The Impossible First: Colin O'Brady talks about his project to become the first man in history to cross the Antarctica solo, on foot
The world record holder and pro endurance athlete reveals how he will maintain his body warmth and fight physical decline across 70 days in -40 degrees with 200mph freezing winds.
Daredevil endurance athlete Colin O'Brady, who has three world records under his belt, is now embarking on one of the most challenging and life-threatening expeditions in the history of mankind. He is attempting to clinch his fourth world record by becoming the first person ever to cross Antarctica solo, without any outside support or assistance. During this pioneering project, which commences November 1, O'Brady will be pulling a 400lb sled with fuel, food, and supplies necessary to keep him alive for 70 days, without the help of sled dogs, kites, resupplies, or other humans, thus making this mission completely "human powered".
None have been successful in completing such an expedition over the last 100 years. In 2015, Henry Worsley lost his life trying to do the same and two years later, in 2017, renowned polar explorer Ben Saunders had to abandon his trek due to the ruthless conditions. If O’Brady succeeds, he will become the first person in history to complete this crossing. That said, he is also the first American attempting this journey.
The following should give you a clearer picture of what the trailblazer is in for, and why it might not be such a great idea.
After only a few days in negative 40-degree weather, O’Brady’s body will start declining due to the unprecedented stressors of the harsh environment. The caloric drain of an endurance event that requires on average 10 moving hours per day is hard to replenish given the weight of the sled required to carry all his food.
With wind speeds reaching up to 200 mph and an average elevation of 7,500 ft, Antarctica is the coldest, highest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth. During the months O’Brady will be residing there, there is 24-hour sunlight.
Aside from being completely alone for three months, O’Brady will likely encounter a myriad of complications, only some of which he can truly prepare for.
Supplied with fuel only to last 70 days, Colin’s journey will be a race against the clock, not just to achieve his goal, but to cross the finish line before his body gives out completely. This is a race against history.
O'Brady's only communication device is a satellite phone if he faces near-death levels of peril and wants to contact emergency services. He will also be carrying a GPS device, through which spectators will be able to track his exact movements here. The groundbreaker will also be posting daily updates on his Instagram @colinobrady as he creates history.
While speaking to O'Brady, I experienced a mysterious confidence that somehow suggested he had already achieved the impossible first in his mind. In this exclusive interview with Meaww, the explorer reveals how he hones his mental strength in order to make the impossible possible.
You're attempting to do what no man has been able to thus far. What made you arrive at this decision?
I have a history of pushing my body and doing challenging tasks. About 10 or 11 years ago, I was severely burned in a fire and I was told I would never walk again. I was able to recover from that accident and go on to race a triathlon. l ended up winning that race and then became a professional triathlete. My journey over the last 10 years has been about taking on challenges that seem impossible and making the impossible possible, and so I'm calling this project The Impossible First for that exact reason. This is not just for me to challenge myself at such a level, but hopefully, this project would live on as an inspiration to others who are facing daunting tasks, challenges or have ideas for innovation, whatever their own challenges are. It just shows that as humans we have reservoirs of untapped potential inside of us and can achieve incredible things. That's what I hope to do with this, basically: To raise the bar of what is humanly possible by hopefully being the first person ever to complete this.
This path-breaking expedition has been described as completely "human powered". Could you give us a closer insight into why this daring attempt of yours is different from others?
When it comes to polar travel, there are basically a couple of distinctions. One, in this case, is that it is unsupported, meaning that there's no resupply for gear, food or fuel throughout the entire journey, which means that I'm taking with me, from the very beginning, everything that I will need for the entire time, which of course makes the challenge exceptionally hard as the sled that I'll be carrying has to be very heavy to carry 70 days of food, fuel, and other supplies. Secondly, this expedition is unaided or unassisted, which means that there's no use of kites or dogs to help me pull my sled. So it would just be me, all of my gear, without any resupplies and no aid either by wind or by other animals or such.
Bear in mind, very few people have ever crossed the entire continent of Antarctica at all. In the few cases that people have been able to do so, one person did it with support, which means that they had resupplies of food and fuel and so their sled was never very heavy at any given time. Other attempts used kites to pull them with the power of the wind, but no one has ever done it completely unsupported and completely unassisted the way that I am attempting to. Also, I'm going to be completely alone for 70 days in high-risk conditions.
