solo, rower, Bryce Carlson
Bryce Carlson's solo rowboat looks small compared to the vast Atlantic Ocean on his record-breaking solo row. (Photo courtesy Bryce Carlson)
Culture Science

What drives a team of one?

solo, rower, Bryce Carlson
Bryce Carlson's solo rowboat looks small compared to the vast Atlantic Ocean on his record-breaking solo row. (Photo courtesy Bryce Carlson)

Few people have the will and the stamina needed to run across a continent or row across an ocean — and even fewer opt to do it alone and unsupported. What makes these endurance athletes different from others who pursue similar challenges as part of a team, or while competing against fellow athletes? Are they simply made of tougher stuff?

Researchers followed a solo rower's attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean to learn how athletes are able to stay in the moment, thereby extending the knowledge of motivation.

Across the spectrum of athletic pursuits, people have accomplished staggering feats solo. Alex Honnold was the first climber to “free solo” Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan wall — climbing without ropes or harnesses.

When Jessica Watson was 16, she became the youngest person to sail around the world solo and nonstop. She wanted to challenge people’s expectations of what young girls could do. Diana Nyad was the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage — on her fifth attempt, at age 64.

In August, Bryce Carlson broke the world record for the fastest west-to-east unsupported row across the North Atlantic Ocean. The previous record belonged to a boat of four people. Carlson set off solo from Newfoundland in a custom-made boat and landed at the U.K.’s Isles of Scilly a little more than 38 days later. He’s the first American to row this route solo and unsupported.

Endurance sports are not new to Carlson, who rowed at the University of Michigan, ran ultramarathons and then ran across the U.S., from California to Maryland, with 11 other runners. On that run, Carlson always had other runners and support staff around.

“I felt I did not really have the opportunity to sit with my own thoughts as much as I would have liked,” and he looked forward to that in his transatlantic row, he explained. “It became a challenge, as well as an opportunity to explore myself and my psyche in ways that previous challenges of mine have not.”

Carlson, a high school biology teacher who holds a doctorate in biological anthropology, noted that many ocean rowers are “athletes who have taken on challenges such as climbing Mount Everest, and this adventure is an extension of that kind of wanderlust and desire for challenge.” And going solo makes it a different type of challenge. Carlson said he wondered, “Can I live in my own head without being accountable to someone else and their standards?”

Carlson’s boat capsized about a dozen times, and he got caught in bad weather and currents that took him in the wrong direction. He learned “to remain patient with things I couldn’t change, and to remain focused on things I had control over,” he said. He was able to avoid getting upset, which he attributes to a decade of ultra running.

Kevin Alschuler, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine who led the psychology portion of a study that followed Carlson’s team’s run across the U.S., and he also gathered data from Carlson on his row. He had Carlson complete a daily questionnaire while on the Atlantic, along with a brief diary response asking him to describe the biggest challenge he faced that day and how he responded to it. The 15 questions asked about effort, physical symptoms (pain, fatigue) and psychological variables (confidence, anxiety, frustration).

Alschuler and his team followed along in real time.

“We were looking at things that we think are positive and helpful, as well as those that we think are negative or hurtful. In general, he was higher on the positive or helpful factors consistently, and he was lower on the negative or unhelpful,” he said. They also asked Carlson to rate these factors, and his ratings showed “he really had the full range of experiences,” even though he exhibited more positive than negative variables. From a psychologist’s perspective, Alschuler said, “We’re really interested in athletes’ abilities to be mindful or fully present in the moment — what’s happening in their competition or their event.”

solo rower, bryce carlson, atlantic ocean
The sun rises on another day of rowing for Bryce Carlson, who set a record for solo rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo courtesy Bryce Carlson)

Carlson said staying in the moment and getting the most out of that moment had been a big challenge. On some days, he was less focused and more easily distracted.

“Modern sport psychology thought is that you want athletes who are driven by these goals and these outcomes” but who can set the goals aside and “really immerse themselves in whatever step they’re on,” Alschuler said. Carlson “wanted to get across as quickly and as safely as he could, and there was a record out there that he might be able to break, but each day was a day of rowing,” Alschuler explained. “He focused on what could he do to make the most of that day.”

When Carlson was positioning himself to avoid the worst of a hurricane, he landed in an adverse current that pulled him in the wrong direction. To cope, Carlson explained in his diary response, “I focused on what was near at hand and controllable, navigated my boat as best I could. Hope the current will weaken overnight, nothing else I can do.” Alschuler said this response “shows that ability to be fully aware of what’s going on, fully present with the challenge that’s there, and yet then redirect his response to what’s in his control and let go of what’s out of his control.”

