Originally from Stockholm, Maja Tesch is a 28-year-old who uses nature to ground her, both from the highs and lows. She wasn’t interested in sports until her twenties, but during the last few years has been making up for lost time. This summer, together with Christofer Johansson, she travelled through Tajikistan – a country in Central Asia surrounded by Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – to cross Lake Karakul and set a world record for the World’s Highest Swimrun, at an altitude of 3914m.
It all started after a year of studies abroad. She was short on cash and took on a few extra jobs – one of them was walking a neighbour’s dogs. “I took them to the forest and I don’t know who loved it more, me or the dogs. The new Husky podcast had just been released and she was so inspired by its stories, she bought a tent, found an old primus kitchen and went out on small adventures. “I realised it wasn’t so hard and started to dream of bigger adventures.”
As Maja had spent every childhood summer on Utö, the home of swimrun, it was only natural for her to come across the sport. In 2014 she volunteered for the race in May and was put on the assignment to take down the course markings – a total of almost 35 km of running. “I had never ran so far and afterwards I was so proud and full of self-confidence that I asked to do the same thing during ÖTILLÖ that year.”
She was hooked and registered for the Utö Swimrun 2015 with her cousin. “I had a stress fracture in my chin and couldn’t run from November to March, so my condition may not have been the best on race day. Swimming was a joke but we finished fourth for the Women’s Team category and qualified for ÖTILLÖ.”
Maja started to train more and did another two races that summer with good results – ÖTILLÖ Engadin and Höga Kusten – both with Mats Andersson, one of the original four who founded ÖTILLÖ.
Maja never doubted she could finish ÖTILLÖ but it was hard to convince a partner to team up with her when she said, “I’ve never run or swam such a distance, but I’m sure I can do it!” In the end, she didn’t find a partner and three weeks before the race she had to give up her spot.
Luckily, just a week before the 2015 ÖTILLÖ World Championship Maja got a call from Annika Ericsson who needed a partner and, of course, said yes without knowing she was a superstar. “Everyone who knows Annika knows that she is the strongest, most professional and by far the humblest swimrunner of all time. I didn’t know it then but I was so lucky to race my first ÖTILLÖ with her, and we managed to win!”
Maja earned a spot for ÖTILLÖ the next year and improved the time by 42 min together with Bibben Nordblom, ending up on 3rd place.
Commenting about the team element of swimrun, Maja said, “I think racing in a team is everything. If you would do individual races, you would take away the soul of swimrun and make it all about accomplishments. Of course it’s about making it as fast as possible from start to finish, but it’s also an adventure that you should share with your partner.”
Maja is an Ambassador for Vivobarefoot and said she shares their view on footwear.
“Vivobarefoot wants to get people to move more naturally.” About traditional footwear she continues: “The more we build around our feet; such as padding, built up insoles and so on, the weaker our feet get. It takes away the feedback that tells us if we’re doing something wrong, which makes it possible to keep on running with a very high harmful impact on our bodies.”
Maja added that running in Vivobarefoot is “very unforgiving” and it took her about a year to build up strength in her feet to do it, but since then has been injury-free – “and I train more and harder than ever before”.
It was Vivobarefoot who stepped in when Christofer Johansson asked Maja to go to Lake Karakul for a swimrun challenge. “We didn’t realise how big of a trip this was going to be. I actually didn’t know where Tadjikistan was. And after making a budget, we realised that we needed help to be able to pull it off. Vivobarefoot quickly jumped on board and agreed to help us out.”
Money was only one of the hurdles they faced. “First of all, none of us knew how our bodies would react to swimrunning at an altitude of 4000m. Secondly, we didn’t know the temperature of the lake and the exact distances we had to swim. We came over some maps from the Russian military and estimated the longest swim to be approximately 2km. We brought a lot of food and warm clothes to keep warm during the nights, and for the swimrun we had long sleeved wetsuits.”
In total, they spent 17 days on the journey. Nine of them they travelled through the country in a jeep on Pamir Highway. “Our goal was to acclimatise by slowly getting used to higher altitudes. One night we slept by a hot spring, just across the border of Afghanistan waking up to the view of the beautiful mountain Baba Tangi. Another day we hiked for 6 hours and slept at the base camp of Peak Engels (6510m).”
Other nights they slept in the homes of Tajik families. “I was amazed about how much harder their lives are compared to mine. Initially, the personal objective was to accomplish the adventure of a world record, but being in the country, meeting all these people, I felt so selfish and fortunate that my goal actually diminished along the way.”
The swimrun adventure became more about giving people a break from their daily life, by playing with kids, hugging them and making them laugh. “You really appreciate a home-cooked meal when you know that everything on the table comes from hard work, growing seeds and herding animals.
“You appreciate electricity when all you have is two hours in the evening. You really put value on the water when you have to collect it from the well. I realised how spoiled I was with everything from toilet paper and toothpaste and being able to go to the store if I run out of milk. It’s fascinating how keen people were to open up their homes for us, invite us for tea and bread, or a place to sleep on the floor. Even though they didn’t have much, they gave a lot.”
Before they left Sweden, Maja had concerns about not having enough food, having problems with the military and that the tale of the sea monster in Lake Karakul would be true. “After day one, I let go of the first two things, but the sea monster lingered in my mind.”
When Maja and Christofer arrived in Karakul, they also realised that everyone in the village was afraid of the lake. “When we put on our wetsuits and went out for a swim, they were gathered at the beach to look at us as if we were crazy. One day a car went down a little too far on the beach and got stuck in the sand, eventually the waves were pulling the car out into the lake and no one dared to even dip their toes into the lake except us!”
Christofer and Maja had planned their Roof of the World Swimrun trip for two years, studying maps and communicating with people who lived in the country, like Tony Nelson who arranged the Roof of the World Regatta two years in a row. “We imagined how it would be to arrive in Tajikistan but even so, it was hard to understand where we were actually going on July 14, 2017.”
They posted a Facebook page “Roof of the World Swimrun” and a few months before they went, two French guys, Stéphane and Jean-Nicholas, wrote and asked if they could join them. “We thought the more the merrier and said yes!” They arrived from Kyrgizstan with Polly Crathorne, a pro kitesurfer, and the five all met up. “It was so nice to speak English, and they came with a lot of new energy. Christofer and I had been out on the preliminary course, and I was a bit unsure if we would be able to pull it off. The French guys came to our rescue because they were really good swimmers. Suddenly the biggest swim didn’t feel so hopeless after all.”
The village of Karakul is situated at an altitude of 3914m. Karakul in kyryz means ‘the black lake’ and it’s indeed what it looks like when the sun moves in behind the clouds.”
The total swimrun distance ended up being about 25 km and took the group 5h23 to finish. “Before we started, we had only scouted the first and the last part of the course since it was impossible to reach the island without swimming.
“When we swam, we looked at peak Lenin (7314m) while breathing on our left side. On the right, we had the mountains of China. We had no idea what to expect on that island. In my mind, the sea monster had its territory there, and I expected to run over skeletons and chains from a war or something like that. It actually felt like we were on the moon!”
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #4 (October 2017)