Live No limits
Marcin Gienieczko, the Guinness World Records title holder, the second man in the world in the long-distance canoeing. Having covered the distance of nearly 1000 km, he crossed the Mackenzie Mountains twice in Canada. Who is the guy who’s been traveling the world for 25 years from Poland?
Marcin, let’s start our chat with your journey down the Amazon River in 2015. How do you remember all that paddling for 5573 km to beat the Guinness World Record?
I had a lot on my mind back then, but first and foremost I was trying to solve all sorts of problems. I remember how we were trying to get support from the Brazilian Navy in Tabatinga. The region was very dangerous. All the way from the border with Colombia, there was a drug trafficking trail there. In the evenings, I used to talk to my father over the satellite phone. It was early morning for him. On behalf of the Polish embassy, the Polish honorary consul in Manaus was overseeing my case. He stayed in touch with the following institutions: the governor José Melo de Oliveira; the State Secretary for Public Safety dr. Sergio Lucio Mar dos Santos Fontes; and the commander of the 9th District of the Brazilian Navy, vice-admiral Wagner Lopes de Morales Zamith. That time was quite nerve-wrecking. I remember the moment when I sat down in a chair and was hesitating whether to continue or not. But I thought that I had to push for it if I wanted to make some history. So I decided to carry on. More information about expedition: http://amazon-explorer.blogspot.com/2017/06/upon-amazons-current-disease-drug.html
What made you think you could do something that had seemed impossible before?
It was a long, meandering journey just to break the daily monotony and to find myself on the Amazon, the largest river in the world. Back in the time when I worked on the ship “Discovery”, I wanted to wake up from a big sleep I had fallen in, and I wanted that fast. I used to sail on that bulk carrier between the ports of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. We transported coal. It wasn’t my first contract on such a ship. Before that, I had worked on other bulk carriers and one container ship. We worked round the clock. It was a demanding and a depressing job, especially when I had to work over the Christmas periods. When my close ones were having a Christmas dinner, I was jumping from a container onto a container at the height of a 7 story building in the snow. The job was tiresome, but it did an excellent job of hardening me mentally. I was sitting in my cabin and thinking: why do I force myself to do anything? I was wondering how my 25-year-old brother could work in Tesco, wake up at 6 every morning and do the same thing every single day. How could my father do the same thing every day for 30 years? People work like crazy all their life and then they look at themselves and can’t even bend over. Then their time comes, they’re 50 and they get to know they’ve got cancer… and they start a fight which they not always win. How does one make history? Can anyone make history? Perhaps the answer is hidden in that Japanese saying: fall down seven times, rise up eight times… One day I saw a 135-metre-long barge named “Amazon” and I had a thought that I would paddle all the way down the Amazon River by myself. I was also extra motivated, as I previously hadn’t finished the legendary Yukon River Quest race because of an illness. I had that thought in my mind that I had to do something big, and that’s how I decided to go for the Amazon.
What’s your strongest memory from that journey?
Constant strive to solve problems. Constant push to carry on. I felt alienated amongst the natives in Peru, but it was easier in Brazil. I still think, though, that a double crossing of the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada is my greatest achievement and it fills me with the greatest pride. Here you can find my diary from that trip:
When I crossed the Mackenzie Mountains, I got a letter with congratulations from Andrzej Kraśnicki, the president of the Polish Olympic Committee.
You are, so to say, an extreme adventurer. Three years ago you went second in the longest canoe race in the world, the Yukon 1000. In 7 days, 7 hours, and 30 minutes you paddled down 1600 km. Three weeks before that you had been the first man ever to finish the Yukon River Quest in the solo class in a tandem boat. The race took place in Canada and Alaska. How did that happen? How did you prepare for it and how did it feel during the race?
It was quite interesting how I got there, even too interesting for my taste. Back in 2013, I took part in the Yukon River Quest and I was close to the second place, but all of a sudden I had a kidney stone attack… Later on I went on to canoe down the Amazon. When I came back from there, some of my rivals (who doesn’t have them?!) decided to put in question my achievement and my Guinness World Record. I tried fighting with it. It was that time when I understood how Wanda Rutkiewicz felt when some people were saying she didn’t reach the summit of Annapurna.
She tried to reason with them in any way imaginable, but to no avail. The opinion was divided between those who believed her and those who didn’t. I remember thinking then that there was no sense in arguing with my opponents. I needed to prove it to them otherwise. One of my rivals, Janusz Jankowski, wrote me an e-mail at that time which read:
“An excellent idea with that canoe race. That way you can prove those people wrong who say that a man with your physique couldn’t have possibly achieved what you indeed have. You still look more like a journalist than an extreme sportsman. Prove it to them that one should not judge a book by its cover.”
