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Everest on hold as Browne chases a life less ordinary

Damian Browne chose adventure after rugby and this month was supposed to see him scale his greatest height by taking on the world's highest peak. Grounded by Covid-19, he tells Rúaidhrí O'Connor about how his life in sport set him up to take on the life of challenge he has chosen and also reveals what drives him to keep attempting the extraordinary

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Damian Browne manages a smile during the 2016 Marathon des Sables (MdS), a six-day, 295km ultramarathon staged annually in the Sahara Desert. Photo: A360DEGRES/Damian Browne

Damian Browne manages a smile during the 2016 Marathon des Sables (MdS), a six-day, 295km ultramarathon staged annually in the Sahara Desert. Photo: A360DEGRES/Damian Browne

Damian Browne says that rugby taught him plenty of lessons that have helped him through some of the daunting physical challenges he has tackled since hanging up his boots. Photo: Damian Browne

Damian Browne says that rugby taught him plenty of lessons that have helped him through some of the daunting physical challenges he has tackled since hanging up his boots. Photo: Damian Browne

Damian in action for Leinster in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

Damian in action for Leinster in 2012. Photo: Sportsfile

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Damian Browne manages a smile during the 2016 Marathon des Sables (MdS), a six-day, 295km ultramarathon staged annually in the Sahara Desert. Photo: A360DEGRES/Damian Browne

This interview was set up in different times, with different things in mind. On March 12, the day the first of the Government restrictions were announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar from Washington DC, Damian Browne arrived at the Library Bar in Dublin to talk about his latest adventure.

Over an espresso, the former Connacht, Leinster and Ireland U-21 lock talked about the life and death decisions he would be forced to make when he was attempting to summit Mount Everest, the mountain that has dominated his thoughts for months.

Looking leaner than he did during his playing days, he spoke about the impact of his choices on those he loved, the role his career as a sportsman has played in shaping his life as an adventurer; his reasons for taking on the challenges he does and his biggest battle against himself that comes in the boardrooms and on stage rather than when he is alone against the elements.

When we had finished, he got into his car to return to Galway. By the time he got home, the news had broken from Nepal. Everest was off limits.

Now, rather than taking on the challenge of a lifetime, he is dealing with the fallout of a postponed expedition.

When it came, the news hit the 39-year-old "like a tonne of bricks". It threw up financial issues, but adversity is a familiar foe.

"It was a shock. A lot of people had said how dependent Nepal is on tourism and mountaineering, what effects it would have," he says down the phone a few days later.

"I thought it would hold out, but on the back of China closing Tibet it was a shock and it blew my short- to medium-term plans out of the water. Everything I'd planned was based around me going to Everest and doing my best to summit it. It was a huge disturbance to those plans."

The self-pity stopped there. Within a few minutes, Browne was seeking ways to find opportunity in adversity.

He ran an online self-isolation burpee challenge that was taken up by Bundee Aki, Seán O'Brien and many others, while he re-arranged his plans to attempt the climb in 2021.

After retirement, Browne eschewed coaching and the white-collar world, ignored punditry and pledged to remove himself from the game that was his life for 17 years. Instead, he channelled his energies into adventure; completing the 'toughest foot-race on earth', before rowing the Atlantic.

Everest is peak number six on his quest to summit the highest mountain on each continent. He was supposed to depart on April 1, but those plans are on ice for 12 months.

Chapter 1 - Escaping the abattoir

A career as a scrummaging second-row in professional rugby is not the ideal physical preparation for running ultra-marathons, rowing long distances or scaling peaks. Mentally, however, it set him up perfectly.

Browne loved the grind. After missing out on his schools senior cup team, he knuckled down and got fit enough to earn a contract with his home province, Connacht, at a time when they were fighting to survive.

His career took him to England with Northampton Saints and France with Brive before Joe Schmidt came calling and signed him for Leinster. He spent two seasons with the European heavyweights, before finishing up at Oyonnax in the foothills of the Alps.

The mountains called him for a while before he finished and he squirrelled away money to fuel his post-rugby ambitions.

Although an injury curtailed his career in 2015, he got out of the 'abattoir' with his body relatively intact.

"I was pretty ready to finish. I had a pretty s**t finish, with a knee injury," he recalls.

