Sweden’s Ida Nilsson won the 2016 Transvulcania Ultramarathon in commanding fashion, though she’s newcomer to the trail-ultrarunning scene. In this interview, Ida talks about her history with high-level track and field, her long break from running due to injury, and her recent return to competitive racing. She also talks about how her race played out.
Check out our results article for the full race story.
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Ida Nilsson, 2016 Transvulcania Ultramarathon Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and it’s the day after the 2016 Transvulcania Ultramarathon. I’m with women’s champion, Ida Nilsson. Good morning, and congratulations!
Ida Nilsson: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: It’s the morning after the race. How did you wake up feeling today?
Nilsson: I haven’t really woken up this morning. I was awake the entire night.
iRunFar: Oh, you didn’t sleep?
Nilsson: No, I was sore and all the small scars. I was also really hungry, so I went up early this morning and had breakfast.
iRunFar: You were the first one there knocking on the door? Let me in for the food!
iRunFar: So you are fairly new to the ultrarunning scene. You ran the Ultravasan 90k last fall which is a little bit longer in distance but shorter in time. Yesterday was as long as you’ve run yet. How did it feel to be out there for so long?
Nilsson: Actually, I felt good the whole time. I think I learned something from Ultravasan that I started to take energy too late. I felt I had energy around 25k and I realized you still are running, but it’s so easy to just step down and run a little bit slower. So this time I tried to be regular all the time just looking at the clock and don’t feel like, Oh, am I hungry or thirsty, but to empty the two bottles until the next station and have more again. I felt I had good energy and could push the entire race. I’m happy with that.
iRunFar: You are relatively new to the sport of trail running, but people who are fans of track and field will know you as a stand-out collegiate runner in America. You raced for NAU. Talk about your beginnings with the sport. How did you compete in Sweden in your home prior to coming to race in the U.S.?
Nilsson: I started as a kid. My parents run.
iRunFar: Both of your folks do?
Nilsson: Yeah, we had a really active home life. I started early as a kid just to do races. I did other track and field events also just training with a club. When you get a bit older, they like you better to run. Yeah, I just started training more and more. In high school I went to another town to a track and field high school to get some more help with training after school. That was really nice for me because that’s the age people usually quit, and I was quite by myself when I was 13-14 in my hometown. So, I thought it was great. You go to a place and you have friends to run with and a coach to do your workouts. When I was 13-14, I decided my own workouts. I could go to track and make up something and do it. So I felt, Oh! I have someone to figure out the workouts and people to run with. For me, it was great. University, then, was just a keep going of that—easy to train and a nice life, too.
iRunFar: I don’t know anything about your high school level running, but you must have had some noteworthy performances in order to be scouted and brought across to run in America.
Nilsson: Yeah, I was one of the best juniors in Sweden. I ran some European Cross Country Championships. I wasn’t super good. I think it’s funny because I thought it would be easier later on to make the national team growing up when I was younger because I wasn’t… some people train very hard, very early and are super good when they are 14-15. I was good, but I wasn’t a standout.
iRunFar: Good enough to get noticed. Then when you came and competed at NAU, you were a steeplechase standout.
Nilsson: Yes, I did mainly the steeplechase and the 5k. Steeplechase was quite new, and I was one of the first ones in Sweden to compete in it. I ran in the first steeplechase race in Sweden that was ever organized. It’s really nice to see how it’s growing and growing—from quite bad technique in the beginning to be good competitive steeplechase.
iRunFar: There are several of you who are now competing in trail running who did collegiate steeplechase. It makes me think if there’s something that draws a person to wanting to race steeplechase on the track that then draws them to trail running—the adventurous aspect of it?
