Mark Beaumont’s lust for a challenge and charity

Face down in the cold sea, beneath is only blackness. And the odd jellyfish. Ahead, through the frothy churn lies the welcome of Scalpsie Bay on the Isle of Bute, but it’s a long way off and it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Behind, is Arran. The craggy landscape juts inertly from the water, stubbornly refusing to get any further into the distance.

Mark Beaumont. Picture: submitted
Mark Beaumont. Picture: submitted
Mark Beaumont. Picture: submitted

For four hours and 26 minutes, Mark Beaumont battled his way though the water between the two westerly isles. He had a mug of tomato soup halfway (“warmth, hydration and food”) but that was his only sustenance. The goal was Bute, the distance (further than a Triple Ironman) daunting for an experienced open water swimmer, never mind a man who less than six months ago struggled to get up and down a 25 metre pool.

“Once you’ve broken a world record people think that you’re an expert in everything,” he says. “But I’ve never even called myself a professional cyclist even though that’s what I know most about.”

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Novice seems like an odd term to use as a description of someone like Mark Beaumont who is becoming one of Scotland’s best known adventurers. This is the man who has circumnavigated the globe by bicycle, cycling through 20 countries in 194 days and biked across the Americas from Anchorage in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. He’s rowed to the North Pole and he had a very close shave after being capsized while crossing the Atlantic as part of a team bidding to complete the first sub-30 day by oar power. But Beaumont has long said that he isn’t a naturally sporty person. The son of Perthshire farmers, adventuring wasn’t what Beaumont, 30, was born to. And yet, since the age of 11 when he first set out to cycle across Scotland, to the moment when he realised during an internship in Boston as part of his Economics and Politics degree that he wasn’t just going to be “swept along” like everyone else, instead planning his first expedition, Beaumont had found that adventures were for him.

But recently, things haven’t quite been working out. Despite the meticulous planning, the sponsorship, the well-received books and TV programmes charting his expeditions, Beaumont has found himself in uncharted and unforgiving territory.

It started with the ill-fated excursion across the Atlantic which ended with 14 hours in a life raft before a dramatic and dangerous night-time rescue by a Taiwanese cargo ship. That was followed by another shorter adventure with friends last summer, which Beaumont couldn’t complete because of a foot injury. And then in February of this year his attempt to climb Cerro San Valentin, the highest peak in Patagonia failed too.

“I felt like I was on a bit of a streak where I wasn’t completing the projects I was taking on and I’m so not used to doing that,” he says. “I can sit and justify each for their own reasons but I knew I really needed that sense of achieving what I set out to do and for so many years I did that.”

It seems that returning to Scottish soil has helped him once again find his way.

STV approached Beaumont in the autumn of 2012 to ask if he’d be willing to take on a major charity challenge at home for their STV Appeal 2013. Beaumont agreed instantly and knew that it had to be something that didn’t involve him doing what people already recognised him for, namely riding his bike. And if it was to be on home turf then it had to be something that was genuinely out of his comfort zone. And so the Highland Line Challenge was devised.

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Beaumont would run and swim a 230-mile route in ten days, following the Highland Boundary Fault Line, the geological marker that splits the Lowlands and the Highlands, swimming in the open water three times and crossing the country’s biggest loch, Loch Lomond. The final three days demanded that Beaumont ran 35 miles consecutively on the first two, finishing with a 40 mile run on the third. Beaumont’s target was to raise £100,000 to benefit charities that support vulnerable children in Scotland, with match funding from the Scottish Government. He completed the challenge with only a sore right leg and a stiff shoulder to show for it and has already raised £90,000 towards his target.

If Beaumont was a man with a point to prove, he’s done it in some style.

