Imagine; you started running only two and a half years ago. Then you surprisingly turn out to be an extremely good mountain runner and you are invited to compete with the international elite of trail and mountain running. On top of that, you finish second in the Golden Trail World Series, the world division of international trail and mountain running. This unbelievable story happened to the Dutch Nienke Brinkman. She takes us to her home mountain the Uetliberg in Zurich and tells us her story.
Nienke (born 1993) grew up near Leiden, an old town surrounded by polders that are as flat as a pancake. After her secondary school she moved to Amsterdam, Germany and Switzerland to study Geophysics. Currently she is working on her PhD research on “Marsquakes”, the geophysical movements on the red planet. Since 2018 she lives in Zurich to work on her research.
Nienke tells us that running is a relatively new thing for her. Hockey was her main sport for a long time. She played on a high level and was the one on her team who always chased the ball and kept running through the whole game. When Nienke moved to Zurich, she went looking for a hockey team she could join. Because the sport is not so popular in Switzerland, she couldn’t find a team that matched her ambitions. Then she tried running. After an invitation from a friend to participate in a relay race, she finished second in her distance. After that race she began to like running, maybe also because of her competitive attitude. To take the running to a more serious level she started training with the university running team.
In October 2020, when most races were cancelled because of the Covid virus, Nienke ran a virtual marathon with a small group from the university team. She finished in an insanely fast 2:39:43, only ten minutes from the Olympic qualifying standards. She increased her weekly training distances, but unfortunately got injured because of that. After recovery she met Benjamin Ueltschi, who is now her coach who ensures that she trains with less injury risk. Halfway through 2021, her training sessions were still completely on flat terrain and mountain running seemed far away.
In July 2021 Nienke participated in the Zermatt Marathon, an event that would change her young running career. To everyone’s surprise, including her own, she won this mountain race. The second woman was about twenty minutes behind and she finished sixth overall! This win earned her an invitation to Sierre-Zinal, the legendary mountain race that is part of the Golden Trail World Series (GTWS). Before the race Nienke was quite nervous and doubted whether she would be able to compete with the world’s top runners. After the start it turned out not only that she could compete very well within this field of runners, she even finished second behind Maude Mathys, currently one of the strongest mountain runners. During the race some practical things did not go well, such as drinking and supplying. In the finish area and at the doping control she had a chat with the legendary Kilian Jornet who came in first in the men’s race. That was an unexpected experience! After Sierre-Zinal, Nienke was invited by Salomon to run in their team and complete the GTWS 2021. She accepted the invitation.
On September 4th, Nienke went to Chiemgau to compete in the second last race of the GTWS. In the meantime she had learned a lot from Sierre-Zinal, and the drinking during the race went better. She gloriously won with a big lead over runner-up Anais Sabrie. The last race, the Skyruhne, also went very well. Despite the very technical course with steep climbs and dizzying descents, Nienke was again the first to cross the finish line. A place in the finals of the GTWS was secured and due to her two victories she was even second in the total ranking behind Maude Mathys.
The GTWS finals took place on El Hiero, one of the Canary Islands. The course was also extremely technical and tough. Nienke, as a newcomer, had meanwhile become a crowd favourite and expectations were sky high. After a strong start she took the lead in the first climb with Maude Mathys chasing her close by. The rest of the women’s field followed at a distance. Unfortunately Nienke fell heavily during the first descent and she also started to suffer from the heat, which became stronger every minute. Mathys took over the lead and after some four exhausting hours she won the race. Nienke came in second with a seventh overall position in the strongest field currently running worldwide! She also took the second place in the final ranking of the GTWS. Four months earlier she was training for a flat road marathon and now she was celebrating her silver medal on a stage surrounded by the top mountain runners. An amazing and unprecedented achievement!! Nienke was not only called the surprise of the year, but also the sensation of the tournament.
Despite the fact that Nienke’s running career has progressed extremely fast, she remains realistic and level-headed. Every next step is another one. After her successful first year in the GTWS, Nienke doesn’t want to choose yet between mountain running and the marathon. For the time being, she wants to combine it and in 2022 she will probably participate in the GTWS again. During the coming winter season, Nienke wants to compete in a road marathon in order to set an official time. The Olympic marathon in 2024 is still her goal. At the same time, the GTWS and the Salomon team are great opportunities for her to compete at a professional top level. Sometimes Nienke can hardly comprehend that she is competing with the best athletes worldwide.
When we ask her what running means to her, aside to all the sensations of the past year, she answers that running is the best way to clear her mind. All the pressure and stress disappear during the training sessions. She likes to run on forest and mountain trails, but also on the track or on tarmac to get a fast pace. She really likes the variety. Running also has a social aspect for Nienke, because through running she has met many like-minded people in Zurich. Running has given Nienke a lot in these past few years.
The male winner of the GTWS 2021 is Stian Angermund. In 2018 he took us to his home mountain in Bergen Norway. You can read the story here.
See the recap of the GTWS finals on El Hiero over here.
Read more about the Golden Trail World Series over here.