At the age of 43, Gabi Schenkel became the first Swiss woman to row solo across the Atlantic, a trip which took her 75 days and over 5,000 km, making her the 17th woman in the world to ever finish an ocean crossing alone. Known as the "Swiss Ultra Princess", Gabi had never rowed until a year before her departure. Her book, "Solo auf See", details her borderline experience at sea.
There's a saying, a lot of baby steps, small steps, eventually get you to your destination.
In this episode of The Founder Spirit Podcast, we talked to Gabi Schenkel, the “Swiss Ultra Princess”, who at the age of 43, became the first Swiss woman to row solo across the Atlantic, a trip which took her 75 days and over 5,000 kilometers (~3,000 miles), making her the 17th woman in the world to ever finish an ocean crossing alone. She has written a book about her borderline experiences & how she discovered the power of loneliness called “Solo auf See” (or “Solo at Sea” in English).
Though Gabi has never rowed until a year before her departure, she is no stranger to extreme sports - she has run over 30 ultra-marathons since the early age of 17. Licensed as an osteopath, she is also a coach and a motivational speaker.
Discover Gabi’s genuine motivation in achieving the unimaginable & the power of loneliness! Tune in to this new episode.
At the age of 43, Gabi Schenkel became the first Swiss woman to row solo across the Atlantic, a trip which took her 75 days and over 5,000 km from December 2019 to February 2020, making her the 17th woman in the world to ever finish an ocean crossing alone. She has written a book about her borderline experience called Solo auf See (or Solo at Sea in English), and it is my sincere hope that soon she will have this book translated also into English.
Though Gabi has never rowed until a year before her departure, she is no stranger to extreme sports. Known as the "Swiss Ultra Princess", she has run over 30 ultra-marathons for over two decades, since the early age of 17.
Licensed as an osteopath, a branch of medicine that emphasizes a holistic approach to physical manipulation of muscles and bones, Gabi is also a coach and a motivational speaker.
Photo: courtesy of Atlantic Campaigns
[00:05] Jennifer Wu: Hi, everyone. Thanks for listening to the Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I'll be interviewing exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they managed to succeed in face of multiple challenges but also who they are as people and their human story.
Our guest today is Gabi Schenkel, the Swiss Ultra Princess who did the unimaginable. At the age of 42, she is the first Swiss woman to row alone across the Atlantic, a trip which took her 75 days and over 5,000 km from December 2019 to February 2020, making her the 17th woman in the world to ever finish an ocean crossing solo. She has written a book about her borderline experience called Solo auf See (or Solo at Sea in English), and it is my sincere hope that soon she will have this book translated also into English.
Gabi has never rowed until a year before her departure. She is no stranger to extreme sports, she has run over 30 ultra-marathons for over two decades. In fact, Gabi ran her first ultra-marathon at the early age of 17. Licensed as an osteopath, a branch of medicine that emphasizes a holistic approach to physical manipulation of muscles and bones, Gabi has had her own practice in Zurich since 2007. Last but not least, Gabi is also a coach and a motivational speaker.
Dear Gabi, welcome to the show. I'm so excited to have you with us today. Thank you for taking the time to join us.
[01:57] Gabi Schenkel: Thank you for having me.
[01:59] Jennifer: You have run over 30 ultra-marathons. For those of you who don't know, an ultra-marathon is any foot race that's longer than the traditional marathon, which is 42 km or 26 miles. The ultra races range from short distances under 100 miles, which is raced under 24 hours, up to over 320 km, that are raced in multiple days and stages with sleeping breaks. Some of them are road races, most take place on mountain trails.
They're also huge associated risks, and some people have died from doing so, mostly from heart attacks, electrolyte imbalances, and heat stroke. I know you love it, Gabi, but for the rest of us, this surely doesn't sound like a way that we want to spend a weekend. At what age did you start running?
[02:50] Gabi: Very very early. My first race, win a T-shirt, was when I was four years old. So I just had to run a kilometer, which was fine. But really into running, I got when I was a teenager, around the age of 13-14, when I was being bullied at school, and I needed an outlet for the aggression that was building up inside of me.
I was lucky enough to have very sporty parents, they both had run marathons before. And we lived right by the forest, I just put on my running shoes and started running, and it became like a friend that I can talk to, or I can just let my emotions out. And then I started running races, just because why not?
[03:34] Jennifer: Of course, why not? Why not run an ultra marathon?
[03:37] Gabi: Actually, I didn't run a marathon before I started running an ultra-marathon. I started running more than a marathon before I even ran a typical marathon, which is totally fine. I didn't think about it, I just did it.
[03:48] Jennifer: Like you said, you also grew up in a family of runners, right? All of you are runners. What was that (like), growing up in a family of runners? Was everyone super competitive, or what was that like?
[04:01] Gabi: No, it was mainly a way of spending time together. It wasn't just running, we also would go on bike rides, and even biking holidays. In the beginning, it was like, do I have to run? My parents would ask anybody coming running with me? and I would just say no, do I have to? No, I don't feel like it.
In hindsight, it was important for me to be able to learn how to say no, and if I didn't feel like it, to say I didn't want and I didn't feel like it, and to have it be okay. My parents never put any pressure on me, never. I actually started running because I wanted to, so it wasn't competitive.
[04:40] Jennifer: You mentioned that when you were bullied as a teenager, you picked up running. How did that evolve over the years, as you have participated in over 30 ultra-marathons, how did the meaning of running change over time?
