Noora Honkala – A Great Finnish Ultra Runner

Your correspondent spoke with Noora Honkala, just after her long Ultra Run last week. She is one of Finland’s top athletes as one of the world’s best ultra runners.

She came third in last week’s Spartathlon in Greece, running 246 km in around 26.5 hours during the scorching Greek sunlight during the day and continued through the night when the temperature dropped to near zero degrees in almost total pitch black darkness.

The profile of the race is killing because it is mostly uphill:

She dramatically improved her last records on this her most recent run by several hours… Hard training in the hills around her Greek village with her partner Sami Vaskola, another world-class Finnish athlete, and her other supports have helped her attain huge performance improvements…

Noora’s performance is similar to tough endurance that Kaisa Mäkäräinen recently showed in her Alpine Run in the Dolomites the other week reported here in FinnishNews a few weeks ago.

What drives these young women to perform such hard and demanding challenges?

Is there something special in the characters of these people that drives them to go for Gold?

It is worth recalling that there are less than 6 million Finns, one of Europe’s smallest countries tucked away in its north east corner with a rather harsh climate and a very distinct culture. Long distance running, skiing and F1 and rally driving have always thrived here!

The Spartathlon starts in the early cool of the morning and continues upwards on to the first hills as the hours march on in the searing heat of the Greek sun.

Noora mentioned that an Ultra Run feels like becoming a running robot – a long part of the run is on asphalt, with short parts on rocks, sand and shingle. She described how her body’s energy is gradually depleted after the first 15 hours of running when the legs become numb, the breathing steadies and the heart beats around 140 BPM…

A running mate from Norway told her after those 15 hours that he was almost at the end of his tether. When she asked him if he would run with her so she could use his LED light to avoid stones on the mountain side, he replied “Yes of course, But I may not be able to keep up with you!” What sportsmanship when they ran together with renewed energy!

He was an experienced older runner from Norway who managed, like her, to find those extra reserves of energy that the body had somehow managed to store away, remembering what the route was like in past years.

An Ultra Run is not so much about competing as striving to finish within the 36 hour limit and making sure that co-competitors are not landing themselves in trouble… Perhaps this is a true Olympic spirit that the present Olympics have forgotten in their orgy of money from big corporate spenders who are the anti-thesis of any healthy sport.

Running is hard – in the first sprint to the top of the first climb Noora’s nose started to bleed and block her ability to breathe freely – that was quickly fixed by on call doctors who plugged her nose to stanch the bleeding. It stopped as she continued onwards.

For the next hundred kilometres she enjoyed short rest breaks every 10km to 15km for drinks and to catch her breath. The temperature under the sun reached more than 25C and took a big toll on the runners, many of whom were ready to give up after 100 km when evening came. That was when the final steep climb of some 800m and more faced every runner…

At the end of the race, she was supported by several doctors who gave her some intravenous tonics to relieve the pain and increase blood pressure which falls soon after reaching the finish. An athlete’s blood sugar is rather level during the race but also falls when running finally stops.

This combination is a hard attack on normal body functions and requires expert attention.  

The interesting thing about the food she enjoyed at this resting points ands during the run was amazing… Coca Cola was the preferred drink with plenty of water that was enriched with Electrolyte tablets. These are rehydration salts that restore the fluids and electrolytes lost from the body due to dehydration, muscle cramping, and exertion from heat while exercising in hot weather. They contain salts like potassium chloride, calcium carbonate, sodium chloride, and magnesium oxide.

She also had a store of salt crystals in a small pouch in her bra which she put on her tongue and crunched slowly while running. Another restorative food were potato chips and bright red juicy water melons, the latter being her great favourite…

… and the last one was a special sweet that is manufactured in Finland that she calls “No Shit”. These are sweets made from all natural ingredients by Nosht Ltd. that are designed to supply energy, electrolytes and performance-boosting nutrients as well. They are 100% vegan, 100% gluten-free completely natural, high-quality exercise fuel with no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives. The founder of Nosht, a competitive Alpine cyclist Petteri Kankkunen and top triathlete Kaisa Sali both endured long days with gut problems. They were determined to identify which foods he could eat that wouldnt bother his stomach. They developed their products which are now sold to top athletes and seriously praised by Noora as being an excellent survival booster.

Running is not only a physical drama for the body muscles, but also for other body parts. Noora has a long hair and is determined to keep it like Samson, the biblical figure, who believed that his long hair was the secret source of his strength!

Noora’s plaits got tangled up in the safety pin that held her race number attacked to her back. It became so entangled that her father had to use a sharp knife to cut away the tangle so she could continue the race. She lost no strength when the hair was cut… Coming third with a new personal best time was proof of the pudding!

Photos by Sami Vaskola

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