Last week I was invited to the opening night of EtchRock Elites – a community celebrating athletes pushing themselves to their limits. Amongst the many brilliant and inspiring speakers at the evening, I was lucky enough to meet Michael Robbert Brans. Michael is an endurance athlete and obstacle runner who has been diagnosed with cancer three times in his life – in 1995, 1998, and again in 2001. As a result he underwent a full amputation of his right leg but refused to let this prevent him from achieving great things.
He has since become a world record holder – for fastest 5km on crutches – and earlier this year climbed the highest mountain in the UK to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
I talked to Michael about his fantastic achievements.
Charlie: You climbed Ben Nevis earlier this year to raise awareness for cancer. Tell me a bit about why you chose Ben Nevis, why this particular challenge?
Michael: I had two choices. I could climb Mount Kilimanjaro – I had lots of opportunities to climb it – or I could climb Ben Nevis. I knew a guy who had climbed Kilimanjaro and he said “Hey Mike do you want to do it?” But the thing is it’s not about the height for me, it’s not about getting the mountain of mountains and the biggest, biggest, biggest. I just wanted the challenge. And the thing with Kilimanjaro is you have to go for one and a half weeks to get to the summit of the mountain. And you have to keep climbing, resting, adjusting, climbing, resting, adjusting. And I’m not that kind of guy. I’m eager. But Ben Nevis, you start going up and you must come down, because of the weather. The challenge with Ben Nevis is going up and down in one straight walk. Kilimanjaro is on my bucket list but it wasn’t the mountain for me, it wasn’t the best mountain for my challenge.
Charlie: I guess the important thing is not to do something that is better than what other people have done i.e. climbing the biggest mountain, but it’s about doing your own personal challenge, pushing yourself to your own personal limits.
Michael: Exactly, it’s not about bragging “I did Kilimanjaro!” I don’t care. It could be the smallest mountain in the UK but I don’t care. Ben Nevis was the challenge for me.
Charlie: It’s very easy to compare yourself to other people, but whatever challenge you do there’s always going to be someone who has done it better or can do it better.
Michael: You know what? Three weeks ago I went to a party and at the party there was a guy who did a motivational talk, Jamie Andrew. And the guy is a quadruple amputee – he lost both his hands and his feet and he climbed Kilimanjaro and he climbed the Matterhorn so yes there are guys better than me. It’s about the personal challenge. Everybody has his own reason to do something and that’s why I climbed Ben Nevis. And Ben Nevis is a very unknown mountain where I’m from [The Netherlands]. There are not a lot of people there who know the mountain and it was very cool for me to talk about it and they would say “Oh, what’s Ben Nevis?” Everybody knows Kilimanjaro but this was very new. It was good for stories.
Charlie: So how did you train for it?
Michael: I just walked. Trained for three days on, one week off. Two weeks on, one week off. I just trained on the flow. I don’t have a coach. It’s just walking. With Ben Nevis it’s not an endurance thing. It’s a massive power thing for me. If you walk Ben Nevis, you can make it really easy if you have a good day – nine hours, maybe eight up and down. And that’s just a normal person. But if you look at my situation, every step I take is at least 40 centimetres, so every time I take a step it’s like a big lunge. And every time I do the lunge, I have to dip right down to push myself. The whole trip, up and down. Every step took so much power. I was taking 40-50 centimetre steps. So what I also had to do was go to the gym, do power training and get my stamina up.
Charlie: You said in your talk that your team had trouble keeping up with you?
Michael: At the start everybody made a mistake about speed. After the first 200-300 metres everyone was like “Oh shit we need to speed up!” But after that it was OK, although my father really had a problem from the start. No one was expecting me to be as quick as I was … and neither was I!
Charlie: Were you worried at any point that you weren’t going to make it?
Michael: No, and that’s my real answer. Because in my mind I was thinking about a 17 hour walk. We went up in the dark, in the storm and the rain, but after the first 100 metres it was fast. Going down was tougher. I fell halfway down, on my back. I was tired. But no, I never thought I wouldn’t make it.
Charlie: So how did it feel when you made it to the top?
Michael: It was stormy, it was rainy, it was an anti-climax. There was nothing fun about it, it was unbelievable.
Charlie: It was an anticlimax? So were you expecting some big revelation when you reached the top?
Michael: Yeah! I hoped that there was not much wind, much rain. But it got windy and rainy and the wind was almost a storm. It was unbelievable. We had to get down straight away. I had no time to celebrate. I just stuck the rock in, popped the champagne and went down.
Charlie: This was the rock with your name on it?
Michael: Yes. We stuck the rock in a place that no one ever touches, so my daughter will one day see it. You know the funny thing is, and it sounds sad but the cancer could come back. It could happen. I had it three times. I’m clear, I’m clean, I’m OK now but it could happen. And the cool thing about Ben Nevis is that my daughter has some legacy up the mountain and she can climb Ben Nevis and have something physical.
