Polar Night Half Marathon – 5.1.19

Race Report by Nicola Hunt

Tromsø, Norway

This time last week, 5 January, I was 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Tromsø, Norway (69 degrees north) having travelled about 1,400 miles North just to run a half marathon.

Fast forward to today, 12 January 2019, and I’m at home on the sofa in Coventry (52 degrees north), wrapped in blankets, with a heavy cold and chesty cough, wondering if last weekend really happened.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Polar Night Half, and its sister race the Midnight Sun Marathon for a while.  I love Norway, visit frequently, and as I got back into running in the last 3 years a plan began to evolve that I might actually be able to enter these races.  I decided that if I could complete a couple of halfs in 2018 I’d go ahead and enter the Polar Night Half. With both Stratford and Kenilworth halfs completed, I felt confident to enter the race, but I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for.  A quick bit of research showed I would need to be prepared to run in temperatures which would most likely be around -5C (with a “feels like” temp most likely in negative double figures), that it was likely to snow, and I’d probably need spikes. Not to mention a lot of layers.  It was starting to feel like a bit of an expedition.

I started training in the autumn, and also started to get the kit together.  I soon realised that whilst I could easily layer up on my top half, I was going to need better leggings and socks to stay warm (or should that be to not completely freeze).  Windproof thermal compression leggings, and knee length stay dry (ha!) thermal socks were sourced. I’d read that there is always debate on the start line of the race: spikes or no spikes.  As I don’t own any spikes, I was glad to discover some spikes that were attached to a rubber sole that you could pull over your normal trainers. Problem solved. And when it came to the race, boy was I glad to have those on board!

Finally the day came for me to set off to Norway.  I’d been keeping an eye on the weather forecast, and was a little disappointed to see that temperatures were predicted to be slightly above freezing!  This wasn’t the Arctic vision I’d imagined. However, I arrived in Tromsø to find ice! Norway obviously doesn’t grind to a halt in these conditions, but nevertheless, I was terrified I’d fall and injure myself before even getting to the start line.  Luckily, my worst fears didn’t transpire.

Race day didn’t dawn (the sun doesn’t rise in Tromsø from mid November to mid January), and I went to pick up my race number.  There were hundreds of people milling around, and I spoke with people from all over the world who had travelled for the race – Australians, Americans, Germans, Irish, Dutch…and 8 people from Coventry, including 2 from Northbrook!  It was great to hear everyone’s stories and the excitement was building. I treated myself at the merchandise stall to a long sleeved t-shirt and a hat.

The race began at 3pm, so there was some time to get nervous!  I got lunch and then went back to get changed for the start. I don’t think I’ve ever worn so many clothes to run: thermal base layer, t-shirt, windproof coat, Massey’s vest, hat, a couple of buffs, gloves, mittens, thermal leggings and thermal socks.  As it was, the “feels like” temperature for the race was about -3C and rather windy in places. I’d say I got the kit on the cold side of correct – one more layer would have been too much, but there were times when I was very cold.

There was a mass warm up in the square just before 3pm, and then we all piled into the start funnel.  From there, there was no messing around: within a couple of minutes the countdown had begun and we were off!  It was pitch dark, and Tromsø’s main street was lined with people and lit with beautiful twinkly lit garlands with a red heart in the middle hanging across the street.  There was excitement in the air, and I forgot to start my watch as I tried to take it all in. There was lots of support, and the Norwegians were all shouting, “hej ja! Hej jah!” and ringing cowbells in encouragement.  There were 2,400 places for the race, and I’d read that over 2,000 places were sold – however, only around 1,000 of us lined up on the starting line.

Immediately I was glad of the over-shoe spikes, as the road was icy.  The organisers had been advising everyone to wear spikes because of the conditions, and therefore we sounded like a mass tap-dancing troupe click-clacking down the street.  The course is an out and back course, beginning on Storgata (the main street) and heading out to the airport, before heading back along the same route. After running through the main street, we ran along paths through near some very pretty houses – typical Norwegian wooden clapboard properties with fairy lights in the windows, and welcome lanterns by the doors.  There were lots of people out supporting the runners so the atmosphere was great. From there, the route came out onto a (closed) road, and in places the route was lit with flaming torches. Parts of the route were right next to the fjord, which was frozen near the shores. The halfway point was at the airport, where it was also windiest. At this point I was worried I’d got the kit all wrong as I was absolutely frozen.  I also had wet, cold feet – it seems that icy puddles are too much even for Drymax socks. Conditions underfoot varied from ice, slush, snow, gritty tarmac, and freezing icy puddles. There were drink stations every 5k, with energy drinks and lukewarm water. I never thought I’d enjoy lukewarm water during a race, but it was perfect!!

Just after the turning point, I had a low mile with shooting pain down my right leg, so I had no choice but to switch to stretch, walk, run, repeat for a bit until it eased off enough to get back to running.  By this time, the wind had got up a bit and it was pretty cold, but I was still ridiculously excited to be there and just focussed on keeping going. Any thoughts of a target time had gone out of the window by this point:  the mission was to get it done. There were no distance markers on the course until the last 5km, so when I saw that 5km sign, I knew I was going to do it. Just a Parkrun to go! I couldn’t stop smiling, and I knew I couldn’t stop running.  I was literally grinning from ear to ear for the last 5km – waving to the marshalls and passing pedestrians, who must’ve thought I was mad. I’ll never forget the feeling of coming onto the main street with the Finish arch in sight, grinning like mad, somehow finding a bit of a kick to give it the best finish I could manage, knowing that I was about to achieve something from my Bucket List.  To top it all, just before I crossed the line, I heard a roar of “Go Masseys!” and realised it came from one of the Northbrook guys I’d met earlier in the day. That really meant a lot, up there in the Arctic on my own.

I was handed my medal (which looks like it has the Northern Lights inside it) and a volunteer wrapped me in a foil blanket.  I got some hot juice and was directed into the Sami lavvu (traditional tent) to warm up around the fire pit. Definitely like no other race I’ve ever entered!  I’m so looking forward to going back in June to run the Midnight Sun Marathon. All being well, this will be my first marathon.

The race was well marshalled and runners were prioritised over drivers at junctions, which was good to see.  Norwegian drivers take this with good grace too. Sadly it was too cloudy to glimpse the Northern Lights, and to be honest, I was concentrating so hard on putting one foot in front of the other without falling over, I’m not sure I’d have noticed them if they had been visible!  The spikes did give me confidence to run fairly freely once I’d got used to them though.

If you are thinking of doing this race, bear in mind that Norway is super-expensive.  My race entry fee of around 600NOK (about £60) didn’t include a t-shirt, only a medal.  There is a 10k and a 5k race run at the same time, so if you’re travelling with others who don’t want to run a half, there’s options for them too.  All in all, I highly recommend this as an incredible experience.