Eszter Csillag first caught our attention in August 2021, when she placed fourth in CCC. That result was eye-catching on its own, for a relatively unknown runner without a major sponsor, but add to it the fact that she did so four months after giving birth to her second daughter, and just three months after she began training with her now coach Ida Nilsson.
Since then, she has gone on to place fifth at the 2022 Transgrancanaria 129k and is on our ones-to-watch list for this year’s UTMB.
But there’s a lot more to this Hungarian-born art historian than running. And we were itching to know more.
Eszter Csillag is the second child from a family of six and grew up in Budapest, Hungary. Her twin passions, art and running, were both part of her life from an early age. She told iRunFar:
“My great grandfather was an artist and my grandmother turned his studio into a private museum. After the change [Hungary’s peaceful transition from communism to democracy in 1989] it was one of the first private museums in Hungary in the 1990s and my family lives just below it. I grew up in this setting, I think I always wanted to be an art historian, and my grandmother always wanted me to be an art historian.”
Budapest, Hungary, is an ancient city on the River Danube, rich in culture and architectural beauty, but also a place where city life blends well with nature and the outdoors. The city is overlooked by the Transdanubian Mountains and the North Hungarian Mountains. Similar to Hong Kong, where Csillag has spent much of her adult life, it has an abundance of hills and green spaces at arm’s reach.
She told us of her childhood there:
“I was in Regnum, which is something like scouting, but a Hungarian version. We did a lot of hiking. For example, the Ultra-Trail Hungary, when I did it after coming back from Hong Kong, it was all the hikes I did in my teenage years put together!
“In school, I was running, we had a yearly big school race on Earth Day. The school was at the bottom of the hill and we had to run up it.”
Running continued to be a part of her life as she grew up, and she took part in a number of races in high school. But it still sat quietly in the background, as her passion for art was the driving force for Csillag’s next big move.
“I left Hungary when I was 22 years old to study in Rome, Italy. I wanted to study art history, but not in Hungary. I felt that the three-dimensional memory in art is very important. My second language is Italian and during secondary school, I had already spent one year in Rome, so I wanted to study in Rome. I wanted to visit [the artworks] we were learning about.”
She continued, “I was running when I was in Rome, but after high school, there were no more races, it was just for fitness really, but not trail, mainly road in the city.”
While in Rome, Csillag met her now-husband, Paul, and the couple moved to Hong Kong where she found work as an art historian — and trail running found her. She said:
“After we moved to Hong Kong, a friend, Maria, said, ‘I’m going with someone to do a run. Do you want to come?’ We went on the Twin Peaks, which are two difficult hills in Hong Kong. There are a lot of steps to go up. That experience for me was like playing Super Mario computer games like I did as a teenager, trying to avoid the trees and the stones, it was such an experience! It was like love at first sight!”
Albeit on the other side of the world, Hong Kong bears many similarities to Budapest. Csillag’s new playground had an abundance of trails to offer her on her doorstep:
“It’s amazing. People think of Hong Kong as a city of skyscrapers, but really it’s not like that. Forty percent of the city is green. There are four big trails and it’s all really well sign-posted, even if you train alone you are totally fine. Within 10 minutes from home, I am on the trail, and if I want to do something different at the weekend, I can drive for 40 minutes, or take a ferry to one of the other islands, and be in a totally different scenario.”
As her running progressed and she began competing, Csillag identified other factors that make Hong Kong a unique place to train and nurture a talent for endurance running. For one, the climate is very hot and humid, and training in such difficult conditions makes racing in a more temperate climate feel, quite literally, like a cool breeze.
She also identified with the city’s competitive culture, in terms of work and life as well as sport, where people are always striving to do better and improve themselves. She slotted in well to the community and got to know the local runners:
“In terms of community, there are mainly two groups, the expats and the local runners, with some overlap between the two. I ended up running with locals, which I really enjoy. My running buddy in Hong Kong, now he speaks better English, but before we didn’t really talk, if we wanted to talk we would have to stop and open Google Translate!”
Csillag progressed with her running and in 2016 began competing in ultramarathons and raced the Vibram Hong Kong 100k in 2017. She became a prolific racer, competing throughout Asia and Europe, and taking wins in races in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and second in her homecoming ultra — the Ultra-Trail Hungary.
