Thursday, July 28, 2011

Norway, Part III

Having conquered our half-marathon in Tromsø, we were ready to relax. Fortunately, we still had another week left in Norway in which to do that. You may have gathered from previous posts that we like to take advantage of every moment of our trips and are not very good at the lay-on-the-beach-and-do-nothing types of vacations. But in Mehamn and the greater Finnmark area, we only felt a little bit guilty about sleeping late, reading books, watching movies, and generally not having much of an agenda at all.

Our stint in northern Norway didn't begin that way, however. After riding what was essentially an "air bus," we landed in the northern town of Mehamn. Once again, we had the good fortune of family to stay with, yet another of Jon's dad's cousins. As soon as we had finished dinner, our hostess declared that it was time to work. She wasn't kidding.

Our hostess is a member of the festival committee of Mehamn, a village that reminds me an awful lot of Brainard. The task at hand that particular night was to inspect the fest tents for damage and to clean them for presentation. So, there we were, in a tiny community center in northern Norway, scrubbing tents with industrial strength wet wipes. Our hostess was sitting cross-legged on the floor with her sewing machine, and other committee members were on their hands and knees spreading epoxy and fixing tears. Jon and I remarked more than once that all of the crouching and scrubbing was making us more sore than the 13.1 mile run from the day before. But we were happy to help; it made us feel as though we were earning our keep.

At some point during our trip, I asked Jon if he thought we would see reindeer. He laughed and guaranteed it. Yet even with that expectation, I was thrilled when we stumbled upon three reindeer the following afternoon. We just watched them in awe for the longest time, and even though they knew we were gawking, they continued about their business of grazing.

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Donner, on Cupid...
Riding high after this discovery, we were ready for our evening adventure. Once our hostess returned from work and fixed us a traditional dinner of pea soup and Norwegian pancakes, she ordered us to get dressed for an “easy after dinner hike.” While certainly not the most challenging hike I’d ever gone on, our climb up a mountain just outside of town took a bit of athleticism. I shudder to think what a difficult hike would entail.

Since Jon was helping carry the mailbox checkpoint we would be placing at the top of said mountain, I was in charge of the fancy camera we had rented for the trip.

We were amazed at the attention this photo garnered on Facebook
When our hostess encouraged us to look very closely in order to see the beauty that many others miss, I knew she was referring to more than just flowers; regardless, it was still good advice for nature photography. There were dozens of species of delicate flowers nestled among the rocks of the hill, and it was always exciting to notice something new. We did our best to capture the bright colors of the flowers and the vibrant green of the moss. If only we could somehow share the spongy quality of the tundra. It was like walking on the softest of carpets.

"Cat's claw" surrounded by that spongy moss
 We paused for a while when we reached the top of the mountain, both to install the aforementioned mailbox and to enjoy the view. The Hurtigruten cruise liner was coming into port at that moment, and in a bit of foreshadowing, we watched the big boat glide silently in and out of Mehamn.
The next day passed fairly uneventfully with another ramble about town before our nightly adventure. We endured fish balls for dinner...which really weren't bad, as long as I thought of them as dumplings and not processed fish parts. At any rate, we set out on our exploration with full tummies ready to see some animals. Our hostess encouraged us to keep our eyes on the sky for sea eagles. We passed any number of sheep grazing and saw, what had by now turned into a regular occurrence, herds of reindeer. Then our hostess saw it: the elusive sea eagle.
Sea eagle in flight
Thrilled with this sight, we kept our eyes glued to the windows as we drove on to Skjånes. In what seemed like a random location, our hostess pulled off the side of the road and told us to follow her. After prowling through the trees, we found ourselves climbing alongside a waterfall.

One of my favorite photos from the trip
There seemed to be no end to the surprises up our hostess's sleeve. She continued to show us various sights and somehow managed to conjure up yet another eagle. Whether leading us on a hike up a mountain, looking in the river near her cabin for salmon, spotting an eagle/fox/reindeer in the distance, feeding us Norwegian and international food alike, or letting us try on her Halloween costumes in the magic trunk in the guest room, our hostess went above and beyond the call of hospitality.
In fact, the following day, she even lent us her car, which we used to drive to Gamvik, where Jon's great-grandparents lived. His great, or "old" uncle usually spends the summer there, but unfortunately not this year. However, Jon was able to meet him on his last trip and so shared with me a bit of the history of the house and the town. During World War II, the town was burned not once, but twice, by the Germans interested in its coastal location. Jon's family actually lived in a cave for part of this time and then in a tiny shed while their house was being reconstructed.

