Tuesday, 10 January 2012

In the footsteps of reindeer

I'm so excited I don't know where to start. I'm excited about writing up my Polar Nights race report because it will be like reliving it and it was simply The Best Fun Ever. I'll take a deep breath, and try and remain calm and keep adjectives to a minimum. But I can't promise anything.

The race: The Polar Nights Half Marathon is a basic half marathon (13.1 miles / 21.0975kms) out and back but it takes place at 3pm when Polar Night sets in, in the town of Tromso, Norway, 400km north of the Arctic Circle. In winter. About 800 people enter the half, 10km and 5km combined.

The concerns:
As I had been logging a few miles for Feb's London Ultra, I was feeling okayish about the distance. I'm not usually one to get too confident about distance - I've made the mistake of not respecting the miles before and I'd rather be over cautious than cocky. But I had dropped a lot of my training while on holiday in Norway (more about that later) so I was worried that I had lost a lot of fitness.

I was also running with a Running Buddy - and we had said we would stick together. I was worried about this as we don't usually run together and we are quite different personalities (ie I am a annoyingly perky thing) so I was a little nervous if this would work.

Finally there was the race surface. We had planned on snow and at least minus 7C but arrived to hard ice and only just below freezing. So there were pockets of black ice, rehardened melted ice and some super polished old ice.

The preparation:
We had brought from the UK some yaktrax for the snow only it wasn't snowing in the lead up so it seemed unlikely we would need them. We were slipping everywhere in the lead up days to the race and I had already fallen in the dark, alone and ignored by a photographer in the near distance at the town of Harstad, hurting my wrist, back and pride. Running Buddy was most anxious about the slipping and doing some permanent injury that might affect our longer race plans. We then bought some spikes in Tromso - easier said than done as they had simply flown off the shelves as foreign runners arrived in Tromso and saw the surface. We tested the spikes for about 5 minutes on hard ice. That evening my knees ached like I had been heel striking in concrete boots and I had to take pain killers for the pain. After a tip from the mighty @ericdol I decided I would run in trainers only: completely grip free. I reckoned I'd prefer a slip injury than knees in pain or worse from wearing spikes on a hard surface. Oh and yes we had asked around, asked other competitors and even the course director and no one was sure what would be the best grip to have for such varied and intermediate conditions. So I figured, whatever makes you feel comfortable would work.

The strategy:
I was put in charge for setting our pace for the first half of the run as I always hate the first half.
Running Buddy was in charge of the second half. This also tempered our tendencies to go stronger in our preferred splits - the focus was on finishing together and safely, not setting a fast time.

The finer details:
The event was superbly organised especially considering they only have two staff members! They had a nice selection of tshirts and a pasta party in an aquarium where you can play with seals and then buy boots made out of them (really). The protein after party boasted all you can eat dry salt cold but when I got there I realised this was more an error in translation. The finish didn't have a clock over it, which gave me a fuzzy "your spirit can't tell the time" glow.

The final moments: (a bit nervous here?!)
We milled around in the town hall prior to the start. There must have been a lot of static electricity around the building as it contained hundreds of lycra layered runners moving around to keep warm. And everyone had different grip: yaktrax, trailshoes, icebugs, no grip, folds - you name it. There was one thing I noticed that made me stand out: I was the only person without a running jacket. I had run in Oslo and Bergen (zero degrees) and got hot in a jacket so decided I would be fine without one, even though I had also left my second buff at home and lost my ear warmers so was down to a single buff looped around my head and neck like a peasant... I thought I would be fine until we headed down to the start and snow flakes started to fall. I dashed back up to get a running jacket and pulled my head dress closer, and swapped from light gloves to a tighter thicker pair.

The clothing:
All in all I wore: two running leggings, merino socks, a long sleeved top, Freedom from Torture's running vest, a lightweight running jacket, running gloves, a buff, and standard underwear. That's it. Hardcore.

The weather:
At the start it was minus 5C (and falling), with light snow, wind at 3mph, and 93% humidity. Perfect conditions.

The race:
We went off by gunshot - that was a surprise - and I took it really cautiously as we got to grips (or not) with the surface. I actually found it quite stable and concentrated on keeping us at a conservative pace - I wanted us to have plenty in the tank for a negative split and strong finish. We ran along the town's equivalent of a High St - Storgata, which was lined with amused shoppers. The roads weren't exactly closed to traffic so those of us at the back had to share the road with a patient bus and a less patient station wagon.

