When you hear the Arctic Circle you might think of starving polar bears – when we hear it, we think about the Midnight Sun Marathon.
That’s because last June we hauled ass for 42 kilometers in Tromsø, Norway for this unique event.
This is not your ordinary fun run. That’s why I called my friend Simon to join me in the Nordic suffering. We prepared for six months before culminating to our June 18 race day.
Our journey starts about seven months ago.
From thought to material project
I’m always into turning ideas into tangible things and experiences. Saying you would like to go somewhere is not the same as doing it. I prefer saying, “yes I would like to go, let’s make the WhatsApp group now”. Turning ideas into action is what my first marathon run would be all about.
So, when I asked Simon to join me for the Midnight Sun Marathon, his response was initially noncommittal mentioning something about a knee injury. Knowing Simon, it wasn’t long before he backtracked and accepted this ridiculous challenge anyways.
Simon and I have a history. The adventures we have been on together include the full moon desert half marathon in Jordan and the full moon party in Thailand (arguably a marathon). Aside from our moon filled journeys, we now seek the midnight sun at the “gateway to the Arctic” in Tromsø, Norway.
It’s January, let the training begin
Being in Minnesota after making this lofty decision, I immediately get a gym membership to jump on a treadmill and start booking miles (I’m in the US). No extra points for training outside in Minnesota in December, as it won’t be minus -20°C in Norway when I’m running in June.
I choose to sweat all over the running machines at the gym instead. The people from my quaint hometown stare aghast as I pour sweat out of every nook and cranny of my body. It was no pretty sight. Something akin to a training montage made famous in the Rocky films.
I enjoy tobacco in all its forms every now and then. However, to really make the most of my lung capacity, I choose to stop smoking before the race. Except for my trip to Beirut and Erbil where I smoked shisha like chimney. Oh, and that cigar on my 30th birthday, include that on the list too. Well, being that we are counting, let’s not forget the first joint of my own homegrown bud (it’s legal in Malta) – there must be an exception in this case.
Why only run when you can run for a cause
Aside from an unusual training regime, a month before the marathon it dawns on me that I can run for a cause. Perhaps something larger and important could be accomplished here other than cramps and dehydration. That’s when I get in contact with the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss. It’s a foundation that supports children with hearing disabilities in developing countries.
For me, music is everything and to give someone the ability to hear is priceless. So we fire up a GoFundMe and start a fundraiser during the last part of my training. At least I’m going to the far north more for the sake of sore feet now.
Welcome to Tromsø, the Arctic Island Capital
It’s June now and I’m in Tromsø, Norway. Since first seeing the party city in a magazine, I’ve always wanted to visit Tromsø, in the far north. It’s a place where people come to see the midnight sun, the northern lights and drink alcohol like the salmon drink water.
It’s a small island in the Norwegian sea surrounded by mountainous scenery. Massive snowcapped peaks fill the horizon in every direction. Pair that with the crisp, blue waters of the Norwegian sea, and you have serenity in the highest capacity. Even your average bus stop looks like magic.
Speaking of magic, in northern Norway, there is a significant population of people with Sami origin. Simon informs me that Sami or Saami is the correct description (whereas Lapps or Lapp people is now considered a pejorative term). He told me they have their own flag and have lived and adapted to life in the Arctic circle since who knows when. There is a sort of mysticism about them.
Aside from an indigenous festival, the event of the year in Tromsø is arguably the Midnight Sun Marathon. The town bursts at the seams when thousands of people come to run like idiots around the city. Among those idiots, are Simon and I. Idiots because you have to be a little mad to run forty-two kilometers.
You see, I’m no marathon runner. I’ve never ran that far. However, I do enjoy travel to the far-fetched corners of the world, so if running will bring me there – so be it.
June 18th, 8PM – Midnight Sun Marathon day
Fortune favors the prepared, right? Well, I am not prepared for anything. It’s an 80% chance of rain and over the last thirty years it’s only been sunny two of those years for the Midnight Sun Marathon. It’s currently floating around 10°C. There is a lovely northerly wind that reminds you that people have died at this latitude trying to survive. And here I arrive to the Arctic circle without bringing a jacket, like I’m spending the weekend in Cyprus or something.
