"Would you like tea or coffee?"

Laura Valgreen welcomes me to the hallway of her dormitory in Aarhus, which has been her home since May. It's quiet on this early afternoon in mid-September. Most of the other residents here are students, but as a Team Denmark athlete, Laura has been allowed to move in early until she figures out what she wants to study.

The former Danish champion in multiple distances is far from home, and the days can be long in a new city with nothing to do, while thoughts circle around the terrible year she has had and the future that is still uncertain. One of the reasons Laura came to Aarhus was to be part of a flourishing running community with many of Denmark's best runners.

Laura's entire life has revolved around running and training. In 2019, she was on the podium nationally and internationally. As a junior in a senior field, she became the Danish Champion in 10km road and cross-country running, she won the U20 Nordic Championships in 3000m, and won U20 European Championship bronze in 5000m. In 2020, she won the Danish Championships in 5000m and 10,000m, set U23 records, and moved around at the top of the lists of the best times in 5000m and 10,000m ever. At the same time, Laura was selected for the World Championships and European Championships in the half marathon after her debut on the distance in Barcelona in the time of 1.12.29. She was also supposed to run 5000m and 10,000m at the European Championships, but both that and the World Championships were canceled due to COVID-19. Laura Valgreen was named the discovery of the year in Funen and was a shining running talent with a secure future in the sport - until she no longer had it.

Photo: Camilla Bevensee

The pulse increases, but it's not from wearing running shoes. The last year has seen Laura suffer an almost uninterrupted series of injuries, and after fracturing her heel in March, she has been having issues with her foot. And that's still the case. So much so that she has had to take a complete break from running for several weeks and sometimes months at a time.

The problems with her foot have meant that this year there have been no races, whether domestic or international, with the young talent on the starting line. In 2021, Laura Valgreen has not broken any records or won any medals. She isn't doing large amounts of running and doesn't have fast kilometer times on the tracking app Strava. But she still feels she's developing, personally and physically. Sometimes you need to veer off course slightly to find the right path in life.

"There are other things happening right now that don't revolve around running but are just as important. I'm currently spending all my time figuring out what I want to do. For the first time in a very long time, I've dared to stop and consider things."

"Running was my escape"

Laura Valgreen was born in Herlev but started her childhood in Berlin where her family moved to a year after the little afterthought had joined her two older brothers. Laura attended a German kindergarten and spoke the language fluently, but she didn't get a chance to start school in Berlin before her parents got divorced, and Laura moved back to Denmark, more specifically Højby on Funen, with her brothers and mother.

A quiet childhood in a suburb of Odense was interrupted when Laura was 10 years old. She became ill and was sick for almost two years, during which time she was in treatment and closely followed by the children's department at Odense University Hospital.

"It was a pretty tough period in my life, also because I was so young. I became, in a way, much more adult very quickly."

Running was her way out of and away from illness. After being cut off from sports and physical activity while she was ill, running became her escape, and at the age of 13, Laura started athletics in Odense. She tried many disciplines, but quickly realized that the longer distances were the most fun and where she was best.

In 9th grade at boarding school, she quickly became known as Running Laura. Surrounded by gymnasts, football players, and dancers, she stood out. In her running shoes on the south Funen forest roads and at training sessions in the athletics club on weekends, she continued to be where she felt really comfortable.

"I prioritized training. Every time I had free time, I went out for a run, and if I was home on weekends, I trained with the club. It was a bit of my escape when I could run," explains Laura Valgreen. Alongside running, which has been her 'primary sport' for many years, Laura has also done crossfit and spent many hours doing both that and strength training, so many hours of training have filled her life for many years.

Photo: Camilla Bevensee
A "shitty year"

It can be difficult to see it in her as she sits there with a huge smile on her face, but Laura Valgreen has had a "shitty year." Laura uses the word stress as she tries to describe what she has been affected by in the past year, especially during the summer. The injuries and missed opportunities have sent her thoughts spiraling into doubts about where she is headed, which direction she should go, and whether running should continue to be a part of her life. These are big thoughts for a young woman at an age of 20.

"I've felt that the days have just gone by without me achieving anything. If I had had a clear path towards something, or if I had been clear that I wanted to return to the sport, then I would have had at least something to look forward to and work towards, but it's just been a bit of a mess. There hasn't really been any meaning in it," explains Laura Valgreen and continues, "I get up and can train quite a bit, and just as I start to feel somewhat better, the next injury hits.

"It's quite scary to just do it automatically. Taking out and running, and doing what I've always done, is the easy solution."

Laura Valgreen

Since she was 13 and started with athletics a lot of Laura Valgreen's everyday life has been about running. It started at boarding school, where she was known as the one who ran, and in high school, she was also different. She trained, ate, and slept when she wasn't in school and did homework.

