Vertical Valhalla: An Interview With Thorbjørn Ludvigsen
The element of surprise. The Norwegian vikings were famous for it and now their trail runners are carrying on the tradition, it seems. Take Thorbjørn Ludvigsen’s swift raid on the Skyrunning’s Limone Xtreme races in Italy last year. He arrived below the radar and left three days later with a second place in the Vertical Kilometer (VK) and a top-10 finish in the Skyrace. I chatted with Thorbjørn as he sets his sights on a tilt at the 2014 Skyrunning Sky and Vertical series.
iRunFar: Thorbjørn, you were almost completely unknown outside of Norway before the Skyrunning finale, Limone Xtreme, last October. Then you went there and finished second in the VK and ninth in the Skyrace and were the name on everybody’s lips that weekend. That must have been pretty cool?
Thorbjørn Ludvigsen: Yes, it was. It was after that [race] that Salomon contacted me to see if I wanted to be a part of the team. So Limone was a really big breakthrough for me.
iRunFar: Sweet. I interviewed fellow Norwegian mountain runner and friend of yours, Eirik Haugsnes, recently. He seemingly came from nowhere to run riot at the Mont Blanc VK and Marathon last year and was soon sponsored and traveling around Europe to races. Was it a case of, “If he can do it, I can do it?”
Ludvigsen: Yeah, it’s true. After Eirik performed so well in Chamonix, it’s like you say, I thought, Maybe I can try, too, and see how it goes? I run a lot of competitions against Eirik here in Norway and normally I do well; we’re somewhere around the same level. When he did well at Mont Blanc, I thought that maybe I could do the same at Limone. Then when I went there, I had a really good day for the Vertical Kilometer and went okay at the Skyrace—it could have been better. I finished ninth, it was okay.
iRunFar: Your little plan worked out. [laughs] You’re now part of Salomon team.
Ludvigsen: [laughs] Yeah, Salomon was the team I really wanted to be part of because they have one of the biggest teams in my opinion and it seemed like they have a really good atmosphere in the team, too—they’re always seemingly laughing and having fun. So, for me, Salomon was the place that I really wanted to try for. I’m really grateful that Greg [Vollet] asked me if I wanted to be part of the team. It’s fantastic.
iRunFar: You just returned from Advanced Week with the team and it just so happened to be in Limone this year. That must have been really nice going back. It’s only a few months since you were there as an unknown and un-sponsored runner. How was that?
Ludvigsen: Yeah, it was really great to be back in Limone because we were only there a couple of days last year and now we had the whole week. We got to see a lot more of the trails and mountains. The trails there are really spectacular because they just go straight up and then it’s just straight down—it’s really tough and really technical. It was really nice to see a bit more of the terrain and to train with all the guys and girls from Salomon. I got to try out all the new gear and shoes, too. It’s something that I’ve dreamed of and suddenly you’re there and you have Kilian [Jornet], you have Emelie [Forsberg], and everybody that you looked up to before and, now, you’re just hanging around together and talking to them and training together—it’s really strange! [laughs]
iRunFar: Great, it must give you a boost, too? Is it the case that you try to learn from the others and improve?
Ludvigsen: Yes, of course. They are really good athletes and when you’re training with the best, you also make good progression yourself—so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to become better and share new experiences. It’s a perfect setting to improve and try and become a better runner.
iRunFar: It’s obviously working, too. You won the [BVG Trail Marathon] at the end of the week in Limone, didn’t you?
Ludvigsen: Yeah, but it wasn’t really a race—almost nobody from the team ran. [laughs] I can’t use that race to prove how good I am compared to the others! It was fun, though, and good training. It was a great way to end the week and afterward we had a party and everybody had fun.
iRunFar: Cool. So going back to your life in Norway, Thorbjørn, where are you from?
Ludvigsen: I grew up in Bergen, it’s on the west coast…
iRunFar: It’s famous for having a lot of rain, right?
Ludvigsen: Oh yeah, lots of rain. [laughs] You’re really lucky if you come to Bergen and have sun because normally it’s just raining and raining and raining. It’s really beautiful when you get the sun but, unfortunately, it’s not very many days when that happens. [laughs] I think it’s a good place to be, though. It’s a good place for training. You have a lot of mountains nearby that are around 1,000 meters [3,300 feet] and then the higher mountains you have to drive about an hour and normally there is nearly always snow in the winter season. You can do training in the snow and also training on the road and easy trails—you have a lot of variety in Bergen.
iRunFar: Is your background in athletics or cross-country skiing or did you come into running from a different angle?