Ali, our friend who has joined us in support, has just completed the 4.2 mini marathon casually walking. Ali also happens to be the only normal of us three on this trip.
After the half marathoners kick off, it’s our turn. We see people already running for their warmup. I think to myself those are not counting to the marathon. My warmup will be the first two kilometers of the race.
After getting a little stretch in, Simon and I bid farewell to dear Ali, like we are leaving on an Atlantic cruise ship in the early 20th century.
The race starts with a run around downtown before crossing a mighty looking bridge from Tromsø island to the mainland. Seagulls swarm underneath near the water’s surface, as I think to myself would jumping off this bridge be easier than finishing the marathon? The mood is positive as we jog along.
The people of Tromsø, Midnight Sun Marathon support system
In a bucolic wonderland of neat little homes with their gardens, families of this little hamlet greet the band of runners with shouts of “hiya, hiya, hiya.” Many are chilling on the side of the road drinking. Some taunting, but most are clapping in support. Young and old, onlookers call from balconies while others yawn contently from their lawn chairs.
Some supporters are a little more active than others. Imagine JBLs blasting music, the sound of EDM and cheesy Norwegian music. Blonde Norwegian ladies cat call us as we go by – not the worst of situations.
A man from his balcony blows a vuvuzela – I thought they had banned those ages ago. Some kids we run by are playing football in a beautiful mini pitch overlooking the island of Tromsø in the distance.
The setting sun shines bright through distant looming clouds. The race brings us to a U-turn and now that gentle northern wind is in our faces. Simon falls back suffering with his ailing knee leaving me all alone.
Temperatures dip and it’s snack time
After crossing the bridge back again, the race brings us back again through the streets of Tromsø, nearly halfway through the marathon. Things are about to get much harder. As we get later in the evening, it’s around 9°C now, the temperatures dip into the single digits and the wind picks up.
For some this is not an issue. Many are running in short sleeves or tank tops, hardly effected. I figure, if it doesn’t rain, and I’ve got plenty of snacks – I’ll be ok.
Yes, I like to eat when I run. A good balanced mix of fruit, beef jerky and the sweetest of chocolate bars. Allow me to explain how that works.
When the sugars and fats breaking down and disseminating throughout my blood stream, the energy rushes back to me. The power returns. This is the moment when someone passes me looking at my stupid grin on my face having just taken a bite of a power bar. It’s the little things, I guess.
Back to Tromsø, where the going gets tough
I’ve been running for over three hours. Glancing at my watch, it seems like it’s more and more difficult to keep my pace. I alter my running posture, take longer strides and do whatever it takes to succeed. In my notebook before the race, I wrote down one word: PERSISITENCE.
It’s what I want to be known for – not giving up easily. I try to spell out the word in my head, but perhaps due to my dwindling nutritional resources, I fail to run and spell simultaneously.
Enter the head game. The last 12 kilometers are closing in now. 12 km? That’s how much I would run around Valletta back home. Easy!
However, the wind scoffs at my confidence and cuts into my pace. The hills I was running down at the beginning of the race now must be run back up. There is a sign of gradient of 9%. Not a good sign.
The soles of my feet burn now, and my legs are tightening up. Forgetting my water rationing system, I start chugging energy drinks the support teams are offering. People continue to cheer on.
So much goddamn inspiration
It’s here that I get some assistance. There are still groups of supporters cheering on the stragglers (me included). One lady makes it a point to start running alongside me. She is from Tromsø and is carrying a Norwegian flag.
“Listen to me – you’ve got just a little farther to go. That hill in the distance is the last one before you approach the finish line.”
“Ok” I respond to her, unable to say anything else.
“Don’t stop running. Breathe in deeply, now breathe out. I believe in you.”
The spontaneous inspiration and breathwork gets me going and she falls back to help others on their journey. There is a group of people on a hill with a big speaker all lined up clapping and dancing. I love the enthusiasm and I run a bit faster.
