What lies behind Mark Beaumont’s Cycle Africa World Record?
Perthshire cyclist and adventurer Mark Beaumont has set a new world record after cycling from Cape Town to Cairo in 42 days, beating the previous record of 59 days. He was met at the finishing line by his family. In this interview, conducted at the Keswick Mountain Festival, Mark talked to me about where his drive to adventure comes from, how his parents shaped and view his career as an adventurer, and what drives him to challenge himself and break world records…
— The Weir Group (@weirgroup) May 22, 2015
A brand new chapter is written
The softly spoken Mark Beaumont describes his adventures as ‘chapters’ in his life. And if life is a book, then his is definitely more of a page turner than mine. In 2008 he cycled around the world and broke the Guinness world Record for the fastest circumnavigation by bike. He followed this up by cycling across the Americas from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego. He then tackled the ocean. In 2011 he was a crew member on an arctic expedition where the team became the first to reach a certified polar position by rowing boat. There was then an ill fated attempt to grab the record of fastest crossing of the mid Atlantic by ocean rowing boat. Last year he followed the Queen’s Olympic Baton Relay around 70 Commonwealth Nations in the run up to Glasgow 2014. In between he has done a fair bit of wild swimming, climbing and mountaineering, and now – #africasolo – a pedal across Africa which he describes as the toughest in his life.
Talking about adventure
When I met him some time ago, he was at Keswick Mountain Festival talking about some of these chapters. I interviewed him before he went on stage, to ask him how it all began and how much support he got from his family in the early stages. He described a happy opening to his life story.
“I was home schooled in rural Perthshire.” he told me. “I didn’t go to school till I was 11 and I was encouraged, especially by Mum, to spend a lot of time working and playing on the farm.”
His ‘play’ involved exploring, cycling, skiing, climbing and riding a pony and there was plenty of time to think and dream and plot.
“I was 11 years old when I first came up with the idea of going on a journey and that journey was inspired by reading in a newspaper about a guy who had done John O Groats to Lands End. I had no idea how far that was or what it really involved, but it sounded like a great adventure so I got the car atlas out and got a highlighter pen and tried to find the roads.”
His mum and dad suggested he might try something slightly smaller first and he was 12 years old when he pedalled across Scotland – from Dundee to Oban with a friend. And he was 15 when he finally got around to doing end to end on his first solo cycle. A time when some teens are just getting their first bike.
“I thought ‘If I could spend my 20’s taking on my big dreams of adventure then there’s plenty of time to get an office job later.’” – Mark Beaumont
He got the adventuring habit
From there he had the adventuring bug and there was no going back.
“Through my teenage year and at University I took on bigger and bigger trips, each time coming back and imagining where I could go next. I was about half way through University at Glasgow and heading into a finance career but I had all these ambitions in the adventure world. These two paths didn’t tally up anywhere so I had to make a quite clear call where I would go. I knew if I didn’t start big then I wouldn’t be given a chance to continue to make a career out of it. So the biggest dream came first. Could I break the world record for cycling around the world?”
And of course, he did. He took 81 days off it. He started to make a career sharing his adventures with people through BBC TV, but it’s the record that people still associate him with.
“The world record has been broken many times now but I spend a lot of time correcting people who still think I’ve got it. It’s one of these things that it’s now a coveted, really quite fast record. I don’t think I could get close to the record now.” – Mark Beaumont
The passion can make a living
Mark’s father was a bit more traditional and took more persuading that his choice of career was sensible.
“He was a farmer and because I got good grades and went to Uni to study economics and politics he thought it was a waste to not go into the best possible career. He loves what I do now but initially we didn’t see eye to eye because he thought I was dropping out to pursue a career in adventure. In actual fact I would argue that if you put enough passion into these things you can certainly make a good career and a living. That’s the hard thing to see when you set out; how you’re actually going to turn your interest and your hobby into a viable career.”
“I spent my 20’s definitely being an adventurer. I would never call myself an explorer because I haven’t gone many places where other people haven’t, but I’ve certainly adventured in many different ways.” – Mark Beaumont
What is adventure?
As he is so clearly driven by adventure I asked him about his definition of it.
“It’s not being constrained by habit. It’s surprising yourself. It’s trying something each day which pushes your comfort zone. That’s adventure.” he replied, after pausing for a moment to think.
Mark paused regularly, answering my questions in a thoughtful, measured way. He may adventure at a mindblowing pace but life outside the ‘fastests and firsts’ is clearly less of a sprint. And he admits his pace and world record goals are a good distraction against loneliness and homesickness.
“I admire people like Al Humphries who have nomadically travelled. I would be a rubbish nomadic traveller. I really need a very clear focus and I’m definitely inspired by first and fastest so the idea of exploring the world for that sake alone has never really appealed. I go out with a very clear idea and then I’ve got to break that down each day to get through the miles.”
Mark may have broken many records young but he still has a few chapters left to write in his story.
“There are many expeditions I’d like to try. It’s a matter of time. People assume I’m a cyclist but I do like trying my hand and different adventures.”
“It is the adventure that underlies it all as opposed to a single sport. But I’ll always be known as that guy that cycles around the world.” – Mark Beaumont
The joys of wild cycling
Our conversation turned to the joys of cycle camping. I asked him how much he liked that aspect of his travels. “Quite often my expeditions take months and months and living wild is part of it,” he replied.
“Some of my favourite memories from expeditions are waking up and rolling your sleeping roll up. Mount McKinley and Alaska when it’s minus 35 outside and your contact lenses freeze by the time you lift them up to your eye. It’s hard to get going but ultimately an incredibly vast beautiful landscape. Some of my favourite cycling landscapes are waking up pre-dawn in Texas in winter and literally shaking the frost of the tent and pedalling out an hour before dawn and you can hear coyotes calling across the grasslands and you are just in these incredible wildernesses.”
It was time to say goodbye as he had a date with some adventure enthusiasts. Not to break a world record but talk about it. But I for the sense that before too long he’d be writing another chapter of his incredible life story. And now he has.
Well done Mark on becoming the fastest once again!