Adventurer and explorer Ness Knight has a knack of making remarkable feats of endurance look easy. So far, she’s completed a host of extreme endurance expeditions around the world, from cycling 2000 miles solo and self-supported across the USA and fatbiking 1000km solo across the Namib Desert to making history as the first woman to stand-up paddleboard 1000 miles, and the first female to swim the length of the River Thames. Her next big challenge? To become the first woman to row the Pacific Ocean solo and non-stop – a feat which will require Ness to row a mind-blowing 14-18 hours a day for 5-6 months.
Ness has spent the last six weeks in the Outer Hebrides exploring wild Scotland, but the 32-year-old Merrell ambassador kindly took a break from hiking, trail running and wild swimming to answer my questions.
You’ve completed some incredible expeditions – have you always been sporty and adventurous?
I grew up in South Africa which is, admittedly, a far more outdoor lifestyle, where I used to spend much of my time building tree houses and dens, so I suppose you could say it was a fairly active childhood. But as for being sporty, that’s not something that has come naturally. I’m very uncoordinated, have little spatial awareness and seem to be able to regularly fall over my own feet. I think sheer stubbornness allows me to succeed at endurance sports!
When did you develop a love of endurance sports and discover you were a pretty awesome endurance athlete?
Ha! Thank you for calling me an athlete, though I’d say I have more mental strength that anything. My love of endurance sports actually stems from a need to explore and immerse myself in unique and extreme environments. All too often, the places I want to get to are difficult to navigate by vehicle, so discovering the world using my own two feet gets me to places that are otherwise inaccessible.
My love for endurance is perhaps a result of an innate curiosity I have for the human mind and its relationship to our physical capability, as well as understanding the psychology behind pushing back the boundaries of what we believe is possible. My Dad would probably laugh and say it’s a little simpler than that, in that I just have a couple of unfortunate screws loose (likely inherited, I say)… Credit to him, he does find the funny side to all my antics!
You’ve done everything from running 15 marathons back-to-back to swimming the length of the Thames – do you think you’ve found your body’s endurance limits yet?
Yes. I have learned the hard way where those physical limits are, though not my mental ones. Physically, you have to look after your body when pushing things because it does have a breaking point. But if you refrain from hammering it out of the starting block, and focus on keeping a steady pace, there is no limit to how far you can go because the mind becomes your powerhouse.
In the world of endurance, brawn only gets you so far. It’s the ones who can psychologically steady themselves under immense pressure who succeed and end up going further. I will say, though, that you do need to keep your body in good nick because in survival situations it will give you an edge. Core strength, good nutrition and good physical conditioning also prevent injury, and that is invaluable. I always say, you wouldn’t run a formula one racing car on beer or vegetable oil and expect it to perform at its full potential, right?
What does a typical week of training look like for you, if there is such a thing?
My training doesn’t always look like ‘training’ as much of it is spent out in the hills trail running or cycling. The wilderness is great for both mind and body. I also have two huskies, so walking and running are high priorities! I do love the gym, which is where a lot of the specific training happens like core strength and building muscle mass. CrossFit is a favourite new discovery for me as my body responds brilliantly to HIIT workouts.
You’re currently exploring wild Scotland. Can you tell us what you’ve been getting up to?
It’s been an incredible journey, far more extraordinary than I ever expected. I’ve paddleboarded along white sandy beaches photographing migratory birds in the rocky peninsulas, trail run up remote and rugged mountains, wild swum in the fairy pools on Skye and cycled coast-to-coasts across Scotland. I have met the most hardy and entrepreneurial locals who not only survive, but thrive in some of the most remote and inhospitable locations on the Western Isles, and been told about secret islands to wild camp on. I’m filming the entire journey, so look out for a film I’ll be putting live in the coming month.
You’ve camped all over the world. What do you love about wild camping?
I love heading out into the wilderness and the unknown in search of a place to rest for the night, as you never know what to expect. Unpredictable weather means you have to work with the elements to find a sheltered spot. And when you do find that whopping vista and a little nook to nestle or bivvy bag into, and settle in for the night, it really does help you to connect with nature. Going out and doing something we all have built into our nature, which is finding a way to thrive out in the elements, really is good for the soul. You get an endorphin kick from it as you lay there listening to the landscape come alive at night, bustling with activity from all kinds of creatures.
Last night I camped above a castle ruin on a loch, famous in legend for a mysterious and elusive mermaid. It is said that her family sold her to the devil in return for his help to build the castle, and upon hearing of this plan she dove into the loch to live out her days below its surface, hiding in the dark, murky waters. As I was setting my pitch, I heard the most blood-curdling screams from the far mountainside. It sounded like a young girl of six or seven, and for a split second my imagination ran with that legend and I wondered if that could have been her. But I cast my eyes upward to look for the only possible source of these shrieks and watched as a huge bird of prey hovered, searching for its next meal. Rutting season is in full swing in Scotland, and I ate my dinner listening to two stags on opposite sides of the loch, somewhere high up on the mountains that flank it, as they grunted and bellowed at one another. Just before dark I saw one of the huge stags come sauntering down, antlers swaying, to drink at the water’s edge where a stream gushed into the loch, followed on by seven females. Watching him lift his head and roar on into the night was magnificent.
