“I did not know Helsinki was this hilly!” groggily whimpered Jussi, our host and my local endurance guru, after finishing the Helsinki half marathon. “Tell me about it”, I grumbled, as I wiped sweat off my achy, severely lactic acid-filled, thighs.
But first, Helsinki: what a beautiful city! OK, the four days of glorious sunshine and summer heat may have made us a little biased. And the personal guides who took us to all the best views, best cafés and best restaurants helped too. But it really does have everything that a cultured, modern, city needs: nice buildings, wide boulevards, good transport, caring social services, green parks, nice people, lush beaches and campsites only a stone’s throw from the city centre – it even has trams that didn’t cost £1billion (inside joke for anyone living in Edinburgh…). We’d happily move there if only people spoke fluent English. Oh, wait, they do…
Anyway, back to the normal topic: the race!
The starting area was in some ways typical (8 toilets for 1,500 people – when will they learn?!) and in some ways slightly atypical (pole dancers gyrating to Finnish techno). This meant there were hundreds of grumpy women queuing for almost an hour, hundreds of men darting off to the bushes and a surprisingly large number of liberal parents not even blinking twice at the entertainment.
After a brief warm up, I made my way to the fastest group’s starting pen. While I did my final stretches, I looked down and discovered something new about endurance runners: the faster you (think you) run, the brighter your shoes are! (see photo)
This was the first race where I had absolutely no idea what the announcer was saying. For all I knew, he could have been cursing us with some Nordic pagan witchcraft. After a few minutes of rambling, the entire front row suddenly, like a flock of migrating birds, got into ‘take-off’ mode: one knee bent, one hand on the ‘start’ button of their GPS watch and one empty glare staring forward. Soon, after what I assumed was a countdown, off we went!
As far as I knew, we had all signed up for a half marathon. Anyone watching might have been mistaken as our “1h00 pace-setter” (which, by the way, is an utterly ridiculous time!) took off like Usain Bolt. I don’t know if he was powered by EPO, hydrogen fusion or half a million Haribos but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he left a cloud behind like the road runner. *Meep meep*
Considering our group took off at roughly 3.15min/km (which, in any case, would have made us finish in under 1h10!), the fact that he was almost 100m ahead of us after 200m gives an inkling into how stupidly fast he took off. Had he run the whole race (and it wasn’t a marketing ploy), I reckon he would have finished in about 40 minutes, roughly 18 minutes ahead of the world record! This video and photo give you an idea of his ‘sprint start’.
The race itself started well: I was 8th after 2km and averaging 3.30min/km and started thinking this might be a day for another PB. It wasn’t.
To my horror, this course really was not easy: it was relentlessly fiendish and boasted lead roles for all of my arch nemeses: hills, climbs, slopes, steeply angled bits of roads, mounds, peaks, hummocks, bridges, mountains, cliff faces. You named it, I hated it.
I don’t know why I’m so useless at hill running (other than the lack of training) but I annoyingly really am. Even on the short 20 metre slopes, I seem to be able to start 5m ahead of someone but be 5 metres behind by the time we reach the crest.
Other than the hills, I had various other feeble excuses lined up for not doing well: too many races in too short a time (two half marathons and one 10km race in 13 days…), the heat (it was hot…), the humidity (it was humid…), inadequate morning nutrition (I hadn’t pigged out on a whole packet of jelly babies…), the sunshine (it was bright…), the, erm, gravel (it was gravelly….and this is getting a little silly) etc … in reality, I think I probably set off too fast and, like in the Street Fighter games we used to play on the Super Nintendo as kids, I used too much energy too quickly without giving my battery enough time to recharge. Ugh. From the third kilometre onwards, this would be a battle of mind over body.
The course itself is, shall we say, “scenically pleasant” but, to be brutally honest, I wasn’t wowed as I went around. In hindsight and to be fair to the city, I think this is partly because my poor form was slightly affecting the fun factor too…
You start next to the Parliament and Lake Toolonlahti (which are both beautiful), run past Linnanmaki amusement park (which is cool!), then spend the majority of the race running along a railway line, through the suburbs or through the forest. After about 8km, you poke your head out of the suburb to run along the sea shore for a kilometre which was nice before turning completing the loop back to town. One positive is that I don’t think I crossed a single of the demonic Finnish geese and seagulls.
As mentioned in the pre-race info, there were music stands along the course too. In most races, this tends to be rock ‘n’ roll but these ones didn’t quite live up to the Finnish stereotype of them being heavy metal addicts. All but one were young children playing the flute, recorder or classical guitar which, while quaint, wasn’t exactly going to get your cadence up much! Where was Eurovision winner Lordi?!
After a fairly miserable few kilometres of being overtaken by every man and his dog and the 1h30 pacesetter, I finally overtook someone after 14.77km! I made note of the mileage because it was so depressingly terrible.
The language difficulties almost reared their ugly heads again during the race. I always pour water over myself at the water stands to cool down: it’s normally the first glass I get and I’ll then drink out of the second one. By some fluke, I switched the order this time and, after one gulp, realised “that’s not water!!” I was only one small decision away from running the whole race covered in lime-flavoured sugar.
Water, as I now know, is Vesi in Finnish.
The second half was a little flatter and easier and, after one final loop around Lake Toolonlahti, I was relieved to see the pole dancers – still gyrating, and the finish line. While disappointed with my time (a “PW”), I was glad to have kept running the whole way and it was useful to learn a few lessons about my body’s limitations.
Jussi crossed the line ten minutes later and, half an hour after him, so would Pippa, in quite a lot of pain. She was actually 5 minutes behind someone who ran carrying a huge kettle bell (show off) but we decided not to tell her that until the next day. By this point, only 24 hours after having declared that she would never ever EVER do something like this again, she was already trying to work out which full marathon she would do one day. Somehow, “runner’s addiction” will always defeat common sense (although, in this instance, it worked its magic bloody quickly!).
Time: 1h33.01 (90th/1,434)