At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel won two gold medals in the men’s 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter speed skating events held on February 6 and 11, 2022.
In the 5,000 meters he went almost three seconds down in the last three laps to overtake his Dutch rivals, winning by half a second and setting a new Olympic record for the event. He won the 10,000 meters in a blowout race by almost 15 seconds, beating his own world record at the distance.
While both performances were different, they were exceptional for the 25-year-old phenomenon who cemented his place in Olympic speed skating history. But what makes van der Poel’s story most intriguing is the alternative route he took to those Olympics – one that involved ultra running!
After a disappointing 14th place finish in the same 5,000m at the 2018 Olympics, van der Poel mysteriously hung up his skates. In a sport where athletes typically train 20 to 30 hours a week year-round, van der Poel decided to take a break from the sport of which he famously said, “It just sucks.”
In the first year after the Olympics, he enlisted in the Swedish Army. During his time in the army, he was known for going on 10-hour bike rides and long, strenuous hikes in the woods surrounding the military base.
Then, in spring 2019, van der Poel plunged headlong into ultra and trail running. To say that it was unusual for a world-class speed skater to attempt long-distance trail running would be an understatement. But van der Poel is certainly unusual.
May 2019 at Aros marathon, a 50 km road race in Sweden, van der Poel finished fifth in a time of 4:07. Then, a few months later, in July of that year, he closed the Bergslagsleden 5-day stage racea 280-kilometer race on Sweden’s Bergslagsleden Trail, in just over 50 hours for another fifth place.
Finally, in October 2019, he ran the Kvinnersta Backyard Ultra, completed 127 kilometers and finished eighth. It must be assumed that this ultrarunning season prepared the pump for his return to speed skating and helped van der Poel hone the skills and discipline he needed to triumphantly return to the international speed skating stage.
For many of us starting out in distance running, this becomes our only focus. Because of the time it takes to train and the nature of the events, ultrarunners tend to get into the sport with both feet firmly on the ground.
Van der Poel’s example is compelling, as it’s clear that he discovered ultrarunning as a distraction from a lifestyle that had left him a bit weary. I can’t help but wonder if running distances have given van der Poel a new perspective while fueling his unorthodox training methods.
As a longtime fan of trail running and ultra running, I hope van der Poel’s example rubs off on other world-class athletes. If you think about it, long-distance running provides a fantastic outlet for endurance athletes from other disciplines: it gets you out into nature, tests your limits against yourself and the elements, and provides a wonderfully supportive community that lacks a little more competitive or cutthroat sport.
What could be better than that? I guess a certain Swedish Olympic speed skating champion knows the answer.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s beer of the week comes from the longtime Taproom favorite Oskar Blues Brewery from Lyons, Colo. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of their incredibly popular Dale Pale AleOskar Blues recently released Double Dale, an Imperial IPA they call a “double take on the beer that started it all.” With an ABV of 9%, Double Dale’s is sturdy but not alcoholized. Borrowing from the “bulky hopped” characteristic of the original, Double Dale’s has everything a hop lover could want in a beer and more!
- Have you ever turned to other sports to give yourself a break from trail running or ultra running?
- Or have you used our sports, like Nils van der Poel, as a break from another competitive sport that you are concentrating on?