Glory of Green
Stories from the Great Outdoors
Superwoman - Gunhild Berntsen
When I first met Gunhild Berntsen, she introduced herself as a triathlon athlete. As it’s not as common as getting told someone is a nurse, an engineer or a hair dresser, I had to ask how this had happened. “Well”, she answered, with her wonderful trademark-smile. “I had my first child, and then I decided to start competing. The only race with openings left was the Norwegian Championship, elite level. So that’s where I started, and then I won”. Where do you go from there? I had my first child and decided to go for a walk, pelvis rattling, in a semi coma state of sleeplessness and nursing troubles. Gunhild on the other hand put her bike on a mill and worked out while Marlene (now a spirited nine-year old), slept. She’s the kind of person who has spent her whole life plunging into new challenges, setting hairy goals as she goes. What an inspiration!
Is there anything she isn’t good at?
Of course, Gunhild didn’t start working out for the first time at an elite level after having Marlene. There’s more to the story, and as she herself stresses – you have to build up your tolerance for working out over many years. Now her average week consists of 25 hours of swimming, running and biking. This she gets done while Marlene and Angelica (7) is happily playing and learning and blowing off steam at school (I can assure you – these girls have inherited their mother’s liveliness and talent for sports).
She’s the kind of person who finds energy to throw a streak in the oven before hitting the treadmill – while I at the exact same evening managed to make grilled cheese sandwiches, fried up some carrots and potatoes – and offered green olives on the side. Ironically, Marlene ate with us.
Gunhild started her athletic career as a swimmer in Alta, Norway, where she grew up. She was then educated a teacher and trained the young and talented at Norges toppidrettsgymnas in Bærum (a Norwegian high school for athletes).
She also has a military background – where she met her husband to be – and ended up on the national team in military pentathlon. The athletes compete in shooting, obstacle running, obstacle swimming, throwing and cross country running – so many obstacles, by the way, it makes me a little tired just writing about it.
Running for life
But then Gunhild knows what it means to overcome obstacles – of many sorts. She has a childhood history of terrifying bullying at school (portrayed also by nrk.no). While practicing outrunning the bullies, she decided what they told her and how they treated her was not going to define her: “Sports became a physical and mental free-space for me. I met friends who accepted me and could focus on the tasks at hand. I knew then that what the bullies told me wasn’t true”. It became important to show everybody, including herself, that in the end she was going to win. And she did – turning a weakness into a strength.
Eco Challenge and multiport
Back in 2002 a knee-injury sent Gunhild into multisport, an activity she continued until she had Marlene in 2009. It all began when a team of four was to participate in Eco Challenge – a television-series about surviving in the wild for 14 days while transporting yourself and your team from one point to another (which is the essence of multisport), in competition with 49 other teams – and under pretty extreme circumstances. The show is now revived and will start shooting again in 2019. When a participant had troubles with her knee, the team needed an extreme woman. They called Gunhild. I would too.
The race went through the rainforest on Fiji. “People usually imagine the rainforest as a warm place, but it was wet and chilly”, she explains. “After five or six days my feet were soaked in water, I was in great pain and my feet looked terrible. When I removed my shoes and the local girls could see my feet, they felt so bad for me – they asked me why I had to wear shoes. If that was what shoes would do to their feet, they would never wear shoes themselves. They had these beautiful, strong feet with a proper sole. That’s how our feet are supposed to look like. I bet they have a lot less back-problems than we do in the west”.
For the wet feet to happen, she had to survive the first days of the race though – starting out with some hefty riverrunning, paddling a kayak down a waterfall – something Gunhild never had done before. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me we were going that way, but I had seen it done on TV”, she tells me. Well, so have I – and that would not have helped. The TV-crew and the audience started crowding in to see the greenie tackle her way down. “I just leaned back and paddled all I had – it was such a rush”. Obviously, she survived with grace.
After having Marlene, she was left out of the multisport team: “I lost my place in a lottery. We were two girls and there was only one opening. I was devastated, but then I went for a long run and decided to start doing triathlon instead”.
The national championship was only six weeks away, and Gunhild had never biked professionally before – we already know how that went (reread the ingress if you’ve forgotten it). “I love triathlon, you’re independent and can manage your own time – which is a huge plus when you’ve got kids”.
I try to make her tell me what she’s won – I’ve seen her wall of trophies, but it’s easier to talk about what lies ahead: “I’ve lost track of what I’ve won, I do it because I think it’s fun. It’s not always tempting to go out running or biking when it’s pouring down, but I love the feeling I get when it’s done”. Her next goal is what she describes as “hairy”. She has already won the World Cup, amateur class – both in her age group and the over-all – and now she her target is to win the World Championship in Nice.
In Norway she competes at elite level, but internationally she’s enlisted as an amateur. She’s not in it for the money and it’s more motivating to fight for the podium in the amateur class – but: “It’s always a target to take down as many of the professionals as possible – they start four to eight minutes ahead of us – and then the hunt is on”.
When in Belgium – Bring a GPS
Gunhild has spent several years living in Sicily and Belgium – and as an athlete she gets to see new places in a different way. “When you bike, you have a lot of time to appreciate the landscape in a way that’s impossible when you’re in a car. You can stop when you want to, and you get to see places you wouldn’t go otherwise”. Sometimes that has meant fighting off crazy dogs in the remote Sicilian countryside, other times it means discovering the unexpected beauty of a Belgian canal.
She has an important tip for the adventurous bikers who want to come and explore Belgium: “In Sicily it’s easy to get around – you bike from one place to another with Mount Etna and the sea as visible landmarks. In Belgium it’s a crisscross of small roads leading in every direction. Without a GPS and a phone, I would end up in France!”. I can totally agree to that, except I would have to be a bit closer to the border than her if I were to end up in a different country – I know how to get lost though.
A final statement
This year, the World Championship was held in South-Africa, and in the middle of the chaos of relocating from Sicily, Gunhild brought her family to Africa and went to compete and experience some African wilderness. “I can’t believe the management of the big predators in Norway”, she says. “If the South-Africans were to kill off their elephants and lions, the international community would be protesting loudly. Instead they have moved the farmers and made room for the animals. If having a steak of lamb means extinguishing all the wolves and the bears in Norway, it’s not worth it. Besides, we could use other types of sheep that are better at defending themselves”. I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you so much, Gunhild, for letting me tell a small piece of your amazing story – I wish you a steady stream of new and positive challenges to match your endless potential and stamina. But first: Go win that World Championship! XXX
All the photos in this article belongs to Gunhild's private archive.
Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.