We left the town after less than a kilometre and ducked into the suburbs where there were small inclines, more snow, and cheery young volunteers cheering "hie-ya, hie-ya, hie ya". I had no idea what it meant but like some demented hiphopper, I shouted "hey-yo" back at them. The roads were lined with candles that had been put out every dozen or so metres so there was plenty of route markers.

After a couple of kilometres in the 'burbs the route followed the coast. This was magic as the moon was close to full and was reflected off the snow capped mountains, and the sea. The snow looked littered with diamonds, the sea was opalescent and the mountains looked like they were from a sketchbook. It was a metaphor lover's fantasy.

A moose, from Moose on the Loose was spotted ahead, we gained on him, and gave a cheer as we passed. Despite the grin on his costumed face, the person inside didn't appear to be having a great time.

Outside shops and cruelly, a burger restaurant, there were the odd spectator cheering away; I'd give them a wave and a hey-yo. A cyclist came tearing past shouting things, and I was about to give him a lecture on pavement cycling when I realised that he was part of the race and he realised that we didn't understand a word he said. The 10km racers (who started 15 minutes after us) were now coming through - or at least the very fast ones with snot pouring out of their noses were.

The sea route gave way to the airport, where the first of the half marathoners were on their "back" part of the out and back, looking cold and replete with snotty noses. We ran outside the airport's perimeter fence, in the dark (not terrorist paranoid like the UK), with avgas sitting heavily in the crisp air, and the control tower looming ahead of us, while an aircraft pulled right up alongside us. This was clearly the part of the route where we had to make up a mile, as we had to run right to the end of the airport, only to meet a man sitting inside his car, with a traffic cone lit up and a piece of paper on it saying "turn". We did. It was not the half way point though and so we continued till a similar set up and we realised that we finally on the way back.

My Running Buddy took over pace setting and I realised I felt a bit cold. She started to run ahead and I realised I wasn't moving at the same pace. But I felt good having her in front as it gave me real momentum to catch up and I knew I'd soon get the sugar rush from a gel I'd scoffed at half-way. This is the bit I like, the bit where it gets a little hard and you have to call on something inside you to make it happen. In this case it was really easy - such a beautiful setting and exotic location made it easy to get my energy levels back up in a couple of minutes and the high you get from pulling through that little bit of pain is inspiring too.

From the start, I'd picked a couple of girls like us to run near, and we'd swapped places with them and a lone older woman whose husband kept driving up to surprise us and bring her a drink. At one stage, about 15kms in, I noticed that my Running Buddy was not getting the overtaking speed to pass them at the next opportunity and I realised (amidst me pointing out the snow, and the moon and the sea) that she was in a bit of discomfort. I started to get anxious, because I knew if we slowed down, we were going to get very cold but I also knew that the rest of the race was going to be mental not physical. RB was unable to talk much and I tried to be motivational and say all the right things without sounding like a twat. As our paced slowed, I really started to feel the cold. My fingers were tingling, and no amount of shoving them in my armpit was helping.

At 16kms, we were at the final drink station, and hot Ribena had never tasted so good! RB said she couldn't possibly go any faster despite my desire for a sprint finish towards a hand warmer and I knew that I would need to be as supportive as possible to make sure we got home warm and safe especially as she was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else than staying upright in the slippery conditions.

As we returned to the suburbs, I cheered on all the volunteers - who must have been out there for
a few hours by now, and called out to a Greek runner just ahead of us and we had some lovely multilingual cheering going on. The final city roads were treacherous, we shared them with more traffic and the roads were icy.

We finished as we had hoped - slip-free and together - and went straight into the Sami recovery tent for a hot sweet drink, an open fire and a cuddle with a reindeer! I was still all twinkly eyed from how beautiful the run was, and annoyingly full of beans, danced around the fire, the start line and literally, on ice. I wanted to do it all over again!

Watch a 2min clip in Norwegian / English for footage.


  1. What a fantastic adventure Rowena. Well written blog really made me feel I was there. Wish I was. Anyway well done fore both your race and blog x

  2. Hi Rowena - good to hear about your race exploits - It was great to meet you at the after race dinner. I was the Brit over opposite and you were right - you are the only Rowena Running on Twitter :-)

  3. Thanks for your lovely comments Lena. You have to add it to your wish list of runs!

    Glad you found me Tim; I look forward to seeing your 12 in 12 progress. Might even see you at one?