Local athlete Sean Burch tackles ‘Ultimate Survival Alaska’

December 17, 2013
When Sean Burch isn’t on an expedition, he’s at home in Northern Virginia. (National Geographic Channel)
When Sean Burch isn’t on an expedition, he’s at home in Northern Virginia. (National Geographic Channel)

Getting dropped off on a glacier and having to dash through the snow toward sled dogs sounds like a rough way to start a morning. But Sean Burch, one of 12 contestants on the National Geographic Channel’s “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” lives for this kind of stuff. (Even when it nearly kills him.)

The 42-year-old endurance athlete has won the North Pole Marathon, once held the world record for the fastest ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro and has jumped rope at 26,181 feet. Burch first caught the adventure bug as a kid. He grew up in Fairfax and would regularly trek into D.C. to visit National Geographic headquarters.

The exhibits taught him “what it is to be an explorer,” Burch says. So when he was invited to appear on the second season of the show, which premiered at 9 p.m. Sunday, Burch instantly said yes.

Burch had been to Alaska only once before, and he doesn’t usually work with others (“I do things solo and go as fast as I can,” he says). That guaranteed he’d be out of his element during the three-month race. It’s a team competition, and most of the contestants are Alaskans with extensive experience in the terrain.

The only thing he could do to prepare? Exercise. Burch’s 2008 book “Hyperfitness” lays out the total-body routine that he’s used to make it through all of his previous expeditions. It’s a mix of running, strength training, balance work, bear crawls and hundreds of other functional movements. And it’s the routine he turned to again before flying north.

“You always have to keep your body guessing,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ll come across.”

Contestants on the National Geographic Channel’s “Ultimate Survival Alaska” face an arctic adventure. (National Geographic Channel)
Contestants on the National Geographic Channel’s “Ultimate Survival Alaska” face an arctic adventure. (National Geographic Channel)

In just the first episode, the four teams were hiking, sled-dog racing and paddling packrafts through treacherous waters.

“There were a couple instances I could have drowned,” says Burch, who didn’t dwell on those terrifying moments. “If you think you won’t get through this, you might not survive.”

Instead, he thrilled at the chance to explore spots that are just dots on a map to most people: “There are so many parts we went to that no one’s been to before, I guarantee it.”

Although the pace of the missions was exhausting, Burch didn’t want the journey to end. When he’s back home in Virginia, it’s hard to find people who understand what he does and why, he says. Among this group of competitors, he fit in.

“When we finished up, within a day, I wanted to go back out,” Burch says.

His hope is that anyone who watches the show feels that same pull into the wilderness.

“You’re sitting on the couch,” Burch says. “But you could do this.”

Local Training

For outdoor adventure near D.C., Sean Burch recommends hiking in Rock Creek Park, paddling on the Potomac and climbing in Carderock. “Try something that’s safe but you thought, ‘I couldn’t do that,’ ” he says.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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Vicky Hallett · December 17, 2013