This must be the furthest I’ve travelled for such a short period of time just to go for a run. I arrived into Helsinki at midnight on a Friday, ran the marathon the next day and flew back out on Sunday. My thoughts were that by running the marathon I’d get to see a fair bit of the city to know where I’ll come back too!
The story didn’t start here though. Back in 2017, Sandra got in touch off the back of one of my Instagram post of my 2018 races. Sandra and I briefly worked together back at the Energy Saving Trust around 2009. We didn’t work closely together, nor really know each other too well, but we did bond over a mutual appreciation of the ‘first nuclear powered South Korean’ – Park Ji-Sung. It was as simple as that. Some 9 months later and we’d both left and other than an occasional message here and there, that was that.
So when Sandra got in touch she basically said she’d like to join and run one of the races with me. Amazing!! We settled on Helsinki (neither of us had visited before) and a plan was set.
Over the months leading up to the weekend we chatted and reminisced. Or tried too. We realised how little we knew of each other and our lives and also that, back when we did know each other, neither of us had any prior passions or interested. But here we were, reunited by individual passions for running that we’d since discovered.
Sandra’s journey to Finland was somewhat more complex than mine. Living in South Africa she needed a visa. She was also pending a move to Canada and was visiting family in the UK beforehand. So we met and flew together from Gatwick. On the way back she’s also be going back to South Africa to visit family. I on the other hand had it easy, fly out of and into Gatwick.
We arrived late Friday, getting to the apartment for about 00:30 on Saturday. Thankfully the race didn’t start till 3pm (I don’t understand why!!). So we had time to wake early, walk to the start, explore the expo and collect our kits. The registration was very simple and, due to last minute injuries, Sandra was able to swap to the 5km run rather than the marathon.
We decided to get some coffee and explore Helsinki. A few hours of walking around made us question two things. What is in Helsinki and where are all the people?! Other than some Asian food markets and cruise ships in the port, it was a ghost town! So back to the apartment we went to eat and relax.
Race time cane about pretty quickly. We had to go our separate ways due to different
start locations and arranged to meet at the finish line, where I was also starting. A quick walk over, dumped the bags (and sparkling water I’d mistakenly bought, yuk!!) and we were invited to line up in the road.
There was a great atmosphere at the race village as it was bubbling with activity from the half marathon which had just finished. Loss of spectators and runners lining the streets and the MCs were on good form gearing up the crowd.
We set off. I had a plan. I was intended to run 8min miles consistently to get a 3:30 finish time. There are a few reasons here. Firstly, in three weeks I have another ultra. Secondly, I have a few niggles in my feet which were concerning me (that pain since Brighton still!). And thirdly, the demons from Limassol are still there. But that’s for another time. As I set off I quickly changed tact. I decided 7:50min/miles would be my pace.
It was a good challenge. To stop me racing. To focus my mind. To help me enjoy the day. It isn’t as easy as it sounds though. I felt good. I wanted to run harder. I wanted my space and didn’t like being crowded in. I also wanted to compete when people over took me. It was a case of constantly checking my pace and adapting. I was constantly aware and constantly thinking of my pace.
The course started off at the national stadium and we headed our towards Vanha and along the roads. There were water stations almost imminently. Damn cups. This again. I stopped. I knew I’d always have to stop to drink now. So I did. Each water station though had Sportyfeel isotonic and water. I took both. And carried on. There were a few little hills to deal with. Hilly enough that many runners were walking them, but nothing I’m not used to!! It wasn’t long before we hit some trails and paths in Lehtisaari Lovo as we started crossing some of the islands. In around the second park was an ice zone. Volunteers with ice spray no made a mental note to stop on the second lap.
We crossed several little bridges which offered amazing views of Helsinki. My mind was changing. I felt now I was seeing Helsinki. And from this aspect it’s beautiful. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was full of energy and trying to contain it. We continued through the streets of Lauttasaari Drumso
I needed the toilet though. It was on my mind. Then soon at a water station manned by clowns. A little scary! There were portaloos. Perfect. But, once I emerged, the road was heaving!! Runners everywhere. The 3:30 pace group had caught me up. And there were loads of them. Not just runners. But pacers no counted 6 pacers with 3:30 on their vests. All running together. Completely unnecessary. Why?!! Spread them out surely. I had to sprint and weave to break free of the crowd and avoid getting stressed by the them all!
