Professional runner Juuso Simpanen’s 2023 unfolded like a gripping trail saga. Join us as we delve into the highs and lows that defined his year and explore the race card he’s shaping for an even more compelling 2024.
For professional runner Juuso Simpanen, 2023 has had more ups and downs than your average mountain trail. After kicking off the year with a respectable performance in Croatia and a record-breaking win in Finland, he suffered the misery of an injury-induced DNF in the Alps before finishing the year strongly in Sweden.
Just a week after his final competitive race of the season, Aonach caught up with him on a wet November afternoon to assess the previous 12 months and what is being planned for his race card in 2024.
Injury Resilience and Kullamannen
Sweden’s Kullamannen Ultra 100 Miles race, held at the start of November, saw Juuso make his course debut and close out his 2023 running season with an admirable fourth-place finish (16:28:15). While he was aiming for the podium, he is happy to have finished the race without any pain in his injured leg, which he describes as a big win.
“In international races, you don’t know the fitness levels of the other runners, so it’s a mystery what will happen. There were only a few minutes between the first four in the first half. But in the second half, I didn’t have the strength to match their pace. My legs would have been better if I had trained more in the last month before the race, but I didn’t want to take risks because of the injury.”
Drawing from the training approach he used for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in the summer, he used the same fueling strategy, ingesting 80 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour, which worked well. However, although the racecourse is predominantly flat, it had rained in the weeks beforehand, making the route muddy and slippery.
“I was sliding on some downhills and should have had more traction on the shoes. I don’t know if it’s like that every year, but it surprised me. Despite the challenges, I might rerun Kullamannen next year because it was a good experience, and I feel I can improve my time.”
Training Adjustments on the Racing Journey
While Juuso has spoken to Aonach about the disappointing outcome of his UTMB experience over the summer, his racing year began in April with participation in the Istria 100 by UTMB for the first time.
“I only had two weeks of preparation in Croatia and had little access to the mountains beforehand. Most training was done in Finland amid the ice and snow and on treadmills in the gym, along with strength workouts. During the last 50k of the race, I had some fueling problems and wasn’t happy, but I managed to finish fifth, making it a good start to the season.”
In June, he became a father for the first time, taking his family to Lapland three weeks after the birth to start hill training sessions ahead of the year’s goal, the UTMB. He describes himself as being in the best shape of his life then, a statement backed up by a July victory in Finland’s NUTS Ylläs Pallas – 66K set a new course record.
“While the UTMB ended in disappointment due to training mistakes, the injury seems to be history. I was happy to finish the year with one decent race, and I’m looking forward to next year and what it will bring because I’m highly motivated to train again. The biggest goal is not to get injured. I am trying to listen to my body more and not let things go too far with too much training.”
He is still undecided on whether to tackle the UTMB 100-mile race again or attempt its “little sister,” the CCC, for the first time. The CCC is a 100k race held during UTMB week and on the course’s last leg. “It would be great to get some distances other than 100 miles under my belt because it is a different racing style. It would be good to have some shorter mountain races.”
If he undertakes the UTMB or CCC in 2024, he plans to maintain a similar training volume but with a revised approach that breaks long training days into shorter sessions. “For instance, if I covered a 60k distance this year, my new strategy involves splitting it into 30k in the morning and 30k in the afternoon. This will allow me to rest, eat, boost my energy levels, and keep my legs in good shape.”
Pursuit of the Western States Dream
In 2024, Juuso plans to engage in more races because his current approach wasn’t beneficial. “It’s hard for me to take downtime if I don’t have any races coming. It’s easier to rest after a long race than hard training workouts. By racing more, I can follow each race with more rest, enhancing my overall training effectiveness.”
While next year’s race plan isn’t finalized, he will start his season again at Istria, a course he likes for its various technically challenging elevations and mountain trails. “Even though I did well there, I am unhappy with my performance and want to improve. It’s also a good time to race because you have the whole season ahead.”
The race that will shape his season is the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile event held in the US State of California since 1977. “It has been my dream race for ten years but is hard to enter due to its lottery system. If the notification arrives in early December confirming my participation, it marks a substantial undertaking.”
Over the course, runners ascend a cumulative total of 5,500 meters and descend 7,000 meters on challenging mountain trails before reaching the finish line. The terrain is rugged, featuring frequent encounters with snow on the highest passes and temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius throughout the day.
“If I get a place, I will go to a hot place to train, ideally near the course. Another option is having treadmill or cross-trainer workouts in the sauna and sitting there after training to acclimatize the body temperature further. You need to hydrate well,” Juuso emphasizes.
If he misses the Western States, he plans to participate in some summer races in Finland, including the Karhunkierros 160k. “Another event on my radar is the NUTS Ylläs Pallas in July. Having completed the 66k this year, I’m considering the 100k or 100-mile course for the upcoming year. My goal is to secure some podium finishes; I came close twice this year, and I hope to achieve at least one in 2024.”
If you want to hear more from Juuso Simpanen, watch our first-ever Instagram Live session in which he talks about his transformative journey from being a professional football player to mastering the art of elite mountain running.