Charlie: So when you first came up with the idea to climb Ben Nevis and you told your family about it, you wife and your daughter, how did they react? What did they think about it?
Michael: Well my mother was kind of OK. We talked about it. When I was 14, 15 years old, I had a really tough conversation with my mother in the car driving back from the hospital when the doctors gave me the diagnosis that I had lung cancer. We thought that I was dying. Six months later it turned out it was just the flu. The photos they took – the picture of flu and the picture of lung cancer – looks the same. Black dots. So we thought I had lung cancer but it wasn’t. Three years later I get diagnosed with cancer again. Anyway, on the way back me and my mother talked about what I would like to do. So I talked to her about Ben Nevis and my mum says “OK, very cool.” My wife she says OK. But the thing is it’s a lot of money and I needed to figure out how to do it, and I wanted to have a team of people to take with me. And within four months I had nine gear sponsors. I raised 9000 Euros for the team to get up Ben Nevis and afterwards I raised 4000 Euros for the research. Not a big amount of money but the awareness I raised on social media and on television, in many ways that’s more important.
Charlie: That’s amazing, congratulations. So you clearly had a great team behind you and a lot of supporters. Was there anyone who thought you shouldn’t attempt it?
Michael: No not really, I think everyone was kind of nervous but I had a great team. A professional hiking circle. I had a physiotherapist with me for when I was injured. My father was with me. My best friend was with me. I had guys who have already done Ben Nevis. I had the guys up with me taking pictures and filming for the documentary. [To The Top will be out in Holland later this year].
Charlie: I think there’s something very cathartic about attempting a huge physical and mental challenge, having a single goal to aim for and just focusing on this one thing. And the aim of my website is to inspire people going through difficult situations, whether it’s mental illness or a physical handicap, who feel like they are restricted by their condition. I want to use the things that people like you have done to show people that these obstacles don’t have to stop them from achieving incredible things. So what advice would you give to someone who might be in such a situation?
Michael: Well there is one quote from – you know Richard Branson?
Charlie: I do.
Michael: He said if someone offers you an opportunity and you don’t know how to do it, say yes then learn how to do it later. It’s one of the best motivational quotes ever. It’s brilliant. Just do it. I just decided to do Ben Nevis. I talked to some people, I called two foundations, and said “OK I want to climb Ben Nevis for cancer research,” and within two weeks they had got back to me on social media. I found nine sponsors to get the whole project going and get the whole team up Ben Nevis. I started out with nothing and had the whole thing together in four months. I just did it.
Charlie: Did you find your personal story really helped you to raise awareness and get those sponsors?
Michael: My only goal was to get as much awareness as I could get, and just climbing Ben Nevis was not powerful enough to get the awareness on its own. I needed to have something else, and I already had the world record so that definitely helped get attention.
Charlie: This was the world record for fastest 5km on crutches.
Michael: Yeah, so I got the OK from Guinness, and three weeks before the world record I got in contact with Nikki Bradley, who tried for the world record for fastest 5 km on crutches in the female category the same time I did. She flew over to Holland, and she went for the world record and I went for the world record. And she missed out on the record by one second. One second in life can change everything. Make every second count. Take your chance. Go all in.
Charlie: And was it that “go all in” mindset that made you get into obstacle running? Did you feel like you wanted a difficult challenge to show yourself that you wouldn’t let your disability restrict you?
Michael: Well my friends already did it – obstacle course running – but not me. I was almost at the breakdown, didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. And then one day I got an email from a foundation that asked me “Hey Mike do you want to donate for the Dutch Rehabilitation Fund?” I emailed them back and told them I didn’t want to donate but I wanted to run an obstacle course and raise money for the foundation. I got in contact with my friends’ team – Team No Limits – and five weeks later I started running. I did five kilometres in four hours. Very slow. And now I’m ambassador for the organisation. And I was always trying to find a sport for me. I did wheelchair basketball at high-level, I tried rowing for the Olympics. I tried a lot of sports. But I want to be independent and want to be on my own. And obstacle racing is that sport. You just run … run like hell. So cool.
Charlie: And at the risk of sounding too cheesy, you’ve overcome plenty of obstacles of your own, so obstacle running was the logical choice.
Michael: Yeah exactly, and when I do the obstacle running events, I do it because it’s my own individual challenge and every time I want to beat my own time. Out of thousands of people running, I’m the slowest guy on the track, for sure. But everyone is like “Hey man, you’re inspiring, keep going man!”
Charlie: And how does it feel to have all these people supporting you?
Michael: You know the first time it was a bit strange, but I absorbed it. And when I’m done, and I’m over the finish line, all the other people are already at home or they’re sitting in the car driving back but they’re talking about me. “Did you see the guy on the crutches? We need to stop whining about the little things.” And this is why I keep doing it.
Images courtesy of Gotspe Design