Nilsson: I think a little bit. Maybe both steeplechase and cross country and this, it’s a little bit… I notice the same with the planning to make a barrier and also maybe sometimes the planning when you’re working on the trails. I also think it’s a little bit… in steeplechase, you never feel like, Oh, this is so easy and I can kick in, like maybe you can do on a flat race. You have to work the whole time. It’s the same, I think, with cross country and trail running. You have to be more… like to suffer a little bit more.
iRunFar: How did you ever find your way from doing events that are 3k and 5k long to 75k yesterday?
Nilsson: I had a big break actually. After I finished university, I went back to Sweden. That was the time I really wanted to go for running and train even harder and go to the Olympics. You want to keep pushing up. Then all my problems started. I had so many years with different injuries. The final blow was I got a serious hip injury. I had to completely stop. I didn’t run at all for five years except for a few times per year maybe. It was actually just last summer I started to race and run again. Then I felt like, Okay, you’ve gone so many years. It’s not an option to start running track again. I don’t think my body could handle it even. It was too hard. I wasn’t motivated to run slower times on the track either. So then I was like, Oh, I always like to be outside hiking a lot. Even while I was injured, I travelled a lot. Then I was usually hiking when I went to nice countries with mountains. I always really loved to be in the mountains and in forests and on trails. Even when I was a track runner, I ran most of my trainings on trails and soft surfaces. Maybe not so steep like now, but I always enjoyed soft surfaces. I really enjoyed running on the road. When I started to run last summer, I did a little bit of everything—road racing, half marathons, 10ks, I did some shorter mountain races in Sweden and Norway. I was just happy to race again.
iRunFar: You race Tromsø last year?
Nilsson: No, I didn’t.
iRunFar: You raced a mountain marathon?
Nilsson: Yes, in Sweden, the Axa Marathon in Åre.
iRunFar: Did you just pick that one because you were just trying out lots of different races, or did someone tell you to try out that distance of mountain running?
Nilsson: That specific race I wanted to run for a few years, but it never really worked out because I got injured again and had problems. Last summer, I could finally do it. Then I was a little bit behind and caught up right at the end and got to win, so that was really nice because it’s the biggest mountain marathon in Sweden. There were a lot of people who said it’s the next step, and now I can try this.
iRunFar: Kind of a bucket list thing for people in Sweden?
Nilsson: Yes, a little bit. It starts when people experience the race.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about your race yesterday. When the race started, you just sort of headed out and did your own thing the entire day. You were not with any other girls the whole time. Is that right?
Nilsson: Yes, I saw Mira [Rai] and Anna [Frost] in the beginning, and I had passed them, and I was actually not until half way to El Pilar that I knew I was in the lead. In the beginning, it’s dark and there are so many guys that you don’t know and maybe someone slipped out. I thought maybe I was in the lead, but I wasn’t really sure. Then when you can see longer and it starts to get light, you say, “No, no one can be so far ahead that…”
iRunFar: That I can’t see them.
Nilsson: No, so then I just had to do it. I went out hard and then you just have to keep pushing yourself. It wasn’t really my race plan. That was to be more with the people until El Pilar because I didn’t think I was going to be so strong in the sand when it’s uphill, because I never consider myself a strong uphill runner. I always was bad in the uphills when I ran cross country. I thought maybe the other half would be my best part, but I had to push a bit. So, now, the whole race was more consistent. I haven’t seen the checkpoint times, but it felt like it was just getting more and more. I didn’t get any good… like someone says, “Oh, you’ve got three minutes at El Pilar,” and then at the end, “Oh, you’ve got five minutes.” Five minutes is not so much when you’ve got the downhill. That could easily change. I was never really until got to Tazacorte and knew I had a good lead.
iRunFar: At El Pilar, you were a couple minutes in front of the other girls. It was sort of Ida, and then crickets chirping, and then bam, bam, bam the other girls in a line behind each other. Already, at least from my perspective in El Pilar, you had sort of set yourself in front of the other girls. But it didn’t feel that way to you—you were just sort of doing your own thing?
