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Skyrunner storyJo Stevenson
28 May 2019

Running mountain marathons is great and I really believe everyone can do it

Being an elite athlete with the constant pressure to perform hasn’t always been easy and after many years of competing it was time for a change.

“I met Jo on this crazy mountain race in Stockholm/Sweden doing laps in steep small hills. Jo was superior the fastest runner and I got curious about her story behind …”

Jo is a 41 years old socialable Scottish runner with a background as an elite athlete in orienteering.

Although she is now a “retired” orienteer, the sport is still an important part of Jo’s life. So, now days she is there as a coach and a mentor for younger athletes.

Jo’s own training has for the past 5 years been more focused on Trail and Mountain marathons. Running Mountain marathons for fun is something that would have been difficult to combine with the schedule of an elite orienteer.

This years goals are to master a couple of challenging and demanding races like Scafell Skyrace and Trail Verbier St-Bernard (73km).

This is Jo’s story…

Jo Stevenson, “Vemdalen Fjäll Maraton”, Sweden

Can you tell us a little more about your background as an elite athlete and how come you moved from England to Sweden?

Well I’m Scottish although I studied at Sheffield in England. I started at Sheffield University on a sports scholarship when I was 17, so was quite young when I got my degree. Sheffield is a real outdoors city so I really enjoyed my time there orienteering, fell running and climbing (probably not studying as much as I should have).

Unfortunately, I fell badly while running in my last year of University, and I tore my cruciate ligament. I ran the Junior World Orienteering Champs with my knee heavily taped and got poor results. It was quite a tough time, rehab didn’t go very well, and I broke up with a long-term boyfriend.

After University I went traveling for 6 months before started work in Liverpool, where I knew no one. I started training with the athletics club there running lots of cross-country. I had a half-day off every Friday, so it was perfect for heading off for running weekends in the North of Wales, Lakes District or Scotland. Having the chance to do a bit of rehab and training on my own worked well for me and I got really fit.

I got selected for the European Orienteering Champs and made redundant from my job in Liverpool at the same time. It gave me the little kick I needed to make changes and I got the opportunity to move to Halden in Norway and run for one of the world’s best orienteering clubs, Halden Skiklubb. So, I moved to Norway just before my 23rd birthday. I lived in Norway for 3 years which was great, the club provided a fantastic training environment and I got the chance to explore Norway.

I worked as a waitress and for the club. I’ve always struggled with race nerves and put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. So, living orienteering in a top club was quite tough at times.

After some time, I realized that the routine of combining work and training suits me best and it gives me another focus.

So, when the chance to move to Sweden and combine working at AstraZeneca and running for SNO (a local orienteering club) came up, I took it.

I think I’ve been very lucky to be able to combine a job that I like with my passion for running. 

This resulted in my staying in Sweden, even though I’m now a “retired” orienteerer.

Your passion for SkyRunning? Where is that coming from?

Well, I started running fell races in the UK as a teenager, so I’ve always done some races. I guess I’ve done more and been a bit more focused on longer races the last 5 years though. I’m lucky to have a group of friends that enjoy trail races, so we run races together and pep each other in our training. It’s been great fun to do it together and I really enjoy running and exploring new places.

I also really like to challenge myself and leave my comfort zone.

It’s an amazing feeling to come to the finish after standing on a start line slightly unsure if you will ever make it or not.

You did quite good in the Ring of Steall Skyrace. I think that many readers might be curious about that.

Since the Ring of Steall was on home terrain for me I really wanted to run well, so I did do some specific things. Otherwise the last years I’ve run more for enjoyment.

Start of Ring of Steall with my friends

I was home in Scotland in the summer and was able to run and recce the first climb and a couple of the tops. This was great since it gave me a lot of more confidence and a good idea what to expect.

I was also able to combine a visit to friends in the Lake District with running the Buttermere Horseshoe Fell Race which was a British Champs races last year. It’s 36km and has 2 600m climb with lots of steep accents and descents so fairly similar to Ring of Steall. I ran together with my friend, but it was good “run through”.

I also did some hill reps on the little ski slope close to where I live, although probably not as much as you’d think

I actually think mental toughness and general fitness probably prepares me more.

I’m a great fan on intervals since they are so effective and time efficient!

Otherwise I made and effect to get long runs in at the weekends and I’m lucky to live close to lots of nice running routes and trails.

Jo Stevenson, Buttermere Horseshoes, Lake District

Are there any requirements to participate in the Ring of Steall Skyrace, or the rest of Golden Trail Series? Or can anyone sign up for these races?

Anyone can run the Ring of Steall, so it’s a good first Skyrace. Skyraces are great fun but they do have a lot more steep up and down’s than most “normal” trail races, even trail races in the Alps. It means that it can feel like there is less “running” than a normal trail race and that’s not always everyone’s cup of tea.

Jo Stevenson, Ring of Steall Skyrace

Which are your top strengths as a runner?

