National Geographic have challenged twenty men and women to follow the annual wildebeest migration with limited resources and no map or compass for a punishing two-hundred-mile trek across Africa. We caught up with New York fitness guru Robin Arzon to talk about her experience as part of the human herd.
You graduated with distinction from law school and started a successful career in law. You then decided to give that career up and start working towards a life in fitness. That must have been a big decision. What was it that made you make that path?
Oh man, you know I think I realised that I had such a passion for fitness and endurance sports that I couldn’t live my life pining away for one hour a day. I was counting down the minutes until I could run and I didn’t think that was a valid life.
How did your family and colleagues react when you gave up your career?
It’s definitely not a normal transition from a law career that’s for sure. My family were incredibly supportive and it was more like a slow two-year process, so I was able to plant the seed and explore those conversations. My colleagues honestly weren’t that surprised because I always had an adventurous spirit, even in the confines of a law firm, so they were excited for me. Unfortunately, it’s very rare that people pursue their dreams in risky ways so I guess they kind of admired it.
Did you have any battle plan at the time or did you just take the leap and see how it worked out?
Well, when I originally left law I thought I was going to be a strict journalist and freelance for written publications and digital publications, but then social media became what it is now with a very dynamic way to engage on-line. That really took over so social media became my platform rather than a traditional journalist route.
Were you initially thinking of covering other sports or were you more interested in promoting your own way of life and interests?
It was definitely other sports, you know I reported from the London Olympics in 2012 for publications like News Week and the New York Magazine and it was certainly about the games, so that became my initial dabble into journalism and I loved it. Then I received an offer to work on the digital side and during that experience I realised that I loved being in this place, talking about movement and athletics, but that I wanted to really pursue my involvement in the sport to show an alternative way to be an athlete because I didn’t really think anyone was telling that story.
In regards to the Mygrations programme, how did that come about; where did you first hear about it?
National Geographic reached out to me directly and that’s where the conversation started.
And what was it that appealed to you about the programme?
*laughs* I think it’s an adventure junkie’s dream to get to do something like this so there wasn’t any chance I would say no.
One of the things that is initially striking about the programme is how aggressive the people in the programme were. Even before the first day, everyone was pushing to establish a pecking order and there were some real alpha male characters trying to prove themselves. Did that surprise you at all?
*laughs* No, not at all, I expected that completely. I think in an environment where you have extreme conditions there are people who want to show what they know and want to be heard. You know, the alpha male is an architect for a reason *laughs* it doesn’t bother me much, it hasn’t stopped me yet.
Without giving too much away, what was the hardest thing you found about being on the programme?
Well, I mean the trek was just astounding. I think having to trek without resources, day to day resources, is obviously a shock to the system, but for me it was less about the physical journey, because the social dynamic was very interesting to me and unexpected.
You’re a vegan. The food on the programme didn’t look particularly vegan friendly. How did you find that?
Awww. You know that crisis moment came along pretty early in the trek. You’re right, it wasn’t vegan friendly at all. We did have some fruits available to us but that wasn’t abundant at all; none of the food was abundant. So I had to think that I either had to do what I had to do in the circumstances or that I’m leaving a few days into the trek. I had to wrestle with that decision but ultimately I feel okay with it, because it was my choice to be there and the importance of seeing it through and temporarily tabling some of my moral feelings about eating meat were worth it. But yeah, I immediately went back to my normal diet and style as soon as I landed home. In fact, not even that long! I got into Amsterdam airport and happened upon a green juice vendor and I just said ‘Oh, I need five juices! All the green juices you can possibly give me!’ *laughs*
You’ve put yourself through some severe physical challenges; 5 marathons in 5 days, ultramarathons, etc. How does the experience on Mygrations compare with those?
Honesty? There were some days I would have much preferred to run an ultramarathon. There were days when we just collapsed in the camp because we were physically willing one step after another. My perspective of what the body can do is pretty extensive and I can say wholeheartedly that the human herd on this programme worked really hard. It wasn’t made for TV; it was a real trek and I’ve done much harder in terms of pace and exertion, but this was all of the elements combined and by far the hardest thing I’ve done.
There can’t be many days you would prefer to put yourself through an ultramarathon than what you’re doing on the day. Do you see the Mygrations programme as a platform to more TV work, or film maybe, or do you see it purely as a physical challenge?
I really approached it as a physical challenge. I mean I have done TV work before this; documenting my lifestyle and endurance sports, but this was just a personal journey for me. I just wanted to see if my body could do it and I was fortunate enough to do it for Nat Geo. That’s the way I approached it and I have the experience and I am very grateful for it.
You’re very driven by goals and challenges. Do you have a next goal? Is there anything in the pipeline?
Yes, I’m actually running 100 miles next Saturday. So I have a 100 mile race which I need to finish in 30 hours. It’ll be interesting. I mean I did the 5 ultramarathons in 5 days but that was split out, whereas this is literally 100 miles of running pretty aggressively and I’ve never done that type of race before, certainly not in the Florida heat which will be pretty hot. So that’s my next journey *laughs*. I would love to run across the United States; that’s a goal I’ve had in mind for a long time so I’m trying to establish the framework to do that in 2017.
Where do you think your drive comes from?
Well, I definitely see the example of my mother. She is extremely driven, she emigrated from Cuba to the United States, taught herself English and now she’s a very successful doctor and she lives with multiple sclerosis, so from all aspects of her life she’s grabbed everything in front of her with a serious amount of fervour. I’d say it’s part osmosis, part by example. My lineage is strong; I say I was raised by a wolf pack. I think I have a lineage of individuals who have fought really hard to create a space in the world that is uniquely theirs and unapologetic and I intend to carry the torch and do that as well.
There are many people out there who would love to become fitter; to play sport, to go to the gym more but don’t have the time, the energy or the motivation. If you had one piece of advice for them to allow them to make that first step what would it be?
Well, the first step requires a step right? I think the stories we tell ourselves are the most powerful motivators or inhibitors in anything that we do, particularly with fitness. So I often tell people ‘What’s the story you are telling yourself why you cannot get off the couch right now?’ because normally we are driven by our excuses and those excuses drive the story and it becomes a cycle. ‘Oh today I got home late from work, the kids needed this, I wasn’t able to go the gym because of this meeting’ and honestly I do believe that if you want it bad enough you will make it happen. I know athletes who have three kids and they get up at four in the morning and ride with me every single week. I’m not saying it’s easy, but honestly, easy is bullshit. I think if people really want it enough they’ll do it and the number one thing is the story you’re telling yourself and if it’s not like you would talk to your best friend in terms of that internal monologue, if it’s not like ‘Yes you can, let’s break down the steps on how you can do this’ then make an effort to re-frame that and take one small step. Literally it could be walking around the block before dinner time or doing squats while washing the dishes. You know, not everyone’s marathon is a marathon, sometimes it can just be walking to the store. I have a book coming out in June called “Shut up and Run” and it’s trying to answer that question about how people can get moving with training plans and nutrition advice and my journey as an athlete.
Mygrations premieres Thursday 9th June at 10pm on National Geographic Channel