In the ultra-running world, where athletes typically dedicate their lives to rigorous training and follow meticulously crafted programs, Finnish trail runner and Aonach athlete Juho Kunnari is a unique outlier. He defies conventional wisdom by running without a coach or rigid training regimen, all while balancing family life and an IT career.
Having a natural inclination for long-distance running, his weekly training ranges from 30 to 60 kilometers, complemented by regular cycling. Nevertheless, his journey into ultra-running began with playing competitive soccer until he was 18, building a solid foundation for endurance sports with rigorous training and interval running. He even dabbled in American football as a wide receiver.
“When I moved to the Finnish city of Tampere to start my studies in 2004, I began cycling to the university and back home. I ran my first marathon to see how it would go during this time. While I achieved my objective of finishing in under four hours, the experience was rough. I hadn’t dedicated much time to training, and the lack of enjoyment led to a long break from running.”
In 2018, a running club at a former employer began organizing timed tests for Cooper, 5k, and 10k. “I am naturally competitive and participated, which led to needing to be better than the previous year, leading to trail running. My wife, who was already trail running and competing in full-distance triathlons, suggested running the 83 km NUTS Karhunkierros together, and that was my first race.”
His confidence soared after completing Karhunkierros, leading him to double the distance of the next race, the Vaarojen Maraton. “I’d already done 83 km, so it was logical to try 130 km. The race is two laps of 65 km. In the initial lap, I was all smiles at the aid station, but when I hit the early morning after running through the night, my energy dropped, and I felt low. I had thoughts of never wanting to be here again. I finished in under 24 hours, but it was tough.”
It was the moment that Juho wanted to find a race where he could be mentally strong enough to be fully committed. “While you only partially enjoy a race, something alluring pulls you back; you want to do it again and do better. Something is driving you to push and challenge yourself, trying to find where’s the limit.”
Chasing New Horizons
The following year, Juho heard about the Ultra Trail Tour of Finland (UTTF), a trail running tour of three grueling races: NUTS Karhunkierros, NUTS Pallas, and the Vaarojen Maraton. Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his plans to complete NUTS Karhunkierros. Nevertheless, he achieved his goal the following year by completing the tour, earning a commendable second-place finish, with only Juuso Simpanen ahead of him.
“In 2022, I wanted to do something different, and I was lucky to secure a place in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) through the lottery system. I completed the race in just under 36 hours, but it left me with a sense of unfinished business. I believe I can perform even better by having more time to adjust to the high altitudes and become accustomed to the mountain terrain—where I live in Finland, the highest peak locally is 40 meters. I am confident that I have the potential to improve my performance significantly.”
About six weeks after the UTMB, Juho had signed up for the 130km Vaarojen Marathon but had to quit after 80 km. “Both physically and mentally, it didn’t feel nice anymore. My legs were still tired from the UTMB race, but the positive outcome was the realization that I didn’t need to finish. I had completed it three times before, so I called it quits. This led to competing in shorter trail races in 2023.”
While he has been focusing on races between 21 and 55 km, the temptation to return to 100-milers has been ever-present. But that itch looks like it will be scratched in November. “My wife and a friend have tickets to the Kullamannen by UTMB. Initially, I was looking for a ticket for 100k, but then my wife asked: ‘Only 100k? You must be doing the 100 miles, right?’ I’m yllytyshullu (easily led), so… I am going to Sweden. I’m skeptical, but we will see what happens.”
Photo Lauri Kontkanen
His intrigue doesn’t stop at tackling 100 milers since his aspiration extends to even longer races: “I’m intrigued by these 200-mile races, and the NUTS 300 is also something I would like to accomplish at some point. Before I go further, though, I want to have a perfect experience at 100 miles. It would ease up the transformation. This year, when I’ve been running the shorter races, I see a big gap between the top-tier racers and where I am, even though I can run pretty far, pretty fast.”
For the time being, Juho remains committed to the pursuit of pushing his boundaries. “Competitiveness has been a constant in my life,” he reflects. “Even when I’m not pitted against other runners, I’m in a constant race with myself. Whether it’s the quest to conquer a fresh race or surpass my personal best from the previous year, the drive to excel fuels my running journey.”