The family lived in the shed with the grass roof during reconstruction
While in the area, we also checked out the Slettnes lighthouse. We quickly learned that everything in the area claimed to be the most northern __________. The lighthouse is the most northern lighthouse in the world and is also home to a bird sanctuary. We had a delightful guide take us up into the lighthouse, where we watched the birds and seals in the sea.

What the picture does not show is the incredible wind
After these adventures, it was time to get back to work. Northern Norway gets quite cold over the winter (as one might expect), so our hostess shuts the water off in her weekend cabin to ensure that the pipes don't freeze. Along with her brother, we dug around in the dirt and rocks for quite awhile to find the pipeline to reconnect the water.
Finally successful, we headed back to town where we continued our habit of lounging around. Since our hostess was officially on her government-mandated five weeks of vacation a year (fantastic idea), we had a movie night...which I'm sure Jon enjoyed immensely. By this point, we were starting to get accustomed to concept of the midnight sun. That didn't mean, however, that our bodies had adapted. Because it never got dark, we stayed up way later than we were used to, which resulted in our sleeping in the next day. This new schedule meant that we were wide awake when the movie ended at about 1:30 in the morning. Jon then had the brilliant suggestion to go for a walk.

We grabbed the camera and my sunglasses and were on our way. We knew that Jon's dad checked the Mehamn web cam on occasion, so we told him to look for us. Sure enough, he was able to spot us back in Seattle. During our late night/early morning wandering, we prowled about the hills of Mehamn and even saw a fox trotting down the street. It was all a pretty surreal experience.

2am in the morning
Needless to say, it was embarrassingly late when we woke up the next morning. We didn't do anything noteworthy during the day, but it was very nice to not have anything to do. We're not really used to that. On our final full day in Mehamn, we did have plans, however. Rather than take the Hurtigruten coastal liner all the way up the coast, we opted to take just a two-hour tour around the most northern spot on the European mainland (those distinctions are important).

Nordkapp coming into port
Boarding the boat in Kjellefjord, we watched on the deck until it became too windy to be fun. Resting comfortably in the lounge for the remainder of the trip, we watched as we sailed around the end of the world.

And just like that, our trip was over. It was an adventure from start to finish, full of new sights and new connections. Like any international trip, there were parts that were uncomfortable, like the fact that we don't speak a lick of Norwegian. But any time you go outside your comfort zone, it's a challenge. This was the trip of a lifetime...and if you ask any of our family in Norway, it is one that will be repeated.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Midnight Sun Half-Marathon

The following post is an article I submitted to the local running group's newsletter. Since it was written for an audience of runners, I apologize if it's a bit heavy on the training details.

“Hey-ya! Hey-ya! Hey-ya!”
As the waves of cheers rolled over the hundreds of other runners we had chosen to spend our evening with, I felt propelled by the crowd. People of all ages lined the streets, waving flags and signs of encouragement. Flushed customers hoisted their drinks as they reclined comfortably at outdoor cafés. Groups of college students used the race as an occasion to throw a party and blasted rock music both for themselves and for the runners.

Adrenaline coursing through my body, I knew that we were taking part in something truly special, and overcome with that singular sense of clarity only found while running long distances, I realized that this moment was something I wanted to remember forever. For a fleeting moment, I thought that regardless of the outcome of the race, I would be satisfied with just having this experience. But then my competitiveness kicked in, and I began focusing on my breathing and mentally calculating times.

For my husband Jon and me, any long distance race is a significant event. Having run several half-marathons and even the full once, we know 13.1 miles is a good distance for us. It’s challenging, gives us something to train for, yet doesn’t consume our lives like marathon training. But this race was different for one key reason: it was in Norway. In the middle of the night (okay, so two reasons).

We’d been discussing traveling to Norway for years. Jon has family there and was anxious to see them again as well as introduce me. We tentatively began planning our trip for the end of June when Jon remembered that the northern city of Tromsø runs a marathon and half-marathon the weekend following Midsommer.

The Midnight Sun Marathon is billed as the world’s northernmost Association of International Marathons (AIMS) certified race. During the summer months, the sun in northern Norway never sets, instead hovering over the horizon all night long. Therefore, the marathon start time is 8:30pm while the half-marathon takes off at 10:30pm. It didn’t take us long to decide that this was a race worth running.

While we weren’t able to plan the specific logistics of the trip for a while, we did sign up for the run and begin training in earnest at the beginning of April. For past half-marathons, we made a six-week training schedule with shorter runs during the week and a longer run on the weekend. I had finally broken the elusive two-hour mark (for me, a huge accomplishment) and did not want to take a step backward, so we were looking for a more aggressive training program.

