Finnish ultra-runner Kai Niiranen has transitioned from cycling to conquering the formidable Ultra Trail Tour Finland in just two years. Join us as we explore his story so far.
After starting his ultra-running journey two years ago, Kai Niiranen, a 50-year-old runner from Finland, conquered the demanding Ultra Trail Tour Finland (UTTF) this year, completing all three runs and earning the coveted Ultra Trail Tour Finisher vest. Formerly a mountain biker, he now has his eye on a new challenge: a 200-mile race.
In a conversation with Aonach, the perpetually cheerful Kai reflects on his decision to transition from biking to running. He shares the valuable lessons he has gained during his rapid ascent in the ultra-running world.
From Bike to Feet
From childhood, team sports played a significant role in Kai's life. Engaging in football and ice hockey, he extended his involvement in 2018 to coaching third-division football in Finland. Despite these pursuits, one notable passion emerged—mountain biking. Since the late 90s, he immersed himself in marathon races, embracing their challenges.
“In August 2021, ultra-runners were on the same trail during the Kaldoaivi 130 km mountain bike race. I wondered if I could attempt something fun like that because it’s only you and your shoes, not about how the bike works. I found NUTS Karhunkierros online and decided that 85 kilometers would be perfect for a one-time race, so I began training for my first running event since elementary school.”
Ahead of the race, he didn't know if he could complete it. However, at the halfway mark, he knew it wouldn't be his last ultra-event. “It took around 14 hours to finish, so I was proud. It felt good and was different to mountain biking.” Hooked, he signed up for the Vaarojen Maraton 65 km that autumn, and a cheap NUTS Karhunkierros 166km ticket would mark the start of an epic 2023 season.
Facing the Unexpected
The year began with the Sisu 6h in January, marking Kai’s first experience with track and indoor running, and was followed by the Tiirismaa Trail to enhance his readiness for Karhunkierros. The big race would prove that he could successfully run 100 miles, giving him the first taste of the addictive feeling of crossing the finish line after a challenging race.
“While the last few 100 meters were awesome, I did experience problems with my legs after 100 kilometers. It was a painful night afterward, but I discovered that I'm mentally strong, never thinking once that I would quit.”
Hours after crossing the finishing line, he was already thinking about how to recover physically and mentally to be ready for NUTS Pallas 160 km in Ylläs five weeks later. “Unfortunately, I found that there is not much you can do. The leg pain started at around 10 kilometers, so I had to slow my pace and make a new race plan. I don’t know if I had self-doubt because of the injury, but it caused something to happen in my head.”
Analyzing what happened, Kai describes feeling terribly low for the first 80 kilometers, possibly because he couldn’t run at his usual pace. “Normally, I am always smiling, so it was a surprise. It was the first time I felt something hard in one of those races, but I never considered stopping because I knew there weren’t any physical problems.”
He recalls resting at a service point and concentrating on returning his spirit. “I reminded myself that I'm happy and it's fun. Ultimately, the last stage went by quickly, and I finished in about 28 hours. I guess that the recovery time from Karhunkierros wasn’t enough. Despite the challenge, I had no choice but to sign up for the Vaarojen Maraton and get that UTTF black vest by completing the trail.”
Looking back over the past two years, Kai admits he has developed in many areas, especially nutrition. “Ahead of the Karhunkierros 83 km, I had an energy plan and a 6-7-kilo backpack containing a lot of food and drink, but I forgot everything after the race started and then tried to eat and drink whenever I remembered.”
Since that first race, he has progressed. “In the spring, I started using Tailwind, which improved my energy levels at Karhunkierros. I like the different flavors and the neutral-taste option when everything tastes bad. I also need solid foods, so I always carry Finnish marmalade candies. I haven't faced low energy levels yet, but I know it will come sooner or later, and that scares me.”
As a runner in his fifties, Kai also knows other issues could be on the horizon. “When you get to my age, recovering is more important than training. As an engineer, I'm invested in exploring new types of technology, such as the Theragun massage gun, which I can use while watching TV. I also use the Paingone device, which I can take everywhere and use without any preparation.”
Independence and Strength
As the 2023 season ends, Kai is considering how next year will look. Once again, he will be supported by his younger brother, who has been an invaluable source of support, taking on the role of service crew. However, Tomppa takes on practical tasks rather than offering words of motivation.
“I don't require words of encouragement from him. I find that I perform at my best when I handle things independently. I know my strengths and believe that the mental aspect is fundamental. It will play into my decision to run the NUTS 300 kilometers race next year. Mentally and physically, it's different to the 100-mile. I see it more like an adventure than a race.”
While he hasn’t decided whether to sign up, he is already reading blogs about last year’s event, looking at the map, and researching the gear needed. “It's at the end of July, but a decision must be made soon. Before I register, I have to believe it's possible. I don't want to try and see what happens. I must be prepared and ready.”
As he contemplates his next steps, Kai’s story so far is a source of inspiration for all those who dare to push their limits and embrace the transformative power of the journey.
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