John Peck claims not to be an exceptional sailor, climber or runner, yet the feats speak for themselves. Around the age of 60 he became the oldest British person to row the Atlantic unsupported, ran the Marathon des Sables, and walked to the North Pole. On the eve of the publication of a book about his experiences, Restless: Dispatches from a Lifetime of Adventure, John Peck talks to Sidetracked about his life… and what adventure is next at the age of 70 (spoiler: it’s pretty tough).Where are you right now?
As I write this in my office surrounded by piles of paper and books, with the incessant sound of the builders (we’ve finally got around to putting an extension on our house), I yearn to be back out in the wilderness. The one thing about going to remote wilderness places, is that while it might be very stressful getting there, once you arrive all you have to think about is the next step in front of you, and the stunning panorama of views all around you. Typically all you hear is silence, and that in itself is quite awe-inspiring.You’ve just released a book, Restless, about talking about your adventures, many around the age of 60. Did writing the book put some perspective on the things you’ve achieved?
“What has been so rewarding in pulling the adventures of a lifetime together is seeing how much others have enjoyed reading about and sharing the stories with me. My goal with this book is to encourage others to stretch the limits of their potential in their own lives and take on personal challenges that might have once seemed impossible.
The common theme of the book is that in all these challenges – whether taking on the Marathon des Sables – a race across the Sahara desert of six marathons in seven days – approaching the age of 60 or walking to the North Pole – I started knowing absolutely nothing about the activities that I was about to tackle. The fun for me is in trying to develop the skills, knowledge and ability to pull it off in a way that will allow you to come out alive at the end of it.
What did you learn writing the book?
The challenge of writing a book is tougher in some ways than the adventures themselves. It requires huge self-discipline and determination to simply get the words down on paper. I was lucky that I had my colleague George Bull to help me or I would still be struggling now to get it finished. I learned that pretty much anything is possible as long as you do your research, train to get to the peak of fitness and take good companions who have a good sense of fun when things get desperate.What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
A year before I was 60, rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean unsupported in a small rowing boat. My partner, Fraser Dodds, and I rowed two hours on and two hours off 24/7 with waves that, at times, were 10 metres high.”What’s surprised you most during your journeys?
The enormous potential human beings have to stretch themselves way beyond their normal limits.What are the challenges unique to being an older adventurer? What advantages does it have?
The key challenge is that your speed drops off without you noticing it. You will be able to go the distance, but if you are with a group that wants to move fast you are heading for trouble. The advantage is the old ‘tortoise and hare’ analogy. If you are like me now at 70 years old, you will have been pushed to the limit so many times in your life that you will have developed the coping strategies that will hopefully enable you to keep going when others who are less experienced may struggle with a sense of being overwhelmed.To someone hoping to embark on their own adventure, what advice would you offer?
Be absolutely clear about what exactly you want to take on and why. This adventure must then become the most important thing in your life until it is over. From the moment you decide to do the challenge, focus is absolutely key to your success. You decide what you are doing and then cut off all the bridges behind you.
Also choose your teammates carefully. When I told a seasoned ocean rower that I was considering rowing in a pair, he warned me that the greatest danger I would come across wouldn’t be the storms or sharks but that at some point I would want to kill my rowing partner and that he would want to kill me. Fortunately, I can report that we are still the closest of friends!
What did you learn today?
I have enjoyed some amazing adventures over the years but the ones I have enjoyed the most have been the ones when I am sharing the experience with other people journeying alongside me. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing the look of amazement and fascination on people’s faces as they round a corner and see something awesome for the first time. Each time it is like re-living the experience for yourself.What are you planning next?
I’m currently recruiting a small team of people to tackle the Naukluft Trail in Namibia in May 2016. This has been described as ‘the toughest trail in Southern Africa.’ It is an eight-day trail and we are going to do it in seven days. There’s a lot of height to climb under extreme heat on the 120-kilometre stretch and we will be self-sufficient, carrying all our food and kit for the duration.