The Simple Life: An Interview with Mimmi Kotka

An in-depth interview with trail ultrarunner Mimmi Kotka.

By on February 21, 2019 | Comments

It’s Christmas in 2013 and instead of feeling full of festive merriment, Maria Kotka and her husband Toni feel… tired. Not so much physically tired, as mentally, even ideologically, tired. They are tired of their lives.

Recalls Maria, much better known as Mimmi, “We started thinking, Is this the kind of life we want? We took the holidays to talk, asking ourselves the big questions. Are we living with purpose and passion? Are we really making our own life decisions? We both felt we had gotten stuck in everyday life and had no clear direction. We had way too much stuff and too little time and passion.”

So they made a plan. “We would start simplifying our life–get rid of the things and energies we didn’t need or want. And we would pick a passion each to devote more time to. Toni chose photography, and I chose trail running.”

Mimmi Kotka on the beach in Cape Town, South Africa. She traveled there to race the 2018 Ultra-Trail Cape Town. All photos courtesy of Mimmi Kotka.

Mimmi grew up on a renovated farm with a huge garden in the countryside outside Köping, about 100 kilometers west of Stockholm, Sweden. “My brother and I were really active kids, always playing, biking, being outside–but not in a competitive setting. I was just super, super interested in the outdoors,” says the 37 year old. As a scout she did a lot of hiking, canoeing, and camping. “My parents are really interested in foraging, growing stuff, and cooking–food is a big thing in our family. It’s a Kotka thing to be really into cooking.”

At university she first sensed some competitiveness. “You want to be the one with all the right answers, the highest grades.” She skied, snowboarded, and did freediving, but without a competitive mindset. “Those activities are more about the spirit, more an artistic expression. It was only really when I started trail races that I found a competitiveness I didn’t know I had.”

As people approach 30 in Sweden it’s common to attempt the Swedish classic circuit, a 30k running race, 90k Nordic ski, open-water swim, and a 300k bike ride, all in the same year. Mimmi set her mind on it for 2010. “I started with the run[, the Lidingöloppet, with some 15,000 runners,] because that seemed the hardest,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how incredibly long it was!”

But she never got beyond it. “I got stuck there. The race itself didn’t mean much, but it was really special to realize I loved running. I found I really liked running in the forest in training. I had been kind of searching for my outdoors thing. I was like, ‘Ah, yeah, this is my passion. This is my sport, this trail running stuff.’ I loved the simplicity of it. I decided I was going to start running.”

So she ran “a lot over” the next couple of years. “Like when you’ve just met someone and you’re crazy about them.” But it was just a hobby, on the back burner. Life was busy with work and a house renovation. Until that fateful Christmas of 2013.

“Trail running had really grabbed me,” says Mimmi, “but I hadn’t yet given it the attention it deserved. What if I might be good at it? What if I might miss an opportunity here? So I decided to become a runner and give it a lot of energy and focus, to take my passion seriously.”

The year 2014 started with a “completely different perspective” on her running. “I started running more, training for a race in the Swedish mountains, Fjällmarathon. I ran it, had a fantastic experience, and was inspired.” She neglects to mention that she also took third. She ran three more ultramarathons, in Sweden and the U.K., getting on the podium in all of them. Her second place at the Ultravasan 90k qualified her to run on the national team at the 2015 Trail World Championships.

This was a huge moment, but the race had 17,000 feet of climb over 85k. Mimmi lived in the south of Sweden, where it’s pancake flat. “I had to do all of my training uphill on a treadmill staring at a brick wall–it was not so fun! In the race I remember being passed by Andrea Huser on a super-super-steep downhill–she absolutely hammered it and I thought, How is it possible that the human body can do that, and after 70k?! I just didn’t get it. I walked the last downhill!” Here again she neglects to mention that she placed eighth in the world.