I would far rather experience nature in this way, not pointing out the window of a car as it speeds on past.
You must have packing for expeditions down to an art. What are your essentials for this kind of trip?
As they say, lay out the equipment you think you will need, and then half it. Most people take too much kit and strain under the burden of weight. My basics are:
- Hiking trousers: I have a personal love for Fjällräven as they have been nigh on bulletproof
- Hiking boots: Merrell boots have seen me through bogs, skree slopes and mountaintop scrambling in Scotland
- Thermal jacket: I’ve used my Mountain Equipment jacket both in the Namib Desert and Scotland and it has been brilliant
- First Aid kit – never get complacent about taking one
- Tent: I like a one-man if doing multi-day as it’s lightweight, and a two-man if just an overnight so I can spread out and get a good view
- Map: OS maps an essential
- Jetboil: compact, lightweight, does everything you need. If I fancy a luxury I take a cheap and basic Primus gas stove. No need for fancy stuff here.
What’s your favourite place in the world for adventure?
I have two favourites, and I love both for their rugged, wild and ancient feel. Scotland and Namibia are places I could spend years in, exploring. You only scratch the surface of these extraordinary countries as they are so rich in geological history, human history and wildlife, but even a short time traversing their landscapes will leave you feeling completely in awe of the fact that places like this even exist on planet Earth. I also love the fact that the terrain and ecosystems change every 50 miles, leaving you permanently surprised by the world you’re travelling through. Wildlife and communities have learnt how to thrive in these inhospitable and exposed landscapes which I find fascinating.
Have you had any hairy or dangerous moments on expeditions?
Whilst cycling across the Namib Desert in Namibia I had to cross lion country, and experiencing that humbled me completely – there is nothing like the possibility of coming face-to-face with a pride of lion to make you realise just how far down the food chain you really are out there on the plains of Africa. I was pushing through the hottest hours of the day in 50-degree Celsius heat and I lost consciousness 200 metres from where my lion warden had radioed that there was a fresh lion kill, due to dehydration and exhaustion. The warden had a gut instinct that something was wrong and came back to find me, but that could have ended very differently with me wandering the desolate plains in a daze, lost to the wilderness. That was a big lesson in understanding where your limits are, and how critical it is to pay heed to what your body is telling you about its state.
Photo Credit: Red Bull
You’ve talked about using visualisation for your training and expeditions – can you tell us more?
Visualisation has been the success of many of my expeditions, as well as my career in general. Our brains struggle to differentiate between an actual event and something vividly imagined. Physiologically, we have the same reactions and mentally our brain develops new neural pathways by repetition, thus making anything you do or imagine become an auto-response. Once you understand the mechanics behind forming habits, you can transform the way you interact with your environment on a daily basis. It helps on expedition by reducing risk in fear and survival situations by allowing you to imagine and visualise your response to various scenarios and how you will react. After enough time, these become second nature and you then have a foundation laid down that you can rely on – you’re able to stay calm knowing you can trust your instincts and [that your] reactions will be sound.
I also use this in my career, because if you visualise something enough times you begin to believe it to be inevitable. Quite handy. This also works in reverse, in that if your internal dialogue is leaning towards a negative one generally, filled with fear, anxiety over things that may happen, and self-doubt, then you’re going to act as your own worst enemy, thwarting your own progress. Listen out to what your internal dialogue is like and get active in changing that as soon as possible.
When it gets tough during your endurance challenges, how do you avoid quitting?
I think it’s helpful to go into these expeditions knowing that there will absolutely be hugely challenging days. We’re humans not robots, so expect that you will be battered, bloodied and bruised and that you will get back up again. Over the years, I’ve gotten particularly good at reducing the time it takes to get back up again. Much of that is mental fortitude, which is developed – it’s like a muscle in that the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Perspective is often what gets me through bad days out there in the elements, alone. Looking after your body and nutrition also helps, as the state of it has a direct effect on your mental health and hormonal balance. Hydration is also critical to performance. Often my bad moods and bad days can be turned around by looking after my body a little better. Taking a moment out to recalibrate is also important, and although you feel like you’re halting progress, you are, in the long run, going to be faster, stronger and more efficient.
I am very food-motivated so I take ‘special snacks’ that I eat when I achieve various goals during the day. Simple things, sometimes! Singing and music also helps.
In preparation for your River Thames swim, your training included 10-hour open water sessions. How did you alleviate boredom?
One of my personal things I do is write books in my head as I go. It keeps me busy on long, arduous days in the wilderness. So much of success out there is brain, not brawn. I also allowed myself to switch off entirely and often ended up in an almost meditative state. But that isolation where you cannot see anything except murky water, cannot hear anything due to earplugs and cannot speak was really quite challenging!