[04:55] Gabi: Well, it did become a friend that I like to visit, and I like to visit also nature. By running, it just gives me a lot of freedom, a lot of feeling of being connected to Mother Earth, and it gives me energy. It still clears my mind, still clears my head.
If I'm stuck somewhere in a thought process where I just don't get the idea that actually fits. I know how to stop and just put on my running shoes, go for a quick run. I don't have to run 10-20 miles every time I run. I go for a 5-miler or 8k run, which is totally fine, just to clear my mind and breathe the fresh air or even get rained on.
I like it, it's fun, and it makes me feel good. The endorphins, they kick in, and it's not I have to run, it's I want to run. I can go even for two months without running, and I'm okay. My body is telling me when it needs a bit of physical activity, whether that may be running or another form. But running is just so easy because my body knows how to do it.
[06:01] Jennifer: Sounds like you're a natural-born runner. So I know that you're the female Forrest Gump, but for those of us who are non-runners out there, can you tell us, how do you prepare yourself physically and mentally for ultra races?
[06:16] Gabi: That's a trick question. Physically, I think regular running and also respecting rest days is the most important. As much as you run, you need to rest an equal amount of time, or just listen to your body, and increase the intensity or the distance - the quantity of miles and hours you train - increase that slowly.
You can't just get up in the morning and say, okay, I'm going to train for an ultra marathon, so I'm going to start with a 15-miler today, and tomorrow I'm going to do a 10-miler, and the day after I'm going to do a long run, a 30-miler. It doesn't work like that, shorter distances and shorter runs are just as important, as are complete rest days.
Mentally, I always like to cut up the distance to full distance into sections. Whenever I have my mind, or I have decided on a race, I look at the route where it's going, and where the aid stations are. From one aid station to another is usually a section. So I concentrate on that one. During the run, I always focus on the next aid station, I'm not thinking about the entire 100 miles or the entire race because when I think of running 100 miles, like, oh my goodness, that's far.
But 9 miles is doable or 5 miles is doable, it's an easy 5 miles to the next aid station, or it's an intense 4 miles because it's uphill. Let's just walk the next 4 miles, so we have enough juice for the following 10 miles. So I'm only focusing on the next stage, the next part of the race. And I also train that.
Sometimes when I'm a bit tired, I try to run a longer distance, and don't beat myself up if it doesn't work, if I have to walk or stop or even I have to abandon. Because everything that doesn't go your way has its right or its place in your day, it doesn't mean that you’ve failed. It's also when you can't finish a run, it's called a DNF, did not finish. And it’s like a brand mark, and it feels very negative for a lot of people. I had this runner friend who once said it's not a DNF. You did a DYB? Like what's? A DYB? It’s did your best, and I really like that, and I try to train accordingly.
I think training mentally is also visualization. I visualize how I finish a race, how I cross the finish line. Also, when it comes to shorter races, where time is an objective, I try to imagine the time on a digital clock and what it says, and get myself into that mind frame of running at a certain pace to achieve this time.
[09:01] Jennifer: It's interesting what you said because I could see a similar situation that applies to starting out a business, right? You have a goal in mind initially, you have a vision of how you want to build the company, what it's going to do. But sometimes that goal, that vision, is very motivating, other times it could be really scary as well. But we should all focus on the next step, right? Because the path to get to your ultimate goal, to realize your ambition, is actually made up of many stations in that journey. So I love that comparison.
You're very particular about how you prepare for your races. I know that you draw a map of the race by hand in advance, you laminate it, but you also create your own music playlist. Why do you do that?
[09:50] Gabi: Before a race, I usually get nervous about the distance, about the event, just because excitement and the unknown come together. It helps me calm myself to draw these maps. Sometimes I also use just the profile that I find online, I print it out, snazz it up with colors and stickers. It gives me a certain amount of control. I am fully aware that it's only my mind and that I have absolutely no control over how the race is going to go and how I'm going to feel on race day. But it calms these nerves a little bit.
I think that's very important because when you're stressed, you're using a lot of energy, a lot of power, and it creates also negative energy. It actually on your immune system, it puts stress on your immune system. Your immune system is what you need during a race. It's going to be attacked no matter what, because you're over-exerting yourself for a short period of time anyway.
The prep is helping me calm down, and the maps during the race help me to focus. If I get to a point where I feel, or I try to tell myself, you'll never get to the finish line, you're never going to get there, you're just not good enough, you didn't train enough. Or all these self-doubt, like demons, they're crawling up your back, and then they just sit on your shoulder.
Then I can just look at the fun card, the fun map, and then just like, okay, I'm here, and I've done already all these parts. It gives me also satisfaction to rip out a section that I've already run, and I don't need to look at anymore. It also helps mentally to have these maps. Sometimes I make them, I take them with me, and I don't look at them because I don't need them. That has also happened. So those maps are a vital part, and I still do that actually. Like the last race, I did the same thing.
I make a music playlist because I tend to run with music when there are a lot of people or when I'm in urban areas because it distracts me. It makes me come back to myself.
[11:53] Jennifer: to focus on the moment?
[11:55] Gabi: Yeah, to feel my body, and not go over a certain amount of breath per minute or just controls my speed, my pace. I also need, I absolutely need, loud music in my ears at the beginning of a race because it makes me focus just on myself.
