Hi, it’s Jack Wolfpac, travel-writing correspondent at the Greenygrey. I was thrilled to see that Marc Latham’s new personal history mixed with Barcelona history travel article framed around the city’s March marathon has been published on Travel Thru History.
The article was written and submitted before the tragic events at the Boston marathon. Marc writes of the special atmosphere created by the crowd at such joyous cultural events, as he did in an article he wrote about Tromso’s Midnight Sun Marathon in 2007. The MSM article was published in Running Free, and I’m delighted to say it has now been imported into the Greenygrey world for you to read; and compare with the new Barcelona article.
Running the Midnight Sun Marathon on a Shoestring
Is the philosophy of running free compatible with organised marathons? At first glance it appears not. The former conjures up images of spontaneous movement without barriers, while the latter inevitably requires registration, routes and responsibility. However, while running the Midnight Sun Marathon around Tromso’s fjords in Norway’s Arctic north the two seemed to merge, as it was difficult to imagine being freer.
Becoming Aware of the Midnight Sun Marathon
I’d first become aware of the Midnight Sun Marathon while researching where to run my first marathon. Norway’s fjords are a geological marvel I’d always wanted to visit, and the mid-summer date of the marathon seemed to provide the perfect time. Twenty-four hour sunshine and the warmest temperatures of the year suggested it was the ideal time to brave the Arctic climate.
However, I decided that it was a little too adventurous for my first marathon and opted for Edinburgh instead. The decision seemed to be justified a few months later, as I completed an enjoyable marathon inside my target time of four hours.
However, I had not forgotten the Midnight Sun Marathon, and Tromso was top of my list when I decided to run my second marathon three years later.
I soon found the Midnight Sun Marathon website and it was easy to enter and pay for the marathon online. You collect your race-number and goodie-bag when you arrive in Tromso for the marathon, and I did this the day before the race. It was all very efficiently organised.
Flying over the Scandinavian Mountains to Tromso
Flying over Norway increased my anticipation for the marathon, as there was spectacular scenery for the whole journey. Lakes, snow-capped mountains and forests dominated the landscape after Oslo, with just a few human settlements dotted amongst the green, black and white wilderness.
As the plane crossed the Arctic Circle I felt a tinge of excitement, and the spectacular scenery only increased as Tromso approached. Looking out from the left hand side of the plane you see the Norwegian coast reaching into the mainland through fjords that complement the high rocks and mountains rising out of the water.
Tromso’s colourful houses, iconic bridge and Arctic Cathedral come into view as you descend to the airport on the island of Tromsoya, with high mountains on the neighbouring island of Kvaloya and the mainland framing the picturesque capital city of Troms.
Things to do in Tromso Before You Run
While there is a temptation to rest and relax as much as possible before the marathon, Tromso offers plenty of activities to fill in the days and hours before the race without draining too much energy.
Whale-watching cruises that also provide great views of the fjords around Tromso seem a must-do activity, and especially with regular sightings of eagles, puffins, dolphins and other wildlife providing a supporting cast to the great cetaceans. You pass the island of Sommaroy on the way out to sea, and on a clear night this is an ideal spot to view the sun dip down to just above the horizon before rising again.
There are also several museums and art galleries, and on the mainland the Arctic Cathedral is a modern architectural masterpiece. Behind the cathedral is the Tromsdalen Valley, with the magnificent Tromsdalstinden (1238 metres) standing like a great fortress wall at the end of the forests and waterfalls stretching inland from the coastal community.
Tromso on a Budget
Norway is of course an expensive country, and having previously travelled on a budget I thought I could put that experience to good use by limiting the costs of the holiday. Staying at the mainland campsite proved a good move, as it is set in a nice wooded location with a stream running through it. I took a tent, but there are also cabins available for rent. Book early, as the marathon weekend is very busy.
I also ate out of the supermarket, and although this was generally fine, I think a big hot meal on the evening before the race, and on the morning of the race, would have carbed me up better than the rye bread, nuts, fruit and milk I lived on.
A buffet meal provided by the marathon organisers is available at a cost on the evening prior to the race, and with hindsight I think it would probably have been a good idea to accept the offer. I think you should treat the marathon as a special event, and pamper yourself as much as possible either side of the race.
Marathon Race Day
While time can slow in the days before the marathon, on race day it almost ground to a halt. While most marathons start too early to think much about the run, the evening start time for the Midnight Sun Marathon means you have all day to think about whether you can run to your best capabilities.
Cool weather and rain gave me the perfect excuse to stay in my tent until just before race time. It was dry when I got one of the regular buses from the mainland campsite and crossed the iconic bridge onto Tromsoya; I would cross the bridge again a few hours later during the race. After arriving in town I checked out the marathon start line, where a rollerblade race was starting. At about 20.00 I changed in the marathon hq, and handed my surplus possessions into the baggage room; I sprayed my calves while changing, as I’d strained one on my last training run, and really didn’t need them to break down during the marathon.
