Right now, Swedish trailrunner Emelie Forsberg is ensconced deep inside the Arctic circle in the stunning town of Tromsø, Norway, where she lives and studies. Outside the sun still has a few weeks before it ends its winter hibernation. It seems like the perfect setting for some reflection on a year that began as a virtual unknown in the mountain racing world, yet a year that ended as a Skyrunning World Champion, a race winner over multiple distances and one of the most recognisable faces in the sport. I had the opportunity to talk to Emelie about her unplanned journey to the pinnacle of her sport and about her love for nature, winning and cinnamon buns…
I just wonder when someone is gonna ask me what I’m doing with all the other good female runners..
Emelie wins TNF 50 miler in San Fran’ in only her third ultra distance race. December 2012 © droz-photo.com
Emelie, you grew up in Sweden and a lot of people from outside Sweden have a false picture of the country as full of mountains. The real truth is that the majority of the population live in the very flat part of Sweden extremely far away from the mountainous north of the country. What is your earliest memories of seeing the mountains? Was it love at first sight and a moment of ‘wow, this is where I belong!’ ?
I was 18 when I realised that I was deeply in love with mountains and some year after I understood that it was there I belonged. They make me feel complete and in touch with what we have right here and now. But my passion for the nature, the forest, the sea and the outdoor landscape has always been a part of me since I was born I think.
Ok cool, so what did the young Emelie want to be when she grew up!? Have you become that person you think?
Hehe. An old friend showed me her “friends book” she had when she was young and in that book I wrote that I wanted to be a runner when I grew up. But in other books I wrote archeologist, singer, and gardener.. I didn’t think how I wanted to be and still don’t. I just want to be the way I am and try to be a good person who is happy with what she’s doing.
You mentioned in another interview that your earliest trail-running came from orienteering- running around in the forest with a map and compass- do you think this background helped make the transition to trail and mountain running easier? In what ways?
I think a lot of activities and also my passion for being outside and the curiosity for the nature are puzzle bits that made me a trailrunner. Of course when you feel comfortable and relaxed running in forests and mountains it makes you want to have more, right? And the nature and hard terrain have never frightened me. I love climbing and scrambling in mountains and to move fast is a freedom-feeling I only achieve out there.
You moved from the coast and forests of Sweden to the mountains of Laponia when you were 18 and this is when you started to really mountain-run. When did you realise that ‘hey, I am good at this’?
Hehe, I don’t think I’ve realised I’m good at it yet. I think I have had very good luck.
…I had chocolate cake with me and took a long break during the race, which I won and that was strange.
We get the impression that you have come from nowhere and burst onto the trail-running scene this year when in fact you you won the Vertex Fjällmaraton in 2010 and also won a two day Mountain Orienteering race, BAMM in Sweden. Tell us a little about those early races and how they differ from the level you are running at now.
Yes I tried my first races in 2010. It was a Norwegian uphill race which is superbig in Norway. I won that and didn’t think so much about it. I also wanted to try a longer race so I tried a mountain marathon which I did really relaxed. I had chocolate cake with me and took a long break during the race, which I won and that was strange. I still thought that I only had luck. And that’s the way it has continued. I have never planned my races (until last summer) I just do them as an interesting thing. My attitude regarding races has not changed, but now I need to plan which races I want to do because I have the opportunity to do so many! This makes me happy. But I still just see them as a interesting experience and a nice thing to do and nice areas to discover.
Although you had those early successes, 2012 has been without doubt your breakthrough year. You have been on an incredible streak, were you secretly preparing for world domination or has it come as a surprise!?
Yes it was a big surprise! I don’t have anything else to add. I almost can’t believe it myself. I still think “how could this happen?” I’m just running and enjoying it. I never plan my training or anything to do with performance. So I just wonder when someone is gonna ask me what I’m doing with all the other good female runners..
