Challenges Conquered: Juuso Simpanen's Istria 100 Podium Triumph

Challenges Conquered: Juuso Simpanen's Istria 100 Podium Triumph

Professional runner Juuso Simpanen achieved his first UTMB podium finish at the Istria 100 race in April. Read on to hear how he prepared for and executed his race strategy.

Finnish professional runner Juuso Simpanen achieved the first UTMB podium finish of his career in April after placing third in the Istria 100. Building on fifth place in 2023, he completed the 168k course in 19 hours and 25 minutes and expressed happiness with the result. However, he knows that he has room to improve.

A few days after returning from Croatia with a head cold and itching tick bite, he spoke with Aonach to discuss his preparation for this year’s race and what stood between him and greater success as he ran across the Western side of the Istria peninsula.


Challenges in the Final Stretch

The Istria 100 by UTMB race had been going well until about 15 kilometers before the finish. A week of recovering from a cold, the Croatian spring sunshine, and not enough electrolytes had taken its toll, leaving the door open for Czech runner Jan Procházka to pass Juuso Simpanen and snatch second place from his grasp.

“He was running so fast that I couldn't keep up. The final 15-20k at Istria are flat, so there wasn't any shade from the heat, and I didn't have the legs. I was suffering at the end. Credit to Jan, whom I hadn’t heard of before. My wife, Liina Hilkamo, who was at the aid stations, observed that he took his time, chilled out, and ate well, which has given me food for thought.”

Last year, Juuso Simpanen encountered fueling problems in the last 50k, so he fueled adequately right from the start this time. “I took on 20-30% more carbohydrates per hour compared to last time, which is significant. My pace during the first 50k was also slower, which gave me more energy.”

He aimed to get at least 90 grams of carbs per hour, and it was on point for the first 12 hours. “I drank a Nosht high-energy sports drink and then had Jollos energy balls and one gel per hour while running. At every big aid station, I ate a little white bread, minus the crusts, with margarine for some salt and fat. It is a simple fueling strategy, but it works for me. If things go wrong, my backup plan is bananas, Coca-Cola, and other sports drinks if I want different flavors.”

Looking at Jan’s more relaxed approach, Juuso admits that maybe it's good sometimes to take more time at aid stations and fuel properly. He also expressed disappointment at his misstep with electrolytes, which impact hydration and calorie absorption.

“My fluid intake was 0.3-0.5 liters per hour, and I took on extra at the aid stations, but I should have taken more salt. I faced stomach issues near the end because the liquids and energy didn't absorb properly into the system—I had to go to the toilet a couple of times. My muscles didn't have enough power, and that was because of the electrolytes.”

On the first day and during the night, he took 500-600 milligrams of sodium per liter, and that was enough. “I didn't calculate exact amounts, judging it by feel during the race. On the second day, the sun was shining hard from 6 or 7 am, which is when I should have taken more sodium.”


Race Day Preparation and Adaptation

The Istria 100 by UTMB race came after five weeks of training in Croatia, which was another critical difference to 2023 when Juuso Simpanen only undertook two weeks of preparation in the country. 

“Last year, I only had time to run 60k of the entire racecourse. Now, I had time to check the entire route and complete my final long runs on it, which I did last year amid Finland’s ice and snow. I also had time to acclimatize to the warm weather. A few days before the race, it got a little too warm for my comfort, and it altered my race strategy for energy and water intake.”

While his training approach didn't change much over the last year, he did focus on his tempo runs and harder training. “I did most of them on uphill and steep uphills because that's still my weakness. I made good progress during the winter and during the training period in Croatia. It's important to do some flat, fast running, but I'm going to work on my harder sessions uphill.”

After an injury forced him to retire from the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) last year, Juuso Simpanen was smart in his training approach to the downhills and uphills. “Every day, I checked my legs for any pains. After every long run, I took a rest day, and then the next long run was at least three or four days after the last. I always had time to recover the legs and then do another long session.”

Because of the length of the stay, he traveled to Croatia with Liina and their nine-month-old son. “He was ill when we flew, so my wife and I were sick with a cold during the first week. And then, a week before the race, the whole family got sick again. I have never been sick during the race week, and it was not a fun situation. I rested for the last five or six days before race day, which negatively impacted my performance, but that's life.”


A Racing Calendar with Ambitious Goals

Despite the challenges of Istria 100, Juuso Simpanen shares that the whole experience will stay with him for a long time. As for a return to the course next year, it will depend on how the 2024 season goes. “I will probably decide in December. Either way, I will be back there in the next couple of years to try and win the race.”

After failing to place at this year’s Western States Endurance run, he will be heading to the Karhunkierros 160K once again. He has won this event many times, and he will treat it this time as a training race ahead of his anticipated return to the UTMB.

Before returning to the scene of last year’s DNF heartbreak, he will participate in the Messilä Vertical in Lahti. He describes it as a “last-man-standing race in which you run uphill and downhill in a loop, but the time decreases with each circuit, so you must run it faster all the time.”

At the end of August, Juuso Simpanen and his family will head to Tignes, France, which is 2,000 meters above sea level, so he can train for five weeks ahead of the UTMB. “If I recover well from that race, I will return to Kullamannen in Sweden at the end of the season.”

With his race card for the year locked, it looks to be as busy and as challenging as you would be an expert. We’re confident at Aonach that Istria 100 won’t be Juuso’s only UTMB podium finish in 2024.


Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Liina Hilkamo, the unsung hero behind Juuso Simpanen's remarkable running career. Discover firsthand the dedication, sacrifices, and unwavering support that fuel Juuso's journey to the podium.

Interviewed and written by Asa Butcher

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