The only way is up
Uphill Running on the rise in Norway
(assigned for mountainrunning.com)
By Fredrik Ölmqvist
In just a few years the official number of uphill mountain races have increased dramatically. From five races six years ago there are more than 60 uphill races in 2008. Living in neighbouring and much flatter Sweden I’m naturally jealous of the norwegian mountain running scene.
A few years ago two companies competing for an important account had to race eachother up a mountain peak where the client waited with the contract to be signed by the fastest runner. This would never happen it Sweden, but it did in Norway and there are some natural reasons why. First, the topographic map of Norway shows only mountains, almost no flat areas whatsoever. For people in this both rugged and picturesque country the dramatic sceneries with vertical mountainsides rushing down into sealevel ice blue fjords are part of life – and sport. Traditionally ALL norwegians go cross country skiing in the weekends. It’s a family thing and part of the upbringing, passing on a heritage: the appreciation of natures beauty and values of an active lifestyle with outdoor sports. Summertime when snow is gone the trails up to the mountain peaks are accessible. Mountain hiking is another national outdoor activity and since norwegians being very competitive by character there isn’t a mountain peak without a speed ascent record (that some über strong farmer made 50 years ago). According to Christian Prestegaard, a driving force behind uphill running in Norway, the main explanation to the popularity of uphill racing is that the finish always is situated at the peak.
– We have a strong tradition of “topptur”, e.g. going to the top. It goes back to 1890 when they built the Skåla tower at the top of Skåla 1848 m. Myself I started running to mountain peaks in the mid 60’s as a 10 year old boy. To test themselves many famous cross-country skiiers used to run up to the peaks of Skåla (1848 m) and Fanaråken (2068 m), and ordinary people took great interest in the ascent times of these super athletes.
In the Norwegian take on mountain running there is no downhill racing at all, thanks to the very steep and rocky trails. Up is the only way to go, which makes sense once you have seen the very steep Norwegian mountains. Uphill racing have become a true test between different types of athletes – of all levels. Ever since the former orienteering champion Jon Tvedt* beat the norwegian top cross-country skiers at Stoltzekleiven Opp 2003 he is the reigning uphill champion of Norway.
The races are steadily growing more popular among amateurs, of all ages. Even kids 5 years of age take part. With 55 races and a total of 17,000 participants in 2007 and estimated 20,000 participants and more than 60 races 2008 the boom still points upwards, says Prestegaard, who recently got a place in the European Athletics Mountain Running Commission.
– It’s the biggest thing that have happened to mainstream endurance sport in Norway since the jogging boom in the 80’s. More and more companies engage their employees in regular ascends and participation in various uphill races for motivation purposes.
The success of the norwegian mountain runners in 2007 spurred the popularity even more (1:st Anita Håkenstad Evertsen and 3:rd Kirsten Melkevik Otterbu in European Mountain Running Championship; and 1:st Anita Håkenstad Evertsen in Mountain Running World Championship). Only the two big races (in terms of participants): “Tryvann Opp” and “Skåla 1848m Rett Opp” (1200 runners) got over 70 full pages in print media, with a total of 150 pages in different norwegian newspapers and magazines about the uphill running trend (apart from TV coverage). With the international uphill race Tryvann Opp located in Oslo the national uphill running boom has entered the country’s first city.
– It must be unique for Europe with a mountain race located in the capital, says Prestegaard.
But the biggest uphill race in Norway is actually located in the city of Bergen on the west coast. Started in 1979 “Stoltzekleiven Opp” (www.stoltzen.no), a 910 m long stairway race with 313 meter ascent and 600 stairs, drew 2650 eager participants in september last year. With annual exposure in national newsmedia the race, which nowadays attracts big sponsors, has been awarded for its marketing value for the region. Even though it is recognized as one of the toughest things an athlete can undertake ordinary men have realized that they also can do it. This race, which also carries the name “The Impossible Race”, is nowadays a race for everyone – not only top atletes and celebrities (Sting, the singer did it in 2006) but schoolkids, families, heart disease patients, ordinary active people etc. It has become an event in which the residents of Bergen take great pride. Bergen has become a place where running up a mountain not only is a possible thing. It is a good thing. And the word is spreading all over the country.
(*Jan 11, 2009 Jon Tvedt died while on a regular training run in the mountains surrounding his hometown Bergen.)