When it comes to running, I’m strong in technical terrain and a good downhill runner. I’m good at breaking down races into small sections and focusing on just them.

But the last and not least important thing is that I have a good inner strength and can turn off my brain and just plug on, which is good for long races.

How do you manage your time, combining work and training?

I’m not actually a super organised person but I have been training almost all my life so I’ve very goal orientated and good at planning in training and just getting it done.

I changed jobs in January so now commute into university campus in Stockholm every day, so that’s been an adjustment and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to fit in training. I usually run at lunch 1 day a week. If I need an extra quality session that week, I’ll run intervals.

Otherwise I prefer to run straight after work since I feel it’s a bit rushed at lunch. I try to avoid running with a rucksack since I like my training to be “quality” training and try to avoid plodding runs and junk miles.

I don’t want to teach my body to run slowly and I don’t want to increase the risk of injury.

I’m a coach for Team Nordic Trail on Mondays and have orienteering club training Tuesday and Thursdays so they are my standard sessions in the week.

I saw on Facebook that you also were a running coach. Can you please tell us a little more about that?

I got the chance through my orienteering club and “Idrottslyfta” to get my coaching qualification which was great. I’d already been coaching for within the club, but it gave me some new ideas and gave me more confidence in the role. I’ve been a coach for my orienteering clubs for over 10 years now, so I’m used to shouting at people!

I’m also a coach for Team Nordic Trail (a Swedish running group), which is fun. There are so many benefits to running, health, confidence, social, enjoyment so hope I can get other to enjoy running too.

I have also started as Woman’s coach for the British Orienteering team this year and I am finding it really rewarding. I can relate to the highs and lows of being in the team but having distance to it makes it easier to help. Its fun being part of the team again but without the pressure of having to run!

How does a normal week look like for you right now, with training and work?

Monday: Team Nordic Trail coach (or run myself, forest intervals with different themes, 60min (25min intervals)

Tuesday: 
At the moment I’m studying a university course and have lectures in the evening, so I’ve been running at lunch with a friend (45-50min). Otherwise during the winter I’m coach at my orienteering club intervals. I’m able to run and train myself even if I’m coaching though, 70min (25min intervals).

Wednesday: 
Run after work from work or rest day or climbing with friends or swimming.

Thursday:
 Orienteering club training, orienteering or running in terrain, 60min.

Friday: 
Rest day.

Saturday/ Sunday: 
Long run and/or orienteering.

At the moment I don’t have much strength training as I should, so I need to try and fit that in. Where I worked before we had lunch training, so it was a bit easier.

Can you describe your journey and the hardest parts that took you where you are today in life and in running?

I think I’m fairly easy going and believe things usually work out ok. Otherwise I guess that being part of a National team is like a roller-coaster, its full of highs and lows. It’s definitely shaped who I am today.

I find work quite easy in comparison.

Do you have any dreams and goals that you like to share?

This year’s races are Utö SwimRun, Ångaloppet SwimRun, Scafell Skyrace and Trail Verbier St-Bernard (73km). TVSB will be my longest running race (I’ve done Vasaloppet but that 90km of xc-skiing) and is a big step up on distance!

There is a group of us doing it so it should be great fun. Training wise I’m planning on doing a long run 2 days in a row to try and get some specific training for it. Other summer plans include orienteering and running in Scotland, running between huts with a friend in Jotunheim and Leader on Team Nordic Trail’s trip to the Swedish mountains.

What is your advice to other “hard working office people” that is dreaming of an active lifestyle running in the mountains as fast as you do?

All training that happens is better than no training! A 30 min run can still be great training, but more importantly it will give you energy. Don’t beat yourself up over the fact it was “only” a 30 min run.

“I really believe everyone can manage even these longer races, it just a case of setting the right goals and expectations.”

Facts

Name: Jo Stevenson

Nationality: Scottish (British)

Age: 41

Family: Just me! Parents in Edinburgh and my brother (who’s actually a former World Orienteering Champion), niece and nephew in Denmark.

Country/town: From Edinburgh in Scotland but now live in Södertälje/Sweden.

Your occupation: Physiologist / Research Scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for 15 years. Currently studying a distance course in the evening “Nutrition and Physical activity as Medicine”: Extremely interesting and something I’d really love to work with.

Your running level: I’m fairly fit even though I just run for fun now. I have trained all my life.

Your team or sponsor: I run for Södertälje Nykvarn Orientering (SNO) in orienteering. I’m also a coach for Team Nordic Trail so sometimes I run for them in races.

Facebook: Jo Stevenson

Instagram: josweden

Favourite races that you have run: I don’t think I have a favourite, it’s always the last one I’ve run! There are highs in all races, it’s funny talking about races after with my friends, we all remember different things and have different nightmare sections!

Thank you!

Thank you, Jo, for taking your time sharing your fantastic story! Wishing you all the best luck in the future both with your job and your Skyrunning.

Happy SkyRunning!

/Katinka Nyberg

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