Number 274, that was me, lined up near the start line along with 331 other full marathoners (2363 people took part in all events), and at 20.30 the race started with a loud bang from the starter pistol.
We ran through the centre, down to the port, and then along the bridge. Instead of turning left towards the campsite as I usually had, we turned to the right, and headed out towards the south; through Gammelgarden, Kaldslett and Solligarden. We passed the Tromso Defence Museum, with its World War Two battery guns still pointed over the Tromsoyndet; and parallel with the island of Senja looking all moody and majestic across the fjord.
Local people lined the road shouting ‘hoya, hoya’ as we passed, and providing water and energy drinks from regular refreshment tables; the mixture of spectacular nature and human kindness at its best created a magical atmosphere, and the sun even made a brief appearance through the clouds.
At 10 kilometres (7miles) we turned around to return to Tromso and I saw that I was just about on schedule to finish within 4 hours. I hadn’t anticipated the markers being in kilometres, and spent a while working out how many minutes I had for each kilometre if I was to make it in 4 hours: estimating it was just under 6 minutes a kilometre.
Approaching Tromsdalen I had my first calf twinge but decided to speed up to take my mind off it. We passed the Arctic Cathedral and continued on the road towards the campsite, before turning to the right, and doubling back towards the cathedral and crossing the bridge again.
As I crossed the bridge, and the 20km marker, I realised I was falling behind schedule, as I was nearly on 2 hours, and the half way point wasn’t until 21km. I started to increase my speed, but when I passed half way I was on 2:04. I knew I’d have to run a 1:56 second half of the marathon, which wasn’t far off my best half marathon time, but told myself I’d only been warming up in the first half, and was still full of energy.
This worked as I went through the centre again, with people out for a Saturday night’s revelry joining the marathon spectators in voicing their support. People also looked out from houses, and some obviously had copies of the marathon programme, as they called out our names if they had time to check them from our numbers: I thought they must have known me from my writing until I worked out what they were doing!
A mixture of mind over matter and the excitement of running through town lifted me for the next few miles, and I started cutting back the time, measuring it every three kilometres. This continued for quite a while, as we ran out along the south coast, and then up the west coast towards the airport, with the Sandnessundent sea channel and Kvaloya providing more breathtaking (not literally thankfully!) scenery.
The End of the Marathon
By 29km (18/19 miles) I had cut the four minutes I was over schedule to two, being on 2:56 with 2:54 about my target. However, as we approached the airport my run turned from ecstasy to agony. Firstly, I felt a sharp twinge in my calf. I thought it was a really bad one at first, and I might have to stop, but was able to run through it. I don’t know if my calf was a causal factor, but then I hit the wall.
With my legs feeling all but gone I started slowing. Rain started falling. I removed the gloves I’d been wearing, as I felt I needed to offload everything I could. It seemed to take ages to reach the airport turnaround-point, and my mind now seemed to be doing more work than my legs; although I was still running my movement felt more like I was dry-skiing, as my knees didn’t have much bend!
When I finally reached the turnaround it gave me a lift knowing we were now headed back towards the centre on the last quarter. People were still out supporting us in the remote mid-island, despite it being about midnight and not the best weather conditions; it was unfortunately more midnight cloud than sun!
As my legs tired further I dragged myself back towards town, feeling ten times slower than on my outward journey, although I was determined to run it all. I’m sure it could be argued that my stride was a fast walk, but I knew I was running in my head! I counted the kilometres down one by one, with increasing desperation, but when we started to enter the centre, and the markers got to 40km I started to relax and enjoy it again: I knew I was going to make it!
As the rain fell heavier it wasn’t exactly the finish I’d envisaged, but the home straight was still full of people, brightening my mood; more than making up for the lack of sun. I crossed the line with an official time of 4:12:01; missing my target, but at least it wasn’t 4:00:01! I was a little disappointed at the time, but ultimately very relieved to have successfully completed my second marathon.
I was presented with my medal and a blanket as I crossed the line, and there was plenty of food and drink to restore energy levels.
Feeling able to walk again, I collected my possessions and changed. I walked back to the campsite; there weren’t any buses from the usual stop, but another from the centre stopped ahead of me as I neared camp! Looking on the positive side, the walk and wind-down probably benefitted my legs. I reached my tent at about 2am, and slept straightaway.
Waking at noon, I relaxed until about 3pm, when I walked into town. My legs were aching at first, but the walk loosened them. I felt ravenous, and no supermarkets were open, so I escaped the drizzle into a fast-food restaurant. I had a falafel in pita bread with chips: my first hot food for five days tasted delicious. At 90 kroners (£7/$14) it was a tad expensive, but I told myself I deserved it!
The next day I walked through the Tromsdalen Valley, and had plenty of time to absorb and savour my achievement, as I didn’t see anybody else for the whole time I wandered through the spectacular landscape.