In 2007, Maria Leijerstam reached the South Pole by bike, becoming the first person ever to cycle there. Since then, Maria has finished countless expedition adventure races, written a book about her South Pole cycle, run ultras, founded the Burn Series adventure race series and become a mum to two girls who are now two and four.
In two days, after five years out of the circuit, she’s lining up for her first expedition adventure race since having children: an epic 6-day, 700km race across Sweden to the fjords of Norway. I caught up with Maria on the phone a few weeks ago to chat about this, her training, and her incredible Antarctic cycle.
You’re a mum to two young girls. How has your training changed since having kids?
I’m out hiking at the moment with the girls. It’s actually part of my training, because I have such limited time to train, so I stick them on my back and off we go [laughs]. Luckily, the four year-old walks really well. But the 2-year-old sits in the backpack because hopefully we’ll get a bit further that way.
So yes, I’ve totally changed my training programme [since having kids]. I’ve managed to get one hour of dedicated training a day, and I’m doing lots of high intensity stuff. I’m relying on the fact that I have done – and I can do – endurance. Whereas previously I would train by going to the mountains for three days without stopping or by taking my bike and going out all day, I’ve not got the luxury to do that anymore, so it’s very different! But I quite enjoy it – lifting weights, sprinting and that kind of thing. Let’s see after this next race whether it made the right impact [laughs].
Rewind a little bit – you ran the MDS in 2007. Was this where your passion for endurance started?
Yes, so I’d been at university and was in the officer training corps where I met lots of ourdoorsy, adventurous people. I found out about the Marathon Des Sables one night with some friends. That was kind of where it all began for me – signing up when I hadn’t even run a marathon at that stage! I’d done adventure sports and a couple of triathlons through OTC but nothing really long. It was an incredible experience. One of the big things that I learnt from it was that when it comes to endurance, it’s so much about knowing how to look after your body to be able to allow it to continue day-after-day.
Did you find early on that you were quite strong mentally?
Yeah, I’ve always been pretty strong [mentally]. And I think a lot of that stems from my time at school, where I really struggled; I didn’t really know how to learn or get on with any particular subjects. When it got tough, it made me want to fight even harder. I was advised by my teachers not to do maths at A-level or, later, at University, because I’d find it really hard, and that just spurred me on to want to do it. I realised I did quite enjoyed that logical right or wrong, black-and-white thinking. Luckily, I’ve always had really supportive parents. They’ve never really understood what I’ve done and why I’ve done it, but they’ve supported me in it.
How did your adventure racing come about?
After doing the MDS, I started doing some 50 mile runs, and it was actually on one of these races that I met somebody who was into adventure racing. They said I should look into it because I’d love it. So when I got home, I Googled it and thought it sounded right up my street. I love variety whether it’s in my sporting life or general life and the idea of doing multiple sports in a race with an adventure format was really exciting. I signed up straight away for an expedition race in Ireland in 2008 and that was my first experience of expedition adventure racing.
Can you explain what expedition adventure racing involves?
The one in Ireland was about 500km distance. You get given maps with 15-20 checkpoints and have to navigate your way along the whole course. You’re told ‘this section’s on foot’, ‘this section’s on kayak’, and then there’ll be points along the route where you have to carry your climbing harness for an abseil or you’ll have to carry a drysuit to swim across a freezing lake – it could be anything, and that’s the whole adventure side of it. Teams are always mixed [gender] and 99% of teams are three men and one woman, just because there aren’t enough women in the sport.
It’s non-stop, so you don’t stop at night, but when your team are running super-low on energy you might have an hour’s powernap somewhere in a hedge or building. It’s all about keeping going. Team strategy is really important, and navigational strategy. Some checkpoints might be optional so you could take time penalties instead, so with my mathematical side, I love all of that kind of thing.
Tell me about your big adventure race coming up in Sweden?
It’s a 700km race from the mountains of Sweden to the Fjords of Norway. I’m super-excited just about the route. I’m half-Swedish myself and we have a summer home in Sweden so we spend our summers in the Stockholm archipelago area. This race is further north in a ski resort called Åre. The mountains aren’t that high – they’re around 1000m – but they’re steep, so there’s going to be incredible trekking and biking. The paddling in the Norwegian Fjords has been on my list to do forever, so I’m so excited about that.
