This is an interview my cousin Mária did with me a few months ago, about my life in general and running in particular. It was published in one of Slovakia’s biggest and most well-known online newspapers – Denník N – on May 4th 2015. The interview is in Slovak and you can find it here (https://dennikn.sk/blog/co-ma-na-slovakoch-rad-norsky-lekar-ultramaratonec-a-knihomol-rozhovor/), for those of you that would prefer to read it in Slovak. For the rest of you illiterates, here’s a brand-new translation of the interview for you to enjoy. I believe it will offer a few insights into my inner workings, and if not, well… I hope you still enjoy it.
What a Swedish doctor likes about Slovaks
– an ultramarathoner and a bookworm (an interview) –
by Mária Bruneau
In the Sahara, he listens to the sounds of the desert in the night, whilst in Slovakia, the high-volume discussions among his family members. Jakob Klcovansky works as a pediatrician and has sung in several choirs. A Swede with Slovak roots from worlds ranging from arts and medicine to farming. He lives in Oslo with his Norwegian wife and their two-year-old daughter. In this interview he tells us why he spends his time competing in ultramarathons as well as trying to find time to visit his family, which is spread all over the world.
This interview belongs to an interview series on the blog “The Principles of a Normal Atmosphere”, which aims to find a way in which to perceive said atmosphere. Straight from people whose atmosphere is visible, and who may inspire those of us who cannot perceive their own.
Good evening, Jakob! Please tell us where you are at the moment.
In Oslo, Norway.
Would you say that Oslo is your home, and if not: where would you call home?
Home is where the heart is. Where my daughter and wife are here in Norway. Where Martin (brother), mom and dad are in Göteborg. At my grannies’ in Ivanka. Loads of places.
This would probably be a good time to tell us why you speak Slovak and why you have a grandma in Ivanka.
What, d’you mean people don’t know me in Slovakia?
My name is Jakob and I’m the son of Slovak immigrants who moved to Sweden 35 years ago. Born and raised in Sweden, which makes me a Slovak Swede.
Slovak was your first language?
That’s what they tell me.
And today, when you hear Slovak being spoken, do you consider it your mother tongue?
One of two, Swedish being the other.
How would you describe the childhood of a Slovak Swede around thirty years ago?
Wow, that’s a tricky question. But I’d imagine it was a bit different from the way you guys grew up in Slovakia [the interviewer Mária is Jakob’s cousin]. But I have fond memories. It all took a turn for the worse when my younger brother was born. Everything was basically downhill from there. No, no – I’m just kidding. We had a secret language – and that was awesome! Nobody in school would understand us. And nobody in Slovakia would understand us either.
Your first memory. What comes to mind when you return into the shoes of little Jakob in Göteborg?
We could change languages at a whim. Don’t listen to the know-it-all’s who tell you children can’t manage to learn two languages that early. Could be that I was extraordinary, but since my brother also managed it, it couldn’t have been that hard.
I remember a lot of stuff. How granddad came to Sweden and drove me in my stroller. How good we had it in pre-school. How I always had to protect my younger brother in school because he’d been cheeky towards someone older – and bigger – than himself, and somebody had run up to me and told me that he was in the middle of a fight. I had to come and solve the issue with the offended part, often explaining in detail that the only one who was allowed to give my brother a beating was me.
He should be happy to have you.
I tell him so every single day.
I know that you were interested in studying both Physics and Film. How come Medicine came out the winner?
Because it was the hardest school to get accepted into. It sounds extremely presumptuous, I know, but I wanted to see whether or not I could manage to get in. Medicine was the absolutely last thing I wanted to study, mostly because of several grown-ups in my family (not only my dad) who kept telling me over and over and over again that I should apply for medical school. And I always did the exact opposite of what I was told, especially when people kept badgering me.
And why did they believe you should study medicine? Did you like playing hospital?
