Maria Leijerstam is an avid adventurer from her expeditions cycling to the South Pole and completing the Marathon Des Sables. In 2013, she became the first person to cycle from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the South Pole. In addition to that, she set the record for the fastest human-powered pole traverse.
With an amazing amount of adventures under her belt, none of which are for the faint of heart, Maria has plenty of advice on managing the pain and hard work that comes with doing the seemingly impossible.
1. Learn How to Look After Yourself
In the Officer Training Corps, Maria got her first taste of expeditions. This experience was all about working in teams, tackling challenges, and learning to be comfortable with yourself in harsh environments. These things were key learnings as she became more and more of an adventurer.
Learning how to look after yourself is a critical part of being able to manage pain. Being a part of a team effort like the Officer Training Corps is a fantastic way to dive in and learn how to take care of yourself without embarking on something alone.
2. Discover How Your Body Responds
The Marathon des Sables was the first really big challenge Maria faced. Without even thinking, Maria sent off the deposit for the race and then realized exactly what she signed up for. But taking that step helped Maria really get into running and training for running six marathons in seven days. The challenge was hugely outside Maria’s comfort zone from the searing heat to the risk of dehydration. The fear was not being able to manage herself in those conditions. In the year Maria raced in the Marathon des Sables, a fellow runner passed away after a double marathon. That experience taught Maria how important it is to know yourself and your body. You have to know how to deal with yourself in risky conditions.
In the lead up to the challenge, Maria took time to learn how her body responded to the extremes of the sport. “It’s very much on the mental side,” she shared. “If you think you’re going to go down, you’re going to do down.” Preparation is essential for your mental strength. You can then push yourself more and more as you learn what you’re capable of accomplishing.
3. Recognize the Differences in Pain
Doing something that physically pushes your boundaries has to do with management of pain, according to Maria. With endurance sports, you know it’s going to be painful. You have to be able to recognise what pains require you to stop and what pains you can push through.
Sometimes you’ll train and it’s just the wrong day and you don’t do well. Other days you can push yourself to do hard work that will benefit your performance. It takes a lot of trial and error to put yourself through these things and understand your pain.
4. Lean on Your Ability to Endure
While we find that men are generally stronger than women, when it comes to adventure racing things turn out a little differently. Men are often stronger the first few days of the expedition, but women tend to be better at the longer term endurance side of things.
Maria thinks it comes down to our strengths as potential mothers. Mothers, she commented, have to have this built-in reserve however tired they’re feeling. Because of that, women have this amazing ability when it comes to endurance. Of course, you’ll have good days and bad days, but it helps to remember your innate strength.
5. Build Your Mental Strength
Maria purposefully wanted to put herself in some really difficult challenges. To deal with the discomfort that inherently comes with that, Maria uses a number of self-hypnosis techniques and mental strength to tell herself she can do it.
Doubt always creeps in, but the trick is learning to deal with it. Pain is temporary. It comes and it goes. But if you fear pain, it’s going to be a lot worse. If you can manage your level of fear, you’re going to get much further and that’s often about positive thought. Building mental strength will help you get through difficult journeys. Give your mental strength the time it deserves.
6. Find Your Motivation
All throughout Maria’s career, she’s been in a man’s world. In a way, that’s helped spur her on. Maria has a fire to show that just because she’s a woman she can do as much and more. “Some of us are just made to do this kind of thing. It’s built in me to look for adventures and incredible things to do,” Maria related.
The year before Maria went out to cycle to the South Pole, someone tried to do it and failed. That made Maria want to face the challenge even more. With the right thinking, planning, and mentality she knew she could do it. Finding what motivates you will help you face the pain that comes with the incredible challenges you may face.
Listen to Maria on the Tough Girl Podcast