As the host, executive producer and face of the iconic competition reality series The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan has been a vital piece of the show since its very beginning in 2001. As such, he’s a vital source as to what happens behind the scenes of the show, as the crew travels along with the racers, and the challenges that emerge from filming around the world. He also manages to stay remarkably fit, keeping in shape for what’s a rather demanding job.
Talking with Men’s Health, Keoghan also teased the upcoming reality showdown that will be The Amazing Race Season 31. There is so much that goes into making the show beyond what’s shown on TV, and Keoghan gives a peek behind the curtain into both the mechanics of the show, and his life as the host of the most intense race around the world there is.
Men’s Health: I’m curious how much you interact with contestants. OnSurvivor, Jeff walks us through the challenges. What’s your role with them beyond what we’re seeing in an episode?
Phil Keoghan: Generally speaking, I’m in such a hurry to stay ahead of them that I don’t have time to hang about on the course. You’ve been on the set of Survivor, you understand there’s just a lot more downtime. [Editor’s note: The author appeared as a contestant on Season 33 of Survivor] Whereas with us, we shoot a show less than every two days, twelve shows in twenty one days and then we’re traveling all those miles.
If I have any spare moments, I’m trying to get ahead to the next thing, to be able to introduce that and then beat the first team to the mat. I interview them sometimes up to half an hour on the mat, depending on how much time is available between teams. If I’m not having to get on a flight and there’s meal time at a pit stop, then I’ll sit down and talk to them, see how they’re going.
Since you’re traveling so much and not stagnant, what does your day-to-day look like, off-camera?
There are times when I won’t get to a hotel room for maybe the first five to six days of a season. There are times when the sleep we’re getting is on planes. I’ll be washing my hair on the side of the road or something to get camera ready.
On the road, the scripts have to be changed constantly, based on what happens when we get out there. If you’re in India, and there’s an unscheduled Hindu street festival, there are elephants blocking the street. Or there’s civil unrest in Argentina, and you’re supposed to be catching a flight there, and suddenly you realize it’s probably not a good idea to go to that place—we have to make an adjustment on the fly.
Since there are so many variables, how do you map out as best you can before a season? How do you try to put safeguards in place?
I do meet with the country producers and go through my schedule and make suggestions. It’s a jigsaw map. Sometimes I’m arriving on the same plane as the teams and we get off the plane together and the only difference between their journey and mine is that I know ahead of time where I’m going.
There are some shows where it’s almost impossible for me to get all the locations; we were in Russia, and I was trying to fit in a shoot at a helicopter rescue facility, and we took a huge chance and went in there trying to do a quick introduction. Then we get in the car and realize that the airport is a little further away than we anticipated, and if I miss that flight, it just has a domino effect all the way down the line.
In all the seasons, has a pair ever beat you to a checkpoint?
I have had an occasion where they’ve popped right out of the bushes: Chip and Reichen, Season 4. They’ll just catch us off guard. While I’m waiting, what I’m doing is following text messages with story updates; Chris just slipped and threw out his knee, he’s hobbling to the finish line. He’s cursing and thinks his race is over.
The technology we have now has really helped me to stay on top of the story threads. If you go to a place like, say, Botswana, and there’s no way to actually text somebody, then we’re in the blind. I remember getting instructions once from someone, and it was literally go across the river, go past the three big trees—you’ll see a herd of elephants, make a right, follow that for twenty clicks, make a left.
It’s fascinating to hear the race you’re in, as well.
The whole production is in that situation. You’ve got to have people leapfrogging each other to make use of all the resources you have. There’s all kinds of variables. It’s a level of production that you have to see to believe. You cannot imagine the complexities of it. It’s uncontrollable.
Are things like the non-elimination rounds planned in the pre-planning?
Yeah, they have to be. A lot of people think if we like a team, let’s make it a non-elimination, but what happens if we just say oh we’re going to keep this team? What happens when we get to the next location—are there enough hotel rooms? Have we made enough allowances for meals?
How big is traveling production at each stop?
It can be upwards of sixty people at a time, but then there’s obviously the lead teams in different countries that are working ahead, then the local crew. By the time you add up all the people who have some hand in Amazing Race, we’re talking about thousands of people.
Since you’re essentially racing around the world as well, what are you eating to give yourself the stamina to keep up? Are you working out at all while you go?
My number one rule is generally that I will not eat meat unless I’m absolutely sure of the source. I cannot afford to get sick.
It’s easy to go vegetarian in a place like India—the food is extraordinary. I try to stick with fresh foods and covered foods: bananas, oranges, mangos, anything that I can wash and that I know what’s inside the cover. It’s not mango cut and put on beautiful cold ice, with the ice having been made in some contaminated water. I take quite a bit of vitamin B, just to boost my immunity, and also manuka honey is a big thing for me.
I actually started making my own nutritional products, BuckIT (B12, manuka honey and immunity booster). I’ve been using those a lot, because when you get on a plane you’re exposed to people sneezing, and coughing, and spluttering.
And you’re doing so much traveling in one season.
You’re just susceptible to so many different things. And those energy levels—trying to keep those energy levels up. You’re making a show and you need your brain to fire. You need to be functional. As far as the working out goes, I try to do whatever I can wherever I can.
What workouts are you doing before you go on this crazy production schedule?
When I rode around France [10 years ago], I rode a single-speed bike 115 miles a day, on average, for 26 days—an old 85-year-old vintage bicycle, because I was retracing the 1928 Tour de France. To train for something like that, it’s a huge, huge investment of time.
Now, I do a lot more shorter, high-burst energy workouts. Mondays, I will run soft sand for about five miles. Then I run stairs at least once a week. Wednesdays, I do a workout on the beach, which is kind of a CrossFit type workout: sprints in the sand and pulling a medicine ball. Burpees, those are amazing at keeping you fit. I will ride the trainer bike. I’m probably going to do a marathon at the end of the year, so I’ve been working on some longer trail runs.
But on the road, obviously, I don’t have time to do that, so I will take a skipping rope or I will go in the stairwell of a hotel.
Fitness wise, when it comes to contestants, do you think one type of fit contestant does better? How do you recommend contestants prepare for the show?
The most important aspect of doing well in the race is mental toughness—the ability to work under stress. You can be unfit—but incredibly mentally strong—and you can use the least amount of energy to get the job done. That said, I think endurance is crucial, and physical endurance. Some strength is good; ultimately, it’s really the least important thing, ahead of endurance and mental toughness.