Endurance cyclist, Mark Beaumont BEM, popped into NMP Live to talk about his triumphant world-record-breaking career. Mark breaks down his blueprint for success in a relatable 'real world' way that can help all businesses, teams and individuals alike. Watch the interview or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Mark Beaumont BEM
Can you give a summary of your career so far?
I have spent the last 15 years trying to break as many world records and world firsts as possible. Which, I guess sounds like quite a selfish endeavour but I’ve always been that kid that never grew up, trying to do stuff that’s never been tried before.
So I have peddled around the planet, twice, I currently hold the record for cycling the length of Africa, length of the Americas, done things like rowing the Atlantic — or trying to but that’s another story in itself — trying to take a boat further north than anyone has ever gone before.
I have always been fascinated by really pushing human endeavour, and also, telling stories, sharing that with a global audience, filmmaking, the documentaries. I have loved all of it.
Why did you specialise in endurance cycling?
When I was a kid growing up I was in the foothills of the highlands of Scotland and the bike was just an awesome freedom for me. I mean, like most kids it was just a means to get around.
I had quite an original start to life because I didn’t go to school until I was 12. So, going skiing pretty close to where I grew up, riding the ponies, riding my bicycle, was everything I knew. I didn’t see a football or a rugby ball until I was in high school. So it was freedom, and it was going on a journey.
As a 12 year old kid I peddled across Scotland, but there was never a view that this would become the career that I have now got. But that grew, and grew, and grew, the ambitions over the years, until I was 22 when I set out to pedal around the planet the first time.
Again, you can only ever see the next horizon, I had no idea it would become what it has, really being part of that generation who are taking ultra-endurance to the next level. I mean we live in pretty exciting times, the last 10 – 15 years, the round the world record has gone from 276 days to 78 days. That is not a marginal gain! So yeah, I am proud of that!
The guys and the girls who are at the forefront of ultra-endurance these days, and the audience who have enjoyed following that, and taking confidence from it, it’s a huge part of what I do. Pushing what is possible, building the teams for these projects, and getting the stories out there. But the bicycle, even though I have done lots of other stuff; ocean rowing, climbing mountains, endurance of all ilk, I’m best known for life on two wheels.
You’re not the typical build of a pro-cyclist. Did this hinder you?
I always joke about the fact that at 6’3” and 90 kilos I am not your typical pro-rider. So the fact that I have smashed the circumnavigation world record twice in my life, and have a whole catalogue of other firsts and fastests, yeah, I know what I am doing.
I am a very resilient bike rider and I’ve got my whole life of experience. But, we don’t live in a meritocracy. I don’t think that I have smashed these records simply because I am the rider with the best power to weight ratio and I could win the Tour de France, far from it. Let’s be honest, those boys couldn’t do what I do, and I couldn’t do what they do. Horses for courses. I have got a life of experience to build up.
You have got to be able to suffer well to do what I do. The last big race around the planet was 1200 hours in the saddle, and to not injure, to not break down, to think your way through basically averaging 240 miles a day, every single day, for two and a half months, with a performance and logistics team of 40 people working around it. This is a massive project by cost and complexity. There is a lot more to this than you would see if you just thought it was one bloke on a pushbike.
So I think that being the size I am, in terms of ultra-endurance, has given me resilience; a resilience to injury and the ability to keep going. I always think of myself as a diesel engine, if I am out there on expeditions that last for two, three, four or five months, it helps actually to have the physicality, the form, and the fitness to battle through these huge projects. I think if I was a stick insect, you know - your average Tour de France rider, I would fall over.
How did you form your support team?
So when I started it was very much wild man. I was on my own; it was my mum at home with maps around the kitchen table. I mean, this is going back to me in my early twenties, things have got much, much bigger and more complicated since then.
So in my last project, thinking back to those early days when it really is sort of a solo exploit, living on the roadside, the friendship of strangers, through to what we are now doing. I had a media team based out of Cape Town, base camp here in the UK running logistics, and then on the road between 6 to 8 people at any one time. That is a three-year project, costing a pretty penny.
It’s a scale and complexity that most people would miss, and because I have got the profile for doing these things people approach me every week about their big plans to take on global expeditions. People are always very focussed on the sport of it, be that sailing around the world, or climbing Mount Everest.
Most people are good at that stuff, the thing they are passionate about, the sport they are trying to do. Most people completely underestimate the business of it; actually giving yourself the time, the finance, recruiting the right team, the building blocks to even get to the stating line of these projects. That’s the hard bit! Most people don’t get to the start line.
