Paul Watkins may come across as a guy who spends his downtime playing video games rather than one who excels at extreme athletic endeavours.
“I’m a nerd. I didn’t play sport at school because I was shit at it,” says the 6633 Arctic Ultra Marathon champion.
Apart from winning a marathon about 80 per cent of the starting field don’t finish, Watkins has remarkably summited some of the most challenging climbs in the world. These include the Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
After winning the 614 kilometre Arctic marathon in early 2019, organisers announced his triumph on Facebook, uploading a photo of a tired Watkins with a satisfied smile at the finish. The caption accompanying the image matched the praise I have heard from others describing Watkins a “a true gent and a wonderful athlete.”
Humbled, Watkins ensured organisers didn’t get too carried away, asking them use his preferred title of “champion nerd”.
Meeting Watkins in his regional Victorian home of Warrnambool, I noticed that the champion nerd still wears the same black-rimmed glasses and hi-tech watch from the finish line of the Arctic Ultra.
“I’m not an athlete, I don’t think of myself as an athlete. I went to a private school in Melbourne on an academic scholarship,” says Watkins who
raises his family in the quiet countryside and previously owned a chain of successful pharmacies. “I’ve done this athletic stuff just because I’ve had the mindset.”
Watkins credits lessons from his upbringing in driving him to complete these feats.
“I think work ethic is the main thing I took ,” he says. “I grew up in a standard middle class Australian family. Mum stayed at home and raised me and my brother and dad worked hard,” says Watkins. “When it comes to expedition work and training, the work ethic just carries over.”
Watkins’s email signoff describes him as a “Story teller, Mountain Climber, Business Owner, Ultra Runner, Adventurer, Pharmacist, Husband, Father and Nerd” – a far cry from the vision he had leaving school.
Watkins studied pharmacy and ended up in Warrnambool, owning three pharmacies with over $15 million in turnover. “I moved here thinking it would be short term, bought a business and the guy I bought it off said you’ll be here for a year or the rest of your life. I said it will be a year. That was 20 years ago,” says Watkins with a grin. “Now I live here, I’m married, I’ve got kids and I own land. I’m not going anywhere.”
Watkins studied pharmacy and ended up in Warrnambool, which led him to owning 3 pharmacies with over $15 million in turnover. “I moved here thinking it would be short term,” he says. bought a business and “The guy I bought it off said you’ll be here for a year or the rest of your life. I said it will be a year, and that was 20 years ago,” says Watkins with a grin. Now I live here, I’m married, I’ve got kids and I own land. I’m not going anywhere.”
However, long hours took their toll on Watkins. “I ended up selling my businesses and getting out because I just didn’t want to spend the next 40 years of my life working my arse off,” he says. “I ended up getting completely and utterly burnt out.”
Organiser of Warrnambool’s Human Library initiative, Jodie Fleming, believes Watkins’s ability to reinvent himself is remarkable. “He had the usual materialistic things we think define success, and he wasn’t happy,” says Fleming, “and that motivated him to change.”
Watkins began his adventures to escape from his intense workload, starting with smaller treks and building from Kokoda to Antarctica. “Eventually I reached a point where the climbs I was doing were really high level,” he says.
When first attempting the Aconcagua, Watkins was forced to turn back in rough conditions while others continued on. His climbing partners eventually completed the trek, however they suffered frostbite in the bitter chill of the Andes. “You just wonder how far you can take this. It’s ok when you are single, but I’m married. I have kids and now the equation of risk versus reward is very different,” says Watkins.
“I came back and got into running which has been my original sport. And it was the same thing again, I did little run, did a longer run and then did an ultra.”
In 2017, Watkins failed to finish the 6633 marathon on his first attempt in subzero temperatures. However, he persisted and returned to far northern Canada in 2019.
Watkins lugged his 25 kilogram sled in freezing conditions while battling isolation and hallucination to a winning time of eight days, four hours and 31 minutes. “By the time you get to days five and six you’re hallucinating like a freebaser,” laughs Watkins. “It’s just you and nothing else.”
Watkins’s rigorous preparation allowed him to come within an hour and 15 minutes of predicting his time. “The nerd in me loves executing a plan,” he beams. “I love the technicalities of it.”
These days, Watkins works as a speaker at workplaces and schools. Warrnambool College student Thomas Davis thought Watkins’s talks were very insightful. “He emphasised that he is just a pharmacist, and pretty much anyone can do what he did so that grabbed people’s attention a bit more,” said Davis.
When asked what message he wanted students to take from his talks, Watkins carefully rubs his beard. “I’m not an astronaut, I’m not from a major city,” he says, “I live here, I’m a nerdy guy. I’m a stay at home dad. I’m not an athlete, but I went and did all of this stuff, just because I was happy to grind it out and have a go.”