What do running on ice in the dark and a Rwandan restaurant have in common?

Me…and Tromsø (pronounced “Troomsuh”).  This is where Hans Einar and I spent the weekend from 3-5 January 2014.

About Tromsø

Tromsø is a group of islands located here, 350 km north of the Arctic Circle.  I live south of Oslo, about 1,200 km south of the Arctic Circle.  So Tromsø is far away.

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Most tourists visit Tromsø to view the northern lights in winter.  This is, in fact, the only way to see light in Tromsø in the winter, since there is no actual daylight.  Here is what the Weather Channel shows for sunrise and sunset times in Tromsø in early January:

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I did not go to Tromsø to see the northern lights, although I had hoped I would catch a glimpse of them.   No, I went to Tromsø to run a half-marathon…in the dark…on snow and ice.

The Polar Night Half-Marathon is in its 11th year of operation.  In addition to the 21k run, there are 10k and 5k runs (for the wimps!).  This year, 1,117 brave souls were, like me, inspired to run in this exotic destination.  I know, Hawaii is also exotic (and warm and sunny), but that is for another time.

As with the three other half-marathons I have run, Hans Einar accompanied me to show his support.  This he does well, especially on race day when I am jittery and I wonder if there is something wrong with me and he reminds me that I get this way each and every time I run a race.  He is also one of the last ones waiting at the finish line to see me cross over after most of the runners have completed the race and are already having a beer to celebrate.  And, he yells out “heia, heia” with as much enthusiasm and pride as if I were first over the finish line and, because of him, I feel as if I am.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

The day before the race, we did a bit of tourism, visiting the very interesting Polar Museum that traced the polar expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nanson.  We also visited “the world’s most northern aquarium”, the architecturally exquisite Polaria, where we stood for a long time watching two adorable bearded seals pop out of their open arctic aquarium to display themselves for us (there was no one else around so we had them to ourselves).

Polaria_Tromsø

Polaria – photo taken in a month with light!

Race Day

Getting ready at the hotel.

Getting ready at the hotel.

Saturday, 5 January 2104, 14:40

With woollen underwear, my favourite running jacket, my iPhone with a John Grisham audiobook queued up, plenty of energy gels and spikes on my shoes, I set off to join the other runners for a 15-minute warm-up provided by one of the local gym chains.  As Hans Einar and I approached the start area, I heard the end of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana blasting from the loudspeakers and felt a rush of adrenaline.  I wonder if Carl Orff had Halbmarathon-Läufer in mind when he wrote his musical composition.   It did the trick for me!

Pre-race ambiance...yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

Pre-race ambiance…yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

The ambiance

The ambiance

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Checking my spikes…

At 14:59 the countdown began, we runners lined up behind the start line and, “five, four three, two one”, we were off, through the centre of Tromsø along streets lined with well-wishers (northern Norwegians are known for being particularly hospitable).  In no time, we were out of town and on our way to the airport and the 10.5k turnaround.  The entire route was lit by candles and there was a strong contingent of race volunteers who made me feel VERY important since they stopped traffic just so I could cross the road (well, I guess they did it for all the runners but I pretended they did it just for me).

As with all my running, I use Jeff Galloway’s interval method of walk-run and I had set my handy interval timer to a 40:30 ratio (40 seconds of running followed by 30 seconds of walking).  This method has really worked for me so there was no question that I would use it in Tromsø.

Jeff is an American marathon runner (he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics) and his walk-run method is very popular in the US.  But I have yet to find another runner in any of the half-marathons I have run who uses an interval timer.  The timer vibrates and beeps when it is time to switch intervals.  I have often felt embarrassed by the beeps and the stops and starts, as I pass others on my run interval only to have them pass me on my walk interval.  In the end, I usually end up leaving behind 5 or 6 of those runners since they run out of steam before I do, thanks to the walk breaks.  I have gotten used to the beeps and the embarrassment but I am still acutely aware that my beeper noises and starts and stops may annoy some runners.

Around the 3k mark, I had stopped to adjust my spikes and was aware of a presence behind me that had also stopped.  I turned around to see a couple who had, in fact, stopped behind me.  Kristie said “we’re stealing your intervals” in a very American English and I responded “you’re very welcome to them!” and we proceeded to run the rest of the race together.

