Skiing With Ida Nilsson

An in-depth profile of trail runner and ski mountaineer Ida Nilsson.

By on February 15, 2018 | Comments

If patience is a virtue and an injury is a blessing in disguise, then Ida Nilsson is a living testament to the truth of those aphorisms.

Nilsson is known, at least among readers of this website, for her world-class running performances on some of the world’s biggest ultrarunning stages. Indeed, in 2016 and 2017 alike, she won both the Transvulcania Ultramarathon (2016 and 2017 interviews) in the Canary Islands of Spain and The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships (2016 and 2017 interviews) in California, USA. The Swede currently living in Norway has a rich history of running success that dates back as far as the early 2000s when she was an 11-time All-American at Northern Arizona University.

Yet for about half a dozen years—from roughly the late-2000s to the mid-2010s—Nilsson was not a champion runner. She waited tables and worked in kitchens. She traveled and explored the world. She lived in different places throughout Europe. And when her job kept her on her feet for hours or her exploring kept her walking for miles, her hip joint still ached. She wasn’t able to jog for more than a few miles at a time without significant discomfort. As it happened, she had sustained a stress fracture in her hip joint not long after college that never seemed to fully heal. She would try to take time off but she would return to training too quickly.

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Photo: David Arino of Ida Nilsson pushing hard in a 2018 ISMF World Cup event in Andorra

“When [you’re trying to compete at a top level], your time perspective is off. A couple months seems like a long time. To think that you might need to take off a year from training…[laughs]. I think I had bad luck and I made some bad choices,” Nilsson admits.

She sought medical advice and even considered surgery as an option, but, ultimately, she simply had to take extended time off and wait, hoping that the injury would eventually subside. Yet Nilsson resolved to live a fruitful and enjoyable life, even if it was devoid of competitive running.

Nilsson explains: “I thought I would never run again. I started to make a new life. You have to accept everything. It took a little while. Running was always most important to me. It was natural for me. When I couldn’t do it, it was like, I don’t want to do anything. You get like a stubborn kid [laughs]. After a year I thought, Okay, there are other things that I can do that I like besides run. I can live an okay life instead of a really shitty life [laughs].”

Nilsson kept traveling, exploring, and working. Over the years, she was able to do some hiking and cross-country skiing, but nothing like the days when she competed and raced at a top collegiate level. But after some years, in 2014, she wanted to participate more in the outdoors again—if not in competition, then at least for her profession. So, Nilsson moved to a ski resort in the north of Sweden and began taking courses at a nature-guiding program to learn the basics of guiding, with plans to start a career as an outdoors guide. The program taught the very basics about being in the outdoors and didn’t include lessons on backcountry skiing or the like, but it was during this year and a half in the nature program that a teacher, outside of class, introduced her to ski mountaineering.

“I’m from the south of Sweden so I had never really been downhill skiing. Everything was new [in the mountains of northern Sweden]. It’s amazing to have winters with snow. That’s really how I started—I was with people who were very passionate about lots of snow in the winter. I wanted to ski more,” Nilsson says.

Given Nilsson’s background in running, the nature program’s teacher thought Nilsson would naturally excel at uphill skiing. Nilsson began to ski uphill and she liked it—the freedom, the endorphins, the exploration. Her penchant for mountain life only grew during her time at the nature program and so when she was offered a guiding job at a mountain hut in 2015 further north in Sweden, where the mountains were bigger, she gladly accepted.

“So, at first, I didn’t get why you would ski up the hill because I was using the lifts [laughs]. Then, the next year, I moved further north in Sweden and there was more freedom there and you could walk up any mountain you’d like and ski down. That’s when I started to train a bit more.”

Better still, aside from a few flare-ups that eventually completely subsided, her injury had finally healed and she was running pain-free again. Her friend, Johan Lantz, even convinced her in the summer of 2015 to run farther than she ever had before, and Nilsson ran 90 kilometers in seven hours and five minutes to finish second at the 2015 Ultravasan 90k, her first ultra.

“That wasn’t really the plan [laughs]. It just sort of happened. [Johan] talked me into it,” Nilsson recalls.

The ultrarunning bug may have been planted that summer, but it was also Nilsson’s interest in winter mountain activities that blossomed that year.

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Photo: David Arino of teammates Ida Nilsson and Fanny Borgström competing for Sweden in the 2017 ISMF Ski Mountaineering World championships in Italy

The Keb Classic is a two-day, team ski-mountaineering race in northern Sweden, in which teams of two navigate mountainous terrain on skis and, when necessary, by foot. The race even takes its competitors to the top of Sweden’s highest mountain, although Nilsson giggles when she admits that “doesn’t mean that it’s very high.” Nilsson heard about the event during her time at the nature-guiding program in 2014. The next year, she was living closer to the site of the race, and with more experience under her belt, she signed up. It would just so happen that fellow Swede Emelie Forsberg and mountain phenomenon Kilian Jornet were also competing in the Keb Classic that year. Nilsson brilliantly explains her perspective at the time:

“It’s kind of like if you could imagine running without any [television]. Maybe all you know are the runners around you and you don’t know that Kenyans exist who can run 26 minutes in the 10k [laughs]. For me, it was crazy to see Kilian rising up the mountain, the technique. The next winter I thought, I want to learn this sport properly. And to do that you have to go to Europe where it’s a big sport.”

