Kevin Vallely sees the world in ways most of us only dream of. One of the world’s leading explorers, he set a speed record skiing to the south pole in 2009, trekked across the sea of Siberia in 2010, and completed the grueling Fiji Eco Challenge in 2002. I could continue listing his accomplishments for several pages, but will point instead to his next expedition, the i2P Andes Run from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, set for February 2012. The G4S Q+A that follows reveals a man with a sharp mind and a tough pair of feet.
When they start out on February 18th, they’ll be followed via the internet by thousands of students and teachers from around the world. They’ll blog their experience and post daily videos, all stuff you can follow here. They’ll also be followed by the physiologist Greg Wells (who’s known in Canada for his brilliant Vancouver Olympic vignettes, explaining how an athlete’s body does what it does). With this project, he’s collecting data on how the body responds to extreme athletics in extreme environments.
I was delighted to reconnect with Kevin in the fall of 2011 at our Loyola High School 30th reunion in Montreal, and remain amazed by how he is living his life.
Here’s the G4S Q+A:
G4S: Before I ask you about the current expedition, I want to ask you about the Chekhov quote – “Man is what he believes” – from your home page. In what way do your expeditions define who you are?
KV: They define me, I suppose, in that they’re what I want and I’m doing them. Seems simple really but so many people have magnificent dreams tucked away and, for whatever reason, have not to pursued them. Frankly, life’s too short, and one needs to believe in themselves and follow their dreams.
I had a dream of getting the South Pole ever since I was ten years old. Growing up, I kept it to myself. People would have thought I was a little crazy if I had spilled the beans.
G4S: What have you learned about yourself in taking on your various expeditions?
KV: You can do anything if you want it bad enough. I really believe that.
G4S: We met recently in Montreal for the first time in 30 years, at our Loyola High School reunion. Take me back to 1981, who did you believe you were back then?
I had dreams, some a little more crazy than others, and I knew I’d like to go after them but I just wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to realize them.. I wanted to study architecture and I focused on it and I did that. I wanted to be a road racing cyclist and I did that too, racing at an elite level in Canada. I started to believe in myself. I still knew I wanted to get to the South Pole but I hadn’t quite figured how I’d manage that yet.
G4S: If you could talk to that person who was you back in 1981, what would you tell him, based on what you’ve lived since?
KV: “Man is what he believes!”
G4S: The i2P expedition sounds amazingly daunting. Leaving Concon, Chile, you’re shooting for 70kms/day, running into the Andes. And then 100ms/day coming down the other side, as you head to Buenos Aires. How do you train for the distance, and the varied terrain?
KV: We’re putting in the miles now, no doubt, but my longest run in training won’t even be ½ the distance of our average days out on the expedition. We’re going to punish ourselves out there so one needs to leave enough in the tank so you have the gas out there. It’s a fine balance between being fit enough but not too fit that you implode half way through.
G4S: What’s been the hardest part of the training?
KV: The shear boredom of running for 3-4hours in the pouring rain here in Vancouver. With lots of snow on the trails my options are limited and running for that length of time several times per week takes its toll. Thank god for an ipod!
G4S: What part of the expedition are you most looking forward to?
KV: I’m looking forward to connecting to the 20,000 school kids that will be following us. This is always the most amazing part of my most recent i2P expeditions. What a way to boost the spirit and take pride in what we’re doing!
Geographically I look forward to traversing the Andes with Aconcagua looming large above us.
G4S: Which part is the most uncertain?
Can a human being (this human being in particular) actually run 100km/day, day after day, in the heat and at altitude!!
G4S: It seems to me that managing risk is the most crucial part of embracing “adventures” like this one. What principals do you follow in assessing and managing risk?
KV: Life’s a risk after all. There’s something about uncertainty that I genuinely enjoy but I always do my best to mitigate real ‘risk’ with preparation. You can’t plan for everything but you sure can anticipate a lot. Raold Amundsen – the legendary who was first to traverse the North West Passage and the first to the South Pole famously said “Adventure is just poor planning” A little dry and clinical for my sensibilities but he hits the point on the head. Preparation is the best way to manage risk
G4S: With Ray Zahab, you are reaching out to students and educators to make expeditions like this one both inspirational and educational. In making the experience that much more “public”, how does that affect the decisions you make along the way?