I thought then that it was about time I proved everyone that my Amazon record was no coincidence. I went to Canada and took part in the Yukon River Quest. I was not only the first human to finish the Yukon River Quest in a solo class in a tandem boat, conveniently named “Amazon”, but I also went quite close to the podium. I paddled down all 715 km of that race in 67 hours, 57 minutes, and 27 seconds. To prepare myself for the race, I had crossed the Baltic Sea in my canoe all the way from Bornholm to Darłowo. I had spent 27 hours on the open sea and had covered a distance of 110 km then. That had prepared me for what was coming in Canada. Three weeks after the race in Canada, I joined forces with an American from Alaska and we raced in the Yukon 1000, where we rowed in a boat called “Independent Poland” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Polish independence. We covered all 1600 km of that race from Whitehorse in Canada and even went beyond the polar circle at one point, and finished it with a very good time. That was an extreme challenge practically right from the start to finish. I remember how I was motivating Ben: “Ben, could you give it a bit more of a push, please? Our rivals are not that far…”
And, indeed, we were getting such information from the kayakers we met on the river that we were pretty close to the closest opponent team. We were solely focused on one thing: who was ahead of us and who was behind us. So I kept talking to Ben: “Ben, damn it, we’ve gone so far with so much effort. Push harder!” He was saying all that time that he was really giving his best. Then I decided to give him a motivational speech. I went on saying that we were making history, that a few thousand people were cheering for us on Facebook; that we were made for doing something that big; and that we were so close already; that we should do it for our kids; that we have never made any big money and we never would, because we had passion instead. Yet he continued with his story. So at one moment I just put down my oar and told him I wouldn’t do anything more. It was only for half a minute, though, because I had another adrenaline rush. I started talking again: “Ben, stop mucking about! Get your act together! You’re rowing with that oar as if you were spanking a girl on a Friday night. You’re a hunter from Alaska, damn it, and you’re now entering your own territory. You’re going to feel better in a second! We are still going to make history!” He finally turned back to me and said: “Ok, Man. Let’s go!” And so our discussion went on in the middle of the Yukon River. I knew I managed to raise his spirits a bit, so at one point he just started yelling at me to stop talking. During a race like that, it’s pretty normal to go through such an emotional turmoil. If it was a normal trip, then we would sit down, get some rest, and even go away for a minute to wee in peace. But in a race like that, any stops on the way matter. There is simply no time for any mood swings because they can really ruin all your effort.
July this year, you’re going to publish your book “Dancing with the Amazon” (Pol. “Zatańczyć z Amazonką”). What is the book about?
It’s a very different book from any other. I hesitated for a really long time whether to write it or not… One day I thought that I should share it with other people how it all started, how it went and how it ended. Perhaps it can motivate someone to break away from the monotony of their life, or maybe give some hints on how to overcome your challenges… When one day you get the sad news that you’ve got cancer, the first thing that comes to your mind is that you’ve now reached the end. Yet, some four chemotherapy sessions later it turns out you can still win this. Such was the story with many of my own demons.
I think that in many respects living a life in Poland is more extreme than paddling down the Amazon. My book is exactly about that: extreme challenges while organizing an ambitious journey, a grand triathlon and the first time in human history canoeing down the Amazon on a distance of 5980 km. But it’s also a rather bitter diary of a continuing argument with other travellers who wanted nothing more but to disgrace my name and put me down. What for? Because I questioned the choice of two jury members at the Kolosy festival in Gdynia? One American kayaker, Piotr Chmieliński, didn’t have the guts to challenge me himself, so he made others question my achievements. Quite diplomatic, won’t you say?! Even when I was going through a divorce, he befriended my wife so he could rub it in my face and get his revenge. It was utterly tasteless, but a bit American at the same time.
How did it happen that the Polish Olympic Committee, the most respected Polish sports association, came to my defence? What really happened when I came back to Poland? “Dancing with the Amazon” is the story of my fight for truth and success in the world of sports. The book will be available for purchase at the end of July 2021. Whether I was victorious in that fight or not, you will need to read for yourself in my book, and share your opinion afterwards. The book is the most professional account of an adventure, the sheer force of will and ambition on the one hand, but also a tale of a lost love and of how I found myself in a psychiatric hospital on the other. A tale of a fight for my property, for my kids, and a tale of dreams. I think it’s the best document of how a man canoed down the Amazon River.
Did you have time during the Yukon race to contemplate your surroundings? After all, you travelled through some parts of Alaska which are almost untouched by humans…
You must be joking! That race was a constant fight, a never-stopping push forward with only 3 hours of sleep here and there… But I know the Yukon River very well… I don’t know how many times I travelled up and down the stream… maybe 10 times… definitely that many up to Dawson City, two times I did half of the entire distance and once I paddled the whole length down to the Bering Sea in a pontoon boat. I have recently been invited by the organizer of the Yukon 1000, a former SAS soldier, to race in the Yukon 2022, i.e. to do a time trial for paddling all the way down the Yukon River from its spring to the Bering Sea. Only 10 people have been invited – a real elite. I was supposed to be in that 10. But now I am done with canoeing. My dream now is the South Pole. If I ever go back to Yukon, it will only be to travel down the river with my sons.
