Adventurer Paula Reid has made it her mission to live life to the full. Since her teens, she’s been working through what she calls her ‘Living Life To the Full’ list; challenges and experiences she wants to complete before she dies. So far, she’s completed 118 of them, including mammoth challenges such as skiing 1000km from Messner to the South Pole and sailing 35,000 miles around the world.
Paula is part-way into her latest challenge, ‘50 Good Turns’, which includes cycling across 50 countries and doing a good deed in each. With a Masters in positive psychology, she’s also recently launched a new genre of psychology, adventure psychology, which we cover below.
You started a ‘Live Life to the Full’ list in your teens. Has this been a catalyst for adventure or would you have lived an adventurous life regardless?
I think that I naturally have an inclination towards exploring and adventuring – I really enjoy being outside, walking, exploring, climbing, trekking, building camp, and even when I was young I used to play outdoors, go find deserted buildings, climb trees. So I believe I would have always lived an adventurous life, however, having a ‘Live Life to the Full’ list has really proactively got me doing more.
For instance, I would have never skied to the South Pole without the list. It makes me more proactive and thoughtful about the sorts of adventures I can do; without it, I wouldn’t have done half what I have done.
It took you 46 days to ski to the South Pole. How long did you spend preparing?
Skiing to the South Pole was extremely physically and psychologically arduous. I trained for 10 months, which included going to Norway twice to do free-heel cross country skiing, and also to train pulling a pulk and generally housekeeping/camping in the snow. I learnt a lot from both of those Norway trips.
I also went to the gym a lot to build up my general fitness and muscles. I went to various classes, particularly to build up my core. Boxercise and pilates were very appropriate and I also pulled two tyres around my neighbourhood six days a week. So there was an awful lot of physical fitness to be able to be super-fit but also to be able to recover from pulling an 80kg pulk for 12-hours a day.
You developed painful Polar thigh during your expedition. Can you explain what this is?
Polar thigh is a fascinating and fairly recent phenomenon. It’s classed as a ‘non-freezing cold injury’, an NFCI, and they think – they’re not certain – that it’s caused by being in the cold, skiing for about 12-hours a day. So you’ve got that scissoring motion of your legs, and then mechanical abrasion of your base layer constantly rubbing up and down on your thighs.
Your thighs are quite large once you start skiing to the South Pole; one, because you put so much fat on before you go, and two because you’ve done so much training. They’re constantly straining against your base layer and there’s a constant rubbing, potentially exasperated by the fine hairs on your legs. So imagine that constant plucking away at your hairs and the scissoring movement of your legs in very cold conditions of down to -40C.
How bad did your Polar thigh get?
It was extremely bad by the time I had finished the expedition. I had several very deep ulcers and open wounds on my thighs by the time I got home to the UK, and it took four months to recover. I was in bandages for four months and I got MRSA. I’m now fully recovered but have some large scars which, to be honest, I wear as a badge of honour.
Paula’s painful Polar thigh
What kept you going when you were in pain with big days still ahead of you?
Many things kept me from quitting. I had big strategies and small tactics, mostly psychological. I think the resilience was 98% in the head. On my skis, I’d written two mantras: ‘choose your attitude’ and ‘pain is temporary, pride is forever’ so they were good mantras. I was in survival mode sometimes, which was literally one step at a time.
Other techniques I used included segmentation, which meant dividing each day down into time chunks of 75 minutes and distance chunks of 20km a day. Having small rewards; so having a tasty energy jelly tube, or having a hot drink or chocolate. I’d think about finishing and the hot luxury holiday I was going to give myself once this had finished as a reward. Distraction techniques – doing times-tables or naming cars from A-Z. I used laughter, of course, whenever I could, but it was quite difficult to find humorous moments when you’re skiing to the South Pole with two very painful legs. It was all psychological. The determination to get to the South Pole was strong, but I did keep having to use techniques to maintain that grit.
Tell us about the mental toolbox you’ve built up over years of adventure experiences?
