Helen Skelton: The joy of going the extra mile
She has kayaked down the Amazon and trekked to the South Pole to help Sport Relief. Here, the 'Blue Peter' presenter explains why
There are three questions that people always ask me. Can I have a badge? Where's John Noakes? And why do you do these crazy challenges for Sport Relief? For the last one, part of the answer is that I can. It really is as simple as that: why not?
Over the past three years, I have agreed to do things for Sport Relief that have seen me so bruised from falling on taut wire that I couldn't sit down; things that have reduced me to a diarrhoea-riddled mess with bowels erupting in front of colleagues; things that have left me lying on the deck of a boat so dehydrated I couldn't move a limb.
I don't expect sympathy. I put myself in those situations and I would do it again in a heartbeat. But I'm neither a daredevil nor an adventurer. I am just a Blue Peter presenter.
Since 2008, my job has been to excite kids about the world. That's not a mantra from a staff away-day; that is fact. I would be stupid not to make the most of it. Blue Peter prides itself on pushing the envelope and that's why, when I joined, my boss agreed to let me go to Africa and run 78 miles in a day.
I say "agreed" because I wanted to. I was 24 and was learning that life throws things at you that aren't pleasant. You have your heart broken, you lose people, you get hurt. I thought if I could complete an ultramarathon in the desert, I'd be able to deal with anything life throws at me. I wanted to find out something about myself.
That was how this "challenge" thing started. That run caught the eye of someone at Sport Relief, who tapped on Blue Peter's notional door and asked me to do a new challenge. I didn't have a clue what I was letting myself in for when I agreed to attempt to kayak the Amazon. I'd never been to the jungle and I couldn't kayak. There were plenty of naysayers, but no one could give me a reason why I wouldn't be able to finish. They just said it would be hard.
The reason I got through it was because of Sport Relief. My job was to "capture imagination": to raise awareness and get people to run the Sport Relief mile. The point was that, if I can go the extra mile, so can you. In my head, if I suffered and struggled and put up with a bit of a pain, I could look the people I meet at Sport Relief-funded projects in the eye and say: you might feel at rock bottom, but it might work out OK.
Kayaking the Amazon was stressful, but I came back to an overwhelming amount of support and the realisation that actually, no matter what your experience, anything is possible if you give it a go. The messages I got from kids reduced me to tears. If you've ever had a handwritten note from a seven-year-old you'll know where I'm coming from.
And that's what made me want to do more. People seemed to love us proving that the difficult was possible. So I've carried on doing these challenges, because the audience seem to like it, and it's become what I do.
We did the high wire because it was different: a stunt rather than endurance. (I hated it. I had to wear an earpiece to remind me to breathe.) Trekking to the South Pole gave us a chance to deal with a different and more challenging environment. Each time, I agreed through sheer naivety. But if I managed to raise one kid's expectations – of themselves and of others – and raised money for a charity I believe in, then I have made my day at work count.
In Uganda, I met a boy called Hamza who slept by a dual carriageway, who tried to steal my jewellery, who spent his days picking rubbish to sell to older boys, who was in danger every night – but who is now a model pupil on the verge of being fostered. Having met Hamza, I can say with conviction that your money helps people who need it.
Because I saw that happen in front of me, I believe any sacrifice induced or inspired by a "challenge" is worth it. I don't know why seeing me cry makes you donate, but it seems to, and for that I thank you.
Will I do any more big challenges? Part of me thinks I am getting a tad predictable, but a bigger part of me loves the fact that, increasingly, I get asked, "What's next?" before the inevitable: "Can I have a badge?"
For the record, you have to do something for Blue Peter. And I believe John Noakes is living on a boat in Marbella.
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