As we reached the part of Kaivopuisto Brunnsparken. There was a lot of activity. People in parks, lining the streets cheering and supporting. As always I made sure I acknowledged and thanked each and everyone of them. I had the energy to spare to clap and cheer. We reached Kaartinkaupunk, near where we walked in the morning, I recognised runners coming the other way. It was sometime before I eventually hit the turning point. At this stage I was running in sync with another guy. We’d be running together for a while and He looked strong and I sensed we were likely to stay together for sometime.
We were heading back to the city. A loop we wouldn’t need to replicate second time round. We reached an underpass that was a maze of of tape and directions. We’d been here once before and were now directed in a different direction. There were also signs for the 5km run and the second lap of the marathon.
Coming up out of the under path we were in an open public space filled with locals cheering and supporting. Such an uplifting moment. I was racing ahead of my time and needed to reign it back in. We then ran along a path passing under all the main roads. Filled with street art and passers by. The guy I was running with pulled off to go to the toilet and that would be the last time I’d see him.
I enjoyed this section of the race. It was shaded and varied. You emerged into the ‘Garmin PowerZone’. The what?! Hardly a PowerZone. It had some young girls with Pom poms cheering. Riiiiight. I cheered back and carried on. I soon recognised the road, we were near the start. So nearing lap two. We’d done over half a mararhon at this point I think. Coming along the final straight to the finish were more supporters who I cheered and hi-fived and continued on for lap two.
I won’t go into the details here, it was the same as lap 1 just not the whole loop. I was eagerly anticipating the ice spray though so I stopped when it found it. It wasn’t as good as I hoped. Yes it was cold, but it just left my legs sticky.
I was full of energy and could easily have run so much faster. I was conscious of my target though and was on average 1 second per mile too fast. So I had to slow down. I was overtaking so many Runners. As a tactic it was clearly paying off in terms of racing. Slow and steady!! I passed people I saw way back ahead of me in the other direction of lap one. One woman had her partner running with her, cheering and encouraging her. She looked in pain as I passed them both and clapped him. There was also a street full of kids where I had great fun getting the hi-fives out. I always find I run faster after a burst of crowd enthusiasm!!
Before I knew it we were back at the underpass of directions. Shorter route this time. I was still feeling so strong. The challenge really was slowing down. I was still slightly ahead of my target pace. There was an elderly chap nearby with a 100+ marathon club t-shirt, he was on my mind. The admiration. The thought of the sheer amount of effort and dedication to hit that many. And how strong he was running. ‘I could have him’ I thought. I don’t want to finish behind an old geezer. Not my target though. Not today. I did speed up through the “PowerZone” taking the piss and mocking the cheerleaders and on into the tunnel of street art. A small kid (practically a toddler) with his father. The kid jumped off his scooter and started running. The old chap loved it. I loved it. The kid loved it. We were all cheering and clapping him along as he sprinted passed us. He kept going until a grumpy marshal stopped him. A bit unnecessary I thought.
The finish came up pretty quickly after that. I was slowing even more to hold my target pace. All those around me were also slowing, I assume more so through fatigue. We rounded the corner into the stadium. A short sprint across the turf to the finish. Some cheers from the crowd. I played up to the camera (not for the first time!). Puffing out the cheeks. Over the line and job done.
Time for the goodies. First up, Ice spray. I got it all over my lower body. Next, coffee.
Yes!!! It was good. I had a long chat to the lovely lady serving. I got some water and went back for another coffee. Finishing picture taken, up next cake the goodie-bag. It was empty. Fill your own. Yes!!! Here we go. I got plenty of Water, Chocolate corn bars, Wasabi puffs, Raisins, Yogurts, Recovery milk drink, Icecream and Non alcoholic beer. I was pretty happy with that haul! Helsinki, you did good!!