Sunday 21 December 2014

Taking it to extremes - triathlete James Ketchell

Thought the Ironman was the hardest triathlon out there? Think again. Tobias Mews meets extreme triathlete James Ketchell

Action man: James on Everest
Action man: James on Everest
Catching a wave: James bravely rowed the Atlantic Ocean all by himself
The round-the-world bicycle which James undertook.

A typical Ironman involves swimming for 2.4 miles, cycling for 112 more and then running a marathon. In under 17 hours. It is, for all intents and purposes, the pinnacle of triathlon participation.

So what drives someone to make an Ironman look like a stroll around the proverbial park? James Ketchell, who has recently completed what is being termed "The Ultimate Triathlon" explains the motivating force in typically humble terms: "You can do much more than you think. What you originally thought was quite difficult often isn't."

The unassuming 31-year old has just completed three frankly remarkable feats. First, he rowed the Atlantic Ocean alone. Then he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. And finally, he took an unsupported cycle ride around the globe, completing 18,000 miles in just seven months. James became the first man in history to complete three such huge challenges.

It would be fair to say James was always a man to follow the more exciting approach to life. While working as an IT manager, he raced motorbikes at a semi-professional level, before an accident at 100mph in 2007 saw him wind up in hospital with a broken leg, arm, hand and dislocated ankle.

"It wasn't all bad," he tells me, with a youthful grin, "I had a nurse wash me."

Nevertheless, being washed by nurses was not part of his life plan – and nor was the gloomy prognosis that he'd no longer be able to run or walk properly. It was at this point that James decided to follow a childhood dream.

"Ever since I was a boy," he said, "I'd always wanted to row across the Atlantic. Once I'd made the decision, I used it as a form of motivation – something to work towards. I had a reason to get out of hospital and tackle my physio and rehab."

Three years later, in 2010, he set off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands on a 3,000-mile journey to retrace the original route Christopher Columbus took to the New World so many years ago. James's goal was Antigua.

"Initially, I wanted to do it with someone else, but for some reason no one wanted to join me," he said, still sounding a tad puzzled. "So I did it on my own. It was the best decision I ever made."

The journey wasn't without incident. He ran out of food 200 miles from Antigua, almost got hit by a 300 metre-long oil tanker, was bashed in the face by a flying fish and bitten on the nipple by another. But James's natural resilience saw him through. Looking back, he says his strongest memory is of the delight of swimming in the Atlantic.

When he finally got home, a friend casually asked if he'd like to climb Everest. Six months later, after raising £28,000, and despite intense diarrhoea and a dangerous struggle to remove his crampon caught in a ladder above a 50ft crevasse, he stood on the summit of Everest alongside Dorje, his loyal Sherpa.

"It was just the two of us," he said. "Not another soul. I'll never forget it or the memory of the sunrises."

But getting to the summit was not all joy as he discovered when he arrived home, only to find himself once more in hospital, with X-rays showing his left lung was black and thick with infection. A doctor tersely pointed out he was "very lucky to be alive."

Once again, the enforced hospital stay gave James another idea. This time he decided he'd cycle around the world. "When I told a friend my plan, he said no one person had ever done all three things," he says.

What does it take to succeed with such extreme adventures? James's view is straightforward.

"You need the right mindset. You don't need to be an ultra-fit muscle guru. You need to be prepared to take risks, take the first step and learn as you go. Adapt, improvise, and remain calm whenever things go wrong."

This is solid advice, and in his role as Scout Ambassador for Hampshire and through speaking and charity work, James encourages, motivates and inspires.

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