Because you're in a big group of people, and they're just as nervous as you. I tend to pick up that nervousness. It's too much, I feel like I want to run away from all these people, but we're unfortunately all running into the same direction. So to block this energy, I listen to music really loudly. And it usually is about 10-15 minutes, the field starts to stretch out, and I can put down the volume a little bit, reduce it. And very funny, after about half an hour, when I'm in nature and mostly on my own, I don't need the music anymore and actually put it away.
I have it with me to motivate me when I have a difficult moment, when I have the demons crawling up my back, or when muscle fatigue or a cramp or something or an upset stomach makes me slow down, and makes me invite those demons. Because they're all demons, it's just negative thoughts.
If I can just rip myself out of the cycle with music, and concentrate on something else, then the moment will pass because every bad moment will pass. It's knowing what to do, what works for you, and it's so individual. Everybody has their own recipes (of) how to get out of a negative stretch. For me, during running, it is the maps and the music.
[13:35] Jennifer: You also know it's the Swiss Ultra Princess. You wear a tiara, and you run in skirts and painted nails, and you seem to approach this race with also fun and lightness, despite the nervousness, perhaps at the beginning. I'd love to know, when does the fun and the lightness come in the race?
[13:56] Gabi: It can come in and go, and come back. If it's not more than 50% of the race, then I'm calling it a day. Because I believe personally that it doesn't do me any good if I do something that I so much dislike that I'm fighting to find the positive aspects.
For me, that is just a very personal aspect. I like running and running skirts because it looks cute, and why not look cute, and they're comfortable. Sometimes I wear shorts, but most of the time I wear skirts just because I like it. I also like to put little rhinestones, glue rhinestones on my skirt, make stars or moons, or just because, snazz it up. Why not? I usually don't wear nail polish, but when I run, it's going to be done in a certain way.
[14:40] Jennifer: Gives you pleasure, right?
[15:51] Gabi: It gives me pleasure, and I also like to play with different approaches. I remember the first time I ran a race in Switzerland with a tiara. It was an 80K race, and I got to the 40-42K station where I could reload my pack, my hydration pack with food.
We had a dropback station there, and I was minding my own business, and all of a sudden, this guy comes up to me, and literally swears at me, and tells me, excuse me for my expression, but literally tells me - “I thought, in the beginning, you're a stupid b**** who's not going to last more than 10k”
[15:21] Jennifer: just because the way you dress?
[15:22] Gabi: Yes, I just looked at him, and I was speechless. He says, but then I realize I cannot even catch up to you, so kudos to you. I was like, how do you react to that? So just thank you.
I like to play with the way I present myself and then have a backup that actually is considered wow in the eyes of somebody else. Just they have difficulties bringing what they're seeing and what I'm doing together on the same page.
[15:48] Jennifer: Like reconciling their version of you versus who you really are?
[15:53] Gabi: Yes, I've known to be a bit of a contradiction in one person, so I started playing with it just because I also thought it was fun for myself to dress like this and to present myself like that. The Swiss Ultra Princess came because I called myself this.
I was preparing for my 1st 100-miler, and the distance scared me, so I knew I have to come up with a way to make it less scary. So let's tell a story, let's tell the story of this princess who doesn't need a prince, and slay a dragon, and get the prize at the finish line. You can be your own princess, run these hundred miles, get your belt buckle at the end of the race.
I also stop wearing the tiara now. I still do the running skirts, and I don't care about the label. It was a fun time, and maybe it will continue. It's not set in stone, I like to play with all these things and not take myself too seriously. I think that's a very important part of the whole running and how I run.
[16:51] Jennifer: What is the best advice that someone ever gave you about running?
[16:56] Gabi: The best advice? Probably the only person who could actually coach me. When I was prepping for my 1st 100-miler, when he gave me my training plan, he told me this is like water. Mind you, my training plan was written on pink post-it notes, one post-it note per week, and stapled together.
And he said this is like water, it flows around your day and around your life. If you miss and work out, don't try to make it up the next day. You let it go. When you travel, you don't run. If it means you're missing a long run, then you miss a long run. Don't let it dictate your life, it adapts to your life. That's very important because you're in control of everything, and you're not letting somebody who means well and gives you a training plan dictate your life.
[17:31] Jennifer: That's really interesting coming from a coach though, right?
[17:33] Gabi Yes, that is the only way he could be my coach.
[17:37] Jennifer: I think it's interesting that he said it's like water, it flows around you.
[17:40] Gabi: Yeah, little did he know…
[17:43] Jennifer: Little does he know ten years later, Gabi would be crossing the Atlantic, be surrounded by water.
I'm also told to ask you about the Tor de Geant. For those who don't know, the Tor de Geant is an endurance trail race which takes place in the Aosta Valley in Italy every September. It's 330 km long, which is just over 200 miles, and must be finished in less than 150 hours, which is just a bit over six days. I believe this is something that eludes you. Is this your hardest race?
[18:37] Gabi: I think, yes. Not because it's not doable for me, but because it showed me that certain races or certain distances or certain ways of running a race are probably not for me, or I may have to give it another thought if it's really for me. I started this race three times, and I didn't finish, not once. I got 200 km in my furthest. That was the second time.
The first time I got to 180(km), and I had to take myself out of the race because I couldn't eat or drink for nearly a day because my throat was so inflamed, and I knew this is not safe to continue. I was probably sick, and I still pushed myself (for) a full day in the mountains. When I think back, I remember that was hard. I took myself out, and it was okay because I knew this is not going to work for another 100, and whatnot, 150 km, it's not going to work.
