at 3 am in the morning when there isn’t one in sight. it’s very inspirational to see the amount of support that we have from our friends and family.

2019: Rhys approaching Mile 40 of Bristol to London KACR race where they both finished, only 33% of starters completed this year.

LONDON TO BRISTOL CANAL RACE

TOJ: One of the most interesting things I learned about the canal race that you just ran was that, counterintuitively, it’s lack of elevation changes compared to Badwater is actually what makes it difficult because you’re constantly working the same muscle groups and you can’t alternate them.

Scott: That’s really interesting that you picked up on that. They’re different races of course, Badwater is the holy grail of ultra-running. It’s unique in its difficulty because of the heat and the huge climbs that makes it so tough. I think the canal races are really quite unique. They’re really cool in that many of them are industrial canals that span the length between two major cities in the UK. The most elevation you get are these are small little bridges occasionally and you’re kind of willing them to come because your gait cycle is constantly accustomed to run on the flat. I do find it painful because you don’t get any respite for your muscles to work in a different way.

“Badwater has been my dream for 10 years.” – Rhys

Rhys: Badwater has been my dream for 10 years. It is the pinnacle of ultra-running for me. It is the holy grail. It’s the ultimate challenge of the human spirit. It’s how far are you willing to push yourself in one of the most hostile places on earth. I’ve done the route many times for charity, but I’ve never done the real race. The first time I ever went out to do it, I didn’t really know much about it. I didn’t realize how many hills that were. The climbing is outrageous over there. Going downhill, you can’t really control your body. You just have to go with it. Yes, you’re using different muscle groups but it’s very painful going downhill. It’s probably just as painful as going uphill, albeit a little bit faster.

TOJ: Rhys, it seems like you spent years building up a campaign and an application for Badwater. Can you explain to non-ultra runners what it felt like when you found out that you were accepted?

Rhys: It was very emotional. Genuinely, I’m not afraid to admit that I cried as soon as it happened. Only 100 runners are chosen each year. I’d spent the best part of two weeks plotting with my wife and thinking about how I can fill this application out and do myself justice so I can possibly get into the race. My approach was to just be honest and genuine about myself as an individual. That’s not from a running perspective. That’s just from a whole life perspective. Okay. More you do in your day to day life. When the race director reeled off my name it was just unbelievable. I’m getting quite emotional now actually talking about it.

2016: If you look close enough, you can see the brothers running in Death Valley for Operation Smile.

RACE EXPECTATIONS

TOJ: For the races that you’ve done this summer, how did you go about setting your expectations for your time and your placement?

“I’m never going to be the fastest, but I will do my damnedest to get there.” – Rhys

Rhys: Badwater was always about completing it. Like I said, it’s always been that life dream, that one thing I’ve always had my eye on. I just wanted to experience getting to that finish line. I wanted to experience the people, the family, the atmosphere, what actually goes on throughout the race – the environment, the mountains, etc. And certainly in terms of placement, I’m never going to be the fastest, but I will do my damnedest to get there. And then recently with the KACR from Bristol to London 145 miler being so soon after Badwater, it was a case of completing it. The Race Director came up to me at the start of the race and asked whether I had actually lost my mind.

Scott: The first Grand Union race back in May was the second time that I’ve run the Grand Union canal and I wanted to do it quicker than last year. I was really pleased to shave six hours off my time in 2018, which was a massive success and a testimony to Lawrence our coach as well. For this race, I think it was really important for me to finish the race and I didn’t really care how we got it done because I knew that it would make me eligible to apply to run Badwater next summer. We worked as a team and we got the job done and that was the most important thing to me about that race. Moving forward, Liverpool Leeds is the third of the canal races. I don’t really have a time goal, but it would be nice to do it quicker than it did last year in 33 hours and 48 minutes. I think that would be great because that would mean that we will likely finish in the top 10, which would be awesome. Also, it’s a stepping stone for me as it’s my last big run before I go to run the Mohab 240. I’m focusing all my efforts on training for that race. It’s a behemoth of a race. It’s going to be difficult. It’s in a super cool location. I really want to try and aim towards the top 10 in that race. If I could go under 75 hours for the 240, that would be my kind of A-goal at the moment.

