By Sami Vaskola
The first rays of the Greek sun sheds light over the olive trees and fills the dark hills. Nearby, the snow-covered Mount Taygetos rises 2 344m and, just now at 7am the temperature is already 15°C. This is not an ordinary place, this is the birthplace of professional athletes.
Only 50km south of Sparta lies a small village called Skoutari with a perfectly shaped bay surrounded by mountains that was once an infamous pirate stronghold. Now it is the second home of one of world’s best ultra runners. Noora Honkala (27) has transformed herself from a soccer player and part-time runner to one of the world’s elite long and ultra-long distance runner.
The mind rests when the body works long hours.
That is the exact mindset of Noora, when she pushes herself through the hilly terrain of Lakonia.
But let’s rewind a bit.
Early 2018 Noora was in top form shaping her dream as a first professional Ultra runner from Finland. She improving her records in almost every race she entered. Then in the spring of 2018 an agonising pain started to bother her lower back. Shortly after she was diagnosed with a severely ruptured disc and was forced to make a possible career-changing decision. Her insurance did not cover her spinal disc treatments, nor possible operation, so she decided to sell her car and raise money for the operation.
So there she was, only 6 months earlier she had left everything to become professional runner and now facing something she never expected. Luckily the operation was successful and she was able to put all the pain behind her.
After carefully analysing her possible future career path, Noora and her team decided to set a target for 100km World Championships. This could have been easy for someone, who could train at a 100% level, but not Noora, who had to start everything from scratch. There was only 10 weeks before the World Championships, and for half of that time she was forced to stop running.
New beginning is sometimes cure for career.
In June 2018 Noora started to swim as part of her rehabilitation. She had never swam more than 50m and never tried open-water swimming. The experience was an eye-opener. She slowly increased her distance and speed, and swimming became a daily training routine.
As the days passed, her appetite for more increased. She was determined to push further, so she bought an indoor and over the following weeks she swam, cycled, and strengthen her core more than ever before. Finally after few weeks, she was allowed to take first steps as a runner again.
Everything had to be changed
In all of the previous years, Noora was a “heel” runner, but now due her injury, she had to change her running technique dramatically. So she started to push more uphill, more toe and flat foot running, focusing her core, to keep herself away from hurting her back.
She built everything from the scratch and found herself standing at the same starting line with the fastest 100km runners on the planet. Noora was scared and relieved – there were no other words to describe her feelings, but perhaps determination could sum them up. Just couple months earlier she had been flat on the operating table and now she was standing next to fittest 100km runners in the World.
With no ranking, Noora began her 100km journey as the underdog. With no time, she started to approach the top 20, then the top15, top 10 and when the final lap started she passed here arch rival from Sweden and crossed finishing line in 8th place.
The time was 7:52:04 with new NR and her first ever top 10 placement in the 100km World Championships. She had given all she had, mentally and physically, and done something nobody believed was possible.
Her next few months moved fast
She achieved the 7th place in the Athens Classic Marathon (PB), then she shattered her own course record in the Amalfi 54km hilly run (new 50km NR), followed by 1:22 Napoli Half marathon and in the top10 placement. (PB)
Then in the spring of 2019 she decided to enter her first multi-sport event; the Duathlon World Series.
It was like a bomb had dropped on to the scene. She finished 2nd right after the Duathlon World
Champion, beating all the other Elite athletes, she made her mark as a strong versatile endurance athlete. Only 3 weeks later she achieved 135.786 km in a 12h race, placing herself in the 2019 World no.1 spot.
Comrades and beyond
In June 2019, one year after her surgery, Noora entered the largest and most recognised Ultra road race in the world, the Comrades Marathon – 2019 was the “up run” year, so it seemed perfect fit.
Early in the morning on June 9th huge crowds, some 25 000 supporters, started to gather in the streets of Durban, South Africa. The contestants were ready to start their race to Pietermaritzburg. Surely there was no shortage of world class caliber athletes as the winners prize purse was the biggest ever so far.
Noora kept herself in the top10 during the first 50km of uphill track within striking distance of the podium. But then the bitter sweet symphony started to play as she approached the 60km mark on the flat downhill stretch. All the training to protect her injury started to show up a weakness as she ran down.
There was only so much you can do to prevent shock to the lower back, her and her team couldn’t add those to her training calendar. She was forced to slow down and eventually finished in 20th place in her debut Comrades Marathon.
Slightly disappointed, Noora decided to participate in the Finnish Ironman 70.3 only 2 weeks later.
From warm South Africa to a cold and windy Finland, she performed an outstanding first triathlon, finishing 3rd in her Age Group and 11th overall (Elite included). She made a solid statement for things to come.
Ups and downs and around again
Noora´s main goal, the 24h World Championships was disappointment. Her mind was not concentrating to attack so she was forced to withdraw after 100km. Maybe that was too soon or maybe too much in one year? Nevertheless, when she was invited by the tourist minister of Israel to take a part in Desert Marathon, there was no hesitation.
The rugged terrain, sandy off-the-beaten roads and constant ups and downs will “guarantee memories for life, rather than chasing your marathon PB´s”. she says.
Out of nearly 3.500 runners Noora was titled “the Queen of the desert” by a clear margin. She would also have been in 7th place in the mens category with a time of 3:21:56.
But irony seems to have odd ways to circle around
Only four days after desert marathon, Noora was on her normal bicycle ride when irony seemed to play its game with her. She hit a thin crack in the pavement at a speed of nearly 50km/h. She crashed to the ground and badly injured she was rushed in to the hospital. Her back was bruised and the pain there was something she had felt before. She knew she had to fly back to Finland for closer examination that later revealed another ruptured spinal disc.
Now, one month later she is back, stronger, wiser and more determined. There is no question why she is considered one of the greatest female ultra runners. Time will tell the full story, this is only the beginning.
- Born and raised in Lohja, Finland, Noora holds the National Records in 50km, 100km, 100mils, 6h, 12h and 24h run.
- Ironman and Duathlon athlete, Elite runner for Half Marathon and Marathon.
- Main goal 2020 / 100km World Championships (September).
Photos: Sami Vaskola