So to give yourself the opportunity, to build the brand, to do all the things, which I guess for the public who watch my documentaries and read my books, I think it slightly spoils the romance. It’s the best kept secret because some people might wish that I’m just the guy that never got a job, I just fall out of bed and ride my bike every day. I love all that stuff, but to give yourself the opportunity to take on the biggest endurance world records on the planet takes a huge amount of coordinating and it takes an amazing team.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Early on in my career I worked with an amazing filmmaker at the BBC, the great, late David Peat, and he said something to me that stuck with me. It’s this idea that try and value people because of who they are and not what they do, and it’s a line that I have always tried to use for myself as well. So when I am recruiting somebody it’s because it is Laura, it’s because it’s Mike, it’s because they have a life experience and a skill set not just to do a job, because they have been trained to do that, they have got the education. But, because when you turn the heat up, when you put people under a hell of a lot of pressure, stress, sleep deprivation, whatever it is, they have got the ability to think clearly, communicate clearly and act clearly.
You know, the people who have left my project in recent years, it is never because they couldn’t do the job in the nuts and the bolts sense; it’s always because of their behavioural change under pressure. So when I put my teams together I always try to really test people in terms of how they cope, have they got that wry smile, have they got that fire in their belly? Can they cope with a healthy dose of suffering and obsession because you have to have that.
A lot of people say to me that they would love to do what I do, and I always say that I think you like the idea of what I do because you’ve watched it on YouTube. And that’s not a patronising statement, what I mean is there is a reality behind the social media, behind the storytelling, which is a hell of a lot of duration, a huge amount of commitment, and there is a lot of stuff which is, as people often say, type two fun. It is no fun! It’s really quite gritty but you look back on it very fondly. It’s the commitment, it’s the teamwork, it’s the ability to really know what counts that stacks up to the big result.
These world records don’t make themselves, these world firsts are not easy to come by, and I am not in the game for breaking anyone else’s record. I’ve never pipped a record. We are always trying to create a leap in performance, so the last time I peddled around the planet we broke, and I will always say we, we broke the world record by 37%. We broke our target by 1.44%. You never do better than what you set out to do.
So what I love, and what my team know me for, is that blueprint; getting it right, understanding inputs, behaviours. How do you actually get a team to buy in to the art of the possible? Not just like there is a big number on the wall and this is what we think is possible, but genuinely what are people expected to do everyday? You know, cut the faff, cut the noise, shorten the timelines, get the job done.
What were the practicalities involved to achieve the 80-day target?
The plan we created for pedalling around the world; what is sustainable? I would get out my scratcher at 3:30 in the morning, on the bike at 4. Ride four times for 4-hour sets a day, 16 hours on the bike, half an hour break in between. You don’t need to ride that fast, 25km an hour, 15 miles an hour, but you need to do that consistently.
Get back in to recovery, 5 hours sleep, back on the bike, up at half 3, on the bike at 4. And you do that every single day for two and a half months. That will get you around the world in 80 days. It’s 75 days of riding, 3 days flights, two days contingency.
Every days your inputs are ride time, sleep, food and hydration. As an athlete there is four things to think about, my team all had their own equation. So I’m getting on in about 8000 calories a day. It’s a lot of fuel! 8 – 10 litres of hydration.
Something we stressed as a metaphor for the way the project had to work, if we faffed, if we just lost a bit of time, for 5 minutes every time I got off the bike, that would add a day to the world record. So don’t tell me to ride the bike faster, just make sure I am on the bike at 4 and not 5 past 4. That’s the geeky details, which made this work, and you know, 75 days riding, 3 days flights, we came home on day 78.
We used 14 hours out of our 48 hours contingency, which I think, there is a different perspective the way I see it and the way the public see it. The public see it as this massive leap from the previous record, which was 123 days, but we did exactly what we said we were going to do.
How important are marginal gains to achieving your goals?
Marginal gains, in my humble opinion, are a bit of a hobbyhorse. They are quite over stated and they are quite an easy thing to latch on to. What I mean by that is of course as an athlete I’m obsessed by making things a little bit lighter, a bit more aerodynamic, making small changes which over the course of the journey stack up to a huge difference, but the risk with marginal gains is that you go straight to them. You get obsessed in the detail without actually standing back and going “what are the very basic ABCs that we need to get right consistently to make the biggest difference?”
If you go straight to the one percents and the two percents you can fill your day and your conversation with stuff which is important but you actually haven’t got the basics right.
When three ladies came to me in the last year and a half and asked for help with trying to break the female circumnavigation world record, which was standing at 144 days, my first question to all three of them was “what’s your target? What you are trying to do. With your life experience, the resources you’ve got, the skills and what you are trying to do, what are you trying to do?” Because what they were asking me was all the marginal gains, all the details, the border crossings, and I said I will help you with any of that, what are you trying to do? And they said, “well, we are trying to break the record, 144 days” and I said “well, that’s fair enough, but if all you are trying to do is break somebody else’s record you might do that, but you’ll never do anything more interesting unless you start out by figuring out what you are capable of”.
With your life experience, your resources, take a bottom up approach. What should that stack up to be? Your not working back from the 144, you’re working back from your behaviours, your inputs. So, when the record was broken recently by 3 weeks, with due respect to a previous record, it’s not working back from that.
