Northern Soul: An Interview With Eirik Haugsnes
It’s been a hell of a summer for Norwegian trail runner Eirik Haugsnes. He started the season as a total unknown outside of his home country, but a holiday in France and a decision to race the Mont Blanc Marathon and Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometer changed all that. His performance at those two races led to a sponsorship deal with Inov-8 and a roller-coaster ride of European Skyrunning adventures. I met Eirik for a cup of tea and a chat about growing up in such a wild location, the rise and fall of his cross-country ski career, and his reinvention as one of Europe’s hottest trail running talents.
iRunFar: Eirik, you’re from Norway, the far, far north of the country, right?
Eirik Haugsnes: Yeah, I grew up on a small island called Skjervøya in the northern part of Norway. It’s in an area we call Nord-Troms.
iRunFar: Is it even further north than Tromsø?
Haugsnes: Yeah, it’s north of Tromsø, four hours north by car or two-and-a-half hours by boat.
iRunFar: Wow, we’re talking deep inside the Arctic Circle.
Haugsnes: Yeah, it is. Norway goes quite far north and then the country spreads to the east, only right at the northern part.
iRunFar: It must have some pretty cool landscapes.
Haugsnes: Oh yeah, I think we have some amazing landscapes. We have mountains that are 1,200 meters (4,000 feet approximately) and they rise directly from the sea, from the summit all the way down to the sea. There’s a lot of that. It’s not flat at all. There are a lot of mountains.
iRunFar: What was it like growing up in such a place. I mean, it’s obviously pretty out there in the wilderness?
Haugsnes: It is! The island where I grew up is quite far out. It’s a really small island but we have some bigger islands around. It’s not so far to the mainland but you have to go over a bridge and then in an underwater tunnel to get there. From my experience, growing up in a small town is a good thing. It’s safe and you know everybody. It’s a really nice community.
iRunFar: The seasons there would be really extreme, too, wouldn’t they? Months of constant darkness in the winter and months of constant daylight in summer. What’s it like experiencing that year after year?
Haugsnes: I’m used to it, you know? That’s where I live! Before I moved to the island called Skjervøya, where I now call home, I lived on a bigger island but with a smaller community. That had even more extreme environments. That’s what I’m used to. Yeah, you have the winters and they’re long, and they’re cold, and they’re dark. So, I guess for people that are not used to it, it’s easy to get lost in the dark because when you go to work it’s dark and when you come home it’s dark again. I understand that some people would find that hard for three months.
iRunFar: You just didn’t know anything else when you were growing up.
Haugsnes: That’s the way it was. I did cross-country skiing, so the winter season for me was the best season. I loved skiing. I didn’t care that it was dark. We had a really great ski track on my small island, too. For a start, it was really popular, so we had people working really hard to maintain the track and good conditions for cross-country skiing. It was great!
iRunFar: Cross-country skiing was your first big passion, right? What age were you when you started to ski?
Haugsnes: Yeah, it was. I started to train at a very young age. My family is not a sporty family but my father took me out for a really long run when I was about six or seven. It was about 10k, I think. That’s when the training started. The island I lived on until I started school, I did a lot of skiing even then. When I was about three or four years old, I skied from my home to my nanny, for daycare. I started early! [laughs]
iRunFar: [laughs] Brilliant. Did you start competing from an early age, too? Or was it just for fun?
Haugsnes: I started competing at an early age. When I was about eight or nine years old, I started to compete in cross-country skiing.
iRunFar: At that age, what kind of distances where the cross-country ski races?
Haugsnes: They were two or three kilometres. That’s the normal, with uphill and downhill. They were quite hard.
iRunFar: Was there anybody on the island who was a mentor for you when it came to cross-country skiing, Eirik?
Haugsnes: Yeah, I had a really good mentor. He really took me up until I started high school. I was very lucky in that way. He was really interested in what I was doing and I learned a lot from him.
iRunFar: Was he a local legend?
Haugsnes: [laughs] Yeah, he was the local legend. He was the guy who knew about training and cross-country skiing. It’s always like that in small villages, it’s always one person. He’s the ski-guy, he’s the football guy. You know, that’s how it is.
iRunFar: Did you reach a pretty good level, Eirik?
Haugsnes: When I was young, I was at a really high level, from an early age. I started to train hard at a very early age. I was really interested in training. I trained and trained. I skied for hours every day.
iRunFar: You must have had a real natural talent, too.