The second time I prepped differently, and I was mentally really ready to do it. Interestingly enough, at the same place, I started feeling off again. And I was crying, and that hurt really bad. Also, because I knew the last bit that I still haven't done is the most beautiful of the whole race, or so I was told.
The third time I was in for the real deal. After one day, I was already sick, and then it was just like, okay, I'm going to let this sit for a while and see what happens and whether if I'm going to go back and do the rest of it or not, or do the whole thing again.
[20:02] Jennifer: Maybe just run that last bit on your own, well, the most beautiful part, anyway. I think knowing when to finish is also really important. I think you and I talked about that a few times, especially when people go through a burnout, right? It's their body telling them to stop. Knowing when to stop and knowing that not finishing is okay. I think it's just as courageous, actually.
[20:20] Gabi: It takes more guts.
[20:21] Jennifer: Yeah, it takes more guts to say, okay, I'm going to take myself out now, and I'm not going to necessarily finish this race.
[20:28] Gabi: Yeah, because it's a choice. The choice you're making is for yourself, for your own well-being. That said, I have run 180-kilometer race and broken my foot halfway through it, a stress fracture. I was fully aware of what that felt like in my body, and I was fully aware I was not well yet. I decided to continue because I knew I could finish. I did finish, but I also knew that once I'm done, my adrenaline is probably going to leave my body very quickly, and what happens next I cannot know, and it might be difficult. I made that choice after 90 km, that I will deal with the consequences of my decision.
I think it's important to know that you can decide whatever you want, it’s your decision. But I cannot decide, I'm going to finish this race on a broken foot, and then complain about it afterwards because I was aware of the consequences.
[21:37] Jennifer: Now we're going to switch and talk about your professional life, your career choices. You started out by studying law in Switzerland, and then you quickly moved into sports medicine in the US. Eventually you found your true calling in osteopathy, ended up opening your practice here in Zurich in 2007.
Osteopathy is not a well known branch of medicine, at least in the US. I wouldn't even contemplate to ever explain it to anyone. Maybe can you share with the audience what is osteopathy exactly? What do you do as an osteopath?
[22:16] Gabi: Okay, it might surprise you, but osteopathy, it originated in the US.
[22:20] Jennifer: Yes, I do know that, I do know that. I Googled that yesterday, and it started by a guy named Andrew Taylor Still, who was an American surgeon during the Civil War.
[22:20] Gabi: Correct, he realized that he cannot solve all the problems by cutting off limbsand stuff. He approached osteopathy, or he approached a patient by asking, where did it originate? What does move, and what doesn't move? Because movement is life. He took a very close look at nature, and he adapted what he found in nature, his observation, he copied it, he used it in his approach, which I find that totally resonates with me. It resonates with me on multiple levels, not just medical levels.
So osteopathy in Switzerland is manual practice, we do manipulations. When you say manipulations, you think immediately of the cracking sound that a chiropractor does. That is part of what a lot of osteopaths do, and it’s also what I learn in school, because it's part of the whole technique or the array of techniques that you learn. It's also the very soft touch, and gentle, and soft movements that (you do) to the patients, sometimes they don't feel they're being manipulated or worked on, yet you're changing something in the tissue. It's not just bones, it's also tendons, muscles, nerve sheets, fascia. Fascia is what holds it all together, I'm not going to go too much into it.
The main thing, the shortest, when I'm at a party and somebody asks, what is it that you do? What is osteopathy? I say it's a way of finding the root cause of a symptom, and not starting the treatment necessarily where it hurts. That's the shortest version and it is my passion. Yet I'm a bit at this turning point right now because it might come to a change in my professional career or my path. I'm at the fork right now.
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[25:37] Jennifer: In December 2017, you were inspired by the Swiss Mocean, which is a team of four men who rowed across the Atlantic. So not having had any rowing experience, what fascinated you about crossing the Atlantic? Do you recall the moment where it sparked your solo rowing journey?
[26:00] Gabi: I learned about ocean crossings with a rowing boat in a newspaper, a free newspaper, on the train by accident. Nothing happens by accident, it was meant to happen. I just was interested, and I thought, this is cool, I'm going to follow them. I didn't think that would be something for me, I didn't even ask myself, could I do this?
But when they had finished, and they were asked in an interview, what happens with the boat now? They said we would like to sell it, and we're hoping it becomes a tradition in Switzerland. I just thought, yeah, well, duh, a team of four women should follow suit. I thought, first the men, and then the women. It just so happened, I didn't know about it, I could have started a team of four women before the men would do it, it doesn't really matter.
I went online, and I sent them an email, and saying, hey, this is really cool, thank you so much for the entertainment, and congratulations on your crossing. I read this article, and I'm just saying I don't row, but mentally I'm very strong because I have 25 years (of) ultra-marathon running experience, and I would be really interested to be part of a female team if you know of something being formed.
I was thinking I'd be an add-on to a team, I didn't want to be the leader of a pack. It just so happened that one of the moms of that team had the exact same idea on the same day. We met when they came back, we all met, and we founded a team.
[27:32] Jennifer: With the Mom?
[27:33] Gabi: With the Mom, we're going for a team of four. We’re three women a few months later, but something just never really sat right with me. I had this little gut feeling that something's off. We were planning to do this more than a year and a half after the decision that we're founding this team. I thought, get used to the idea of being on a boat with three other women. Maybe that's the reason why your stomach is all tied in a knot.
In summer, we realized we actually don't match, it’s not going to work. The three of us were just too different, and we split up. It was that moment, that meeting when I realized this is not going to work. I couldn't say it in the moment that this is not going to work. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. Maybe I had met for dinner, the three of us, and I was sitting on a toilet, actually. I knew you're going to drop out or you're going to leave this team.