I know now when I dig deep that I have plenty of resources to help me either to cope, thrive or survive in very, very difficult conditions. Part of it is knowing that I can and that I have – the more that we do in life, the more we can do. I force myself to step out of my comfort zone a lot, as the more you step out of your comfort zone, the more your comfort zone stretches and enlarges. For me, it’s part of constantly pushing myself to go into my stretch zone. The more I do, the more I can do. Resilience is like a muscle, it needs working at and it develops over time.
You have a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology. Has this given you more insights on mentally preparing and dealing with extreme situations?
I did my Masters degree after I’d skied to the South Pole. I’d already experienced the extreme change in my performance depending on my mental attitude – so either a complete lack of energy and grumpiness if I didn’t have a positive mental attitude, or almost a rush of positive energy, focus and motivation when I did have the right mindset. Before I did my Masters, I kind of naively and naturally used as many techniques as I could, and experienced those changes in performance once I got my mindset right. But now I’ve done my degree, I have, of course, learnt lots of theories and tools and methods to get myself in the right headspace.
But it’s about knowing what motivates you; we’re all different and motivated in different ways. I’m really motivated by tough conditions, so I enjoy the need to really dig deep and really pull it out the bag when the going gets tough.
Can anyone build an adventure mindset or is it achieved through extreme experiences?
I think experience [in life] can be quite flat or quite peaky. I think the more ‘peak’ experiences we have, good and bad, the more we learn and grow. So whatever happens to us, or whatever we choose to put ourselves through – the more peak experiences we have – the quicker we learn and grow. I think wisdom, resilience and growth come from experience, so the more extreme it is, the more we learn and the steeper that growth is. However, there are also definite tools and methods that we can learn that help us cope with the ups and downs of life.
Paula’s skis, complete with motivating mantras
So yes, there is an adventure mindset; there are techniques that can be learnt and utilised whenever necessary. One of those is ‘anticipatory thinking’, where you think in advance what might happen and what the worst-case scenario could be. So let’s say you’re about to climb the Eiger; you think about the worst things that could happen halfway up – maybe you’d be caught in a snowstorm or avalanche conditions. You think that through in advance, so that when you’re on the mountain you’re more able to cope, and because you’ve thought it through in advance, your mind is freer to cope.
Mentally where do a lot of people fall at the first hurdle on expeditions and challenges?
I think these days, life is quite easy and we’re quite used to living in warm homes, sitting at our desks, we’re well fed and well looked after. And then there’s the [restrictive] health and safety culture. I do think we’re quite mollycoddled these days. So sometimes, when we choose to take on these challenges, we don’t really realise how tough and demanding they can be.
So I think some of the first hurdle is that we’re not used to having to really toughen up, to have that mental toughness or hardiness and to have to dig deep when it starts to hurt. I think we’ve gone soft and I think we’ve lost a lot of our evolutionary fitness. I think that’s the first hurdle; our slightly wrong expectation of what these challenges are. The more we read about someone climbing Everest or skiing to the South Pole, the more we think it’s really doable, and it sort of is, but you have to be really prepared to dig deep and get over lots of hurdles before you get to the end and finish.
I also think we can have a door in our head that’s ajar for us to exit through. For instance, we might think, ‘It’s OK for me to quit now that I’ve come this far. I’ve done really well, I’m in pain, now’s the time to quit.’ I’ve heard there are ‘shit quits’ and ‘legit quits’, and I think a lot of quitting is a bit shit, and that we don’t try to force ourselves over that first hurdle enough, because I think we’re more amazing and more capable than we realise.
Tell me about your new business and genre of adventure psychology?
My dissertation looked into why adventurers adventure; what were the purposes and benefits of going on an adventure. That now has turned into a new discipline that I’m launching that sits alongside sports psychology. So where sport psychology is ‘peak performance in fixed conditions over a short period of time’, adventure psychology is ‘enduring performance in uncertain and challenging conditions.’
