We’re in Fuschl, Austria at Red Bull’s headquarters and I’m sat across from Christian Schiester. Trying to imagine the things he has accomplished is hard enough. Once a 100 kilogram 40 a day smoker, he completely changed his life to become one of the world’s greatest ultra runners. Within two years, he had completed the New York Marathon and won his first Austrian Half Marathon crown. He’s run everywhere from the 2003 Marathon des Sables, a grueling six day race across the Sahara Desert, to winning races such as the hardcore five-day Himalayan Run and competing in places as extreme as the Brazilian jungle and Antarctica.
In this episode you can find out how building mental as well as physical strength can help you achieve the impossible, how to stay productive in the most adverse of circumstances and how to stay mentally strong when you are close to breaking point.
Paul Sephton: Christian, very good to have you here. It’s amazing to look at where you’ve gotten to today in terms of the adventure which you’ve just come back from, which we’ll touch on and get to a little bit later. But it always helps to be able to find out how you got there because that’s quite an interesting story in and of itself. And so you were born in Austria, then around the time you were 20 it sounds as though you took a bit of a major life shift and a pivot. So do you want to tell me a little bit about what you were doing before them and then what sort of shifted in terms of that change and where that took you?
Christian Schiester: I was born in the year 1967 in a very small village between the mountains in Austria. And there the big game for everybody is to drink a lot. You meet your friends, your drink, you smoke, you eat the lot, and the winner is always the man who is the last one in the morning. Before all the other go to bed, if you are the last one who’s still standing, this man is the winner. And I was many times the winner. And this time the real victory in life should not be to be the last one after any party in a bar or somewhere.
I went to my doctor to check my body and he told me, “Man, if you don’t stop with this lifestyle, I’m sure you will not get to be 30 years old.” I thought, “Oh, maybe he’s wrong. I’m 22. I’m still strong, or I try to be strong.” And I weighed more than 100 kilos in this time. But in the end, I thought maybe if he’s right, I have only eight years more to live on this planet. So I start running, let’s say walking first. The big secret when I start with a thing like that was a piece of paper. I started to write or the things I have done in this time every day on a piece of paper. So the first training was only walking for four minutes. And that continue and write and write and write. And after about two years training, I was the winner of the Austrian championships in mountain running.
After two years training only. So this was a really big thing for me because in this time I learned what is really the important thing in life. Everybody likes to be a winner, but it’s not only the important thing to be a winner in a competition, you have to find your own victory everywhere. Sport and this kind of sports changed my life completely. I lost about 30 kilos, I stopped smoking and I had really, really nice experience still today, all over the world, it’s possible to be a winner.
Everybody likes to be a winner, but it’s not only the important thing to be a winner in a competition, you have to find your own victory everywhere.
Paul Sephton: And so firstly for someone who grew up in Austria, there’s a heap of sports you could have gone into. But what do you think it was for you that made you run more and run further and keep running, when you could have gotten to a healthy habit of maybe running once or twice a week and sort of left it at that? What was the point at which you kept pushing on and why did you do that?
Christian Schiester: Still now, It’s the piece of paper. I think in the moment when I stop writing something on this paper, I will die. So yes, now there are some days or let’s say weeks when we are on the open sea and it’s impossible for me to run because we are on the sailing boat. There’s no way to run for me, but I write on the paper, “Okay, I was sailing two weeks.” Every time when I finish with something I find the way to my paper and write all the things I have done. So there’s a system behind, when I start with something, I try to come till the end.
I had some guys who helped me really a lot. I always asked the old people, the old runners, how is it possible you are 80 years old now and you’re still running and you are a winner, because if you try to keep your body moving, you are really a winner. It’s even your mind. If you use your body, you can even use your mind. So for example, even the old fisherman, the old fisherman knows how to catch a fish. The young people has to learn. So I was always happy to meet somebody and to learn every day in my life.
Paul Sephton: In terms of the learning, there must have been a huge part of that, which was mental as well in I think a lot of the running you’ve done. Because I’d love it if you could talk through where your running then took you because it wasn’t just something where you stopped at marathons, you went from marathons on to ultra marathons, you then went to the Himalayas, you went to the South Pole, you went across deserts?
Christian Schiester: I always tried to do find special places in the world. It was not only the competition, it was not only to hope to be the winner, I try to find places I only can reach by these race. For example, it’s not easy to come to the South Pole. Yes. If you have a a lot of money, you can fly there. You can get out of the airplane and say, “Okay, now I’m on the South Pole.” But if you run there, if you have a really hard way to come there and if you reach this place, it’s a big, big difference. The same in the desert. If you have a nice car and you cross the desert with a car with the air condition, you see the desert, yes, but it’s a different view if you walk through this to the desert. And so I try always to find special places with special races. And the most victory for myself was always to have the pictures, the stories in my mind for the rest of my life.
