The 200 residents of Karakul village live on the sandy shores of an azure-blue lake, 3,900m above sea level in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. But they never go in the water. They’re kept dry by tales of a sea monster; a creature in the shape of a horse, who once enticed a local mare into the depths, and fathered a foal who became the fastest horse in the village.
Fitting, then, that Lake Karakul should be breached by Maja Tesch – SwimRun world champion, Vivobarefoot ambassador, and one of the fastest people on land and in water.
When she’s not working as a nurse, or training her Never Stop Stockholm running group, or teaching people to handle medical emergencies out in the wild, or pioneering green running sensation ‘plogging’, you’ll find Maja tethered to a partner, running and swimming 75km through her beloved Stockholm archipelago. We managed to keep Maja still just about long enough to share some insights into her adventures…
What it is about being outdoors that inspires you?
I’ve always loved being outdoors – in the woods, or at our summerhouse on the archipelago; I spend all my summers there. You can take a boat to a small island where there are no people. I’ve always appreciated getting out of the city, to somewhere where there are no other sounds, where it’s totally quiet. And I enjoy all kinds of weathers – it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or windy or snowing or a really nice sunny day. Being outside makes me calm; it’s recharging. I grew up in Stockholm, so I’ve always been in a big city – but all the summers I spend in the archipelago help me survive the winter, with all the people, in the city.
What set you on the SwimRun trail?
In 2014 I volunteered for a SwimRun race. I thought I’d be the one to hand out energy drinks, but they asked me to take down all the course markings along the trail. I was running behind the last team for the whole race, taking down the markers. I ran, I think, 35km across the archipelago that day. I was really impressed with everyone who raced, and wanted to do it myself.
SwimRun is quite unique, in that you race with a partner. What type of partner do you look for?
The great thing is the sum is bigger than the parts; you’re always stronger together. What I look for is someone who thinks the same way I do. I want to evolve and get better, but I always want it to be a pleasure too – it’s not life and death. So I need a partner who thinks the main part should be enjoyment.
A lot of teams tether themselves together. Why?
It’s a great connection to your partner, you can really feel the energy through the tether. I’m a stronger runner than swimmer, so we complete the team by me pulling them on the runs and drafting a bit back in the swims. You save around 30% of your energy by being in someone else’s draft (a bit like cycling). Also, the tether means you don’t have to navigate in the water – you just have your partner’s shoes in front of you. If there are strong currents or big waves, the tether pulls you back to your partner’s shoes.
“I’ve always appreciated getting out of the city, to somewhere where there are no other sounds, where it’s totally quiet. And I enjoy all kinds of weathers – it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or windy or snowing or a really nice sunny day. Being outside makes me calm; it’s recharging.”
It’s taken you to some amazing places, like Karakul...
Yes. We were travelling for nine days, going along the Pamir Highway, so we stayed in different places and slept in our tents too. We also hiked up to some basecamps. I want to visit Karakul village again, the people who live there were amazing. The village is at 3,914m I think, just on the border with Kyrgyzstan. Swimming across the lake, when I breathed under my left arm I’d see Lenin Peak, a 7,134m mountain. It was such a cool feeling. But it was so cold.
A lot of the kids drew pictures of us in the lake. They’d never been in because of the sea monster. When we jumped in they were screaming, ‘Nooooo!’. The monster is supposed to look something like a horse. But I thought of it as a big snake fish.
Is that the kind of emergency you train people for with Adventure Medicine?
Not quite! We do three-day courses, teaching people how to handle medical situations on their adventures. It’s especially good for SwimRun because out in the archipelago you don’t have a cell phone signal. So what do you do if someone hits their head or breaks a leg? When you’re tired and you’ve been running and you want to be fast, you can take risks. And the rocks are really sharp, so people can cut up or even break their legs.
Speaking of injuries, in 2015 you became SwimRun World Champion – but you paid for it with a stress fracture…
For me it was just stupid because I knew I was injured. It was the world championships, and I think I didn’t want to come across as weak or injured. So instead of resting afterwards, I ran a 30km race. I had so much pain but I finished it because I was stupid. I think I learned a lot – you really need to listen to your body. Then I started running in Vivobarefoots, and don’t think I’ve been injured since.
Do you think it’s important to have more contact with the ground?
Absolutely, everything starts with the feet. We’re never allowed to be barefoot anymore. When people ask me for running advice I just tell them to remove their shoes and socks, find a nice area with grass and try to run in a circle for five minutes. Then put their shoes on and think about what happens when they step.
So… plogging. What’s that all about?
It started a year ago. A friend of mine was angry that there was so much litter all over the city and on the trails. He runs a lot so he began picking it up. Then he decided to call picking up litter while you jog ‘plogging’, and started a hashtag. We had a whole day out in the archipelago where we ran and cleaned up the island. In the end we had maybe 100 kilos of plastic and glass bottles and stuff like that. I shared it on my Instagram and it just spread.
“People ask me how to set up a plogging event. I say, pick something up every day, that’s a good event.”
Around eight million tonnes of plastic – that’s one tonne for every person in Sweden – ends up in the sea every year. It’s unbelievable; one of the biggest environmental problems we have in the world. But it becomes more visible when people do something to prevent it. Plogging is so easy, everyone can do it. Even if you don’t like to run or can’t run far, you just run for a bit, pick something up, rest, and then run a little bit more.
You can do it like an interval session. So every time you pick something up you do a push up or ten squats or something. There are heaps of opportunities. Almost every day I get people asking me about plogging – how to do it, how to set up an event. I tell them to get a couple of friends and some bags and do it. Pick something up every day, that’s a good event.
You always seem to be outside in these beautiful places. What is it you personally get from spending so much time in the wild?
Peace. Freedom and peace within. That sounds like a cliché but it’s true. I think you get so much energy from being outside – you can walk for hours and put up a tent and no-one will come knocking at your door. And not everyone runs up mountains, so when you do meet people, they have the same feeling as you. It’s like with SwimRun. When you put yourself through so many hours and really push the limits, you don’t speak to your partner much. But you really share the experience. You get a special bond.
Follow Maja's Journey Here