Four years ago, Maria Leijerstam changed her life. She had a lucrative job, a beautiful London apartment overlooking the River Thames and a serious boyfriend. But she wasn’t happy. Age 31, she quit her job in business consulting, returned her company car, broke up with her partner and moved back into her parents’ house.
“I was sitting at their home wondering what to do next,” said Leijerstam. “Sometimes you need to experience these moments to know that you have to make a big change.”
Her first move was to cycle the length of New Zealand in 23 days. She then started her own adventure sports company, and become the first person to cycle to the South Pole, using her training as a rocket scientist to outsmart and out-cycle two male competitors.
Leijerstam has always been a traveller, albeit a non-traditional one. Her trips are usually built around multisport adventure races involving cycling, running and kayaking, or other slightly mad endurance tests, such as the Marathon des Sables, where she completed six marathons in seven days in the Sahara Desert, or cycling more than 600km across Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal.
Leijerstam believes that travellers can better appreciate the beauty of a place if they use their own sweat to get there. Now she has her sights set on her most audacious journey yet: cycling across the Atlantic Ocean on a pedal-powered kayak. If you tell her it can’t be done, it will only strengthen her resolve to make it happen.
Q: How did you get the idea to cycle to the South Pole?
I’d been looking at Antarctica for years, thinking I’d love to ski to the South Pole. I found out that no-one had ever cycled there and I wondered if it was possible. I researched the idea, and in March 2012 I cycled across Siberia’s Lake Baikal as a test. I then trained in Norway and Iceland and the momentum started to build. I think that pedal power is one of the most efficient means of human power, and so I wanted to see if this was true even on snow and ice where historically skis have always been favoured. About six months before I set off, in June 2013, I found out that there were two other cyclists, a guy from Spain and an American man, attempting to do the same thing as me, so I kept my plans very quiet.
Q: So there was no plan to compete against them?
Not at all. In fact, they left three or four weeks before me and finished a couple of weeks after me. I was reading their blogs before I left and I could see that they were not having a good time. They went on normal fat bikes, which is like an adapted mountain bike with thicker tyres.
Q: You helped design the recumbent bike you used. Did your background in maths and science give you an advantage over your competitors?
I’m good at working out complex problems. I fell off my bike at least 50 times while cycling Lake Baikal because of the extreme wind, so a lot of the bike design came from experience.
I also took a different route than my competitors. I don’t like following others. I’ve always been fascinated by polar explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott, and I looked at the side of Antarctica they came in on – the Ross Ice Shelf. On that route, you have to cross the Trans-Antarctica Mountain Range. I climbed from sea level all the way up to 3,000m. My route was much steeper but also shorter. Their route was around 1,000km and mine was 638km.
Q: Were you concerned that one of them was going to beat you to the South Pole?
I was, but I knew my preparation was spot on. It’s a massively expensive proposition to do this so I needed major sponsors. I had to use a lot of savings and borrow from family members so it was a very stressful time. Now I’m in debt. I have another 23 years to pay this loan off. I have to do a hell of a lot of talks at business functions to try to recoup some of those costs. There is no profit in these kinds of expeditions.
Q: You faced temperatures of -29C without wind chill. How do you prepare for that kind of bitter cold?
When I was cycling I wore a soft shell top with three layers underneath, and I didn’t have an inch of exposed skin. When I stopped, I’d put on a -50C down jacket. I did get a bit of frostbite one day when there was a gap between my balaclava and my goggles. Every night I’d take a photo of myself and look at it to make sure everything was basically still there. My feet suffered the most. When I did the Patagonian Expedition Race in 2013 I got frostbite on my toes, so I knew my feet would be a problem on the South Pole expedition. I had to stop and jump up and down to keep them going, and I burned an awful lot of energy just getting on and off the bike. It didn’t matter how many layers of socks I put on, my feet were cold all the time. I also had severe knee pain; that was the biggest killer.
Q: How did you cope being alone in extreme cold for 10 days?
The first few days I was on the Ross Ice Shelf with mountain ranges on my right, and that was spectacular and dramatic. Once I got up on the polar plateau though, it was just a blanket of white. The endless monotony was mesmerising. I loved just looking at nothing.
I had a solo tent that was just about big enough for me plus two of my bags. I did all my cooking in there. I’d sleep for five hours or so at night and cycle for up to 17 hours a day – it's 24 hour daylight in Antarctica at that time of year.
Q: What did you do when you crossed the finish line?
I could see the research station from about 20km away. That last stretch felt like an eternity. First, I stopped at the ceremonial South Pole, which is a big ball on a post with flags around it where everyone gets their photo taken. The actual South Pole is about 150m away. I cycled over to that as well, just to make sure I’d done it properly. I was delighted to have become the first person in the world to cycle to the South Pole, as well as set the new speed record for any human-powered journey from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole. My prediction that cycling could be more efficient than skiing was right!
