October 07, 2022 12 min read
Laura Kennington has built a hugely inspiring career in endurance adventures and encouraging people to push their own limits. She is a huge believer that diving into something is the best approach and she quite literally dove into her career in adventure starting with a spontaneous cliff dive in America. Taking on over 13 crazy challenges cycling, swimming, running and kayaking in the last 8 years Laura has had to battle to overcome her inner ‘gremlins’ who like to tell her she is destined to fail. She joined me to chat about mistakes, mindset and her growing adventure career. If you are considering setting off on your own adventure Laura has some fantastic advice for you!
Your career in adventure started through a frustration with ‘adulting’ - Was there a defining moment for you that solidified your want for a career in adventure?
It wasn't actually a one moment in decision, I think the first step in the career that I now have is just wanting to try something new and wanting to push myself in general. So it wasn't like I left the office, knowing this is gonna be my new career. I left the office and I knew I wanted to do something different. I had just no way of knowing how it was gonna spiral and I was gonna end up here, I just kept saying yes to things that were interesting. I kept trying new things. I think that was the big initial step for me, the permission to keep trying new things, because I think sometimes you do things that you think you should, because of adulting.
I had all these boxes ticked and actually on paper my adult life was super successful. I was in this really well paid job, I was able to buy all the Ikea furniture I could ever want, but I was just completely miserable. I was thinking, there has to be more than this, I didn't know what it was but I thought I would just keep trying new things and hopefully one of them would stick. One of the first things I did was get qualified as a personal trainer because I realised I really liked moving my body but that career didn't work out although it's played very well into what I do now. I don't think anything's wasted. I've got all of this random experience that actually comes in really handy now. So it was a slow burn, I think.
I want to talk a little bit about your project Kairos - Your mission to help others unlock their potential is fab - Where did the inspiration for Project Kairos come from?
I came across the word ‘Kairos' (which means the right or opportune moment) when I was still in the office and I thought it was quite a cool word and I just scribbled it down. As I started taking on these challenges I found that people everywhere were like ‘Oh, I would love to do that, but you know I need to do this first…’ or ‘yeah, I'm gonna do that in the next 10 years’, but a big part for me was about realising that there is never going to be a good time. It would never make sense for me to leave that well paying job. It’s important to remember it's never going to be the right time, you have to take action first. I'm very much a dive in and figure it out. Sometimes you need to take the first step and if the first step goes wrong then you've eliminated like another channel, you know.
One of the most empowering things for me about sport is it gave me a new reference point for my body. I think like a lot of young women, I grew up with all this pressure. My background was in the theatre industry, I used to dance a lot and it was this hugely pressured environment in the 90s, we had all these stick thin models everywhere. I noticed when I started taking on long distance challenges it gave me a way of relating to my body that had nothing to do with how it looked. I just found that was so powerful. It's always stuck with me even now, I'm not saying ‘oh there’s no thigh gap’, I’m like ‘my legs have just carried me hundreds of miles’. That to me is such an important shift in how everyone relates to these bodies that we have. I found that so powerful that I wanted to get other people involved. When I visit schools and get amongst the 15 to 16 year old girls that are just starting to pick up on all these anxieties, I find it really rewarding to be able to interrupt it and give them a new frame of reference because the dropout rate for girls in schools is horrendous. I think we have so much work to do around that in the media and in general, it's only really recently that we've started to see like this inclusive body movement and celebrating exercise not just as a weight loss tool. I think my background made me very passionate about that because I felt it myself and then seeing firsthand the effect it can have on people, you know when someone takes on their first 5k or 10k and they feel like their own hero. It’s such a lovely thing to be a part of and encourage people to do, I think it's really important.
All of your adventures are self-propelled and created by you, what’s the draw to this over organised adventures?
I was really aware that I wanted to expand my comfort zone. I was living for the living for Fridays and hating Monday. I felt really desperate to unleash my own potential. And I thought, the best way to do that is by really just chucking myself in at the deep end and seeing how I reacted to it. I steer away from organised events so much is because looking at a map and piecing a route together that's half the fun for me. I love figuring out where I want to go in the world, how I want to explore it and doing it completely my own way. You get to vicariously adventure before you go, because you're just poring over the maps and working out your route. I really enjoy that side of it as well.