Kristie and Ricardo had flown in from Seattle for this race and are both devout followers of Jeff’s walk-run method.  Kristie’s timer had frozen at the start of the race (pun not intended) and when I had passed them on my run interval, Kristie had recognised the timer beep and they proceeded to discreetly follow my intervals, staying behind me so as not to reveal themselves.  But when I had stopped, Kristie decided to tell me what they were doing.  From that point on, we ran together, talking a bit, stopping once or twice to take photos and, in general enjoying ourselves despite the physical challenges of running on ice in the dark for 21k.

Around the 15k mark, we ran up to another participant who was walking and eating a banana.  I said “hello” to him and mentioned what a great idea it was to have brought along a banana.   Jet (a local resident originally from the Philippines) told us that he had not brought bananas with him.  He had, in fact, run out of steam and had stopped in at a grocery store (one of only a few along the way) to get a banana to boost his energy.  Having no money, he had asked the grocer if he could have a banana with a promise to return and pay later.  The grocer gave him two bananas.  Ricardo offered him an energy gel which he gratefully took and Kristie, Ricardo and I resumed our intervals.

This was the first time I had actually run with anyone, since running has been a cherished solitary activity for me.  But I must admit that I enjoyed this run so much more thanks to Kristie and Ricardo.  We pushed each other, kept up a good pace and crossed the finish line together, with our arms raised in triumph.  I’ll save the Grisham audiobook for another time.

We met Jet again at the race end.  He came in slightly ahead of us so the bananas and Ricardo’s energy gel had helped.  Hans Einar took this photo of us, blissfully exhausted and so very proud.

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

African Oasis

Now, about that Rwandan restaurant.  As with any trip, I spend time researching the destination and especially its culinary possibilities.  I had discovered an unusual option for Tromsø on TripAdvisor; an African restaurant that had many positive reviews.  In keeping with my theme of the exotic, Hans Einar and I celebrated my victory with dinner at Afrika Oase.  Rose, the owner, is from Rwanda.  She explained to us that she was living in Luxembourg when she was offered a grant by the Norwegian government’s “innovation group” to move to Tromsø and open an African restaurant.  Norway is trying hard to internationalise and Tromsø has a large university full of international students and faculty who need to be fed.  Rose imports most of her products directly from Africa but has had also struck a deal with a few nearby farmers to raise goats for meat for her restaurant (instead of just for the brown goat cheese so cherished by Norwegians).

We ate near an open fireplace (which Hans Einar stoked every now and then since he is a master fire-builder).  I spoke French with Rose and told her about my trips to Rwanda and we discussed a bit of politics (but not too much).  We had an absolutely delicious meal of marinated goat kebabs and antelope, one of which was served with a blueberry chutney and the other with a red onion and chili chutney, friend plantains and a melon and cabbage salad.  Rose gave us a taste of every single juice on the menu (I especially enjoyed the ginger and hibiscus juices, Hans Einar loved the mango and baobab juices).  Hans Einar washed his goat kebabs down with a German white beer and I chased down my antelope (pun intended!) with a glass of red wine from Fairview, a South African winery I had visited back in 2001.  It was a wonderful way to revive my tired body.

The Day After

Because I train quite regularly, I don’t get really sore after running.  I have some small aches and pains but nothing dramatic.  Tromsø’s Polar Night Half-Marathon did a number on my feet though and I spent a few hours in the middle of the night massaging them.  While I enjoyed the race, my feet did not have such a good time.  Hans Einar and I roughly calculated the number of times my feet would have struck the hard ice…we ended up at around 39,600 strikes…OUCH!

We met up with Kristie and Ricardo the next day for a celebratory lunch that included a few of the local Mack dark beers from “the world’s northernmost brewery”.  I really liked Kristie and Ricardo and hope to maintain some contact.  Who knows, I may run into/behind/in front of them at another race in some other (warmer?) exotic destination.

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The day after

Tromsø is a dramatically beautiful place and well worth a visit.  The Polar Night Marathon organisers also run a Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø on 21 June each year…when the sun never sets.  Time to start training now?

Crescent moon over Tromsø

Crescent moon over Tromsø