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I’ve met Beaumont before. It was a little more than a year ago, not long after the treacherous Atlantic crossing and he seemed then like a man at a turning point. His long-held ambition to achieve the first fully man-powered circumnavigation of the globe had been shelved. Crossing the oceans using oar-power was not for him, a reasonable conclusion after being capsized and finding yourself treading water in your shorts and T-shirt with little clue as to where or whether any rescue might take place. The man then seemed pensive, the man today seems rejuvenated, like someone who has not only achieved the quite remarkable feat of swimming and running the breadth of Scotland, but someone who’s shaken off some nagging doubts as he continues this next transition in his career.

But that’s not to say it’s been easy.

Swimming is the hardest sport he’s ever had to learn, according to Beaumont, trying to master the technique was fiendishly difficult. He’s not being modest either. He says that when John Kettles, whose job it was to get Beaumont to the stage where three open water swims including crossing Loch Lomond were a possibility if not a foregone conclusion, saw him floundering about in Perth swimming pool for the first time he later admitted that he wasn’t sure Beaumont would pull off the challenge he’d set himself.

“I think he was very concerned,” Beaumont says, laughing slightly. “But I said I could do it and I was committed so he stuck by me. I’ve gone from scratch, from learning to swim to having swum a stretch of water that no one else has swum before and that is something that I’m incredibly proud of.”

It’s no wonder. According to the coastguard, the day before Beaumont swam, the temperature at just a foot below the surface of the water was only seven degrees.

“It sounds a bit sadistic, but you get a real dark pleasure out of knowing that you can push through anything. It’s always the moments that are toughest that you look back on most fondly. But you have to have been there, through that torture, to know that those bits are actually the most enjoyable. Yes, there were wonderful sunny days running across the West Highland Way but I don’t remember them quite so clearly or fondly as I do staring into the abyss watching the jellyfish on the Arran to Bute stretch because that was when I was challenged the most.”

As far as an insight into the mind of an adventurer goes, that’s probably a pretty succinct summation. It’s not that there isn’t any fear, but that what fear there is is trumped by an implacable self-belief.

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“There were a couple of points this spring when I genuinely thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew,” he admits. “But when there’s tens of thousands of sponsorship already involved and you’ve got a TV documentary commissioned watching you and people giving up their time voluntarily, for good or bad you feel a lot of pressure. And projects take on a certain kind of momentum and then you are doing them. But when I was struggling up and down the pool I did think ‘what am I doing here? I’m never going to manage a Triple Ironman’. Fear is a very strong motivator.”

But the response to fear isn’t always to push forwards. During the Patagonian expedition in February, conditions became so treacherous, Beaumont knew that they were risking too much by continuing to try to reach the summit.

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“The mountain is not awfully high, just over 4,000 metres but you start at sea level. It’s hard to get there, it took us a week by off road driving and jet boat and all sorts. There’s been a very hot summer so the ice field and glaciers are very unstable. We took on a couple of days as we tried to move on to the upper glacier when we were going across literally tens and tens of very fragile snow bridges, trying to traverse steep exposed sections of the mountain where you couldn’t put in any running protection. If it was ice you’d use ice screws, if it was snow you put long pickets in to secure you, nothing would hold in what we were on so we had to make the dangerous decision to climb solo, not roped up because if one of us fell all of us would get pulled off the mountain.

“We set off one day on a six-hour climb and it took 13 hours finishing across an ice field in the dark. I got back to base camp, slept it off that night then said to the team, ‘look we are risking too much here, it’s not worth it’. Very quickly they all agreed with me.”

The decision to stop was nothing to do with climbing ability, he says. Sitting in their tents at night they could hear slab avalanches happening all around them. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision. The team had travelled to the other side of the globe, taken on sponsors, and spent huge amounts of time and energy before they had even set foot on the mountain. But Beaumont knows what it is to risk his life. His experience in the Atlantic may have planted a seed of doubt in his mind about his ability to complete expeditions, but it is he says, the expedition from which he’s learned most. In the short term it’s been painful, but in the long term he hopes the impact will be positive.