I have a feeling nobody is going to be asking you that question anytime soon Emelie! I guess you will go into this year as ‘the women to beat’ as opposed to a relative unknown in 2012 which brings its own pressures too, are you relaxed with that tag or do you even think about it? Is it your plan to just keep enjoying the races?
I don’t want to have that feeling that I have to win races and to be the women that other runners want to beat. I think I have no problem to stay focussed on the happiness the races and the people around them gives me. I will see!
Having fun in the Pyrenees during Killians Classic. July 2012
So this has been a hugely successful year with multiple wins and podiums as well as becoming Skyrunning world champion. With that comes popularity and recognition has there been a big change in your life?
In some way yes and in some ways no. I’m still Emelie the girl who loves running and eating sweets. I like to take time to think about things and reflect my surroundings which I think makes me feel the same as I am and always will be.
Wow, so you’re saying that the secret to your success is a non-existent training plan or race schedule, enjoyment and plenty of buns & cakes?! Sounds like my kind ‘training’! So for all the non-Swedes reading this explain a little bit more about these cinnamon buns ,you also mentioned them in a recent iRunFar race report, these are like a national treasure in Sweden right? Do you bake your own?
That’s the way I find it good and it works for me right now. I don’t find it motivating to do a training session just so I have done it you know. I want to do it. And then I do it. Cinnamonbuns! Yes I make them myself. I love baking and have been working as a baker for a while. I try new recipies almost every time I bake cinnamon buns!
…the day I stand on the start-line of a 100 miler I’m ready. But I have no clue when it’s going to happen.
Having focussed on shorter distances, vertical kilometres, marathons & 50k races you then raced a few 50 mile (83km) races towards the end of the season with instant success: finishing 3rd at Cavalls and 2nd at Templiers and 1st at the recent TNF50. These have been your longest ever races and you still seemed to have enough fuel left for a sprint at the end of Templiers at least. Do you plan on running more 50 milers in 2013? and have you wondered how far your legs can take you? What are you thoughts on a 100 miler?
I love to feel that I can run a lot of distances. That makes me feel complete. I want to continue to do races up to 50 mile. And my thoughts have wondering away to 100 miler and 100 Km´s races but I don´t know if I am ready. I’m one of those that don’t like to push myself. So I guess the day I stand on the start-line of a 100 miler I’m ready. But I have no clue when it’s going to happen.
Of all the races you ran this year, which was your ‘dream’ course and why? The KIMA course looked pretty damn spectacular!?
I really can’t choose one! Everyone has their own beauty.
One of the races which you did not run in 2012 was Transvulcania on La Palma in the Canaries because I guess you were more focussed on the shorter courses at the time? This race was won, of course, by Anna Frost and the race really seemed to catch the attention of almost every top trailrunner out there. It also seems like a race that would suit you very well, is this race on your mind for 2013? Any other races that you can let us know about?
Yes I had no thoughts about running longer than a marathon in the beginning of this season! But I have in mind to run Transvulcania this year. I’m not sure it will suit me.. I will get there from my winter season and it’s super warm there. I find it hard to run in warm temperatures after the winter season. But hopefully I’m gonna like it anyway! I want to run Zegama, Dolomites skyrace, Salomon Trail tour in Sweden, some races in America and many many more!
You mentioned the Salomon Trail Tour Sweden races on your Runnersworld Sweden blog too & you said that you will try and convince some of your team-mates to come and run, can we expect a few smashed course-records and recognisable faces in the starting lineups at some of these races!?
The schedule for everyone in the international team have not been settled yet so right now I don’t know if anyone have time to come. But I hope so!
So you live in Tromsø, Norway- a place where the sun doesn’t rise high enough in the sky to get above the mountains for 2 months of the year from the end of november to the end of january. How does this effect the amount of time you spend outside? Also how does it effect you mentally, do you not just want to sit at home and drink tea? How do you find motivation during the long, dark winters?