Again a decision for myself, you're going to get out of this team. The next question was, would you do it on your own? That tight knot that I had in my stomach just immediately vanished.
[28:47] Jennifer: That you would do this alone?
[28:48] Gabi: Yes, so the gut said immediately, in my mind I asked this question, my gut said yes. A fraction of a second later, my mind said, but in a team of two or four, it would be a lot easier and a lot quicker, and you should go and look for other teammates. I went back to the table and helped find a way out of this mess that we were in, and just left it open and was putting the word out that I'm looking for teammates.
Two months later, I just woke up one morning, and I knew, okay, I'm going to do it by myself, because I didn't find anybody. I wasn't stressed that I have to move forward with my plans because I hadn't even signed up for the race yet. I woke up and I knew, you're going to do it on your own.
[29:32] Jennifer: But still, you haven't trained rowing at that one point.
[29:37] Gabi: At the point where we split up, the three of us, I had not trained. But I did a course right after, and when I decided I'm going to do it on my own, that was the day before I received my beginner's certificate.
[29:53] Jennifer: What gives you the confidence that you could do this solo though? Is it because of all the ultra-marathons that you’ve run?
[30:02] Gabi: Probably, yes. I proved to myself over and over again that distances that I didn't think I could possibly accomplish running are actually doable. There are limits in the Tor de Geant, I was being shown, there are limits.
Because I did research obviously, in the meantime, I had done research. I realized that if you prep correctly, and if you make a plan, and if you stick to certain important things and just respect your body, and your boundaries, and what you can do, then eventually you're going to wash up on the other side anyway, even if you don't row, and that is true.
[30:42] Jennifer: Yeah, but you can't walk, though.
[30:44] Gabi: No, you cannot walk, but you can just sit on a boat, and sun tan, and just say, okay, today the weather was fine, there were a couple of clouds, and the waves came crashing against the boat, and I moved 3 miles. So in the next 150 days, I'm going to be in Cancun or in the Caribbean.
[30:02] Jennifer: Right, the current will take you there. Anyway, I want to emphasize the timeline here, because in December 2017, you saw on the news that Swiss Mocean had finished. But it wasn't until summer 2018 where you started to row, and this is just about a year before you started your departure from La Gomera. So tell us about the training process. I’d imagine it quite different from training for ultra races, right?
[31:31] Gabi: Absolutely. Completely different. We have a saying in Swiss German…
[31:37] Jennifer: Say it in Swiss German.
[31:39] Gabi: So I took a bite of the very sour apple. Doing something that I absolutely loathe doing, that is weight training. Going to the gym, and lifting weights, that is not something I enjoy doing, absolutely not. If I can get my way out of it, I probably copy a phone book. I would rather copy a phone book than work out in a gym. And it's not because of the people, I just don't enjoy it.
Yet for rowing, I was made aware, and I also felt I absolutely need to train my core muscles. I need to have a better stability, I need to have a fitter body, not just made for running but for rowing. I talked to a couple of people, I talked to former ocean rowers, I talked to normal lake rowers, and they all said exactly the same, and they all talked about the exact same exercises.
So I took a bite of that sour apple, and followed this training program for six weeks, and continued on with certain exercises. I started to feel the difference the few times I went running, because I didn't train any running anymore, I didn't run at all. All of a sudden, I just felt like a quick run, quick 10k. And I hadn't run for months, I was so much faster than ever before, out of the blue. I realized that running becomes easier when you train your core muscles. I never did that just because I didn't like doing it, so I saw the benefit of it.
After this baseline, so to speak, or the base foundation of the training with the muscle memory was created, I started rowing as soon as it was spring time, I started rowing on the lake in a wider boat than the normal rowing boats, not a skiff, but still by myself. I bought a boat for that reason. All throughout summer, I rowed about 650 km on the Lake of Zurich. Just up, and down, around halfway through, you name it. In summer, I trained a full month on the boat I was going to do the crossing on.
[34:00] Jennifer: Okay, and this was in Holland?
[34:02] Gabi: That was in Holland, yes. To familiarize myself with the vessel and to feel comfortable with it so we would grow together because we were a team, and I needed to trust my boat. And I did, I accomplished that. That was very vital for my crossing, because I'm a person when I feel I have control, or when I feel it, then it's good it's not enough to know. For me, it's to feel.
[34:29] Jennifer: Right, that gut feeling.
[34:30] Gabi: Yes, and I felt it. I felt this connection, I felt this trust, and that's like a box ticked off. It's okay, I don't have to worry about it anymore.
[34:40] Jennifer: For those entrepreneurs out there, what was the fundraising process like for you, for Miss Universe and the crossing? By the way, for those who don't know, the boat is called Miss Universe, and it’s rowed by the Swiss Ultra Princess.
[34:55] Gabi: Well, I have to say that the boat's name came because I know I trust the universe. Some people call it God. For me, it's all the same because, at the baseline, it's love, that's life. And the universe is always with me. Because boats most of the time have female names, it sounded really perfect - Miss Universe.
[35:15] Jennifer: It's a perfect complement to the Swiss Ultra Princess.
[35:18] Gabi: Yeah. When you use the VHF, when you call another boat and say so and so, this is Miss Universe over. It makes the other person laugh, and it did.
[35:27] Jennifer: That's right, so what was the fundraising?
