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How Colin O’Brady mentally prepared for his Antarctic feat

There have been many expeditions on the frozen continent of Antarctica, but Colin O'Brady's 54-day solo trek across more than 930 miles without any assistance was the first of its kind. "You are locked in a prison of your own brain," O'Brady said. "Fortunately, I like my own company." William Brangham talks with him and his expedition manager and wife Jenna Besaw about this test of endurance.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On the day after Christmas, an American endurance athlete, Colin O'Brady, completed a 54-day solo trek across more than 930 miles of the vastness of Antarctica.

    Over the past century, and then some, there have been many expeditions across the frozen continent, since Roald Amundsen first went to the South Pole. Ernest Shackleton tried to cross shortly afterward.

    Generations have followed those pursuits, as equipment has changed and the routes have changed considerably. Part of the path, for example, is now flatter.

    But O'Brady became the first to complete such a difficult trek with no supply drops and wind kites.

    William Brangham talks with him and his wife about his journey and enduring the worst of Antarctica.

  • William Brangham:

    With a final 32-hour 80-mile push, Colin O'Brady became the first person to cross Antarctica alone without any assistance.

    The 33-year-old celebrated with a post on Instagram, writing: "I did it."

    This was 54 days after setting off on this brutal 930-mile-long trip. Upon arrival, O'Brady tearfully called his wife and expedition manager, Jenna Besaw.

    O'Brady started the treacherous journey on November 3 at the Ronne Ice Shelf on the continent's eastern side. He set off at the same time as 49-year-old Louis Rudd, a British army captain who's also trying to make the historic trip.

    The two men raced each other for nearly two months, passing over mountains of ice and snow and across the South Pole. Then, O'Brady made it to the finish, the Leverett Glacier at the Ross Ice Shelf, where Antarctica's land mass ends and the ice sea begins.

    Others had made the crossing before, but they had assistance with supplies or kites that helped pull them across the ice. O'Brady had none of that help. Most days, he trekked 12 hours, pulling roughly 400 pounds on his sleds.

    He climbed up ice ridges, pushed through blinding snow and 30-mile-an-hour headwinds, and had to endure temperatures as low as minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

    O'Brady consumed around 7,000 calories a day to ensure he had enough energy for the grueling trek. Still, his legs were emaciated by the end.

    He dubbed his attempt The Impossible First, which it certainly would have seemed just a decade ago. That's when an accident that burned nearly 25 percent of O'Brady's body, primarily his legs and feet. Doctors warned him he might never walk normally again.

    But, after a lengthy rehab, he went on to become a professional triathlete…

  • Colin O’Brady:

    Mount Everest!

  • William Brangham:

    … and eventually climbed Mount Everest.

    Once he'd set this record for crossing Antarctica, O'Brady stayed put, setting up camp near the Ross Ice Shelf, where he waited for Louis Rudd to cross the finish line and join him, a little more than 48 hours later.

    Colin O'Brady is back in the U.S. now, and I recently sat down with him and his wife, Jenna, in New York City, to talk about that trek.

    This story has a happy ending. You're home safe and sound. We know the ending of this story now. But did you have any reservations ahead of time before you set out on this journey?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    So, you know, the stakes are real. But, at the same time, you know, that's part of the preparation that goes into it, to prepare the body, mind, soul for the journey. But what also makes it a great adventure and a great goal to set out for is that it's not guaranteed.

  • William Brangham:

    Jenna, how did you feel about this? I mean, are you fine with the idea of sending your husband off on something called The Impossible First?

  • Jenna Besaw:

    I really understand the risks that were there, and then full trust that Colin was able to manage them and, again, the training and prep that went in and the food preparation and whatnot. I was pretty confident that we had at least tried our best to manage the risks.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    There was a moment a few years ago where I finished climbing Mount Everest. And she calls me and says: "Yes, congratulations. Now I need to get you on a plane to fly to the next mountain to Denali."

  • William Brangham:

    So, she's the hard driver here.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    So, she knows how to push me hard, even though — despite the risks.

  • Jenna Besaw:

    I think of it as encouragement.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    Can you give us a little more sense of what it was like day to day?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    Full blowing winds. I mean, there's lots of times when I would spend you know 12, 13 hours pulling my sled per day and couldn't even barely see the next step in front of me, I mean, complete whiteout, all just staring at my compass the entire time.

    And then the average temperature, yes, you know, minus-25, minus-30 degrees; 30-, 40-, 50-mile-per hour winds were not uncommon throughout this journey. So that jacks the windchill up into minus-70, minus-80. And then camping at night, so a couple — two hours to set everything up.

    Man, that was really intense.

    Two hours take everything down, and 17 hours, only leaves a few hours for sleep, and do it again. I did that 54 days in a row, without taking a single day off.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    That's nothing.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    I'm tired now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    These conditions are really, I think, unlike what almost any person who is watching this has ever experienced. What are you wearing on your body to stop yourself from freezing to death?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    So, I had full face mask on every day, gloves, mittens, no part of my skin exposed.

    You probably saw from some of the photos, you know, tape on my nose and cheeks, because that's where little pieces of wind seemed to be penetrating my mask even. And I was getting little traces of frostbite in little sections.

    And so, you know really, one tiny little corner of your skin exposed, you know, that's frostbite in a few minutes with that level of wind. So, yes, it was very intense.

  • William Brangham:

    And how often are you hearing from him on this trip?