When she became pregnant with her first child, she didn’t see any reason to stop running and continued right through the pregnancy. She did the same with her second pregnancy, and in April 2021, while she was nine months pregnant with her second daughter, Noemi, Csillag’s running journey reached its next major crossroads.
This was the introduction of her now-coach — Swedish ultrarunner and ski mountaineer, Ida Nilsson.
“I was already thinking about changing my coach. [Nilsson’s post about her new coaching enterprise] popped up on Instagram. I was nine months pregnant, lying on the sofa, and I said: ‘Maybe this is a sign, maybe I should message her.’ We set up a call. Later on, I was thinking, Thank God I talked to her before I gave birth. Because after you give birth, you feel terrible, and you are for sure not thinking about changing your coach!”
After the birth, Csillag took a few weeks to run by herself and with friends, without any schedule or pressure. Just five days after giving birth she was doing biking at home. And then after three weeks, she was back running about 90k per week. She said, “I just couldn’t handle a schedule just then.”
From the beginning of June 2021, she began regular structured training with Nilsson, training six days per week and generally resting on Friday. Less than three months later, at CCC, she bagged a result that places her among the top 100-kilometer ultra-trail runners in the world.
As a mother to young children, Csillag’s preparation and outlook on the race and the time spent preparing is a little different from other athletes. She has to prioritize efficiency in her training and tries to be away from her children for as little time as possible.
“When I did CCC, I had to train also mentally to be away for so long from my kids. Emma is my oldest daughter and when I did my first 100k race six months after her birth, I couldn’t handle it mentally; it broke me down and I DNFed after 91k.
“Sometimes in the preparation for CCC, when I was out for four hours, five hours, I just really wanted to go back to my kids. And I knew that that was totally normal and preparing me for being away for a longer time.”
“I think it makes me a bit less social. Sometimes local runners want to go at like 9 a.m., but I have to go earlier to get home earlier. And sometimes after they run, they want to hang out and go for lunch. And that’s really nice, I would like to do that, but as a mother, I just want to do the run and get home.”
Alongside parenting and a now elite-level running career, Csillag’s professional life continues to develop. She is currently engaged in a project showcasing Eastern European art and culture and divides her time between Hong Kong and Hungary.
While she has continued to rack up results in shorter races after CCC, Csillag’s next high-profile ultra was the 2022 Transgrancanaria 129k. Here she met with her coach in person for the first time, as Nilsson flew out to crew for her, alongside Csillag’s brother, Balazs.
This one did not go as smoothly as CCC, with Csillag suffering stomach issues from the start. “Maybe because of the cold weather, my body was just focusing on moving ahead and not eating. After 30k I couldn’t eat anything, maybe two gels. And my brother said I wasn’t even drinking. They were changing my soft flasks but there was nothing gone from them!”
Despite struggling physically for the majority of the race, Csillag’s mental toughness and resilience shone through, and she still managed to stay in the competitive end of the field.
After 90k, she managed to eat something and started to feel a little better. She finished in fifth place in a stacked field and was greeted by her daughter at the finish line. She told iRunFar:
“I vomited half an hour after finishing the race. There was something going on, maybe my sodium level. I’m working on improving my nutrition for summer races.”
We spoke to Csillag’s coach, Ida Nilsson, and asked what it is about Csillag that makes her a great athlete. Nilsson pointed not to her great run at CCC, but to this result in Trangrancanaria, as the real testament to what she is made of, saying: “She is very durable, and even her lowest is still very high.”
She also told us about Csillag’s boundless enthusiasm and wish to take on so many challenges and hard races, saying: “Sometimes it is my job to put the brakes on and say, ‘You have to choose!’”
Looking ahead at this season, Csillag will be toeing the line at the Marathon du Mont Blanc 90k, the Eiger Ultra Trail 51k, and the ultimate season finale — the 170k UTMB.
She now has the support of Hong Kong brand T8, which started sponsoring her late last year and makes gear specifically for training in hot and humid conditions.
With the backing of a great sponsor, a little more fine-tuning on her nutrition, and the continued guidance of her wise and intuitive coach, we are very excited to see what she can do.
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