A Breath of Fresh Air: Susanna Saapunki, Finland's Mountain Running Pioneer

A Breath of Fresh Air: Susanna Saapunki, Finland's Mountain Running Pioneer

Susanna Saapunki, a former Finnish skier turned mountain runner, has transcended geographical limitations to become Finland's sole professional mountain runner. Her story is one of dedication.

Most Finns would reluctantly admit that no mountains exist in their country, only fells or high hills. The absence of this geographical feature elevates former skier Susanna Saapunki’s successful switch from the slopes to becoming Finland’s only professional mountain runner to another level.

Following her retirement from skiing in the 2020/21 season due to lung problems, she has become the first Finn to win a mountain running World Cup competition and is now seventh in the women’s world ranking. The cost for this success was leaving behind Rovaniemi and moving to the Italian Alps—a price she has no regret paying.

Aonach caught up with her during the sport’s off-season when she switches to ski mountaineering (skimo), an integral aspect of her winter training routine.

Discipline, Diversity, and Determination

While mountain running remains relatively unknown in Finland, it thrives in the alpine nations. Governed by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) and World Athletics, it is subject to the rigorous standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Each event is also regulated under the auspices of an athletics license.

Mountain races span various distances, terrains, and challenges, accommodating participants of all abilities and ages. Stripped of equipment, from poles to compasses, the courses are designed to be runnable and not technical as in skyrunning or trail running.

There are also three event formats: short vertical, normal uphill race, and normal distance. Susanna Saapunki favors the 10-kilometer uphill race and the 15-kilometer normal distance because of her high aerobic capacity, or VO2max—the highest rate of oxygen you transport during maximal physical exertion.

“I have a very high oxygen uptake from my days on the slopes. While skiing taught me the value of extensive training, my move to a new sport unlocked a new world of physical demand. Skiing allows occasional rests, but mountain running demands sustained effort, with burnout looming after 45–90 minutes of relentless pace.”

Endurance sports take a toll on both body and mind, yet for Susanna Saapunki, the move away from Finland’s freezing temperatures has proven beneficial for her lungs. Diagnosed with asthma in childhood, the cold weather deeply impacted her career, primarily since the FIS Cross-Country World Cup consists of many sprint races.

“I was often sick in the winter because my lungs hurt, meaning I couldn't ski anywhere near my potential. I couldn't achieve the results I should have with my physical characteristics. Since switching to mountain running, I haven't regretted a day.”

From Inspiration to Integration

The spark igniting Susanna Saapunki's love for mountain running was kindled when she and her husband, Ville Miettunen, began summer visits to Italy. There, she quickly realized her natural aptitude for the sport. Encouragement from peers in Central Europe swiftly followed as her competency became evident.

“They could not believe I am a cross-country skier and can run so well in the mountains, especially since we don't have any Finnish mountain runners; we only have trail and ultra-runners. In 2021, I made the professional decision to move away from Finland to northern Italy. If I want to be one of the best in the world, I have to live in the mountains.”

The couple now live in Valfurva, about two kilometers from Bormio, at an altitude of 1,400 meters. “It's not that high; we’re in ‘the mix.’ If you go above 1,800 meters, it becomes altitude training. I had to slowly increase my mileage for the first two years to avoid injuries. This year, I plan to run a little over 5,000 km.”

Her training has the same principles as a road or a track runner. “It’s important to have a good and strong rhythm. Sometimes, I train on the flats, and sometimes, I practice uphill in the mountains. There are clear-volume weeks and high-intensity weeks. You have to ensure enough aerobic workouts so you don't lose your best race pace.”

She also uses a bike and strength training as an essential part of the puzzle. Skimo, also known as ski mountaineering, is a necessary form of winter training for her. “We get a lot of climbing meters with it on steep climbs and at high altitudes. I’m also competing—last February was my first skimo World Cup race and I placed 13th and 7th in the World Championships.”

Three ski mountaineering events have been added to the 2026 Winter Olympics for the first time, but only sprints are on the program. Speaking to the Finnish tabloid Iltalehti in December, she said that sprinting is not real skimo and that the Olympics are not a goal for her at present.

Focusing Forward

Without an Olympic-sized distraction on the horizon, Susanna Saapunki will channel her energies into further refining her growing success as a mountain runner.

After her notable sixth-place finish in the 2022 World Mountain Running Championships Uphill Women’s Race in Thailand, her momentum continued throughout 2023. She distinguished herself with two first-place finishes and four podium positions in various mountain-running World Cup competitions.

Looking ahead to the 2024 season, Saapunki has set her sights on competing in the European Athletics Off-Road Running Championships in France this summer. “Ultimately, I aim to win gold in both the uphill and classic races at the World Championships in two years.”

With unwavering determination, she exudes confidence in her ability to ascend to the pinnacle of mountain running, proving that you don’t need to hail from a mountainous country to be a serious contender.


Join us as we follow Susanna Saapunki's journey through the rugged terrain of mountain running. Stay tuned for updates on her upcoming races and victories.

Interviewed and written by Asa Butcher
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