My first exposure to ultra – whether swimming, climbing or running – began when I was living in San Francisco. I was driving along the Golden Gate Bridge and saw people swimming in San Francisco Bay. My first swim was to see if I could get to Alcatraz, around and back. That was fantastic.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying I became more competitive, but I became quite interested in difficult things. Although they’ve been done before, just because someone else is able to do something doesn’t mean that we’re able to do those things as well.
My project, ‘Ice, Water, Fire’, is a combination of physical challenges under different extreme environmental conditions. The Ice is represented by Mount Everest, the Water by the English Channel, and the Fire by the Marathon des Sables. They are all challenges that humans have to endure extreme suffering in order to complete.
My research background in physiology and medicine also had me interested in what actually happens to the human body during those challenges. The scientific angle behind the event in the Sahara is to study the physiological adaptations under such extreme heat stress on the human body. I want to know what it feels like. Theory is great, because we depend on theory and laboratory testing, but I think the actual experience is another thing.
It helps that I don’t have to go through any ethical committees about doing testing on myself. I’m okay with suffering a little bit more pain, in pursuit of how much more I can push myself. It would be a little bit difficult if I had to make someone else do it for me.
I think everything in my life has been a step for something else to come afterwards. When I swam the English Channel, I had already completed a masters dissertation on cold water hypothermia. So the knowledge base was there, it was just a matter of actually trying things out for myself.
My PhD was on high altitude medicine, so I was invited to become the scientific advisor on a Everest expedition, and I had the opportunity to get on the climbing permit. I was the medic on the expedition as well, and was lucky enough not just to get up Everest, but to come down as well. It’s the coming down that is the hardest.
I’ve been fortunate in that the voices in my head have never told me to stop, but they do ask me ‘Why am I doing this? What’s going on, why do you want to keep on doing those things?’ I’m just motivated. I don’t know why. I set a goal, and I’m happy to be patient. I know there’s no other way. It’s not going to happen overnight, so I’m happy to wait for a long time.
In 2011, I swam from the mainland of Greece to the island of Crete, a distance of 101km. It took me just over 28 hours. The actual idea of the swim got stuck in my head in 2000, so it took me 11 years from the minute I thought about it, until I actually completed it. But I was willing to wait that long.
About three years ago, I discovered Operation Wallacea [an international research expedition organisation that work closely with the Opwall Trust] where there was an open position to be the medical doctor on one of their diving sites in the Mexican Caribbean. I decided to volunteer and had a very close look at the work they do, how they started, and what their vision was. I really thought they had a noble cause in the conservation of biodiversity. Hence, I decided to combine my interests with their work for the environment.
I’ve been quite fortunate to learn how to respect nature, and I give gratitude for what it has to offer. I’m very passionate about protecting the environment and I’m fortunate to have met people who do what they can to conserve and preserve biodiversity. That’s exactly what the Opwall Trust does.
When it comes to development and protecting the environment, I truly believe that it has to be done all together, because without the people what can we do? We’re not going to be able to conserve biodiversity. They don’t have any other resources, so they succumb to deforestation or destroy their coral reef system for food. But the minute you teach alternative ways of actually doing things, that’s how you protect all these amazing things that we’re lucky enough to find on Earth.
1976 Born in Athens, Greece
1998 Receives bachelor’s degree in Human Physiology from the University of California at Berkeley
2000 Swims the English Channel in 9 hours 20 minutes.
2001 Earns master’s degree in Human Physiology under Extreme Environments at King’s College London
2004 Climbs Mount Everest via the northern route
2005 Receives doctorate from the University of Glasgow
2010 Receives Medical degree from the University of Ioannina Medical School, Greece
2011 Swims the Aegean Sea from Greece to Crete
2015 Completes the Marathon des Sables ultramarathon
This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine