The last big news most Americans heard about Bear Grylls was his very public breakup with the Discovery Channel, in the spring 2012. At the time, headlines screamed that the charming British host of the hit survival show Man vs. Wild had been “fired.” The truth was more complicated, as I reported in a feature profile of Grylls for Outside that fall. But still, it was a critical moment for the king of adventure television: What does he do now?
The answer, it appears, is everything. On July 8, NBC will premiere his first-ever network series, Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls, a weekly reality game show that plays out (roughly) in the Survivor model: Ten two-person teams try to prove their mettle in the wilds of New Zealand. Each week, Grylls sends one team home. The duo left standing at the end wins $500,000. Later in the fall, Discovery will debut another brand new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell, which has him retracing horrific real-life survival tales. (The cable giant has also purchased the rights to air Get Out Alive after the show runs its course on NBC.) The 39-year-old also has a new book (his 12th), A Survival Guide for Life, new gear (including a boat), a growing network of survival schools (Bear Grylls Survival Academy), and, coming towards the end of the year, an obstacle race (BG Survival Run).
I recently phoned Grylls at his family’s barge on the River Thames in London, where he was enjoying a brief break with his wife and three sons, to talk about Get Out Alive and his life as the world’s busiest and best-known survivalist.
OUTSIDE: It’s been an interesting year for you. When we spoke in the spring of 2012, you really weren’t sure when you’d be on TV next. GRYLLS: That was a pretty tricky time for us—we were right in the heart of all those tricky negotiations but we steered our way through it. Ultimately I really wanted the freedom to make some of our own shows. It’s a bit like a teenager leaving home, there’s a certain amount of pain. But I always said to them, Let me make Get Out Alive, you’re going to love the show, and then we’ll come back and make some other shows for you. We’ve done that and it’s so nice. I feel much lighter now.
Get Out Alive is a big departure from Man vs. Wild, which was all about you. It’s the show that I’ve always wanted to make. I get the biggest kick from taking other people out, whether it’s people on expeditions, or the few cases where I took celebrities with me on Man vs. Wild, or what we’re doing with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. So I wanted to take 20 regular Americans on these big journeys and guide them and help them to fly. There are ten couples, whether it’s mother-daughter, father-son, married couple, best friends. Each week I send one couple home that least shows the qualities that I’m after.
So what qualities were you after? It’s everything—not just determinations and courage. It’s just as much about humility and kindness and going that extra mile for your friend. You see people arrive wide-eyed without any knowledge of the values or skills that matter. And then they click in and realize it’s about digging deep.
Was it hard for you to send people home? It was easier at the start. But as they really went through hell and I started to restrict the gear they were taking and the journeys got bigger, I got really close to them. In the last episode, we had three couples. We were in the rainforest in torrential storm conditions. They had no gear at this point—no sleeping bags no tents, nothing. It’s very moving when you see people with real relationships go through that together.
When you were casting the show, did you have a specific idea of the kinds of characters you wanted? I didn’t want just classic reality TV melodramatic whining. I wanted people who had a real reason to go through this with me. Not just the money, but the fact that they would get to know each other in a way that sometimes you have to be married 20 years to get to know someone like that. People who wanted to prove to themselves and each other that they had heart and they had soul and spirit. That they could put up with hardship and get on with it.
Given your habits, I assume the hardships included eating disgusting things I’ve always said: Wild food is never going to be pretty and it’s never going to taste nice but it’s a big part of surviving. It was interesting seeing people who’ve never done anything like this drinking their own pee or eating worms and maggots and fish eyeballs and all of that. But it was all for a purpose. If you don’t eat then you lack the energy and you suffer and your performance is weaker and you can’t help people and other people have to help you.
What can you tell me about your other upcoming new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell? We’ve almost finished it. I follow the most incredible stories of people who’ve got into nightmare situations in jungles, deserts, mountains. I redo their journeys and show what they did right, what they did wrong, and champion their stories. They’re really moving stories of everyday people who should have died, really. We did one in the Rockies, in the Guatemalan jungle, in the Sahara. We’re about to go to the Alps.
Two new shows and you have time to oversee the Bear Grylls Survival Academy? We’ve seen incredible growth this year. I didn’t expect it. I thought it, Oh, it’ll be a nice run with a couple of schools around the U.K. But it’s just gone crazy. We’ve started these father-son, mother-daughter 24-hour survival courses and they’re booked out for four years in advance now. We’re also opening up a couple of school in the U.S. and we’re licensing out as well to other schools.
How involved are you in the curriculum? And what would I actually learn on a course? I totally wrote the course initially. But it wasn’t hard—stuff I do in my sleep. I know exactly what pushes people and builds people. Then we brought a lot of ex-military guys we’ve worked with and ex-Man vs. Wild team that I’ve worked with. And then we got them to train people. It doesn’t take long to get the brand and the style and the stuff that matters. Instead of just boring bush crafty survival things where people are whittling a spoon out of a bit of wood we have them doing river crossing in the Scottish Highlands and unarmed combat up a mountain by lantern at night.
That sounds more like an obstacle race. Have you thought about creating one yet? We’re doing it! We’re devising one at the moment called BG Survival Run at the end of the year in the U.S.
Of course you are. It’s gonna be a really fun 12K, big numbers of people, and all based around survival and teamwork and having fun. So many people over Twitter and Facebook over the last year have been saying, “You should do one of these! You could do it in such a cool way.” You see so many companies clutching at ideas—Grecian races or whatever. But it’s so logical for us to do a really gritty, muddy, dirty survival-based run.
Anything else I’m missing? ASurvival Guide to Life, my new book, has done well over here in the U.K. and is launching soon in the U.S. It’s all the lessons of life I’ve learned. It was voted the most influential book in China in 2012—beat Obama! Oh, and we’ve launched our RIBs.
What on earth is a rib? Look it up: bgribs.com. They’re the most incredible hardcore offshore rigid inflatable boats—RIBs. And then we’ve hugely extended all our gear ranges, from tents to backpacks to sleeping bags.
It’s safe to say you landed on your feet after last year’s breakup with Discovery. We’ve been super lucky. We’ve worked hard. But for me, all off these things—the TV shows, the books, the gear—are about inspiring people to be better, stronger, and be braver in the big moments. I get such a kick out of hearing and telling these stories. It’s all good fun.
I have an embarrassing confession to make: Watching American Idol makes me a better runner. There, I said it.
I came late to Idol mania. By the time I discovered it, last winter, it had long been written off as a cheesy, has-been contest. But I left the TV on after last year's Super Bowl, and there it was in my living room. I was mesmerized by the contestants, who marched out onto the stage and belted out their best songs, unplugged and entirely alone, in front of three judges and the whole world.
Like any marathon or large race, American Idol’s talent pool was decidedly mixed. Some singers were terrible, tone deaf and awkward; some were decent. They wore blue jeans with holes, stilettos, tattoos, dreadlocks. They were 14, straight off the soccer field, and 28, single-mom waitresses who just wanted a shot. And then there were the holy-shit standouts, the ones who you could immediately tell had something. But each and every one was fully going for it, no holding back. How can you not admire that?
Twice a week, I was glued to Idol. I watched the hordes get winnowed down week by week. I bought it all: host Ryan Seacrest's twinkly grin and consoling hugs, the judges' tough talk and tears when someone sang off-key or botched the lyrics. When Philip Phillips sang, the hairs on my arm stood on end.
All that spring, while Philip and the rest of the American Idol contestants laid themselves bare to stay in the game, I was training for my first 50K trail race. Philip became my totem. Each week he stayed on the show, I ran longer and harder. I wanted to run the way he sang: with ease and conviction.
Philip made it into the top three, with three weeks to go. My race was in three weeks. I channeled Philip: If he could do it, so could I. I started doing crazy, embarrassing things. I cheered out loud and wrote signs that said “Philip” for my three-year-old daughter to hold up in front of the TV, as if he could see us. My husband thought I’d lost my mind, but I knew Idol was part of some larger equation, an essential cross-training tool, even if I sounded like a crazed fan when I tried to explain it. A few days after Philip took top honors, I ran my race and won.
I thought it was beginner’s luck, finding Idol when I needed it most. But this spring, I’m training for my first 50-mile race, and who should come along but Angie Miller? Angie is 18, does a wicked cover of “Skinny Love,” and sometimes tears up when she sings. She has raw, fearless talent, and she doesn't hold back.
My race is in two weeks, just after this season ends. So what is Idol teaching me this year about ultrarunning? First of all, that it’s important to be authentic. If you don’t want it, and want it truly, from the inside out, don’t do it. Idol judges can sniff out the fakers; their songs just don’t ring true. Same goes for running. Listen to yourself: If you don’t want to follow a training plan, wear a watch, or do speed work, don’t. If all you want to do is run trails up high in the mountains, OK. Do what feels good.
Pace yourself. With a week to go, we're in the home stretch, and things are getting a little dodgy. Candice’s big, bellowing gospel-lady church voice is getting raspy. Meanwhile, I've been trying to heal a strained calf. It’s tempting to sprint to the finish, but at this point it’s more important to stay healthy than to burn out before you get there. I’m heating and icing my sore muscles and joints, slathering on arnica by the gallon, and doing lots of foam rolling. Hopefully, Candice is resting up her pipes.
Timing is everything, in both musical reality shows and ultrarunning. Angie emerged as the early favorite back in February, when she delivered a shockingly great original song, “You Set Me Free,” which quickly went viral on YouTube. Then she cheesed out on a few songs and found herself on shaky ground. It’s like periodization training: Peak too early, and you’re sunk
Lastly, whether your dream is finishing a 100-mile race or winning a reality TV show, don’t give up. You can make mistakes, like running too fast too far or singing the world’s most boring song, but if you want it badly enough, you just have to keep going. This is what masters call practice: something you do over and over, without focusing on the outcome.
Watch American Idol closely enough, and I bet you'll find some lessons for running and life in there, too. If not, call me crazy. Either way, I’m signing off: It’s Idol time.
In October of 2010, two young, broke Aussie goofballs purchased a clunky old car in New Delhi, painted it a kaleidoscope of colors, and set off to motor conspicuously through pretty much all of that hot, crowded mega-country known as India.
As with so many mates before them, an adventure like this was a great excuse to “escape the rock,” as they say, but the unemployed surfers and aspiring filmmakers also had grander plans. Jonno, then 28 years old, and Stefan, 23 years old, wanted to make a movie. An Endless Summer 3 of sorts.
“But we didn’t have anyone promising to pay for us,” says Jonno. “So we thought we’d have to go to a cheap country.”
The amateur surfers chose India, which they’d always been curious about, and decided the route of their surf safari would be clockwise, at least 4,500 miles. They had three months; girlfriends back home would allow no longer.
The narrative behind the movie would be the same as the earlier no-budget film they’d made in the United States: they’d “surf” in each state. In their first film, Surfing 50 States, they flew to America, got their hands on a broken down ice cream truck, and drove through every state in our fine land, also “surfing” along the way. In Southern Idaho, a farmer invited them to glide down his enormous mound of sugar beets. In Utah, a large Mormon family used their four-wheeler and a water ski rope to tow the boys up an irrigation ditch. In St. Louis, self-styled gangstas “C” and “J” took them surfing on the one thing they could imagine resembling a big wave: a flight of concrete steps. The results were charming, and they won the Aspiring Filmmaker’s Award at the 2007 Telluride MountainFilm Festival.
India would be much the same. Nevermind that 21 of India’s 28 states are landlocked and that the coastline is known for little more than ankle-slappers, they liked how trying to slide on a board threw them into unpredictable situations. They’d skim anything—one early pipe dream included standing atop a surfboard on an Indian train—and help out with some charities along the way for good measure.
In the end, the surf apparel company that helped with their first film stepped forward to provide most of their meager budget for Surfing 28 States: INDIA (working title) and the duo won a small grant. Two others friends quit their jobs to join as cameraman and producer.
I liked their style. And not long after, I arranged to meet the hale and wholesome crew in north-central India, a short flight from where I was in Nepal. I didn’t really care about their specific plans for the weekend of October 28—to “surf” and to give away some bikes at an orphanage. I was mildly intrigued by an added element of celebrity—friend and professional freeskier Lynsey Dyer would be joining them. Mostly, I was curious to have a peek behind the scenes—to see a tiny sample of their epic journey; to see, as it turned out, what would go into the making of a six-minute segment in episode three of the documentary that will air on Outside TV.
I knew that India does not favor longterm travelers with just standard levels of moxie. But this, I would learn, isn’t the half of it.
THE MORNING WE'RE ALL to meet up, a Delhi-born photographer and I survey the city where we’re to meet the crew. From the top of one of Allahabad’s swankier hotels, a $25 a night fleabag named Sun City, we look down through the soot-fogged air to the streets below. Honking gridlock clogs alleyways, skinny beggars swing alms pails, and packs of feral dogs nose smoldering mounds of trash. The million-person mash-up is of a kind with metropoli throughout the subcontinent, but thanks to some liberal laws up here in north-central India, a frightening number of gun shops also line the streets.
“This is the shittiest city I’ve ever seen in India,” says the photographer.
Down on the streets, however, the crew of Surfing 28 States: INDIA is freshly showered and feeling good. And Allahabad doesn’t care. Men aim their tractor-beam stares at Lynsey, with her wavy blond locks, while the rest of us attempt to find a patch of broken concrete that is not considered a traffic lane by one of various ungulates.
“OK!” enthuses Stefan, rallying the troops. We leave to change money to pay for the bikes in a convoy of pedal-powered rickshaws, which might afford some peace, except that now we’ve entered the uncertain flow of retread lorries, where near collisions are de rigueur.
At the bank it’s more of the same. As soon as a little bit of peace is found, beggars approach. They tug at our shirts, place their unshaven faces at our shoulders, and gesture toward their open mouths. The poverty is literally in your face. First the beggars approach one at a time and Jonno and Stefan are able to brush them off. Stefan likes to point to Jonno while saying: “Oh, I don’t have any money, but you should talk to my friend Jonno. He’s very rich.” As soon as the big film camera comes out, an enormous crowd gathers around the two of them, but the crowd is so large that it turns out to be self-sustaining. Jonno and Stefan duck out of the center of the congregation unnoticed and circle round to its outermost periphery, joining the rest of the Indians trying to catch a glimpse of whatever the crowd has gathered for.
“It’s amazing,” opines Stefan. “Crowds come outta nowhere wherever you are.”
And then there’s the blood-letting bureaucracy. Past the heavily armed guards, inside the bank, a graying manager escorts them into a private office and informs Lynsey that before he can change her currency, she must first handwrite each bill’s 10-digit serial number. She has $3,200 in 100s and twenties. So this takes a while. Just as she finishes, the computer system fails.
Two hours later—two hours later—Lynsey finally emerges onto the street with stacks of rupees as thick as her forearms. She fans the currency at the camera, singing, with manic enthusiasm, “Dolla dolla billz!” Lynsey and the crew immediately realize that a thug’s boast is probably not the right tone for a segment about philanthropy and they re-shoot.
I can’t imagine the effort required to navigate this sprawling mishmash of humanity—the poverty, the commotion, the red tape, the explosive yellow and frothy BMs—but Jonno and Stefan and the crew seem to be doing just fine. Better than fine. Sure, they’re not the most culturally sensitive travelers, perhaps, but they eat whatever truckstop food is placed before them, Delhi Belly be damned, and have somehow so far remained perfectly healthy. They towel off the daily shellackings of diesel exhaust in crummy hotels and look pretty darn swarthy. After three weeks of hard travel through five states, the novelty of backroads India should be wearing thin, but God bless them, it isn’t.
“A DAY CAN START off so rough, nothing working in your favor, enough to make you want to throw in the towel,” explains Stefan. “But then comes the magic, the stars align, and you’re so deep in the gnarliest Indian experience you completely forget how badly the day began.”
Something likes this happens that afternoon. After a fly-swirled lunch of malai kofta with a side order of bacterial dysentery, we make our way to Kapoor Company bike store, on busy Johnston Ganj Road. Much of the work is taking place al fresco, i.e. in the gutter, because at 95 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s just too hot inside. In a sweaty loft in the back, three guys work in a towering mess of cardboard and bubble wrap, assembling brakes, bolting levers to the lever-housings, then clamping the brake cables to the levers, etc. Worryingly, it turns out that only 18 of the 34 bikes for the orphanage are complete. Sixteen more must be built and delivered before early tomorrow morning.
Lynsey pays $3,200 to the Godfather-esque man that appears to be Kapoor and accepts his promise to do his “level best” to deliver the bikes.
Stefan, meanwhile, uses a discarded bike rim to teach the men out front how to hoola hoop. A wheelbuilder with two right thumbs eyes Jonno suspiciously. Jonno goggles back with mock seriousness and a wheel-building competition ensues. Spokes are whipped around like nunchucks. The man with two thumbs builds a wheel in roughly 3.7 seconds, then uses a mallet to beat the wheel into true. Bam! Before Jonno can even attach all his spokes, the local has threaded and bluntly trued an entire wheel.
The man’s red-gummed smile advertises the easy victory and the crowd that has gathered grins too. Jonno cedes gracefully, bowing his head in deference to the two-thumbed mechanic’s superior skill and mallet work. It’s a small moment, but a wonderfully genuine exchange across 1,400 miles of cultural difference.
The next morning, when Jonno finally pulls away from the hotel toward the orphanage, it’s just slapstick.
Five of us are wedged inside the tiny car that they call Lassi. The back seat is lumpy, and full of pokey loose springs. A fan—an actual spinning blade fan—provides the A/C, and frequently entangles strands of Lynsey’s hair, to painful effect. The only thing proper is the cassette stereo, which is blaring a tinny Bollywood soundtrack. The clown car accelerates with the ponderous heft of an arthritic elephant. “I love Lassi,” one of the crew will blog, “except for the whole driving in it part.”
“Jonno’s driving in India!” Stefan shouts, leaning out the window.
And indeed Jonno is. He dodges bikers riding two up, auto rickshaws parking, dogs and pigs basking on the shoulder, donkey wagons straying across the street, holy men walking with staffs, men pushing fruit carts, lumbering large trucks, a pedal rickshaw carrying no less than a dozen kindergartners in uniforms, and a general blue haze of pollution so thick you can barely see. To a normal person like Lynsey—“I’m freaking out!”—this would be, well, a bit of a freakout. But to Jonno and Stefan, it’s just a laugh.
“What happens if we hit a holy cow?” asks Jonno.
“I’ve herd you just drive away,” says Stefan.
“Well, you don’t want to have a beef with the locals.”
“No, you better mooooove out of the way.”
“We probably should’ve taken an udder route,” says Jonno, and everyone finally cracks up.
AN AMAZING QUIET GREETS us at the orphanage that turns out to be not exactly an orphanage, but a temporary home for children rescued from ... child labor. The peaceful Bel Vikas Ashram, a walled compound surrounded by acres of green rice paddies, takes in mostly pre-teen boys found during police raids on sweat shops, stone quarries, plastics factories, and other flagrantly inhumane businesses. The nuns offer the kids a couple months of remedial education and vocational training, while social workers try to convince the parents not to send their gradeschoolers back out to earn a couple rupees.
Dozens of these former factory workers, boys ages six to 13, stand mute like a school choir under a porch. They have the stiff bearing of muscular adults and betray no enthusiasm for the totally awesome gifts almost within grasp—two rows of 10-speeds and BMXs in the yard below.
Yes, somehow Kapoor delivered the bikes on time.
“It’s amazing,” says Lynsey.
The unsmiling nuns who run the place lead the kids in two “action songs,” and Jonno and Stefan mimic the hand movements—the rising sun, the giving away—causing a few of them to crack adorable/disobedient smiles. Afterward, they are herded in front of the zany car for the requisite photo op and then, before they can receive their bikes, asked to declare their dream jobs. Doctor is most popular, followed by carpenter. An assistant translates their answers, and of course Jonno and Stefan try to joke, even via translator.
“I don’t feel like humanitarian work is shared in a fun light,” Stefan had told me. “So much of the time, it’s like, ‘There’s poverty here; here’s this kid; you should feel bad; the only way you can feel better is if you give us your credit card details.’ That’s not how we see it.”
