“I thought I knew myself pretty well and thought I had experienced complete exhaustion, but I clearly still have a lot to learn. Never before have I been as totally broken in a race as I was then.” It was kilometer 50 of the 101 km CCC Ultra trail race in Mont Blanc, and Thorbergur Ingi Jonsson was in serious trouble. “I could not walk, I couldn´t even dream of finishing the race.”

Thorbergur Ingi Jonson, or Tobbi as he is called, was one of the big surprises in the 2015 World Trail Championships in Annecy. Running in a trail race for the first time outside of Iceland, he finished 9th, less than 6 minutes behind the eventual 2015 UTMB winner Xavier Thévenard. And in July 2015 he smashed the course record of the 55km Laugavegur Ultra in Iceland, in an improbable 3:59:13. So it‘s been quite a year for the reluctant trail runner Tobbi.

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Photo by Christopher Parsons.  Photos in full size here

A football player

Tobbi never took trail or ultra-racing seriously, and for a long time even running was just a means of being fitter for football. He was raised in Neskaupsstaður, a town of just over 1,000 people in the east of Iceland some 700 km from the capital Reykjavik.

“There was no track and field training in Neskaupsstaður, there was just football, volleyball and skiing and I was only interested in football. But I was always far ahead of anyone else when we were running in school or at football practice. I always trained harder and did more than everyone else. I used to run and walk in the mountains and did a lot of weight training. I must have been a strange teenager, out running in the evenings when everyone else was out partying.”

The only running event near his hometown is the annual 27km Barðsnes trail race. This was the only race Tobbi participated in when he was younger and of course he always won, leaving followers of Icelandic running results wondering who that guy was – someone who never took part in other races but always won the Barðsnes trail race ahead of well-known runners.

Tobbi also played almost 100 games for the local football team and had big ambitions.

“In 2004 I moved to Reykjavik and started running with a track and field club there while still playing football. I soon realized that running was where my talent lay but it was very hard to give up football. That last year I was captain of the team, but I never trained, I just showed up for the matches.”

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What happened in the CCC?

“A combination of things I guess. I hadn‘t done any specific altitude training and I think I felt that. It was also a very hot day, not ideal for an Icelandic runner and my stomach went on strike! I couldn‘t take any gels….even Snickers which I love, I couldn‘t get anything down. I wasn‘t able to drink enough fluid and I think I overheated.

I almost passed out, stopped and tried to walk, but I couldn‘t. So I sat down but then I heard a nearby creek and managed to get there where I lay down for a while, cooled off and drank tons of water! After that I was able to walk slowly to the next station.”

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The World Trail Championship in Annecy (85km)

At the end of May 2015 Tobbi took part in his first international ultra race. In the IAU World Trail Championships in Annecy, France he finished in 9th place ahead of some very well known runners.

Why did you decide to run in the World Trail Championships?

“Originally my friend Birgir Sævarsson asked me if I was interested in joining him and our running buddy Friðleifur Friðleifsson in the race.  I said I would think about it but when I finally decided to do it they had both changed their mind!  But by then my mind was made up to go and two other Icelandic runners, Örvar Steingrímssson and Guðni Páll Pálsson, agreed to go with me.”

What were your expectations for the race?

“This was by far the longest race I had entered into so just going there and taking part would have been a good experience.  But as I was ranked nr. 30 in the ITRA rankings my aim was to a finish in the top 20.  Finishing in 9th place surprised even me.

At the start I felt good and that I could keep up with anyone.  I ran with the top group until the first aid station, where I was left behind while I filled up my water pack! I managed to catch up with them again, but that took a lot of energy and I didn’t have enough water.”

Was there something that surprised you ?

“The course was tougher than I expected, the hills much steeper and longer and the terrain rougher.  I finished higher than I expected but the hills took a lot more out of me than I thought they would.  But then I had never run for 9 hours before! ”

Still, you must be happy that in your first international ultra you finished in 9th place in a World Championship race !

“Yes it went a lot better than I had hoped for. It started at 3 in the morning so even if it was very warm between 10 and 12 it was only for a couple of hours and not 14 like in the CCC.

I worked really hard in Annecy but I felt very good afterwards.

I’ll never forget when I came into the last aid station.  I was totally exhausted but my team leader Sævar Helgason was so excited, but at the same time very composed.  His inspirational speech fired me up and evoked all the feelings I needed to bring out the best of me those last 15 kilometers.

I have really fond memories of the race and it was incredible to be able to enjoy it so much but at the same time to hurt so much and feel so tired!”

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Laugavegur Ultra Marathon: the Amazing Race

The Laugavegur Ultra Marathon is a 55km trail race in the highlands of Iceland. The trail has often been named as one of the world‘s best hikes by the National Geographic Magazine and others. A few years ago nobody imagined it was possible to run that course in less than 4 hours but this summer Tobbi smashed his own course record by 8 minutes to finish in 3:59:13.

“The race was only supposed to be a good training exercise. Conditions were far from perfect due to heavy snow but the weather was great. I was a bit surprised how good the time was because I didn’t feel like I was going that fast, but I felt very smooth and strong.

I am doing everything so much better than before, all these little things that matter. In Laugavegur I never felt like I was working that hard until the last 10-15km. This year I was only 1 minute quicker at the last stop in Emstrur (km 38) than last year so all the improvement was gained on the last leg.”

What‘s the difference between Laugavegur and the trail races in the Alps?

“They are totally different. Laugavegur is flat, the weather is Icelandic and never the scorching heat like this year in the CCC, and it is not nearly as high up in the mountains.”

It‘s flat, really? That‘s not what most people think! Can it be done even faster?