However, what inspires me the most are two people in front, running with a rope tied to each other. At a closer look, it’s one a blind runner tied to his guide. There are simply no excuses in life. It was the most impressive thing I saw on the run.
In unexplored territory, disaster strikes
I’m in no-man’s land now. I’ve never ran 35 kilometers in my life. My body, not experienced in handling such situations, decides it’s a great time to cramp up, specifically in my right thigh. Pushing on is the only thing I can do. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to even lift my right knee more than two inches off the ground.
I eat more power bar. Sip an energy drink. I breathe deeply. At this point the cramp is not going anywhere and I start cursing, spitting out vile words under my breath in every language I know. Strange, animal noises escape from my throat. Good thing I’m alone at this point.
Help is required. So, remembering the local Sami people, I call upon the ancients for their help. Help me o’ Sami people get through this difficultly. To my surprise the wind blows and whispers in my ear that help is just around the next corner.
When I turn said corner, I see a figure walking in the opposite direction coming toward me. Seeing hands in the air, I realize the Sami have sent me Simon! I’m so ecstatic to see that my friend is still in the race – albeit walking – that I howl with joy.
“Simooooon, you’ve got this!” We pass each other and with the newfound energy, my face relaxes, my cramp disappears and I’m back in the game.
Midnight Sun Marathon finish line – helping those in need of pure, freakin’ enthusiasm
Gone are the halfway points and double digits. I’m under 5 kilometers left. Victory is so close I can taste it.
There is a lady that keeps doubling me and then stopping to walk. I can’t tell if she is Norwegian or not, however I can tell that she is suffering. She keeps stopping and then runs by me, only to stop again.
The inspirational spectator from before misled me. There are actually a few more hills to conquer before arriving to the finish line. And it was taking a toll on this girl.
We arrive in downtown again for the finish line. It’s the last kilometer. This lady, who is in front of me now, stops again, on the very last stretch. Running parallel I wave beckoning to her:
“Come on, let’s go! One more kilometer!”
She looks up, picks up her pace and sprints with me to the finish line. That last kilometer was my best pace of the whole race, the whole meaning of finishing strong. What a great feeling hearing my name called out over the loudspeaker (they pronounced it right!).
I drink a load of water and fizzy energy juice and claim my participation medal, finishing a little over 5 hours. I unfortunately didn’t reach my target of four hours and twenty minutes, but I was happy I ran without stopping.
Post-race drinks on Storgata
Simon and I go over the race together stretching our poor legs. The sun is still out despite it being 2 in the morning, so we decide to head out for brewskis. The taste of beer after a marathon is fucking glorious. Still wearing our medals, we hit a bar at the end of Storgata street.
There we encounter a load of drunk Tromsøværing (people from Tromsø), one who pretends to punch Simon (but why?). Another who brazenly scales a wall to enter the outdoor terrace of a nightclub, breaking glass along the way. Finding a bar, we join a table who congratulate us on our race and offer us beer and Jägermeister. Ah, the spoils of victory.
I’m double handing my drink with a glass of tap water. It’s free wherever you go here, in pure reminiscence of the United States. It’s also because a severe hangover after my marathon would not do me any good for recovery time.
We meet someone who speaks French after identifying our Belgian and French origins. We are surrounded by friendly people except for the beast of a bouncer who has told us for the third time that it’s time to get our asses out. We offer him beer, but he doesn’t budge.
Aside from failed attempts to blackmail a bouncer, this is the best way of finishing a marathon.
Post Midnight Sun Marathon on Swiss Air
So here I am in a plane bound for my connection in Switzerland, overlooking Europe’s countryside as we fly. It’s been an impressive five days in Tromsø – five days since I don’t see the night sky.
In the end, we raised $780 for the Global Foundation for Children With Hearing Loss. While we didn’t reach our target here either, the feeling of giving something really hits the spot.
Things are really looking up. My legs don’t hurt so much anymore, I’m not hungover and I’m thinking something along the lines of… let’s do this again.