To the top with a smile – interview with Emelie Forsberg

PORTRAIT: Emelie Forsberg is the runner girl who showed up as a rookie and won everything that was possible to win in one of the world’s toughest sports. Yet it is not the victories that drives her, but the urge to be moving in nature.

TEXT by Mats Hellmark, editor at Sveriges Natur
PHOTOS by Thron Ullberg

This is a rough English translation of my interview with Swedish Trail Running Champion Emelie Forsberg, published in Swedish in the magazine Sveriges Natur. The Swedish version and one of the images is available on this link

Treadmills and asphalt are not to Emelie Forsberg’s liking. If you are to run, you should do it outside, in nature, she thinks. Preferably up and down the wildest mountain sides.

No wonder she has settled here, I think, when we board the car ferry from Tromsø. Since 2013 Emelie’s home is the mountainous Norwegian peninsula Lyngen, with some of the region’s sharpest peaks just around the corner from her house. Insanely beautiful, but hardly possible to take on without ropes and proper climbing equipment. Or?

A pair of good running shoes is quite enough. Or a pair of skis like these ones, says Emelie.

We are standing in the entryway of the house that she rents together with her boyfriend and elite training partner Kilian Jornet, pondering over skis and boots that weighs almost nothing. The sport is called ski mountaineering, and Emelie is among the world’s best in this field as well.

You put skins on the skis and trample off uphill, she explains. At the top you remove the skins and head off down the gutters at full speed.

– I’ve never actually had a fall during racing. It’s all about being comfortable with what you do, even if you’re tired.

To Emelie ski mountaineering is an everyday activity during wintertime: she can’t run when the snow is deep, and it stays that way for a long time this far north of the Arctic Circle. As she doesn’t consider the road an option she won’t have many running days in her body before the season’s first races.

That alone makes her a bit of an exception among the world’s best in trail running (running on small nature trails) and skyrunning (mountain running). In Sweden these are sports that are upcoming, but still has some way to go before reaching the popularity they have in many other parts the world. In the Alps mountain races attract large audiences and Emelie is a celebrity who is met with cheers and applause everywhere.

When she broke through in 2012, it was as a sensation: without coaching and with few previous qualifications she left the rivals behind in race after race. She is particularly fast going downhill, Emelie has a somewhat magical ability to just let go and let her feet find their own path. (Watch video clip of a downhill race) A World Cup victory and 20 podium finishes in 21 races was the improbable outcome of the season.

Last year was even more successful: finishing first in almost every race, including double victories in the European Championships in the Dolomites. The grand final of the season was a race that is considered one of the world’s most difficult: Diagonale des Fous, the Diagonal of fools, is set on the island of La Réunion, east of Madagascar, and winds over high mountains and through rainforests for a distance of more than 160 km. The race goes on for two nights. Although she had a tough time she finished second.

BUT IT’S NOT just the medals that makes her special. It is the way she wins them: with a constant smile. It is easy to see how much she enjoys running.

– Many people say oh, you started racing and won at once. But I had prepared myself with other sports and spent much time in mountainous terrain. I actually don’t think so much about trail running as a sport. To me it is a way of moving in nature the way people have done as long as we have existed as a species, and as other animals do: lightly and quickly, without leaving a footprint.

The forests were the playroom for Emelie when she grew up; she was always on the go in the nature surrounding her home in the Swedish coastal town of Härnösand.

– Me and my sister always went by ourselves to friends, never got driven in a car. When you spend a lot of time outside as a child you begin to enjoy it. Many kids never experience this freedom to move today. I think that is a pity. You have to be in nature to develop a love for it, to start caring.

When she started school different sports became new “playrooms”: orienteering, soccer, skiing, rock climbing, basketball. But trail running ended up as number one.

– Partially because it’s so simple. Anyone can do it, there are no fixed standards except those we create ourselves.

How important is the experiencing of nature to you, compared to winning the races?

– 90-10 maybe. You get to experience so much out in nature, such a respect and understanding. That’s what really drives me. That feeling is so great to share with the others who are competing.

INTERVIEWING EMELIE feels different compared to talking to other sport stars. It may have to do with the sport itself: those who have read Born to Run, the “bible” of ultra- and skyrunning already know that a strong sense of community, freedom and love of nature is prevalent, often more so than fighting for positions and kilometer times.