I haven’t had that much contact with the adventure racing scene for the last five years, but I’ve managed to join an Australian team who sound very competitive; they’re excellent paddlers, they’re very strong on the bike, so I’m a bit nervous but I’m hoping my training strategy will pay off! [Laughs]
What kind of training have you been doing?
I’ve got myself a brilliant personal trainer. He’s very much Army-style – really simple, basic Army training. We use a tennis court and there’s an awful lot of squatting going on, there’s running, a lot of press-ups. It’s non-stop for a whole hour. The hardest thing – which is also the simplest thing in the whole world – is when I have to lie down on my front, arms out, legs out, and when he shouts ‘GO!’ I have to get up and sprint to the other side of the tennis court and lie down again. I have to do that about 20 times.
Are you doing any cycling?
I’ve got a Wattbike at home that I try to jump on whenever I can. I did do the Tour of Pembrokeshire cycle the other week so that was a good distance. And then a couple of days ago, I got a mountain day in where I ran up Pen y Fan. It’s only 900m but I did that a few times.
A lot of female endurance athletes say they’re stronger after having kids – would you agree?
The minute you have children, everything is always on someone else’s terms, never your own, never when you’re ready; you’ve just got to do it. That notion is about building endurance. It really helps. Whilst I do the race, I’ll be wearing an ECG monitor so I can get lots of stats from the race because I’m super-interested in it what the differences are. I’m pretty certain I’m fitter and stronger now than I was before I had the girls.
The other thing I love about women’s endurance and adventure racing is that I know on the first 2-3 days of this race, I’m going to be the slowest in the team. But once we reach days 4-6, I become so much stronger. Men often need more food and we might run out of food at that point, they struggle so much more when it gets longer, and that is what I love about it. I can keep going.
Let’s talk about your cycle to the South Pole – what’s did you find the most challenging?
The route I’d chosen climbed up the Trans-Antarctic mountain range which is a 3000m mountain range with glaciers coming off it and avalanches. It’s risky and dangerous so there was that fear factor. I managed to get through the mountains in the first three days, which is faster than I anticipated. You pretty much get straight into the crux of the expedition and that was difficult to get my head around – I didn’t really get the opportunity to acclimatise or get into the flow of it. It was like – BANG – straight in there into the mountains. So that was really hard.
Because I’d planned for the crux at the beginning of the expedition, I hadn’t done as much mental preparation for the rest of it. I really suffered with knee pain from existing cycling over-use and I was really, really struggling up on the Polar plateau knowing I had many days ahead of me in really freezing conditions with severe knee pain. That was a big deal, and I actually employed a lot of hypnotherapy around not fearing pain, but letting it be, because the minute you start thinking you may never be able to walk again, the pain gets much worse. So: let it hurt you but don’t be fearful about it. It stopped me panicking.
What mental techniques did you use?
The first one was where I drew an invisible circle around myself and my polar cycle (bike): Everything that’s within this circle, I control. Anything out of it, I can’t control. It was about putting a barrier up with what I was allowing myself to think about and what I wasn’t. So I’d say, ‘I can’t stop avalanches from falling, I have to just focus on me and what’s going on.’ And I had to be really strict with myself – it took years of training to be able to do that.
The second strategy was for my knee pain. There’s a beautiful lake in Sweden which we go to with my family. It’s absolutely my favourite place in the whole world – it’s my safe place. When the knee pain started to get really bad I transported myself there, where nothing could hurt me. I used that a lot. It’s not complicated stuff, it’s just allowing you to control your mind and what you think about.
I did a lot of that to almost control the boredom as well, because when you’re on the Polar plateau, there’s nothing there. You’re like ‘Argh, I’ve got 600km and nothing to look at ahead of me’. And I only had 20 songs on my iPod, which was the biggest mistake ever. Those 20 songs drove me up the wall! [Laughs]
What did you think about during your expedition?
The nicest thing was not allowing anything to go through my mind. It’s the most difficult thing in the whole world to achieve, because we’re surrounded by so much stuff the whole time. In Antarctica it was the most unique experience to literally cycle along for maybe ten minutes at a time and just ‘be’ and not even think of anything. It was a really enlightening experience, and so unique. It’s something I absolutely treasure because you can’t do it anywhere else.
