Adventurer Benn Berkeley has returned from the world’s first Siberian Black Ice Race
Benn Berkeley walked 208 miles in 5 days and 6 hours on frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia. He didn’t see anyone for days on his trek, during which he fell through the ice and battled against horrendous weather and extreme cold.
“I vomited for eight hours and walked in the dark for five hours in the wrong direction. It was painful, desperate and cold; but there was nowhere else I’d rather be – I loved it and I don’t know why.”
– Benn Berkely
ERM: Tell us what it was like trekking across Siberia.
BB: The wind has been howling at you for 18 hours, the view hasn’t changed, your destination doesn’t seem to be getting any closer and the rhythmic sound of spikes scraping across questionably thick ice starts to grind on you. When I signed on to the inaugural Siberian Black Ice Race, I imagined the romantic ideal of polar exploration and travel in a beautiful wilderness. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Just getting there was an experience in itself. My first port of call was the airport, where I met most of the other competitors. Once everyone arrived, we embarked on a miniature adventure trying to safely get ourselves and our bags other things to Siberia. Everyone was on full alert, trying their best to avoid the inevitable overweight baggage charges that airlines use to keep themselves in business. It was a tense wait at the other end, pondering over what might have happened to your bag in transit and whether it would ever come through on the conveyor belt. Luckily for everyone, the bags arrived safe and sound.
ERM: How old were you when you made that first step to go to ultra distances? What drove you over the edge?
BB: Racing has never been at the forefront of my interests. It has always been about the challenge. Any kind of endurance feat will involve a lot of preparation in terms of training, research and diet, and for a single event this can involve months of hard graft for a relatively short burst of pain and suffering at the end of it all. So it comes as no surprise that many people don’t understand the point of endurance racing or a similar challenge. But I don’t believe you can understand it until you have put yourself through it.
I have many dreams and ambitions, and most of them seem to be punching way above my weight. The Siberian Black Ice Race was just that. I received a newsletter from Extreme World Races, advertising places available for a race in Siberia. I immediately began looking into it, and before I knew it I had booked my place and had five months to prepare. I had no previous racing experience, but I had plenty of cold weather experience with mountaineering and ski touring.
I don’t regard myself as an athlete, but I’m willing to give most things a shot; and I believe that you don’t need to be superhuman to achieve the seemingly impossible. I have never lacked the confidence to try something new (which is both a good and a bad thing). This race was something new for me and I suffered greatly – but what I learned outweighed the suffering tenfold.
I’ve always been fascinated by feats of endurance, and I thought that this race would give me a good idea what I’m made of. I often read stories of mountain epics, polar expeditions, ocean rowing adventures, and wonder whether I could do that. It’s all too easy to sit down in a comfy, warm home reading about a near-death ordeal and think to yourself, “Yeah, I reckon I would’ve survived that.” So presented with the question, What drove you to do this race?, I would say it was my test piece. A chance to see how I’d cope with sleep deprivation, freezing-cold temperatures, painful injuries and no one there to encourage or help me when I really needed it. I wanted to relate to these stories of hardship and determination.
ERM: Tell us about your mental training. It takes a certain mental fortitude to do this sport. What drives you and keeps you sustained during competition?
BB: Mental training is a very odd thing, and it is something I haven’t really got my head around. The mind is a weird and wonderful place that has the ability to give you incredible strength when you really need it. I struggle to take advice on mental preparation, as everyone is different and it is me and me alone who knows how my mind works. I don’t think you can train yourself to be stronger mentally; I think when you are pushed to the limit, your mind takes over and does what it needs to do. For example, when I fell through the ice in Siberia, there was no rational thought process. I was tired, I had been walking for hours on end, I was cold and in pain – and then I plunged through the ice into freezing-cold water. At that point it was survival; my mind and body did what they had to do, and I didn’t even think about it – and that is the beauty of it. I couldn’t have trained for that (unless you count that experience as training), but the advantage I gave myself was to start the race feeling fit and healthy.
ERM: Tell us a little about your training, who you train with and why, and what products you use (clothing/food/equipment, etc.) in your training and in competition.
BB: Training can be a very scientific thing, and that has extremely great benefits but can put a very rigid schedule into your life. I weighed why I was doing this race, and it wasn’t to gain a podium spot – it was to see how I coped with it and to have a great experience. So with this in mind, my training wasn’t a strict step-by-step regime. I would train when I could, fitting it around work and my life. I would make sure that when I trained I would train hard, and never go in with the attitude that I’ve earned a rest day or I’ll have an easier session. If I didn’t have the time to put in a complete training session, then I would reduce the time and up the intensity. I sometimes found myself getting bored of repeating the same exercises, so I’d change them up regularly. If I didn’t enjoy what I got out of the training, I wouldn’t see the point; so I kept my self interested and kept the training varied. For example, tire hauling is a very boring and mind-numbing experience; but it is fantastic exercise and specific for the race I was doing. So instead of doing X amount of miles dragging tires, I would vary it. One day I would pick two spots on the map and draw a straight line between the two, and try to drag/carry/throw the tires across the line with the mindset of not deviating from the line. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to get a couple of tires through a very thick and very large hedge!
For food, I eat what I like. I enjoy food and feel that if I work hard enough, I can have what I want. The last thing I want to do is get back from a massive training session not looking forward to eating.
I see a lot of nice training clothing, but unfortunately I’m not made of cash. I will train in anything, it doesn’t bother me too much. Sometimes I do walk past a nice sports shop and look in the window at some nice training shorts or performance T-shirts and I get tempted. I tell myself that it doesn’t make a difference. If that doesn’t work, I resort to my secret weapon: I’ll remind myself that old explorers achieved a great deal wearing gear that wouldn’t even be worn to a fancy dress party because it would be too heavy and uncomfortable!
ERM: Do you budget for your competitions each year?
BB: I have worked in many jobs, most of them minimum wage. I save money to spend on adventures and try to be fairly frugal while I’m working so that I can enjoy my time when I’m not. There’s no secret to it; I work hard for a period of time until I have the money to go somewhere else or do something else. Two things in my experience stop people doing things: money and time, Luckily, they are two things that you can change in your life. First, budget and save. It’s easier said than done, but if you really want to do something you have to make it happen. Second, if you don’t have enough time, then you’re doing too much. There are 168 hours in a week – that’s a lot of hours to fill up!
ERM: We want to know you and what drives you. What else can you tell us?
BB: I am driven by pushing myself further, exactly the same as most people except everyone wants to push themselves in different areas. I feel that pushing myself to a state where it becomes mind over matter makes me understand myself better, and that is important to me.
Endurance racing is a horrible thing to do, but after you finish there is nothing better. You put yourself through immense pain and push through wall after wall after wall to just get to that finish line – and I think for a few people it is the competition that drives them; but for most, endurance racing is a very personal thing, and it may as well just be you competing against yourself. Having said that, the camaraderie with other competitors after a race is most definitely a wonderful feeling.
Read more about Benn’s adventure in Siberia on his website at http://www.bennberkeley.com