Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Event Review : Polarnight Half Marathon

Running in the dark is not new to me. Neither is running in snowy conditions to some degree as I've tackled a few snowy training runs over the years and freezing temperatures in Chicago. What is new to me is the two of these being simultaneous... at 3pm in the afternoon.

Norway in December is a dark but magical place. There is precious little daylight, the air is cool, crisp and clear, and everyone knows how to drive in the snow. It's quite remarkable, to a Brit. I was in Tromso with friends to take part in the Polarnight Half Marathon; another race I'd been talked into but that I would do again in a heartbeat. It's a little known race over here it seems and while part of me would like to keep it that way by not writing about it, I have no grand ideas about the size of my readership and I have a real need to share this one. The idea of running in the dark and the snow, in minus temperatures, in the arctic circle prompted exclamations of "you're mad!" from most people I mentioned it to before the event. These same people, on seeing photos and hearing our endorphin-fuelled accounts of it, have since expressed jealousy and regret at not signing up themselves.
We arrived on Friday night, bundled up in down jackets, hats jammed over our ears and hands shoved deep into gloves. The short walk up the hill from the bus stop to the hotel proved problematic as I fell over twice in the space of ten minutes, bashing my knee quite hard. Immediately I was concerned that this would scupper my race but thankfully I was more shaken than injured. Race packs were collected the following morning and we wandered around the town, testing out our ice grips and doing a little sight seeing. Given the 3pm start, a race day breakfast seemed a little out of place so a pizza and pasta lunch was found instead.
Leaving the hotel at 2:30 still gave us ample time to walk to the start, make final kit adjustments and deal with the bag drop before the warm up at 2:45. Norwegians seem to be very calm and collected; everything felt very well organised and just as it should be. There was no queue for the toilets, bag drop was well manned and having somewhere warm and dry to hang out prior to the start was bliss. The warm up was great fun and we made sure to get a few photos in front of the Christmas tree in the square.
Milling around before the start
Pre-race selfie
Emotions quickly flipped from "OHMYGOD this is AMAZING!" to "OHMYGOD what are we DOING??" then suddenly we were running, with only a few hundred other people, down the high street and around the island. It started snowing. Big fluffy flakes that got in your eyes. The route was an out and back, through residential areas, along the main road around the island to the airport and back. It was well lit, marked with big candles and marshalled by some of the friendliest people I've met. Traffic was kept at bay and water stations were every 5km. We peered into houses as we passed and became confident on our grips. This was wonderful. This was bliss.
Taken at around midday
Th first half was straight forward. The route undulates but not horribly so. Shortly after the turning point we met a spirit-sapping icy head wind for a couple of miles. The snow had stopped for a while and the shouts from the marshals were ever more important. I'd been concerned about being warm enough but when out of the wind I was a little too warm. I wasn't brave enough to dispense with any layers though, not least because I didn't want to stop moving as I wasn't sure I'd start again. I'd had no great aims for this race. I was there for the experience and time be damned. I'd not trained very well and I was happy to get round, although 2h30 was at the back of my mind. I swear there's something in the air in Norway that makes running easier somehow. It's certainly drier, cleaner perhaps. Whatever it was, conditions, training, peer pressure... I somehow finished in 2h14, just 4 minutes off of my PB (not a great PB I know - I'm going to aim for a sub-2 this year now) and with the biggest grin on my face. After being given our medal and swathed in a foil blanket we found hot juice and cold bananas at the finish before shuffling off fairly quickly to the warmth of the bag drop area.
There was still a whole evening ahead of us so after getting warm, clean and dry, and kitted out with some lovely new souvenir socks, we headed out for beers and a hearty evening meal. We may also have gotten stuck into some Baileys, but I wouldn't believe every rumour... We spent the rest of our time out there exploring the town, drinking lots of coffee, eating cake and embarking on another little pre-breakfast run to make the most of the conditions. It was truly wonderful. And to top it all off, as we boarded the plane to fly back home we got a bit of a show from the Norther Lights!
On race day I wore:

  • Due North Snow & Ice grips
  • My usual Brooks Glycerine running trainers
  • X-socks thick walking socks
  • Kalenji thermal leggings
  • Finnisterre merino pants
  • Shock absorber bra
  • Howies thick merino base layer
  • Tech t-shirt
  • Crewroom running jacket
  • Buff
  • Ronhill beanie
  • Marks & Spencer thermal running gloves
I also wore a head torch (un-used) and my Ultimate Direction race pack with foil blanket, phone, lip balm, gels and extra merino buff. I didn't use any of it apart from one gel but I'm glad I had it.

We stayed at a basic but comfortable hotel, just a stones throw from the start line with free wifi and good breakfasts, for three nights and flew direct to Tromso from Gatwick, neither of which broke the bank. The entry fee for the half marathon was around £45 but there were 5k and 10k options too for a little less money, meaning that those who aren't feeling quite so brave can still share the experience. I can't fault this event, I loved it so much. It was so completely different to anything I've done before. There's already talk of going back although I'm also eyeing up the midnight sun event. Norway is not a cheap place for food and drink but you can eat well (even as a vegetarian) without breaking the bank. I'd happily recommend some places if you ever consider going out there.
Have you run in the snow or ice? Would you? Any other events like this that I should have a look at?


  1. This sounds completely amazing- it has just hit the bucket list for sure! What beautiful photos.

  2. We were planning on doing this race but ended up going to Disney in Orlando instead. It will be on my list for next year for sure after your review. Well done!