[35:30] Gabi: The fundraising was an absolute nightmare. I think that's partially because I decided to do this as a Swiss person and trying to raise funds in Switzerland.
The Swiss tend to be very positive and motivated when something has already been done and when it just sits right. But if it's a novelty, and it hasn't been done before, and then on top of that, I don't look like a Russian bodybuilder. I'm not tall, but I'm athletic, but I am not muscular at all. There are people who call me actually delicate, so I don't see myself that way.
Just to say I am not a heavyweight, and people or businesses, they had difficulties, again, putting together what I was saying and what I was going to do with what I represented in my body. So the first thing when I told them, I showed up, and I said, so I'm going to row across the Atlantic by myself unsupported, would you like to sponsor me? Would you like to be part of my team? They looked at me from my head to my toes, and back to my head, and then they just were lost for words. They said, what do you row with? My body, my mind, my mental capacities that I learned from ultra running.
I tried to throw experiences from my ultra-running career at them to show them I'm not your typical athletic person who hasn't done anything. I do have some experience. The next question, they're still frowning - but you have a motor? No, rowing. But a sail? No, it's rowing with no sail. And what do you do at night? You sleep on the boat that accompanies you? No, I sleep on the boat. I'm unaccompanied, I'm by myself out there. Usually, there was a moment of silence, and then they would say, we'll be in touch. For the most part, that was the end of it.
I was promised 10,000 from two people, one in form of equipment, and the other one in form of cash. The one in cash actually shook my hand, I never heard from him again, he ghosted me completely. I didn't have time to go back, and say, hey, what's going on? You try it three times, and for the fourth time, you just abandon because it's a waste of time. It was hard, it was very hard.
To buy the boat, I was lucky to have my parents lend me the money, I returned that when I sold the boat. I wanted to raise money for organizations, and so I sold miles that I would be rowing to people who could then row with me across or do the crossing with me, and have their names on the boat. I raised a lot of money from that, and I was very happy to be able to use most of it. But then at the end of the whole, of all the numbers, I could give or pass on the money to these two organizations that I was supporting.
I was very grateful for all the individuals who believed in me. Because it was disheartening, you know you're doing something and you feel it that it's going to work, and have people just not interested in you. There were a couple of other things that happened that were not ideal, like I wasn't featured in some of the magazines, or I was promised a big article. In the end, it was a small portion because the other team they're fun, and they have good pictures. I was like, I have good pictures. I think I'm fun, I'm also interesting. You're doing it solo, and that's just not credible.
Literally (I) was being told you are not credible. Against all odds, when I feel something, I don't know where it comes from, but I have the energy, and I have the drive to keep walking the walk. There's a saying, a lot of baby steps, small steps, eventually get you to your destination. And that's what happened, and I didn't make any extra money. I even paid more, but that's fine. At the end of the story, I came out with a big fat zero on my bank account or on the number side. The lessons learned, the challenges accomplished, it's not to be weighed against money. There's no amount that can match it, it’s absolutely priceless.
[39:35] Jennifer: So I'm going to go back to the preparation again, because there's a photo of you in the book where it's a picture taken from above, and it's you lying next to your supplies. And the photo is called the Tetris because it looks very orderly, and your sister has a beautiful phrase, she called it your harmonious design. Yes, she did. This meticulous preparation, is it a counterbalance to the chaos that you're about to experience?
[40:07] Gabi: Not just the chaos I was about to experience, but the chaos I was finding myself in. Because that moment was when I was packing the boat before it was being shipped to Lagamera. And I knew whatever I had forgotten is not going to be on the boat, or I might be able to bring it in my suitcase, but the big things need to be on that boat.
For me, it also kind of shows how I cope with difficult situations, I put order where I can put order, and it helps me, the outside order. When you don't get anywhere, you have chaos inside, you start to clean up all around you. And by cleaning up your surroundings, the chaos inside of you also kind of starts to organize itself.
For me, order outside equals order inside. It's the same with making the little trail notes for the races. It's also something that was important to me, that it looks nice. And I have this - I really like how my sister said it - I probably would say it borders to some obsession to have it all in a straight line. I've been known to be like that.
[41:25] Jennifer: The tagline of your book is discovering the power of loneliness. So what about that? What about the loneliness? I think the loneliness would really get to me.
[41:36] Gabi: It got to me too, yeah. It is very unlikely that a person living in normal society gets a chance to be completely cut off from human interaction for so long unless they want it, they seek it, and then you have to go far on land. Of course, you can find it in remote places, but in Switzerland, it is practically not possible, I would say.
During my ultra races, I was sometimes on my own for a long period of time. But that long was hours, and not days and weeks and months even. So, it was intense. It's like a window that opens or a door that opens to your soul, and you see who you are, what you're made of, and you realize actually, I personally realized how much I dislike myself or how mean I am towards myself.
(For) example, I was rowing, and the waves and wind were just not in my favor. Instead of saying, okay, today, it's difficult, tomorrow is better, and you're doing the best you can, you're awesome, Gabi. I would tell myself, and I actually said that out loud, you don't get good waves and winds because you don't deserve them. You're just not good enough.
After that, I would go into my little corner of being a victim, and saying, yeah, you've never been good enough for anything in your life. You’re just.. why are you even on this world? And that, it was frightening for me to realize that I am that way, and to then make the sensible choice of changing that.
[43:11] Jennifer: Well, I think we're all that way sometimes, right? Most of us, absolutely.