Q: Did you celebrate with a nice meal and a comfortable bed?
No, not really. I slept for a day and half in my tent. Then we drove to the coast to fly out from Union Glacier. We got there on New Year’s Eve and celebrated in an ice cave with some Argentine and Brazilian scientists.
Q: You had the energy to party after cycling 10 days to the South Pole?
Absolutely! I actually went ski-touring for two days as well because I had a couple of days to kill before my flight out. The scenery is stunning. The mountains are gorgeous with a massive glacier pouring out of them on both sides.
Q: You traded a lucrative career for more freedom. Why?
I’ve had a very varied and exciting career, but I got to the stage where I was determined that life could be even more fulfilling. When I gave up my career I was working as the head of business improvement for a multinational IT company.
I’ve got this big map of the world and I was always saying, “I want to go there and there and there.”
I’d wanted to work for myself for a long time but didn’t know if I was ready. I quit my job before knowing what I was going to do, and while I was cycling the length of New Zealand, I came up with the idea to start my business. I was already into adventure racing and adventure sports so I decided to start my own company to provide my kind of adventures to people at a simpler, local level.
Q: And cycling the length of New Zealand was your way to clear your head?
It was. I encourage anyone who wants to see New Zealand to do it on a bike. On a bike, you can detour whenever you want to. You don’t have to stick to roads if you have a mountain bike. Meeting people is so much easier from the seat of a bike than from a car. Of the 23 days I cycled there, probably 18 of those I was offered a bed in someone’s home. I had my tent but I only pitched it a few times. Also, having that feeling of being out in the fresh air, having done exercise all day, you go to bed at night feeling great about yourself. The North Island is often overlooked because people head straight down to the South Island, but it is absolutely stunning. The first bit up north, the Bay of Islands is beautiful. And then you have the stunning Coromandel Coast that is less touristy as well. The Abel Tasman Trail is also magnificent. Kaikoura is incredible because there were thousands of seals on the beach; they kept me entertained for a long time.
Q: You also travel the world to compete in multisport adventure races?
I’ve done multisport adventure races in the UK, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Patagonia, Chile and Ireland. I ran the Marathon des Sables, which is six marathons in seven days across the Sahara Desert. I realised then that I’m not very keen on extreme heat. The Patagonian Expedition Race is a good example of why I love to see the world while competing. We get to go to places where tourists don’t go. In Patagonia, we crossed mountains and rivers and places that are totally untouched, virgin territory.
Q: Don’t you ever just go on vacation and sit by a pool?
I’m not very good at those types of holidays, I prefer to do something active. A relaxing holiday for me is going sailing with my fiancé or my parents.
Q: What are the places you most want to return to?
I love Patagonia even though it rained incessantly when we were there racing. I’d like to return to New Zealand.
And I want to travel across Mongolia. The vastness of the region intrigues me. I’d like to experience the culture and see how the nomads live. I was selected to represent Great Britain in the 2009 Land Rover G4 Challenge finals in Mongolia, but due to the economic crisis it was called off. I'd like to organise my own trip there that is part 4X4 and part by bike. My fiancé is into 4X4 driving and I’m into human powered travel, so it’s the perfect combination.
Q: Where would you like to go next and why?
I love the cold and the snow, so Greenland and Iceland are high on my list. I’d like to pedal boat around the islands.
Q: What’s it like to be a woman in the world of adventure racing?
It is often joked that women are compulsory baggage because in many of these multisport competitions you have to have at least one woman on your team. At the start of these races, the men are usually the fittest, fastest and strongest. But as the days go on and fatigue builds up, that dynamic changes. Because of our makeup, perhaps because of the fact that we have children, we have this ability to retain a lot of energy for emergencies. The guys need to eat more and rest more, and as the days go on, the tables really turn. They say women have a higher pain threshold, that probably also has something to do with it. We just won’t give up.
Q: What’s next for you?
I am always looking for adventure and at the moment I’m considering cycling across the Atlantic Ocean. Pedal kayaks do exist, but to cross an ocean I’d need to design one with more stability to allow me to move around and sleep. It’s a bit bonkers, I know, but I really want to do it. I’m a huge fan of cycling, and this would be a great means of using human power to go somewhere. I’ve looked at the Tallisker Atlantic Rowing Challenge, which takes place every other year, and so my idea would be to set off at the same time as them to make a comparison between pedalling and rowing. They use big ocean rowing boats. I want to be able to use my legs rather than my arms – pedal power as opposed to paddle power.
Leijerstam's full documentary is available to purchase at whiteicecycle.com.
All information correct as of March 2015.