Nilsson: Yeah, because I didn’t know. Of course, sometimes you can see back and see you don’t see anyone, but it’s nice to have more… but it’s hard for people to tell minutes because the course is so spread out that you can’t get good reports. You just have… my feeling was good, and I knew I was passing some guys. I felt like I wasn’t going slow.
iRunFar: You’re not passing me yet.
Nilsson: That’s a good feeling when you know and think you’re strong.
iRunFar: This race has lots of different parts to it. There’s an incredible amount of mostly runnable climbing. There are some sort of rolling but fairly rocky and rubbley terrain. There’s that huge decent. There’s that evil finish of having to run through the wash and climb back to the city. What parts of the course did you really like yesterday? You said you were surprised that the climbing suited you. What else surprised you?
Nilsson: I really like the little bit rolling when you can run and you feel like you have good speed. It’s the narrow trail and you go along the ledge. There are a lot of good parts. Even the part coming down towards El Pilar is very nice. Also, that whole ridge has very nice spots to run on.
iRunFar: How did that ridge up at 8,000 feet feel to you? You come from a fairly low altitude country.
Nilsson: Actually, I stayed in Chamonix the whole winter, so I have been up.
iRunFar: Oh, no problem then.
Nilsson: Of course, in the beginning it was tough because it was so many years since I lived in Flagstaff and trained in altitude, but I always had quite easily adapted to altitude. So this time I didn’t feel when I was… I didn’t notice too much when I came here because you’re always breathing hard when you’re climbing uphill. It’s hard to tell. You can’t really know. It’s hard down there when you start in the sunshine after.
iRunFar: Right. Climbing at sea level in the sand is kind of like being at altitude, isn’t it?
iRunFar: Did you let yourself—say you got to Tazacorte and your crew tells you you now have a good lead, and you just have this evil climb back up to the finish—did you let yourself start celebrating and let it sink in that you’re about to win a very competitive trail ultra?
Nilsson: No, I felt a little bit more secure as a winner when people started saying, “Oh, there’s the champion,” and they’re cheering. But I think it was right at the end when I started to suffer really much in the uphill because mentally I’m almost there, and I got really tired all the sudden. So in that, the last hill, I had to walk sometimes. I was so out of breath. Then it’s a long finish also.
iRunFar: A really long, flat finish.
Nilsson: Yeah, people just want to clap your hands. I felt so gross. I’d fallen, so I had blood all over and I’m trying to…
iRunFar: Fist bump!
Nilsson: Yeah, I tried to do it with this side. You’re quite exhausted, but you’re so happy that everyone is cheering, but it’s also quite tough to move through so many people when everyone is so supportive.
iRunFar: When you crossed the finish line, you had your eyes on the clock. Were you just checking out the time, or did you have your eye on the course record?
Nilsson: I didn’t think of the course record at all before the race, but I had a plan that I needed to run at least under nine hours. Then my plan was about three hours to El Pilar, and I had 2:45 there. I felt like it was a good time. But then I was a little bit disappointed because I ran part of the course earlier in the week, and I knew a little bit what you could expect to run for times to different points. Maybe I could have three hours to the next one, but then with that extra aid station totally destroyed the course record or a good time because it took at least ten extra minutes to go down there. That was the only part of the course I didn’t like because it’s no fun hiking up again on this loose sand along the fence to get back on the track again. It’s too bad it’s not the same course as the last years because you can’t really compare. It’s an extra…
iRunFar: Yes, definitely extra time out there. My last question for you: where are we going to see you next? Where will we see you this summer?
Nilsson: The races I have planned now, the ultra races, are Ultravasan again in August, and then the World Championships in Trail Running in Portugal. Then I have a lot of small races in between doing other things. Now when it went well, maybe some more Sky Races. We will see.
iRunFar: Some more technical and mountainy stuff?
Nilsson: Yes, I’ll have to practice that.
iRunFar: Congratulations. It looks like you don’t have to practice too much. You did just fine yesterday.
Nilsson: Thank you.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your win, Ida.