Finnish trail runner Anna-Stiina Erkkilä’s journey is marked by burnout, injury, and an unyielding spirit that ultimately secured her a spot in the top ten of the prestigious Golden Trail World Series. Read about her international racing year, overcoming setbacks, and the lessons learned along the way.
Juggling a career, parenting responsibilities, and the demands of running began to wear down Finnish trail runner Anna-Stiina Erkkilä. After overcoming burnout and two injuries, she made a triumphant comeback to the Golden Trail World Series (GTWS) this season, finishing in the top ten overall.
It's an impressive feat for someone who initially took up running for enjoyment, with the goal of inspiring her daughters to pursue their dreams. Having run several races outside of Finland in 2023, Aonach caught up with Anna-Stiina back on home soil to review her international racing year and what she learned.
Photo The Adventure Bakery
From Stroller Runs to Mountain Victories
After welcoming her first child in 2013, Anna-Stiina started road running with the stroller because it was easy and fun, eventually leading to a couple of road marathons. However, her involvement with a floorball club caused knee troubles and surgery, prompting her to shift her focus to running. Following the arrival of her second daughter in 2018, she discovered a passion for trail running.
“I asked someone to coach me and did my first interval training at the end of that same year. Before I knew it, I wanted to see how fast I could be and how I could improve my performance. In 2019, I started to race in Finland, and within a year, I won a Golden Ticket from the Nuuksio Classic to compete in the Golden Trail Championships in Portugal—my first mountain race abroad.”
Each of the five stages began with an ascent of 8-10 kilometers and spanned distances of 20-30 kilometers a day. Despite the grueling experience, she was gratified to discover that she could endure. “It was a major test, and unexpectedly, I secured 12th overall. This surprise success fueled my motivation to explore more mountain races.”
In 2021, she ran the whole GTWS for the first time, but it came at a cost. “Combining nursing and night shifts with traveling and running is difficult. I burned out in early 2022. Taking a break, however, was followed by an injury. During that summer, I couldn't run, so I had time to be with my family. I was still training by cycling, water running, and roller skiing, but it was tough.”
Photo The Adventure Bakery
Triumphs and Setbacks
April 2023 finally saw Anna-Stiina make her comeback as she headed to Croatia for the Istria 100 by UTMB. “It was a huge relief and a big moment to be back running after a year of injury. I was thrilled to start my season with a second-place finish, qualifying me for the OCC - UTMB Mont Blanc in August.”
Sadly, the joy was short-lived as she began to feel pain a week later, which was diagnosed as iliopsoas tendinopathy—an inflammation of the iliopsoas tendon, one of two muscles playing a role in hip flexion. “I was scared I couldn't run again this season but took a risk by going to Spain in May to race the Zegama Aizkorri despite the ongoing pain. I lasted 14 km before pulling out.”
This setback prevented her from participating in the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Innsbruck in June, which had been one goal for the year. Instead, she redirected her focus toward training for the Marathon Du Mont-Blanc at the end of June, where she ultimately secured a seventh-place finish.
“I felt nervous because I didn't know whether my iliopsoas was completely healed and if I could tackle uphill runs without pain. There were many questions before the race. Seeing that I'm still in the top ten was a big moment. This ensures eligibility for the next race and eases travel logistics since they provide accommodation and travel support for those in the top ten.”
After Dolymyths and Sierre-Zinal, Anna-Stiina was invited to participate in Pikes Peak and Mammoth in September. Before flying to the US, she still had the OCC, one of her racing goals for 2023. “I’d never been there during UTMB week, and it's an important event for my ASICS team. Unfortunately, my overloaded race schedule left me unprepared. Looking back, it wasn't a smart decision.”
Thanks to ranking in the GTWS top ten overall this year, she can choose her races next year, making it easier to plan her season. “I can set the main races and try to prepare better for them.”
Photo The Adventure Bakery
Motherhood, and Mental Resilience
The GTWS is the most competitive of the trail-running series, expresses Anna-Stiina, who believes it suits her to be racing against better runners. “As a mother and woman, I want to show my young daughters that they can follow their dreams. Everything is possible. It's great to see when I'm traveling and racing that many mothers are in the sport. It's nice to share this with them.”
“All the runners talk before and after the races. It's fun to learn by sharing everything, but we talk about racing all the time, such as how you prepare, in which shoes you will run, and how many grams of carbohydrates you will take during the race. Because I now know myself better, I have learned that sometimes I need alone time because it makes me feel better before a race.”
Having completed numerous challenging races at a high level, she has developed mental resilience in her preparations. “I visualize the race, but there might be uncertainties, discomfort, or doubts about my condition; you need to face those thoughts. It helps me talk with my coach, other runners, or friends.”
Despite being a qualified nurse, Anna-Stiina discovered the hard way to listen to her body and react more healthily to balance training and recovery. “Now, if I feel something physically wrong, going a few days without running is not a big deal. I have learned it's unpleasant to be without running for a long time, so I don’t want to get hurt.”
Photo Martina Valmassoi
She concludes with guidance for runners exploring international trail running: "When reaching a new running event, resist the urge to explore the mountains and hit the trails. Rest, even if others are setting out. There's little room for fitness improvement two days before a race, so I stick to my plan and trust I'll be in good shape at the starting line." This approach is working for her.
--Draw inspiration from Anna-Stiina Erkkilä's remarkable story of resilience and triumph. Whether you're a seasoned runner or just starting, take the first step toward your goals. Join the trail-running community, with Aonach’s free fueling plan.