When she finished high school last year, she looked forward to a gap year with travels, training camps, freedom, and time to train as much as she wanted. That dream she could exchange for a year of injuries, corona, more injuries, and a lot of doubt and uncertainty.

"It's quite frustrating. Right now, I'm still not running," explains Laura, who still struggles with one of her feet.

"I constantly try to run and have good periods, but unfortunately, I often hit a wall and experience setbacks even after consistent training."

After two seasons with fantastic results, the expectations for the young star have been high, and that pressure Laura Valgreen has felt, even though she has been injured and has not participated in any competitions this year.

"I feel that it's everyone else who has expectations on my behalf to come back. But in the periods where I've partly come back and been able to train, I haven't really wanted to. I just did it because it has been a habit for so long," explains Laura, who has trained so much since she started high school that she hasn't had time for much else.

"It's quite scary to just do it automatically. It's the easy solution to go out and run and do as I have always done."

We catch Laura in the midst of doubt. Right now, she doesn't see herself as the runner. She needs to figure out if she believes she can find the desire to run again, and to go after it the way she used to. Or if she should do something completely different.

"A part of me still wants to go back to running, but it's clear that I become unsure of myself after a year where it has gone so badly. It's been a long time since I felt that running went well. One thing is what others see from the outside. They see that I've come back quickly and run fast, but something else is how I experience it myself and whether I think it's going well," explains Laura, who is also generally unsure of what she should do. She has always needed to use her head and have something that challenged her outside of sports.

The injuries knocked Laura off course, but it also gave her the opportunity to see it all from a distance. A lesson she wouldn't want to be without today. In the chaos, she became aware of herself and could discover the bad habits that would have created major problems for her, both mentally and physically.

Photo: Camilla Bevensee
No coach

It's well into autumn when we meet again, and the balcony at the end of the dormitory corridor is on the optimistic side as a setting for our conversation. The wind whips raindrops in between the blankets as Laura Valgreen tells her story.

She's always done things her own way. She's been in charge of planning her own training, setting goals and sub-goals, and finding the balance of how much and what type of training she could handle. She's been doing it all by herself, and she's been alone with it.

It hasn't been without challenges, and at times it's been clear that the balance between too much and too little has been difficult for Laura to find.

"For many years, I've put a lot of pressure on my body. Even though I've been strong, I've been thin and my body has been under a lot of stress, there's no doubt about that," she admits.

In addition to large amounts of running training, Laura has been doing both strength training and CrossFit since she started high school. It's something that's quite atypical training for many runners, but according to Laura herself, it's also helped make her strong enough to handle the many hours of running every week.

"I've always needed something else so that I can succeed in running, to keep finding it fun. There are those who think it works against my development in running. It's a bit of a dilemma because on the one hand, it can benefit and do something good that I'm strong, but on the other hand, it's clearly a strain on the body, and its energy you take away from running training," she explains.

She could handle a lot of training in high school, and it started getting harder and harder for the fast runner from Funen to get enough energy. In the running world, where every kilogram is a kilogram you have to carry around when you perform, there has always been a great focus on weight, but there was never any for Laura, who didn't know how much she weighed and was more concerned with being strong than being thin.

"My body fat percentage was very, very low, but I had muscles that I felt covered up how thin I actually was. I didn't have a spaghetti body like other runners, I was strong, and that became very important to me," explains Laura, who has received criticism and compliments for her muscular arms and her chiseled abdominal skin.

She thought it was cool to be strong, and when she was at her best running, at the end of last season, she had no doubt that she was on the right track, even physically. She has a different perception today.

"People commented on how fit and in good shape I was, but it was really unhealthy. It's a bit of a strange thing in sports, that when you look sharp, your body may not be healthy at all."

Relative energy deficiency in sport
When a sports athlete pushes their body with a lot of hard training, it is important that the body can handle it. It cannot do so if it does not get enough energy, and then the athlete will lose weight. If the right balance between diet, training and recovery is not found, relative energy deficiency may occur, which is a condition that affects both physical and mental health. This means that the response to training becomes less, there is less mental energy in everyday life, and for women there may be irregular or absent menstruation. *
Photo: Camilla Bevensee

10 kilos later

Laura's body was strong, but she was on the verge of being too thin, she knows that herself today. She has learned a lot in the past year and has given herself and her body space to get better without demanding as much from herself as she always has. Slowly but surely, Laura's body has come back into balance where everything works as it should, and she now weighs 10 kilos more than a year ago.

