He has run across the world’s longest mountain trails. The world's longest marked trail at 5,330km here in Australia to New Zealand's equivalent at 3,054km, how about Israel's length at 1,012km or end to end of South Australia, another 1,200km. He's also run around an exploding volcano in Sumatra. Its these experiences and the psychological findings combined that makes Richard Bowles' angle different from all the rest.
Richard unpacked the strategies that saw him succeed and overcome running on blisters and infection, crossing raging and crocodile infested rivers, ploughing through avalanches and volatile war zones under fire. It's from this space that he delivers a fresh insight, with business leaders and their teams on how to tackle challenges and shares actionable ideas on pushing through them while we are already psychically and mentally exhausted.
“I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man” Jay Z.
Richard Bowles - My Story
My claim to fame is that I run mountain ranges that span entire nations, from 1000km at a time to 5000km, what I call adventure running. On these trails, I am running upwards of 85kms a day, sometimes for months at a time. The longest trail I have done to date is the 5500km Bicentennial Trail (previously known as the National Horse Trail) which is here in Australia, running from Healesville Victoria to Cook Town in far north Queensland.
I came to Australia some 16 years ago, from Leicester in England, something I am now proud to say to those who follow the soccer. I came across with my Australian partner at the time but had no family of my own here. With the move, I decided it was time to become healthier and to lose a bit of weight, as even now I am not a small guy. When you tell people that you are essentially a professional long distance runner, people are automatically expecting someone with the build of Steve Moneghetti, that straight up and down figure however I have a bit of booty, like a British Beyonce.
I was working in Corporate Sales at the time, engaging in the constant socialising and the drinking meant that I was stacking on the weight. Although I wasn’t massive, I was starting to get bigger than I wanted to be. I decided to engage a personal trainer who I was seeing twice a week, which naturally involved a great deal of running. Once my fitness had started to build, I participated in a Fun Run, although I still have no idea why they call them ‘Fun Runs’. Much to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the running and was pretty good at it, so from the 5km, I decided to participate in a 10km marathon, to a half marathon and then to a Marathon. My ultimate goal was to complete an ultra-marathon which is anything over 42.2km. When I am on a 1000km trail, I am effectively running two marathons a day, sometimes almost scraping 100km a day.
A 100km Day
The 100km distance for events is quite common nowadays, even 100-mile races which are 160km. It blows people’s minds to even think of the possibility of running this distance, let alone the fact that there are people’s grandmas who are running ultra-marathons over a weekend. The sport has taken off, with all different ages and generations participating, it’s for everyone. I am not some sort of superhuman guy running these distances, I know all different types and sizes of people who are doing this. To run at all takes a lot of mental discipline, you can train, anyone can train for anything which is just not applicable for sport, it is a matter of mental strength. It is a purely mental game, and as with everything in life, as you progress it becomes easier. You learn the skills, develop the talent which is the easy part of it, it’s the mental part that it is hard to conquer. It is mental because it is not necessarily enjoyable; I think that’s where we struggle when there are things which we must do in order to get ahead.
My whole story has been about this guy who started running, who did the marathon, who did the ultra-marathon and then decided he was going to run the longest trail. I guess for me the motivation was and still is, wanting to be the biggest and best version of myself. For some reason running dragged me into this direction, it is not a passion for me. If you have a passion for running those sorts of distances in the wilderness and torturing yourself both physically and mentally, then you need to sit down with someone and get some professional help. It is because I want to grow and develop; this is essentially my area of work now so it is a matter of how to continue growing within this sphere. Growing, developing and improving makes us happy, it is a basic human need, however, to grow and develop we must go through pain, to face fears and to deal with what is not comfortable. The very thing that makes us happy is the very thing that by human nature we are trying to avoid. I think if we can understand what that is and how we can benefit from it, then we can take a different perspective. We need to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones; however, I disagree with the adage that the magic happens when we are outside of it. It doesn’t just happen there; it is after we have gone outside of our comfort zone that the magic happens not in the place of discomfort itself.