“That race defined a lot of my running. I had never done anything like it and I just fell completely in love with this gnarly ultra-trail. Long, technical, a lot of elevation… I love it. I was completely overwhelmed by this beautiful sport. I decided ultra-trail was my big adventure.”

Mimmi and Toni sold their house in Sweden to spend time in the European Alps. “We got a dog, Enzo, and a tiny apartment, instead of all that stuff. If I train in the mountains the body thrives, as do both of our souls.”

Mimmi and Enzo. Says Mimmi, “He is a mixed-breed Australian Shepard, Border Collie, and who knows what else, a true mountain dog from a honey farmer in Grand Paradiso, Italy. He is named after Enzo Molinari in ‘Le Grand Bleu.'”

But there was a setback. “I ran way too much. I was really honored by the opportunity to be a runner. I was really fired up and reading these ultrarunner blogs; you know, ‘Oh, I do 200k a week…’ So that’s what you need to do, I thought. I remember that summer just running so many miles! I had problems with my hamstring and Achilles.”

In 2016 Mimmi started to mix skiing into her training. “We spent a lot of time in Courmayeur[, Italy]. I skied all winter and didn’t run. And when I did, I trained a lot in the mountains and had no injury problems.”

That year she recorded four ultra wins, including the competitive CCC. “But the race I’m most proud of [in 2016] was Gran Trail Courmayeur. I finished second overall and felt really strong running it. I did that at TDS [which she won in 2017 by almost two and a half hours with a course record] and Mont Blanc 90k [which she won in both 2017 and 2018]. When you have that feeling–they’re my favorite races.”

That 2013 Christmas gamble was clearly paying off. The year 2017 saw five wins from seven races, and 2018 started with a win at Madeira Island Ultra Trail, plus first places at MaXi-Race Annecy and Mont Blanc 90k for a second time.

Then came ‘the big dance’ at the 2018 UTMB. She was many people’s race favorite, but she didn’t get all the way around the mountain. “I should never have started the race,” she says candidly. “I had broken fingers from Mont Blanc 90k, and I fell 10 days out from UTMB and had a knee injury, and I was overtrained too–it was like a triad of shit!”

She cites the Buddhist idea that if you hold on to something too hard then you may lose it. “I was too obsessed: I have to do this race, I have to do this race, I have to do this race. But I shouldn’t have. It was also a new experience that other people have opinions. It’s like, a big thing around this race, uh? I learned that I had to take responsibility for that too–to say no if you’re not feeling good. If I have responsibilities to others, I need to be more honest. I messed up. But it’s running. It’s not life and death.”

Once recovered, she decided to do the 2018 Diagonale des Fous. “I had a focus for UTMB and it fell apart, so I felt I missed out on something. I wanted to experience a 100 miler and I didn’t want it to become a bigger thing than it has to be. I had spoken to Emelie Forsberg [who had done the race back in 2013] and knew it was terrible, so every 100 after that would be easier–it was a very tactical move!”

She continued, “I didn’t have any expectations. It takes a while to understand a new race distance, how to behave, how to eat, and so on, and now I have some knowledge. I had never dug so deep. It’s such a long time, the mental fatigue was new to me and I suffered in the heat. I had a really, really tough time. But in a good way.” She finished the race in sixth place.

She plans to return to UTMB this year. “Yes, ha ha, I have to be! I made a pact with Michel Lanne. He won CCC and TDS the same years as me and he didn’t finish UTMB last year either. He said, ‘We have to do it next year! We will be rested, happy, and undertrained on the starting line, just be there chilling, and we’ll be just fine.'”

“In a weird way,” it was good to have a failure at UTMB, she says. “It took some of the mythic aura around this race away. When I started running it was when Rory Bosio was having her best results at UTMB. There’s a YouTube video of her that I’ve watched over and over again–now I’ve met her and I was totally star-struck. She was my biggest inspiration when I was getting into running longer distances. She was so inspiring. And this race took on this mythical proportion in my head. I’ve been doing CCC, TDS, and preparing for UTMB, and it got too big, too big in my head, too grandiose. And now it’s not anymore.”