We modified Hal Higdon’s on-line intermediate twelve-week half-marathon plan, incorporating speed training into our work-outs for the first time. We also spent some cross-training time in the pool and occasionally on a bike. We still went on our long weekend runs, but the varying work-outs kept running fresh.

Although I’m originally from Kansas City, Jon and I have spent the past several years living near his hometown of Seattle. In Washington, I easily adapted to the freedom of being able to run outdoors at any time of day. Even when it rained, we would just wait an hour and be ready to go. It should come as no surprise that the muggy mornings and stifling afternoons of May and June took a bit of getting used to. However, we realized in our humidity-induced haze that training in the heat would pay off in a half-marathon where the average temperature was in the 50s.

In mid-June, we embarked on our Norwegian vacation full of confidence for the race to come. Jon was able to take two weeks off from work, so we decided to spend the first week exploring southern Norway, hitting coastal Bergen before visiting family in Stavanger. Despite our upcoming run, we hiked Preikestolen, or Pulpit’s Rock, and my ensuing soreness really made me question the decision. The hike and scenery were incredible, though, and my sore calves went away in a day or two, prompting us to considering mountain hiking as good pre-race cross-training activity.

We then took a scenic road trip near some fjords en route to the capital city of Oslo, where our luggage finally met up with us some four days after arriving in Norway. Needless to say, we carried our running clothes, shoes, and accessories in a carry-on bag for the duration of the trip.

After nearly a week of vacationing, it was time to head to Tromsø. We had the good fortune of family to stay with, which was nearly as good as sleeping in our own beds. The weather was fantastic, low 60s with full sun, which was still shining brightly when we finally went to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

Race day festivities began in the morning with packet pick-up and a short breakfast run. It was at this point that we discovered how truly international the event was. There were economical Germans, worldly Brits, free-spirited Japanese, excited Brazilians, and lively Italians. We followed a brightly-clad Japanese woman who appeared to be doing tai chi as she ran, and once at our destination overheard a Brazilian man talk about the evening’s race, miming the running motion each time he said the word “run.” Regardless of nationality, everyone enjoyed a traditional Norwegian breakfast of assorted meats and cheeses, bread, yogurt, eggs, coffee, and juice.

While I appreciated the novelty of running in the midnight sun, that also meant that we had a whole day to spend thinking about the race, and in my case, worrying about the race. To take our minds off of it, we wandered around town for a bit after braving the crowds at the merchandise table (unfortunately they haven’t yet figured out the American tradition of free race swag) and then headed back to the house for a much-needed nap. We weren’t as concerned about how the late start time would affect us since we were still adjusting to the time difference, so a two-hour nap in the middle of the day felt great.

We were, however, a bit concerned about what to eat and when. That matter was solved for us when we were invited out for another Norwegian tradition, what I am now dubbing “Porridge Saturdays.” We both gobbled up the homemade rice pudding with just a bit of butter and cinnamon. This meal proved to be excellent fodder for a runner’s stomach.

Finally, it was time to head back to the race area. We received a ride downtown shortly before the marathon start, just in time to witness the dynamic group stretching set to the tunes of Ricky Martin. After the gun, we still had two hours to wait, which we filled as best we could with wardrobe adjustments, snacks, and nervous wandering about.

After our own stretching session with the perky blonde aerobics instructor, it was race time. Even though we train together, Jon and I run at our own paces, so we said a quick good-bye and good luck and got ready to start. As we crossed the blue mat, a cacophony of watches beeped and bleeped and we were off.

I have a tendency to be conservative at first and not go out too fast, not wanting to crash early. However, I’ve been trying to start faster and build up some lower split times, which is the strategy I used in this race. I felt good, really good, although I recognized that it was mostly adrenaline pushing me along.

Once we moved farther from the downtown core, it was the beautiful scenery that competed for my attention. We were fortunate to have such good weather, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-50s. This made the mountains stand out on the horizon and reflect on the water. “Beautiful” doesn’t seem like a good enough word to describe it.

I continued to record fast splits as the kilometers counted down, instead of up like we’re used to. Psychologically, I liked this change because I count backward anyway. Somehow, passing a sign that indicated only 15 kilometers to go was more motivating than seeing how many miles I had already run. In addition, starting after the marathoners meant that we were all running together at this point and passing them was good for the psyche.

When I got to the turn-around I couldn’t believe I was on pace for a 1:48. Jon typically averages around this time, so I knew that since I couldn’t see him ahead of me, he must have been having the race of his life as well. Even though I was running faster than normal, I still felt strong and that I could maintain this speed. Apparently all of those early morning sprints in the oppressive humidity around AutoZone Park were paying off.

