swedish ultrarunner Ida Nilsson has been a household name in ultra-trail running since her tour de force season of 2016, which saw her win the Transvulcania Ultramarathonthe Mont-Blanc Marathonthe Run the Rut 50kand The North Face 50 Mile Championships — to name but a few.
A lifelong athlete, at that point in her career she had already won two NCAA Division I titles in American collegiate athletics, competed in the European Athletics Championships and the World Athletics Championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and competed at ski mountaineering.
Nilsson’s career has been hampered many times by injury. Her latest return from injury — which saw her place second at the 2022 Trail World Championships 80k and win the 2023 Canyons by UTMB 100k — shows how much potential lies ahead for the now 42-year-old. I caught up with her in the final weeks of her preparation for her first 100 mile her — the suitably iconic 2023 Western States 100.
Nilsson, who now lives in the mountains of Norway, grew up on the southeast coast of Sweden, which she describes as, “a super flat place, we don’t even have a 50-meter hill!”
A child of running parents, Nilsson ran her first race at just five years old, and said: “It started with jumping in the kids’ race when my parents were doing a race, and also I did track and field with the local club. I did all events, and we had a practice or two each week. It got gradually more serious as I got older, I started to run more.”
Nilsson was enrolled in a running program for high school, where she had the opportunity to run with a coach and to honor her craft in a supportive environment, alongside other young people who wished to pursue the sport at a higher level. Following on from this, she earned a scholarship to attend Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona — a place she has formed a close affinity with, and has been going back to ever since.
Back in Flagstaff for her 2023 Western States 100 training block at the time of our conversation, she said: “I was at university here [Flagstaff] between 2001 and 2005 and it was a super nice experience. It’s quite unique how track and field is structured within school in the US and how you compete with a team and do cross country. I really enjoyed the experience, I had good years, and developed. At that time Flagstaff didn’t have so many pro teams. Back then it was a few lone runners and university teams. Now it’s just exploded, so many runners!”
Nilsson enjoyed a successful college running career and said: “I won a few national titles. And then I was like, Now I want to go to the world championships, Olympicsand keep going. And I did, I went to one world championships and one European championships [for the 3,000-meter steeplechase] the years after that.”
Unfortunately, a stress fracture sustained after the world championships set off a cycle of injuries for Nilsson, which would threaten to cut short her promising career. She said: “It started out that I got a stress fracture in the navicular bone after the world championships. I got back the next year to the European championships, but it started a bad cycle of injuries after that … I moved to Gothenburg in Sweden, so I was training with people there. I did race but it was a little bit inconsistent, and I never did an Olympics because I got injured right before 2008. It just kept going for some years, then I got a serious stress fracture in my hip joint in 2009.”
Nilsson initially took eight months off running to allow the injury to heal, but upon attempting to resume in the spring of 2010, she found that it was still too painful. Believing the injury to be chronic, Nilsson hung up her racing shoes, with little hope of returning. She said: “The first year, everything hurt. It was hard to even go swimming, biking, or do anything because it was constant pain. After a year, it was fine, I could do normal easy stuff, like go for hikes and normal life. I got used to that, I was working a lot of seasonal jobs and traveling in between. I was hiking while traveling and doing some cross-country skiing and I worked in Norway doing winter seasons.” Nilsson remained positive throughout and said, “I got into the outdoor life more and that was nice because I always liked to move in nature,” but she added, “I think I thought I would n’t run again. It was so bad I couldn’t even jog.”
In 2013, in order to spend more time outdoors, Nilsson started a nature guide program in Åre, Sweden. She said: “Around that time my hip was good again and so I started to run. Then the next year I got a job in northern Sweden. I skied and then in the winter ran some. And I started to feel this urge to train more again.”
It was then that Nilsson first discovered the sport of ski mountaineering. She said, “I did a [ski-mountaineering] race in the north of Sweden. And Emelie [Forsberg] and Kilian [Jornet] came and did it as well so it was really cool to see them.”
Nilsson was bitten by the skimo bug and said, “I just thought it was such a fun sport and I wanted to learn it better. So I decided to move to Chamonix, France, the next winter.” There she trained at ski mountaineering through the winter of 2015/2016 — with her lifelong friend and now business partner, Forsberg. At the same time, as her return to running was progressing on her side, Forsberg encouraged her to try her hand at ultra-trail running.
In 2015 Nilsson debuted with a win a the Fjällmaraton in Sweden, followed two weeks later by a second-place finish at the Ultravasan 90k. This was just a preview of what was to come, as the following year she would begin to take the trail running world by storm — winning amongst others the Transvulcania Ultramarathon on three consecutive years (2016 and 2017 interviews), The North Face 50 Mile Championships twice (2016 and 2017 interviews), and the Zegama Marathon in 2018.