Paul Sephton: And can you talk me through what some of those pictures are in your mind? What are the ones that stand out the most for you? Because when you look back over the last 20 years, there must be so much which comes to mind in terms of what you’ve seen and learned and memorized. What are the ones which stand out for you still to this day?
Christian Schiester: For example, my first race was, the first ultra race was the Marathon des Sables, 243km in the Sahara Desert in Egypt or Morocco. There was some big sand dunes about 250 meters high and we ran about 200km. I never forget, it was 10 minutes before sunset and I was totally empty. My body was empty and I was ready to say, “Okay man. Now you lay down and you die.” Because you know there’s always a place in your mind. You try to say, “Okay, finish. It’s the end.” But in this moment you have a lot of space more so your body has more power than you can imagine. And I thought, “Okay, now you are 40 about. It’s a nice age. The doctor told you you’ll get 30 so you have 10 years more and now you die in the desert.” This is the picture of the desert in Morocco for me.
It was 10 minutes before sunset and I was totally empty. My body was empty and I was ready to say, “Okay man. Now you lay down and you die.”
I came to the finish line. I was happy and wonderful and I swear to myself after the finish, never ever in my life, I will use a pair of running shoes. When I fly back home, I was searching the next race and it was in the Himalayas in India and Nepal and I ran there up to 5,500 meters. It was totally cold. The people told me there never stopped because if you make any mistake, a wrong step, you fall down between the rocks… And my picture there was, I was in this attitude and I stopped for 30 seconds about only to have the view around, had only shorts and a tee shirt and it was really cold, but I have to stop only to have this view for about 30 seconds. And this view around there, yes, this is one of the next pictures.
The next one was the Jungle Marathon in Brazil. I was very, very lucky because we had to cross a river there. The name is Tapajos River. It’s about 800 meters to swim. And I was lucky because there was a media team from Germany and they follow the runners with the boat when we’re swimming there. And they had two guides from the Brazilian Jungle Special Force, military and they killed the crocodile behind me. So maybe the crocodile was only happy to see some runners in the water to say hello maybe, but I’m not sure. Otherwise, maybe if it’s hungry you aren’t lucky because you are not fast enough in the water.
And then there was another race in Sahara, the white desert. I ran 256km nonstop without a break. There was some, the fox, the desert fox, the animals. And they follow us everywhere and in the night you see only the eyes. If you have your headlamp on, you see only the eyes of this animal. And we hear some voices there. And so there are so many pictures as you told me before, you never forget. But the nature and the combination of the nature and let’s say the pain in your body, makes some crazy pictures in your mind.
Paul Sephton: And a lot of moments from what you’ve described where you’re kind of either thinking about death or feeling like you’re very close to it, whether it’s a crocodile which is creeping up on you, or just a complete fatigue in the middle of nowhere. Do you think that you took some major lessons from that or what did you learn about yourself in those sort of a darkest moments, if we can call them that?
Christian Schiester: For sure, but I wouldn’t say these are the darkest moments. I think this is the most impressive moments because nobody likes to think or to discuss about the time of that, but it’s part of the game. It’s a big story during your life, let’s say. If you always think about the death and it’s possible to die tomorrow, I think you can find a nice way for your life to be happy, to find the best places for your life and to enjoy your life more then if you say, “Okay, maybe I die sometimes and I don’t care.”
Paul Sephton: But I think these days a lot of people don’t like to push their comfort zones. I’m sure you see it all around you when you’re dealing with people every day, meeting new people. What do you think it is about you that has sought to continually push this and is it a different way through which you look at the world or do you think it’s something which once you got a taste of you just kept wanting to sort of make sure that you are always pushing yourself?
Christian Schiester: The comfort zone is nice. Everybody enjoys, even me, the comfort zone. It’s very nice. So it’s a good feeling. But if you have been in a desert, you know how is the feeling if you have nothing to drink and you get a glass of water. You enjoy it more than all the other things you can get in your life. So if you want to learn really to learn about you and your body and your mind, you have to go far away from your comfort zone. Only in these situations you can learn about the power of a glass of water, let’s say.
So if you want to learn really to learn about you and your body and your mind, you have to go far away from your comfort zone.
It’s possible for everybody, even if you are in the middle of a town. It’s not only the nature, it’s your brain. If you have the power to do it, you can do it everywhere.
Paul Sephton: You talk about the power of the brain and we’ve covered it quite a bit in terms of where your body thinks it’s given up, or your brain thinks it’s given up, but your body’s actually got a lot more in it and you’ve certainly pushed a lot of those barriers. How have you mentally overcome those or what conversations are you having with yourself to make sure that you push past them? Because I think for a lot of people it would just be a case of shutting down or stopping when their minds tell them to ahead of what they are potentially capable of.