Hehe I love spending time inside drinking hot chocolate and eating cinnamon buns. And a few weeks of the winter time I can enjoy to just spend some hours out in the mountains. But we have about 4 hours of twilight and if you use them out in the mountains and then go crosscountry skiing in the tracks with lights you have all time you need..! It doesn’t affect my motivation too much. I’m always keen on moving myself in the nature. But the day´s I don’t do it I enjoy too! I love contrasts.
You make it sound lovely! Tell us a little more about the city & mountains there, the city is pretty much right at the base of the mountains right? Is there a large crew of runners, skiers & outdoor lovers living there?
Yes the ambience here is wonderful . It´s 70,000 people in the whole Tromsö region and the city is not too big. Just big enough in my taste. The university have a lot of research and with the mountains that surrounds the city it lures a lot of outdoor interested people into it. So it is a nice place to live!
So crosscountry skiing if pretty popular in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries, have you competed in that too or is it just for fun?
Just for fun! I do some races but just as training! Some year I want to do Vasaloppet and do some good training before that.
OK, so Tromsø seems like a beautiful city with amazing nature at its doorstep but has your extensive travels this year made you think about living somewhere else?
When I think about all my flying it makes me feel a little guilty. But it’s not so far away. I would love to live in Chamonix (which is a bit closer to the rest of Europe) with all the beautiful mountains and the fact that the town is a good size. I can’t handle bigger cities. But for now Tromsø is good when I need a university. And Tromsø is only 4 hours flight to Geneva so it’s not too long!
Are you guilty about flying because of the environmental impact?
I am. Yes. And I´m trying to work my way to feel better with different things, like I don’t eat imported meat, I recycle, I don’t consume (clothes, etc) very much and I try to eat according to whats in season. But yes of course flying is one of the worst thing we can do, talking about pollution.
And on the subject of traveling- you have raced in some incredible mountain ranges this year; Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, Marin, the Crocker range on Borneo, the Rockys during Pikes Peak, have there been one place where you were completely blown-away by the beauty of the place?
Every mountain range has it own special attraction. And I can’t choose one. I love the Alps because the mountains give me a lot of challenges and I love Pyrenees because they are humble. And I like Borneo because it was a totally unique experience with the plateau from 3600 up to 4100 meters in just solid rock. Every mountain range has it own flora and fauna as well which is interesting. If I would choose one area to live in I would choose the Alps and the area around Chamonix.
Is it a case of ‘watch out UTMB, Emelie could be a local soon’?
I don’t have any plans on that!
Borneo sounds amazing too, tell us a little about the race there and the culture, was it a huge change from the european races?
This year the race did not go to the summit of Mounta Kinabalu due to the cost so it was not too exciting to be honest. We didn’t even reach the top of the tree line and the had put 13 of 23 km on road. But it was a huge experience and a great ambience with the locals, the atmosphere and the jungle.
Right now you study and run. Have you thought about the possibility of becoming a ‘career’ trail-runner? By that I mean having running, the races and sponsorship duties as your main ‘job’.
I find it life-affirming to study, and I think it’s perfect for me to do when I run. I can focus on school when I have time. I don’t feel any pressure to study full-time at University so I take my time.
So you study Biology right? Did your interest in Biology come from your love of the outdoor life? Do you also have the Swedish passion for foraging for berries and mushrooms too!?
I love picking berries and mushrooms! I feel rich when my freezer is full of that. I think one part of me decided that I wanted to study biology and environment because of my passion for the nature and I wanted to have the possibility to work for and in the environment to make it a better place or to help it continue the way nature is.
Your main sponsor is Salomon and there seems to be a genuine ‘family-vibe’ amongst their trail-running team, is that the case? When & how did you first get involved with them? Do they have undercover scouts at the end of local races waiting to whisk away the best runners to the S-Lab for a Salomon make-over?
It is the case. I think when you share such a big passion for mountains and trailrunning it comes natural to be close. I did a Salomon trail tour race in Sweden and the Swedish brand ambassador asked me if I wanted to join the Swedish team. I did and after that Greg Vollet asked if I wanted to join the international team for a week. And that’s how it’s started! Hehe, no undercover, but the ones that works for Salomon are often involved and race themselves so that’s the way we meet new people.