Because I always had a book or other in my hands. And I had good grades. As if it would be a waste of talent not to pursue it. Nobody told me so explicitly, but I started to feel the responsibility that comes with being good at something. You don’t want to waste your talent. It’s a little like the story of the servants who were given Talents by their master, to invest and grow while he was away. And when I finally got in, I had to try it out. And I haven’t looked back since. But I know that there are loads of other things I could have done, that would have made me happy. I think it’s also rare to have a job where you really feel you make a difference. It’s not like anybody isn’t exchangeable, least of all me, but since I am a very egotistical person, I cherish the feeling I have when I return home after a day full of work well done.
What does your workday entail? Rescuing preschoolers in Oslo? What does medicine represent for you, especially since respect for doctors has fallen during the last century? In today’s hectic tempo, we often forget why it is we go to work.
OK, it’s not that deep or transcendent feeling I have after work every day. It’s just that once in a while, you experience something so profound, you feel like your soul has been touched by something or someone. I’m not talking about those action-packed situations where I’ve literally compressed the chest of a boy whose heart has stopped beating, or where I’ve stuck a needle in a premature baby girl’s chest to relieve it of a life-threatening tension pneumothorax. Those situations are dramatic and have a profound impact but there are other times, when you wave to and high-five a beaming five-year-old who received a liver transplant a month ago and who’s now flying past you in the corridor on a tricycle, or when you’re holding a mother’s hand who is about to lose her only child – a two-year-old daughter with the face of an angel – to a terminal brain tumor, and it’s in the middle of the night and the tears are streaming down your face and you have to tell the parents that there’s nothing you can do, save to lessen the girl’s anxiety and pain. I never forget why I do this. I really don’t. That’s why I work with kids. I love it. With regards to the population’s declining respect towards doctors, I have to disagree. I don’t know what it’s like in Slovakia or even France [where the interviewer lives], but in the countries where I have worked (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), I haven’t experienced any loss of respect towards the medical profession. Quite the opposite. People can be frustrated with all the trouble with hospitals, waiting times and such, for instance, but that can often as not be attributed to the entire organization. Meaning it’s often the fault of the board of the hospital, or the politicians. But never us – the footsoldiers that work at the hospital. Anyone who has ever set foot in a hospital ward, emergency room or an ambulance can see that the paramedics, secretaries, nurses, doctors and orderlies are running their butts off. Meaning they work very hard. No one ever became a doctor to become rich. At least not in Scandinavia.
It seems that the mood is different from country to country, as one would expect. I’m sure you have a healthy approach to illness yourself. Do you manage to keep that distance when you have to visit the doctor with your daughter?
Haha, we’ve never gone to the doctor with our daughter! When you have a father who is a pediatrician, you have to be pretty ill in order to convince him to take you to the doctor. You know what, I’m normally very objective when it comes to my work. I’m not sure why I told you about the extremes earlier, about the girl with the tumor, for instance. Probably because that was literally the first and only time I have ever cried at work. Normally, I’m very good at distancing myself. The first few months after our daughter was born, it was pretty tough to treat newborns who were seriously ill, but that soon passed. It’s funny. There are a lot of students in med school who dream about becoming pediatricians. Many are called but few are chosen, I guess. A lot of people can’t handle kids who are seriously ill. It’s not for everyone. I have very skilled colleagues, that’s for sure.
Your wife is also a doctor. Is family life compatible with two doctors in the family?
Never been a problem. It really hasn’t.
Apart from working in the hospital, you spend a lot of time in your running shoes. How did you start running? To put it mildly, you weren’t always a top athlete.
Hehe, that’s God’s own truth, that is. It was a way to get in shape. I had been overweight, managed to lose some of it, but needed it to stay away more permanently. One of my cousins had run the Stockholm marathon and then my best pal told me he was seriously considering to run the Malta marathon, where he lived at the time. I thought that if he could do it, I could do it. So I signed up for Athens marathon later that same year and my dad gave me one of the biggest surprises of my life when he told me that he wanted to give it a shot as well.The biggest was probably when I saw him cross the finish line. I had come from not having been able to run three kilometers without panting for breath, to completing a full-blown marathon. It’s easier when you lose the weight, though. Which taught us that nothing is impossible. Nothing. If you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right either way.
