Posted on May 04 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is the incredible Ness Knight, endurance adventurer, photographer, writer and speaker, she was the first woman in history to swim the length of the River Thames. She also stand up paddle boarded 1000 miles, cycled across the USA solo, and run 400 miles from London to Land’s End. Read her inspiring story here:
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you were like growing up?
Ness Knight: I’d like to say I was born this super athlete, blessed with an iron will and unflappable self confidence, but alas, I was in fact a really shy little wisp of a thing that would jump if you said “boo”. I was, however, lucky enough to grow up being introvert, completely uncoordinated and extremely lacking in ‘cool’ factor. I say lucky because in a funny twist it has been working through these awkward struggles as a kid that I have learned some very important life lessons like vision, perseverance and how to keep momentum in what you do - without which I don’t think I would be able to achieve the things I do today.
Often times you’ll find that explorers, endurance athletes and sportspeople are told that what they want to go out into the world and do is unrealistic and impossible, so you have to learn how to recognise when that is just people’s own internal fears and mind blocks speaking because of their own experiences and not let that affect your direction. Easier said than done, I know! But worthwhile learning to recognise.
So although I was not always strong or sporty growing up, my experiences did allow me to learn a lot, at a young age, about keeping going in the tough times, and how to believe in yourself and your cause. Perhaps growing up in a country where Mandela moved mountains and seeing this incredible man never lose faith, never lose patience through 27 years and never stop fighting for his dream also had a profound effect on the character I wanted to become when I grew up!
Bardega: You have worked with startups with doing all things techy and digital - how have you found working with entrepreneurs and startups and what lessons have you learned working with them?
Knight: Indeed, pre-explorer I was in fact working for a social enterprise that taught entrepreneurship. Working with entrepreneurs was an incredibly vibrant place to be and you are constantly surrounded by people who are constantly striving to create new norms, innovate and find ways to turn an acorn into an oak tree. That's an inspiring and motivating place to be and probably a catalyst for quitting my own 9-5 and starting up a career I am passionate about where I hold the reins.
Day in and day out, I saw people step into their entrepreneur shoes, most of whom had never done it before and had no idea if they were doing it right. Many failed and some succeeded and the difference between the two groups was simply the ability of the person to adapt, tweak their processes and persevere. Being open to organically change and grow based on the results you were seeing was critical to the successful businesses. I saw many fail because they kept banging their heads on a brick wall stubbornly doing the same thing but trying to get a different result and it was painful to watch as this was their dream and passion crumbling around them!
I think it’s important to know that you can keep the same general direction, but there are many trails and paths that can lead that way and sometimes you need to explore them all to find a way through. It’s been a fundamental rule in how I go about building my career as an explorer and endurance athlete, trying to build up my own business. In life many people will turn you down when you try to create opportunities and partnerships and get projects off the ground, but I see that the more cards you go through the more aces you will find, so don’t give up.
I could go on for hours on what I learned from fellow entrepreneurs, but I want to leave this question with something I learned from an amazing and hugely successful female entrepreneur the other day: “Don’t have bad days. Have bad moments. Own it. Feel it. And get out of it”. I think that is spot on!
Bardega: What made you quit the rat race and follow your passion?
Knight: What motivated me to quit the rat race is twofold. When I was fifteen, I looked at some of the people closest to me and saw that they were forging careers doing things they did not love but were lucrative. They then worked 9-5 and lived for the two days over the weekend. Loving what I do for only two days of the week just isn’t good enough in my book. So at the age of fifteen I made myself a promise; to find the dream or the cause I love the most and am passionate about, to master it, and then to find a way to make good money from it. I wanted to wake up every day and feel like I was doing justice to this amazing gift of life that we have and not following the crowds, not trying to fit into a mold that just didn’t work for me.
Secondly, I believe that it is when we challenge ourselves that we grow. And feeling like we are progressing in life is super important - no matter the pace. I knew I wanted to make the leap, but fear of failure held me back for a time. And we all know the best way to combat that! So here I am, after jumping in at the deep end, and I am still figuring it all out as I go but it is so worth it as I feel happy, challenged in a healthy way, utterly content with my direction and excited beyond belief about the future. You can’t buy that.
Bardega: You have completed some amazing challenges but what challenge are you most proud of and why?
Knight: The big challenges so far have been stand up paddle boarding 1000 miles down the Missouri river in the USA, cycling solo across the USA, becoming the first female in history to swim the River Thames and running a marathon a day for 400 miles from London to Land’s End.