2018: Scott hiking across the John Muir Trail with a 60 lb backpack for Operation Smile, coming down the other side of Mount Whitney towards Guitar lake. The hike up Mount Whitney took 10 hours.

COMPETITIVE SPIRIT

TOJ: Do you have individual rivalries to the point where, as you’re racing, you look over your shoulder and say, “We can’t let them pass us, we have to go faster?”

Rhys: We sort of leapfrog back and forth between other racers and you just want to see other people get to the finish line. You want to get there as quick as possible because you just want it done. Throughout the race, you go back and forth with people. You build friendships with them. You don’t really build rivalries. I’ll never be in a position where I’m going for first, second or third. I’m doing it for charity.

“If we see a head-torch, we’re sprinting.” – Scott

Scott: For the canal races, the only point where I get competitive is probably the last 13 miles or so. Those races for me don’t really start until the last segment. I’m not competitive with Rhys because I want us both to do well and we always run together and I really enjoy it and I think it’s quite a nice gift for us to be able to enjoy running together. But, I don’t want anyone overtaking us in the last half-marathon (laughs). You’ve worked so hard to that point for over 30 hours and you don’t want to give up the position at that point in the race. We just did it the Bristol to London race on the weekend where we were in 20th place and we decided we’re not letting anyone go past us now in these last couple of miles. If we see a head-torch, we’re sprinting.

TOJ: One of the people I look up to the most is Rich Roll and one of the themes of his podcast is to be of service and I feel like you have created a life of purpose by being of service to others through running. Looking back, is there someone in your life or maybe in your youth growing up that inspired you to follow this lifestyle?

Scott: That’s a really kind thing to say and it’s certainly something that I feel a responsibility for. And I’m sure Rhys does as well. We’re both ambassadors for charities. I’m an ambassador for Operation Smile. Rhys is an ambassador CF Warriors, a charity run by his close friend for people with cystic fibrosis. I have this vision in my head of when we grow old in life and are coming near to the end of our lives, when I think of that point in time and I think about what I want to reflect on during my life, I strongly believe that the things we will remember wouldn’t be when we saw a Liverpool win the Champions League or when we sat on the sofa and watched Netflix, it’ll be the time where we made a difference to others and tried to improve the lives of others. I feel like there’s a responsibility in all of this to have fun with our lives and have an adventure, but ultimately do something to help others along the way. When you talk about inspirational characters, I think it was just the friends and family that I grew up with. And being from Wales, you do feel a great pride in coming from a small country and wanting to represent the community and people you live with in a positive light. And for me, running is giving me the opportunity to be able to do exactly that, which is, represent my friends and family in a positive way and make a difference to others.

Rhys: I ‘m never going to be the richest man in the world and I’m never going to be the smartest, but I’m actually quite good at just moving forward and we figured out that people will support a charity if you’re willing to push your body and your limits. I’m an ambassador for CF Warriors and the people behind that give me the reason to hold on for a second longer. We’ve raised quite a lot of money over the years and it’s simply because of putting one foot in front of the other.

2010: Arriving in NYC from Boston as part of the Boston to Austin 2000mile run for help for heroes and British heart foundation.

REVEALING YOUR BEST AND YOUR WORST

TOJ: Do you feel that doing an ultra run tears down the ego and exposes a person’s true self or soul?

“You always end up a better person at the end of the race.” – Rhys

Rhys: It can show many faces. I think I’ve seen some of Scott’s best faces. I’ve seen some of his worst. You may go to a dark place, you may shout at somebody, you may throw something on the floor and stamp on it. I’ve seen some of my worst, I’ve seen some of my best, but you always end up a better person at the end of the race. I don’t think I’ve ever finished the race and gone, “Why the hell did I do that?” I’ve always finished it and I think in some way I’ve improved myself from putting myself through that.

Scott: I think it breaks people down. I think it’s definitely made me a better human being. It’s all sort of given me a stronger understanding of myself and what I’m capable of. I think that ultra running is almost like a microcosm of life in that you face a series of problems and challenges and it’s how you overcome those that get you to your goal, and that’s a lot like life, right? You need to learn from failures and you need to learn from the successes and keep a level head and keep moving forward. And what grasped me when we did Boston to Austin was that when you do these kinds of long runs, you almost retract to the bottom level on the hierarchy of needs. You don’t care about the superficial bullshit that we have every day. All you really cared about was where’s my next meal coming from? Am I going to be safe? In real basic survival mode, you don’t take things for granted anymore, you become a lot more of a calm and level headed person.

TOLL ON THE BODY

TOJ: With 90 to 100 miles per week of training on top of the races themselves, are you worried about the toll that you’re putting on your joints and whether you’re going to be driving rascal scooters when you’re eighty years old?

2018: Mile 110 at Liverpool to Leeds. A moment of contemplation

Scott: I work for Johnson & Johnson as an orthopedic product manager. It just so happens the irony of it is knee replacement. And so I come into contact with a lot of surgeons who eye me the same way that I look at a steak in terms of looking at my knees once I tell them that I do ultra running and cover these crazy distances. Through good fortune, I’ve never experienced any pain with my knees and I actually think that humans were born to the active. It’s in our DNA to be active. We weren’t born to be sat behind desks and driving cars around. And I actually would argue that a sedentary lifestyle coupled with obesity is much more harmful to the human body than running marathons is, as our ancestors did and as our bodies were designed to do.

TOJ: If I told you that I was going to run my first race this weekend and it was going to be the first time that I was going to run through the entire night, what kind of tips would you give for me and what should I expect?

“I would say prepare for it to suck. Massively.” – Rhys

Rhys: I would say prepare for it to suck. Massively, but always remember there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When you get through that nighttime and that dawn pops up over the horizon, it makes you a different person. I’ve never heard anyone say anything different. It just breathes new life into you. If you could just hang on through that nighttime, the next day is the reward when that sun pops up.

Scott: My tips would be you need to manage the transition from the daytime temperature to the evening temperature accordingly in terms of your attire. I would also recommend having some caffeine on hand when it gets to the wee hours of the morning. I would prearrange somebody to make sure you’ve got some nice foods in the middle of the night, something that’s going to boost you mentally as well as give you a bit of energy physically. I love pizza when I’m running. It’s one of those feel-good foods, Also make sure you’ve got good torch too.

INTERNAL FEEDBACK

TOJ: How much has your running technique changed since you began, now that you’ve had 10 years experience and you’ve been working with a coach?

Rhys: Over the last 12 months, I started looking into VO2 Max testing to figure out my training zones, which means when you go into places like Death Valley where the heat automatically raises your heart rate, you can make sure that you’re within the threshold that you need to keep going. Monitoring the heart rate builds the basis of our training and our approach during our races. Once you hit a certain level, for me it’s around 150 BPM, If I peak over that, I stop, I slow down, I walk until my heart rate decreases and I get it back under control because knowing that allows me to know how much hydration I need to take on and how many calories I need to keep going. I started to notice that my cadence improved massively, and therefore my technique has improved. Coming off this past weekend, it’s very difficult to posture for 43 hours, but one thing you can definitely do is keep your heart rate in that correct range.

Scott: When I cast my mind back to Boston to Austin, we just kind of winged it. We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know where we were going to stay. We just wanted to get through a marathon, we didn’t even stretch. It was the vigor of youth. We saw a great opportunity and thought, “What’s to stop us?” And we found a way to get through it. But the great thing with our coach Lawrence is he’s given us so much more structure around our training that has definitely made me a better runner.

