Just Keep Going
An Interview with James Ketchell
James Ketchell is a serial adventurer, motivational speaker and Scouting ambassador. In 2007, James was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident that left him with broken legs and a severely broken and dislocated ankle. The prognosis was that he was likely to suffer a permanent walking impairment and would certainly not be able to continue the active physical lifestyle he had enjoyed up to that point. James decided to respond to this challenge in the only way he knew how, and with dogged determination, set about physical tasks that most of us can only imagine experiencing. In 2010, James rowed single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. In 2011, he reached the summit of Mount Everest. In 2013, James embarked on an 18,000 mile unsupported global cycle, through 20 countries and cycling on average 100 miles a day. The key message that James reveals from completing this ultimate triathlon is that we can all potentially set ourselves difficult goals and achieve them: the capability to succeed is within everyone.
Hi James, thanks for agreeing to talk to me today! Looking forward to this!
No worries. I am as well!
What did you do before you were an adventurer?
So yeh, I worked as an account manager for a big IT firm and I basically was responsible for selling IT Security to clients. Firewalls, VPN’s etc.
And you gave that up?!
Yes it was crap but it was a job and it paid the bills, as boring as that sounds.
So I am guessing you always knew you wouldn’t be stuck behind a desk?
Ideally I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk but having said that I actually don’t mind being stuck behind a desk if I’m doing something that I’m interested in. So if I am sending an email to someone regarding sponsorship, writing a blog post or am trying to plan/prepare a new challenge etc then that’s ok. Ironically most of my time is spent behind a desk but that’s fine as I’m spending my time and my days in an area that I am passionate about and that’s not just IT Security.
So how did you get out of the IT Security industry and end up doing the thing that you love? Did you just decide one day enough is enough I am going to do what it is I want to do?
So yeh I did. I decided to take a massive risk. So basically what happened was that in my spare time I decided to save the money that I was earning, which could be good depending on the month that I’d had as it was commissioned based. I then used that money to ride my motorbikes. I then had a big motor cycle accident where I was in hospital for a long time, and was told that I would end up walking with a permanent limp.
I read that, sounded horrendous.
It was pretty bleak but I ended up going back to work actually on my crutches and stuff but I knew coming out of hospital I was going to row across the Atlantic. And as you know I did end up doing that. But when I got back from the Atlantic I actually went straight back to work but it just wasn’t the same. I was restless, I was incredibly bored and unfulfilled. And I knew that my next exhibition was that I was going to go out to Everest to climb it the following year and when I told this to my boss he was like “you’ve got to be joking…you’ve not got a future here.” So I went.
“you’ve got to be joking…you’ve not got a future here.”
I thought to myself there are two things that I can be doing here. I thought I needed to be spending some serious time and effort trying to pull the money together to get out to Everest. And you can’t do that half hearted. You really need to put the time and effort in. Day in day out you’re sending 100s of emails out, and chasing and following up on all of these. And often these mails would amount to nothing. And I couldn’t do this properly at work. I could do it to a certain extent in my spare time.
So quite similar to a tech startup then who is trying to get off the ground?
Yes exactly the same. You’re totally right. So I thought I needed to do something. Something needed to change. I needed to give it the time it deserved so I could make a real go of it. So I moved back in with my parents and cut my overheads dramatically. And I just did something a bit crazy. I just left my job. I saved for a few months so I had a few grand knocking around which meant I could at least give this a go properly for a few months. I stopped going out and to be honest had no real life in those few months because I was so focused on my project and what I had to do.
Leaving your job is obviously a big risk. Why did you need to take it?
Well because I figured if I left my job it would force me into action. It would mean I would have to do this. And without a doubt it was the best decision I ever made. So by leaving I was eventually able to get my sponsorship but it took real effort and time to do that. I was able to supplement my earnings by working on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at my local Chinese doing deliveries which paid around £50 a night.
So obviously you had to sacrifice a whole lot in order to make your projects become a reality and for you to achieve some of your dreams. Why was it worth it? Was it a case of after rowing the Atlantic you thought oh man I just need more of this life or was it the accident that catapulted you into think well life is too short and so I need to do these things now?
Yeh it was actually a little bit of both. When I got back from the Atlantic I really felt like I had achieved something. I can’t quite describe the feeling but I had never felt more ALIVE. I felt like I was really living. And I just wasn’t getting that from IT Security!
“I can’t quite describe the feeling but I had never felt more ALIVE. I felt like I was really living.”
