In 2009 I lived in Finland for a year. Finland, land of reindeers, saunas and brooding, silent Finns. In order to get the most out of my time there I resolved to take a one year marathon hiatus. I mean, I love running and racing, but I didn’t want to miss out on a trip to Rome or even a night drinking with new Finnish friends in order to get up early and log 20 miles. Also, in case you didn’t know, Finland is very cold and icy, making running just a little bit less attractive. I was doing some maintenance mileage, but all slow and easy and never anything more than 8.
In early May, my buddy Rich, who was living in England at the time, calls me up to let me know he’s planning on running the Stockholm marathon. As a runner who appreciates dedicated and reckless spectators, I immediately offered to meet him and lead his cheering crew. So at the end of May I escorted three women around the two lap Stockholm marathon where we cheered our heads off every time we saw Rich or pretty much any other runner. The Scandanavians tend to be a pretty reserved group, so we clearly stood out as foreigners as we chanted Rich’s name over and over. A quick aside – the Stockholm marathon was followed by the best post-race partying I’ve done (even though I didn’t run), highlighted by a midnight sunset, drinks until early morning sunrise, and a crazy woman throwing a drink (not just the liquid, the entire glass) at Rich with absolute zero provocation. Good times.
Back to the story. Watching Rich chug through Stockholm in front of a crowd of subdued Swedes was inspiring. Even though I had sworn not to race for the year, I got an itch. So then I figured: the reason I’m not racing is not so I won’t get a marathon experience in Europe, but rather so that I won’t have to miss anything fun in order to train. And here we come to the loophole – I could run a marathon as long as I didn’t train. This is creative problem solving at its best.
Then to find the right marathon. I’d grown to love Finland and wanted to find something domestic so I could have a Finnish race experience. As I searched the possibilities, one jumped out as a clear winner: The Santa Claus Marathon. To this day I still don’t know if this is the official or unofficial name of the race, but that’s what everybody called it. The race takes place in Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland which, for those of you who don’t know, is the birthplace (or home, I don’t really know) of Santa. Seriously, that’s what Finns believe. We who hail from outside of Finland know this to be laughably untrue. Even we Jews know that Santa and Mrs. Claus incontrovertibly live at the north pole in a bunker filled with elves, reindeer and wooden toys.
I found the race in the first week of June, which allowed for exactly one week of training. Three runs later, capped by a slow 13 miler, I was onto the taper. Thus was I ready to take on the world (or to get a cramp and bow out after 6 miles).
Taking advantage of the endless daylight of the Finnish summer at the Arctic Circle, the race started at 8:00 PM, as many Nordic marathons do. I toed the line, a bit nervous, along with 100 other dedicated or crazy runners who had travelled far distances for the singular glory of having Santa fire the starter pistol. The race starts exactly on top of the arctic circle at a place called Santa’s Village, which is a big tourist attraction. The first mile runs around and, indeed, through Santa’s workshop, which is a pretty novel thing. It’s a bit like running through an underground Christmas themed Disneyland, so that was a new experience. After that, you get some nature and pretty lake views, but the course basically winds through mostly abandoned streets and neighborhoods over the next 25.2 miles. Despite some great spirit and comradery from this obviously dedicated group of runners, the spectators reflected the small size of the race. If you ever need a bunch of spectators to edge you on, it’s when you’ve done the patented David 1 week training program.
The first 10 miles went pretty smoothly. I ran slowly, but without issue. Soon thereafter I got the first signs that things were starting to go south. You know how you get that one muscle twinge that’s not so bad, but indicates that you’re not getting off scott free? I got that around mile 11. I gutted out a few more miles at a 9:30 pace, then finally got the good idea to start a run walk. As these things tend to, I started out at a 10 on 2 off, then slowed to a 10:4, then an 8:4, then a who-knows-what. I was just trying to move forward in any way possible – relentless forward progress as they say. Sometimes this was running, more often it wasn’t. The good news is that there were sparse, but friendly runners around and I knew that I had nobody else to blame but myself. This was all my doing. It’s odd, but that does make one feel better.
One thing nobody tells you about the northern summers is that the mosquitoes are more aptly compared to birds than bugs. So while I’m gimping along at a crawl, the mosquitoes are feasting for long, long hours. At least they did motivate me to move a bit more quickly.
One of my favorite memories of this run – or of any run actually – was the final mile and the post-race festivities. At the end of the race you enter the downtown area which is filled with bars. In the summer months the folks of cold countries try to fit 12 months of festivities into the 2-3 months that are reasonably not freezing. In a place like Rovaniemi this goal is taken to an extreme. So at midnight, as I’m struggling through the last 300 yards on the main street through the center of Rovaniemi’s nightlife, there are hundreds of inebriated, partying Finns drinking and cheering all along either side of the course. I have to say that I was in no shape to run, but I didn’t want to disappoint the party goers so instead I got on my horse and galloped. Spectator motivation at its best.
Finishing at midnight (it took me 4:30, so I actually finished at 12:30) in the blazing Finnish sun was a pretty serene event. The medal is a thick chunk of wood emblazoned with a reindeer – one of my absolute favorites. Rather than going home to shower after the race I made a ninety degree right turn and joined the revelers in the bar. I’ve got to say that joining hundreds of rowdy, partying Finns at the finish line of a 100 person race (101 if you count Santa Claus) and partying the night away covered in sweat was a pretty cool way to celebrate my slowest, most painful race ever!