The planning before an adventure seems pretty hectic, how do you make sure you are prepared?
I am a real planner, actually, and this is gonna be probably losing me some adventure points but I have a really detailed spreadsheet. So I have a daily outline of where I'm hoping to get to and where there's food stops along the way, especially if I'm going somewhere that I know it’s going to be a bit tricky refilling water and things like that, I do quite a bit of research in advance. It does two things, it makes me feel kind of a bit more prepared and it means that I've got a target to aim for which I find mentally really helpful.
So on days where I'm really tired, if it was up to me without planning, I'd probably maybe do like 10 miles and then sulk for a bit. However the spreadsheet says I need to do 70 miles so that breaks it down and I haven't got this massive distance in front of me I've just got that distance for that day. It helps me compartmentalise it and chunk it down. It's fine to adjust it on the road and I have done when I've needed to but I find having that framework helps.
Making mistakes is all part of the journey - what are some things you wish you knew when you first started that you know now?
That's a really interesting one because I feel like the mistakes that have happened have been really integral to kind of who I am today and the learning curves along the way. The first trip I ever did was in many ways, pretty much a disaster I went to kayak the Volga river in Russia, the longest river in Europe. The trip basically went viral, it got a huge publicity which completely changed the safety aspects and lots of other things. So it was my first big adventure I did and I didn't end up getting to the finish line. Since it was my first big adventure and I was full of excitement and confidence and I was raising money for charity at the time I’d been really vocal about it. I was super green and super excited and told anyone that would listen that I was off to kayak, it’s very rare in Russia. Then when I ended up coming home a few weeks early it actually got picked up by the tabloids here and for a few days that my phone was ringing, and it was just absolutely everywhere. At the time it was awfully difficult, I was feeling quite sick, I'd not really experienced any public humiliation or failure like that at all.
I have to say, in hindsight, I am so thankful for it. It completely obliterated my ego straight out the gate. The process of having to get back up on the horse was much more valuable for me than had I actually succeeded. I'm sure I would have learned a lot if I had paddled the river, but having to get back up with tabloids calling my phone etc. helped me decide this was not going to be the last thing that I ever did and putting myself out there all over again, has made me so much stronger. One of the biggest things I've learned is that you have to pay attention to where the criticism comes from. It's super noisy and you get people with opinions on absolutely everything, Russia really taught me that. The only people that matter generally are the people that have skin in the game. You have to filter out that criticism because a lot of the time I think people do it because they're worried for you like I had very early on with my family, they were very concerned. You have to figure out why someone's saying it and whether you should listen or not. A big lesson for me with hiccups over the years is it's okay to fail. I think that that lesson never gets old. We never like to do it. I think the only reason you don't fail is because you're playing it really safe. Whereas if you're giving things a good go there's always a risk something will go a bit wrong.
I know from your book failure has been something you’ve struggles with and there are a lot of curveballs on every adventure - what is your mindset around failure now and how do you deal with things going wrong?
When I did the North Coast 500 I still had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Russia. For a few years I never wanted to fail again, I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of that. I really felt like I had something to prove because it was such a noisy failure. I was super driven and really hard on myself. I never missed a training session. I pushed myself a bit too hard for the North Coast 500. I'd actually flown home for a family funeral 24 hours before and I was sobbing on the sleeper train to the start, I just wasn't in the right place to begin with, so I'm not hugely surprised that I got an injury a few days into it. I was expecting this huge backlash again, I was predicting the tabloids going up and actually, what I got instead was so much kindness from everyone. It was a really good reminder to me that that reaction wasn't necessarily like the norm and it showed me a really lovely side to people. It was good for me to know as well that I don't necessarily need to push myself into the ground.
Affirmations and mantras when you are facing a tough section of a journey are something you rely on a lot - do you have any favourites that have helped you get through particularly tough, times for example your first running expedition in Fuerteventura?