Christian Schiester: The big difference is, for example, if you run in a stadium and you have the 400 meters track there and you stop, you could go to the shower, to drink something and to go home. If you run in the desert or in Antarctica in the ice, if you stop, maybe you get big problems. I don’t like to say you will die, but you get big problems. There’s no chance to say, “Okay, I don’t like to continue. I stop now.” So you have to continue minimum to the next checkpoint. And the checkpoints between they are 25km.
But the next problem for me was always, if I stop a race, I have to come back next year again. And to start again from the point behind me. So it’s much better to take the last piece of your power and to come to the finish line and to say, “Okay, thank you very much, jungle. It was nice, but next year I don’t come back.”
So it’s much better to take the last piece of your power and to come to the finish line.
Paul Sephton: So tell me about the latest project you’ve done with Red Bull. Perhaps it helps to go back a bit to where your relationship with Red Bull started, but then we’re most excited I think at this point by Sail and Run.
Christian Schiester: I was running more than 160000km in my life. This is easy to say because your watch charts count everything now by GPS and you connect it to the computer and you see exactly how many kilometers. So after more than four times running around the world, it was the big question for me, how about the rest of your life? You like to run till the end of your life to destroy your body completely or is there any chance to take all the power from the running to another story?
So, why sailing? Sailing has nothing to do with running. Sailing is totally the opposite. There’s water everywhere. There’s no way to run, but there’s one point and this point is completely the same like running, so this means never stop. You have to continue. If you like or not, you have to continue because if you are in the middle of the ocean, there’s no way to say, “Okay, I call a helicopter. They take me out of the boat and that’s it.” Because there is no helicopter nowhere. And it’s too far away for every helicopter to pick you up because maybe they have the fuel to fly to you but not the fuel to fly back if you are 2000km far away from the next island.
Sailing has nothing to do with running. Sailing is totally the opposite. There’s water everywhere. There’s no way to run, but there’s one point and this point is completely the same like running, so this means never stop.
And this is the point for me because I learned from running, even if you are totally finished and if your body is completely empty let’s say, you have to continue. The same is the story from sailing far out on the ocean. Not along the coast. This is very nice. It’s nice holiday, but far out on the open sea, never stop. So we start to think about even the connection to Red Bull and the Wings for Life World Run. I am a runner. I will never stop, stop the run, but I change now my goal because before I had my watch, the race, there are other competitors and to try to be the winner. Now I say “Okay, I’m sailing around the world. It’s the hard way against the wind, against the wave against the current.” But we try to collect stories to meet other people, to see the culture there, to tell… And this is the most important thing for us. To tell nice stories to the people and to be an inspiration for all the people that follow our stories.
Paul Sephton: Is there anything which comes to mind from those stories? I’m sure you must have, between the cultures and the ocean experiences and then just everyone you got to meet, was there anything beyond unusual which happened on that journey which you hadn’t anticipated or moments which stand out for you, which you could highlight?
Christian Schiester: For example, if you sail from Seychelles, we sailed from Seychelles, it goes to Africa and the east coast of Africa, to Cocos Keeling close to Australia, we sailed so 31 days and 18 hours nonstop and there was nothing between. Totally nothing, not any Island, nothing. There was more than 3,500 nautical miles. The feeling, if you see the first small point of an island and you know now it’s the time to have the first step with your feet in the white sand. You cannot imagine. It’s so wonderful and to sleep safe in the bay there and there’s no dangers from the weather.
And you’ll meet people there and for example, last two months ago, we came to Papua New Guinea and we meet some people there on small islands. They have never seen a sailing boat before in their life. We came there like some aliens, let’s say. They ask, “What this is? How can you do it? How is the technique, the engine?” And so on, so… There are so nice people to meet all over the world and we try to tell the people, “Look, you have to open your mind to everybody because we are stay on the same planet.”
Paul Sephton: I was about to say, how does that affect your overall opinion. When you come back does it alter fundamentally the way that you look at people or connectivity or the globe, especially when you meet new people but also when you’re at sea for over 30 days without speaking to people and you have that isolation, it must make you think quite differently around socializing and the way we interact with one another around the world.
Christian Schiester: For sure, but you’re happy if you meet somebody. Really happy. Because for example the people there in Ninigo Island for example, it’s a small island and there they have no money because there is no supermarket. There’s no way to spend money because nobody’s sells something. So the only chance is to change between. So if somebody catch a big tuna, he change with his neighbor against bananas, let’s say. The next one has pineapple, the other one has nice lobster. So it’s so wonderful to see how easy the life could be, how easy the life could be if everybody is open with his mind, try to be friendly to everybody and to help each other. This experience is wonderful and we are really happy always to meet somebody.