Nor do the kids. By the time the second bike is handed out, a short boy is pedaling furiously down the courtyard. He crashes into a brick wall—to much cheering. Trying to outdo him, the fourth boy pedals hard on a bike as tall as him only to lay it down on the straightaway. More cheers. Of course the bikes immediately begin breaking apart, despite that good hammer work at Kapoor Company. Wheels warp. Seats and handlebars twist. Brakes and training wheels and pedals drop onto the cobblestones. But no one seems to expect differently and a couple of the Bel Vikas Ashram gardeners even jump in to help fix the busted steeds. The mayhem continues.
Eventually, 34 kids, many having never straddled a two-wheeler before, are riding bikes in the compound no larger than a basketball court.
Boys jump onto other boys’ racks, swerving along. They showboat with arms and hands in the air. Little kids mount tall bikes and, unable to keep their feet on the pedals at the bottom of the pedal stroke, just press extra hard on the way down and wait for the pedal to come around. They collide often, sometimes into each other, sometimes on top of each other. This madcap free for all is not the appropriate setting in which to learn to ride, I think, and I’m sure only these kids and the inventor of the bike, whoever he was, truly appreciate just how awesome bikes are.
Lynsey tears up.
JONNO AND STEFAN PULL a surfboard from the roof, balance it on a skateboard, and join in the fray. As far as surfing goes, it’s totally lame. But when one of the stern nuns takes a try—Jonno pushing; Stefan waving his hands theatrically; she terrified and smiling like a game-show winner—I too get a little choked up.
I soon bid goodbye to crew, and it turns out that I miss the crack ups by just a couple of days. No one escapes the shittiest city in India unscathed. In Varanasi, a Jonno and Stefan will swim down the Ganges, right past dead fish, the immolating funeral ghats, and the city sewer outflow. Then Jonno will get a cold sore, an infected eye, and be so sick he can’t stay awake to eat. Stefan, already feverish, will vomit and go straight to bed. Lynsey will have a gastro-intestinal blowout and ask herself over and over why she came.
But then Lynsey will get better and spend another month in the country on her own, orchestrating and giving away more bikes at an ashram for girls. And the 28 States crew will go on to surf behind yoked cows; through markets standing atop fruit carts; on steep tea plantations. They’ll sneak into a northeastern state dressed as “river ninjas” while surfing “class .83 rapids.” They’ll surf a grass slope in a state they describe as “Pandora without the Avatars.” They’ll ride on moto rickshaws and outrigger canoes and “billycarts,” whatever those are. But most impressive of all, judging by the rough edits of the Outside TV series I saw, they will maintain their curiosity, compassion, and good cheer throughout.
“We always felt like everything was gonna be OK once we hit the coast, and to totally generalize, it was,” says Jonno.
They’ll make it to all 28 States, and yes, they will also surf actual waves. Near Puri, in the state of Orissa, they will be the only surfers riding clean three footers in warm clear water.
The 2012 Olympics kicked off on Saturday—if you don't count soccer, which you should—and a lot of things happened. It's not easy to keep up with it all, especially since NBC's streams have been especially screwy, so here are the five things you should know if you were only going to know five things about what happened over the weekend in London.
1. Kim Rhode, the 33-year-old shooter from California, became the first American to win a medal in five straight Olympics. She hit 99 out of 100 targets in the skeet shooting competition to win her third gold to go along with a bronze and a silver. Rhode won her first medal (a gold) in Atlanta at 16, and she plans to compete in Brazil in 2016.
Bobo is a tracker on Animal Planet’s new documentary series Finding Bigfoot.
So, Bobo, say we’ve got a week to look for Sasquatch. Where should we go? Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, no doubt—lots of sightings there. Bigfoots love interesting camps. They also like rad music and appear to prefer mellow tunes with North American flutes, guitar, and some bass. Rock out, then start calling the beast in. You can either bring a 1,000-watt amp and blast some prerecorded ’squatch calls. Or you can do as I do and mimic the Bigfoot cry yourself. Just keep in mind, only one in every half a million men can make their voice as low as mine.