2019: Rhys competing at sunset at this year’s Badwater race.

FUTURE OF THE SPORT

TOJ: Ultra running has definitely been growing over the past nine years that you guys have been involved in it and there are a lot more races popping up all over the world. But is there something that is missing in the sport or is there an element that you’d like to see it evolve into in the future?

Rhys: I think it’s perfect. I think it’s a beautiful sport and I love the minimalist approach where it’s just simple. You go out there, you’re told to run from A to B or you’re told to run for a certain amount of time. You just go out and do it. Because this person dreamt this challenge up and you want to do it all for a tee shirt or the metal and just the kudos for telling your friends. At the moment I think it’s in a really great position and it’s going from strength to strength and there will be some new amazing ideas out there for sure.

“I would love to see a hundred-mile race added to the Olympics.” – Scott

Scott: I agree. I think it’s a great sport and it’s something that everyone can embrace if they want to take on the adventure and have the challenge of running a hundred miles. It’s just an amazing experience. I wouldn’t like to see ultra running become over-commercialized. The one thing that may slightly contradict that which I would like to see, and it’s based on the heritage of the Olympics, is I would love to see a hundred-mile trail race or a hundred-mile 24-hour track race added to the Olympics. I don’t know how they’d film it, but if you think back to the spirit of the Olympics, it was all about running in ancient Greece and what truer way to express it than a hundred-mile foot race at the Olympics.

To keep up with the Jenkins brothers, follow them on social media:

Facebook: @thejenkobros
Scott’s Instagram:@scottjjenkins
Rhys’s Instagram: @rjenko11
Rhys’s Blog

Subscribe to The Outdoor Journal Podcast for more stories like this.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify

Listen on Google Podcasts

Feature Image: 2015: Coming out of Badwater basin at the start of running across Death Valley for Operation Smile and Save the Children.

Continue Reading

image

Athletes & Explorers

Oct 23, 2019

The Human-Powered Rule: Europe to Kilimanjaro Without a Motor

A Belgian explorer embarks on the next leg of his goal to climb the world’s Seven Summits by human power alone to inspire an eco-friendly fight against climate change.

image

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

On August 19th, explorer Jelle Veyt (you can pronounce it “Yella Vet”) embarked on an expedition from his home in Belgium to the summit of Kilimanjaro, over 10,000 miles due south in Tanzania. In a completely human-powered journey, Jelle will avoid all planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, he’ll avoid any vehicle with an engine for the next year, as he expects to reach the base of the mountain by July 2020. (Listen to Jelle’s podcast episode here).

“In my whole life, I’ve always been full of passion for everything that I started, and this is exactly the same.”

The journey starts with a 3,000-mile cycle from Belgium to the southern coast of Spain, where Jelle will catch his first glimpse of Africa. At that point, he’ll kayak over 17 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, a busy shipping lane connecting Europe with Africa.

Rowing alone on the sea in Indonesia.

Burning between 5,000 and 12,000 calories each day, and stealth camping at night, Jelle will then cycle and trek through the jungle on a circuitous route to avoid the most dangerous areas of the continent on his way to Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet above sea level. The volcanic cone’s high elevation, low temperature, and the dangers of altitude sickness make it a difficult trek even for seasoned mountaineers. Although it is considered a “walk-up” mountain, the route to the top requires a five to nine-day commitment and less than half of all attempts reach the summit.

“You have to act like a spy when you’re wild camping because you’re very vulnerable.”

But this expedition to Kilimanjaro is just one leg in Jelle’s ambitious and monumental project he calls “the Seven Summits of Happiness,” to climb the highest peak on every continent using only human power. Kilimanjaro will be his fourth summit, after Elbrus (Europe), Everest (Asia) and Carstensz Pyramid (Oceania). So far he has cycled more than 30,000 km (18,000 miles), rowed 4,000 km (2,500 miles). Jelle is the first person ever to have achieved such a feat.

