Features - Fulvio Øksendal - It’s not supposed to be easy!

Posted by JM on Oct 28, 2017

When Fulvio Øksendal spent his summer school holidays in the northern Italian alpine town of Bergamo, he was impressed by the disciplined routine of his uncle Adriano.

Every day, Adriano would get up at the crack of dawn and head for the mountains where he would indulge in his passion for trail running.

Fulvio Øksendal

Fulvio Øksendal, ultra runner and Bèrghem Ultra founder

His uncle’s feats of endurance, strength and commitment inspired Fulvio to follow in his footsteps, where he learned the invaluable lesson of ‘never give up’. This philosophy best defines Fulvio and serves as inspiration for the motto of his ultra running club in the county of Hedmark, Norway.

At first glance, one may think the similarities between Bergamo and Hedmark are about as far apart in spirit as they are in distance; however, nothing could be further from the truth.

Two things seemingly shaped Fulvio’s mindset as a kid: one of them his uncle’s steel discipline and strength, and the other the footprint left behind by Viking merchants and traders who travelled through northern Italy seeking new trading partners, fortunes and allies.

The Vikings definitely visited Bergamo. The old town sits poised atop a cliff, with a majestic view of the Alps. It’s original name Bergheim, or Bèrghem as it’s called in Fulvio’s dialect, was influenced by the northern raiders, who left their mark on the local language, arts and crafts, and food and drink.

Perhaps it was simple destiny that eventually saw Fulvio leave Italy for the north. Whatever it was, the message was clear to Fulvio: go home; back to your Viking roots.

When Fulvio arrived in Norway in 2004, he eventually settled down in Askim, a town in the southern Østfold county, close to the Swedish border. It was here where he discovered the beauty of the long run.

It wasn’t until 2013 though, did he qualify his passion for running with participation in the Oslo Marathon – a challenge gallantly undertaken to impress his lady (and future wife) Linda.

Not only did he complete the marathon but the event became a springboard to bigger and better things. Prepared by decades of fitness training and body-building, the leap from marathon to ultra running was an easy one for Fulvio. The second leap from ultra runner to ultra running club founder was equally as easy for the proud Norwegian citizen, whose love for this country is reflected in his eyes and his tattoos.

There’s no doubt that interest in trail and ultra running has exploded in recent years. Being able to nail a marathon is on many people’s bucket list. The idea of running beyond the standard 42-km is not as crazy or out of reach as it was once thought.

Even Norway is experiencing a rise in the number of ultra running events and clubs that cater to those wanting to train and compete in long distance and multi-day events. Clubs just like Fulvio’s Bèrghem Ultraløperklubb based in Hamar.

Not one to mimic or copy others, Fulvio is clear about his intentions and plans for the club – no fluff, no fanfare, no reinventing the wheel. The focus is on offering unique personalised events. Events to be remembered for their sheer raw energy, beauty and simplicity, as well as for their joy or their pain, or a good combination of both. The goal is to inspire participants to come back and eagerly wait the next adventure.

Fulvio is certainly as unique as his ultra running club. Easy going, down-to-earth, straight shooting. You know where you stand with Fulvio. He’s not the type to brag, nor does he want his name in big flashing lights.

To be honest, he hadn’t anticipated attracting members when he set up the club; even the club’s goal is to not grow too big.

However, evolution has seen like-minded others join, sharing the same interests and supporting the club’s vision and ideals, which he and wife Linda find a welcome surprise.

Ultimately, Bèrghem combines two of Fulvio’s passions: food and running. The original idea behind the club was to combine mountain food – meals best enjoyed after a long run – with outdoor adventures and environmentally-sound activities.

The club is also a place where Fulvio can focus his many years of experience in logistics, with the planning of trail events. The last major race held by the club boosted the faith that he and wife Linda share about each other and their investment in Bèrghem.

The Gaea Norvegica Trail, or GNT as it is also known, is Berghem’s flagship race. More of an initiation rite for novice ultra runners into the master ranks, the GNT is a 5-day, 400-km self-supported trail race that moves through some of Hedmark’s most difficult terrain.

Originally conceived as a race along the 420-km Rondanestien long distance hiking trail, which connects Oslo to Rondane national park, Fulvio had to change the event when park authorities deemed it too risky to allow a stream of ultra runners to cross through sensitive reindeer breeding grounds.

Although disappointed, Fulvio wasn’t put off by the temporary set back and quickly altered his plan to stop just short of Rondane’s boundary.

The GNT trail now doubles back through Hedmark’s notoriously swampy plateau and finishes down at the Hamar pier beside lake Mjøsa.

The first GNT took place in the summer of 2017, with a select crowd of four of Norway’s most experienced ultra runners. The first day proved deceptively challenging. Two runners dropped out due to injury and illness, leaving two of the hardest nuts – Leif Abrahamsen and Øyunn Bygstad – to continue on to the finish line.

Their efforts over five days were feverishly followed online thanks to the wonders of modern tracking technology and social media, and drew huge interest from around the ultra running community and local news services.

Both runners endured five days on their feet, carrying everything including their own food, shelter, water and GPS. Sleep deprivation, temperamental summer weather, thigh-high swamp, flash flooding, sporadic mobile coverage, pain, fatigue, injury and isolation were all part of the daily grind. Despite this, neither of them gave up.

