Forget the 4,000+ miles of polar landscape he's traversed on skis, forget the dozens of days he's spent walking solo across Antarctica, hell, even forget the 69 back-to-back marathons it took him and expedition partner Tarka L'Herpiniere to travel from Ross Island on the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back again in 2013-14. Why? Because Ben Saunders probably holds the world record for the largest quantity of oats eaten by a human being in two months, and that – as much as the distances he's covered, the records he's broken and the stubborn will to endure he's developed over 17 years of Arctic and Antarctic adventures – is an achievement in itself. We sat down with the record-breaking British explorer to find out what (other than boxes and boxes of Battle Oats bars) makes him tick.
What do you do and why?
I always struggle for the right job description: calling myself a polar explorer sounds like I'm stuck in the wrong century. Can I call myself a long-distance skiier? I definitely can't claim to be an explorer in the Edwardian sense of the word, I'm not trying to find out where the North or South Pole is, but I've spent the last 17 years leading polar expeditions. For me, I'm an unusual kind of endurance athlete who specialises in the coldest places on Earth. For me these expeditions are the ultimate kind of ultra-marathon.
What is it that inspires you to keep going back?
It's hard to put into words. I guess I've got a lot of satisfaction out of becoming really good at something. It's taken 17 years of effort, focus and dedication in this one very narrow niche. Going away and spending two months alone in Antarctica – for most people that would be lunacy. I feel like some sort of weird artist or craftsman who's become a specialist in the field.
There's also something about these places – the high Arctic and Antarctica – to me they're just the most incredible physical environments. They're beautiful – they can be really miserable on a bad day, too, but for the most part they're completely untouched by man. I spent eight weeks last year where I saw nothing artificial: no buildings, no aircraft, nothing living, just snow. It was like living on a different planet.
When you get back, what is it like describing things to people?
There's something quite humbling about Antarctica: it really resets your sense of scale. Jet travel makes the world feel smaller, but there's something about walking in a straight line for nine or ten hours a day for nearly two months and just covering a little corner of the bottom bit of the planet. You suddenly realise that the world's actually pretty massive.
I try to be down-to-earth when I come back, but sometimes that's frustrating because it feels like normal vocabulary doesn't do these places justice.
To say 'well, it was cold': we had -70°C in 2013-14; to say 'well, you feel a bit isolated': I was the most isolated human being on the planet for a few weeks – people on the space station were nearer to other humans than I was; to say 'it's difficult': well, you're carrying more than 140kg for ten hours a day. No one's daft enough to try and do that, it's kind of off-the-scale, really. It's hard to explain.
There's something humbling about Antarctica: it really resets your sense of scale
Conversely I really enjoy telling the story, and I feel very lucky. It seems to be universally interesting. I often think if I was a golfer, a cricketer or a racing driver, there'd be certain people who'd love it, and other people would switch off straight away. Whereas what I do is so weird that most people seem interested in some aspect of it. It seems to be universally interesting.
What does the training involve?
Training is a weird mix of endurance and strength. On the one hand I'm trying to cover enormous distances on these expeditions. The biggest was in 2013-14 when we did 1,800 miles, which was like walking 69 marathons back-to-back.
We were also pulling 200kg each at the start. Last year alone I was carrying 135kg – way heavier than I am. So in some senses it's like a strongman event, you're wearing a harness, trying to pull this huge amount of weight. You've got to be a jack of all trades: stamina and endurance, yes, but also the brute strength to be able to move the weight of the sledge.
Before you leave, you've usually got to fatten up as well. Last October I put on ten kilos, which sounds like an excuse to go bananas and binge eat chocolate, but actually it's horrible because you spend ages getting to a stage where you feel quite fit, and then you feel like you're ruining it by overeating, and it's disgusting, because you're already eating loads because you're training quite a lot.
What fitness tips would you give to people looking to go on their own adventures?
Having a series of goals is always useful. I've always picked smaller events and challenges leading up to an expedition, and this translates to running things like marathons. That could be 5k, a 10k, a half-marathon or anything.
As I've got older, having a coach or trainer has got really useful, too. It helps make sure you're efficient with how you're using your time. I've trained loads for the last 20 years, so part of me thinks I could probably go it alone, but then I also know I'll just do the things I enjoy doing or am good at. So it's worth having a coach who can spot weaknesses and force me to do things I normally wouldn't do.
Finding an activity that you enjoy is important, too. I do a lot of running and cycling, and the fitness transfers to hauling a 240kg sledge across Antarctica. Some people would advocate wearing a sledge harness and dragging a tyre around behind me, but that's just the most boring, mind-numbing thing I've ever done: I haven't done that for years. I'd much rather go for a bike ride in the Surrey Hills or go on a run with my mates. There's no point in putting yourself through misery just for the sake of training.
How has tourism affected the poles?
The other year I heard that Antarctica was the fastest-growing tourist destination on Earth in percentage terms, but that's pretty misleading when you look at the figures. It's basically gone from zero to a few thousand people. I went down this clickhole looking for tourist figures in Antarctica – this place that's twice the size of Australia – and I found out that it's got about the same number of annual visitors as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, so it's still just a handful of people in the grand scheme of things. Antarctica is also one of the most strictly governed places on Earth. When we flew down there from Patagonia, we had to go through a footbath to make sure I didn't have grass seeds on my shoes.
I've never met a passionate environmentalist who isn't well travelled. I think people have to experience these places to feel a sense of stewardship. These places need passionate advocates, and generally those people have been and experienced them. At the moment, though, the travel there is pretty responsible, it's not stag dos going down to the South Pole and binge drinking their way around Antarctica. Not yet, anyway.
Have you noticed a change in conditions in the polar regions?
Yes, absolutely. It's more obvious in the Arctic as it's mostly sea, but also because I've been visiting longer. In 2001 to start from the north coast of Russia, and basically travel from the land to the frozen surface of the sea. I went back a few years later and there was open water, and no matter how much talk there was of it being a freak year that ice has never come back, there's more water every year.
Last year in Antarctica, I had unusually warm weather. It was way warmer than in 2014. You'd think that'd make it easier for me, but actually it means more cloud, mist, fog and snow. The journey hasn't got any shorter, but the weather is worse while you're out there.
How can people push their comfort zones and get out into the wilderness from London?
My friend Al Humphreys wrote a book about something he called 'microadventures'. It was all about going for one night, getting away from the city and camping on a hill, and then heading back into work the next day.
For a lot of people, the idea of doing something in the outdoors is off-putting, because it seems enormously complex. It feels like an expedition in itself. Al does a great job of making it simple and accessible.
There's fantastic wilderness in Britain. I think I'm guilty of making it seem like you need to go to the actual end of the Earth to have an adventure, but I live near Richmond Park and I still love walking my dog there: and that's just a tiny little corner of countryside.
Scotland has got some of the hardest climbing in the world, especially the winter climbing. If you live in London, it's easy to think we're in this completely overcrowded, noisy, busy place that's just pollution and traffic, but within a couple of hours you can be in these amazing places. Scotland, Wales, the Lakes: they're all extraordinary places. Explore what Britain's got to offer before you start planning anything more exotic.