So how did a week with the international team turn into the amazing year that you just had and becoming an integral part of Team Salomon?!
I think Greg Vollet ( team manager and marketing boss) saw that I was pretty good on technical downhill and saw the potential. And then we decided that I should try some races, and then it just continued like that. I liked it and wanted more! And luckily I got the opportunity to have more to!
I think the goal for this year is to feel no pressure…
You mentioned recently that you set some goals for 2012 such as leading a race from start to finish and to win a longer race, both of which you achieved. What goals have you set for 2013?
I think the goal for this year is to feel no pressure as I mentioned in another question. Because last year I was the underdog but now people start to think that I actually can win races and that can of course brings some pressure.
Back to the S-Lab (a sort of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for trail-runners, a secretive place where Salomon athletes and designers create the most cutting-edge running products on the planet)…you arrive one day and it is just you and the all the people working there and they say ‘Emelie we have absolutely nothing else to do today, we are all yours and we want to create the product of your dreams!’ What is that product?
A shoe of course! That’s the main thing we need. And I know exactly how I would like to have them!
Oh come on! You cant just say you know exactly what way you like your shoes & then not tell us! We wanna know the specifics, we are all shoe-geeks! So, whats your dream-shoe setup?
Alright, I would create my shoe with a Sense as a start. Then add some more of Fellcross on the upperpart, take the Fellcross rubber on the outsole, but with the texture of an Speedcross!
Hmm interesting, so you have you an interest in giving input on new Salomon equipment too like offering feedback on little things that could make a product better?
That’s what Salomons athletes do!
You run, ski and rock-climb and have recently completed an ultra-fast & light summit of Mont Blanc with Killian J. This seems to fit nicely with the Alpinist approach that many of the elite trail-runners are progressing towards. Is it something that you plan on taking further or are you just having fun in the mountains?
I want to develop myself more in the mountains in all categories that you mentioned. (Climbing, running and skiing) To move light and fast regardless to the terrain is a dream.
Can you give us a little recap on that superfast Mont Blanc summit day, you done it a couple of days after your second place at Kima didnt you?
Actually I didn’t reach the summit that time. Because of a whiteout. But I got back to Chamonix 6 days after Cavalls del vent (80 km race) and ran up there. It´s an amazing feeling of moving light and fast in high altitude! I did about 9 hours up and down from Les houches. It´s about a 35 km and 4000 hightmeters of climbing.
And it was pretty straightforward ascent & descent? Was there much actual climbing or scrambling involved? Ropes!?
It’s maybe 2 hours of scrambling otherwise just moving fast in technical uphill and downhill. We didn’t have a rope but some parts some people might want to have one. It depends like everything in the mountains. How you feel and so on.
Emelie during her fast & light Mont Blanc summit with Killian Jornet. October 2012
Speaking of having fun in the mountains- you give the impression of unadulterated joy when you are both on and near mountains. Can you explain this joy and what it is you feel for that type of nature?
I feel this joy when I ‘m doing what I love to do. And being in the mountains give me a lot of positive feelings as I think I have mentioned somehow in an earlier answer. To have the feeling of just being in mountains and that you can choose to spend a day there is lovely. It’s pure happiness and to describe what that is, is quite hard. I think ( and hope! ) that people know what it is. It is something pure and natural. I also think that you can’t get it from to many material things.
You mean almost like it’s total escapism? Are you thinker or a dreamer when you run, I mean do you focus on certain things or is your mind just floating along almost like a dream?
I would not say escape. Maybe sometimes when I really need to clean my thoughts, escape can be a good word. But it’s more getting to feel the reality. Sometimes I think a lot and sometimes it’s just like meditation. It depends on whats going on in the world.
Lets talk about competing since behind the joy and big smile there must be a competitive drive there too to be able to compete at such a high level. You love winning right?