What was harder: the very beginning, or finally becoming an ultramarathoner?
Oh, definitely the first few weeks. You need to make a habit out of it. Like brushing your teeth, or going to church.You just do it. Every week. The rest has come gradually, in and of itself.The most difficult thing is to keep the habit of running regularly, and I really mean regularly. You can’t take a week or a month off every now and then. Well, of course you can, but you have to ask yourself what your goals are. Do you want to lose weight? Get in better shape? Permanently? Then, no. Do you run to introduce some variation into another sport, for instance swimming or football or dancing or judo? Then I guess it’s OK not to run regularly. I think you know what I mean. Oh, and do you want to become a better runner? Be faster, run farther, stay fit? Then, no, no, no. No breaks. Only easier periods of training. Now, let me clarify one thing. I’m not a trainoholic. My rest days are the days I love the most. But I wouldn’t enjoy them as much if I hadn’t ”earned” them, if you know what I mean. And also, it’s ever so much harder to get started after a long period without training. It’s much easier to just keep going all the time.
How do you organize yourself, your day-to-day life, in order to have time for everything you need to do during a week?
Well, for the bigger challenges, I hire coaches to help me with my programme. With the rest of my life? Well, I just do what my wife tells me. It always turns outbest that way.
Trail du Verdon
Is having that kind of discipline hard to maintain?
I wouldn’t really know. I’ve always had it. I don’t train every single day. My body couldn’t cope. I love to lie around in the sofa too much. And I don’t have time for it. No, I don’t mean every day, I mean regularly. Two or three times a week is excellent. Brilliant, even! But you never skip those. Seriously, if Barack Obama – arguably one of the busiest people on the planet – has time for 45 minutes of exercise six days a week, then so, frankly, do you and I.
Haha, OK. You have a point there. Now on to Marathon des Sables. Was that the hardest thing you have ever been through?
Ah, my favourite subject! Not in the slightest! But it stands a fair chance of being one of the top five most entertaining and best.
7 days in the middle of an ocean of sand is entertaining… how?
Because I was with my best friend, without a care in the world, experiencing – and I mean experiencing in the sense of enjoying and breathing in – one of the most spectacular and beautiful places on the planet. You can’t experience the brutality of Sahara through a tourist bus window, or a 60 minute-stop with your sandals and shorts at one of the tourist destinations at the edge of the desert where you get to surf down the sand dunes on a snowboard. You need to experience it carrying your food, clothes and water on your back, wiping the sweat off your forehaed in 54-degree temperatures. You need to almost step on a scorpion while you’re climbing a djebel [sand-covered mountain]. You need to sleep on a rug in a berber tent, smell, listen and feel the desert sounds in the night. You need to have your sleeping bag being tossed hundreds of feet in the air by a freak sand-hurricane.
I believe I understand the beauty. Sahara is a dream. But is it easier to overcome the pain than one imagines? When one experiences pain, one never wants it, but on the other hand; while being ”inside” it, maybe that somehow makes it smoother, more enjoyable?
Absolutely, that’s poetically phrased. And the thing is, you never remember pain anyway. Just ask every woman that’s ever given birth. You know it had to have been there, but you don’t remember it. OK. Please don’t get me wrong. Of course you remember the pain. Scratch that. But I mean in the training sense.
Sahara Morning Glory
Marathon des Sables
I see. If you would want to remember it, you could, but you don’t have to. That’s how you can filter out the pain from your feet when you remember the sounds of the night in the Sahara. Let me return to the discipline you say you have always had. Do you think you were born with it?
I’m not sure, but I’ve always remembered being pretty structured regarding everything. My books, studying at Uni, training. So yeah, I guess so. Jakob tells me that my discipline is uncanny, and that he wishes he’d have it. He does, though, but in a different way. What it comes down to is motivation. If, deep down, you really don’t want to do it, or don’t yearn for it strongly enough, then chances are good that you won’t carry through.