Tell me about the weather in Antarctica – just how cold did it get?
On the polar plateau when the wind was blowing it would have been in the -40°c. That was the actual temperature, not taking into account the wind chill. It was that kind of temperature where you kind of go, ‘I should not be here. My body is not made to live in these conditions.’ [Laughs]
Did your all your kit stand up to the cold?
Yes, I was delighted with everything I had. I had the right kit and didn’t take too much or not enough. Everything worked really well. We didn’t take any risks with the polar cycle, it was made out of aircraft grade steel, which is as tough as it gets and was tested to bigger extremes than I needed.
What about sweating – did you sweat and is sweating dangerous in Polar conditions?
I was very, very careful about that. I knew I wasn’t allowed to let myself sweat so I really controlled the temperature all the time. The only time I let this go was when I was 3km from the South Pole and it was the first time I’d worked really hard [on the bike]. I did sweat a bit right at the end, but I knew I’d be safe there.
However, I did have problems with my feet. I didn’t realise but they must have been sweating when I was going through the mountain range and there must have been a lot of ice build-up in my boots. I’d taken -100-degree boots and two pairs of socks, so on the plateau I needed it but at the start maybe I didn’t need quite the warmth. That was a mistake and I paid for it because in the last 5 days, I was really suffering with my feet. That became another thing I had to control my mind over: ‘As long as they feel really cold and they hurt, they’re OK.’ The minute I can’t feel my feet, I’ve got a problem. Pain now is actually a good thing!
What did you eat during you Polar cycle?
In the day, I picked on snacks. I did try and make soup one day but froze within 1.5-2-hours. I had an easy access snack bag on my front with things like salty liquorice, jelly beans, pretzels, meat and biltong. And then at night, I’d have a 3-course meal of freeze-dried food every night and probably a 2-course breakfast every morning. I really bulked up the calories there. I took freeze-dried food because of the weight saving and then I’d melt snow and ice to rehydrate it.
You still lost weight, right?
It wasn’t a massive amount – about 8% of my body weight, whereas a guy would probably lose about 25%. And that’s why women find it hard to lose weight; because we’re not supposed to lose weight [laughs]!
Were you able to eat enough to maintain your energy levels?
Once I was on the polar plateau I did suffer a bit with the altitude sickness; a lot of the time I was having to make myself eat. My body almost went into a robotic mode where I almost didn’t need to feed it so much – I certainly didn’t eat as much towards the end as I did in the beginning but I didn’t feel any different in terms of energy levels. I think my body just became more efficient at using what it was given.
During my training for Antarctica, I did quite a bit of deprivation training. So I’d wake up at 5am and go out and cycle for 3-4 hours without food or water – nothing at all. When you start doing that, it feels horrific and the second time you have no energy, but as your body gets used to operating without it, it’s able to adapt and what energy it does have, it uses it more efficiently. Soon I was able to go out and do a four-hour run or cycle in the morning without anything and feel fine. Towards the end of the expedition, the deprivation training really paid off.
Did you have any favourite items of kit for your Polar cycle?
I always carry my little mascot, a teeny Pippi Longstocking, because she’s the toughest, strongest girl in the world. Then my father made me a little axe/hammer which I carried across my race in Siberia and in Antarctica. Not only is it the most useful piece of kit – great for hacking out snow and ice to make water, you can hammer tent pegs in, I could use it on the bike as a lever if anything was jammed – but the fact my father had made it was really special as well. He’d written on it: ‘Keep going Maria xxx’. All I needed to do was read that and nothing could stop me.
For adventure racing, it’s always about carrying the least amount of kit with you. A really good rucksack is really important. I use an inov-8 rucksack which has horizontal hydration so it sits on my lower back and also has front pouches for all my snacks, so if I’m running I’m not fumbling about trying to get food out. Having pockets in the right places is really important. It’s got a built-in whistle, a built-in compass. That’s really one of my favourite pieces of kit, definitely.
For more about Maria’s epic Antarctic cycle, read her book: Cycling to the South Pole: A World First or follow her on social media via www.instagram.com/marialeijerstam, www.facebook.com/marialeijerstam and www.twitter.com/marialeijerstam.