Selling firewalls vs rowing the Atlantic – surely the Firewalls win!
Having said that even at that point I didn’t necessarily know it was going to become my job. All I knew was that I had to get out to Everest to climb it. And I literally worked flat out for a year in raising sponsorship, training etc and made it happen. It was when I then got back from Everest that stuff started to happen for me. I was being asked to speak at events on a much more regular basis and was being told that I was quite good at them and I was getting paid decent money for them. So the penny began to drop that life as an adventurer could be a sustainable way of living.
So if we go back to the Atlantic. Had you rowed at a good standard before? Had you been in and around rowing? Or was it a case that you woke up one morning and thought ‘hey I want to row the Atlantic’ and you went out and got your boat and just went and did it?
I had always been fit and I worked part time in a gym for seven years but I was not an accomplished rower no. I had always wanted to row the Atlantic since my late teens but I wasn’t a competitive rower and knew nothing much of rowing. But the reason I wanted to row the Atlantic wasn’t anything to do with rowing. In fact rowing itself can be quite boring. It was the adventure that I wanted. It just so happened that rowing was the method of transport that would power me across the Atlantic.
So how hard was it? To a simpleton like me it must have been almost impossible, especially if you are not an experienced rower?
You don’t actually need to be an experienced rower. It’s having confidence in the water I think. And confidence in the boat, and at sea. With ocean rowing there isn’t a massive amount of technique required.
So was it quite dicey? Did you have moments where you thought “oh man what have I done?
Yeh there were days where the waves and swirl were as big a two story house.
Oh my word.
I used to think that waves used to only break at the beach but boy that is not the case. When the wind picks up waves break in the middle of ocean and it is quite scary. And some of these waves can easily roll the boat over.
Did you roll over?
No fortunately I didn’t but had many times where I almost did.
Did you get bored? In the sense you’re on your own for a long time.
You know what it sounds silly but the time goes quick. The first week goes incredibly slowly and statistically that is when most people give up because they think “shit I can’t do this. This is a ridiculous idea.” And there were times when I thought that but I remained calm and focused. And some days the weather is amazing and the ocean is like a mill pond, and at other times it’s very very scary but you do get a lot of confidence in the boat.
So how long was you actually rowing for? How long was the trip?
I was out there for 110 days, 4 hours and 4 minutes. Not that I was counting! [Laughs]
The row was meant to take between 70-80 days but the year I went across was a particularly bad year for weather so I took 100 days worth of food thinking that was fine. But I ran out of food 230 miles from Antigua and I found out what it was like to be truly starving.
So how long were you without food for?
I was without food for three days and actually had to get someone out to come and drop food to me because it reached a point where I just couldn’t row as I just had zero energy as I had nothing in my body.
Rowing 12 hours a day takes its toll, especially with no food!
“Rowing 12 hours a day takes its toll, especially with no food! “
Things like sleep, you got some sleep in a cabin type of thing I imagine?
Yes you’ve a sealed cabin at the back of the boat which is almost like a coffin. It’s 7 ft long and I used to get around 6 hours a night.
I couldn’t think of anything worse!
You get used to it!
A year later you then climb Everest. Was that more dangerous/harder than the row?
Yes different really. For me climbing Everest was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
Oh wow, really?
Yeh but what you need to remember is that some people will find it easy and others will find rowing the Atlantic impossible.
So at some points did you not think you’d be able to make it to the top?
I always knew I’d make it to the top. That makes me sound cocky. I always felt I had a good chance of making it to the top, I felt strong going up but everything went completely wrong with me coming back down?
Really? I thought, stupidly, that coming back down would be a doddle compared to going up.
No coming down is a lot harder than going up. So you have gravity constantly trying to pull you down meaning you’re at risk of falling. You’re absolutely shattered and you have no adrenaline as that has gone because you’ve reached the summit. Adrenaline keeps you going on the climb up but when you reach the top, and that adrenaline goes you are left feeling very flat and very lethargic. You have to remember you’re only half way when you’re at the top of Everest. I also had quite a nasty lung infection that affected me quite badly. I literally couldn’t breathe and I was only able to take a few steps at a time before being completely out of breath and this was bad because I would run out of supplementary oxygen and then not be able to make it down.
That sounds like a pretty desperate situation.