Haugsnes: Yeah, when you start to do something, you do that because you like it a lot. Maybe that was a natural talent. I then went to a special high school. In Norway, we have five or six special high schools for cross-country skiing. In those, you can really focus on school and on cross-country skiing. The daily schedule has school and training, so it fits good. Normally a high school would be for three years, but there you could do it over four years. It gives you more time to train in daytime, so you don’t have to do all the training in the evenings after school. It was great.
iRunFar: That sounds amazing. It must have been cool to have cross-country skiing, the thing you loved, as another subject in school.
Haugsnes: Yeah, that’s how it was. It’s like we were studying training and skiing, too. It’s in the program and we learned a lot about the sport, training, and anatomy. It was a great way to go to school!
iRunFar: Was your dream to be a Norwegian cross-country ski star?
Haugsnes: Yeah, that was my dream and I was really focused. When I was 16 years old, I won the Norwegian cross-country championship and I told the newspaper that I was, “going to be the world champion!” I remember that. [laughs] There it was in big letters on the front page! When you’re 16, you don’t see the big picture, you know? [laughs] But I was really focused on that and, when you are a Norwegian champion at that age, naturally you think you can be a world champion at cross-country skiing. That’s logic. It was a really high level of competition at my age group, but things happen and things change.
iRunFar: So, what happened?
Haugsnes: For me, it’s strange. Suddenly, it just happened overnight, from being at the top level, then nothing worked. I was hoping to qualify for the junior world championship and suddenly it felt like all my strength had just gone away. I was stiff after one kilometre, I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know whether it was a combination of too much training, too early or too hard training or, maybe, a virus. The normal thing for that is to suffer from kyssesyke [Mononucleosis/Glandular Fever]. I think that was what happened to me, a combination of a lot of training and a virus. It really set me back for several years.
iRunFar: Several years? That must have been terrible and incredibly frustrating?
Haugsnes: Yeah, it was. You’re thinking, “should I stop training or should I train even more?” I was thinking, “what’s the problem?” The doctors can’t even find out because when they test you when you are an athletic person, they test you compared to a ‘normal’ person. What’s normal? Of course I will score far more than ‘normal’ and they say, “you’re healthy!” But, as a sports person you may not be healthy, what’s ‘normal’ for you when you compete at that high level is far more than the ‘normal’ they test you for.
iRunFar: It’s a very good point and it would make it even more frustrating to have people telling you that you are healthy when you know that there is something wrong. What age are we talking here, Eirik?
Haugsnes: It started when I was 17. I didn’t feel great. Then, when I was 18, I tried to train even harder and then I think I had the viral infection for several years. When I was 18, I felt really bad and, when I tried to train harder, it just didn’t work. I was sweating and my heart rate was flying up. My legs felt stiff and I couldn’t sleep at night. Everything.
iRunFar: Wow. How did that affect you mentally?
Haugsnes: It was really hard, you know? When your focus is to be a world champion in a sport, you focus everything into that. You put school aside, you put everything aside. You have one goal and you go for it. When your body doesn’t work and you can’t find out the problem, it was frustrating. After a couple of years trying, I took a couple of years off and did other things. Then I started to try again and from a point when I was 23, 24. It has been going better each year. My body is responding again in a proper way, but it took several years.
iRunFar: When you took the couple of years off cross-country skiing, was it then that you started running or when did that come about?
Haugsnes: Yeah, I started running, doing uphill races when I was around 22 or 23. I saw that I had a talent for it but I kept trying with cross-country skiing as well. I didn’t have the same success in cross-country skiing. I don’t know what happened. My body just doesn’t respond as well to the cross-country ski training anymore. It was maybe because the whole situation from when I was younger–it was so negative–that, when I tried training for that again, my body didn’t react so well. I didn’t really start to focus on the running until I had a job and kids came into the picture. I had less spare time so I had to focus on what used up the least time!
iRunFar: You never ran before that, when you were younger?
Haugsnes: Not more than normal for cross-country training, but I saw I had a talent for running and especially trail running and running uphill compared to my ski buddies that I trained with.
iRunFar: And was there a big trail running scene there on the island where you grew up?
Haugsnes: No, not where I’m from! It’s a small place so there’s not too many people that run and compete. There is not a big running community where I come from.
iRunFar: When did you become aware that there was this whole other world out there of mountain and trail runners?