The canoe which you travelled in on the Amazon is now in possession of the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk. That must feel good, right? Tell me how you donated the canoe to the Museum.
I donated the canoe to the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk, because I’ve always wanted to leave something behind me. Krzysztof Krawczyk, my favourite Polish singer, left more than a 100 records behind him. I want to leave something behind me too. Back when I was paddling down the Amazon, I was thinking how to commemorate it. Write a book? I had already written two by then. I wasn’t even considering the book at that time. What would I do later with it when I knew I was conflicted with some people? I thought it would be a good idea to leave an account of that journey, but I also wanted to leave something material to commemorate that particular achievement. I remembered that my friend Arek Pawełek, when he had crossed the Atlantic in a pontoon boat, donated that pontoon to the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk. I thought that perhaps I could donate my canoe. But how was I going to move it all the way from Belem in Brazil to Poland? I got help from Mr. Robert Kowalczyk’s Sat-Film company from Włocławek and from the Energa company. They brought that canoe down to the Museum in Gdańsk. It was nice that I could later on visit the Museum with my family and, in front of my canoe, tell my Amazon story to my sons, and tell them why I did it… They don’t understand it yet, but they will in a few years, and they will get the full picture when they have read the book and they will know why their father donated the canoe to the Museum.
Where does your drive to go to the extremes, to beat the records come from? Tell me which sports you were into before.
I’ve always loved sports. Firstly, I played table tennis for 8 years, and then did cycling. I used to cycle for 100 km every day. I practiced traditional karate, then moved to triathlon, and now, just to keep the fire going, I do mountain running. It keeps me motivated between one project and the other. I’ve been into sports ever since I was 6 years old, and I dreamt once of representing Poland in the Olympic Games. And I have represented Poland, perhaps not in the Olympic Games, but still. The President of the Polish Olympic Committee bestowed his patronage on my trip to the South Pole. Travelling the world no longer excites me, but pushing myself and beating the records does. I’m still trying to make something happen, we’ll just see.
Marcin, let’s go back a little. What did you dream about as a boy in a small town of Kętrzyn? Tell me of your childhood memories.
What I dreamt about? About representing Poland, beating records, going to the Olympic Games, travelling, seeing the world, being a journalist but also a sportsman. I dreamt about breaking the human barriers, but somewhere in the wild, not at sports stadiums; about overcoming my own fears; about winning over my own weaknesses.
Did you have a hero, someone who turned your eyes in the right direction?
I did and I still do. It’s Mike Horn, a professional adventurer from RPA who lives in Switzerland. He inspires me as a very brave man. Now, in the times of Covid, when people burn out daily, I have understood how important a proper inspiration is; it gives us our drive. He’s given me a lot; I browse his websites and I’m being motivated all the time. It’s really important, because we sportsmen and adventurers burn out quite often. We continuously need mental support, inspiration to move forward. Mike Horn does that for me. Before that, back when I studied journalism, I was fascinated by Tony Halik… I remember it that a day before he died I had a dream with him: he entered a tramway and said: “You will be a great adventurer one day…” Such was the dream…
How do you prepare for your travels? How do you train?
I run ultra-marathons. I’ve got three marathons planned for this year, including the Łemkowna Trail, a 100km-long run, the most difficult mountain run in Poland. I consider it the most important run in Poland.
What role do sports play in your life?
Sports mean a challenge, inspiration, motivation, overcoming your own weaknesses, beating records, and a will to prove that it’s the thing I do best.
What’s your next goal?
I’ve got one goal on my mind. It’s my life goal and I have to do this: to go to the South Pole and come back, so in essence I will cross the Antarctic. Most of those adventurers who want to reach the South Pole, start their journey from Hercules Inlet. It’s about 1200 km to the Pole from there and they finish their journey on the Pole. What I mean to do is not to reach the Pole, but to reach it and come back the same way, so it will be 2400 km on my own. I’m 43 now and my metabolism will go down in a few years; yet, I still can beat a world record by 45. That’s how I think about it. We now live in the Covid times, so I have used that time to publish my third book; I now want to take that book to the Pole with me; when I finished my journey down the Amazon, I still had an 80km-long run to the Atlantic and I did that with the Polish flag flying. When I was running to the Atlantic, I was already dreaming of the South Pole. I’m going to traverse Greenland in August 2022, and I’m going to start my journey to South Pole in November 2023. These dates are not subject to change; this is my plan and I’m going to approach it systematically. We’ll see how it will end. I’m not going to stop until I do this, that’s for sure. I want to reach the Pole and come all the way back on my own.
Dariusz A. Zeller