So, get obsessed with marginal gains, love the detail, but only once you have had the confidence to think what is the art of the possible, and get the bigger, much bigger building blocks right.
How do you motivate your team to overcome setbacks?
Because all of the projects I have taken on are so massive and quite scary at the outset it goes without saying that you have to just focus on what you can affect. Once you scale it up and think of the entire project you just wouldn’t get out of bed.
It’s interesting, I used to think that it was about standing in front of my team and saying “right everyone, do we all understand what we are doing?” And they’ve gone “yes boss”. They don’t. Of course they don’t. They understand their job. They understand what you are asking them to do. There is no way that anyone else in my team would set the agenda the way I do.
So when I am saying this is what we are trying to do, I try that idea that you value people because of who they are, not just the fact that they are a great physio or a logistics manager or the rest of it.
I’ll always remember riding out the Gobi Desert, nearly a month in to the round-the-world trip, and Alex, one of my mechanics, looking at me and saying “Mark, we’re going to do this!”And I said to him “Alex, of course we are going to do this. At what point did you not think we were going to do this?” You know, I laughed about it but the reality was he had been working with me for six months.
The penny had dropped; he got it. All the inputs, the behaviours, the things we had talked about in terms of this blueprint, he understood his job and was doing it brilliantly, but the big picture, the entire scale of what we were trying to do? It’s always difficult when you are trying to do firsts and fastests to get everyone…there is no way anyone else would set that agenda.
That’s quite a lonely place, when you are the person who is setting everyone up for the task it is very much on you.
What can businesses learn from your endurance races?
I think people are quite good at pitting themselves against the difficult if there is light at the end of the tunnel; if it is a moment in time. I think where businesses quite often struggle to relate to athletic stories is the fact that, in businesses, success tends to happen over much longer periods than athletes compete over.
In my game it’s not about being brilliant in any given hour, it’s about performance over much, much longer periods. And really understanding how you don’t just perform today, but you perform tomorrow, the next day, the next day. Making sure what you do is sustainable, and that’s a real trick.
When I was breaking the world record for riding the length of Africa I rode from Cairo to Cape Town and a few months later a team with a full support truck, I was on my own, went on the same route, which is of course not like-for-like at all.
You have got four people, team time trial, helping each other out with full support trucks, not carrying their kit. For the first half of the race we did it exactly the same time, from Cairo to the equator. So I would ride steady, use the entire day, stop, the friendship of strangers, getting through as effectively as I can. The racers, with a view to smashing this record out the park, rode for about 50% less each day, got to the middle of the Sahara Desert, got heat stroke, a couple of the guys had to take time out, and really struggled over the Ethiopian highlands. It was a classic Hare and the Tortoise. We rode half that route, 3000 miles, in exactly the same time.
So my advantage is never smashing it out of the park on any one given day, it’s being able to do that with a view to waking up the next day, and the next day, and the next day.
I have done four projects that last over half a year. The planning and completion of these trips normally takes two or three years in the making, so I always encourage people in sport and in business to have that long-term approach, to understand what success looks like within different horizons. There is no point in turning up and just doing a heroic pep talk and saying lets smash it today, if you can’t get out of bed tomorrow.
What is the value in booking an external speaker?
I think the main value of having an external speaker at any conference is, if you have got a key message, something that is really, really important that a leadership team is sharing with everyone who is needing to put that in to action, for that message to be reiterated with a different perspective from somebody outside of the business is priceless.
Within an office you can be banging on about the most important things, the things which are going to make a difference, but I will be seen typically as an athlete, as a bike rider, but when people understand that the level of project planning, communication, targets, that we take to even start these projects, you can use any of my career as a metaphor for any project, any start up, any big business.
If a business is just saying they are quite happy in steady state, we are just sitting in cruise control, and we’re pretty happy with the way things are, don’t book me.
I like being asked by businesses, by organisations, which are going through culture change, who have big targets, who are trying to become more efficient, who are tightening their timelines, who have ambitions and have the quiet confidence to be able to do things differently. Those are interesting conversations.
Is there a single take-away message from your talks?
If there was a single take away from any event I do I would like the audience to go away with a quiet confidence to take on what they believe is possible. I’m never going to tell people in a technical sense how to do their jobs. But for me it’s about self-awareness, it’s about having the ability to make some changes, which might be quite small changes but they stack up to big.
But, I never ever just stand up and do the same keynote every single time so for me to say there is one given take away from every time I speak, whether I am presenting on analysing risk or putting together performance teams, or the entire blueprint around margins, whatever I’m speaking about.
Something that we agree together, between the client and myself, there will be a completely different take, and I will pull out different anecdotes that I think really back-up the points that I’m making, and hopefully make for some interesting conversation and questions with the audience afterwards.
But, if there is one overriding outcome that I would love everyone to go away with it’s just a little bit of quite confidence to go you know what, I can make a change, I can do things differently.
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