I was very lucky as I had my Sherpa with me, a guy called Dorgi. He was super strong, reached the summit ten times and really it was Dorgi who got me back down. He was very aggressive swearing and hitting me to get down but now I understand why. Because I had so little oxygen my ability to think was out the window. If it wasn’t for Dorgi I would have fallen asleep and I just wouldn’t have woken up. And it’s quite cold out there, it’s like minus 40. So when you don’t feel cold any more and you just feel quite lethargic and warm and sleepy you’ve got a serious problem. Had Dorgi not been there whacking me and shouting at me then I would have fallen asleep and frozen to my death.
Wow, that is mad.
I remember getting to Heathrow and pushing my trolley through the airport and not being able to breathe properly. My parents, who were at the airport, looked at me and my mum said “you look like you’re out of your head on drugs.” Thanks mum! Missed you too!
So we went to hospital and my left lung was just full of infection and it turned out I actually had pneumonia and had to stay in hospital for 5 days. The doctors felt it was a miracle that I’d been able to get back down.
Did your parents take that in their stride?! I think my mum would ban me from doing anything ever again!
They were obviously concerned but they knew the type of character I was and that a little scare like this wasn’t going to stop me.
So you have the big health scare. But then you decide to cycle around the world? Did you not just think well enough is enough, I’ve completed two amazing challenges that will do?
It’s a funny one. It was when I was lying in a hospital bed that I thought how cool would it be to cycle around the world? And so that’s what I decided to do!
Did you not think though when you were in that hospital bed, and that you had almost caused yourself to feel this ill by taking the decision to climb Everest, that maybe enough was enough? Surely two amazing challenges are enough?
Well I didn’t really see the two challenges as two amazing things. I had this concept when I was rowing the Atlantic that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you keep going you’ll always get to where you want to go, or do what it is you want to achieve. And I thought as long as I continued to row I’d get to land, and I did get to land. And I thought as long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other I’d get to the top of Everest and I did. And I just thought that’s all I did, I didn’t really do anything special.
“as long as you keep going you’ll always get to where you want to go”
But I think that’s what separates you from other more ‘normal people’. The fact you can continue when things get so tough.
I’m not so sure. I just think it is a case of how badly you want something. If you really, really want something you’ll be able to do it. I firmly believe that and that goes for anyone. If someone wants something badly enough then they will make it happen.
Yeh that’s true and it helps, if like you, you know what it is that you want.
So cycling around the world, and I can’t believe I am about to say this, was that the easiest of the three challenges?
Yes and no. Mentally it was actually quite difficult. This may sound stupid but I was actually very lonely. When I was in the Atlantic I was completely on my own bar a satellite phone and so I had no access to the outside world, I didn’t know what was happening and what people were doing. But when I cycled around the world I had access to Twitter, Facebook etc and that made me feel isolated and alone. Sure I met some great people along the way but they were only brief meetups as I would then leave that town and cycle on. Physically it was a piece of piss to be honest. I didn’t find it difficult. I was regularly bashing out 150 miles a day and I even cycled one day from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore which was 262 miles.
Yeh I managed that in 20 hours and that was because a mate of mine was in Singapore in business and I really wanted to see him!
So I’ve got a question here that you kind of semi answered there. I know the next challenge (rowing the Indian Ocean) you are doing with someone. The other challenges are very isolating. Bar a Sherpa you were on your own for all of them. Do you prefer your own company?
No, no I am a very socialable person and talk loads as you can tell! [Laughs]. But I don’t mind my own company.
So are you worried that actually it may be more difficult to do a challenge with someone else. Like you’ve just said one day you just decided to cycle 260 odd miles because you wanted to. You were in control, you could push as hard as you wanted to on these challenges because it was only ever going to affect you. But now having someone else to consider – is that going to grate on you that you can go as fast, or do as many hours because if he doesn’t want to then you’ve got to accept that I presume?
That’s a really interesting question Steve. So yes Ashley (who he is rowing with) does have limitations. He is epileptic and has around 1-2 fits a week. So Ash isn’t probably going to be able to row as much as myself.
So that won’t wind you up?
No, no. And I said to Ash that our goal is to get across and this project isn’t really about me, it’s about me supporting Ash. Our goal is to use his story to inspire other people with Epilepsy that they can do these great things and if it takes us a lot longer than I am used to then that’s fine.
Yes it’s an amazing story. My sister in law suffers from Epilepsy and I know just how debilitating the illness can be. So you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean, waves are crashing in and Ash has a fit. Have you guys got a plan on what you’d do or do you go with it at the time and just do your best at that time?