This year we was on the boat about eight months. And we sailed from Bali, from Indonesia, along the coast first of all the islands in Indonesia, then to Papua New Guinea and then to Solomon Islands. Now the boat is in Solomon Islands in the Pacific and we came back home because now there’s the cyclone season. It’s very dangerous. There are big storms. And we fly back in March. We have to repair many things on the boat, because we came in a big storm before we reached the Solomons. And then the next step is to sail from there to Vanuatu. There’s a big, big story there because the young guys before they get a man when they are 18, they jump down from a tower — it’s like bungee jumping but original bungee jumping.
We have to visit them. And even there, there are some islands we go for hunting to catch some wild pig. And we have some connection there even now because we ask other sailors if we meet them on some islands and they told us what we can do there and we are totally happy and impressed now to go there and it was to sail from Solomons to Vanuatu. And then to Fiji. And in Fiji next year, in the end of next year, they make a hole and put the boat in the hole to protect the boat against the storms. Even this will be a new experience for us.
Paul Sephton: Wow. Yeah. And what does it make you think about where you want to stop? You spoke earlier about having shifted paradigms in some ways with sailing from running and that being because you had a moment where you asked yourself if you want to keep going or if you think you’re going to shift to something else. How do you go about setting goals for yourself? What timelines do you think over, and then how do you choose what you want to fill that time with? And do you think you’ll ever lose your appetite for wanting to accomplish the next thing?
Christian Schiester: Never. Never stop to find any reason for your life. I always try to do my best. It’s not every day for me to say, “Okay, it was so easy.” Or only keep smiling. It’s even difficult for us because we had problems with the engine and some technical problems, but this is normal on the boat. But in the end, I think it’s not the time table. It’s not the timeline to say, “Okay, I start in this moment. I stop in this moment.”
The last project in my life will be, I hope I will come there, it will be on a small Island in Greece. We will buy a small house there, put the boat on a safe place in the harbor there and go for sailing on the weekend, to invite my friends and to have a dock and some olive oil plantation maybe and let’s hope I am strong enough and healthy enough to come back to Greece. But on the other side we had many, many adventures, many nice experiences and many pictures in my brain. So I’m ready to die, let’s say.
Paul Sephton: And if there’s a one more picture in your brain that you have top of mind right now, your next goal to chase, is there a something which I’m sure that as you’ve crossed off places like the Arctic or the Brazilian jungle that you’ve started to fill out this photo for yourself, this world map and these experiences. Is there still anything which for you is a key piece of the puzzle that’s missing?
Christian Schiester: Yes, for sure. It’s a dream for me to be on the top of a volcano, of an active volcano, and to see really the fire of the volcano. We were very lucky last year we was in the middle of a big earthquake and we survived. Because there was 540 people dying in one second.
And we was only 7K away from the epicenter. We was on the boat by lucky because normally in this time, in the evening at seven, we always go out to have dinner, local food and this is the first evening after weeks we stay on the boat and play cards with my children. Then there was the earthquake. This experience was not easy for us, but if you ask me about the future, the top of the volcano for example, or to be together with the Polynesian people in French Polynesia, their smaller islands, Tonga, Panga Pauga, Micronesia, there are so many small islands in the Pacific, and the Pacific is really big, to meet nice people, to meet the culture there and to have special experience.
Paul Sephton: Yeah, so knowing what you know now after all of these adventures and absolutely amazing experiences, if you could jump back in time or write a letter to yourself when you were 22, what do you think you would say to that person now with all of the lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Christian Schiester: Do it again, man. Do it again. The same mistakes. Because I learn a lot from my mistakes, not from the victories. The victories, wonderful feeling, but the big chance for learning is always the mistake. And to do it again in a better way. But I thought many time about your question now if I can turn back the time, what can I do in another way? I think it was okay, what I have done, even my mistakes.
Paul Sephton: Okay. And when it comes to talking to your boys now, is there any advice you give them in terms of… So they don’t, I mean obviously everyone learns from their mistakes, like you say. And very often you have to learn from your own mistakes, even if someone might tell you the ones which they’ve made.
Christian Schiester: I try to tell them always the same, try to be free, try to get any freedom in your life. Because if you are free, you have the choice in which direction you go. But you have to be strong and try to get stronger every day. Not only the body, even the brain. Make the mistakes, learn and do it again in another way. And I don’t really like to tell my sons, let’s go to be a ultra runner, because it’s really painful. It’s really, really painful. And you have to be lucky if you want to be an old man later, because it’s easy to destroy. Not only to die. It’s not to say now it’s so dangerous and you can die everyday. This is not the truth. If you make a big mistake, you die, but it’s the same in the car. If you make a mistake in your car, if you drive to your home, you are dead even. The whole life is dangerous.
Yeah, so just keep on learning while you can. Find that freedom.