When I looked at the Travelers Century Club country list many years ago, there were several “countries” on it that I had no idea where they were. I was more interested in visiting “real” countries, but figured this was an interesting list from a geography geek point of view as well I was trying to figure out where in the world Spitsbergen was…and around the same time realised that there was also a marathon here….the northernmost on Earth. Perfect coincidence, and I knew I wanted to do it one day!
Fast forward a couple of years, and the June race date coincided perfectly with my work and other travelers, so one afternoon in Hawaii with Matt and family we decided we’d all head up there in June to see what it was all about.
Unfortunately, the week after the trip in Hawaii, I woke up one morning with a horrid shooting/stabbing pain in the arch of my right foot. After struggling with it for a week I headed in only to learn it was plantar fasciitis – basically a nasty inflammation of the tendon/fascia under the arch of the foot. Probably the result of spending way too much time wearing flip-flops lately, walking on the beach barefoot, etc.
My plans for finally running a sub-4 hour marathon quickly went out the window, and I was only concerned with getting well enough I could walk/finish this race. I went through two doctors and a variety of failed treatments, before seeing a doctor who was a legend in the local running community. A marathoner himself, he knew I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and would do anything he could to get me to the start line.
After a month in a removable cast/boot, limited working out, etc I was gradually able to get back to stuff. The arch was still quite sore and a bit painful, but definitely much improved. I headed to Norway in this state, only hoping I could hold things off for 10-15 miles, and stagger in the last 10 painful miles to finish. I’d already decided I would set the healing back months just to finish, and was ok with that.
I never really thought about it, but the week before the race we did lots of walking around Norway – probably 5-8 miles of walking a day on average. Funny thing is, it never really hurt, and maybe just ached a bit. Thanks to lots of Aleve and stretching, I think I made it to the start line in the best shape I’d been in in months, despite zero running in six months and the most walking I’d done in the last week.
Fast forward to race morning.
With a 10am start and 24 hours of daylight, it was certainly a new marathon experience for me. Most races you get up well before sunrise, cram some food and caffeine down, and struggle to the start. In this case, there was plenty of time to wake up slowly, have a good breakfast, and prepare for the race.
For the last 20+ races I’ve done, I’ve had an identical breakfast every time. Iced latte with three shots of espresso, and cinnamon raisin bagel with chive cream cheese and turkey. Needless to say, at 78 degrees north latitude that wasn’t happening – so I hit the hotel buffet to at least try and replicate it in spirit. Coffee? Easy. The bagel was replaced with rye crisps with cream cheese and salmon – a pretty decent approximation!
The best part was, the start line was maybe 500m from the front door of our hotel…all downhill! We got there about 15 minutes before the “race” started, and were ready to go. The strangest part was there were only 30 starters in the marathon….I don’t think I’ve ever done a race with less than 3000, so this was 1% of the size of the smallest prior – quite exciting!
The gun (yes, a real gun) went off – and we were off on a casual jog. The first mile or so headed north out of “town” and almost straight uphill. I planned to follow a strategy of running four minutes and walking one for as long as I could – no point in running all out if I expected to be in major pain later. First mile clicked by around 10 minutes, with absolutely no signs of pain. A fantastic start for my first run in six months!
Miles two and three were flat and then downhill back towards the starting area, where we headed south out of town again. I found I was able to run slowly and comfortably down hill and was still holding 10 minute miles through 3 miles with absolutely zero pain. The race had already exceeded what I thought I might manage.
The course was a double loop of 13.1 miles each in a rough T-shape. The first part to the north was maybe 3 miles, the loop west was another 4 or so, and the final east part of the T was around 5 miles or so with a replica of the part back to the start rounding out the rest of the thirteen.
Heading out onto part two of the T, it was a part of town we hadn’t seen before, basically running west along the fjord on a thin strip of land between the fjord and a small lake/pond full of birds. Amazing scenery. At the end of this section was the Polar Bear Patrol, armed with rifles, just in case any stray bears decided to run onto the course and nom upon the runners. Fortunately, they were never needed.
Part 2 complete, it was time for the east part of the T out to the airport. This ran along the fjord as well, turning around right next to the airport runway, and heading back uphill along a dirt mining road that was a mix of slate, slush, mud, and gravel. Not great conditions, but it was really fun climbing slowly up the side of the mountain and seeing the fjord below. Absolutely amazing scenery!
