I’ve been fortunate to interview some incredible vegan athletes over the past year including Christine Vardaros and Dustin Hinton. But my latest interview with Craig Williams, dubbed the Vegan Ice Warrior, seems slightly more poignant. After losing a loved one, this everyday guy from Usk, Monmouthshire, decided to push himself to do something different. This led him to sign up to the Ice Warrior Challenge which will lead him on an 800-mile trek on foot from the shores of Northern Canada to the centre of the Arctic ocean. I caught up with him to find out about the expedition and how he’s getting on with training.
1. Tell us about Vegan Ice Warrior. What’s it about and what are you trying to achieve?
OK, so firstly Ice Warrior is a long-term project set up by Jim McNeill which takes ordinary people from all walks of life and trains them to become competent polar explorers. I decided to sign up for their flagship expedition dubbed the #LastPole along with 28 other ordinary citizens from all over the globe. The beauty of this project is that it’s based on raising funds through sponsorship so it truly is open to anyone, as long as you commit. Most of us have set up social media campaigns to let people know what we are doing, whether local or in our “niche” areas.
As a vegan, I decided to represent as best I could in this field—just for an extra challenge! As a team, we are trying to achieve something truly spectacular, an 800-mile trek on foot from the shores of Northern Canada to the centre of the Arctic ocean, set over four legs. No one has yet achieved this feat and we hope to be the first. Our primary goal, however, is to take part in citizen science and data collection so we can monitor the condition of the sea ice and present it to the world.
The #LastPole is dubbed the biggest, boldest, bravest and more important expedition of our time and a true world’s last first.
2. What inspired you to take on the challenge?
Honestly, I was getting a taste for travel and although I was enjoying off the beaten path stuff, I felt I needed something more. The short of it was I kept putting it off. But I started following another passion for natural sciences with the Open University a year before, whether by fate or Facebook algorithms I kept seeing this advert to take part in polar exploration and scientific data collection around the time of a geographic and geological module. So, I picked up the phone and gave Jim a call who was enthused to meet at a selection weekend and I was delighted to be accepted. On top of all that, I had just lost my grandmother who’d spent her life being an incredibly talented seamstress yet never did anything with it other than favours and shied away from making a real business with it. So it was like a double whammy to start living a bit more. It’s a shame it took her passing to start.
3. What type of training are you doing and what are the main challenges?
Training is quite monotonous, I won’t lie. Physically, it’s mostly upper body and keeping the calories up for endurance stuff. I have a harness setup to and attached to a tyre to simulate pulling a Paulk when on ice – we have to tackle at least 10 miles a day so we need to keep that endurance as a marker. I take this up to the local woods early or late and try and push out a few miles. I’ve slowly been adding weight as I get better at it. Aside from that, I am starting actively back at the gym now. I think the main challenge here is keeping the habit going, I have podcasts I listen to, to keep me entertained.
On top of that, I have completed most of the essential and compulsory training off the ice, so I am constantly honing my skill set which includes rope work, navigation, pacing and keeping on top of firearms and medical— a little trickier for those two, but still doable and vital to the entire operation.
4. When did you decide to turn vegan and what were the reasons behind it?
I turned vegan four years ago. Well, looking back, plant-based at first. I did Veganuary as I started watching the usual Netflix documentaries with my partner at the time. Honestly, I was approaching 30 and felt horrible, gaining weight and becoming lethargic and something was just sitting in the back of my head about eating animal products. I remember seeing stuff on juice reboots and did that month mostly juices and smoothies and felt great. The more I watched I saw how horrific the industries were but I don’t think it had fully clicked yet. I had a few slip-ups at the time as I was learning, same as many. I went into it thinking I couldn’t eat anything, then started with some junk food, the odd vegetarian slip. But then started being more whole food with junk food slip-ups instead. I was still using a lot of oil and salt and sugar. I still felt okay, but eventually did crash a little so started getting on board with Dr Greger’s work properly.
I even quit alcohol one year ago and though I have had a few over the holiday period, I think I will keep away from it from now on. I think I can pinpoint the “full vegan” to maybe two years ago, as in not buying anything leather etc. There is no need to. I bought a pair of Italian made brogues made of Vegetan, people haven’t got a clue. Looks and ages just like “the real thing”. I am not sure what “level” I am classed as, but I think the passion grows more and more the further you go down the vegan rabbit hole.
5. What foods do you eat regularly during training? Do you follow a strict meal plan?
My food intake at the moment is strictly whole foods, so no salt, no oil, no processed sugars and eating as much fruit and veg and beans as I can to Dr Greger’s daily dozen. I am eating like a horse most days and trying to keep the weight on a bit. I’ve been in love with the V12 juice from Dr Greger, but my main staple always seems to be oats and beans or lentils and load up with veg and fruit for snacks. One thing I love about this way of eating is that my palette is opening up so much more.
I think going forward now I will probably drop the carb intake a little and increase the protein. I am not a strict weigh out the food type person but I do prep beforehand. I have found staying strict to the no salt, no oil and sugar is really the key to it.
6. How do your other teammates react to your lifestyle choice?
My teammates are great. Everyone is supportive of each other—if anything there is just basic curiosity. In fact, we do have a few other plant-based eaters too and some Warrior weekends have been plant-based for all.
There has been advice from the seasoned explorers that it could be tricky in a few ways especially when it comes to kit, but I am seeking out all synthetics as I build my kit. I have yet to discuss the food situation when on the ice, but I know vegan, or at least vegetarian meals that don’t contain eggs or dairy exist. But it’s getting them with enough calories in—we are expected to burn through 5,500 – 8,500 a day! Either way, I am committed to full vegan on this journey.
7. What have you got planned for the rest of 2018?
2018 is going to be a busy year, I have a fantastic opportunity now to raise the rest of the £20,000 I need to take part so will be really pushing my blog veganicewarrior.com and social media a bit more—that’s been a great learning curve. Ice Warrior has a lot of events this year and since joining I always try and tag along with or help out as best I can. Some details are still in the works so will be released on my social media as I partake. Jim McNeill has recently started back with his Icons Interviewed series back in October at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. That started with Felicity Aston MBE, David Mearns and Pat Falvey – 2018 should see Ann Daniels, Tracey Curtis Taylor and TV favourite Neil Oliver— so be sure to keep an eye on the www.ice-warrior.com for details on this. These are great events for meet and greets.
I hope to hit the road again in the next few days and see how many more doors I can open. I have already had a few opened locally and had some very generous donations and pledges. It’s going to be very productive that’s for sure, I want more radio and hopefully TV exposure with some of the other team members to get the message out there and of course, try and snag some vegan companies to work with in return for sponsorship. That would be a great thing for me, to be able to fly the flag in the Arctic for them.
8. What piece of advice would you give someone looking to take on a similar challenge?
If I had any advice for anyone taking on something like this, I’d say take the first step as soon as you can and don’t get disheartened. The expedition and exploration world is the least linear platform I have ever encountered and you just got to keep going. Felicity [Aston] signed her book for me “Just keep getting out the tent” in reference to her solo trek in the Antarctic and it’s sat with me quite profoundly.
Why not sign up with Ice Warrior yourself and take part in our #LastPole attempt? Plenty of room for more vegans!
Take a look at some more pictures from Craig’s journey. Showing his medical and fitness training, the rest of the Ice Warrior team and trips to the Arctic.