Mike is my favorite person in the world. And while that may not come as a big surprise to anyone – and feel free to call me biased – I’d like to say his curiosity and never ending desire to learn are the two characteristics that I hold the very highest.
The very same features are what I would say got him into running. Not because he wanted to “get fit” or be able to say he’s run a marathon. No, I want to say his first ever request to come with me on a run came from a place of “what the heck is she doing out there for so long?” and an eagerness to go check it out for himself.
It was in April 2014 that he asked to join me on a run for the first time, and so we went together – we ran south along the East River (yes, this was back in New York) and had a great time… until his knee started hurting pretty badly. Ouch. It was sharp, it was on the outside of the knee, it was definitely not comfortable to run through – but it stopped as soon as he stopped. Some googling later and boom: it seemed we’d encountered ITB syndrome for the first time, the very embodiment of a classic running injury.
“And so we went from “let’s start running together!” to “let’s rehab this damn knee!” within hours.”
And so we went from “let’s start running together!” to “let’s rehab this damn knee!” within hours. I had only just started my sports massage training at the time and was a beginner at both diagnosing and treating these types of problems, but as the weeks went on, we got closer and closer to pain-free running. Curious about how we tackled it? Well, a series of massage and self-massage moves, targeted stretches and a couple of strength exercises made up our arsenal. A tennis ball is the only “equipment” we used, but boy – that should be mandatory for every runner to have in their tool box.
There’s one thing within ITB syndrome that many get wrong, and that is that the actual iliotibial band (ITB) is what’s “tight” and needs to be “stretched”. In reality though, you can’t really stretch the IT-band, no matter how much you try, as it’s a non-contractile tissue. What you can stretch – and what’s typically the cause behind ITB issues – are the two muscles it attaches to at the hip: tensor fascia latae (TFL), gluteus maximus and gluteus medius. These are the areas you should target (through stretching, massaging and strengthening) if you have issues with ITB-related knee pain – and that’s what we did.
We went through some weekends of short runs, as they would come to an end once the pain started to set in, but slowly and steadily, we would make it further and further. A few months after the pain appeared for the first time, we could go 10k without any – and from that point on, the problems have been forever gone. When you read “a few months” there, you might have a slight panic attack and think pain-free running is that far away for you as well, but fear not. Mike was by no means diligently rehabbing his knee every day right after the injury happened, but let quite some time go by in between efforts. Once he got serious about solving the issues though, it was only a matter of weeks before he was good to go.
This puts us in the late summer of 2014. For the next 3 years, Mike would continue to run on weekends only (with some exceptions) as his days away from home started at 5:50am and ended at 7:30pm and didn’t allow any time for running during the weeks. But believe it or not, you can get far by running 2 days a week and not more. It seemed from the start Mike was intrigued by the longer distances (which at the time was more like 20k, which just seems so crazy to think back at now!) and so we started adding a kilometer at a time for every week, slowly building up his tolerance. Whether it was the spaced out runs (again, he only ran on the weekends) or the gradual increase (or the combination of) that made him (us) successful, we don’t know – but it worked out very well. Come end of September that year, we were up to the first half marathon distance, and it was quite the big milestone! For all experienced runners, it’s good to be reminded of how far you’ve come and recall how massive certain distances or so and so time on your feet used to feel, and for beginner runners, what feels incomprehensible now will be second nature eventually!
Mike then took a bit of a winter break, and joined forces with me again in the early spring of 2015. That was the last time he didn’t run through a winter season – see, there was a little Swede living inside of him already then!
He had a brief onset of ITB syndrome during the start up phase, but we tackled it quickly and effectively (same procedure as the first time) and had him running pain free soon. We slowly worked our way up to the longer distances again, this time going past the 21k mark and finally reaching 30-35k. We decided that was enough for our weekly long run (or in Mike’s case, often his only run) and settled for that every Saturday or Sunday. We also started going out of the city to seek out trails, and the appeal of running in the woods as opposed to downtown Manhattan quickly grew big.
After sticking with the weekend running and the 30-something kilometers in one go for some months, Mike came home from work one day in the fall of 2016 (a few months after we had decided we were permanently moving to Sweden) and carefully proposed we sign up for a race. He felt like he needed something to train for, something to motivate himself to do the work, and had found a half marathon trail race north of NYC (in Bear Mountain State Park) in the spring he’d like to pursue. It took a while for him to convince the deathly-afraid-of-all-forms-of-competing me, but I eventually said yes and that was that.