How are you planning to withstand negative 40 degrees temperature for the entire journey?
You know, obviously, it's a huge challenge facing temperatures that extreme. I've trained very hard during my other world records: I've been to the summit of Everest, I've done smaller expeditions to the North Pole and the South Pole and I recently completed a similar challenge across Greenland - all of which have prepared me to understand the ways we can survive in such harsh environments. While having great equipment and gear is hugely imperative to staying warm, there are a lot of different tactics and tricks you can use: One of the most basic of them is to keep moving. When I'm outside my tent every morning, I have a whole routine where I can pack up my tent very quickly, pack my sled, and then for the next 10 or 12 hours, I'll be pulling my sled with very little breaks. I will be taking a break for about three to five minutes every hour or so just to drink a little water, eat a little bit of food and then continue on. One of the reasons for this is that the body gets very cold when you're standing still, even for a short time. I have my routine very dialed in so that I'm not taking very long breaks at all, thus keeping my heart rate and body warm as I continue to move.
How would you tackle being alone in such a mentally and physically distressing environment?
I think the mental side is probably the biggest challenge of this entire journey, even more so than the physical aspects of it, which are, of course, also very demanding. On the mental side, that level of solitude, add to the fact that there's not much to see on the horizon - it's just endless white and you've got 24 hours of daylight - so there's really nothing for your eye to keep focused on throughout any given day. But I've prepared myself for it. One of the biggest things that I've done to prepare myself in the last eight years is that I've been regularly doing a 10-day silent meditation retreat, something called "vipassana" meditation, wherein every year I go and I sit for 10 days in silence, completely alone, isolated, no reading, no writing, no eye contact, just deep in meditation. Plus, I have a daily meditation practice that I maintain throughout the year, which helps me further build my mental strength. So, just as the body can get stronger with training, I believe the mind is also something we can make stronger with work. So, I've been exercising that muscle of the brain over a significant amount of time to prepare myself for such levels of solitude. That said, of course, I've never spent 70 days alone, and that will definitely be extremely challenging I imagine.
You will have supplies that shall last 70 days. Will they be enough? How will you plan your consumption?
So, I've planned for 70 days of food. Obviously, if I was running a little bit behind, I could probably stress those rations a little bit longer, but my hope is to finish a little earlier so I don't run out of food. Each day, I will be consuming about 8,000 calories even though my body will be burning about 10,000 calories. So, I anticipate losing a significant amount of weight during the time. However, I just can't carry anymore in my sled - it's already too heavy. But the food itself is really unique. You know, people have said that this project is impossible. One of the people died while attempting this project a few years ago. There were others who have quit just because it's been too challenging. Hopefully, I will be successful.
Having said that, the main sponsor of my project this year is Standard Process, a nutrition company. They got me in touch with their top doctors, nutritionists, specialists, and over a year we've done all sorts of blood work and testing on my physiology to optimize the food perfectly for my nutrition and health. We've done a bunch of work in the lab and they've created these unique bars for me that I'll be eating every single day. These have the perfect nutrition for my physiology that I could absorb in the most calorie dense and lightest way they could manage to create. It is pretty exciting to have custom made food and nutrition for this project.
You will be carrying a GPS device with you so that we can track your movement. Will there be a team monitoring your vitals and supervising you medically or is it totally up to you to decide if you need help from emergency services?
Yes, I'll have a GPS device that you'll be able to track in real time. Aside from that, I'll be pushing updates to my Instagram account @colinobrady from a satellite phone that I will be carrying, which allows me to upload one image per day and give a recap of what's going on. The tracking link will also be shared on Instagram where you can click and actually see on Google Maps exactly where I am. So it's a fun way for people to follow along in real time. It's pretty exciting that people can actually do that because it obviously hasn't been commonplace in the past. Speaking of the medical question, I pretty much have to depend on myself to make any sort of medical calls. I do have a satellite phone that allows me to be in contact with a couple of doctors and medical personnel that I can consult with if I have any specific questions, but of course, they can't be physically there for me; They can't run any tests on me or anything like that. So, at the end of the day, it's really my decision if I feel fit and capable of continuing on or if I have to stop the project should something go wrong.