But Emelie has a directness and a way of thinking slightly outside the box that feels unique even in this context. Just consider the way she won her first mountain marathon in 2010, competing as an unknown exerciser. In the middle of the race she paused for a long coffee break with homemade chocolate cake.

Emelie likes food and pastries and finds it difficult understanding athletes who starve themselves to gain seconds. A specialized running reporter once described Emelie Forsberg’s sursprising formula for success as happiness, non-existent training plan and lots of cinnamon buns.

– Haha, yes, I like bread and baking. I have taken a baking course on Saltå mill and worked as a baker at Storulvåns mountain lodge using a lot of locally grown and organic ingredients. You have to give the baking process time and the ingredients should be the best.

One example of good ingredients is crowberry, which she picks in large amounts in the mountains of Lyngen and uses for juice and bread. A smart way to get vitamins without using too much imported fruit during winter. She prefers organic food, but thinks Norwegian stores are not as good as Swedish supplying it. The prices are also higher.

When she moved to Tromsø in 2011, she first lived in a community with other young people in the city centre. To make ends meet they collected food in waste containers outside the grocery stores.

– We actually got a lot of our food from the containers. Fine food, but with a short shelf life. Sometimes we even got whole Skrei-cods. I think it’s a pity that Swedish stores let so much edible food go to waste instead of giving it away. It is such a waste of resources.

Emelie believes in simplicity, to choose your own way. Scandinavians should be able to make a free choice of life style, she thinks. Maybe work less and avoid getting caught up in the rat race in order to fulfill expectations of high status and buying expensive objects. Emelie herself is not a big time consumer. She rarely buys new clothes, mostly uses sportswear.

– I train a lot but actually don’t take showers so very often either, she says with a giggle.

THINKING SUSTAINABLY has been a habit all the way from childhood. Emelie’s father died when she was a newborn and the early years was a hard period for her mother who worked, studied and cared for two small children.

At school there was a lot of talk about recycling and environmental issues. The Forsberg sisters were much influenced and brought the ideas back home.

– It was our initiative to live more consciously and sustainably. Mom also took to the ideas and made it a way of living in our family.

Environmental issues were also crucial for her choice of profession. She started to train for forester in Umeå, but discovered that the education did not match her ideals. In addition, she did not like to live in a big city. After an interruption of studies she started studying to become biologist, an education she expects to revive and finish, perhaps this autumn.

But for the moment she has full focus on the running. She is a member of Salomon’s international team, she organizes training trips to the Swedish mountains, she is writing for a running magazine and is a frequent blogger.

In the blog she writes about running, but also about living in harmony with nature, about time and about ecology. For the most part, the response is positive, but she has also received some negative comments about the climatic effects of her flights to competitions around the world.

– Right now I live to compete and be a public figure. I know it is not sustainable in the long run, and try to minimize travel and adapt my everyday life. But I think that everything has its time. If I could live on my salary and just keep moving in these mountains, that would be satisfying enough …

Mats Hellmark mats.hellmark(at)snf.se

Trail Running: Running on nature trails and over untrodden ground.
Skyrunning: Running at over 2000 meters altitude and with a slope of more than 30 percent.
Ultra Running: Running distances longer than the marathon (42 km).

• Read Emelie’s blog and recipes in English on http://www.emelieforsberg.com
• Read Emelie’s blog in Swedish for the magazine Runner’s World.

Milestones:
1986
Born in Härnösand, Sweden. Growing up with the forest as a playroom. She tries many sports, for a while basket ball was number one.
2005
Working during the summer at the mountain lodge in Jotunheimen, Norway. Starting to study to become a forester in Umeå.
2006
Work at mountain lodges in Jotunheimen and Storulvån, as a baker.
2009
Studies biology. Runs her first mountain marathon in Vålådalen, Sweden. She won, in spite of a long coffee break with chocolate cake …
2011
Moving to Tromsø, Norway, for studies and for the amazing scenery.
2012
Breakthrough year when Emelie starts competing for real and wins most of the races, including the World Championships in Skyrunning.
2013
Almost exclusively victories in the races, including two European Championship golds in Italy. Campaigning for the Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation (Håll Sverige Rent) concerning ”allemansrätten”, the special Swedish system of rules that allow citizens to roam freely in nature.

Two instagram-images I took during Thron Ullberg’s photo session with Emelie:

thron 1

thron 2

Some of Thron’s shots from the magazine are published here

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