“I think so, there is no limit really. Conditions are very important, both the wind and also the amount of snow on the course.”

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The trail runner finds his path

You started trail running very late?

“When I moved to Reykjavik I was mainly training for the middle distances – 800m and 1500m. I guess I stayed too long with the 800m. I wish I had focused earlier on the longer distances, on stamina and running style. Better form matters a lot and my style has improved very much. The best runners in the world make racing look effortless until the last 20 meters.”

Tobbi started taking part in road races in 2004 and was quickly among Iceland’s best in all distances, from the 800m to the marathon. His first ultra was the Laugavegur Ultra in 2009 where he set a new course record (4:20:32) without any special preparation. After that he didn‘t run any ultras until 2014.

Tobbi now lives in Akureyri in the north of Iceland where he is a running coach along with his own running and a full time job. He comes across as a calm and very determined man.

“If I had known then what I know now I would have done many things very differently. I’m more at ease now, earlier I was never able to relax. I did everything at 100% – it took me such a long time to realize how things work. If you want to be good or even the best you have to have that element of being tough and working very hard but you also have to be smart enough to back off when that is required. I never had the sense to do that.”

How did you learn to relax?

“Well… many years, many walls I have crashed into. Just experience really. You‘d have to be stupid not to learn something from it. But seriously, coaching other runners has also helped me a lot. You learn a lot by teaching others.”

Do you think a lot about the mental side of running?

“Yes, how you think is extremely important. Especially in a sport like ultra-running, that takes such a long time and you will always have difficult moments at some point. If you feel good and are positive it helps you in training, and you can control how you feel to some extent. You have to believe in yourself and when running I am very confident of myself. You can exercise at home in your bed, thinking about your races and the course, how you will handle situations and feelings.”

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What are your plans for the future?

“I want to try to really focus on the ultra now, maybe for 2-3 years, give it all I´ve got and see what happens. It would be great if I could work a bit less and dedicate myself more to training, but of course that costs time and money. I am planning to run in many more ultra-races now. Finishing races close to the top is what counts.”

What distance do you think suits you best?

“I still have to find out. I think I can do just as well in a 170km race as a 55km Laugavegur, but I have no experience in it yet so I really don‘t know.”

Where are your next races?

“I had planned to run in the North Face Endurance Challenge on December 5th in California, but I am recovering from injury at the moment so we shall have to see about that. Next year I am looking at the Lavaredo (120km) in June. I was planning to run the UTMB, but now I feel like I owe it to myself to run the CCC again. And further ahead I am looking to the 2017 Ultra trail World Championships.”

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Back to the CCC. How did you get back on your feet?

“In my mind I had already retired from the race. I walked to the next aid station and they stuffed ice cubes down my shirt and coke down my throat, and I felt a little bit better.

I tell people never to quit. You should never quit unless you are risking your health. So I thought: ‘Just maybe I can start jogging slowly again, sure there are 50km left and it is highly unlikely that I can finish, but I have to try.’

So I started off again, very slowly. A bit broken mentally but I tried to think positively. I believe that that is one of my strengths. Sure there may be 30 runners ahead of me, but I can’t be the only one to suffer from the heat. After a while I started picking up one or two runners, and then some more. I took better care of myself, cooling myself down and when the heat started to drop in the evening I felt more like myself and could finally start really running again.”

You finished very strongly and after having dropped to 31st place you moved up to 16th place, but you had hoped to finish in the top 10. How do you view the race now?

“I am happy with how I handled the situation, and did the best that I could. But it was not a good race by any means, I never felt good. But still, crossing the finish line felt fantastic!”

It was only in April this year that you started training specifically for trail running. Do you think you can improve with more specific training?

“I can do a lot better and I have a lot to learn. I believe I can finish ultra trail races in the top 5. I need to do more work at higher altitudes and I can also improve my technique on the uphill. I learned a lot in Annecy watching how the top runners go up the mountains. Saving energy is the key.”

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And finally…

What is your favorite place to run?

“If I am in Reykjavik I try to go to Heiðmörk. I love running on beautiful forest paths.

I also love running here in Akureyri near the old bridges on the banks of Eyjafjarðará. You run alongside the river on horse trails and sheep paths.”

Do you have any advice for beginners on how you can improve running in an uneven landscape?

“Cadence drills are great, jumping quickly sideways and up and down or on one foot. And simply running downhill. Just find some short soft hills where you feel safe running a bit fast.

It helps being strong as well. Hills are the best strength training but some weights are necessary. You can also improve your footwork by training on rocky or uneven terrain even if it‘s not hilly.

You will hopefully get to a point where you feel it‘s okay to slide a little bit in some sand or stub a toe against a rock, without thinking you are going to fall.”

Do you use a watch when out on the trail?

“Yes I have a Suunto trail running watch which I use, not really to look at the pace but I look at the altitude (to know where in the profile you are), distance and time.”

How much did you train in a typical week for the CCC?

“It‘s hard to say when you are spending so much time in the mountains, but I would guess 150-160km a week. But I look mainly at the time spent on each session.”

How do you motivate yourself to go out on those hard days?

Try to make it fun, meet people, motivate people to join you and to think like you – it shouldn‘t always be hard but sometimes there are days when you just have to be mentally strong.

Do you need to concentrate when you are going downhill?

“It comes naturally. But of course, when you are running in the dark, and there are brutal cliffs and rocks, of course you need to focus. That‘s one of things I love about trail racing, you are never bored.

People ask, what are you thinking about when you are running? But you are thinking all the time about what you are doing: about the next step, the next hill, when to take the next gel, the course ahead –there is never a dull moment. ”

More photos, and photos in full size here

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