In these previous expeditions, Jelle has had several close encounters with death. On Everest, he got caught in an avalanche caused by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal that killed 19 fellow climbers.

“I turned around and I saw the avalanche coming at me and there I was convinced, I was certain of it, that I was going to die.”

Jelle conceived of this project to benefit street kids in Nepal, drawing from his own experience living on the street in Belgium as a teenager. Along with the help of his sponsors, Secutec and Vayamundo, Jelle will raise money and awareness for Shangrila home, a Belgian run charity that provides food, shelter and education for children in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Shangrila Home is a charity that provides food, shelter and education to children in need in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“In certain times when I’m suffering, something I remember that I’ve been through worse both physically and emotionally, which helps me push on.”

Jelle rides to show the negative impacts on industrialization and climate change on such vulnerable, remote communities, but he cares even more about pointing out the positive ways that people are reacting to these problems to help inspire a brighter future.

“We should all try to take a little bit more on responsibility for how we move ourselves.”

The Outdoor Journal connected with Jelle just days before embarking on his journey to Kilimanjaro to discuss how to plan a safe expedition route across the Sahara and through the African jungle, his strategy for reaching the top of all Seven Summits with human power alone, and the causes that motivate him through the toughest parts of his journey. To keep track of Jelle’s progress on his journey, visit his blog. And, to listen to the entire conversation, click here.

TOJ: I noticed that you’re starting each leg from your home in Dendermonde, Belgium, but, you could start this leg from the tip of Morocco and only cycle to Kilimajoaro from there. Why did you make the decision to add an extra 3,000 kilometers of cycling plus a 17-mile kayak just to start from Belgium?

Veyt: Because it’s my home and where I grew up. It’s the way that I’ve always done it from when I was at university and making all my trips on holidays – I took my bicycle. This feels like the perfect starting point.  I make the rules myself when I start the project, and when I started this seven summits project, the rule was to go human-powered from where I live.

NO SUNDAY PADDLE

TOJ: I’ve ferried across the Strait of Gibraltar crossing from Spain to Morocco several times, which you are planning to kayak across. I’ve got to say, it’s no Sunday paddle. It seems very extreme. What are your expectations for that leg of your journey and what are the dangers?

Veyt: My expectations are that it’s going to be hard, but not too extreme because it’s just a one day trip and it’s not the biggest distance that I’ve done at about 17 miles. The other dangers are mainly the currents and there are waves coming from the Atlantic Ocean. It can be quite rough water. Another one is the big vessels passing by. That’s going to be the first time I’m navigating through such busy traffic because rowing to Papua was quite remote. I think the biggest challenge there will be navigating through the traffic lanes. I always carry a radio. I have flares as well as a horn. I have a satellite tracker and I think I will be able to communicate with people on land who can track the big vessels so they know where they are and where I am, so they can warn me when something would get too close.

CROSSING BORDERS

TOJ: What is your process for finding passable roads and border crossings in Africa that will actually let you cross human-powered when you’re so far away?

Veyt: That’s a difficult thing. I had a lot of things to learn on my first trip to Nepal where I made some mistakes about not having a lot of preparation to cross borders and then I had to be very creative with certain things. I search a lot on the Internet and besides that, I buy a lot of roadmaps. I know people who have cycled there or taken a jeep to Africa, so from those stories, I have an idea of where I can go human-powered to cross a river or a border. I think during my trip I will still have to make a lot of detours anyways when I get to some areas and find out they are not passable. I will have to go back and take another road. But that’s the rule I made for myself and I’m not really thinking to change it.

TOJ: What’s something creative that you had to do in the instance where you needed to improvise to get across a border? You said that you’ve had to do some creative things to get across on the way to Nepal. What were some of those tricks that you had to come up with when you needed to improvise?

