JAMES NOORKÕIV - ULTRA-RUNNER, SKIER, MOUNTAIN LOVER AND ADVENTURE ENTHUSIAST
“I went to some dark places during the race but on reflection they are some of the happiest memories of my life. It took me well over a year to speak about them because I would get so emotional. It wasn’t thinking about the hard times that made me emotional, it was thinking back to a time when I realised what was most important to me in my life and what gave me the motivation to keep moving.”
James Noorkõiv is an ultra-runner, skier, mountain lover and adventure enthusiast. He has travelled the world in pursuit of his passions and forged a successful career in performance apparel product management. I spoke to James about his trail running experiences in the mountains, completing the infamous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), how he keeps going when his body is screaming that it is time to stop, how his running experiences have helped him in everyday life and his interest in sustainability.
When did your passion for running and skiing in the mountains begin?
I have been skiing since I was 3 and in my teens spent every penny I had on getting out to the mountains for back country skiing and ski touring. After I graduated, I was working in Amsterdam for a bit before moving to Switzerland; every summer I would trail run from my house to the mountains and spend time looking at the ridge lines around me and then going to find out if it was possible to run them, sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. It was the most amazing feeling running on those trails and not long before I discovered competitive trail running. As soon as winter arrived I would take out the ski touring and back country skiing gear again and look at the ridge lines in a completely different way, always trying to find steeper lines, more untracked snow and untracked valleys.
What makes the mountains so special?
The mountains never forgive you for anything, they never are going to say sorry. If you underestimate them, it is you who has to say sorry, every time. No matter how good you get up there, no matter how fit you are, the mountains can always throw a curve ball at you. You may have the most hellish of times but on reflection it will be one of the best memories of your life. When you can escape into the mountains, it gives you this reset in your mind, it is a very strange place to be, it is somewhere where you cannot switch off for a second, it captures your imagination and your focus from the moment you are there because as soon as you stop focusing on what you are doing you end up ass over tit, a reminder that you need to respect it. That is what always brings me back to Alagna, a tiny town that hasn’t changed for hundreds of years; when you visit, you understand why people are living there; it is a beautiful mountain landscape that the local community can explore every day and use for their advantage.
What is it specifically about trail running you enjoy?
As soon as I found trail running I couldn’t go back to road running, I couldn’t find that motivation to clock watch and sit at a paced time. It was no longer a case of I need to complete these 24 miles in less than 3 hours, it was about keeping moving, I was not trying to run under a time limit or get ahead of competitors, I had time to take stock of what I was doing. It has become something that has been leading me in my life. I can’t quantify how valuable it is to take time to experience a place and watch what is happening around you. Running on roads, you know how that road is going to be, you know you will have to stop for that light, you know that car is going to be parked there. You can predict most things that are going to happen, but in the mountains, you cannot predict what is going to happen on any given day. When I am in the mountains I get lost in the feeling of the trails underneath me and you can run the same route a thousand times but it will never be the same twice.
What did you learn from your UTMB experience?
I went to some dark places during the race but on reflection they are some of the happiest memories of my life. It took me well over a year to speak about them because I would get so emotional. It wasn’t thinking about the hard times that made me emotional, it was thinking back to a time when I realised what was most important to me in my life and what gave me the motivation to keep moving. When I got to the top of the Grand Col I was mentally and physically destroyed but I knew I would soon see friends and family; when I saw them at the bottom of the descent it gave me this invigoration to keep going. I had been so physically and mentally low I was questioning everything I was doing. I was passing people who were pulling out of the race and I was thinking is this really worth it. Getting to that stage and seeing everyone there and remembering the reasons why I was doing the race gave me this lift. When I look back at those races I remember the absolute pain and hell I went through but I have fond memories and cannot wait to be back on a competitive course again.
What was the hardest moment for you during the UTMB?
The final climb of the UTMB is a vertical 1km; the climbs are the best part of my race so I hammered up it and with 10kms to go I thought I could make up time but as soon as I thought that the exhaustion and fatigue took over me, I became this punch-drunk boxer stumbling over the rocks. I knew where I wanted to be in terms of competitive finish but I could just feel it slipping away. To add insult to injury my headlamp died on me and my spare didn’t work either. It was midnight, pitch black, and I still had 10kms to run. I started using my phone as a light which compounded the stumbling; I did that for an hour before this French guy came up alongside me and all of a sudden French flooded back into my mouth (I know a bit as my girlfriend is French) and I was begging and pleading with him to give me a spare headtorch. He saved my race, as soon as I got that I was steaming back into town. I always try to finish a race with nothing left in the tank so for the last kilometre I tried my best to hit 3 minutes. Every step felt like trudging through treacle; I crossed the line and immediately dropped there and then, I had given everything and I needed a second off, that moment of freedom was irreplaceable. I have some unfinished business at the UTMB, I want to go under 30 hours. I have previously finished in the top 10% and I was pleased with that but I believe I can go back and finish much higher.
During the dark moments, out on the trail, what keeps you going?
You have to always remember that you are doing the race for the most selfish reason possible, you are out there because of one person, you are the only person who put yourself there, no one else will ever tell you to do it. There will never be a time bar injury and the weather saying no that you could not finish, it will be your head saying it is time to give up and it is not in my nature to do that. As soon as I start racing, it is a case of I am going to finish this and put myself through hell until I do. I don’t care about the state of my body, I am going to finish and finish in the best possible position I can, nothing is going to stand in my way on that one. It is that feeling of pushing yourself harder than anyone else can push you that I like. If I don’t feel like I have left everything out there in training or in a race I will not be satisfied with myself and I will go back and do it again. I remember my first race in Cortina when it was 25 degrees at 7am and mid-way through the race I could feel burning and pain in my feet; when I removed my trainers at the end of the race I had two half golf balls on the sides of my feet and my toes were bleeding, but I never deemed it acceptable to stop and look at my feet because that would affect what I was doing. It was a 50kms race, you can’t afford to moan and bitch about the pain in your feet, you just suck it up.
Have your ultra-running experiences helped you in your professional life?
Without a shadow of a doubt, the races have helped in my professional life, especially when it comes to getting your head down at work and completing tasks that aren't the most inspiring. The running and time spent alone make me calmer as I use my physical exertions to blow off energy trapped in me from work. You cannot always let out your frustrations in the office so you need to find somewhere else to do that; I can take all that energy out on the mountain and my body, as soon as I have done that it puts everything else into perspective, giving me the head space to solve whatever is in front of me. In this day and age you need an outlet that pushes you to the point where you can see there is more to life than just the office.
I know you are taking a year out from work at the moment to travel, where is the next destination?
I am going to Patagonia now and looking forward to spending time in a pristine wilderness for a while. I enjoyed Asia but you are constantly reminded that we have destroyed and ruined that area. The most important thing for my girlfriend and I, is to try and find a way when we go back to our normal lives to live and work sustainably and find a way to reverse some of the pollution we have seen on our travels.
All photos taken by Ben Read
Facebook: Ben Read Photography
James Noorkõiv Instagram page: @blueskiesandpowderdays