Global Adventurer and Extreme Athlete Ash Dykes Talks to Rokman
March 05, 2020
Discover how Welsh extreme athlete, Ash Dykes, breaks-down the biggest challenges into achievable chunks, how he prepares his body and mind for 'worst-case scenario', and the mindset strategies that saved his life when he was dying of dehydration in the Gobi Desert.
At Rokman, our mission is to inspire a deep inner resilience within you to enable you to overcome the most intimidating challenges possible. Well, they don't get much bigger than the three 'world-first' expeditions undertaken by extreme global adventurer and local Welsh hero, Ash Dykes. Ash was the first person to walk across Mongolia in 2104, in 2016 he was the first person to traverse the mountain ranges of Madagascar whilst summiting the eight highest mountains along the way, and in 2018, Ash took a year to become the first person to cross 4,000 miles across China following the Yangtze River.
Ash talks to Rokman and shares his techniques and strategies he uses to prepare his body and mind to take on the most monumental expeditions on planet Earth.
How does a lad from North Wales come to be a worldwide extreme adventurer?
It all started when I was 16/17. I was always a kinesthetic learner, learning from hands-on experiences, so I came up with this idea to travel and learn from different people and different cultures. To save money to fund my trip I worked as a lifeguard, cycling to and from work every day, working 40-hours a week for two years. Once I saved enough, I set off at age 19 to China.
I started off mainly on the tourist route, which was fine as I met people from all over the world, but I wanted my sort of unique story and I wanted to experience life off the beaten track and more so to meet the locals. So, my friend and I bought a £10 bike and attempted to cycle the length of Cambodia and Vietnam with no string or puncture repair kit, just the bare necessities. It was pretty reckless, pretty dangerous, a lot of crazy stuff happened on that journey but we made it and it was great!
From Vietnam, I went out to live with and learn survival with a hill tribe in the Burmese jungle. I also lived in Thailand for two years as a master scuba diver and muay-Thai fighter. As great as that was, I started to miss those previous adventures, so that’s when Mongolia came into the mix. That was my first world-first expedition and that then spun off a 10-year career in adventure.
Why do you do it? What drives you forward each day?
For me, there’s no military background, no financial backing, no university degree and no dark story (which tends to drive a lot of people in my industry). What drives me is my curiosity and love for the world and the people that live it, the rich diversity mix of culture, traditions, wildlife and more.
I want to explore the planet to help conserve the planet. I want to continue doing what I love but take more of responsibility while doing it, rather than just do these adventurers just for adventure’s sake. Travelling out to these remote places and sharing stories that wouldn’t usually be heard I’m shining a light on these real unsung heroes, the environmentalists and conservationists. So by tying in what I love with greater responsibility and purpose it actually gives me a greater personal reward.
I also love to push and challenge myself, and what better way than completing a ‘world-firsts’. Crossing Mongolia was attempted three times by the same guy previously, but he was evacuated each time. Stories like this pique my curiosity of why? Why hasn't it been achieved? Why does everyone deem it impossible? I love to break down momentous goals into minute details, creating small achievable goals, which I believe we can all do if we want to achieve something. If we can break down each goal into lots of segments and mini sections then it's always achievable. There's something fascinating about these missions that allows me to go into the meticulous detail of the planning, day by day and overcome each obstacle, unlocking my full personal potential.
How did you prepare your body and mind for the expeditions?
I went through months of ridiculous training! For Mongolia, I was training 3-4 hours a day. I would wake up at 5am in the morning, all because the last thing I would want to do was get out of my warm, dry, comfy bed and go outside and train. When you live here in Wales it’s rainy, it's dark, it’s hardcore, it’s the best time to train your mental resilience! I knew that on the expedition I wouldn’t have that option to stay in bed, so I didn’t give myself the option here in Wales. I just kept putting in the training, putting in the hours, hoping that the time invested would pay off when I was in Mongolia.