KV: At this point in my adventuring career, it won’t make a difference in terms of decision making – I won’t do something foolish because of expectations. We treat these things very professionally. You need to. Where these expeditions differ from many I’ve done in the past is that I really see young people getting really inspired. Just hearing their voices and reading their emails, I know they’re captivated by what we’re doing.
G4S: How do you think someone else’s life might be changed by what you are doing?
KV: My hope is that they learn to believe in themselves, that they become inspired to pursue their own dreams. When I was skiing to the South Pole we would answer emails every evening thanks to the satellite technology we were dragging with us. There was a Detention Centre on the outskirts of Chicago called The Riverside Resolve that were eagerly following what we were doing and the young offenders there would pepper us with emails every day.
It was one particularly rough evening when reading one of these emails – I was shattered, exhausted, completely at my wits end, realizing what I had got myself into – that I really discovered the “WHY I DO IT” for me.
This young offender – a strike two kid, meaning one more strike and he’s sent up to adult court and sent away for good – asked me “What keeps you going, why don’t you quit”
Wow!!…It hit me. This kid, a kid who is on the fringe of society, a kid who is on the edge of never turning back, is really drawing inspiration by what we’re doing. We were connecting with him in a way very few others could so when he asked me “What keeps you going” it wasn’t a far stretch to see how my answer would directly colour his outlook. I knew from that point onwards I wanted to use my expeditions to inspire young people to make changes in their own lives, to pursue their own dreams.
G4S: In 2010, you set a new record for crossing Lake Baikai in Siberia, skiing across 640 kms in just more than 13 days. You pulled sleds weighing 110 pounds. What toll did that take on your body?
KV: It was brutal. I didn’t loose as much weight as on our trek to the Pole but it was physically more brutal. It was so cold out there, this all-consuming thing that is always gnawing away at you, throughout the journey. There’s no respite. Adding to my woes was a badly damaged shoulder I had injured in a catastrophic accident a few months earlier. It required 6 hour surgery and was (is) permanently damaged after pulverizing the ball of the shoulder. I had to run with a sling for much of the journey, the movement in my arm to painful otherwise. The journey was very difficult on a number of fronts.
G4S: What toll did that take on your mind?
KV: You toughen up. You have no choice. It’s one of those classic cases where there’s no turning around. I’ve chosen to be there, so I focus and move forward. The mental component is what it’s all about. You discover this early in expeditioning. It’s the same for every difficult situation in life. The metaphors are obvious and endless and it’s what I try to convey to young people when I can.
It gets down to minus 40, yet you retain so much humidity that the wet cold cuts through you when you try to sleep at night. How do you tolerate that?
I won’t kid you. It ain’t easy!!! I’m no superman that’s for sure. Hell, I’m always complaining about the cold here in Vancouver!! I’ve had many a comment saying “how can you be cold you’ve been to…” But the reality is I am cold. We all get cold. It doesn’t feel good but we’re able to survive if we know how to. We’re all able to do amazing things. You just have to be willing to try.
G4S: I see that Sports psychologist Penny Werthner is a consultant for you guys on the i2p expedition. She’s well known for her work with Olympic athletes in Canada. What kind of help is she bringing to you?
KV: Interestingly, much of what she says is exactly what we’ve garnered from years of training and adventuring. Goal setting, belief in oneself, realistic expectations…it’s all part of the puzzle.
G4S: Marathon runners are obsessive when it comes to training. They can follow the same routine for years on end. Long runs on Sunday, speed work on Wednesdays and Saturdays, etc.. What about “adventurers” like you? Have you had to doggedly stick to the same level of regular workouts for the last 15 years?
KV: No. I maintain a general background fitness throughout the year from trail running, hiking, paddling and riding but when it gets close to expedition day I adjust my training for the effort at hand. I’m currently putting in hours of running for the upcoming expedition with nothing on my back but a small camel back but when I was training for the South Pole and Lake Baikal I would drag a truck tire harnessed to may waist for hours at a time mimicking the pull of a loaded sled. Each adventure requires different preparation…words of Amundsen again!
G4S: So many more questions for you Kevin, but I’ll have to leave all but one for a later entry. Here’s my last one: you are an award-winning architect living in the Vancouver area. In what way do your expeditions affect your creative outlook and output as an architect?
KV: My adventuring is very much like my design life, it’s all about passion. I love architecture and love to explore this unique world of artistic expression. I suppose the expeditions are an artistic expression of sorts as well and Architecture is an alternate, and equally important way, to communicate who I am.