We help people and businesses thrive during challenges and uncertainty. I think that people, leaders, businesses, can all benefit from the mindset of adventurers, which includes things like being resilient and being willing to go into the unknown but knowingly. (You can find out more about Paula’s business here)
Let’s talk about your current project, 50 Good Turns. What does this involve?
I’ve made up my own adventure which is cycling across countries and doing good turns. The countries I’ve cycled across are all European, so there’s about 48 official countries in Europe, and I’ve thrown in a couple of Asian ones. The idea is that I cycle border-to-border, either north-south or east-west, touching the border on each side. I wild camp en route so I’ve got a touring bike with panniers with all my kit in. I cycle 80-100 miles a day with all my kit and I do one good turn in each country. Each good turn could be a spontaneous one en route, such as helping someone or picking up rubbish, and some of the good turns have been set-up in advance with charities.
Did you train specifically for this cycling challenge?
Yes and no. I believe in training, however, cycling is not overly technical so it’s a question of having some general fitness. With some of the cycling I’ve done, I’ve got the fitness as I’ve gone along. When I cycled the length of the UK, from John O Groats to the south coast, I’d had my arm in plaster and the logistics meant I had to start without much training. So the first few days were a bit tough, but I got fit as I went. I believe I’ve got a core fitness generally, but I do cycle as much as I can now; I’ve got a local circuit which keeps me generally fit.
Tell us about your experience with 50 Good Turns so far?
It’s a very full-on experience cycling across a country. You’ve got the physical demand on your whole body, especially going uphill. But also downhill on these roads can be pretty hairy. Then you have the weather; a battering of wind, heat and rain against you. You’ve then got the actual geography of the country with amazing scenery and views, so again a constant onslaught of impressions on your senses as you’re cycling through these amazing landscapes.
Then you’ve got the cultural immersion of being in a different country – reading signposts, understanding navigation, trying to shop for food and talk to people – and the history of the local culture. Then you have all the map reading, navigation and decision-making, and then you have the good turns. So it’s a really immersive sensory experience with lots of highs and lots of lows!
What have been the highs and lows of your experience so far?
A high might be in Slovakia as the sun is setting and there are just fields of big poppies and corn, and I’m in a state of flow, which is when you lose sense of time and you’re in your actual peak state during a challenge. So I’m cycling really fast, the scenery’s stunning, the temperature is just right, and I’ve done 80 or 90 miles, and it’s just blissful.
A low would be like the time in Hungary when I had to cycle down a really nasty road which had a steep drop one side and a concrete barrier on the other, with loads of lorries thundering past trying to overtake me when I had nowhere to go. Cycling down the hill, which can be a bit fast and out of control. At one point, I had to pull in to a layby to let all these lorries past until one of them flashed me and allowed me to cycle in front of it, which was very kind because I still had a long way to go.
What are your favourite items of kit for your cycling adventures?
My bike is quite crucial. It’s a Dawes supergalaxy touring bike. It’s steel-framed and it’s proven to be a good, trusty steel steed to get around on. So far, it’s served me well and my life is dependent on it. It’s black and it’s called Peat.
Less obvious perhaps, I’ve grown very fond of an energy cube called Bolt Blocks (available from the US). They got me all the way to the South Pole, so I take them when I go cycling. I don’t know whether it’s a placebo effect, but whenever I eat a Bolt Block I feel super-energised and capable. I also love my Hilleberg Akto tent because it’s my home away from home, and I feel safe and comfy and cosy in it. It’s super-small but goes up really fast and has a porch and it’s very comfortable.
Do you have any sponsors?
The quick answer is no! Dare2B have sponsored some of my cycling kit [in the past] so I’m very grateful to them. I’ve also been sponsored by Armadillo who supply merino base layer leggings and tops. I’ve tried for sponsorship, it’s quite hard to get hold of it, so sometimes I just bite the bullet and pay for the challenge and the kit and then try to earn the money back afterwards.