The Ocean Rowing Society keeps records of ocean crossings, and it has documented nearly 500 successful attempts and more than 250 unsuccessful ones. Coordinator Tatiana Rezvaya-Crutchlow said many rowers quit on the first day, when they lose sight of the land, and “you have 360 degrees of just horizon.” Some people celebrate their “freedom at last,” but for others, fear sets in. “It’s willpower over willpower,” she said.

From a sport psychology standpoint, goal-setting is important, said Kristin Hoffner, principal lecturer in Arizona State’s College of Health Solutions. Goals need to be attainable and achievable — but that’s a matter of perspective, she said. If someone thinks they can achieve a goal, “that can be a very motivating thing for them, whether you think — from an outside perspective — it’s attainable or not.” Along with this intrinsic motivation and desire for a challenge, some athletes who pursue these grand achievements may be adrenaline junkies who “have an intrinsic drive to experience this rush” that they can’t get with everyday athletic activities, she said.


Jessica Goldman, who ran across the United States without a support team, built a buggy to hold her gear. (Photo courtesy Jessica Goldman)

Jessica Goldman is a massage therapist and an ultra runner who ran from San Francisco’s City Hall to New York City’s City Hall in 2014, solo and unsupported. She is reportedly only the second woman to have done so. She ran with a cart made from a retrofitted stroller, but no support. She used the run to raise money for the Brain Injury Association of America.

Before her 91-day run, Goldman had completed two long, solo bike rides, as well as ultra races. Like Carlson, she relished the challenge of a long, solo, unsupported feat after running ultras. “I’m always curious to find my boundaries and limits, and it’s meditative to a degree. You feel more alive out in the elements—it’s about surviving, pushing yourself and seeing what you can accomplish,” she said.

Goldman had lived in Africa and Asia, where she watched people doing daily activities that would be considered impossible in the United States — like kids walking up mountains to go to school. “Living in other cultures, you realize we don’t push our boundaries in a physical sense,” she said. “We live with climate control, going from air conditioning to heating, and everything stays comfortable. With food, everything is ready for you at the store.”

While some ultra runners find comfort in the proximity of their fellow athletes, Goldman said it adds a layer of pressure. If she ran with a partner, “having another person there would seem more difficult — having to deal with your emotions and a second person’s emotions,” she said. “Being alone gives you the ability to reinvent yourself at any time. When you are in the company of another person, they have a certain perception of who you are, and I feel like we can sometimes limit ourselves by playing the role of who we are expected to be rather than who we need to be.”

Jessica Goldman, solo runner
Jessica Goldman ran through all sorts of terrain on her own. (Photo courtesy Jessica Goldman)

Goldman also finds it easier to pace herself while solo. “Even when we try to run our own pace in a group setting, I think it is easy to go too fast or too slow, because we are always comparing ourselves to the other people,” she said. “When you go solo, you are always the first one!”

Athletes taking on such daunting challenges also may deal with their emotions differently when they’re alone. “Endurance sports frequently involve ugly crying, swearing and moments of hysteria that might be better done in privacy,” Goldman noted. “If an athlete falls apart in the forest and no one was around to hear it, did they make a sound?”

Goldman had to contend with some significant challenges, beyond the distance she covered every day — sometimes as much as 55 miles — and the question of where to sleep each night. In the beginning of her journey, she set up her route on a GPS device, and a couple of days in, a dust devil struck, snatching the device and launching it somewhere she couldn’t find it. She used paper maps and Google to navigate after that. She did have a live tracking device on her, so brain injury survivors who were following her progress often came out to meet her and offer her a place to sleep. Otherwise, she would camp or find a hotel.

Now, Goldman is training for an 888-kilometer race in Vermont. “I don’t know if I can finish — it’s sort of thrilling,” she said. “I don’t know if I can do it.”

Carlson echoed that sentiment. “When I sign up for a race, it’s something I’m not capable of doing in that moment, and I have to put together a plan to become the kind of person who can complete that challenge,” he said. “That’s part of the fun for me.”

Goldman said she was inspired by Nyad’s approach of changing the impossible into the possible. “It’s good to get out of our comfort bubbles and know what we’re capable of,” she said. “There’s some kind of power that you pull out of that.”

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here

Video and photos courtesy Bryce Carlson