Haugsnes: It was when I started doing more competitions in Norway and I saw what’s out there. For me, traveling to a competition in Norway, in the southwest part of Norway, is quite expensive, so it’s cheaper to go to Chamonix to run in a competition! In fact, it doesn’t even take much more time to get there either and it doesn’t cost any more at all. So I thought, I might go and try something outside Norway, too. I had done all the big competitions in Norway at that stage.
iRunFar: You’d done pretty well in those competitions back in Norway?
Haugsnes: Yeah, pretty well. As well as you can do when you have this guy, Thorbjorn Ludvigsen. He’s just so strong! I’ve just been behind him all the time. I think I beat him once, but there are five or six really strong uphill runners in Norway.
iRunFar: It seems like uphill running is really popular there?
Haugsnes: Yeah it is. Running, generally, is really popular right now in Norway. In the last two or three years, it’s just seen a big growth.
iRunFar: When you were running all those uphill races back home and doing well, Eirik, that was quite recently, was it?
Haugsnes: Yeah. I felt like I was at a good level but then, last year, I just jumped up to a higher level. I felt like I really took a big step. That’s how it goes, you can be at a certain level for some years and then you say, “Okay, now I have to do something!” So you do something with your training and get a little more focused and then, [snaps his fingers] it just clicks and you go up a level. That happened with me last season. Suddenly I was two or three minutes faster than the year before on the longer uphill races and that can make a big difference.
iRunFar: It also gives you a boost of confidence too and more enthusiasm, I’d imagine?
Haugsnes: Yeah, it does. Your whole focus changes. This season and last season has been really fun. The most important, for me, is that, since I have been focused on sport and athletics my whole life, that my body is responding again. That’s the most important. I’m at the same level now as I was when I was younger, actually. Ten years ago, I thought that would never happen. I thought my time was gone and that I had been at my top performance level when I was 16 and 17 years old. Now I can say that, “Okay, I’m back again and I’m 32!” [laughs] Now I remember how my body responds to training again, I can plan training and know that the outcome will be good. Ten years ago that didn’t happen.
iRunFar: I guess now, too, you’re in your thirties so your whole mentality has probably changed–your view of the world–you’re probably not going to be shouting to the local newspaper that you’re going to be a world champion. [laughs]
Haugsnes: [laughs] No, no, no, not anymore! I’ve learned from that! I don’t think it’s wrong to do that when you’re 16. It’s good to have that attitude that you want to be the best.
iRunFar: For sure, it’s the boldness of youth!
Haugsnes: Yeah, but it creates a pressure, for sure. When you then fail, it’s not good because I feel that I have actually failed because I set a high standard and my goal was so high. It’s hard to handle, I think.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s tough. Looking at the success story this year then, I guess the big breakthrough for you was the weekend of the two Skyrunning races in Chamonix, the Mont Blanc Vertical Kilometer, where you got third, and the Mont Blanc Marathon where you finished fifth. Before you went to Chamonix, did you think that you could go there and do what you did or did you have any idea that you had those results in you?
Haugsnes: No, I didn’t know that at all, that I was so close to Kilian [Jornet] and the other guys. I thought I was going to be about 39 minutes in the VK, but I didn’t focus on that. I focused on going there and running my own race. The Vertical Kilometer had an interval start in Chamonix and, for me, that’s good because I come from cross-country skiing and we’re used to those starts. You can start at your own pace and you can control the pace all the way. I know some people react very negatively to interval starts because they start too hard or don’t push themselves so well when they are alone. I train a lot alone and I push myself well when I’m alone. I was in France with my family for the week before and we had a really nice time. Then I went up to Chamonix with my wife and her brother and my sister-in-law and we had a really great weekend. Everything together created a good situation for having a good race.
iRunFar: How surprised where you?
Haugsnes: [laughs] For the Vertical K, I was… [laughing] I was flying! I started the race early and I knew that Kilian had 36:09, so I had something to go after. Then, when I saw that there was 100 meters left and I was on 33 minutes, I knew I was going really fast. That was super surprising. I was just flying, I was feeling really light. I had a good day. I think it’s one of those days you have once a year maybe. It was one of those super days!
iRunFar: Wow! But you followed it up with another super day in the marathon only two days after the Vertical K, right?
Haugsnes: Yeah, at the beginning of the marathon, I just felt great. I really focused on that weekend and just hit the spot with my form. I really hit the top on the VK and also the marathon. It was a great experience. Also suddenly to run with Kilian and the other guys…
iRunFar: Was that your first time lining up against those guys?