At the time, I couldn’t afford a gym membership so I would just train in my back garden. All I had was a big tractor tyre that my Uncle dropped off, which I would beat relentlessly with a sledgehammer and I would do a lot of bodyweight exercises and callisthenics to build durability and agility.
I was training for the worst possible scenario, as I believe it’s always better to be prepared for the worst eventuality. I knew there would be wolves out there, so I expected to be attacked. There are sandstorms and snow blizzards, so I expected them to be the biggest. It wasn’t because I wanted these scenarios to happen, but I knew that if I trained for the worst-case scenario, and the worst-case scenario happened, I would be prepared.
How do you stay motivated? What mindset strategies do you utilize?
I knew that in Madagascar and Mongolia, there would be really dark times where I would really want to give up. So I recorded a motivational message to myself while I was at home, in the warm, with a full belly and a cup of tea, feeling really upbeat and positive. In the message, I reminded myself why I was there, why I was doing the mission, what would happen if I failed the mission and what would happen if I succeeded. I sent this to myself via voice message on my iPhone and I promised myself that I wouldn’t listen to that message until I was at my darkest point during the mission.
I did end up listening to it and I believe it saved my life when I was slowly dying in of dehydration in the Gobi Desert. I was weeks from civilisation, with no support team or van, completely on my own and 18-stone (114kg) trailer to tow behind me with all my kit onboard. Every time I came across a water point or well I would find it dry, so I slowly started to run lower and lower on water and having to ration the last remaining dribble to try and survive. The weeks went by, I was getting delirious, hallucinating, my organs were drying up, I was in complete agony. I reached a point where, even though I knew there was a community 4-days away who would have water, I just couldn't visualise surviving.
What I did to survive was break my goal down and visualised 100m objectives, because all I could see was the next 100m in front of me. I would get up, strap the trailer on and push to cover that 100m. I would then rest under my trailer away from the 40-degree sun for 5-minutes. Then I would get up and walk 100m again and then rest for 5-minutes. By utilising those two methods of breaking my goal down and listening to voice recording I was able to push on through to the community and just managed to survive!
Words of advice would you give for any adventure wannabes out there?
We’re lucky where we live, adventure is on your doorstep, it’s what you make of it. We’ve got coastline, we’ve got forest and even mountain ranges.
One of my first UK adventures was cycling Lands End to John O'Groats. I bought myself a cheap £100 bike, some paneers and a tent and off I went, camping in people’s back gardens. Although things have really ramped up in the last few years, the story and the message has remained the same. Just get up and get out there, you don’t need all of the kit or all of the money. In Cambodia, I was living off 20p a day eating noodles! I’ve always been drawn to these low-budget, reckless, character-building adventures. It’s all there for people to do, it’s really what you make of it.
What’s next for Ash Dykes?
Everything is moving so quickly at the moment thanks to the success and popularity of Mission Yangtze. We had celebrities join us on the trek, live streaming it out to 1.7 million people, there were book signings, promotions, a photoshoot with GQ and Adidas to help launch Jet Lee’s sporting range, working with the WWF, it’s all been going crazy. Since coming back I’ve been on Good Morning Britain, The One Show and even the Joe Rogan podcast in LA. The last 5-months have been intensively crazy, so at the moment I couldn’t tell you what’s coming next, but there are some very exciting, ambitious ideas in the pipeline and you’ll just have to watch this space.
Finally, what’s your favourite motivational quote?
“We can’t always be motivated but we can be disciplined.”
It’s a fact, no matter what you’re working towards, especially if it’s a long term goal, it’s impossible to stay motivated 100% of the time. What I try to replace motivation with is discipline. While you can’t always be motivated you can be disciplined. So when I have a low motivation day or if I’m in a bad mood or can’t be bothered, I make sure I get up and get the job done, no matter what.
Over the years, Jay has faced several traumatic life experiences. Most recently, in 2021, he was diagnosed with eye cancer. But instead of giving up, Jay viewed his road to recovery as a challenge, taking one step at a time, one hurdle at a time, one battle at a time. His story is one of strength and resilience, and offers hope to runners facing difficult challenges.