From being the first woman to kayak the length of the Amazon to running an ultramarathon in 40C heat in Namibia, Helen Skelton has never been one to shy away from adversity.
In fact, her mantra in life has always been the harder the challenge, the better prepared you are for whatever life throws at you. But no amount of training or far-flung expeditions could prepare Helen for the whirlwind events of the past 12 months.
First, her marriage to Richie Myler broke down after eight years and then she decided to sign up for Strictly Come Dancing, the biggest show on TV. Helen says: “Strictly came along at a time when I thought, ‘Well, it can’t be any more terrifying than anything else I’m facing at the minute. It can’t be any more noisy than anything else that I’m having to drown out at the minute, so let’s just go for it.”
Dancing in front of millions on national TV is certainly one way to take your mind off things. And Helen laughs: “My best friends said I should either do Strictly or go on a juice retreat in Ibiza. There was so much going on and so many movable parts of my life, and I kind of thought you can spend your whole life writing pros and cons lists and sometimes you’ve just got to lean into it, otherwise you miss the moment.”
Helen, 40, is opening up as part of our special Men in Mind spin-off podcast series, Outdoors in Mind. The series, part of GO Outdoors and mental health charity Mind’s Hats on for Mind campaign, encourages people to open up about their mental health, as well as the benefits of nature.
It comes after Mind found that 94% of people who took part in outdoor exercise activities said they felt benefits to their mental health. And Helen says the sheer pain she endured on her charity expeditions meant she was well equipped to withstand any upheaval in her personal life.
“The older you get, the more you realise life churns up things that you don’t pick and things that aren’t in your control,” she says. “And that’s why I’ve always enjoyed doing those challenges, it gives you good reference points.
“There’s been times when I’ve had no toenails, 50p-piece-size blisters, or I’ve been hallucinating in the desert. And I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way anything life throws at me is ever going to hurt more than this, yet I’m going to still keep going.’”
Helen’s decision to face her fears on Strictly while juggling work and three kids, the youngest of whom was only six months old, resonated with millions of viewers. She was that rare thing in the often aloof celebrity world – someone people could relate to.
“One minute, you’re in a corset crawling around on the floor and the next minute you are at swimming and doing the school run,” she laughs. The dancers, too, were a godsend when it came to boosting her self-confidence. She says: “I was like, ‘OK, I’m hurtling towards 40, I’ve just had another child. I’m on my own. I’ve moved my life, I’ve moved my house’. I was on a bit of a sticky wicket but the [pro] dancers are all like, ‘Oh my God, you have three children, that’s incredible. You bought a house, that’s incredible’.”
In the end, Helen and pro partner Gorka Marquez, 33, made the final, losing out to Hamza Yassin and partner Jowita Przystal. But in her eyes, she was a winner and feels Strictly brought her back to life after all the upheaval. “I think everybody at some point needs a little reminder of, ‘Actually, you’re really good at this, here’s your invisible crown, pop it on,” she says.
Growing up in Cumbria on the family farm, Helen harboured a desire to be a foreign correspondent, like her hero Kate Adie. Her first big break was on Blue Peter, where she got to travel the world, including sending hard-hitting reports from Chernobyl, Ukraine. But it has been her challenges which have really caught the public’s imagination.
In 2009, she became only the second woman to complete the gruelling 78-mile Namibia Ultra Marathon. “There’s no shelter, no shade, the terrain was unforgiving, there were snakes… the heat, it just swallowed you up,” she says.
“There was one little cactus that I tried to crouch behind when I was seeing seals that weren’t there. It was only the time I thought I was going to have to pull out. Kids get in touch with the show all the time and you feel that weight of responsibility… You don’t want to be the person to let them down.
“And that’s why I finished it, because I couldn’t face going back to the studio and saying I didn’t do it.” Then there was her astonishing bid for Sport Relief in 2010 to become the first woman to solo-kayak 2,010 miles down the Amazon. Again, Helen had to find the strength from somewhere. “I was sick on myself, had blisters everywhere and was in that kayak 14, 15, 16 hours a day,” she says.
“Everything hurt. I didn’t know if I was doing something people were going to get excited about or if I was making a fool of myself.” Helen need not have worried, as the public were soon gripped by her adventure, which also included awe-inspiring encounters with nature. “On Valentine’s Day, there were pink river dolphins around the boat and I thought, ‘People spend their lives waiting for a moment like this’,” she says.
The challenges didn’t stop there and in 2012 she became the first person to reach the South Pole using a bicycle. And clearly a sucker for punishment, Helen recently took part in Celebrity SAS, as well as finding the time to release best-selling book In My Stride.
But while her adventures have resonated with the public, they hold less truck with friends and family back in Cumbria. “It’s funny, none of my friends from home ever say, ‘Oh, you’re resilient. Oh, aren’t you tough?’ My brother will literally say to me, ‘You’re still going on about the Amazon. You did that years ago.’ Maybe it’s my farm background. I don’t know. You get on with what’s put in front of you. And that’s the way I’ve always been.”
For support, visit mind.org.uk
Hear Helen on podcast
Listen to Helen on Outdoors in Mind, the Mirror’s brilliant new weekly podcast and the follow-up to Tom Bryant’s hugely popular Men in Mind series. The UK’s best-loved stars, both male and female this time, are joining host Tom to open up about their own mental health journey in the great outdoors. Find us on Apple podcasts or go to podfollow.com/outdoorsinmind. The vital new series supports mental health charity Mind’s Hats on for Mind campaign, in conjunction with GO Outdoors.
Helen is an ambassador for #HatsOnForMind, having designed her own hat and flask, available to purchase online and in-store at partner retailers including GO Outdoors, Blacks, Millets, Naylors and Fishing Republic. 100% of the profits will go to Mind.