“My Russian visa took too long to arrive because I was too honest on the application.”

Veyt: I left Belgium without my passport. I just had an ID card because in the whole of Western Europe you can travel freely with your ID card. My Russian visa took too long to arrive – over two months –  because I was too honest on the application. On the way to Mount Elbrus on my human-powered route, I planned to go to areas that were off-limits. I left Belgium anyway because I knew the weather would change in the mountains and I had to be there in the right season to make the summit. Just before the border with Ukraine, where I needed my passport, it was a big guess to see whether it was finished, and luckily it was. A friend of mine sent my passport to a hotel there so I could pick it up in Ukraine and I could continue with it. I also had to make a big detour between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to be able to go human-powered into China because there were some places where they wouldn’t allow you to get there by bicycle.

TOJ: When something happens like that where you actually are forced to get inside a vehicle with an engine, are you able to make exceptions to your overall concept of doing the entire journey human-powered?

Veyt: When I cycled to Papua, which was extremely hard, there was a certain point when 30 military soldiers were killed by rebels. It’s something that doesn’t hit the news internationally. There’s not a lot of press allowed in Papua. So I couldn’t trek through the jungle because the entire area was on lockdown, but the rest of my expedition was already arranged, so I had to cross the last 50 or 60 kilometer stretch of the jungle by helicopter. I had to make aN exception because I was there and everything was prepared, but I made a promise to myself once the region calms down that I will trek through that part of the jungle. I will go back to finish it. So I will make exceptions but they will stay temporary.

SEVEN SUMMITS STRATEGY

TOJ: Kilimanjaro will be your fourth summit out of your bigger concept of reaching “Seven Summits of Happiness,” what is the strategy you chose for selecting the order of the summits?

Veyt: The first part was easy because I got an invitation to work in Nepal as a physiotherapist and my friend who works there as a physio also has expedition company in Nepal, so that gave me access to all the mountains to the East. Kilimanjaro makes sense to go to next because it’s the only mountain that’s straight to the south of Belgium, my home. After this, it’s all to the west, so I will have to row across the Atlantic Ocean, which is a big gap in logistics and effort and everything. From there, I still have three mountains to do once I cross the Atlantic. It makes the most sense to me to go first east, then south, then west. It gives a more clear order.

PHYSICAL LIMITS

TOJ: Has your career as a physiotherapist helped you with understanding the limits of your own body and how far you can push it as well as the recovery aspect so you are able to perform day after day?

Veyt: Definitely. I didn’t work a long time before I left to Nepal, but, even my studies at university have been a strong asset for what I’m doing now because I feel when something’s wrong. For example, I have an injury and I know it’s not going to get to a certain point that it will cause permanent damage so I can continue despite the pain. That really helps because if you don’t know what it is, you will maybe get worried too much and you will quit. I do injury preventive exercises every other day to prevent certain injuries.

TOJ: So we’ve been going through a bit of a heatwave in Europe this summer, but have you done anything extra to prepare for the heat that you’re going to face when you are crossing the Sahara?

“I know I’m capable of performing in the heat.”

Veyt: During the heatwave here, I still cycle to work about 30 miles each way, as I’m still a part-time physio when I’m in Belgium, so it’s been a good preparation for me to be cycling in the heat. But besides that, I know I’m capable of performing in the heat. It was the same in Indonesia when I was rowing there. Lots of times it went to around 50 degrees Celcius (122° F) in the boat, which was extremely hard. But still, the Sahara is going to be a big challenge.

STEALTH CAMPING

TOJ: Can you describe what your accommodations are going to be like at nighttime and what is your camping setup?

