Skieologians: Teemu time |

Skieologians: Teemu time

Two lessons from a former world record holder

24-hour cross-country ski distance World record holder Teemu Virtanen's life provide takeaways for non-skiers, too.
Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily

After we published our story on the Equinox 24-hour Ultra Ski in Leadville, I received a few requests to interview Teemu Virtanen, who once held the world record for the longest distance skied in 24 hours. Considering our shared love of the double-pole sub-technique and endurance aspect of Nordic skiing and our shared vocations — both of us do TV broadcasts for professional cross-country skiing and write about the topic as well — he certainly fit the bill as the perfect Seder-Skier Podcast guest. 

I often glean interesting life advice from my interviewees, and Virtanen was no exception. However, the takeaway messages weren’t what I would have predicted going in. Here are two — and they aren’t just for skiers.

The only person who gets to decide you’re done is you

Virtanen had the prototypical Scandinavian upbringing: born and raised in skis.

“The 24-hour — that’s something I kind of dreamt about when I was younger. There was this Finnish skier who actually had the record way back then and I remember seeing him way back in the 80s,” he recalled.

After watching his idol attempt a record, he thought, “I would like to try that.”

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“But it was just an idea back then,” he said of his youthful dreaming.

Even though he tended to excel at longer stuff, in 1990, Virtanen decided to take his chances in the NCAA system instead of going all-in on the World Loppet circuit. He never jived with the barrage of weekend races and point chasing required of him in the American collegiate series, and after one season, left the team at the University of Nevada in Reno. Always an “all-in” guy, he shifted his energy to media and eventually ended up in Hollywood, hosting a show interviewing the whose-who of show business. 

Eventually, dropping skiing cold turkey caught up, and he found himself overweight and out of shape.

“I took a 10-year break (from all exercise),” he admitted. His epiphany came in Rio de Janeiro as he failed to walk up the steps climbing to the Christ the Redeemer statue.

“I realized that I needed to do something,” he said. “Knowing I had a long career in skiing, and I felt kind of bad, I decided to do something about it. I didn’t really think I’d get back into racing, I was just thinking about my future.”

He slowly started to ski and soon caught the itch to race again. After 18 years in the states, he moved back to Lahti, Finland, in 2008 and started producing his own weekly sports-themed show. In 2009, he attempted his first 24-hour world record. In 2010 he set the Guinness world record with 433 kilometers. This April, he missed Hans Mäenpää’s new record (472 kilometers) but bested his own personal mark by 10 kilometers.

We’ve heard stories of individuals taking control of their health, shedding pounds, setting goals and going the distance. Teemu’s testimony is next level, and it gives me a few different shades of hope. 

First of all, talent doesn’t go away, and if you want to set your mind to a long-desired goal, it’s never too late. Clearly. 

Secondly, life is a long road with many twists and turns, and sometimes the opportunity — or challenge — waiting around the corner is a deja vu item you saw flash by the passenger window 60 miles ago. You never really know what life experiences you sow will reap dividends later on, nor is it possible to say you’re actually ever “done” with something. No decision has to be permanent.

Work-life balance means doing both things really well

Virtanen tried solely focusing on skiing, and it didn’t work out. Then he turned his focus toward broadcast journalism. Same result. 

His best life has been lived balancing 900 annual training hours with show producing, article writing and play-by-play commentating. The point: in an era where self-care and specialization preach a simplification of our pursuits, it’s OK to embrace the tension of the other side’s message and be comfortable taking on a little more than you think you can handle.

You might surprise yourself. 

It seems appropriate to close the way I ended our conversation — and every episode: “Keep on striving. Keep on skiing.”

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