Rokman talks to Rugby Player Turned Extreme Athlete, Huw Brassington

July 01, 2020

We speak to Welsh ultra-athlete, extreme adventurer and TV presenter, Huw Brassington, about taking on some of the toughest races in the world, living with no regrets and why you shouldn't enter a mule into Crufts.

Huw has competed at a high level in numerous sports, from ultramarathons, rugby to triathlons. He recently completed the gruelling Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race in Wales, for which the documentary, Ar Gefn Y Ddraig (Riding the Dragon), made about Huw's endeavour, won the People's Choice Award at Kendal Mountain Festival. Huw has also participated in the Coast to Coast NZ, was a BBC Ultimate Hell Week finalist, came 5th in the world Aquathlon Championships and has even dabbled in a spot of Cumbrian Wrestling.

Above all, Huw’s self-deprecating humour and go-for-gold attitude aim to leave people feeling inspired to back themselves, to take their chances and in so doing become the best they can be.


Could you give a quick summary of your journey to endurance athlete?

Originally I was a rugby player up until the age of 22. I didn’t even look at another sport, I loved rugby and I still do. However, rugby smashes your body and it started taking its toll. 

Now, my wife says I have FOMO, the fear of missing out, and if I see something, I have to do it. It just so happened that triathlon was the first thing I came across after rugby. I could do all the disciplines, cycling, running and swimming, and within less than a year I had made the GB team and was over in Beijing representing the British Age Groups. It’s a brilliant sport that has taken me all around the world and the best part is you get to wear a helmet shaped like a dildo!


Why do you do it? What is it that makes you want to push your limits?

It comes from a realisation that life is short. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. You only get so many opportunities to do things throughout your life and if you turn them down, they may never come back. I don’t want to be sitting there when I’m 80-years old with regrets. I would rather have tried my hand at something and failed than have those “what if” questions hanging over my head.


How do you keep the motivation going and stay committed to your goals?

I recently did a TV show over the Summer where I went to speak to these fascinating people who were champions in their various disciplines; from kickboxing to Mixed Martial Arts. These were incredibly dedicated people at the very top of their game and they had sacrificed a lot to get there. When I was competing to win triathlons I used to have a similar mentality, but as I've got older and done more sports my mentality has shifted. I think there is such a thing as wanting something too much.
If you sacrifice too much the pressure increases and the fun is taken out of it and this, for me, is the key to true motivation - enjoyment. If you enjoy what you are doing then it's no effort. If it's no effort it's easy to keep it going indefinitely and this will lead to lifelong fitness. Getting out into nature; running and swimming in wild locations definitely works and I also get a kick out of being efficient - I try to cycle to work, do press-ups in my tea breaks and generally weave my exercise around my busy life in the most efficient way possible so that it has the least detrimental impact on the other fun things in life - family, friends, food and beer!
Don't get me wrong - I think it's very important to have ambitious goals and to always shoot for the stars - but I like doing it last minute, with concentrated preparation. This means less worrying and less sacrifice and ultimately less pressure. The caveat with this mentality, however, is having to drop the fear of failure and to constantly be ready to take on any challenge at the drop of a hat and that ability only comes with hard work and constant holistic physical training.
Another trick I've taken from my engineering background is to break that big scary goal up into bite-sized, quantifiable chunks. If you set smaller, achievable goals, you will find motivation and momentum from when you easily exceed that goal. Don’t fear failure, have a go at something with no expectations, see what you get, and that will provide the fuel for the fire to keep on burning.



Training for endurance events can typically take many hours a week. How do you fit your training in around your life?

The key to fitting in your training is to be disciplined and organised. You have to train hard and fit it in, which means early mornings and late nights. I like to utilise short, sharp, hard high-intensity interval training focusing on core strength, which involves press-ups, pull-ups, squats. If you can talk during those sessions, you’re not pushing hard enough. I used to be able to squeeze in four 20-minute sessions a week on my lunch break in work. By keeping your physical condition really high you’re able to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. If you stay ready, you never have to get ready.

I'm also a big believer in not changing your body to try and suit a specific event. Coming from rugby I didn’t want to become a stick-thin runner, because if you specialise too much you can lose the functionality and strength. I say “let a mule be a mule”, don’t give it a perm and send it off to Crufts. Stick to your strengths and don’t try and force yourself to be something you’re not.


How do you mentally keep pushing through the pain of physical pursuit?

What keeps me going is thinking of the people who have helped me get to this point. In these races, you very rarely do it on your own and these people have also made sacrifices to help me get there.

I remember distinctively in the Dragon’s Back Race, a 320km across the Welsh mountains, one of the hardest races in the world, on the fourth day, I was running but behind my sunglasses, I was crying. I thought I was not going to finish this thing. I was knackered, I had shin splints and one leg had stopped working. I basically couldn't run yet I still had 150km of mountain left to go to finish the race. However, what kept me stumbling on was the thought of my wife, my friends, my family, everyone who had helped me get to the start line. It’s an added weight upon your shoulders. If you stop you’re not just letting yourself down, you’re letting down all those people too. 

Who inspires you?

I love fierce competitors like the Welsh rugby player Liam Williams, the triathlete, Alistair Brownlee and the cyclist Mark Cavendish, but it’s actually my mum I admire the most, she’s a nut job! She used to play hockey and she’s the nicest person in the world off the pitch, almost quite shy, but when she used to step on the pitch she would turn into an animal. She’s ferocious! I think that’s where my appreciation comes from for the fierce competitor. Not everyone gives everything, but those people who do, I really look up to. 


What are your plans for the future?

At the moment I’m quite content, but in the future, I really fancy the Frog Graham, where you run over 18 of the mountains and swim across four of the lakes in the Lake District. The great thing about mountain running is that it chucks you deep within the landscape and you really get to know a place. If you want to talk about motivation, there’s no better motivation than raising your head and seeing the beauty and spectacle of the mountains.

What’s your favourite motivational quote?

When I was competing in triathlon, I used to love the quote “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” 

It doesn't say that you’re a loser if you don’t win, it just says you shouldn’t quit. If you quit you’ll never know how far you could go.


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