Marcus Ranney tells us why nothing is mission impossible
He considers himself to be both a London and a Mumbai boy. While he was born in London, he grew up in Mumbai and met his wife (Raina) in the ‘maximum city’. He pursued bachelor of science degree and medical degree from University College in London and his kids (son Aeden, 4 and daughter Eva, 2) were born in Mumbai. “They have reminded me that the smallest things in life can bring the biggest joy... climbing the tree, running barefeet on the ground,” says Marcus Ranney who tries to “simplify” life. He has spent four years at the Royal Air Force and then Kennedy Space Centre for the Space Shuttle Mission 122 and moved to India in 2011 and is now based out of Mumbai. “I stopped my clinical work and I have been doing a bunch of different roles in healthcare and sciences,” says Marcus, who has just written his first book — At The Human Edge: The Limits of Human Physiology and Performance (World Scientific,
Rs 595) that launched on January 2. He talks about some of the most incredible adventures he has been a part of and how it’s all in the mind. No wonder he is thankful for all the opportunities. “Life is a journey. Each of our journeys are different. We think we have a destination. Honestly, we don’t know what tomorrow holds,” he says. He considers himself to be both a London and a Mumbai boy. While he was born in London, he grew up in Mumbai and met his wife (Raina) in the ‘maximum city’. He pursued bachelor of science degree and medical degree from University College in London and his kids (son Aeden, 4 and daughter Eva, 2) were born in Mumbai. “They have reminded me that the smallest things in life can bring the biggest joy... climbing the tree, running barefeet on the ground,” says Marcus Ranney who tries to “simplify” life. He has spent four years at the Royal Air Force and then Kennedy Space Centre for the Space Shuttle Mission 122 and moved to India in 2011 and is now based out of Mumbai. “I stopped my clinical work and I have been doing a bunch of different roles in healthcare and sciences,” says Marcus, who has just written his first book — At The Human Edge: The Limits of Human Physiology and Performance (World Scientific, Rs 595) that launched on January 2. He talks about some of the most incredible adventures he has been a part of and how it’s all in the mind. No wonder he is thankful for all the opportunities. “Life is a journey. Each of our journeys are different. We think we have a destination. Honestly, we don’t know what tomorrow holds,” he says. Excerpts from a chat...
What has been the response like?
Very good and I am very excited. We had it for pre-orders and that went really well and I had tons of support from people in the industry and sport professionals and business leaders.
How was the book conceived? You’ve had a remarkable life!
I consider myself a very lucky human being to have had a career which has allowed me to zig zag. It began many many years ago with an introduction to adventure from the chemistry textbooks. At that time I was in the university but also I was in the Royal Air Force in the UK and that allowed me to get exposed to a bunch of expeditions to different parts of the world.
That sort of love affair strengthened itself and I came across this idea that how can we learn to extract the most out of this human machine that we have, both in terms of the body and mind.
There is no limit to the ‘human physiology and performance’ as your book rightly points out...
Absolutely. These are perceived limits that we have inside of our heads. What I wanted to do with this book is inspire people to understand that it is actually in the confines of the mind and that there are incredible capacities of the human body to overcome the most extreme environments both on earth and beyond.... And, then at the end there is the spoiler alert chapter... the recognition that it’s mind over matter.
This is a labour of love to be honest. I started writing this book six years ago and the initial inspiration came from a conversation I was having with my wife about how cool it would be for my future children to be inspired and hopefully fall in love with science the same way that their father has through the words of their father. My wife was not pregnant at that time (laughs)... we now have two children.
I started to put some early thoughts together in terms of journals and ideas. Over the years that sort of added up and it ended up where it is.
I want to inspire young children and minds across the world and people who don’t necessarily come from science to understand how amazing this body is and hopefully start their own journey.
We read or hear about extraordinary expeditions but very few of us actually say, ‘even we can do it’. Can you take us through your missions...
