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Behind the Smile

After discovering climbing at 14, Emelie Forsberg fell in love with the mountains, and that love has expanded to include trail running.

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On July 4, 1990, Alaskan Nancy Pease set a new course record at Seward, Alaska’s famed Mount Marathon, a highly technical, five-kilometer race up and down the nearby eponymous 3,022-foot mountain.

At virtually the same northern latitude, some 4,000 miles to the east, a Swedish girl named Emelie Forsberg had just turned three and a half. Little did anyone know that someday, Forsberg would become one of the world’s best mountain runners and, 25 years later, travel to Alaska to demolish Pease’s still-standing record at Mount Marathon by nearly three minutes.

A descendant of farmers and reindeer-herding Laplanders (indigenous Scandinavians), Forsberg spent her childhood outdoors in the hills of eastern Sweden. She worked as a baker at a hotel in the Swedish mountains before attending school in Norway. At first, she studied forest science, before switching to biology because it seemed to her that forest science was more focused on profit than on nature.

After a teacher introduced her to rock climbing at 14, she fell in love with the mountains—a love that expanded later to include trail running, ski mountaineering and yoga. In 2012, she was invited to join the Salomon International team. Doing so meant turning down a simultaneous opportunity to work on a biology project in northern Norway, but she decided she had to take the chance on herself and try to make it as a professional runner and skier.

Since then, she has raced prolifically all over the world, setting the women’s “up and down” FKTs (fastest known times) on Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Grand Teton. She’s won the International Skyrunning Ultra World Cup three years in a row, and bagged wins at highly competitive races like San Francisco’s TNF 50, Spain’s Transvulcania and Switzerland’s Matterhorn Ultraks. Last year, she set a new course record at The Rut 50K in Montana.

Fresh off her win at Scotland’s Glen Coe Skyline race last August, Forsberg met up with me in Argentiere in the French Chamonix Valley to answer a few questions.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in the 90s, when kids were not always in front of the computer. My sister and I spent a lot of time outside, picking berries, hanging out with our grandparents on their farm, going fishing, things like that. My family was not especially sporty, but we did cross-country skiing because that’s what you do in Sweden.

What kind of training do you do?

I spend many long days—9 to 15 hours—in the mountains. That kind of nature inspires me to push myself; when I’m in the mountains, I don’t feel tired. It’s nice that Kilian and I like to do the same kinds of mountains in the same style, though I prefer to do some trainings by myself, too. I try to do a bit of speedwork, because that’s my weak point. I’ve never had a training background like many athletes have, so when I do these harder sessions, I’m uncomfortable. That’s how I know I need to do them!

How was Mount Marathon?

I felt really motivated to do something short to change my training a little. I loved having the chance to go to Alaska and get a feeling for the nature there. The mountain-running community [in Seward, Alaska] is really big, but it’s also very laid back. People just do it! They don’t need to talk so much about it. I really like that kind of style.

You have a combined 150,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram! What’s that like?

I have always enjoyed showing people beauty, so that comes easily to me. At the same time, when you have so many followers, you start to be a profile. Sometimes I like that, but it’s always two sides. I am a happy person, but it’s easy for people to think that they know me and think I’m so nice and good and everything—and I don’t feel comfortable with that.

In terms of being a public figure, have you ever taken criticism?

Yes, one time when Kilian and I got rescued climbing. Sometimes people don’t like the light-and-fast mountaineering. If it hadn’t been me and Kilian, it would have been nothing. People ask for help all the time. I had forgotten to take my down jacket; that’s a big mistake. I’d never been that cold in my life. I don’t like to take risks. I don’t want to play with my life, because I love to live so much.

How does running compare to other mountain disciplines you enjoy?

In running, you can really ease your mind and clean your thoughts. In mountaineering, it’s the same, but you have to be even more attentive, all of the time. I like that when I do more technical things in the mountains, I don’t think about Facebook or TV or the things that always occupy us nowadays.

Have you ever run road races?

I tried a few 10Ks. I don’t like it, at all.

You seem to feel great in all your races. Have you ever had a race where you just felt horrible?

Yeah. Maybe two times?

Just twice! Do you have any non-racing goals for the coming year?

Many people ask me, “Are you going to do any projects like Kilian?” Kilian has been racing for 15 years. He has so much experience. A race is nothing for him. For me, it still takes energy, so I cannot do too many other things because I want to be good and relaxed and healthy.

I would like to explore the Himalayas, and spend more time in Sweden and Norway—but also when you have these weeks with nothing to do, it’s so nice not to travel. I concentrate on learning French or doing some writing or things like that. Those are goals, too.

What does your future hold?

I think I’d like to go back to university and learn more about physiology. I never was sure what kind of work I’d do as a biologist. I just wanted to do something that felt meaningful. I still have no idea now, either. I just know that if you do something that you like and you think feels meaningful, it will take you somewhere.

This article originally appeared in our March 2015 issue.