Her success continued unabated until 2019, when she decided to pursue a road marathon early in the year. She said, “It felt like a good project for the early spring. I was training up in Flagstaff, training was going really well, maybe it went a little bit too well too quickly! And then this navicular bone in the same foot as 15 years ago broke in the middle of the race — 25k in — so I couldn’t finish.”
Unfortunately, it was an injury Nilsson was all too familiar with, and she knew that it would take some time to heal. She waited it out for the remainder of the year, but she said: “I noticed the following spring when I started to run, it still didn’t feel so good. I really thought something was still wrong. And also, it was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was difficult to get help because it wasn’t really a priority — this running injury I inflicted on myself!”
Eventually, after seeking help through a private sports clinic, Nilsson created two surgeries on her foot and could finally look forward to rebuilding. She said, “It was like starting over again, and over 40, and feeling not so good! Finally, the following year I could run again but it was mostly uphill, downhill was still difficult for me. And last year was good, but then I got COVID-19 in the beginning of the year.”
The lingering effects of COVID-19 spoiled a number of races for Nilsson. But finally, toward the end of the year at the 2022 Trail World Championships 80k in Thailand, she made a dramatic comeback — placing second after leading for much of the day. She said:
“I’ve been to Nepal before, and I think the altitude really helped me. And finally I felt normal again. I noticed the first uphill and I was like, Wow, this is how it used to feel. It’s supposed to feel easy in the beginning when you do an 80k … I hadn’t had that feeling for many years.”
Nilsson crept up the field before taking the lead — with reigning champion, France’s Blandine L’Hirondel, hot on her heels. She said, “I thoughtOk I’m just going to try and push the pace. I wasn’t maybe prepared to hold that for the entire time, I really died in the last two hours.” Nilsson was passed by L’Hirondel in the closing stages of the race, but held on to second place — thus stepping back to the forefront of the trail running world.
Now back to full health, Nilsson, who has previously topped out at the 100k distance, finally has the opportunity to fulfill a longtime goal of racing the Western States 100. She said: “I wanted to run the Western States 100 for several years, I thought it would be way sooner than this. But after the foot surgery it took way longer to get back to running a lot — to build up again.”
She added that, “I think in shorter races you can get around with a lot of cross training and maybe not run too much, but for 100 miles you can’t just get by with skiing and biking — you actually need the miles in the legs as well.”
The first Western States 100 Golden Ticket race Nilsson took on to secure her entry was the 2023 Black Canyon 100k in February. Given her Norwegian training ground, which lends itself better to skiing in winter and running in summer, it was early in the season for a 100k race. This and another minor setback preceding the race led to her going in with not enough miles in her legs. Nevertheless, she had a strong first half — running in a tightly packed top three, before falling back to fifth place. She said, “I did feel like [the pace was] a little bit too fast for me to sustain, but I was like, Okay, it’s top two or nothing … I tried my best for as long as I could but then in the last 20k I totally died.”
Thankfully, there was another chance for a Golden Ticket at the 2023 Canyons by UTMB 100k in April — on a new flat-and-fast, looped course. Following a good-weather month in Norway, Nilsson had a much smoother preparation this time around, but race day itself would present some highs and lows. She said: “It went really well at first. I was in the lead and it felt nice, I was taking my time at the aid stations early on and taking ice … but then I took a wrong turn and all of a sudden I was in seventh position … I went for it, I ran really fast for 25k until I got back up into the lead again. And during that time I didn’t really stop or take good care of myself. So I kind of died a little in the end.”
Despite the wrong turn, Nilsson emerged as winner, and her place on the start line of the Western States 100 was sealed.
At the time of writing, Nilsson is currently back in Flagstaff, undergoing a focused training block. She said: “Here there’s not so much vert [compared to her home trails in Norway], but I’m running more kilometers … I’ve got four weeks done now with over 100 miles per week, and I went to the Western States 100 training camp, which was super nice. It’s great to do long runs where you run with people and can stop at aid stations. We didn’t see the whole course but the last 70 miles at least.”
Having linked her brilliant performance at the 2022 Trail World Championships 80k to time spent at altitude hiking in Nepal, it’s no coincidence that she’s chosen one of the highest elevation cities in the US as her basis for this training block. Following a long and successful career — speckled with countless new beginnings and surprises — absolutely anything is possible for Ida Nilsson’s first 100-mile race.
Call for Comments
- Have you been following Ida Nilsson’s career? What are your favorite highlights?
- What are your predictions for Ida at the 2023 Western States 100?