It was also a frantic time for both Fulvio and Linda, who as the two-man crew – also operating on very little food and sleep – followed the runners along the trail making sure they were in good form and health, and heading in the right direction.

Some online spectators may have seen this race as an epic battle of the sexes – pitting man against woman, but the outcome had little to do with determining which sex was strongest. Leif made it home first, with Øyunn finishing a few hours later, but well within cut-off time.

Both competitors proved beyond any doubt that they were equipped to withstand everything they went through. Proving that the real battle had taken place within themselves, and not against each other.

Fulvio agrees the competition that unfolds in a multi-day endurance run, such as the GNT, is largely an internal one.

Whether he sees an actual difference between men and women endurance runners though - for him it boils down to risk-taking and how each gender differs in their approach.

He believes women are often more sensible and concrete about what they do and why they do it, while men are more likely to try something new, even if they aren’t able to finish.

The GNT is the perfect place to see gender differences at work. Competitors get up close and personal with the rawness of Norwegian terrain. Altitude doesn’t play as big of a role as it does in some of the world’s best known endurance races such as the UTMB or Tour des Geants.

But the GNT combines several challenges simultaneously: running completely alone in a wilderness area, without any external help, food and drink stations, or drop bags waiting (in case you signed up for the extreme version).

In Fulvio’s opinion, the perfect running form alone is not enough to succeed in the GNT.

Above all, a GNT ultra runner has to be experienced in the outdoors, able to navigate, be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions, and be generally strong in mind and body.

Knowing how to pack their kit also plays an important role. Possession of unwavering stubbornness also seems mandatory. Basically, there’s a lot to think about and consider.

While it is a challenge, tackling an ultra race is not as complicated or out of reach as one may think. Bèrghem is the perfect place to test this theory and Fulvio is not short on advice concerning the fundamentals of ultra running.

As an endurance runner, he’s never really been obsessed with speed. He actually makes a point of enjoying himself while running. Instead, stamina is far more important than being fast.

In fact, the mountain goat in the Bèrghem club logo is intended as a speed limit for all club event participants – in other words, don’t run faster than the goat.

When out on a long run, or in a competitive scenario, Fulvio doesn’t think about how many kilometres he has left to do. The trick is to enjoy the journey, let one’s eyes roam around the landscape, soak up the amazing sights, sounds and smells; keep the mind content.

He admits this does make it more difficult to run long distance at night, where the lack of visual stimulation sees a runner relying solely on the nature of their thoughts.

However, for Fulvio, running has always been a form of release; a way of unwinding and letting his thoughts run wild. There’s no doubt some of his greatest ideas and concepts have been born while running.

But don’t let your mind fall into autopilot, he warns. While our body may get used to the demands placed upon it during a long distance run, our brain and mind slowly slide into ‘hibernation’ mode – a potentially life-threatening scenario, where reflex and reaction time can become compromised.

While it may sound like Fulvio is the main force and chief advisor behind the club, nothing could be further from the truth. Fulvio’s the first to admit that without his lady Linda by his side, there wouldn’t be a Bèrghem Ultraløperklubb or Bèrghem Ultra.

While Fulvio assumes the role of race manager and club leader, wife Linda has a powerful role as administrator, registrar, race coordinator, membership officer, accounts department, marketing expert, public relations, girl friday, designer, web developer, sparring partner and team support when Fulvio’s out on test runs for future events. A role that probably feels like an ultra run itself, and one that she has learned a lot from.

During the GNT, Linda became fascinated by the exhibition of extreme physical and mental strength the runners displayed. She was quick to snap up tips and learn from how the runners coped with unexpected problems, ongoing pain and equipment choices.

What became clear to her is that running is highly individual. What works for one ultra runner, may not work for another. There’s no such thing as the perfect one-size-fits-all ultra running recipe. One just has to go out there and try it out alone. More importantly, we’re all able to do a whole lot more than we really think we can. Ultra running is the perfect way to face the limitations we place on ourselves and break through them.

Last autumn (October 2017) Linda debuted as an ultra runner at the Bèrghem Ultra100 Stenfjellet Endurance race. In order to the complete the four laps and receive her Ultra runner crown, she had to tap into the same toughness that was on display in the GNT400.

For Linda, ultra running is the perfect tonic for her physical and mental health. A life with ADHD means she needs demanding physical activity to give her brain and mind a break. Trail running offers her the ideal freedom and time out, as well as genuine peace that can only be found in the outdoors.

There’s no doubt, the world of ultra running is a tough one; not everyone can do it. But this is also what makes Bèrghem so unique: it’s not for everyone.

Some contenders in the past have complained about the particular rules Fulvio sets for his races, such as not allowing drop bags, having to run with a GPS and without trail markings.

Fulvio’s answer? He doesn’t force anyone to run one of his races. But if someone does, then he knows at the end of the race, they’ll understand and respect the kind of statement that he’s trying to make.

Some may underestimate Bèrghem because it appears to be run by amateurs, but all it takes is one race to experience and know just how professional the club is. After all, it’s not supposed to be easy.

← Darebin to Collingwood on the Yarra Bend Trail Index What I learned by running the Stenfjellet Endurance 2017 →