“And I just finished and someone handed me a towel and put it over my head. And it just sat there really calm, but just really just thought I gave it everything I did my best. It didn’t work out. That’s okay. And then the team manager came along and read the title of my head and shouted gold. I was like, WHAT?“
On this podcast we talk about growth, the science, the struggles, motivations and challenges. All in an effort to inspire us to grow and live our own extraordinary lives.
I’ve been doing a lot of research developing strategies to help people make more intentional decisions in life. Take my free quiz to find out what your decision-making style is and how intentional you are with your life.
Today it’s fitting and incredibly inspirational to be able to talk to Karen Darke. She’s the ultimate adventurer. She’s cycled across the Himalayas from Kazakhstan to Pakistan, through the Indian Himalayas, and across the Tibetan Plateau. In 2002 she was part of a team sea kayaking from Canada to Alaska. She took part in a ski expedition that crossed 372 miles across Greenland’s ice cap. She has also climbed Mont Blanc, Matterhorn and El Capitan and she’s cycled, skied and kayaked the length of Japan. She’s won multiple medals including an Olympic gold medal in Rio.
Even though she’s a force, and could be incredibly intimidating, she’s actually such a grounded and encouraging person. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to her multiple times and she was kind enough to share her story with me.
If you’re thinking wow, she’s amazing, you’re not alone. I’m thinking it too. And if you’re feeling like you’re comparing yourself to her, thinking “oh i couldn’t do that”, you need to listen to this episode. She talks a lot about where she started, how she did it how it doesn’t have to be impossible and trust me, you’re going to feel incredibly inspired.
Now I’m an adventurous person, I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve taught in remote areas of the Hunza valley, climbed mountains (albeit smaller ones), I’ve skydived and gone canyoning and often people ask me – WHY? Why do you do these things?
And funny that I don’t consider myself a very sporty person per se, and I’m certainly not a high performance athlete by any means, but I know for me, I love pushing myself, experiencing that adrenaline of being absolutely terrified and also that later feeling of accomplishment.
So I asked Karen, why does she do it.
What drives you to finish big adventures?
K: I think you probably come across the idea of rocks and sand. You know, the rocks been things that you really feel more like you value more, or they feel more important somehow. And the sand just being the stuff that can fill every day, from emails to cleaning, to just life survival stuff. And I get, I think I just get really down in, if all I can see is a sort of survival mode of just chugging through doing life admin, it’s like, it’s not really enough. So I like having some rocks to think about and keep me excited. And I’m trying to make a little bit of time, not maybe not every day, but you know, on a regular basis to, to look at how to make these things move forward or help them move forward
Which is hard to do, right? We can easily get caught up in life momentum and neglect those big rocks that are important to us, or in Karen’s case, might even define her to some extent.
K: When we get caught up in that life momentum, and there’s nothing wrong with it, and maybe for some people, that’s absolutely, they’re really okay with that. It’s just, I kind of feel like if, if I don’t have something else, then it feels like a bit of meaning, or a bit of excitement or a bit of purpose, it’s missing somehow. So I like to bring in different things I call it having withers which is just an immediate word but a WIBA stands for wouldn’t it be amazing so it’s
WIBA. Wouldn’t it be amazing.
This is Karen’s life philosophy and I think I can see myself adopting that already.
Instead of thinking what’s not possible, instead of holding ourselves back with all the ‘what ifs’ or ‘shoulds’, we can dare to dream.
I asked Karen, how she got the idea to compete. Was she an athlete? A racer? She said no. She was going through a difficult time, and she was watching the Olympics in Beijing.
K: And just suddenly got this idea because the next one was in London. Maybe it was one of those WIBA’s wouldn’t be amazing to compete in a games in my own country, but instantly dismissed it as crazy. I think I’ve done one or two races at that point and come last in them. And then I said, No, it wouldn’t go away. And I’d just start, I just started trying. And it was really intimidating. I didn’t know if I could do it. Part of me was overconfident at first because I thought, well, I ride my bike every day. I’m sure I’ll be quite fit. And then when I went and did my first race, I realized that I was absolutely useless. So racing, and all these women just lapping me and I was kind of my ego was not a little bit. So just somehow thought I was strong. And then I was like, Okay, well, how do you get to be good? And then I started learning about performance science and sport science and got a coach who offered to help me and yeah, things just went from there. And it was a process of just going deep on how do you how do you train your body and your mind to get to perform? So for me, I guess I was just always interested in the learning process of all of it. And when I originally planned to go to London, I didn’t know how to get there and I definitely never planned on going another. Well, in total, my career was probably about 13 years so it didn’t really anticipate it would last that long.
Sometimes when you see people doing something incredible, you think it came easily. I mean you know it must have been hard work. Taken discipline and drive and effort. But we can fall into this comparison trap, thinking it was easy for them. But it wasn’t easy for Karen, I mean it’s not easy for anyone.