My first ever road bike was called Dory after finding Nemo, obviously, her mantra is ‘just keep swimming’. So mine was ‘just keep cycling, just keep cycling’. I don't know how inspirational that is, but it's very simple, very effective.
I don't know that I have one mantra in particular, but I have a rule that I don't quit when I'm tired, hungry, or crying. I won't ever quit, unless I've injured myself or something, I will try and give myself some space around it. When it comes to long days on the road I'll try and get to the end of that day, I will never quit in the middle of the road and then if I still feel like quitting in the next morning, we can maybe ‘just keep just keep cycling’ or ‘just keep hiking’.
For a while I had this Dr Seuss quote taped to my laptop ‘You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose. It was a good reminder that when you don't like where you are, you can do something. Another quote that I remind myself of often is, ‘we won't be distracted by comparison if we are captured by purpose’. I think that's driven me really well over the years because obviously, social media is such a noisy space and there's always someone doing something you think you should be doing. For me it's important to stick to my own path and do things my way and trust that that’s right even if it’s very different to how everyone else is doing stuff.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to create their own self propelled adventure?
I would say just going for it is the best thing. But in terms of advice, I think one of the most important things I've done over the years is worked out where my knowledge gaps are. One of the earlier trips I did was organising a triathlon around three of the Channel Islands. I swam around Sark, I kayaked around Guernsey and then cycled around jersey. I had no open water experience whatsoever, I had done some river kayaking, but again, not really much sea kayaking experience. Both of those things should have been huge barriers but thought everyone has to start somewhere. That attitude is one of the most beneficial things you can have when when trying something new, I think we forget that everyone was a beginner at some point. For me, I was thinking about what I don’t know and what I needed to know to get this off the ground. So the swim across Sark is probably the most relevant of those three, because I was completely new to it. I didn't know enough about tides and I had to figure out how to eat in the water and all of these things. I didn't feel very confident so I had to get a support boat. I reached out to some sea swimmers and someone put me in touch with a lovely guy called Adrian from Guernsey who's like a swimming machine. He took me under his wing, and not once did he make me feel like an idiot for not having a clue.
That permission to learn is so important. You will make mistakes along the way, that's fine. But figure out where your gaps of knowledge are and then find someone who can help. We've got the internet now so you can Google the heck out of absolutely everything and then where the information stops you can reach out and ask for help and you'll get a reply, I find that the adventure community is so lovely and helpful.
Don't be afraid to be a beginner, I guess is my most important piece of advice.
In between your bigger adventures you often set off on mini more accessible ones - do you have any particular places or trails you gravitate towards?
It tends to shift around quite a bit. I’ve just got back from the Peak District and I'm falling in love with that area more and more. I was up there for an event in Manchester, which is how it quite often works, If I'm somewhere for a talk, or an event, I will have a little look and see what I could fit in around that. I love Scotland but it's just a bit far, otherwise I would say North Coast 500 and the highlands are just absolutely stunning. I just tend to look at where I might be for something and tag it on to that. The UK has got so much so I still have this huge list of fun little pockets of it to explore.
It must have been hard when covid hit and we were limited on where we could go - how did you keep your sense of adventure alive?
What I actually missed most, during covid wasn't necessarily the travel and adventure, although that was a huge part of it, it was actually the events. I do a lot of talks and that’s one of the bits of my career that I really love. Then events got cancelled, left, right and centre, and some of the events were online, but it really wasn't the same. I found that's what I missed more than a travel, because I was still going and finding little ways to keep it interesting. I love sunrises, so for me getting up early and going for sunrise cycle is one of the best ways I know to recalibrate my mindset and chuck a little mini adventure into the day.
Have you got any bucket list adventures/what’s next?
I mean, where isn't to be honest. I really want to visit Canada and that's obviously ginormous and there's all these various routes to Canada, but there's a river called the Mackenzie River that is on the list to explore one day. That was the first one that sprang to mind but exploring some more of America would be great as well and then there's places like Croatia that look stunning. There's just a really long list.
Thanks so much for joining me for a chat Laura! You can keep up to date with all of Laura’s adventures here.
Comments will be approved before showing up.