“I’ve really no sense of taste or smell since the accident,” confides James Cracknell. Outwardly the double Olympic gold medallist is the picture of good health, bronzed and brawny. How he wishes that were true: “My facial recognition is definitely not so good and I had a seizure in October, which means I can’t drive for a year, another year…”
In July 2010, while attempting to set a new record running, rowing, swimming and cycling from New York to Los Angeles in 16 days, Cracknell was knocked off his bike by a petrol tanker. It took 25 staples to patch his fractured skull back together and a further three months in hospital relearning how to walk and talk and recognise his wife.
The most distressing side effect was having to be chaperoned around his children. “When you’ve had a frontal lobe injury, you have to put a lot of energy into focusing on what you’re doing,” he explains ruefully. “The peripheral stuff like moving a knife or hot teapot away isn’t there, so a kid can pull it and cause themselves trouble.”
Thankfully, Cracknell’s since been allowed to resume fatherly duties but admits he still struggles with his temper: “I get angry and frustrated more than I used to, which has been very difficult. What’s as a result of brain injury and what’s as a result of being hungry, standing in a tropical swamp for hours on end? The director came to one of my neuro-psychological appointments so we could work out when it was me being a dick and when I was behaving in a way I wouldn’t have a couple of years before.”
Cracknell is referring to the director of his latest TV series, World’s Toughest Expeditions, in which he follows in the footsteps of Dr Livingstone, Colonel Fawcett and other intrepid explorers. Which begs the question: is this man totally and utterly barmy? What’s wrong with getting a nice cuppa and a choccy biccie, getting comfy on the sofa and tuning into Bear Grylls for your kicks – like the rest of us?
“This is a very different programme,” insists Cracknell. “The other programmes have been about long endurance events. Yes, there was an element of that but this is also cultural, historical and geographical.”
…and painful. I ask to see Cracknell’s hands: in the first episode, while attempting Sir Percy Fawcett’s back-breaking (and ultimately fatal) journey in the Amazon, he howls in agony as his red-raw palms are cleansed with iodine. Those wounds have healed, he tells me, then exhibits welts from more recent blisters. “For the New Zealand episode, I had to escape from an island, build a boat and then row it. My hands are not as used to rowing as they used to be so after about an hour I had blisters.”
We’re also treated to a glimpse of Cracknell’s very toned rear end as he frolics in the river at night with the chief of a local tribe. Totally naked. Before long he’s howling again as he’s “combed” by a dogfish toothcomb, a ritual thought to impart strength and courage. “Far be it for me to question their traditions but drawing blood then rubbing salt into the wound didn’t seem the best way of getting ready for a journey through the jungle.”
What does Cracknell’s wife, former TV presenter Beverley Turner, make of it all? He chuckles and reveals that – while his wife has no qualms whatsoever with the nation ogling her husband’s backside – she suggested an unflattering title for the first episode: Psycho in the Swamp.
Since retiring from team GB in 2004, Cracknell has rowed across the Atlantic, raced to the South Pole and finished higher than any other Briton in the Marathon des Sables – a punishing six-day super-marathon in the Sahara. A mere six months after his near-fatal collision, he completed the Yukon Arctic Ultra, cycling 430 miles across the icy plains of Northern Canada. Why does he continue to push himself so hard?
“I guess it’s who you hang around with,” he answers. “My perception of what a big person is, is very different. I was one of the smallest in the rowing team so I’m used to looking people in the eye or looking up, and so my perception of someone who is small is six foot…”
Not for the first time in this interview, I wonder where this train of thought is heading and whether Cracknell’s rambling is another consquence of that near-fatal blow to the head or simply the cunning tactic of a bloke who clearly doesn’t relish being in the hot seat. But then he continues, thoughtfully: “You’re around people that push themselves hard all the time so that’s quite normal, and so I don’t feel especially different.”
The biggest challlenge, he says, has been becoming an ordinary husband and father. “Now there’s a load of other people who take priority over me whereas as a sportsman you’re ultimately selfish.
“A sports psychologist told me it takes two years to retire.” So he’s had therapy? “When I retired, yes, because I wanted to make sure I didn’t…” He trails off. Then: “I learned a lot of things from Redgrave – one of which was not to say ‘if you ever see me in a boat again, shoot me’ straight after you’ve raced!”
Surprisingly, Cracknell goes on to criticise sportsmen like Lance Armstrong and Michael Schumacher, who retired only to return to the field. “You need to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons rather than because you can’t think what else to do. You need people around you who are prepared to say: what are you doing? Whereas I don’t think Armstrong or Schumacher have dominant enough people to really challenge them.”
Can he ever envisage spending his days on the golf course or pottering around in the garden? “I voted for astroturf for our garden. It’s so much more practical, ” he jokes, “but I’m 40 this year so I have to maybe plan for that.” Then he is planning to take it a little easier? Cracknell laughs and leaves the question hanging…
Don’t hold your breath.
World’s Toughest Expeditions with James Cracknell begins tonight on Discovery at 9pm