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

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