ALEX BELLINI - ADVENTURER, ENDURANCE ATHLETE, MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER AND MENTAL COACH
"My main motivation for an expedition is never the desire to test myself. I already know what my value is. It is more about the belief that experiences (especially the tough ones and those we would rather avoid) are the best teachers. Every time I return home I have a strong feeling that I grew up a little, somehow. I feel I came a step closer to my real self."
Alex Bellini is an Italian adventurer, endurance athlete, motivational speaker and mental coach. Growing up in a small village in the Italian Alps, Alex developed a passion for sport and adventure, spending the winter months competing in downhill skiing events and the off season running, cycling and climbing in the mountains. He has devoted his life to exploring some of the most hostile environments in the world in pursuit of his passion for adventure, overcoming solitude, exhaustion, extreme cold and unbearable heat to realise his dreams. Alex's achievements include running across America, running the Marathon des Sables, rowing solo across two oceans, walking across Alaska and skiing across the Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in Europe. His thirst for adventure remains as strong as ever and he is currently preparing to live on an iceberg for a year in Greenland with the aim of documenting the end of an iceberg’s life. Through his adventures, Alex has developed an interest in the psychology of performance and now also works as a mental coach, advising athletes on how to achieve peak performance. I spoke to Alex about his motivations for going on adventures, how he finds the mental strength to keep going during the dark times on his expeditions and the benefits of taking yourself out of your comfort zone.
How did growing up in the mountains in Italy influence your interest in exploration, adventure and endurance challenges? Is there a specific person or book from your childhood that has particularly inspired you?
Growing up in the mountains deeply influenced my interest in exploration and adventure because when you live with mountains and woods on your doorstep it is very likely that you will eventually get attracted to them. Until the age of 18 I competed as a downhill skier and I did a lot of outdoor activities as training in the off season, such as mountain running, mountain biking and climbing. I remember that for my 14th birthday my grandma bought me my first sport watch. It came with a photographic book of all the adventures and explorers the brand was sponsoring. Inside this book, amongst polar explorers, ocean rowers, and skydivers there was a world I deeply felt I belonged to. Those images were a real inspiration for me and I often day-dreamed of being like some of those athletes and adventurers.
During the dark times on your expeditions, when your body is suffering and you are longing to be at home with your family, how do you find the motivation to keep going?
When you are out there, the only way to re-join your family is to carry on! It is that easy! Some may say that giving up and turning around is another way to return home, but as long as you carry on you are moving forward. It is about shaping your attitude. No matter how hard it is (unless it is a life-threatening situation), carrying on is better than going back.
Do you ever struggle with the solitude and loneliness involved in many of your expeditions or is it something that you enjoy?
It starts as something I really enjoy and I look forward to, but there always comes a time when I am overwhelmed by it. And, ironically speaking, this is the time when the real adventure begins.
Every time you return home from an adventure do you feel like you have learnt something new about yourself? Is the desire to test yourself and learn about what you are capable of the main motivation for your expeditions?
My main motivation for an expedition is never the desire to test myself. I already know what my value is. It is more about the belief that experiences (especially the tough ones and those we would rather avoid) are the best teachers. Every time I return home I have a strong feeling that I grew up a little, somehow. I feel I came a step closer to my real self.
You have rowed across oceans, ran across countries, and trekked across glaciers - most would say these are extraordinary achievements that are beyond the average human’s capabilities. However, you have previously said that you consider yourself to be no different than anyone else. Do you think that, with the right preparation, most people have the potential to complete seemingly impossible endurance challenges?
I deeply believe that anyone could do any of the things that I have done. I believe it because there is no real preparation for them, it is just a matter of how hard you want it. I remember the first night of my second attempt of rowing across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I broke down and cried at the prospect of all the effort, the distance and the time I had to go through before reaching the other side of the ocean. I felt lost, but the day after I said to myself: "Okay, here I am, you can do it, now let’s take one step at a time and enjoy it”. In other words, apart from a few important technical skills that are easy to acquire, the real difference is the belief in yourself.
Is it the finish line of your expeditions or the experience that is most important to you?
It all starts with an end in mind. This gives you a sense of direction that guides you through the darkness, but the further you go the less important the finish line becomes. Consider this: the most meaningful adventure for me so far is the one (the rowing across the Pacific) that I didn’t conclude successfully. I regard it as the greatest success of my whole life.
I noticed that an important motivation for your recent trek across the Vatnajokull glacier was a desire to highlight the impact of global warming. I also noticed your next adventure will be to live on the tip of an iceberg for a year with the aim of documenting the end of an iceberg’s life. Are all your expeditions motivated by a desire to connect to nature and draw attention to important issues like climate change?
I recently started feeling an urgency and responsibility to draw attention to environmental issues. Previously, I felt as if I was just a lucky witness. Connecting with nature is certainly one of the reasons why I am dreaming about my next adventure, not only for myself but for humanity in general. “Messing up” with nature seems to be a luxury nowadays, but I strongly believe it is becoming a necessity for the survival of humankind for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the increasing distance between man and nature. We can barely notice the impact of our habits on the environment. This fosters the tendency to be passive and lose the sense of responsibility. On the other hand, reconnecting to our planet could help us overcome the psychological crisis many of us feel affected by. Nature as a source of inspiration to re-discover the normal tendency of man to persevere, overcome and anticipate the challenges against himself/herself and the world.
There is a monotony to daily life rowing across an ocean. Did you struggle with that aspect of the adventure or did you enjoy the simplicity of waking up and knowing you must row a certain distance every day?
Monotony was more like a struggle than something to enjoy, but it played an important role. We normally tend to get distracted by the many inputs bombarding us every day and we end up connected with something else, somewhere else away from “here and now”. In a rowing boat, guess what, you still have a lot of inputs but you slowly develop the ability to stay focused. Monotony forced me to come up with interesting coping strategies. For example, I learned the name of the capital cities of 190 countries.
Do you think it is important for all of us to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and experience hardship in some capacity? What are the benefits of putting yourself through uncomfortable, challenging situations?
Tim Ferriss calls it voluntary hardship; I call it tiny acts of courage. I really think that growth lies behind stress, uncomfortable situations and definitely out of the comfort zone where your current capability is stretched out. There is no other way to grow up. It doesn’t have to be extreme courage, just a tiny bit, like raising your hand in a crowded meeting room, run an extra mile or resist the temptation of an immediate reward.
Have you ever feared for your life on an expedition?
Yes I did. But I can’t tell you whether it was a real life-or-death situation or, rather, an interpretation of my feeling of loosing control.
Do you find it harder to justify voluntarily putting yourself in danger now you have children?
I have never put myself in danger, not voluntarily. To be honest, I always try my best to avoid danger, but sometimes life doesn’t go according to your plan. Having said that, I still find deep meaning in doing adventures that might not proceed as planned!
Of all your adventures, which one do you regard as the most challenging?
Every single adventure I have completed so far has represented a kind of peak, the highest expression of my own current capabilities (according to my technical, mental and psychological skills of that time). In wider terms, I think that my third attempt of rowing across the Atlantic was the most challenging. To get to the other side of the ocean, I had to endure other people’s prejudices, starvation, strong headwinds, many storms, capsizes and a lack of knowledge due to my lack of ocean rowing experience.
How do you define adventure?
The shorter path to yourself.
Is there one explorer in particular that you have looked up to in your life?
Since I was a young wannabe adventure, I admired South African explorer Mike Horn. And I still admire him.