Robyn Benincasa works in what she calls “the most insane, epic classrooms on earth”.
She means the extremely remote and inhospitable terrain she faces as a professional adventure racer. Chasing victory in the world’s toughest endurance races, Benincasa covers up to 1000 miles, using her feet, native boats and mountain bikes, among other methods.
The San Diegan also finds time to be a firefighter and a keynote speaker on teamwork and leadership. Her business client list includes Siemens and Walmart.
Here, the spritely 45-year-old talks about succeeding in sport, life and business, bouncing off her new book, How Winning Works: 8 Essential Leadership Lessons from the Toughest Teams on Earth.
D: How do you feel today?
R: Sweeeet. I’m digging being able to paddle, ride, hike, SUP (stand up paddle surfing), and be a fire-fighter again after my last hip replacement. Good times.
D: Where are you now — some lofty mountain retreat?
R: I wish. At this moment, I’m stuck at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, waiting for my flight to Moline, Illinois, to teach at an adventure racing camp. Usually, 175 to 200 people show up. It’s great to see the sport I love and that has shaped my life-slash-career alive and well. I love interacting with the new kids on the scene.
D: What gets your adrenaline flowing?
R: It’s funny how people assume you love adrenaline sports because you’re a competitor in endurance sports. I don’t like to be scared. Our events are more of an inner-journey than an externally stimulated one. That being said, where I do love a bit of an adrenaline rush is on a tough medical call at the fire station. If someone is having a heart attack or has been involved in a tragic accident, the thrill of being the team that can save their life is very cool.
D: What’s the toughest part of team adventure racing?
R: The clock never stops — and we all have to remain within 50 yards of one another the entire time. So the greatest skill we have all learned has nothing to do with athleticism. We’ve
learned to move faster and farther as a cohesive team than anyone else in the world. And those skills and the fun-slash-crazy ways we’ve learned are what I teach in the book.
The people who win in life are those who have embraced and capitalized on their strengths and outsourced their weaknesses… Nobody succeeds alone. Your ability to continue to the next level becomes less a matter of climbing up and more a matter of reaching out and creating synergy with the great people around you.
D: After 15 years of adventure racing, what’s left to prove?
R: I’m still chasing 24-hour kayaking records. I have two out of three of the available Guinness World Records at the moment — hoping to grab the Open Water distance record this May. I’m also racing in stand-up paddling races and hoping to set some ultra-distance records there, too…
But these days my favorite endeavors involve raising awareness and funds for my non-profit, Project Athena, which helps female cancer survivors and survivors of other medical-slash-traumatic setbacks live an adventurous dream as part of their recovery…
D: How active are you?
R: Very. I’m still a full-time firefighter for San Diego and racing in SUP (stand up paddle surfing), ultra-distance kayaking, ultra-cycling, and leading all of our Project Athena Adventures, including: the Grand Canyon 45 mile/two day Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Trek, and the 100 Mile Florida Keys to Recovery paddle-slash-bike-slash-hike adventure. I train every day. I love it.
D: What’s your top fitness tip?
R: I think a lot of people get stuck in just “doing what they do” when they go to work out. I think it’s important to mix it up — do some group workouts where people will push you. And always do some kind of hills or interval work where you push hard for 30-second-to-eight-minute bursts, once or twice a week. Bottom line is that, if you’re bored with your workout, you’re doing boring stuff! Get out and play every day.
D: What drives you?
R: Passion! After four hip replacements, I’m just so grateful to be able to hike-slash-climb-slash-play that I never want to stop. And I want to be in good enough shape to lead others to discover their ‘inner-Athena’ too. My new passion in life is to help other people amaze and inspire themselves — and then do the same for others. At Project Athena, we call it bringing people into the circle of light. And our survivors and fundraisers then go home and inspire others.