The trick is to make sure he is secure and he doesn’t hurt himself. The thing with when they have a fit is the damage is done when they fall. So if he’s in the back of the boat, there’s a mattress there so he’s totally safe. He’ll always be wearing a life jacket and be tied into the boat. And he’ll also be wearing a helmet, kind of like a bike helmet, that will keep his head safe should he fall. We’re trying to do things to minimise the risk of injury to Ash but my role is that when he fits I just need to make sure he is safe. But ultimately it is a bit risky.
Great. I’ve got a controversial question for you now.
Oh good, I love controversial questions, go for it!
I was speaking to my dad about you and that I was going to be doing this interview with you. And he actually came up with this question. So you know Comic Relief, Sport Relief and other high profile celebrity charity challenges, let’s take the case of Davina McCall who don’t get me wrong, did an amazing thing (cycled from Scotland to London in 7 days) – something that I could never do. She ended up raising millions for charity (which is brilliant) and got amazing adulation from the press and the public. Now if we take a look at you, and your cycle around the world. That challenge is just as, if not more, testing as Davina’s. Yet you don’t receive anywhere near the adulation she gets. You barely get attention. Does that really tick you off? Does that annoy you?
Do you know what, that is a really interesting question. I like that. To answer that question.
What you’ve got to understand, and I learnt this a long time ago. There is always someone out there who is going to do something bigger, and better and have more profile and have more money and be more successful. And that is very true of celebrity. But yeh you’re right some of these guys have got incredibly good profiles and they do what some in my world consider to be easyish challenges, but a big big deal for them as they are really pushing themselves. They get huge press coverage but overall I think it’s great. They raise huge amounts of money for charity and awareness for charity. Your dad’s question is a brilliant one.
“There is always someone out there who is going to do something bigger, and better and have more profile and have more money and be more successful.”
Yes much better than the rubbish ones I ask! I should get him to do the interview!
But yes sometimes it can be frustrating. I can be busting my balls but just because I don’t have the profile I don’t get the same recognition. I have got a great example. The BBC were vaguely interested in doing a series with me and the 3 challenges I’d done. I had all the video footage, and been screen tested etc. They thought I was a cracking guy but I just wasn’t as well known as some of the other TV Personalities on their books so they had to pass.
That must really anger you? They’re essentially saying you’re as talented, if not more talented, than these guys but through no fault of your own you’re not getting a show.
You have to remember why you did the challenges in the first place. The reason I wanted to do them was to experience real adventure and not to be a TV star.
So do you have to try and come up with ways to outdo people and come up with bigger and better challenges in order to get attention, or are you someone who just does it for himself?
That’s a really really good question.
It wasn’t my dad’s!
So a lot of people will say it’s all about media. If I do a challenge that gets no media then a lot of people will say it is a waste of time. I go on the principle that you should do something because you really really want to do it. If you are about to go on an expedition of some sort and at the start line someone said to you that no one will ever know you have done this, do you still want to do it? If you said no I don’t want to do it any more then you really are doing it for the wrong reasons. And ultimately you won’t be able to make it happen.
So you’re the opposite of that? You do things you want to do even if you don’t get press?
Yes everything I do I genuinely want to do. After that event I then look at the PR side of things and see how I can sell it and get some media but that does not drive my decision for taking on the challenge in the first place. I think nowadays, if you want to be an adventurer as your full time job, and I am not just meaning to do a challenge in your spare time that you’ve always wanted to do, I am meaning to get paid to be an adventurer then it’s not got much to do with adventuring. If you want to succeed as an adventurer you need to be frighteningly articulate, good on camera, be able to present, film, edit film, have a good sales head and a good writer and much more. So if you’re reading this and thinking you would love for your job to be an adventurer then I would say get clued up on all these other areas as well as fitness, climbing, rowing etc because they’re just as important.
At the end of the day, you should do what you enjoy but you also need to go into things with your eyes open and realise that you need to be well equipped to succeed. I think anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough but at the same time you have to work hard, you have to practice these other things to make yourself a success.
Sound advice. So the final question I had is how can our readers get involved? I know they’d want to follow you on your next trip, and potentially get involved with fundraising.
Yes so if you visit nothings-impossible.co.uk all the details are on there including our fundraising links. We’re actually having a new site built (same address) where people can track our progress via GPS, and read blog posts and get involved in various ways.
Awesome! Well thank you for your time. It’s been brilliant chatting to you!
No thank you, it’s been good fun!
Good luck for next year!