Does that mean that it was easier for you in the desert than it was for him?
They were never easy, those long, hot and dusty days, and dark, cold nights. The thing is that Jakob and I are a team. When he was tired, walking with heavy steps and brooding silently, I’d give him a shove and start distracting him with questions or stories or something. When I, on the other hand, got weary and was grumbling and complaining, he cheered me up with funny stories and distractions of his own. We never had downs at the same time, and that has always been our strength as a team. We know each other extremely well and know what the other one needs. And focusing on your team mate’s needs helps to keep yourself distracted as well. It was tough for both of us, but we managed it together. I wouldn’t have done a race like that alone, and I’m hoping – even though he won’t be racing himself – that he’ll crew for me during UTMB in August. He’ll know what I need, and no one will be able to help me half as good as he will.
Deep down inside, why do you do these things? The tiresome travels, the stress of ever greater challenges, the repetitiveness of running?
Because it’s all an adventure!And I get to do it with my best pal. Finishing my first marathon, I realized that nothing is impossible. It’s just an imaginary line we tend to draw when we can’t picture what’s beyond the border of our own abilities. But the thing is, our abilities don’t have limits. There is literally nothing that we can’t do. Nothing. Impossible is not a fact. It’s just an opinion. In the words of Muhammad Ali; Impossible is nothing. After Athens, the races got progressively tougher. Jakob and I had one criterion for choosing our races. A new race would have to capture our imagination in a way that we would t first consider it unachievable, and that we couldn’t really imagine ourselves completing it. The step from scratch to finishing a marathon was just as big as the step from a marathon to a half-Ironman, for us. And the step from a half-Ironman to a full Ironman just as gruesome.The only nervous breakdown I have ever had in conjunction with these races was at 04.00 on the morning of our Ironman in England. The idea of starting a marathon after 180 km on a bike suddenly scared the living daylights out of me. I literally shook with anxiety for a few minutes, before Jakob slapped me on the back, gave me a wide grin and said something like: ”But wouldn’t it be cool if we managed to finish?” And I calmed down, took a sip of water to moisten my mouth that had gone dry as a desert. And then I took one lap at at a time. The swimming was divided into three laps, as was the cycling and the running. I took one lap at a a time, refusing to think about the next lap until I had finished the one I was doing. But the biggest jump must’ve been from an Ironman to the fullblown ultrarace Trail du Verdon, 109 km and 6700+ vertical metres of utter pain, but also exhilirating joy. I don’t know if you remember, but after we finished the race, we took a quick shower at the hotel, had breakfast, sat in our car and drove the 400 km to your little flat close to Lyon. We were exhausted but happy and I believe we both fell asleep after only a glass each of your husband’s wine.
Changing socks at a Saharan checkpoint.
I remember. You nitwits.
I also do it to see where the limits of my body go. I found a limit – of sorts – when I was forced to DNF (prematurely abandon) last summer’s ultra, due to several factors. But that failure has probably taught me more than all of my other personal running ”victories” combined. You learn stuff about yourself and how you cope with cold, fear, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, hunger, rain, irritation, hurting feet, disgusting energy gels. But then you take one look at the view from the mountains and you realize that everything has been worthwhile.
Do you feel happy? Do these – for the average ”normal” person, crazy – challenges make you more balanced as a person, do you think?
It’s only a hobby. That’s all it is. I confess that you get addicted to the physical shape you’re in. But it’s not that important. It’s something to tell the grandkids about. It’s something to brag and reminisce about when I meet up with Jakob. Sure, it’s empowering to realize that I can manage to push my body physically as much as I can. But anyone could do it with a little bit of motivation, discipline and training. There are more important things in life. The smile and happy scream on my daughter’s face, for instance, when I come home from work. Or the peace I find when I light a candle by the statue of the virgin Mary after mass on Sundays. Or the joy I feel when I visit mom and dad and my little brother in Göteborg, and they get to play with my daughter. That’s what’s important. Family. That’s what counts. Jeez… I feel like a commercial for Fast & Furious 7… Awesome movie, by the way.