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Anywhere from a five-minute to sometimes longer, if we need to go over anything specific, but every day. I did get to check in with him every day.

  • William Brangham:

    People are obviously just awed by the physical nature of what you did, but, obviously, the mental aspect of this has got to be a huge part of it, maybe even bigger than the physical.

    And I just wonder, what is it like to live alone like that, in that environment, doing that kind of physical work every day?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    I would say 10 or 20 percent was the physical, being a professional athlete, preparing, but, really, the success of this project hangs in the balance with the mental preparation, 100 percent, and the resilience there.

    I have kind of an avid meditation practice. Every year, I go to a 10-day silent meditation retreat, no reading, no writing, no eye contact. We have both done that several times, just as part of just our life, as a way to reflect.

    But that ultimately prepared me so well to be in solitude like this. And that was sort of the more positive elements of it, but also so much time for your mind to wind you up and take you down into a sort of a negative place.

    I'm kind of down on my mind right now. This is — even though I'm so close, day 48. It's the first time in the project I'm feeling like I just wish I could quit.

    Oh, my God, it's only day 17. The wind is 50 miles per hour. I'm freezing. I just got blown over off my skis. Am I going to make it? The sled seems too heavy.

    I mean, all of the negative and self-doubting thoughts, of course. I mean, I'm only human.

    Going to be a windy one. Good old headwind.

    You are locked in a prison of your own brain. So, fortunately, I like my own company, I suppose.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Or he learned to like it.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    And it was a great lesson, though. Just so many profound just kind of personal lessons have come from that experience and that journey of going so deep into my own mind and my own memories. And that was really beautiful in the end.

  • William Brangham:

    I really can't imagine the idea of being so remote. I mean, literally, there is probably no more remote place on this Earth and more dangerous place for a human being, but then, at the same time, being able to talk to your beloved thousands of miles away.

    That's got to be an unbelievable sort of contrast.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    A tent at night to speak to her.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    It is a strange contrast. I'm grateful to be able to do that, but it's not as if I was sort of talking to all sorts of different people at the same time.

    So it was kind of like this little bubble between the two of us. Jenna had to read between the lines just in my voice. Literally, that's why we had that call, not just because I wanted to, but also to for her to be like, OK, you know, ask me kind of a series of questions.

  • Jenna Besaw:

    But, then again, it was reading between the lines and kind of discerning what I was hearing and making sure that it was headed in a positive direction.

  • William Brangham:

    On Christmas Eve and then on Christmas morning, you get up. And by your schedule and how — the pace you have been running, you're two, three days from the — quote, unquote — "finish line."

    But you decide, I'm not going to take two or three days to do it. I'm going to do it in one big push. Why did you — why?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    But I woke up that morning, and I just felt great. My entire sort of personal reason for going and doing this project was to push the limits of human potential.

    And I thought, what better way than to see how far I can go in a single push to finish? And so I kept going. Unfortunately, the weather declined. It got horrible. I also ran out of water, because I only melted enough generally for about 12 or 13 hours.

    So, by hour 18, I had run out of water.

  • William Brangham:

    Most normal humans would just say, I'm going to rest now, sleep now.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    Like, this was pretty good. I will finish it tomorrow.

    Instead, I get in my tent, boil the water, give Jenna a call. She's like: "Oh, my God, I saw you went almost 50 miles. Incredible. Get some rest. You are probably going to finish this project tomorrow."

    And I was like: "Well, actually I'm just melting water for an hour. I'm about to take my tent down in this crazy storm that I'm experiencing and get back out and finish this thing."

    And so another 12-plus hours, I finished, in that 32-hour push, 77 miles, to finish. And I think it was a really fun way to finish.

  • William Brangham:

    What were you thinking?

  • Jenna Besaw:

    I mean, he sounded better than he had sounded almost in the previous 53 days.

    But, of course, we made sure, like, you know, did you stop and boil water, which, of course, was the reason why he had stopped. And have you eaten all of the calories properly today? Asking him about his memory, could he remember everything that had happened up to that point?

  • William Brangham:

    When you're asking those questions, you're checking to see if he's smart.

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Thinking properly, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    If he's doing all the crucial steps to survive.

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Totally. Doing the critical thinking necessary to really maintain a safe crossing.

    And so, at that point I just heard it in his voice. He didn't sound crazed or insane. He sounded like he…

  • William Brangham:

    Any more than he normally he does.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Sure.

    He sounded — and I have seen this over the course of his athletic career. He sounded like he was — quote, unquote — "in the zone." He sounded like he was in the perfect place to high-perform.

  • William Brangham:

    So many people are obviously inspired by what you did and followed you as you went.

    Does any part of you worry that other people who are not nearly as capable of doing this kind of a thing might try to emulate you?

  • Colin O’Brady:

    I mean, if someone wants to cross Antarctica, and there's someone dreaming about that, I hope they do the proper training, and I would love to see somebody else do that. That would be amazing. And I would be cheering their success.

    But, more so, hopefully, they can take sort of the universal principles of this into their own life and dare to dream, whatever it is in their own life, that they can actually turn the impossible dreams in their life into something that's possible and beautiful and rich.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Colin O'Brady, Jenna Besaw, thank you both very much.

  • Colin O’Brady:

    Thank you.

  • Jenna Besaw:

    Thanks so much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a postscript: William is currently on his way to Antarctica, and we will bring you those reports soon. He's not going to be crossing solo.

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