This I is an interesting question and I have been thinking about this answer before. I have a momentum of doing my best but my fighting spirit is not that big at all. When I was younger my fighting spirit was bigger. But yes. I love to win!
I once won a pancake eating competition in highschool just because my fighting spirit didn’t let me down.. I ate 21 and was competing agains big guys.
This ‘fighting spirit’ or competitiveness is maybe still there but is diluted with the feeling of happiness you have for your surroundings perhaps? Would you mind giving us an example of your young selfs fighting spirit, any memories that stick out?
Yes it´s still there and makes me wanna do better but I know that it’s nothing that really matters if I don’t achieve a good result in a race you know? When I was younger I took it hard when I didn’t achieve my goals and it could be just playing games with friends, basketball games and so on. I once won a pancake eating competition in highschool just because my fighting spirit didn’t let me down.. I ate 21 and was competing agains big guys. And at that time I was tiny..
Haha, 21 pancakes, wow thats impressive Emelie…and you ran 21 races in 2012. 21 may just be your lucky number? maybe next year you get to win 21 races!?
I don’t think so!
You, Anna Frost, Nuria and others have built up a real bond and mutual respect for each other this year yet they are still your main competitors too and I am guessing you all want to win. When does the camaraderie make way for competitiveness? Do you have a plan like ‘ok we can help each other up till 30 miles of a 50 miler and then its each to their own!’?
No we don’t have a plan. And yes. We all want to win. But at the same time I think all of us want it to be fair, you know? If one of us have a great day and really deserves the win we are happy for her. If we feel like running together if the phase is good for us then we do that. And if not, then we don’t.
And you all have your strengths and weaknesses I guess to? You have said before that you love technical descents but is there an another area of you running where you think you can improve?
Oh yes! I have many things to improve. First of all just running fast on pretty flat and mellow ground. And my second improvement is to be a stronger climber (running uphill). I also think I can work on my speed. And my general fitness and getting a stronger heart!
But do you not find it a little boring running on the flat surfaces? Like, you don’t have any interest in road races?
Not at all! I would never do any road races.
On the subject of competitiveness- some of the male runners seem to have a real problem with being beaten by women, they have even termed the phrase ‘getting chicked’, what is your feelings about that? Does it make you want to beat them more?
I think it is a little fun. I’m not upset about that but in a way it is even a little more fun when you beat a guy in a race.
So you save your biggest smile for when you are cruising by a guy!?
Hehe ! I don’t plan my smiles, they come naturally but I don´t think the smile is bigger if I’m passing a guy instead of a girl.
So how long do you think it will be until there is a women as overall winner of an ultra, it can’t to be far away can it? Have the women got a phrase for being beaten by the men ‘getting bearded’ or ‘getting beer-bellied’ or something like that!?
!Oh that’s a rough question. For sure men have another physical capacity and I’m not very well informed about the knowledge about the differences between men and women so I can’t make a statement on this.. But for sure I know that women are strong and I think it will be possible for some women to be in the top with the guys.
You just got back from the season-ending TNF50 in San Francisco, the second time you won in the United States in two races for a 100% record there (Emelie won the 2012 Pikes Peaks Marathon as well). You must love racing there!?
Hm. America is America. It’s wonderful and special. And the races treat me well yeah! But the races I have been running is not similar to the races in Europe. They are not technical at all! So that is even more strange that I could manage to win those races over there!
Emelie putting her climbing skills to good use on Longs Peak, USA
So to finish. Describe your dream day from morning to night. You can choose the location, weather, who gets to hang out with you, what you eat…everything!
Somewhere in mountains far away from cities I wake up early, drink a cup of coffee. Look outside and get inspiration of running/scrambling somewhere on the mountains. Then I just go out there and do a long day. Running on high thin mountain ridges and see views I´ve never seen before. Then I get back home, take a bath in a refreshing lake, drink tea and then dinner. Then the evening is spent with a book. The whole day with someone I hold close. Because sharing good moments is beautiful!