The days are short, the snow heavy, and the cold biting during a Norwegian winter.
For British endurance athlete Jon Albon, who has lived in Norway for the past seven years, that means finding refuge on the treadmill in his cellar when the trails around his home in Romsdalen become blanketed in snow.
One of the top trail and obstacle runners in the world, Albon competed in his final race of the season in November – a third place finish at the Trail World Championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since then, as is the case each winter, running outdoors has fallen down his list of priorities.
“I can do up to an hour and a half of intervals on the treadmill and it goes fine; time does seem to go and I can get into the groove, but it’s definitely not the same as outside,” Albon tells CNN Sport.
So then he straps on skis and heads for the slopes – like many Norwegians – to build his base fitness during the winter months.
“I still am very much an enjoyment-based athlete … I love being out, I love just immersing myself in nature,” says Albon.
Competing across several different formats of distance running, Albon has won world titles in obstacle course racing, trail running and ultra-skyrunning – an event which takes place over steep inclines at extreme altitudes.
The multidisciplinary approach is unusual for endurance athletes, who are usually drawn to city marathons with larger crowds and flatter roads.
The 33-year-old Albon’s decorated career, which has seen him compete in remote locations in all corners of the globe, even earned him the label of “the greatest runner you’ve never heard of” from Athletics Weekly.
Growing up, Albon mainly played skate hockey – “like ice hockey but on wheels,” he explains – but in his early 20s, his focus switched to running.
Working as a building surveyor at London Underground stations, he would run or cycle to and from work each day, primarily as a way to keep fit.
As his fitness grew, he started to enter, and win, obstacle course races – which can consist of ropes, monkey bars, walls, mud pits or barbed wire – before discovering trail running, mountain running and skyrunning.
“It was a really healthy, natural progression of the fitter I got, the more I trained. I was kind of in tune with my body without realizing it,” says Albon.
“I didn’t have a dad who was hammering me with what he wants me to be or a coach saying, ‘You have to do these intervals and this and that.’ It just happened naturally.”
It was after moving to Norway with his now-wife, Henriette, who is Norwegian, that Albon decided to become a professional athlete.
With no coach or sponsor, he inevitably made mistakes – “I gave myself shin splints almost immediately,” says Albon – but over time, he started to forge his own path.
“I’ve found my own way, my own philosophies and my own system,” Albon explains. “You learn lessons and steadily you devise a system that works for you. And then you read books and you look at other athletes and what they are doing.
“My wife, she does a lot of research and she’s passionate about training as well. So she listens to a lot of podcasts and stuff and we talk and use each other as sounding boards.”
‘Grey zone’ training
Living in the Romsdalen valley on Norway’s west coast, Albon is also fortunate that one of the world’s most celebrated endurance athletes – Spaniard Kílian Jornet – is based nearby.
The pair occasionally train together, and Albon looks to Jornet’s workout routines for inspiration with his own training.
Unlike most long-distance runners, who would do the bulk of their training at an easy pace and 10-20% at a harder intensity, Albon says he often trains at a “middle intensity” when preparing for mountain and trail races – something runners call the “grey zone.”
“When you go for a three-, four-hour mountain race, you’re actually racing in that middle zone,” he says. “Unless you run in that middle zone, you’re not going to become efficient at running in that grey zone.”
He also spends time conditioning his legs to handle the unique nature of mountain races – long stretches of uphill, immediately followed by leg-pounding periods of downhill – and building his base fitness through cycling, ski touring and ski mountaineering, all of which lessen the load on his legs and help to prevent injury.
With so many of his races taking place at mountainous locations, Albon has adjusted his lifestyle accordingly – which includes sleeping in an altitude tent at home.
Only recently legalized in Norway, altitude tents expose an individual to low-oxygen conditions while they sleep, making the body more efficient at using and transporting oxygen.
It’s also improved the overall quality of his sleep.
“Probably, one of the biggest benefits is no longer sleeping in the same room or bed as my wife, which sounds terrible, but you do sleep better alone,” says Albon.
“If you have a relationship which is stable enough that you don’t have to lie unconscious next to each other, then sleeping in separate beds is actually really beneficial for sleep quality … And sleep definitely is one of the biggest, most important things for recovery.”
Albon’s diet is packed with carbohydrates, particularly in the winter when his exercise load is increased.
He bakes his own sourdough bread and reached a point last winter when he says he was eating upwards of 10 slices a day with jam and peanut butter.
“I was doing about a kilogram of jam in a tub per week,” says Albon, adding that he’s now tried to cut preserves out of his diet. “When you think about it, it’s quite a lot.”
Finding the right diet to fuel his longer races, which sometimes last above seven or eight hours, has been a learning curve.
Like many runners, Albon takes energy gels during competitions, but also carries Haribo sweets and boiled Coca-Cola – a tip he learned from cross-country skiers; boiling Coke makes it flat, slightly more concentrated and easier to consume.
Albon also attributes some of his success at endurance events to a stubborn, never-say-die mindset. His refusal to withdraw from races – even when he’s at his lowest ebb – has pushed him to mental and physical extremes.
“Because I won’t let myself quit, I’ve been at times actively looking for snakes on the trail, thinking: well, if I get bitten by snake, I have to quit,” says Albon.
It’s during obstacle course races – in which participants use their strength, skill and endurance to overcome a series of physical challenges – that Albon has reached his physical limit and been forced to withdraw.
That was when he had hypothermia and “pretty much just went to sleep on the course,” once when he got foot rot and once when he had food poisoning.
“I could just stop at any point; I could just step off the trail and be done, quit, and then that’s it, the pain will end,” says Albon.
“It’s trying to think that the pain will only end when you cross the finish line and you have to get to the finish line. I think that is a very big mental battle.”
A six-time winner of the obstacle course racing world championships, Albon says he will do fewer of these races moving forward – even though the competitions lend themselves to his tenacious personality.
On his horizon this year is the Zegama-Aizkorri skymarathon in Spain and Switzerland’s Sierre Zinal, which has been dubbed the New York Marathon of mountain races.
Then there’s the CCC, a 100-kilometer race following the Tour du Mont Blanc trail in France, and the trail world championships in Austria.
As has been the case throughout his career, Albon has written his own race schedule and will approach each challenge in his own, determined way.
“It’s nice to do fewer races,” he says, “but to do them better.”