Mimmi and her husband, Toni, on a speed hike of Corsica’s GR20 trail in 2010. This was how they celebrated marrying each other.

For 2019 she also plans a return to the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and to try the Lavaredo Ultra Trail. Toni, Enzo, and her live partly in Chamonix, France–in the same building as British ultrarunning couple Robbie Britton and Natalie White–and partly in Sweden. Though she may spend this summer living in a van.

Despite numerous wins–and seven race starts–in 2018, Mimmi says she isn’t a high-mileage runner. “I’m not a light runner, I’m more like a strong one, so I don’t have a body that takes high mileage like some others can. But I love cross training. In winter there is skiing–Nordic and ski mountaineering. It’s all about the outdoors and I try to follow the seasons and be intuitive about my training, merging it with our lifestyle. There is great value in resting and slowing down during the darkest months to then be full of energy for the spring.”

She’s currently running three times a week. “I’ve been doing some intervals on the treadmill [listening to a mix of Swedish house music to keep her tempo up], so it’s not so painful when I start running again in March. I’ve tried to work with a coach in the past, but it’s not for me. It’s not practical with my life. I need to adjust training to my life. Normally I just go running!”

When asked to describe herself in three words, after much debate with her husband, Mimmi plumps for “outdoorsy, stubborn, and foodie.” Indeed her other great passion is food. Mimmi has a Master of Science in molecular nutrition and works as a consultant nutrition specialist in the food-supplement industry. Last December saw the launch of Moonvalley, an organic health-food company she co-founded with fellow Swedish ultra stars Emelie Forsberg and Ida Nilsson.

It was at Les Templiers in 2017 that they first started discussing the idea. “We share a lot of common interests and values. A big interest in growing our own food and sustainability, so we just thought we would try and do something. Instead of being another brand’s ambassadors, we are doing the stuff we really want to do. We felt fed up with really bad sports nutrition. The idea of the brand is to do the stuff we want to eat ourselves.”

It’s been a long journey, she says. “We really wanted everything to be eco certified, and we want to keep everything in Scandinavia and as local as we can, which makes it all more difficult and takes time–but it feels better. It’s super fun too, especially the creative process around creating the products. And we have a small chocolate factory in Sweden that’s sooooo good. The sports drink has real berries in it, which to my knowledge is the first drink to do that. One of the traditional things you drink in Nordic skiing is blueberry soup–we all had that growing up and ours is kind of an upgraded version of that.”

Mimmi, who used to be vegan but found it “too complicated,” says her approach to her own nutrition is relaxed. “I don’t follow any diet, except eating real food. I love food, but it’s also for building health and building the body. The basis is very nutrient dense–other than that there are no rules. I eat unhealthy food too. The little, little percentage you can gain from eating perfectly can cost you more in stress. Whereas if you relax a little and enjoy life that serves you better in the end.”

“Somehow this journey that started with me jogging ended up transforming our whole life,” she summarizes. “The really big shift was the decision to simplify our life, and ultra-trail [running] just happened to fit perfectly. We asked, What do you really need to be happy? One goal was to be able to appreciate the small things in life, a warm shower, a beautiful sunset, family time, simple clean foods. I find that the more I run, the less I seem to care about objects, unimportant problems, and other people’s opinions.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you seen Mimmi racing or training? What stories can you share about her?
  • Does her story of using running to live simply and intentionally resonate with you?

Mimmi and Enzo running in the mountains. “Enzo is always up for an adventure,” says Mimmi.

Damian Hall
Damian Hall is a British ultrarunner, coach, and outdoor journalist who has several Ultra-Trail World Tour top-10 finishes to his name, including fifth place at the 2018 UTMB. More memorably, the tea addict also ran a marathon dressed as a toilet. He is supported by inov-8. More info at @ultra_damo (Instagram) and his website.