With dad and Jakob in Cortina, prior to Lavaredo Ultra Trail.
Do you believe you have the principles of life figured out, at the tender age of 35? What I mean is; do you feel good about your place in the world and in the grand scheme of things?
I’ve never been happier, and I feel that I have everything I could wish for from my life. As long as my parents and my daughter are well, that’s all I need. I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s true. Soon I’ll take a break from all this training. It takes enormous amounts of time from my family, and I need to find another hobby soon. I’ll probably always continue to run, though, but maybe not as far. And yes, I have found the meaning of life! But it’s a secret and they made me promise not to tell anyone…
Everyone in your family knows you by your committed family spirit. Where did you find it, or rather; who taught you? And why is it worth your while to fly and drive around Europe from family to family, with tables full of delicious curd cakes and the air thick with noisy discussions?
Our parents raised us with that philosophy in mind, I guess. And also: we have an awesome family! What’s not to love? We were only three Slovak families (related, that is) in Göteborg during the 80’s, the Berlin wall and communism keeping us apart from our big, Slovak family. People could only come and visit us one at a time, sometimes in couples. We got used to cherishing those moments, since contact with our grandparents was sparse. And now we have all of the possibilities to visit you guys that our parents didn’t have for ten long years.
Do you believe you understand Slovak nature (not really being comparable to Swedish nature)?
Not as well as I could wish, unfortunately, since I haven’t grown up there. But I believe I could claim to know it at least as well as any second generation immigrant born outside Slovakia’s borders. But the thing is, that for me, Slovak nature would probably be indistinguishable from my Slovak family’s nature. And those two are probably pretty different. So maybe the answer to that question is really no.
In conclusion; atmosphere. Slovak atmosphere. What do you like about it, and what do you not like? What comes to mind?
I love the fact that there’s always another serving of food being prepared. And that as soon as you turn your back to your glass, somebody fills it to the brim with either red wine or Slivovica. And that people are always so interested and friendly, but that they’re never above a funnily sarcastic comment about your woeful inability to write proper Slovak.
Winter running in Oslo.
Which ordinary atmosphere would you most like to get rid of?
There’s really only one atmosphere I would like to get rid of, and that’s the one that’s created when I have too many important things going on that force me to prioritize between things I want to do. I hate it, and I wish that there were 36 hours in each day and 10 days in each week, because there is never enough time for everyone I want to see and everyting I wish to do. Good thing is that I’m never bored.
Which ordinary atmosphere do you like the best?
The best is when my daughter wakes us up early in the morning with a rough, wet and noisy hug, while rays of morning sun are slanting in through our bedroom window.
Give us a greeting to all our Slovak readers!
Mám vás všetkých veľmi rád! [I love you all very much!]
And finally, something properly colloquial, something your dad would say. Something from Kerestúr.
As my dad likes to say, when me and my brother were speaking Swedish during our summer holidays in Slovakia: “Na Slovensku po slovensky!” [roughly: ”You need to speak Slovak while in Slovakia”], or “Krumple sa nevykopajú samé, chalani.” [roughly: ”The ’taters won’t dig out ’emselves, boys!”], or “Však ešte nalej, Janko.” [to my uncle Janko, roughly: ”Keep pouring, Janko!”], or “Ja vám vysvetlím, ako to vlastne je…” [”I’ll explain how it actually is…” ]. All of the above, quotes from my dad.
Thank you very much, Jakob. It was a sincere pleasure speaking to you!
Thank you so much, and likewise!
Friends and family, you are absolutely AWESOME!!! You’ve helped us raise € 1 772, which is 70% of our target! Way to go and a huge and heartfelt THANK YOU! Please let your friends and families know, send them the link for our charity site (https://www.justgiving.com/jakobandjakob) and help us reach € 2 500.
Loads of love and God bless!
The atmosphere in granddad’s and grannie’s Slovak Garden.
The atmosphere of friendship, pure and simple.