Ludvigsen: Now, normally I run throughout the whole year; I don’t do a whole lot of skiing. I go running in the snow in the winter. It’s a great workout for the legs—we’re a group running two or three times a week in the snow. Other than that it’s running trails. When I was younger I didn’t do a whole lot of sports. It was just football [soccer] because that’s what all the other kids were doing. Then I started cycling a lot when I was about 15. It was in 2010 that I started focusing a lot on running and that’s when I had my breakthrough here in Norway, too. I won a big uphill race in Bergen called Stoltzekleiven Opp in 2010 and then I thought, Wow, maybe I can be even better! So my first proper season was in 2011 when I started running all the time but mostly uphill. I also ran longer distances a little bit but really it was nearly all uphill. Since then it’s been great and I think I’ve improved. Last year, 2013, was my best season yet and I broke some records.
iRunFar: You haven’t really been running so long; 2010 was not that long ago…
Ludvigsen: No, it wasn’t too long ago. But, like I said, I started cycling a lot before that and had a good base fitness. Back then I had up to 28 hours of cycling a week—that’s quite a lot because I was working full time, too. When I started running a lot in 2010 and made my training more specific for uphill running, I had an advantage because of the foundation from the bike training. I’ve always liked to be out in the wild, too—to go hiking and things like that—but never trail running, not until 2010.
iRunFar: It must have been cool then to discover that you were such a good trail runner, and that you could combine your love for the outdoors and nature with moving fast on your feet?
Ludvigsen: Yeah, absolutely. That’s actually what I love about it. I love the mountains. I love the trails and now, when I run, I can see much more of it in a shorter time. You can run and go a lot further than just hiking. You can be out for four hours and travel 30 or 40k no problem. I think that’s really great because normally for hikers that distance would be almost like an expedition. [laughs] To be able to put on my running shoes and some light clothes and just go running for several hours and see as much as I can, it’s just so cool.
iRunFar: Yeah, that’s what it’s all about. You’re known as the ‘Stoltzekongen’ [the Stoltz King] back in Bergen because of your four wins at the race we talked about earlier, Stoltzekleiven Opp. What’s the history of that race?
Ludvigsen: I know a little about the race history. It’s a really steep uphill that’s made up of rocks that make a kind of staircase. They used it a long time ago as a track up to some cows or something like that—it’s a really old transportation track. The first race was held there in 1979 so it’s a pretty old race. Now it’s really big. The first race had about 20 or 30 people and now there’s 4,000 people. That’s a lot of people when you consider that there are only about 30,000 people in Bergen!
It’s a short race, too, only 900 meters. But you climb 300 vertical meters, so it’s about a 34% incline. When you start you have to just go and sprint the whole way if you want to have a good time—it’s a really tough race. I’ve won it the last four years and I think it’s one of the worst races. I’m actually a lot more exhausted when I cross the finish line there than when I run a mountain marathon. [laughs] It’s different, when you run a mountain race, your whole body is exhausted, but here, because you run so fast, you pretty much have no oxygen left. Of course, you recover much faster than a big mountain race but, at first, when you cross the finish line, it’s really bad, it’s terrible. [laughs]
iRunFar: You won it four times but how many times have you ran there?
Ludvigsen: I ran first in 2008, but then I was mainly cycling so my time was not that good. It was okay but nothing really to talk about. Then in 2010, I trained specifically for uphill and trained a bit on the course, too. My training times just got better and better and I thought in 2010, I’m going to win this year! It was really good that I won because I’d told my family and friends that I was going to win it. [laughs] It was big pressure before the start. Nobody else there knew about me at all and they were quite shocked that I won the race because they had never heard about me. That was fun. It was kind of the same when I raced in Limone last year because nobody knew who I was. It’s great because the only pressure you have is from yourself. Nobody else expects anything of you because you’re unknown. Of course, once you win, then the pressure gets bigger and bigger because people have expectations.
iRunFar: Cool. Stoltzekleiven sounds like a unique kind of race. Another quirky race that you’ve just won is the Empire State Building Run-Up in New York, New York.