"That was frustrating, I was worn out from rugby. I probably would have gone on for another year if I'd been fit and it was given to me, but I'm glad I didn't because God knows what it would have done to me down the line.

"The French call it 'the boucherie', an abattoir; It f**ks you up, like.

"I was ready. Ready to move on and close that chapter and almost refresh and reset. Push on in life."

He took on Mount Blanc and Grand Paradiso before packing up and leaving for Central Asia where travel cleared the mind.

Still, his first post-rugby challenge had been scheduled and he took on the Marathon des Sables (MdS), a six-day, 295km ultra-marathon staged annually in the Sahara Desert, in 2016.

Rugby had set him up well.

"The knowledge it ingrained in me around physical training, resistance training, diet, recovery," he says.

"They would have been habits that were ingrained in me at the start of my rugby career and by the end they would have been characteristics.

"Every week you're preparing, trying to peak for a match through this nine, 10 months. You're doing it, if you're lucky and injury-free, 30 times a year. Now, it's the same process, just elongated. It just takes five, six months. Eighteen in terms of the Atlantic row."

Chapter 2 - Resisting the urge

During the first 18 months, his will was tested.

"No matter how prepared or how purposeful whatever you go into next is, it's going to be hard and people have to accept that because your whole life is changed," he says of his retirement.

"So much stuff is stripped away, if you've got identity issues with the game or identify as a rugby player. If you don't have anything else to replace that passion and purpose, it's going to be really hard.

"Thankfully, I did, but that's not to say I didn't find it hard. That's not to say I didn't have that fear of the unknown. My thoughts started creeping back to rugby and trying to get involved in some way.

"I had to be quite disciplined to say: 'No, stick to the plan. Two years away from the game'.

After his hiatus, the game drew him back in. He coached the senior cup team at Marist in Athlone, before taking the Galwegians U-18s.

"My standards are a bit weird, I do my own head in sometimes," he smiles. "I'm a coach now, I want to be as good a coach as I can but I can't put as much time into it as I'd like.

"I don't watch that much rugby, I know I should be watching it more, but I struggle to find the time.

"I really enjoy the coaching element. Sharing and giving back. The challenges of it as well, dealing with guys. It's totally different to playing, but trying to figure out characters and building relationships, pushing buttons. I enjoy that side of it."

Asked which coach he leans on the most, he smiles and says : "Joe (Schmidt). Most of the drills I use are Joe's."

John Kingston was an early influence, without whom Browne says he wouldn't have played pro.

But when he got to Leinster, he found a whole new level and even listening to him speak now you can hear echoes of the language Schmidt brought to Irish rugby.

"I really enjoyed his environment," he says. "The first few months was a culture shock, believe it or not, even though I was coming back to my own country. I was coming from France, I loved my time there but it's really unprofessional. If you're not self-motivated you can get away with murder.

"So, I'd say my standards - and I pride myself on my standards - but they weren't where they needed to be.

"When I arrived at Leinster, it was like, 'Ah f**k'. But I think I adapted and loved the environment, the way he gave the power back to you.

"I'm sure I've absorbed a lot of it into what I do now and the way I talk."

Chapter 3 - A bit of narcissism

Browne liked being part of a team, but when the day finished he liked to find his own space. He fulfilled his role willingly as part of a unit, but says he was not at the heart of things in the dressing-room.

And yet, you can't play professional sport without ego infringing.

When you choose to put yourself out there and pursue such an unusual, striking post-rugby career you attract attention. His Instagram page is a back catalogue of striking images, his near 17,000-strong audience are engaged by his motivational tone.

Selling himself is the hard part of the job, but it has to be done. The funds he saved at the end of his playing days are now drained, income has to be found from somewhere.

On YouTube, you can find Browne's TED talk where he outlines his reasons for doing what he does.

Pursuing these goals, he says, is all about making normal, daily life more liveable. Ego, he adds, is the enemy.

But it must have a role to play.

"I think so. Ah yeah, definitely," he concedes. "If you get wrapped up in that, it can cost you in achieving what you want to achieve and the real healthy rewards.

"I'd be lying if I said it doesn't matter, it does matter. There is a little bit of narcissism in me that way, maybe it's cultural - I don't know."

When he retired at 35, he laid out the challenges he wanted to achieve by 40. He started with the MdS for a simple reason: "I was pretty f**king beaten up after rugby", before taking on the Atlantic row and then the seven summits.

