How a two-month bike ride brought this American athlete to Sweden

How a two-month bike ride brought this American athlete to Sweden
Scott Cole in Montana on his bike ride from Mexico to Canada in 1999. Photo: Lincoln Montana
MY SWEDISH CAREER: After competing in a multisport race in Sweden, Scott Cole decided to ditch bustling California for "less people, more wilderness, more open space" in the Scandinavian country.

Cycling for two months isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Scott Cole is used to pushing himself to the limit. The American works in marketing and sponsorship for Sweden's first and oldest multisport race, a competition involving a range of athletic disciplines from running to kayaking, and he regularly takes part in such races himself.

It was his love of endurance sports that first brought the athlete to Sweden.

After taking part in a 3,000-mile, two-month bike ride from Mexico to Canada at the age of 21, a friend introduced Cole to the idea of multisport races, and he was hooked.

“I was a naturally competitive person anyway, having competed a lot in football, basketball and baseball in California, and I thought 'wow this is cool',” Cole tells The Local. “So I jumped into it.”

In 2004 he participated in Explore Sweden – an adventure race spanning across several days, involving running, biking and paddling. While participating in the race he met a Swedish woman who was volunteering at the event, and it was largely down to her that he moved to the country a year later.

But Sweden itself had also captured his heart. Jokingly, Cole says his main attraction to moving to Sweden was that it “was far, far away from all of the seven-lane highways and the 20 million people”.

“It was just less people, more wilderness, more open space,” he says.

In San Diego, where he's originally from, the climate and weather stay fairly constant year-round, so the drastic changes between Sweden's seasons were also part of the appeal. This is particularly true in northern Sweden, where he has lived since moving, first in Umeå and now in Östersund.

“The possibility of doing totally different sports at different times of the year that totally fits what's going on outside – perfect,” he says.

“The seasons are very extreme here – it doesn't get dark and then it barely gets light. It's -30C and then this week it's been 30C! And of course the terrain is fantastic… Living in this northern landscape makes the winter not only tolerable but enjoyable.”

Cole paddling on a summer's evening in Östersund. Photo: Johannes Poignant

Cole's relationship ended six years after he moved to Sweden, but he says he never contemplated leaving during the years he was single.

“It was an interesting stage in my life because at that point it might have been natural for many to return to their country, but after I had been here for six years I felt like this was my country now… I felt very much at home here,” he comments.

Now Cole is happily married and just four weeks ago his wife Karolin gave birth to their first child, daughter Alma.

“It's been pretty amazing,” he says of his life here. “After 13 years, despite the objections from my mum who lives thousands of miles away, I would say this is my new home.”

Cole cycling in winter in Frösön. Photo: Johannes Poignant

Multisport has continued to be a big part of his life in his new home, and having taken part in the competitions for 20 years, it's now his career as well.

“The thing that inspires me the most about multisport is the idea of taking a natural course that mother nature has created,” he explains.

Scandinavia's largest multisport race is the Åre Extreme Challenge (a 25 km kayak paddle, a 17 km mountain run and a 30 km mountain bike through the Swedish wilderness), which has been running for 22 years. Cole has competed in it nine times himself, and won it in 2012, before taking over the management side of the event two years ago.  

“As can happen in life, you have a goal but the timing isn't always how you drew it up on your calendar. I had hoped to continue racing and at some point when I got older and not as fast, I thought I could take over the race,” he says.

Cole as race director of Åre Extreme Challenge. Photo: Håkan Wike

Cole's job is sponsorship, promotion, marketing and inspiration – in his words, “trying to get individuals to see this less as a race and more as letting nature challenge them,” – while his colleague Henrik Weile works on the logistical side. 

For Cole, participating in the endurance race was easier than directing the event (though he actually did both last year).

As a participant, “it was just hard work and sweat and a little discipline in your training,” he says. “As a race director it's a lot more challenging. You spend the whole year wondering whether you're doing the right thing or not.”

According to Cole, it's the “totally natural course” that makes Åre Extreme Challenge so special:

“There's this gigantic waterfall called Tännforsen which attracts tourists from around the world, it's huge. And when the snow is melting in May it's this roaring, thundering waterfall, and at the bottom of that waterfall is where you put in your kayak and start.”

Another bonus is the free beer given to everyone who crosses the finish line, thanks to a new sponsor.

The finish line of Åre Extreme Challenge, 2018. Photo: ÅEC 2018

Cole notes: “90 percent [of participants] are there to let nature challenge them, which is the slogan for our race. They just want to make it to the finish and they want to get that beer and look back at the map and say 'God damn, look at what I did today'.”

Over the next three years he hopes to grow the race by a few hundred more participants using resources and prize money provided by sponsors.

As for what inspires him most, he says: “Five years ago I'd have said standing on top of a mountain after a long, sweaty climb. But today I might say seeing someone else stand at the finish line after a long, sweaty climb. And see them recognize that they didn't think this was possible, but it was. I think that's something that inspires me.”

“I do need to return to that inspiration time and time again… There's a lot of hours that go in to putting on this race and sometimes it's easy to lose sight of why you're doing it. But it is this idea of seeing folks crossing the finish line and we have some fantastic pictures and film of it, and that's something that will keep me going for another year until the next one.”

Do you want to start your own career in Sweden? Check out The Local's job site.

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