Haugsnes: Yeah, that was my first time! I used to look on the Internet and see the movies with Kilian and suddenly you’re there and running with them. That’s really nice!
iRunFar: How about the whole culture surrounding Skyrunning, what did you think of that?
Haugsnes: I was really impressed, especially with the marathon. When you run the course, there are lots of people around and lots of music. It’s an amazing atmosphere, running through the small villages and the people are all cheering. Even at the top point of the course, there were people there as well, playing music. It was a beautiful day with perfect conditions.
iRunFar: It’s not really much of an exaggeration to say that that weekend kinda’ changed your life, Eirik. I mean, after that, you got sponsorship offers and have raced other Skyrunning races because of that weekend, right?
Haugsnes: Yeah, of course. That was a life-changing experience as far as my running goes.
iRunFar: It must have felt cool! [laughs]
Haugsnes: Yeah, it was really interesting. [laughs] I was lucky in a way because I still had two weeks left of my vacation so I really had time to focus on that. Normally my days are packed, I don’t have a lot of free time when I work and train and spend time with my family. I had offers coming from the French Asics team–they offered to help me. And then I contacted Inov-8 through my friend, who is the Inov-8 guy in Norway. I know him quite well through cross-country skiing because he is also into that. Now I am sponsored by Inov-8 and am super happy about that.
iRunFar: Sweet. You’re now part of the whole scene! You raced Matterhorn Ultraks [he finished ninth] after Mont Blanc and then you’ll race Limone Extreme, the final Sky series race, this weekend. [He finished 29th.] That must feel amazing?
Haugsnes: It’s unbelievable! I saw that I was sixth in the Sky World Series!
iRunFar: From seeing Kilian and the others in movies, you are now being billed alongside them as one of the big names on the circuit. That’s a big turnaround for you.
Haugsnes: Yeah, I race with them. It’s a big change from where I started this winter, when I was sitting at home in my office between patients and I’d watch Kilian on the Internet to get some motivation. You know, when it’s dark outside, you have to watch something to get your motivation up before training. It’s like, Okay, I have to go out this evening after the kids have gone to bed, I have to go and run two hours in the dark in minus 10 degrees [Celsius]. You need some serious motivation to do that, [laughs] Watching movies with Kilian is good motivation for that. Then suddenly I’m here and running with him and doing the Skyraces. It’s unbelievable!
iRunFar: [laughs] That’s pretty unbelievable. Have you thought about next season?
Haugsnes: I’ve started to think about that. This year, I did the Empire State Building Run-Up in New York. [The Vertical World Circuit, Eirik finished fifth.] That was mostly for fun. I went with my wife and my kids, my whole family was in New York for a week, living in a small hotel room. [laughs] It was a nice experience but it was kind of hard, you know? When we came back from New York, we were tired.
iRunFar: Would you like to run more of the Skyscraper races on the VWC?
Haugsnes: I won’t focus on it this winter. I’ll stay at home and train. I’ll do the TransGranCanaria 84k in March. I ran that last winter, too. [He was fifth.]
iRunFar: Do you plan on racing more longer distances next year?
Haugsnes: I think I’ll just focus on the marathons and the Sky races. I think they’re more suitable for me. I haven’t the time to prepare and I haven’t the time, after the ultras, to relax enough. I have to go straight back to work. That’s too hard for me if I have to do a 100k and be at work the day after. I think I’ll focus on the Sky races and VKs too. But I will do the TransGranCanaria 84k this winter.
iRunFar: That’ll be nice to break up the long, Arctic winter with some Canary Island sun.
Haugsnes: Exactly, break up the winter and go there for two weeks and do some running and race at the end of the vacation. Then I’ll go home and I can ski, cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering. They are different physically and I can relax my legs and recover.
iRunFar: You said that last year you changed your training a little, refocused and stepped up a level in performance. Do you think it’s possible to do that again and get even better?
Haugsnes: I hope so! I’m thinking about how to train, now I’m planning and thinking, how should I train for next year?
iRunFar: You feel like you have more to give?
Haugsnes: I think so and I hope so! You never know but I think you have to have that thought in your head, that you have something more to give or else I wouldn’t have the motivation. I’m really motivated for next year because I think I have something more. I just have to find the right way to get it out! And also to find the right training schedule that will work for me and my family as well, so we get that good flow. That’s important when you have family and kids. The balance and the rhythm. That’s what happened two years ago with my wife and kids. We found a good rhythm and I could train and also relax after training because that’s important, too. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. Well, that’s not true, of course you’re never wasting your time when you’re running in the mountains.