He interspersed the battles with travel; couch-surfing across Iran and riding the world's most extreme railway in Mauritania.

"The overarching reason is just challenge and what that gives me, I love the psychological element of it and it's quite probably the area I want to go into in my future," he says.

"Rightly or wrongly, I almost wanted to prove what I'd learnt in pro-sport in all these different environments. Ultra-running, rowing the Atlantic and then mountaineering at the highest levels. There are challenges in all of those areas that are probably harder, but they're right up there.

"(After MdS) I chose the row. Of all the things I wanted to do, that was the one that scared me most."

Whereas most of us would find the challenges daunting, Browne is wired differently. His difficulty comes before his departure.

"What scared me wasn't the rowing, I know when I'm in those scenarios I will deal with whatever comes at me," he says. "It was like the whole campaign around it, putting myself out there and trying to raise funds.

"So when I came to the end of the row I never thought I'd do Everest or anything like that, I'd done some mountains in the past and found them really, really challenging.

"But, it wasn't like the MdS or the row, that I'd had them in my sights for 12 years. It wasn't like that with Everest.

"When I was thinking about what will you try next, mountains were what daunted me the most because of my experience on them and my carriage, my size is not built for mountaineering.

"So, I chose mountaineering."

Chapter 4 - Extreme happenings

Browne knows there is inherent danger in what he does, he visualises the bad days as well as the good to get him through.

Next year on Everest, there will be moments when he may have to make the hardest call of all to turn back and save himself.

It's a call he weighs up when visualising the challenge. Eleven people died on Everest in 2019, a fact that's lodged in Browne's mind as he lists off the risks like the Khumbu Icefall and the potential for avalanches.

He is in control of those moments and has the responsibility for the risks, but his family watch on powerless.

"They're pretty cool with it," he says of his family. "My dad is pretty laid-back - at least he seems to be. He's never brought anything up with me. Mum, not so much, but that's to be expected. If she was laid-back about some of this stuff, I'd be getting worried.

"She was not very cool with rowing the Atlantic because she has a brother, John, who was a fisherman and I'm pretty sure he filled her with tall tales. In fairness, those fishermen off the west coast do go through some heavy sh*t, so she doesn't have a good relationship with water and the ocean.

"She asked me never to do it again. I can't say I'll keep to that.

"Everyone else, my brother and sister, they seem cool with it. They haven't said anything to me.

"What was really nice was coming into Antigua, they were all there and seeing the effect it had on them and how much it meant. The emotion of that, how close it brought us all together as a family.

"You just don't have those moments outside of big, extreme happenings."

Chapter 5 - Thriving in isolation

We are all, to some degree, experiencing isolation at the moment.

Browne knows this territory more than most. For 63 days he rowed the Atlantic, battling his inner monologue, self-doubt and loneliness as well as the elements.

He encountered setbacks along the way. There were bad currents, sea-sickness, capsizes and a broken oar. His mantra, to "just f**king row" kicked in and he kept going.

"It just comes down to being in those situations, so many times," he says."Learning from the mistakes so many times, just practise and practise. Failure and self-accountability after rugby, then going back into pushing yourself back to training that thing. Learning the power of being present, being clear of thought about what you can control in those moments."

Long-term, he plans to get back on the water despite his mother's fears and plans to set out with a friend from Galway in rowing from New York to his home town and attempting to break a world record set in 1896.

Everest has been re-arranged, but for now he's isolating like the rest of us.

"I have imposed self-isolation upon myself, the circumstances around it are very different," he says when asked if he has any advice to those new to this situation.

"Still, I've had my challenges even though I'm very comfortable in my own company - particularly on the Atlantic. When I think about what I fell back on, the purpose of the whole thing was so important.

You suspect he won't stay idle for long once isolation ends. The next challenge can't be far away.

"The way I live my life - particularly on expeditions - you're always aware that stuff can happen to throw your plans and organisation out the window," he concludes.

"So, I know I'm very good at controlling the controllables and looking on these disturbing situations positively and using them in that light.

"I wasn't that disturbed about it, but things have accelerated from there. I moved on to what's next and now I don't know if what's next will be available to me.

"That shook me a bit.

"You take some risks with this life, financial risks in particular, and it's exposed me in that area a little bit. I've to figure out how to deal with that kind of stuff."