The first time I met Guðný, she was a voice on a telephone. I’d called a postural clinic and she answered my cries of “Help! I sneezed and I can’t get up.” I was on my second trip to Iceland, photographing subjects for a book ‘An Equal Difference.’ I explained that that I was getting a glass of water from the kitchen sink and sneezed. That was it—my back went out and I was rendered horizontal. I don’t remember if she laughed, but knowing her as I do now, she probably did. My bad fortune lead eventually to the good fortune of meeting Guðný and her family of motocross riders. Her husband Jói fixed my back and introduced me to the sport firsthand, which I wrote about for the Grapevine in June 2014.
Pushing the limits
It was an especially cold winter in Siglufjörður on February 17th, 1984, when Guðný Ósk Gottliebsdóttir was born. Her father Gottlieb was overseas in Sarajevo competing on behalf of Iceland at the winter Olympics. He placed 39th and 59th in the men’s 30 and 15 kilometre cross country skiing event. His scores have yet to be touched by any other Icelander.
Guðný’s family moved to Ólafsfjörður, also in the North, and she was on skis by the age of four. By the time she was six she had coaches and practiced three or four times a week. She began competing in the annual and much anticipated Donald Duck Games (Andresarandarleikar), which she came to dominate.
“My dad suggested that I do soccer to keep my stamina up for the winter,” says Gúðny. “We also hiked.” She remembers one summer at the age of seven, hiking from Ólafsfjörður to Siglufjörður and loving it. She would train hard with her dad in the winter. “He’d say things like, if you make it up this hill, we’ll go snowmobiling,” she says. “That was my carrot. My mum came with me to every single ski race and was my biggest cheerleader and the loudest one every time.”
When she was too old to compete in Andresarandarleikar, Guðný began competing as a teenager. “I was always battling for that first place, every fucking year,” she reminisces. “We all battled. In Ólafsfjörður there were a lot of girls that were in this sport. We had to compete with this one older girl every other year. She was very good. I didn’t even have to try to beat the other girls, because I was always thinking about beating that older girl from Ísafjörður. I never could. I can’t tell you how many medals I got, but I won seven trophies. I fucking hated those medals; of course I wanted trophies.”
Ripped across the sands
Guðný stopped competing as a cross country skier at seventeen and the much-loved snowmobiling lead to motorcycle riding, and then to meeting her husband, Jói. In Sandvík, I saw her get on a motocross bike for the first time since giving birth to their youngest son Úlfur. We sat in the back of the van, she with her armoured boots and trousers on, and her one month old son in her arms.
She’d brought a babysitter so after she finished breastfeeding little Úlfur, she leapt out of the van. She took the Beta 450 in hand like it was a bicycle and ripped across the sands. My jaw dropped seeing her jump on this bike and tear up the beach. I’ve been riding bikes since I was sixteen and recently rode from London to Iceland, but motocross and enduro is a different kind of riding. It requires far more skill and stamina than regular road riding.
The Klaustur Off Road challenge is held annually in the south of Iceland outside the beautiful and—for non-Icelandic speakers, unpronounceable—town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The event comprises six hours of mentally and physically demanding motorbike riding on an outdoor circuit made of hills, dirt, turns and a lot of other riders potentially in your way. The toughest category, the Ironwoman and the Ironman, require the most stamina. Unlike teams where you can split your time up, this category is for a single rider on one bike (one backup allowed) for the entire six hours; as many laps as one can do, as fast as one can ride.
In the summer of 2016, I went to Klaustur with the family and watched Jói race as a team with a Canadian rider. Guðný sat that year out. We hiked up the hills on the circuit to have a picnic with the kids while we watched the race. As Guðný fed Úlfur, she told me that next year she would enter either as a couple’s team with Jói, or alone. I knew she rode bikes, but had no idea she could race them. I underestimated her. Everyone underestimated her. Everyone except her.
No strategy, just riding
Guðný signed up for the 2017 race and got a Honda CRF250 custom tuned just for her. “I cried for forty minutes after the first time I rode it. It was so beautiful,” she says. I asked her what she did to prepare for the race and she told me: “The week before the race, Jói was away in Romania. I spent it riding at Sólbrekka.” That’s it? I stammered incredulously. “Yeah. Why?” The brevity hadn’t even crossed her mind. She drove her boys out to the track, set the eldest one up with Legos in the car. After her youngest fell asleep for his nap, she said “Nývarð, when Úlfur wakes up honk the horn,” and went racing around the track until she ran out of gas. On two occasions, she got a babysitter so she could ride with her stepson Matti, who was also entering Klaustur that year. “Matti was teaming up with two of his buddies, and I told him, you know I’m never going to have you forget it if I beat you guys. And he was like ‘Nawww, there is no way you’re going to beat us.’”
As she rolled into Klaustur, her mentor Tedda approached her. She knew Guðný had not trained extensively for this. She recalls, “Tedda came to me before we set off and she was like ‘Guðný, what’s your strategy?’ My strategy? Fuck, I’m just here to have a great riding day. If I’m tired I’m going to stop. I’ll maybe do one lap, two laps. Whatever. I’m just riding.” Six hours later Guðný won the Ironwoman trophy and placed 90th (out of 116) overall. Matti’s team placed 92nd.
“Afterwards when we finished Tedda came to me and said ‘Ok, Guðný, we all talked about it and nobody thought you had the stamina to finish this.’ Stamina is the only thing I have,” Guðný asserts. “I can ride endlessly because of the cross-country skiing background. Even when I’m riding with Jói’s friends they ask, ‘Ok, are you going out? Are you going long moto, or what are you doing?’ I dunno what to tell them—I’m just riding. Then they go and they try to ride as long as I do, because if they can, they’re in good shape. Even at 150 kilos my dad could leave me in the dust when I was in my best shape. His core is solid. That’s what they don’t understand,” she concludes. That kind of training changes you into something else. Something made of stronger stuff. Like iron.