Training for this race was SO much fun. It was awesome to see Mike’s determination and new level of dedication, sometimes being able to schedule meetings in the city and work from home those days in order to sneak in a run mid-week, wanting to go up to his parents almost every weekend so we could go run trails and chase some vertical gain and overall just embracing running as more of a lifestyle choice than just a form of weekend exercise.
We had a fantastic day racing and far exceeded our expectations on what we’d accomplish, and came away with a newfound love for equal parts the trail running community and racing as a thing. It didn’t take many days after before we’d signed up for a mountain race in Sweden, which would take place a couple of weeks after us moving there and serve as a celebration of that life change.
… and that life change is what marks the end of one chapter in Mike’s running story and the beginning of a new. Because as we left our jobs and lives in the US, we entered a whole new era of no full time work and no commute – and a whole lot of space in our calendars. Those weekend runs stayed on – and to this day, we still do our long runs on either Saturdays or Sundays – but were joined by a whole bunch of other ones.
A year after we had moved, we completed Ultravasan 90k for the first time. I think it’s the coolest thing in the world that Mike not only dared signing up (because I’ll admit it was my idea altogether) but also was able to finish it (the first time it took us 9 h 13 min). If you’d ask him what his biggest fear in life is, he’d tell you this: not feeling 100% competent at the task at hand. That means he’s always approached life and all parts of it by making sure he knows exactly how to handle (master, even) every given situation beforehand. He reads, does research and meticulously prepares before EVERYTHING (hey are you also not surprised at all he became an engineer?). And he typically executes the crap out of whatever he takes on, too.
Then he met me, and I’m a lot quicker than that – quicker to act, to speak, to say “let’s do this!”, to start projects and to take things on. Sometimes too quick, I’ll be the first to admit that, but more often than not, we conclude we’re the perfect mix – I get Mike to try things he normally would have never even considered, and he brings levelheadedness to all the ambitions I throw out there.
To this day, he calls that first Ultravasan 90 finish one of the most powerful life lessons and defining moments of his life. Why? Because he did what he fears the most – set out to do something he wasn’t even remotely sure he could do. What it taught him? That he can do anything.
“What did it teach him? That he can do anything.”
At the end of the day, I think that’s where our love for ultra running begins and ends – in the realization and belief that we actually can do anything if we just work hard and want it enough. Not just while wearing our running shoes, but in all aspects of life.
Moving back to Mike’s actual running training and away from my philosophical pondering, it’ll be pretty quick to wrap things up. The year preparing for that aforementioned ultra debut, we started running all our sessions together (as time now allowed for it) and it went very smoothly for Mike to go from those 1-2 runs a week and a weekly volume of ~50k to 5 runs a week and a weekly volume of ~75k. After a couple of months of that, we turned things up a notch and packed in a bit more volume, now getting to 90-100k per week but still only doing 5 sessions a week.
Come 2019, we leveled things up even more. 110-120k per week became our new standard – even popping up to 130-140k a few times – and we got more diligent about speed work, creating variation in our training regimen and dialing in on what kind of sessions actually made sense for us to do, given our goals. (Things saw a slight slow down in 2020 and 2021 with the arrival of Theo, making us both run more 80-90k weeks.) Overall, we’re such firm believers in making training joyful, varied and goal oriented – but goals don’t always have to be races. They can be other forms of adventures, but also just a desire to run injury-free, stay sane or remain close and connected with a family member.
The name of the game for Mike has been carefully increasing volume, giving the body a chance to recover by breaking up the training plan in smaller blocks and staying true to the classic “go easy when it’s easy and go hard when it’s hard” – in other words, making sure to honor the integrity of each session as opposed to ending up running half-hard all the time (boy, is that a common slippery slope many runners head down). The golden 80-20 rule (80% of your training should be easy and 20% hard) is something we stick to, week in and week out.
All in all, I’m so proud of Mike and all the work he’s put in. I admire his curiosity to give it all a go and his bravery for going way out of his comfort zone signing up for that first 90k race the most, but of course that’s all closely followed by his grit, dedication and pure love for the sport. I hope many of you can find inspiration to set challenging goals for yourself and believe you can do things you never thought possible – because that’s what he has showed us all the past few years.
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– Sophia & Michael