You’ve got a humungous challenge in the pipeline. Can you tell us about your plan to row the Pacific solo?
I’m currently preparing for a record-breaking attempt to become the first female to row the Pacific Ocean, solo and non-stop, from the Americas to Australia. During the 5-6 month expedition I will row for 14-18 hours a day in unforgiving weather conditions, facing 40-foot waves, 60-knot winds and raging storms. The row is considered by seasoned explorers to be one of the toughest and most extreme expeditions on the planet. My friend, explorer Ed Stafford, said: “Having spent time on expedition with Ness in Bolivia I can vouch that she is the real deal, giving me huge confidence in her as an adventurer. If Ness were to achieve what no woman has done to date she will have pushed back the boundaries of what is humanly possible.”
I will be using human power alone to propel me 8,000+ nautical miles across the vast Pacific seas in an ocean rowing boat weighing 1 ton fully laden. By the end of the expedition I will essentially be rowing my own trash can across the ocean to the finish line, as there will be no way of removing rubbish from the boat during the expedition due to it being an unassisted crossing. No food or equipment can be provided to me by passing yachts or ships once I’ve left the harbour at the start and make my way to Australia.
I’m currently seeking the final sponsorship places, and training will start in earnest in the coming month. The boat is being custom built by Rannoch, and will be taken out on various training expeditions in the lead up to the main event. This has been a dream of mine for nearly a decade, and I’m so excited to head out into the open ocean after many years of meticulous planning and preparation!
What will be the most challenging aspect of this solo attempt, and how are you planning for it?
The isolation will be one of the main challenges. Again, it’s all about mindset on these extreme endurance expeditions. The other critical factor will be ensuring there is no space for complacency, as in any survival or extreme conditions this is what generally get people into trouble. Facing the inevitable capsizes during storms will also take some getting used to, but the boat is built to handle this and will see me through all the temper the ocean can throw at me. Physically, I will deteriorate over the 5 months, to the point where I will eventually lose some bone density and be left with no fat on my body. Nutrition, muscle mass and strength training will help immensely in the lead up to the start of the journey.
Will you have to take on a certain number of calories each day?
Yes, I will be working with some of the UK’s top nutritionists, coaches and labs to understand exactly what I will need, but it is in the thousands. Just getting enough calories in each day will be quite a challenge!
What kind of training will you be doing to ensure you have the strength to row your 1-ton boat for up to 18 hours a day over the 5-6 month period?
Training will focus on three key areas; strength, flexibility and muscle mass. I’ll be doing a lot of crossFit and HIIT training, but also endurance sessions too. I need to get in the swing of spending hours at the oars at a time. Much of the training will also be psychological. Our bodies are extremely adaptable to the circumstances we test them with, and often people crack because of mental strain, not necessarily physical strain. Hopefully the boat gets easier to move at a pace after I eat my way through the contents of it!
What will a typical week of training for this row look like?
HIIT training sessions, ergo rowing sessions and getting out in the wilderness to test myself in extreme conditions under sleep deprivation, seeing how I cope with fatigue, dehydration and under strain. Much of the training I do will aim to increase my flexibility, too, as this will help prevent injury. Core strength will be vital, too.
You’ve travelled solo for a lot of your big adventures. Do you find you miss having company or do you find travelling solo an empowering experience?
Absolutely. I love my own company, but a human being can only go so long without company and a sense of community before we start to deteriorate mentally. I need my solo time, but more important are the people I meet along the way on expedition. That always acts as a huge boost. We are simply not designed to be isolated and reclusive.
How has your approach to adventure and kit-packing changed since your first expedition?
The amount of kit I take has reduced to a fraction of what I used to take. Lord only knows how I coped on those first adventures hauling everything but the kitchen sink across whole countries and continents! It makes laugh to this day. I’ve also learned how to find sheltered pitches, learned not to jump at every crackle of a twig at night, and I’m beginning to get to grips with foraging, too. Wild camping is just good for the soul.
What are your favourite items of kit for training, adventures and wild camping?
Kettlebells are a big feature in my training, as is bodyweight exercises and developing core strength. In terms of camping and adventures, I do love my filter coffee as a luxury out there so I take a small stovetop aluminium espresso maker. I have a drone now and that has become an incredible tool for filming and understanding the terrain I’m traversing, too. My leather journal always comes with me.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I have a few core sponsors whose products I really love; Land Rover, Billboard, Merrell, Gore Apparel. My Pacific row will be sponsored in part by corporates, SMEs as well as individuals.
You can find out more about Ness’s adventures in Scotland along with her preparation for next year’s Pacific Row by following her on social media via www.instagram.com/ness_knight, www.twitter.com/ness_knight, www.facebook.com/explorernessknight and by visiting her website, www.nessknight.com
Thanks to www.merrell.co.uk