Honestly I think I’m most proud of getting to the start line of each of these as so much work going into that - usually more time is spent preparing the expedition than actually on it - as that’s often the hardest bit. But if pushed to choose one expedition I am most proud of it would be the solo cycle across the USA. I came out the other end of it walking 6 inches taller and feeling like the world was my oyster. For the most part this was because I’d gone through so many transformative experiences on it. When you are out there doing a solo expedition, especially in the more remote terrains, you are forced to learn how to trust yourself and your own decisions and capability, because there is no-one else there to just step in and fix things for you. That changed everything for me. I overcame fears, quieted the internal critic, and gained a deeper understanding of functioning at a higher level of performance, seeing first hand that my perceived personal limits were grossly skewed; that I was capable of going much further with the right mindset. As we all are.
Bardega: How do you cope with the loneliness and isolation? And is it worrying travelling alone being female?
Knight: Honestly, it depends on the type of expedition as to whether I get lonely. Two opposite extremes were my solo USA cycle versus my Thames swim. On the one end of the scale I was out cycling alone, but in reality meeting so many people with fascinating stories and incredible goodwill along the way meant that it was impossible to feel lonely.
During that cycle across the USA, I saw that people are innately good and will support you - a mere stranger to them - in any way they can. Even those well below the breadline, who were struggling themselves, would open up their homes and their hearts to help you, refusing to take no for an answer!
On the other end of the extreme, I was on home turf in the UK swimming the Thames River with my fiance, family and friends acting as support crew, so you’d think that isolation would be well off the radar. Pop me in the icy water for 10 hours a day unable to see more than murky brown water or the side of a paddle board, unable to speak, with my face in the water, unable to hear anything or anyone because of the earplugs and you get an incredibly lonely adventurer with nothing but my own thoughts for company. All. Day. Long. It drove me crazy not being able to interact at all. I now appreciate even being able to sing out loud on a long trail run! Ah, gratitude for the small things haha!
Going out as a female has never concerned me. I look after myself by using common sense as any male or female adventurer should. No matter your gender, if you are travelling solo, you use sensible tactics to quickly get a sense of people’s character or assess your situation. In the USA, if I needed a place to camp where none were available I’d go into a cafe/restaurant/McDonalds at dusk and sit at the table right in the middle of the room outwardly ignoring everyone and engrossed in my food. But I would eavesdrop on all the conversations around me, focusing on couples over 60 if I could, and get a sense of their character without them having a clue I was doing that. Then I’d go ask those I knew by gut instinct were awesome if they could help. Guaranteed they would have buddies they played bridge with in the next town who wanted to help me there too, and so this incredible chain reaction flew west across the USA of people who knew people who could help if I needed. Pretty special and surreal experience!
Bardega: Who / What inspires you and why?
Knight: My fiance, my friends, my family, the people who follow me and make amazing positive changes in their lives. You don’t have to look far to find inspiration really. We all have battles we are working on, and for me it’s the small miracles you see people work on that make me smile.
I am also hugely inspired by the women around me who are forging careers in adventure and sport. If you are looking for role models you need look no further than Julia Immonen, Laura Bingham (currently cycling across South America), Sophie Radcliff, Anna McNuff, Sarah Outen, Justine Gosling, Elise Downing (currently running around the UK coast), Shauna Coxsey, Bethany Hamilton… it’s a very, very long list so I’ll stop there!
My first role model who changed so much for me was Roz Savage. Her achievements opened my eyes up to what was possible and planted the seeds for the biggest adventure of my life - an ocean row. Sometimes it takes seeing someone you can relate to, someone ordinary going out and achieving something extraordinary to help change your perspective on what is possible. And she did exactly that. I love seeing role models like her at work, because from afar you can see the ripple effects of their inspiring story that go on and on indefinitely, usually affecting far more more people than they even realise…
Bardega: What’s the next big adventure for you ?
Knight: I have a documentary happening this summer that is still top secret, and the next big expedition after that will be my ocean row. I’ll be rowing solo and non-stop across the Pacific Ocean. The preparation for that is mammoth and a real beast, but the wheels are in motion and the website with all the information will be up very soon! So keep your eyes peeled. There are some super exciting campaigns and projects attached to that expedition, so lots of admin work to do from my office over the coming months. This was my first dream years ago, so behind all the marketing and social media lies a very special and personal journey that is close to my heart.
Next step is securing all the sponsorship necessary to get it off the ground. I’m very excited to be creating a documentary about this, giving some insight into not just the actual row, but also the heavy lifting and oftentimes overwhelming work that goes on behind the scenes to make it happen in the first place.
Bardega: Lastly, what advice, if any would you give a younger Ness?
Knight: Believe in yourself and your dreams. Always. The rest will fall into place, so be patient and worry less.
Ness on Intagram / YouTube / Twitter / Website