I have probably forgotten to mention – there was absolutely NO pain in the foot through this point around 10 to 11 miles. I figured by this point I would be walking/hobbling in a bit of pain at best, so to still be clicking off 10 to 11 minute miles was great. I decided here that I was going to have a blast, injury free, and finish the race for sure. No bailing after the first loop as I thought I might have to!
Mile 11 to 12 was a long downhill into town, and I think I clicked off my first sub-10 minute mile of the race doing great. This was also the first marathon I’ve ever run that was two loops of the same course. How would it feel to go through the starting area only to know you had to do the same thing all over again?
The 10k was starting exactly as I went through, so it was fun – it was like the start of a new race running with them as I passed 13.1. I’d decided that the second loop would obviously be much slower (hey, I hadn’t run a step in 6 months before this) so loop 2 was tourist and photography time…and take pictures I did.
Again, the first 3 miles of the T from miles 13 to 16 roughly were pretty uneventful, but during this section I completely ran out of fuel as expected and was reduced to mostly speedwalking. No worries, I’m an expert at this due to previously undertrained races, so I was going to take all kinds of pics and have a great time! There were a couple small downhills in this section which I ran, but my miles rapidly deteriorated to 12 and 13 minute miles. That’s fine….as long as I stay under 14-15 I will finish with 30 min to spare.
Heading out on the westbound part of the T around mile 16 I was struck again by just how amazing this thin strip of land between the fjord and the small lake was:
Continuing down this strip of land I came upon a small house that appeared to be some sort of place were dogs/huskies were kept. I’m guessing these were dogs that worked in the winter pulling sleds over the rough terrain, but as we ran by it was just a bunch of very excited pups!
Just shortly after this I was nearly to mile 17, and the turnaround point of this part of the T – a good shot of just how desolate and isolated – and how much awesome natural beauty there was in this place:
Shortly before turning around I came across a group of probably 100 ducks just hanging out on the side of the road. Most of them were probably 100 feet away – just far enough I couldn’t get a good pic, but these two seemed very anxious to pose so I had to snap a pic.
Looking up at the mountains at this point, I had a bit of a reflective moment. This was without a doubt the most amazing natural beauty I’d ever experienced…I was running through it…pain-free, and everything had come together for an amazing experience. I’m not sure I can place a finger on it, but it was definitely a bit of a spiritual moment. I felt really fortunate to be able to be there, take all of this in, and suck the most out of the moment.
At the turnaround was the polar bear patrol, once again looking out for us and making sure we were safe:
Finished up the west part of the T, and it was time to finish up the last 7-8 miles. Heading back towards the airport, we ran right by the power plant for the entire island:
Passed the airport around mile 21, and started to head back into town, where there was a speed limit sign of 80kph posted. The irony wasn’t lost on me because, well, there are almost no vehicles at all here. A tourist bus here and there, but that’s literally about it!
Coming back into town, there was a warning to be on the lookout for polar bears!
After heading back up the dirt/slate/gravel/mud road around mile 21-22 I realised this thing was in the bag, and I really needed to make the most of the last 45-60 minutes of this race. Hitting the top of the hill, there was one last look down on the town around mile 24-25 before the last fastish mile into town:
In 15 more short minutes, it was all over. I finished in around 5:27 – a good 30 minutes faster than I even thought I had a chance at, and had an absolutely awesome time! Marathon #51 was in the history books.
Unfortunately, my “stellar” (hey, it’s all relative) performance led to one small disappointment. I’d heard rumour that the final finisher got escorted in by the Polar Bear Patrol on ATVs….however, much like my goal of finishing Ironman Canada as the last finisher carrying a bucket of KFC across the finish line, it was not meant to be.
The race had a 6 hour cutoff, and at 5:59:02 the final finisher, a lady from Germany, came across the the patrol:
Just a couple more thoughts in finishing. First, I’m so glad I didn’t give up on the race due to injury, and took it for whatever it would give me on the day. The experience was everything I’d hoped for and much more. I got to spend over five hours hiking/running/trotting/walking through some of the most awe-inspiring natural beauty I’d ever seen and got a great workout in the process. I thought about all the folks who would never get a chance to do something like this, and honestly felt amazingly fortunate to have the chance.
I’d worried what it would be like to very slowly run a marathon in temps of 0 to 2 degrees, but in the end it turned out to be a giant non-event. There were some light winds on part, but nothing awful and in the end it was a great day to spend outdoors.
Oh, and yeah, I’m already scheming to return and break 4 hours…