Andreja Sterle Podobnik

The ultra-marathoner who conquered the Himalayas

Andreja Sterle Podobnik. Photo: Personal archives

Andreja Sterle Podobnik is a recreational ultramarathon runner, an entrepreneur, mother and sports enthusiast who in the middle of November 2016 was in the Himalayas, Nepal, when she unexpectedly, and with a huge lead, won a six-day stage race called the Everest Trail Race. Until that time was completely unknown on the national scene, but a short time ago was declared Slovenian Woman of the Year 2016.

Last November, Andreja Sterle Podobnik convincingly beat all the competition in the race. Those taking part had to complete a trail approximately 160 kilometres long in the Himalayan range. The race followed a course  at altitudes of two to four thousand metres, involving a total altitude gain of 29,000 metres along the way. Podobnik needed a little under 31 hours to cover the entire course, putting her three hours ahead of the next fastest racer. She also beat the majority of the male competitors. 

On her return to Slovenia, the people she shares her town with in Stari Trg pri Ložu laid on a heartfelt reception for her. “I was truly positively impressed, they really surprised me nicely. The people in my town still tell me how excited they are about my success and they are celebrating with me.” And without a doubt, Andreja’s success has also inspired other Slovenian women and men. The Slovenian Woman of the Year award, which Andreja won, is selected by readers of Jana magazine, who vote for one of ten exceptional and inspiring candidates.

“It is not just that our editorial office selected ten exceptional women who left their mark on last year, our readers also cast a lot of votes for each of them. Perhaps none of the candidates were known to the general public before the selection, but this is precisely the mission of Jana– to provide an opportunity for women who have no media presence to present themselves to the whole of Slovenia. Slovenia needs such women, whose work and example are changing things in this country for the better,” said Lidija Petek Malus, the editor of the magazine, after the selection was complete.

The ultramarathoner

As she said when she was selected, Andreja Sterle Podobnik was surprised at just being nominated Slovenian Woman of the Year, since she had never appeared in the media before her life-changing exploit. Perhaps the people who voted for her were inspired and won over by her extraordinary energy. “Perhaps they sensed something in me that they themselves would like to attain. It's all about willpower. A person has to have objectives, a path they should travel, and they need to follow their heart,” says Andreja, with conviction.

Her energy is truly extraordinary, and when we sit and chat about her Himalayan experience, her positive nature simply radiates. Especially when she explains how even decided to accept that challenge and how she prepared for it. She loves running and does so a lot, and, as she says, she feels at home in the hills. “It’s that real thing where my heart sings,’’ she says. “There my heart sings, I connect with nature and I am me.”

Ever since she was little Andreja has pursued recreational sports, and has movement inside her. As a teenager she did biathlon training, and now she mostly runs and walks in the hills. She had always wanted to go to the Himalayas, and when she learned about the Everest Trail Race decided to start preparing for it. She trained a lot, she says, and prepared both physically and psychologically. A lot of it is “in your head”, and this kind of race is a big unknown. The conditions are unpredictable, you never actually know how the body will respond to high altitudes, and although she had bouts of self-doubt, she persevered. 

Throughout her preparation period she was supported by her family – her husband and two children. Moreover, Andreja is also a business woman, and her colleagues came to her assistance in the business field. Every day she ran for two to three hours in the hills, and she added an hour of flat running for speed. If the weather was good, she also spent time on her road bike for strength. She is also a functional training coach, which certainly helped in her efforts. Moreover, as she herself says, while everyone supported her during this training period she did not have much time or space for egoism. 

She had to coordinate her family duties, work and training. Since most of Slovenia does not offer such high altitudes, she trained on Mt. Triglav, the country’s highest mountain, at 2864 metres. At 03:00 she set out from home, and at 10 or 11 she was already at her job. Although the ascent along the route she took normally takes six hours, after just over two and a half hours Andreja was already back at the bottom.

She practiced special breathing techniques, to make the greatest possible use of her lung capacity. This served her particularly well at the high altitudes of the Himalayas, where there was not much time for acclimatisation. She managed to master these breathing techniques so well that she also uses them in her ordinary running. 

In the Himalayas Andreja felt somehow at home. The conditions were hard, and the effort needed above average. At the start she was thrown off course by a mass of problems. She was entirely alone, while her co-runners were mainly professionals and had their own support teams. She faced a crisis on the very first day of the race. After ten kilometres she was crying and just wanted to go home. But then she concentrated on one step at a time, and waited for the troubles to pass, which they did. She relaxed and enjoyed doing what she loves. Of course, everything then fell into place, and if it hadn’t, she would not have won against such competition. 

“You can do anything if you want to,” says Andreja Sterle Podobnik. She embodies the importance of will, strength and trust in oneself. She is living proof that anything is possible if a person wants something. Although it did not occur to her when starting this journey, she is already planning new athletic adventures. And who knows, perhaps sometime soon she will bring home another victory. 

Text by Polona Prešeren