Fortunately, given Nilsson’s staunch interest in European ski mountaineering, she had met the right people in Forsberg and Jornet. Later in 2015, after meeting the pair at the Keb Classic, Nilsson teamed up with Forsberg for a yoga and running camp, where the two became better acquainted. Then, that winter, in 2016, Forsberg was living in Chamonix, France, and so Nilsson drove down from Sweden and rented an apartment in the small mountain town for her first full season of ski mountaineering in Europe. Nilsson fully immersed herself in the sport that year, competing in the International Ski Mountainteering Federation World Cup races that winter and skiing some of the biggest mountains. Nilsson progressed better than she expected.

“[Emelie] had someone to follow her uphill that year who couldn’t talk [because of the physical exertion] [laughs]. I told [Emelie] before the first [race], ‘Promise. You need to tell me if I’m super bad. I don’t want to embarrass myself. You need to promise to tell me if I’m too bad to do this [laughs].’”

Nilsson didn’t need to worry too much—she finished 10th place at her first ISMF World Cup event. She continued to gain heaps of experience by racing more World Cup events that winter and she returned to Europe for racing the next winter, when she represented Sweden at the 2017 ISMF Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Italy. After a few years of experience under Forsberg’s tutelage, the pair began to recruit younger Swedish women to join them in ski mountaineering, too. The group, comprised entirely of Swedish women, has grown from Nilsson and Forsberg to half a dozen, and the ladies train together periodically throughout the winter.

“We call ourselves the Sweden skimo girls and it’s been very good to have a group to train with at times. The younger women have done really well and I’ve been so proud of their progress. We had four in the top 10 at a World Cup race this year and that was more than any other country.”

Nilsson and Forsberg don’t just ski during the winter either—they log a few runs every week. That wasn’t always the case for Nilsson but, with her injury behind her once she moved to Chamonix in the winter of 2016, Nilsson, too, began to add runs to her routine. Quietly and almost by accident, Nilsson had found a way to get back to competitive running and to continue exploring the mountains she had fallen in love with.

“I thought [when I found ski mountaineering and mountain running] it was super nice you could combine two interests—to be outside and training and in beautiful places. For me, [running and skiing] is just perfect. You can just have big days in the mountains.”

In addition to her prowess as a mountain runner, Nilsson can now be considered an accomplished ski mountaineer. She continues to improve with each season, scoring top-10 results at a bunch of World Cup events in recent years, and that’s likely to continue given her committed training regime year-round. This winter season, Nilsson lives and trains in Norway with Forsberg and Jornet. She typically logs three to five hours on skis every day and covers as much as 2,000 vertical meters in one session. The days are simple: wake up and eat, ski for three or four hours, rest and eat again, then back on the skis for an hour or else go for a run.

When Nilsson describes her routine, I can’t help but notice a satisfaction in her voice, a complete lack of yearning. She seems entirely satisfied. Nilsson becomes excited as she details the monotony of the same training daily regimen that she’s likely completed dozens of times this winter. When you talk with Nilsson about her life, it becomes quite clear that she has found a life that she loves, in a place that she loves, with people that she loves. She is genuinely happy and joyful.

“I feel like I’ve only just started [my career as an ultrarunner and ski mountaineer]. I hope it will continue like this for some time,” she confesses.

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Photo: Jordi Saragossa of Ida Nilsson during the 2017 Romsdal Rando in Norway

If Ida Nilsson had never sustained a long-term running injury, and had not been patient and understanding about it, then she might never have found work indoors. If she had never found work indoors, then she may never have pursued a career outdoors. If she had never pursued a career outdoors, then she may never have found the sport of ski mountaineering, met Emelie or Kilian, begun mountain running, become a sponsored athlete, evolved into a world-class athlete in two disciplines, or found a life that so clearly fulfills her.

Nilsson’s story should teach an important lesson: patience, perspective, perseverance, and positivity are truly useful qualities. Nilsson responded to a seemingly career-ending injury with those characteristics. She was rewarded with a renewed career, rewarding opportunities, and close friends. If you have the chance to meet Nilsson, you’ll find that she’s a bit quiet and reserved initially. But if you get to know her better, she’ll open up and share stories of her life. You’ll notice that she laughs a lot, and smiles just as much. You’ll begin to understand her view of the world and you’ll probably be inspired by it.

All of this about Ida is also infectious, and I can tell you it’s easy to feel like she acts. I’m sure your life won’t go exactly like hers–or anyone’s for that matter–if you practice the same patience, perspective, perseverance, and positivity in the face of adversity. But perhaps, if you respond to an unfortunate situation or unlucky circumstance with those character traits, you’ll endure a little more easily, or you’ll feel a little more joy through it, or the headwind will begin to feel like a tailwind. If it worked for Ida Nilsson, then it could work for us.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you seen Ida race on skis or on trails?
  • Have you had a similar pathway to developing a love for more than one outdoor sports as a result of facing adversity in one of them?
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Photo courtesy of Ida Nilsson of Ida catching turns in Norway last year.

Eric Senseman
Eric Senseman runs far to explore what’s possible and in pursuit of the good life. It will likely keep him running forever. Find out more about him at Good Sense Running.