Veyt: When I’m cycling, I’m mainly stealth camping. You have to act like a spy when you’re wild camping because you’re very vulnerable, You’re alone most of the time on the roads. Most people are extremely nice and I haven’t had a lot of bad encounters with people, but you don’t want to be in plain sight at night when cars are passing by you. So mostly I camp inside some bushes, my tent is green just to keep a low profile, and when I really don’t feel comfortable at nighttime, I don’t turn on lights or anything so people don’t find me. Another thing, it’s always good to have extra precautions around animals, especially in the jungle. When I’m camping in a village, it’s safer because there are more people who are actually really helpful and really nice. And sometimes when I’m in a big city, I will have to find a hotel because I will have to apply for visas in some capital cities.

Low-profile camping on the side of the road on the way to Mount Elbrus.

TOJ: Do you have any sort of machete or other self-defense?

Veyt: When I was cycling to Nepal, I had my ice axe with me for climbing (laughs). There were several times when I felt very threatened and certain times I slept with the ice axe next to my head. In Papua, there was always a machete as well because everybody had a machete there, which is a very normal thing to carry. I’ll probably carry a machete in Africa, not to defend myself against people, but mainly for everyday use, as I did in Indonesia to open a coconut or to chop through the jungle.

TOJ: I know you’ll be burning a lot of calories cycling for hours every day and you’ll need to replenish them. How are you going to manage your food supply?

Veyt: I will be burning between 5,000 and 12,000 calories a day, so it’s very difficult to eat that much during the day, especially in the more remote areas. I am going to take some freeze-dried food packages that just need hot water as well as a lot of energy bars. I mostly rely on eating in villages because, until now, most people are extremely friendly about taking you in for dinner, even for free. It doesn’t always cover my calorie needs but at least there’s some food.

The Tyrolean Traverse near the summit of Carstensz Pyramid.

RIDING FOR A CAUSE

TOJ: I know that you’re not just riding for yourself. You have causes that motivate you. And one of them is the Shangrila home which houses street kids in Nepal. Can you talk a little bit about the causes that you ride for and whether or not you get to see firsthand the impact that you’re making through your projects?

“This charity is personal for me because I lived on the street myself for a couple of years.”

Veyt: The Shangrila home is a home for street children in Nepal. They take care of about 200 children, with almost one hundred living there permanently. They get food, shelter, and an education. It’s an amazing project that a group of Belgian people started 25 years ago and it works really well. For example, there’s one girl, she was the first one who grew up in the home, she went to college, she got a degree, and she now is employed in the home as a social worker. Every time I go to Nepal, I see how they work there and it’s a really great environment. This charity is personal for me because I lived on the street myself for a couple of years and because I was born in Belgium, I could get help from the government. I’m thankful for that and I want to give opportunities like that to other people in life as well. That’s one of the reasons why I’m really attached emotionally to the home as well.

TOJ: During some of the low points of your journey, do you ever draw on memories or emotions that you struggled with when you were in that period of your life as a teenager living on the street?

Veyt: In certain times when I’m feeling extremely low during my expeditions, when I’m suffering, something that keeps me going is remembering that I’ve been through worse both physically and emotionally, which helps me push on.

TOJ: Is one of the goals of your expeditions to shed light on some of the negative impacts that human civilization has had on some of the more remote communities around the planet?

“I think it’s more important to show the positive things instead of only showing the negative things that we are doing.”

Veyt: I want to show the world that we have a big impact on these remote spaces and these places are the first to suffer. My goal now in Africa as well is to show how climate change is impacting a lot of lives there. But I don’t want to show only the negative things that are happening. I want to show positive things people are doing as well. In each country, I am going to visit several organizations that are fighting climate change in a positive way, for example planting trees. I think it’s more important to show the positive things instead of only showing the negative things that we are doing.

TOJ: For people who find your journey inspiring, what would you encourage them to do to feel like they can get involved?

Veyt: People can always contact me to discuss ways they can help. I also encourage people to get in contact with smaller organizations around them that are very engaged. With smaller organizations, you can get a clearer overview of how things are going there. In addition to financial support, now we are trying to find ways to help them become self-supportive.