Ludvigsen: Yeah, it’s a big, iconic race. It felt really strange because I didn’t expect to win there.
iRunFar: The Vertical World Circuit, the skyscraper racing championship tour, is a pretty niche running experience. How did you first hear about it?
Ludvigsen: Yeah it’s a strange form of running. [laughs] It was actually Eirik [Haugsnes] that introduced me to it. He tried the Empire State Building race in 2012 and he said that I should try it, too. He thought that I could do well. I thought, Why not, I’ll try. So I sent an application in 2013 but I didn’t get in. I then joined a charity team for cancer and I got in that way. With my time in 2013 I was invited to run with the elites at this year’s race [which took place about] two months ago.
iRunFar: Does winning this year’s event open up more skyscraper racing for you? Is that going to be another side to your running career?
Ludvigsen: I don’t think I’ll do a lot of stair running. This year it’s really important for me to do the Skyrunning events—both the VK and the shorter Skyraces up to the marathon distance. Maybe there might be some races after the Skyrunning season that I could do but it’s not my priority. The stair running is fun but, for me, being outdoors in the nature is my favourite.
iRunFar: Do you plan on running all of the Skyraces?
Ludvigsen: I’m going to start with Zegama in Spain. That’s my first one. The level is going to be really high for that race; there are so many good runners taking part there. There are also so many competitors along the course cheering you on; it’s going to be great. Like I said, most of the best runners are going to be there so it’ll be a really good test to see how I’m going to do in the Sky series. That will be exciting. For the VK’s, I’ll do just three races, the Ice Trail Tarentaise VK in Val d’Isere, France, the Matterhorn Ultraks VK, and also the VK in Limone. I’m also going to run at the Skyrunning World Championships in Chamonix, France, both the Marathon and VK. That’s going to be amazing, I hope! I have big hopes for the VK but you never know, everything has to be right on the day so it’s going to be really tough.
iRunFar: There will be lots of travel for you this summer. How do you get so much time off? What do you do for work?
Ludvigsen: I work part time as a house builder for Skanska, which is a big company in Norway and also globally. Their main U.S. office is in New York in the Empire State Building actually, so they were really happy that I got to race there. It’s funny for them that one of their employees won the race! I’ve been working for them for about three years now—out in the field, swinging the hammer. [laughs] It’s cool because they also sponsor me. I have two days per week where I can train instead of going to work.
iRunFar: That’s fantastic.
Ludvigsen: Yeah, it’s fantastic because I get to go running and still get paid as if I was at work—it’s perfect and I’m very lucky that they sponsor me. It makes it so much easier for me to improve my running. Also, if I come to them and say, “I need to travel next week.” They say, “Okay, that’s no problem, take the days off.” They understand what I’m doing. It’s not every company that would be that understanding!
iRunFar: Wow, it sounds like you found a great place to work, Thorbjørn. You just got back from a 110k run in Norway from Bergen to Voss. Can you tell me a little about that?
Ludvigsen: Yeah, it was one of my friends who wanted to do it for a long time—to run from Bergen to Voss. It’s quite well known in Bergen because there’s this bike race here that goes to Voss. We wanted to do the same thing but run across the mountains. The goal was to do it in 24 hours. We actually didn’t do it and it took 25 hours. We’re just happy to do it. There were three of us and it was like a little expedition, just for fun. That’s the longest I’ve run. Before that I’ve ran the IAU Trail World Championships in Connemara, Ireland which was 71k. This was different though because there was no real route. We ran straight through forest and all different types of nature. We didn’t have any trails. The last 40k we ran in the snow, which was really heavy and wet snow—that was really tough.
iRunFar: Did the experience make you think that you’d like to run some longer ultras like UTMB or Western States maybe?
Ludvigsen: Not really! Right now I’m only thinking about the Skyraces up to maybe 50k. At the moment that’s my limit!
iRunFar: We talked about being an unknown earlier, the advantages that it brings. Now that you have made a breakthrough and are part of the Salomon team, that anonymity is gone. Does that make you feel more pressure or is it mainly excitement that you feel? How is your mindset coming into what will be pretty much your debut season?
Ludvigsen: No, I don’t feel more pressure because it’s my first season. I’ve done some races of course but not like this. But, if the first races go well, then the pressure increases because people expect you to do well. Right now I’m not thinking about that, though; I’m just concentrating on my training. My main goal is to have fun and enjoy the moment. This is going to be an experience of a lifetime.