"People can't understand that I've gained so much weight in the last year, but I was also on the thin side before. I'm proud that my body is functioning now. I can feel that it's healthy, and I have a completely different physical surplus," explains Laura, who does not hide the fact that she is aware of the weight-bearing element in her sport.

"It affects me if I have to run, you can't get around that. It's 10 extra kilos I have to carry around. But I have an idea that when my body is back on top, when my foot gets better, and if I get the desire to run back, then I will show that you can have a healthy body and still run fast."

In the past, Laura would have felt a little panic at the thought of the extra weight and how it would look on her body.

"I haven't felt that way. I know deep down that it's good for my body to be healthy, and I can feel that I don't want what I do, whether it's running or whatever it is, to be at the expense of my health anymore."

Photo: Camilla Bevensee
Never alone again

It's not just in relation to her body that Laura has become wiser.

"I've been running my own show for a long time now, and when it went well, I thrived on it. Now that there has been such a long period where things have gone poorly, it has become extra clear to me that I'm alone with it. It has also become clearer how important it is for me to have a training environment where I have a good group to train with," explains Laura.

"I got pretty far on my own. I'm actually quite proud of it, and the way I did it. But for it to be sustainable in the long run, it has to be fun in everyday life, and it's not if I have to do it alone anymore," the Odense native concludes.

"I believe that much of the burnout I've felt over the summer has been a result of all those years where I've pushed myself so hard and done it so much alone," she confides.

For the first time since she started training to become a better runner, Laura has had the energy to consider whether she can start a relationship with a coach, and she had her first meeting just before we sat down together.

I've often, even when I was doing well, received offers from several people reaching out to me, offering their help. It's always been a bit overwhelming because who do you choose? It also takes time to build a relationship and get to know each other, and in high school, I was too pressured in many other areas to have the energy for it," explains Laura, who is now more open to a coaching relationship in order not to feel so alone with everything, rather than to come back and become an even better runner.

However, which sport Laura will ultimately continue with remains uncertain. She still hasn't quite found where she belongs. In the running world, Laura is different because she practices CrossFit and wants to be strong. She doesn't quite fit into the CrossFit environment either, as she's seen as the runner who will never be big enough and therefore not really good. Laura has also dabbled in triathlon, which in principle is the perfect sport for someone like her who loves to train a lot.

"There are now quite a few triathletes I know who are nudging me, asking if I shouldn't give it a chance, because triathlon is a perfect sport if you're strong and both like and can withstand training a lot. So I'm definitely still unsure about where I belong."

Ordinary youth

The tea in the cups has long since gone cold, and Laura still doesn't know for certain if she wants to return to running. But she knows that if she's to chase records and run after medals on the tartan again, it won't be without someone around to help her.

First, she needs to figure out what's going to happen in the near future, which has suddenly become imminent. There are many things at play. On one hand, there's the military, folk high school, work, travel - ordinary "young people things." On the other hand, there's a daily life of running and training in Aarhus.

"There are all these things that I'd like to explore now while things are still going poorly with sports. I'm only 20, so I have plenty of years left in my running career. I know I want to do something within sports, but for it to be sustainable in the long run, I think there are some things I might have to dare to try out now."

Photo: Camilla Bevensee

A couple of weeks later, Laura sends a message.

"I'm sitting in the car now on my way to Aalborg Sports Academy. I've been in doubt right up until the last minute about whether I should go. I'm still very much in doubt, actually. But over the past few months, I've tried to work with my values and figure out what I want to base my decisions on. I've always found it difficult to make choices and decisions. Some of the values I hold most dear are being courageous, curious, and decisive," she writes.

Perhaps Laura's story and the process she's going through right now show that uncertainty and doubt are inherent conditions of being young. Maybe it demonstrates that other people's expectations are what you make of them, that it's okay to learn something, even about yourself, that it's okay to make mistakes, and that realization must come from within before it truly hits. At the very least, it reminds us that it's important to pause and reflect on where we are, but also that sometimes we have to do something, act and take the plunge, before we know what's right.

Laura concludes the message with:

"I think what I'm doing now is a pretty courageous choice. I'm giving it a try. If it goes well, that's fantastic, and if it doesn't, it's no worse than being able to go home again. I've once again developed pain in my foot and have been limping around for the past few days, which hasn't made it any easier to leave, because I'm afraid there's a lot I won't be able to participate in due to the pain. So it's a bit tough right now. But deep down, I also know that I would regret it if I didn't give it a try."

Photo: Diego azubel


Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Diego azubel


1)  https://bevidste-valg.dk/relativ-energimangel-i-sport/

2)  https://www.teamdanmark.dk/traen-som-en-atlet/sportsernaering/spiseforstyrrelser-og-eliteidraet/rem-s