James Cracknell meets Go Faster Food to discuss life with no sense of taste or smell
“Hi Katy, really nice to meet you; would you like a chocolate?” beams James Cracknell, reaching over with an enormous bowl of Lindors.
I have to admit to feeling weak at the knees at the idea of interviewing GB’s very own Superman, rowing legend and endurance addict, James Cracknell, OBE.
“You see Katy, since my accident I can’t taste or smell anything; chocolates are a wasted luxury on me, so help yourself!” Well, there’s nothing like free chocolates to put a girl at ease, the strength begins to return to my knees.
Armed with my offering of a signed copy of Go Faster Food, I introduce myself and the concept behind my book. Cracknell’s eyes light up! “Fantastic, my wife Bev loves good food and she’s an excellent cook; she makes really mean pasta! I cook every now and then too, so we’ll both enjoy trying your recipes. I’m going make your granola and look here, I see you’ve got my favourite pre-race meal here; spaghetti with pesto, pinenuts, basil and grilled chicken” Phew, so we have identical pre-race specials; for someone who can’t enjoy food anymore he’s certainly very enthusiastic about the subject!
It was on 20th July 2010 that the hitherto indestructible Cracknell was knocked off his bike by a petrol tanker on his attempt to swim, bike, run and row from Los Angeles to New York in 16 days. He was left with frontal lobe damage. He now not only struggles with short-term memory, empathy and concentration, but he has also lost all sense of smell or taste.
“Dining out in restaurants is no longer a pleasure for me,” reveals Cracknell, “eating is something I have to do to survive. For me, food is fuel, a means to an end, just like you might put petrol in the car to make it go. Before the accident I absolutely loved food and cooking but the only real enjoyment I can get out of it now is through texture. There’s no way I’d have raved about the difference between the softness of tomatoes and the crunch of cucumber before the accident!” Cracknell admits to piling on the chilli and barbecue sauce in an attempt to add a hint of flavour to his meals. “In hospital, after the accident, I would mix starter, main course and dessert together and smother the whole thing with mustard”.
Cracknell has had to consume vast amounts of nutrient-dense calories throughout his career to fuel his training and racing. The fiercely competitive Cracknell, denied the opportunity to compete in his first Olympics in Atlanta when he contracted tonsillitis on the day of the opening ceremony, was spurred on to achieve Gold in the coxless fours in the Sydney Olympics, repeating the feat four years later in Athens. Since his retirement from rowing he has gained a household reputation as a serial adventurer, constantly challenging himself to tests of endurance over all terrains. A marathon or triathlon is for most of us mortals testing enough, but not for Cracknell. He can do these in his sleep; in fact, he can pull off a marathon in under 3 hours. Cracknell likes to test his body and willpower to the very extreme. In recent years he’s rowed the Atlantic, raced to the South Pole, completed an epic swim,cycle,row from Britain to Africa and even achieved an astonishing 12thplace in the 151-mile Marathon des Sables race across the desert.
There’s no denying that with his impressive 6ft 4” frame Cracknell needs to pack in a fair amount of fuel. “I’ve always had to eat all the time, both when I used to row, and now, as an adventurer”. I have personal experience of how difficult it is to load up on good calories to fuel my marathon training schedule, so how did he manage to carry enough fuel to power him 151 miles across the Sahara? Here, Cracknell shows pure grit and what seems like superhuman strength. Limiting his daily intake to 2000 calories per day for 6 days (that’s a normal woman’s recommended daily intake!), whilst at the same time burning an extra 4000 calories a day, Cracknell drew on body reserves for energy and consequently ended up in the medical tent. He took on some fluids, refusing the drip which would have given him a time penalty and persevered to achieve his admirable finish time; a very tough cookie indeed.
“The South Pole trip was the toughest; I lost a massive 3 stone! It was simply the case that my body couldn’t absorb nearly as many calories as I burnt.”
“Now I’m not influenced by the taste of food, I just eat what’s good for me; there’s no temptation to eat junk. I see people all around me piling on the pounds by eating far too much. We’ve got to buck this trend as a society. We can survive on much less. We overeat massively and don’t do enough exercise to burn off these excess calories. It’s not rocket science, we should ditch processed rubbish and eat good, wholesome foods, pulses, fruit and vegetables, fish, good fats, quality protein. Simply put, we should move more and eat better”
Cracknell hopes that the resounding success of London 2012 and its legacy will mean that some of this good sense will filter through. Granted, elite athletes have their nutritionists and cooks to help them achieve peak condition, but with a little nouse and the will to do it, most of us can improve on what we stuff into our bodies. I try to image life without taste or smell. It would certainly make it easier to fight those cravings which encourage us to overeat. But life without the tempting aromas of bread or cake baking in the oven or bacon sizzling on the griddle? I’ll stick to the cravings, thanks.
As Cracknell says, it’s really quite simple: “move more; eat better”.
Read more in my article in the Daily Mail