K: I started training properly in 2008 When I got the idea, and then did some races in 2009 and was still last and then finally in 2010, started to see a bit of progress. And then got to London in 2012, won a silver and then went really deep on how is it possible to win a gold medal? I don’t know. Because I never, I never really won races. It wasn’t like I was super strong compared to other people. It was always a struggle to be there. So yeah, went for called IT project gold for Rio. And it, it worked out incredibly. And then I carried on training for the Tokyo which was another four years. But then it was delayed for a year for COVID. And I got ill and had to have surgery a few months before it so it didn’t work out so yeah.
It took years. It took so much commitment and dedication.
K: Like anything, it’s quite hard to pull something off unless you really commit to it. So it was consistent commitment. I mean, I was barely a day that I wouldn’t wouldn’t follow the plan. Some days the plan is to rest. I never rested enough. My My coach used to get quite frustrated with me that I would overdo everything. That’s maybe a symptom of my personality. So I have to manage it sometimes. And actually, interestingly, recently, I’ve not been writing as much and I really intentionally this summer, decided to try and break what’s become a habit. Most habits are good many habits are good for us. But if I think if they start to become verging on unhealthy or addictive, then even if they’re healthy, like going cycling, they’re not really that healthy and the bigger picture and I decided I really needed to try and break it a little bit. So I had at least five weeks where I didn’t ride my bike this year or barely rode it. And now I’m writing again and actually I’m surprised how good I feel. Now I’m thinking I should have actually taken more rest in all those years that I was training basically hammered myself for 13 years.
This is AWARENESS. Even something good can become something you need to change.
K: I think I felt like I’d reached a point where I wasn’t maybe really learning and growing anymore, it was kind of like I felt a bit stuck in a rut, and I was just doing the same old, same old. And even though it was, you know, on paper, it’s good for you to be really fit and healthy. I felt like other areas of my life were being really limited because I, you know, I literally, would not, I would get anxious, if there was going to be even more than one or two days, when I wouldn’t be able to ride it’d be, I’d be figuring out how can I make that happen? Because that’s not okay. And it just felt like the balance had gone out a little bit.
Going for the Olympics is just one of her adventures. She’s traveled all over the world and interestingly, she often goes with people who are joining her for the first time. Traveling for hte first time, cycling for the first time. Doing amazing things that they never themselves thought possible.
K: I really missed adventure because I’d had to kind of give it up for quite a long time to focus on the racing season and the calendar and performance. And if you go off cycling in foreign countries for months on end, it’s not very good for performance. So I really decided I needed to reinstate some of that. And the main reason is just that experience of culture and nature in other places and what that brings. So actually, I planned a trip with some teammates, and we planned it as our post Rio recovery ride. And it was to follow a route called the Carretera Austral, which is an old dirt road. I think it isn’t now, I think this is Tom, I said, but when we did it, it was largely dirt and gravel, all the way down to Patagonia in Chile. And it was incredible. And in the process, a shoulder injury that I was waiting for surgery on, resolved itself. So when I got back, I cancelled the surgery. And honestly, I attribute a lot of that to just that discharge in nature and letting go stress and tension and pressure, and just allowing the body that space and time to heal in a beautiful place. So and then after that I took journeys across, I’ve taken journeys across all of the continents apart from Antarctica, and they’ve all been with different people. So it’s been very organic and how it evolved that didn’t really plan that much.
K: But largely, there were people who’ve never done anything like that before. Maybe they’ve never ridden a bike since they were a kid or ever. Maybe they didn’t believe they had it in them to cycle to or to camp like people who’ve never camped before. And all the journeys were very simple, like, following waterways, rivers or coastlines, and camping on the hole, and just Yeah, living quite simply close to nature.
Having transformational experiences for the first time
I feel like I’ve been there, in a way. I love these types of adrenaline rush activities that push me in ways I didn’t think were possible. There is something really transformational about the entire experience, not only doing it but planning and testing yourself. I can imagine how it must feel not only for her, but also for the people who are going with her, sometimes doing these activities for the very first time.
K: I mean, I suppose I’ve realized that I’ve done stuff like this for so long that I my normal, or what I think is not too difficult. It’s a bit different for other people. But, for example, the one of the trips following the river Ganges from its source in Northern India down to its sort of spiritual heart in Varanasi, one of the friends that came with me, oh, it’s two friends that came, there are a couple. And my friend Christina has never cycled since she was about five years old. And when she began training for it, about a year before, she couldn’t even get up the hill to the local supermarket that was like a few 100 meters. So then, a year or so later, she’s doing sort of 80 kilometers across the Himalayas. And I mean, it’s, the other thing is, it’s really amazing for me to see it through her, it was amazing for me to experience it through her eyes as well. She’d never been into another culture like that. never done anything like that physically. But I think we’re all capable of doing these things if we’ve got even a little bit of desire to, and how it can change our lives and transform things is pretty cool.
What’s important to you?
For Karen, it’s clear that having adventures are part of her fabric. It’s important to her. Now ask yourself, what’s important to you? It doesn’t have to be such a big thing like climbing a mountain or competing in the Olympics. Do you want to work towards a career goal? Is there a relationship that you want to deepen? Are you trying to maintain or improve your fitness? Just think for a moment about something you’re striving for in your own life.