The half-marathon course was a very flat out-and-back, so we were treated to a repeat show of snow-capped mountains, clear-as-glass water, and the chants of fans still cheering on runners. It was so surreal and I couldn’t help but wonder how we got to this place. How did we start our training doing tempo runs on the Mississippi waterfront and end up running on a path along the Norwegian Sea?

The kilometers continued to roll by and when I began to smell the finish line, I felt my reserves start to run dry. There would be nothing left at the end of this race. I knew I would break two hours easily—unless I had to crawl, which I suppose is always a possibility. I crossed the line in 1:49:28, shaving ten minutes off my previous PR; Jon ran a 1:41:53, seven minutes faster than his personal best.

The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming, making all those long runs out to Midtown and Mud Island totally worth it. We were in pain, but we were happy…and in disbelief that the sun was still shining at 12:30am.



Approximately 1am

Norway, Part I

Ever since Jon returned from his trip to Norway in summer 2005, he has been itching to go back. I have had no problems with this plan, but it wasn't until this summer that we were actually able to make it work. We began discussing our trip probably a year ago--I confess to using Norway as a carrot to help me make it through the school year--but we didn't start planning in earnest until the spring.

We knew we wanted to visit/meet family and we knew that we were interested in running the Midnight Sun Half-Marathon (see subsequent post), but beyond that, we were up for adventure. Little did we know that adventure would begin at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Despite the fact that our final preparations were planned much later than we would have preferred, all was going according to plan on the morning we were to fly. We arrived at the airport with time to spare, breezed through security, and landed on-time in Chicago. We didn't think too much of the fact that we weren't able to print off our boarding passes for our Chicago to Frankfurt flight...until we reached the gate. Earlier that morning I had heard something about some computer problems experienced by United Airlines the day before--I was not surprised to learn we were in fact flying United. Due to these problems, we and approximately 20 of our closest friends were bumped from our flight.

We were quite calm throughout the ordeal, slightly amused by the distraught passengers who persisted in harassing the gate agents despite the fact that there was nothing they could do. We felt we were repaid by karma when not only were we re-routed with little delay to our original flight plan but also upgraded to business class. Ah, business class. Champagne, cloth napkins, reclining seats with foot rests, personal video screens...I think the only way to make first class any better is to have actual beds.

Needless to say, we were feeling pretty comfortable and well-rested by the time we landed in Amsterdam. After a brief lay-over, we were in Norway. Our luggage, however, was not. Frankly, we were not surprised, albeit slightly concerned when the baggage agents couldn't tell us where our luggage was. We fully expected to be reunited with our belongings shortly and set off to explore the coastal city of Bergen.

Old Town Bergen
We repeated much of Jon's most recent trip to Norway, which was more helpful than annoying. I felt a little bad that he was doing and seeing many of the same things, but I really don't think he minded. Plus, we traveled in the opposite order, from southern Norway to the north, which was a change, and Jon made sure to include some new adventures as well.

Bergen is a beautiful city, even if it is a bit touristy. There is a quaint old town and a thriving fish market. The highlight for us was riding the Fløibanen funicular (mountain-climbing train) to the top of Mount Fløyen, where we were treated to some incredible views of the town below.

View from Mount Fløyen
There was still no word about our luggage, but we were so tired from all our travels that we were able to overlook that minor detail. We were able to take showers, and I at least, had a change of clothes in my carry-on. The problem, however, is that we were leaving Bergen the next morning en route to Stavanger, so we made a trip to a department store to pick up some extra clothes for Jon.

It was around this time that we began to fully realize how expensive Norway is. Once we did all the mental conversions and figured out that we had spent $20 on two coffees and a cinnamon roll, we vowed to eat a lot of sandwiches. Thus, buying new shirts and underwear was not the way we wanted to use our precious Norwegian kroner.

But we gamely traveled on. We had rented a minuscule VW Polo and Jon and his mental GPS took us exactly where we needed to go. The scenery was lovely, even from the highway, and the ferries were extremely efficient. Throughout the day, I began to get increasingly nervous about the status of our luggage (which Jon will say is an understatement), and so once we got to Stavanger, we made a quick stop at an H&M where I purchased quite possibly the ugliest shirt in all of Norway. Lesson learned: always try on clothes, even if you are parked in a 15-minutes only zone.

That night we met a couple of Jon's dad's cousins, one of whom graciously opened her home to us to stay the night. They showed us around the area, filling us in with more history and insider details than we ever could have received on our own, and we are very thankful for the connection we made.