[43:15] Gabi: Most of us don't know it, and I didn't know it either. The door opens, and you see the dark sides, and not-so-good sides, but you also discover the really beautiful sides, and you can actually live them in solitude.
So I had the choice to laugh uncontrollably, or when a song came on that, I really liked to jump up and do my little dance moves, and just be silly or sing along. I'm fluent in three languages, but I sing in seven. I don't understand what I'm singing sometimes, but that, for me, is the joy of living and living it out loud. I didn't have to worry about disturbing somebody by my wrong singing, or having somebody look at me in a weird way, because I just all of a sudden started screaming because that also happened.
Sometimes the inner tension or the thought process build up so much that I needed an outlet, and rowing wasn't enough, so I just screamed until there was no more voice, which is incredibly freeing.
You can adapt that. I thought, yeah, that should actually become part of a routine. When I'm not feeling well, I should just go scream. Where do you scream? You go in the forest, somebody thinks somebody wants you harm. It's very easy, you fill your bathtub or a big bucket of water, and you scream into the water.
[44:30] Jennifer: I'm going to try that next time.
[44:31] Gabi: Knowing that I'm capable of making every single choice (on) my own, and getting this deeper look into my soul and opening up that door gives you an endless amount of possibilities of how you want to lead your life. The possibilities are endless, and you feel very light, very empowered, that anything's possible.
And then you arrive at the other side, and that door remains open for quite some time. I realized it's a similar feeling I had sometimes in my running days, but it was never this wide open. I realized, okay, now I have this really incredible chance to make big changes in my life. Not just I'm going to get a new career because a lot of people, after they have rowed an ocean, they have a change in their relationship or in their profession. And that has been proven, they have the statistics. But for me, it was more of how to make sure that this door remained open.
[45:29] Jennifer: Yes, how to keep the vibration.
[45:31] Gabi: Yeah, how to uphold this vibration. My way was to take a look at everything that went through my head, the good and the bad, and write it down. I had these video recordings where I talked to my video camera everyday for 3 to 30 minutes, and I looked at everything. It took some time, but just to work through everything made me realize that I can let go of a lot of things that I didn't completely let go on the ocean because there was no time, because I was rowing, and I had to focus on the next wave, and I couldn't just really sit with a process.
By doing that, I kept that door open, and I realized I was in touch with other rowers from the fleet, and the communication was so great where we all had the door open. After the COVID time, when we had the chance to finally get our rewards in London, I realized a lot of the people, they let that door close, which is a personal choice, but they all remember what it felt like out there.
That's my personal belief that a lot of people, also adventurers climbing mountains or going to the North and the South Poles, if you repeat such experiences or seek out another adventure that is similar, it is also in a way to get to that point again, to open the door again, and to get that vibration going again. And I totally understand that, I absolutely understand that.
Because I've worked so hard on keeping that door open, I don't have the necessity to seek out adventures that gets me to that vibration. I can now honestly say I get that vibration in the same intensity sometimes when I'm out in nature. I go out for a walk in the forest, and I'm out on the ocean, I'm in the same vibration. That doesn't make me any better or worse or more advanced at all. It was just my choice to do that. It doesn't also make my life easier because the challenges keep coming. I knew that from the get-go.
You’re just not a new person when you step off the boat on the other side, the challenges keep coming, but I might have a different way of confronting them or working my way through them.
[47:42] Jennifer: I don't want to go into the book too much, because I think everybody should get a copy, and they should learn about all the adversities that Gabi had to overcome.
You experienced a lot of dramas right during the trip that happened in the 75 days. On your first day, your oar broke, you capsized, I think, at least once. You were also both very sick and seasick, at least during the first few weeks. You had a lot of back pain, a lot of shoulder pain. On top of that, you had equipment failure to deal with. You couldn't call anyone, both of your satellite phones broke, and you couldn't talk to anyone for weeks.
But there were also such beautiful moments. There's a video of you on YouTube, you're dancing at sunset with the gorgeous colors and the calm waters behind you, and you think, oh, she's on vacation. You also celebrated your 43rd birthday on the boat, and there's a YouTube video on that as well. I guess there's a YouTube about it and everything. For me, I think there's drama, there's adversity, but there's also beautiful moments. There's this petrel that keeps on accompanying you on your trip. Sometimes I wonder as I'm reading the book, will he come to Lake Zurich to visit Gabi?
Anyway, I just wanted to mention that because I found it to be a very easy and inspirational read. And I managed to get through the German by looking up all the words that I didn't know on the Kindle. I really hope that you do get translated into English, because I think there's a lot of lessons and wisdom in there that could be shared to a wider audience.
I also wanted to ask you, what is your favorite passage in the book?
[49:30] Gabi: My favorite passage is definitely that moment, my favorite moment. It was when I felt wobbly all of a sudden, I was rowing and I felt weird, like light, translucent. In the moment, I was looking at the water. At first, I was asking myself, did I not drink enough water? Is it because of that? Are you dehydrated? And I realized no, absolutely not, I'm on top of everything today. I'm not supposed to feel wobbly right now.
And then I felt this translucent moment when I realized we are made out of 75% water, and I am on the water. So where do I stop, and where does the water start? This feeling connected to the ocean, it was a feeling of being connected to everything, to the universe, to the people on land, to the land, to the water.
Because we're all one, we're just in somehow different shapes. It just lasted a few seconds, and then it was gone. But I described it, if you know, you know; if you feel it, then you know. It's the best that I could do to describe it in my words. It was my favorite part.