How to get what you want in life
Generally when we’re looking to reach our goals, people talk about 2 factors. Skill and motivation. Learning how to do something, lets say exercise, race, ride a bike requires learning how to do it, building your skill or physical capacity or ability to achieve the goal. The second piece is motivation. You have to be sufficiently motivated to do the activity. So when we’re looking at achieving the goal, most people focus on staying motivated and learning how to do it. All of which makes absolute sense. If you’re motivated to take action, you can keep trying until you learn enough, or become capable enough, and eventually you’ll reach the goal.
Do you have the right goal?
But sometimes, there is a disconnect between these two things. It’s hard enough to figure out your goal, and what it is and if this the right goal for you. Which I talk about in my work and the book I’m writing but I’ll leave that concept for another day and focus today more so on taking action.
Are you taking the right actions?
Is this the right action that will get you to your goal? In the case of exercise, we know that we need to build capacity, and for most people that’s physical capacity. Practice each day, ride for this much distance, ride this many times per week, build your strength etc. People who do this regularly are taking action.
Align your goals and actions
But for people who take action and also are self aware, the potential skyrockets. Because inevitably there are other actions needed to help you stay motivated, to feel capable when things go wrong, to eliminate doubts, to recover when your muscles need a break. These are all performance habits that link back to knowing yourself, your body, your mind, your limiting beliefs, what’s holding you back, what you’re afraid of.
If you can be aware not only of your goal, but also what it takes to achieve it, what holds you back, what creates doubt, then the actions you take can be tailored to address those things too, and make it more likely to reach your goals. People who take action, with this awareness in mind, of not just the physical aspects but all of it, I like to call those people drivers. They’re taking meaningful action, rather than just spinning their wheels and not getting as far as they would like.
Karen talked a lot about her physical training, but she also stressed the importance of her mental training.
K: I think it’s reall by little every day. I mean, I suppose the biggest one that I just come back to all the time as an I have to work on all the time is just that reminder that we are not our thoughts, and we can change them to make them work for us. Our thoughts influence, our neuro chemistry, or biochemistry, our physiology, that influences how we feel, and therefore what action we take in the world. So whenever I get down or feel a bit like I’m going that way, and now I’m like, Okay, what am I doing with my head? What am I doing with my thoughts? What am I doing with my actions every day? What am I not doing, and just start to really hone things up a little bit so that I’m making my body work optimally.
Going from dreaming about doing something, do actually doing it
How many times have you dreamt about something? How many times have you dreamt about doing something and then actually done it? It’s a hard thing to do. How do we actually follow our dreams, take action, not just action but relevant action, productive action. Action that will move us towards accomplishing something that we really want. And on top of that, how do we take action when things are difficult. We have responsibilities, obligations, we have families to take care of, we have busy jobs and schedules, maybe we have to overcome fear, or maybe we’ve never done something like this before.
If you’re not yet feeling inspired by Karen, I can’t imagine why not but let me tell you something else that’s incredible about her and her journey. She’s faced adversity like I could never imagine.
K: So when I was 21, I liked rock climbing and fell off a cliff in Scotland when I was being a little bit too cocky thinking I could climb a cliff that was too steep for me. Maybe too much ego going on and should have come down sooner fell about 10 meters and broke my back on the on the on the rocks below. I was on the sea cliffs and just in the north of Scotland. So I woke up three days later, I think I was unconscious for and to be told I was paralyzed from the chest down.
It happened so long ago that she says it casually, but in case you missed it, in case you’re skimming this article, read that again.
She was climbing and fell off a cliff, broke her back and is now paralyzed from the chest down. Everything she’s done, at least what we’ve talked about on this episode – winning medals, traveling, adventuring, she’s done since that accident.
Listen to the rest of the episode to hear about her accident, her recovery and how trained herself, her mind and her body, to live life fully again.
There are times in life when we face something that feels challenging. It might feel beyond our capabilities. Whether it’s a challenge we chose, or something that we need to face, Karen sees it as an opportunity to learn and change. It can push us out of comfort zone, stretch our abilities, help us develop resilience physically, mentally and emotionally and can give us a focus for our energy.
She reframes these challenges positively into what she described as a WIBA – Wouldn’t it be amazing.
For Karen, a key part of her ability to carry on, perform and conquer challenge after challenge, is managing her thoughts. Looking at what she can do, what she’s grateful for, and what’s holding her back. It’s this constant and reflective awareness that is key to her being able to take action and experience so much out of life.
What about you? Do you have goals or things that you want to accomplish? Are you living out your dreams?
No matter what your ideal XO life looks like, there are ways that you can move closer to making it a reality.
A good starting place is to check out my free quiz at livingxo.com/quiz. It helps you to figure out if you’re taking the right actions, or if you’re more likely caught up in chasing goals that aren’t aligned or if you’re spinning your wheels and not getting to where you want. More importantly, I follow up the quiz results with information on how you can move towards a more intentional approach.