I wanted to do something meaningful, there is no point packing up everything and travelling the world only to come back to the same situation having done a full circle. I had the same thing in mind when deciding to run 5500km, being isolated in the wilderness of a mountain range for 5 and a half months. I was supported by my then partner who travelled in a campervan and would meet me at points where the track intersected with the road which could be every 20km, every 100 km or every 300km, meaning I spent a lot of time alone. I have always joked that if you want motivation to run these sorts of lengths, then spend 6 months with your partner in a campervan, that will make you want to run.
You need the support and you need the supplies, especially water as I always find that the hardest part. You can last a while without food but not without water. I think when people decide to start something new we overcomplicate it and take it to extremes, which in turn makes it harder. So, my approach is that it is just running, that it's essentially walking just done bit quicker. If I was going to walk from here to the city today, I would probably just eat a bit more but I wouldn’t start taking pills or supplements. It’s the same for my running when you are out there for these periods of time you cannot survive on sports nutritional diets, I need the substance of a normal diet.
During the 5500km you try to plan it out, sometimes I am sleeping in the wilderness, sometimes in the campervan and at other times not at all. It is not just the running schedule for me, it’s also about the schedule for the team and when they are going to sleep, to eat and to source supplies as there aren’t supplies in the middle of nowhere. I take a backpack of supplies on my person when you are on a trail the environment changes often and rapidly just as it does in the business world. So, I need to personally be prepared for all scenarios and need to be self-sufficient by carrying food, water, snake bite kits, GPS equipment, emergency beacons and the like. It’s a fine balance of carrying enough to be prepared for all situations without carrying so much that it slows you down. I have found that the more and more I run, the more and more days I am spending solo which is probably due to my growth and to my increase in confidence.
The Volcano Trail
One of the most dangerous but exciting trails that I have run was a trail across Northern Sumatra which saw me running around a volcano in the process of erupting, the government had evacuated 80,000 people from the area. A sponsor who provided me with my backpacks had asked me to put together some promo videos, featuring a different kind of backpacks for different pursuits. I wanted to give them something different, not the same old trees or desert scenes. That’s when I thought, I know what’s different, there is a volcano spitting out lava in North Sumatra, I mean the trail is already exciting enough with the traffic and the cows crossing roads but the volcano would take it to the next level. We showcased one backpack there from the city through the jungle, being chased by orangutans and crossing wide raging rivers. We then arrived in a small town not far from the base of the volcano which had been covered in volcanic ash; everything from the houses to the cars had been blanketed. The volcano was still a few kilometres from the town but even there you could feel it rumbling. The next struggle was trying to find a guide willing to take us up to the volcano, eventually, we found someone but he would only take us as far as the park entrance. So, we drove a 4wd drive up the side of the volcano, the cameraman was overwhelmed with the footage he was getting until the volcano started to spit out molten rocks the size of golf balls. We had to seek shelter in abandon farms at the base, in one we found two locals huddled up in the corner who told us we should have been there the night before when the volcano was not spitting out rocks the size of golf balls but rocks the size of footballs, as scared as they were the fear of looters was even greater so they had stayed. We caught some amazing footage while we were up there, the supplier was more than impressed and to their testament, the backpacks survived the volcanic conditions.
My decision to run around the volcano was inspired by another event which happened to me during my time on a trail in Israel. I was running through the desert, running 85km a day. Then a local man decided to join me for one 80km stretch, he would then be at the end of it. He told me I was crazy, that what I was doing was insane. When suddenly, a whistling sound filled the air as a missile flew overhead, I ran for shelter under a cactus being the closest option. When I looked up I saw he was still standing in the same spot on the trail, he asked what I was doing. When I told him to get down, he told me not to worry as this is normal in Israel. Here the same man telling me that running 80km a day was crazy, thought that having missiles flying overhead was ‘normal’. When you look at the scenario, it makes you realise that when you spend a lot of time in what is uncomfortable, it becomes normal for you, it becomes comfortable so then you need to take the next step to find what is now uncomfortable. It’s this constant search for something bigger.