[50:36] Jennifer: That's beautiful. Coming back to present day, you sustained shoulder injury from the trip, and now it's affecting your return to your beloved work as an osteopath. What does the future hold for Gabi Schenkel? Or are you still trying to figure that out?
[50:51] Gabi: I'm still figuring it out. I have a very clear vision where I'm headed. There will be steps in between that I don't know yet. There's a saying, avoid the how’s. That's very true because I cannot control everything. It also matters on the network that I'll have or get into. It depends on coincidences, or new ideas, or possible collaborations. There are a lot of elements.
It's very clear that my work that I've been doing, the physical work, will be on hold for an indeterminate amount of time. When I capsized, I ruptured one of my tendons in my shoulder. And that one usually isn't very necessary if you have a desk job, I would have been back to work long time ago, but it's not going the way we were hoping. There are big question marks whether I will be returning at all to my physical or the physical work that I've been doing.
I do know that the mentoring part, the accompanying person on their own journey, that as a coach, will remain. So listening to where they're not happy with their current situation, whether that may be the professional field, or the personal field, or physical, even physical. I listen, and we can work together and find a way to get to a different point and change perspective, because I do have that experience.
Those 16 years, they were not for nothing. My experience out on the ocean got me an even deeper look into how the human works, the human condition. I'm never going to say I know better than you, and I'm never going to say you have to do this because it's not up to me. It's a choice they have, yet sometimes the inner chaos, or the tension, or the workload - we were talking about burnout in the beginning. The energy is so low that possibilities that might also be interesting to look at, they hide behind this veil. And I'm there to say, hey, there is a veil - are you ready to take it away? Do you want to take a sneak peek around it? And then respect when they're not ready, and just accompany them on their journey.
Just because also, prolonged unemployment, for example, didn't choose to go through it, but somehow it was dumped on me, and I had to rise to the challenge, and I did it. It was an uncomfortable year last year. Yet I choose to see the perspective, the other side of it, that it actually contributes a lot of knowledge, and it's not something that you can learn in school. It's learning by doing, and this is going to continue.
I do have a vision of how it's going to be working, but it's not set in stone. I gave it up to the universe to give me the best version of my idea to me. Sounds weird, but I know I'm being cared for.
[54:01] Jennifer: Well, in a way, you're going to bring all of your life experiences to what you will be doing in your next step.
[54:09] Gabi: Right.
[54:10] Jennifer: All your experience from the ultra running, your experience as an osteopath, and then as well as crossing the ocean. So I think you would do great.
A couple of things - where can people find Gabi Schenkel, and where can they find your book?
[54:24] Gabi: Gabi Schenkel, you can find her on my website, that is being rebuilt as we speak. But it is my name, Gabi-Schenkel.ch, very easy. You can find me on Instagram, because I love to share what I see and what makes me happy. That's also one of my quotes, not because I want to show off but to motivate people to go outside, and feel the power of nature.
These are the two channels right now. I'm also going to work more with LinkedIn because I think that would be a very useful network, and sometimes you find me running on a trail.
[55:00] Jennifer: or maybe rowing on the Lake of Zurich, who knows?
[55:02] Gabi: And the book, you can find it in bookshops. Unfortunately, as you said up until now, it’s only German. But I am working on my personal translation, because if the publisher decides not to go on and translate it, I will want to use the possibility to self-publish, and I would for sure publish that on my channels, on those three channels, my website, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Otherwise, you can find it also even on Amazon, Thalia. There's a Kindle version, but the hard copy is a good size.
[55:36] Jennifer: That's right. I own both versions, both electronic and also the physical version. One last question. What does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[55:43] Gabi: Giving it a thought, I think the Founder Spirit is the spirit of knowing that there is a way, and trusting the process, doing what you can, showing up every morning, and doing the little steps, the necessary steps that are very vital to founding something. Don't be too good for any small job, in other words, and share your knowledge with others. The Founder Spirit for me is this way of living, knowing that nobody is going to come out short, that you don't have to be afraid to share wisdom, knowledge, truth in a positive way because we can all grow with each other.
[56:25] Jennifer: We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as we end each episode with a quote. For this episode, I have chosen a quote from Tori Murden, who is an adventurer, a chaplain, a university president, and also the first woman to ever row across the Atlantic Ocean, which she did in 1999.
“You have to chase your dreams, no matter what. The impossible just takes a little bit longer. One stroke at a time. One step at a time. The impossible is easy to achieve.”
So, Gabi, thanks for joining us today and taking us across your Atlantic, one stroke at a time.
[57:05] Gabi: Thank you.
(02:47) Why Did Gabi Schenkel Start Running?
(04:52) How Did the Meaning of Running Change Over Time?
(06:11 ) How to Prepare Yourself Physically and Mentally for Ultra Races?
(13:36) “The Swiss Ultra Princess”
(18:01) Her Most Challenging Race - Tor de Geants
(22:08) What Is Osteopathy?
(25:37) What Fascinated Her About Crossing the Atlantic?
(34:40) Fundraising for "Miss Universe"
(41:26) Discovering the Power of Loneliness
(55:40) What Does Founder Spirit Mean to Gabi?
Social Media Links:
Website: Gabi Schenkel
LinkedIn: Gabi Schenkel - LinkedIn
Instagram: Gabi Schenkel (@gabischenkel)
Book on Amazon: Solo auf See by Gabi Schenkel
Book on Thalia: Solo auf See by Gabi Schenkel
Spotify: Gabi’s Music Playlist