You have broken a staggering three world records so far. Could you recount your toughest feat until now?
I think breaking the Explorer's Grand Slam (Last Degree) and the Seven Summits world record in 2016 were both exceptionally challenging. I climbed the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents and then did expeditions across the last degree of latitude in the north and South Poles. I did all of that in succession without taking any breaks in between. Fewer than 50 people in history have ever completed the Explorer's Grand Slam and the people who did it took five years or 10 years to do so. However, I did it in 139 days consecutively without stopping in between it all. It was incredibly challenging and fun. It actually began in Antarctica with the smaller South Pole expedition and ended with climbing the tallest mountain in Antarctica. So it's kind of fun that this project leads me back to Antarctica but with bigger ambitions this time. Climbing Mount Everest at the end of Seven Summits in 2016 within 139 days was quite challenging.
Did your time in Yale University shape you into who you are today?
Yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Portland, Oregon on the west coast of the United States and was able to get an opportunity to attend Yale University, which was incredible in terms of education. It certainly prepared me in a lot of ways and set me on the path that I am today. I studied economics while being surrounded by several high-performing students and great professors and then went on to spend some time working on Wall Street. But I've mostly been a professional athlete, and while I may not have taken a traditional career path, the education I received at Yale has been an integral part of my life and I'm very proud of it.
Where does your wife, Jenna, stand in all of this? How does she look at the upcoming challenge?
Jenna is one of the most important elements of the whole story. None of my records would have been possible without my team's efforts, and Jenna is at the heart of my team. She has helped me to not only dream about these projects, but she is always there 100 percent, right from being a 50/50 business partner in everything we do in terms of running the media campaigns, etc. to the nonprofit work, the brand, design, as well as logistics; So much goes into all of this. She's down here with me in Chile right now as I prepare for the final week and will be running everything in the background for me. So not only is she an incredible partner in my romantic life with the support and love that she provides to me, but she's also an incredibly talented and smart tactician and businessperson. I couldn't do any of this without her. I'm fortunate to have such a supportive partner in all of this. I know that for some people, doing things that are challenging or dangerous can make their partner afraid for them or not want them to do it. Jenna, just like anyone else, has reasonable concerns. However, she dives into these projects headfirst with me. She understands and trusts me to make a good decision to supports me unconditionally. It's a really beautiful partnership and I'm fortunate to have her in my life.
Tell us about your charity Beyond 7/2.
All my projects have a charitable mission associated with them. The main purpose of Beyond 7/2 is to inspire young people and children in classrooms to set goals and to live active and healthy lives. We're partnering with thousands of classrooms around the United States to get kids excited and involved in this project. They're actually going to be tracking my progress at the go and we have an interface using which the kids asked me some questions about the same. Their teachers are going to educate them about the poles, climate change, and the weather. I'm aiming to bring this project to life inside of the classroom. So that's something that I'm really excited about. For me, the overall mission of my projects isn't just for me to set a world record for myself, but really to fire others to set goals in their own lives no matter what. The challenges we put forth are really fun and are meant to inspire the next generation of leaders to think broadly. This way, the project has been able to penetrate public school classrooms in an exciting way.
What is your message for aspiring endurance athletes who wish to break human barriers as you do, considering you're risking your life in such a pursuit?
You know, my advice, not only to endurance athletes but to anyone out there trying to break records, trying to exceed their own expectations or reach any goal, whether in business, love, entrepreneurship, art, whatever, is that as humans we have such huge reservoirs of unpacked potential inside of us. When we set audacious goals and actually take the steps to get there, it's amazing what we can achieve. I was told that I would never walk again. And here I am not only walking again but being a professional athlete, setting three world records and now embarking on this seemingly impossible challenge. This project is for anyone who's ever been told their dreams are impossible. Some of us, myself included, at times, think about a goal we want to achieve and then we have that negative voice inside of our heads, "oh no, that's not possible," or "no, you can't do that." But what I've found is when we cut through that negative self-talk and get to the other end with a positive mindset, we can unlock that potential and can achieve incredible things. So, my message is that you must keep taking these steps because you'll never know what you can achieve. You can make the impossible possible.