Monument to the battle of Hafrsfjord at Møllebukta, near Stavanger 
After a traditional Norwegian breakfast of assorted meats and cheeses, including our favorite gjetost (sweet brown goat cheese), we were on our way to hike Preikestolen, or Pulpit's Rock. Our brand-new hiking boots and "adventure pants" would have been really useful on this adventure, but alas, day three of no luggage. At any rate, we enjoyed our hike immensely. The trail was full of hikers, young and old, which was impressive due to the treacherous terrain at some points.

We hope we can still climb rocks like this when we're in our 70s
We also crossed paths with a man dressed head to toe in Husker gear, proof that it truly is a small world. After some good-natured ribbing about the up-coming Nebraska-Washington game, we continued our ascent. I felt myself getting more and more excited the closer we got to the top. We were not disappointed.

We still didn't have our luggage by this point, which I'll admit was quite distressing. We had been coordinating between two different airlines through a series of very expensive international calls and finally discovered that our bags were still in Chicago. At this point, we were concerned that we wouldn't have our running gear for our up-coming half-marathon in just a few days.

It was a fairly frustrating evening, both due to our luggage delay and our inability to find a place to stay. In our second small world moment of the day, we stopped at a campground owned by an ex-pat from Tennessee who had gone to Norway 15 years ago for mission work and never left. Even though all of his cabins were rented, he let us wait out a customer who hadn't shown up yet. During our wait, we heard wonderful news: our bags were in Oslo, where they would be waiting for us the following day. We had a lovely chat with the ex-pat proprietor and we got to stay in the cabin after all. Plus, we were greeted with the following view in the morning:

Ah, fjords
With this sight in mind, we set off for Oslo. Now that I am a "skilled" manual transmission driver, Jon chose this leg of the trip to have me drive...which was a huge mistake. The fjord roads are essentially one lane, and driving  80+ kilometers an hour in the face of on-coming semi trucks is not my idea of a good time. About ten minutes in--after I had pried my white knuckles  from the steering wheel and stopped hyperventilating--Jon returned to his post as driver.

We chose to take the scenic route, so even though it was quite late by the time we arrived in Oslo, it was well worth it. Our first roadside stop was the stave church in Røldal. This pilgrimage stave church is still used today. The woodwork is exquisite.

Circa 1200-1250
Our path then took us through the Hardangervidda, or Hardanger Plateau. We drove alongside fjords on more narrow roads, eating gjetost open-faced sandwiches for both lunch and dinner. We saw sheep on the road, a glacier in the mountains, and goats on the roof of the nature center.

Baaaaack off

Hardanger Glacier

If we had a yard, we'd use goats instead of a mower
After our stop at the Nature Center, where we found ourselves in the midst of a German seniors tour, it was serious driving to get to Oslo. We had already arranged a pension and were relieved to find our luggage waiting for us. Finally.

We spent the following day exploring Oslo. We ran through Frogner Park and all of its delightfully weird statues before hitting up the three tourist sites we had chosen. First was the Norwegian Resistance Museum. I hadn't really thought much about Norway's role in World War II before and found the history fascinating. I knew that Germany had invaded the country, like so many others, but it was interesting to see artifacts from the underground movement.

There is an island a short distance from Oslo's downtown core that houses a number of museums. We chose to check out the Norsk Folkemuseum, aka Norway's Missouri Town. Rather than churning butter, however, the highlight for us was the lefse. There were also traditional dancing demonstrations and activities for the kids. But, really, we were all about the lefse. Who says Norwegian food is bland?!?

Don't worry--we got the recipe
Our next adventure for the evening was a trek out to Holmenkollen, home of the Olympic ski jump in 1952. This trip was especially important to Jon, whose grandfather was once a competitive ski jumper...until he broke his leg. After seeing the ski jump up close, I can understand how that could happen.

It's a long way down
We sought out a traditional dinner and then went to bed early. We were headed north to Tromsø the next day and had the half-marathon to look forward to. An uneventful flight and an eventful cab ride (our driver received a $400 traffic ticket) later and we were at Jon's second cousin's house. She very warmly welcomed us into her home where we were entertained by her adorable children. Despite the language barrier, we were still able to play with the kids, Jon especially. We even learned the words for "fart" and "butt," which apparently have universal appeal.

Our time in Tromsø was dominated by the half-marathon, but we had a nice time with family, playing Settlers of Catan until the wee hours of the morning. You wouldn't have known it, however, for the sun was still shining brightly. Next was a 21 kilometer run and before we left town, we went for a nice long walk.

But back to the half-marathon. To be continued...