Let me begin by talking about the vehicle of the book. The vehicle of the chapters have been structured in a way that I have written it hopefully for the reader to put themselves in the boots of the protagonist and it has been written in a style as if you the reader are on that journey. Even the first chapter which is about Mount Everest is about the journey from the base camp that you will experience, climbing all of those scalps till you reach the summit, describing the geography and the physical nature of the challenges and then look inwards. What’s going on inside your system, physiology, what’s changing at the cellular level, some of the challenges that you are going to face, for example, acute mountain sickness and high altitude pulmonary edema.... It was purposeful. I didn’t want it to be a scientific text at all. It’s meant for anyone who is enthused by adventure, interested in adventure or would like to begin their own journey and it’s got as much geography, history and human legacy and testimonials of people who have done it as well as the science which is the hero, the psychology and the biology.
What have been some of your favourite missions?
All of them have got their challenges and points to be overcome, but in hindsight they all add fuel for laughter, you enjoy them. The experience I enjoyed the most without a doubt was the time I spent at NASA. This was in 2008. I was very fortunate. The European Space Agency had just constructed the scientific lab called Columbus, which was going to be installed in the international space station. At that time on the Atlantis Shuttle there were two European astronauts. I was there for the entire duration and was literally off the pad when the shuttle went up. It was an incredible force. I describe how my body shook in spite of standing on the ground and this machine is 4km away... such power and raw energy.... I was back on the runway when the shuttle came back to land and after a few years later of course the shuttle was retired. It has always captivated by imagination and one day, I hope to go up myself.
The most shaping in terms of my life journey was the month-and-a-half I spent at the Everest summit. I had planned it for two years and originally it was meant to be myself and three others on a summer holiday and then it quickly snowballed into this huge thing. It was the largest student-led medical expedition in history at that point in time. We had 100 people with me on the mountain and three tonnes of equipment. We did about 17 different experiments, looking at the changes to your heart function to your respiratory capability, what happens to your brain, eyesight, mood... blood samples being taken, ECGs being taken. It was the monsoon season. We did it in August and it wasn’t the time of the year when most people trek. We lost a number of bridges and had to create our own. We had a helicopter evacuation, but it shaped me so much. I was pretty young, in my early 20s, still at med school. To do something so profoundly life-changing at that young age taught me a lot about what leadership means and what it means to be responsible for other people and the planet to do so in an environmentally conscious way. The journey stays with me till today.
What has inspired you to do all that you have done so far?
I am a science geek. I just love the human body and going outdoors began by reading about these journeys when I was a young boy... how the physiology changes and then getting a chance to actually do so was an incredible opportunity. I have kept on trying to do that all the way through. I just ran a half marathon yesterday. I had Covid a few months ago and had it pretty bad and am back to health now. It took me four months to recover. I was a frontline medic when Covid began and was volunteering in the slums when the pandemic started. The celebratory note was competing for the half marathon.
In September, when I first left the house after Covid, it took me 58 minutes to do 3km. I had lost a lot of power and strength in my legs because of the complications of the virus and I have never run a half marathon as fast as this one. The human mind is an incredible force.
The flavours might be different, but we all suffer. How we respond to that is entirely in our control. I said to myself that how often in life does a runner get to learn how to run from the beginning. I am in control of what I want to do every day. I manage my expectations. That’s my success and that’s how I win.
Did you run it backwards?!
(Laughs) No, this one was run forwards.
Do tell us about your Guinness record of running backwards though. Just a whim?
Just a whim. It was a few years ago and my wife was there too. I saw it randomly pop up on my social media. This group of people were collecting in Powai very early one morning. I convinced her to wake up with me and we went down. It was the Guinness record for the largest number of people to race each other backwards. It was 750m and we had to do it three times in the 30-minute slot. Incredibly challenging. I run full marathons and going forwards is not so tough, but running backwards is tough on the calves, but it was fun and quirky. I try to find these things.
What do you think stops most people?
Growth comes outside of our comfort zone. We create this limiting mindset and tell these stories to ourselves. There is a chatter that goes on in the mind and reinforces who we think we are. You can change that at any point.
What’s your next target?
I am looking forward to summiting Kilimanjaro with my wife. Goal number two is to take my son skiing. I love skiing and have skied all across the Alps. He is old enough to get on a pair of skis. Goal number three is to do a half Ironman.