THE HUMAN-POWERED RULE

TOJ: One of the central elements of your journey is that it’s human-powered. Why is it so important for you to do this human power challenge and what are you trying to show about the capabilities of the human body?

“We should all try to take a little bit more on responsibility for how we move ourselves.”

Veyt: As a physiotherapist myself, I am very interested in the human body, especially in finding the limits of it. And it’s not only the physical aspect of an expedition, because the biggest challenge that I have had so far is always the mental aspect of overcoming challenges and pushing through. I also want to inspire people to travel in a different way. We don’t always need to drive a car or fly everywhere. I tried to change the world a lot even when I was younger. And, I think we should all try to take a little bit more on responsibility for how we move ourselves.

TOJ: I read that in order to go on this journey, you don’t have a car and you don’t have a house which are material things that a lot of modern-day culture teaches us to strive for. You’ve titled this expedition the “Seven Summits of Happiness,” and I wanted to ask you, what does “happiness” mean to you?

“I turned around and I saw the avalanche coming at me and there I was convinced, I was certain of it, that I was going to die.”

Veyt: I see a lot of people strive for always more and more and more and they compare themselves to others materially. For me, if I feel good, I’m happy. When I’m cycling around Indonesia when I have food and I have water and a place to sleep at nighttime, I’m happy. One of the things that keeps me going in difficult situations is that I really appreciate the small things in life. For example, when I lived on the streets, I couldn’t always take a shower, so I learned to appreciate it when I could. I don’t take a lot of things for granted. One really difficult situation happened when I was cycling through Kazakstan. It was nothing but straight road for 2,000 kilometers. A car stopped and they invited me into their garden for biscuits. The biscuits weren’t even that good to be honest, but I really appreciated the gesture and it made me happy.

TOJ: I know that you’ve had a couple of close calls, especially when you got caught in an avalanche on Everest in 2015 and then you also came down with the tropical virus in 2018 on your row from Java to Papua New Guinea. And I know that you’ve also had to do things like the tyrolean traverse at the top of Carstensz. What would you say is your number one sketchy moment?

Veyt: Well, definitely the avalanche in Nepal. There’s been several close encounters to my death. In this one. I turned around and I saw the avalanche coming at me and there I was convinced, I was certain of it, that I was going to die. That feeling was quite traumatizing even afterward and it took a couple of months to get over the whole thing.

TOJ: Did going through that experience change your relationship with dying?

Veyt: Before I left to Nepal, some friends asked me what happens if I die, but I’m not afraid to die. I’m perfectly ready because I feel good, I love my life and I know it’s part of life. The thing is that I don’t want to die, not at all. I just love life so much. But, when I was 17 years old, my best friend got killed in a hit and run accident. In six months’ time, I had five friends who died and that taught me a big lesson in life. I have a different perspective on life, which for some people looks harsh, but for me, it’s quite realistic that I know I’m going to die one day and I better die happy.

To follow along with Jelle’s progress on his journey, visit his blog.

Website: www.jelleveyt.be
Instagram: @jelleveyt
Facebook:@jelle.veyt

Subscribe to The Outdoor Journal Podcast for more stories like this.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify

Listen on Google Podcasts

Recent Articles



Stories From The Sahel: Lake Chad, at the Cross-Section of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria

A part of the world that explorer Reza Pakravan considers the most remote region he's visited. A place where millions of people do not feel that they belong to any particular nation.

New World Record: Nirmal Purja Summits the 14 Highest Peaks in Just 6 Months

Nepali ex-soldier Nirmal Purja just smashed the record for summiting all the 8000ers in just half a year—the previous record? The same achievement took Kim Chang-ho, over seven years.

Book Review: Tales from the Trails

From the top of the world to the end of the earth, essays from a marathoner’s odyssey to compete on every continent and the lessons learned of friendship, life and pushing past borders

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other