Incorporating passion into business
What I am passionate about is my own growth and development, every time I run I am aiming for something bigger and something better than what I have done before. It’s exciting, holding all these new world records, although it is not what it's about. I am not what people picture when you are talking about long distance runners; I am just an average looking guy, albeit rather handsome. It excites me that I am not what people are expecting, it brings the focus back to true human potential. The only way I can keep doing this is to keep venturing into the uncomfortable.
People assume that running for the lengths of time and the hours of the day that I am, that I have all this time for thinking and deep reflection. The truth is I don’t, when I am running I am thinking about what I am doing which is particularly important with trail running due to the potential hazards or the risks, you don’t want to trip on a rock or take a wrong turn when you are in the middle of nowhere. The biggest lesson I have learnt in regards to this, was when I was running 3000km across both islands of New Zealand. I was running across a beautiful ridge in atrocious weather, the rain was falling so heavily that I could not even see my own feet. There was thunder and lightning filling the sky, getting stronger and stronger as I was getting higher and higher up the mountain. I started to doubt myself, thinking I can’t do this; I want to be at home on the couch with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. As soon as I started thinking like this, I tumbled, my life flashed before my eyes until I eventually came to a stop lying on my back. I opened my eyes and I could only see the heavy fog above me, everything was still and in that moment, I thought everything was over. I quickly realised that I was still here and tried to get myself to my feet, only to find that my backpack was wedged tightly between two rocks. As I started doing this, I realised my leg was swinging freely and that I hadn’t been lying on my back but had instead been suspended over a cliff ledge. I was lucky that I could climb back up and free my backpack; especially given that I could now see I had tumbled almost vertically for some 80m, being saved by only two rocks. All because I had not been paying attention to what I had been doing, you have to rid yourself of these distractions in life whether it be running a trail or even in a business sense. As soon as you take your attention off one thing, something else will grab it
Advice to self or others
I wouldn’t have given myself any advice, purely because if I had I wouldn’t be in the position that I am in now or be the person that I am now. I might be in a worse off position or I might have been in a better off position, but I am happy with where I am. There was an interview a number of years ago, conducted by Andrew Denton with a homeless person in the US who had been drug and alcohol affected but had become clean and begun to turn his life around. When Andrew asked him what advice he would have given himself, he said the same thing ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’. The only advice I have for myself going into the future is to just keep going, to see what happens next.
Where I find, I get a lot of inspirational quotes or lines is from rap music, even though I wouldn’t necessarily say I am a massive rap fan. I do like some of the quirky lines, particularly the Jay-Z quote ‘I am not a businessman; I am a business, man.’ I am also a strong believer in the concept that now is always the right time, that there is never a better time than now. For example, if you are buying a house, there is never a good time to borrow money from a bank; even the time to buy a property is now.
I could be corny here and say the bible. I think in terms of books, keeping dairy is very important, not as in a personal journal but as a scheduling tool as it keeps you honest. If you open your diary and it is full of blank spaces it makes you question what you have been doing with your time and whether you have made the most out of that day. You can keep a schedule, keep records of ideas or thoughts when I load up my diary or my calendar, I can feel the weight of it.
Apart from the running or adventure side of my life, I have also done a lot of research into how I manage to do what I have done. I took a whole year out of my life as an educational year and sat down with a number of physiological experts across the country and New Zealand. I am still working with psychologists and Monash University to explore this idea of how do we keep pushing ourselves, how do I manage to do what I do. I also do a lot of work with sales teams as they face a lot of mental challenges and I come from a background in sales.
You can find me on my site at richardbowles.com.au or on any social media platforms.