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The Ultimate Charity Challenge: Up (and Up and Up) in Åndalsnes, Norway


, by Howard Calvert

Photography by: Petter Engdahl

Climbing 2,345ft / 715m in 1.8 miles / 3km would be enough for most people. For this select group of trail runners, they decided to it multiple times in a day to raise money for Save the Children.

For Scandinavian trail runners, Åndalsnes is the Chamonix of Norway. It’s a town  surrounded by peaks and vertiginous rocky footpaths on which they can push their limits during training.

As a result, it’s attracted some of the world’s greatest professional mountain runners, including Kilian Jornet and his wife Emelie Forsberg, who together with other runners in the area have formed a group called ‘The Romsdalen Mountain Athletics’.

Norwegian trail runner and ski mountaineer Henriette Albon, along with her husband Jonathan Albon, is part of this group, and together, they devised a unique running challenge in order to help raise money for Save the Children and the charity’s appeal to help children in Gaza.

Up (and up and up) Nesaksla

“The whole area has terrific mountains wherever you look,” enthuses Henriette. “The trails are generally pretty rough terrain. But in terms of access to great mountains – especially for ski-mountaineering during the winter – it’s unique. There’s nowhere else like it in Norway – you just look up and think, ‘Wow!’”

Photography by: Petter Engdahl

The terrain has drawn a number of top-name runners to the area, including Kilian and Emelie, Petter Engdahl and Ida Nilsson. “The fact that they live here attracts even more people because the town has a cool vibe about it and you get to go out for runs and train with these people,” says Henriette. “It's a pretty good mix.”

So it wasn’t long after the idea of a charity run was suggested that the Romsdalen Mountain Athletics formulated a plan to do something a little more demanding than your average charity challenge.

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One mountain in particular casts a shadow over the town: Nesaksla. A hiking path leads its way from the centre of Åndalsnes up to the 2,345 foot / 715-metre summit, and local runners often grind up it as part of their training, with the climb unveiling rewarding 360-degree views at the peak.

“We thought, why don't we attempt to do an insane amount of laps up this hill and we'll get the gondola down each time,” says Henriette. “The local running community can jump in and do as many laps as they like. We knew it would equal an insane amount of vertical metres as well, which was a cool stunt just in itself.”

The gondola company was happy to offer free rides down to anyone taking part, but the question was how many climbs should they aim for?

Photography by: Petter Engdahl

“We decided on 10,” says Henriette, “which meant we thought all we had to do was spend 10 hours walking up a hill. The problem was, you had to get to the summit within an hour to get the gondola back down in order to manage the entire 10 reps, so it did require a certain level of fitness in order to achieve that.”

At 9am on 10 November, Henriette kicked off the adventure with a group of about 20 runners, including Kilian and Emelie, Petter and Jonathan. “From a local perspective, it was great that both Kilian and Emelie could sort out childcare for the day so they could both take part,” says Henriette. “It was nice for them to be there and support the whole thing and be part of the community.”

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The trail starts at sea level in the town then ramps up to 715m in a startlingly short 2.9km. “It's a very steep gradient,” she says, with understatement – the ‘Rampestreken’ segment is a punishing 34.7%. “The first section is on road, which is mellow and not that steep, before it hits forest trail. That's when it really kicks up and you pull out your poles out and hike as fast as you can.”

Despite being a regular training route for Henriette, she had doubts on her first lap. “I thought, ‘How am I going to do nine more ascents at this pace?’ It seemed surreal. I had to make sure I was eating enough carbs so I didn’t bonk.”

The team had organised tents at the base of the climb with food and also transported food, clothing and aid to the summit, to ensure runners had access to fuel throughout the day. “Having the group around me and doing it for a good cause gives you that extra energy. Everyone kept saying, ‘One more, one more, one more.’ People thought they were done, but then they’d do one more and the laps kept ticking by.”

The ability to endure

As Kilian, Petter and Jonathan pushed on (a video of them at the end shows an exhausted Jonathan saying he hit the wall for the first time ever trying to keep up with the other two), Henriette says she was more focused on taking one step at a time. “The sun set at about 4pm, so we got our head torches out, which created a different atmosphere and reset everyone's concept of time. More people joined us for the final laps, which helped push us through until the end and created that extra buzz which you needed to keep pushing.”

When things get tough, Henriette is motivated by a particular quote: ‘Freedom is the ability to choose what kind of pain you endure.’

Photography by: Petter Engdahl

“I was with my friend Nora, who had never done anything like this in her life and, on her sixth lap, she said, ‘I'm in so much pain.’ If you reframe the situation, you're choosing to put yourself in this pain because you're pushing your own boundaries and that, in itself, gives you a strange sort of satisfaction. That’s why I do sport. And on that day, she was doing it to explore her own self and push beyond what she thought was possible. But it was painful.”

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Henriette completed the challenge with Nora, with the 10 climbs totalling 7,049m of vertical gain in just 28.41km. To put that into perspective, they were only 1,800m off reaching the height of Everest.

“We're privileged to be in the situation where that’s the pain we feel,” adds Henriette. “Going back to Save the Children and everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, a lot of people feel a very different type of pain, but it's still pain. So it's important to remember that, yeah, we put ourselves through pain but we're very lucky to be able to choose this type of pain in the situation we're in."

The team ended up raising €10,400. If you would like to donate to Save the Children, visit the website savethechildren.org.uk

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