“I’ve changed my priorities in terms of the world I’m taking on. I’m taking a slightly different tack with my career. Personally too, I think I’ve changed. I spent the whole of my twenties pushing first and fastest in quite a selfish quest and then you realise you’re getting married and you’ve got the support of friends and family and if you nearly lose it all, it puts that into very sharp focus.”

It’s clear that for Beaumont, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Highland Line Challenge was that local people could participate. There were organised events in communities along the route, but it was the spontaneous support that obviously moved Beaumont, who’s been more used to heading off to the other side of the globe for his adventures, communicating only to the camera as he films his journey.

“People followed the GPS tracker to keep their eye on exactly where I was, people spontaneously turned out to cycle or run or just support sections. It was huge. It adds up to thousands of people taking part. The social media side went nuts. I had four times my normal hit rating on the site. People get it because they know Scotland. I had quite a few people who’d never run 10k or ten miles before and they’d join me for that part. It was really special.”

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That family and friends could be part of the adventure too, was he says, a huge bonus. Beaumont’s mother, Una, his manager and the woman who has planned most of his expeditions had made it out of the nerve centre of base camp for this one and was much more hands-on.

“She was driving one of the support vehicles. She was on hand a lot – we did the recce of the route together. Even though she’s been involved since I was 11 or 12 in helping to plan the adventures, she’s actually been able to share this one and that’s been fantastic fun.”

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Beaumont’s affection for his mum is clear. It’s partly he says that she knows him better than anyone and so when things get tough, she knows exactly what to do to support him. But there’s more to it than that.

“She’s amazing,” he says. “She’s getting more and more adventurous. Last Christmas I gave her an ice axe which I can’t imagine is what most 60 year old ladies get for their Christmas. She’s pretty cool. She’s out on the bike every day, she’s climbed a lot of Munros now and she’s doing a lot more winter walking. She’s planning on doing some hills in Europe. After years of planning my trips she’s doing a lot more herself.”

For his wife Nicci, too, the fact the challenge lasted only ten days meant that Beaumont could get home halfway through and again before he finished.

“Nicci couldn’t be more different to me but I think that’s what makes it work. She’s not adventurous at all. Her adventure is taking the dog for a walk. It’s wonderful to have her complete understanding of what I do, but knowing that we’re not competing for that space.”

Didn’t he try to tempt her?

“Not a chance. Thus far I’ve bought her two bikes and in total I think they’ve done about ten miles.” He laughs.

When I last met Beaumont it seemed as though some of the romance had gone out of adventuring. He was struggling with trying to make it into a career, committed to balancing that with family life. Now it seems things have fallen into place. He’s clear again about what he wants to be doing. Now it’s not about lending his name to causes, but getting involved to really make a difference. Filming and sharing his experiences is part of that for Beaumont, not a means to an end, but a core part of his achievement.

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“If you end up doing this for the wrong reasons it’d be a chore. I’m lucky because the great buzz I get is that I love capturing these adventures. The broadcasting lets you capture moments in time and share them with millions of people. I love standing up in front of people and storytelling. I know so many people, friends of mine, nomadic climbers, sailers, polar explorers, who do that as a means to pay for the next expedition. The business in it is a means to an end. I feel very lucky that one of my big passions is holding the camera and telling the story. It’s not for the ego of it, it’s more that one of my greatest motivations is that I’m going to share what I do with millions of people. For me, the storytelling is as important as the adventure.”

The documentary of Beaumont’s Highland Line Challenge will be on STV in October. In the meantime, plans are already taking shape for another big expedition which he says he can’t talk about. He sounds like a man with plenty of ideas and a new sense of his priorities.

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“I’m not saying I won’t go back to adventuring, but I want to keep the fun in it. I’m not committing myself to a big expedition every year because I think that would end up being a very lonely quest. I’ve got huge respect for the Sir Ranulph Fiennes of this world, but it’s not the way I want to live my life.”

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