Bonkers. I could probably leave my description of this race at that, but then it wouldn’t really be much of a race review!
I’d ended up doing this race thanks to my late father, Adrian, who was a member of the club, and who had done quite a few marathons abroad including New York, Berlin and Paris. When he realised he wouldn’t be doing any more running, he gave me the money he’d been saving for his next race (mostly from the gee-gees!) to be used for a marathon abroad. I realised I needed to find something a bit out of the ordinary. I can’t remember how I came across this race, but I think I might have seen it somewhere before. I’d told him I’d picked this one before he passed away, his response simply being “Perfect!”. I should have done this race in 2020, but, well we all know what happened next. Fast forward two years, and at the third time of asking, I finally made it to the start line.
The Midnight Sun Marathon takes place in Tromso in the far north of Norway. 70 degrees north, to be precise, which puts it above the Arctic Circle, so at this time of year there is 24 hour daylight, hence the name of the race. It takes place on the weekend closest to the longest day (although up there that technically last two months!). The race was first held in 1990 and is quite popular with runners from across the world, not just Europe. There is also a half marathon too, though what also makes it quirky is the timing. The marathon goes off at 8:30pm and the half marathon at 10:30pm. The lure of still running a race at midnight while it was daylight was just too weird to pass up.
The bulk of the city itself is located on an island as it is in the Norwegian fjords, and is quite compact, given the size of the population, not that far off the size of Darlington. I arrived on the Friday afternoon, and went to pick up my number as the registration was still open. The best thing about this race was how handy it was. The start/finish and registration were only a few hundred metres from the hotel, which certainly came in handy after I’d finished.
Race day itself was strange as you’re normally used to getting up, having breakfast, then doing your race. On this occasion I had all day to kill. For my last two long runs I’d gone out late evening, just to get my body used to running a long distance at that time of the day, but also get used to just waiting all day to go for a run. Thinking about what to do that wouldn’t involve much walking, and as it was a glorious day, I got the bus to the mainland side and got the cable car up the mountain. From there I could see the entirety of where I was going to run that night. From that height, I remember thinking it didn’t actually look that far!
As the race start finally approached, I headed down the street to the start line. The temperature was an almost perfect 11-12 degrees by this time. I milled around looking for any UK vests and listening out for anyone speaking English. There were quite a few, including a group of four guys, all doing their first ever marathon, and whose pre-race prep was taking as much Ibuprofen as possible! I eventually passed one of them just before the 20 mile mark and asked how it was going. His reply was simply “It’s worn off!”.
The route was a double out and back (for those that have done Redcar half marathon think similar, though much more scenic!). The race went off at 8:30pm on the dot, doing a small loop of the town and harbour, before heading out to the bridge you had to cross over to the mainland, which was pretty much the only elevation in the race. It wasn’t an evenly shaped bridge, and thankfully we got the longer side out the way first. Upon reaching the other side, we went around the main landmark of the city, the Arctic Cathedral, before heading south along the coastal road of the mainland side. I noticed quite a few runners from British clubs on this half, including two London clubs, someone from Dunbar, and the best one, Cheddar Runners (yes, you guessed it Somerset), and whose club colours were appropriately bright yellow!
As the houses slowly started to spread out, the sound of running water was becoming more obvious, and only when I looked, did I realise small waterfalls were running off the hills, between the houses, and into the sea. The end of the outbound section of the first half was the only part where it was quiet due to there being no houses by then, and it came as a great relief to see the solitary traffic cone that indicated it was time to turn round. From there it was back the way we’d came, the bridge in the distance getting ever bigger the closer we got to it. I remember thinking I just needed to get over this and then there were no more hills. The approach from the other side was steeper but much shorter, so there was a lovely long glide downhill once we’d reached the top. There were photographers on the climb up and I wondered why they’d picked the spot where we’d all probably look awful, and only afterwards did I realise why they were they, as the cathedral formed the background shot. I wasn’t ready for the first photographer, but just clocked the second one in time so at least got one picture of me smiling!
The halfway point was as we reached the bottom of the bridge and back onto the main island. About a mile later I heard the sound of a couple of people running quite quickly behind me, and wondering what was happening. Only then did I remember that the half marathon had obviously started! Approaching the southern tip of the island, the leader came into view on the other side of the road. When they went past on the mainland side, the first two were together, with third a country mile behind. By this time he was well clear, eventually finishing six minutes ahead of second. The third placed finisher ended up being the first female, who had come from quite a way back, as she had been in tenth position when I’d seen her on the other side of the bridge.
Rounding the island to head north was possibly the toughest part of the race, as by this point, the sun had just disappeared behind the mountains to the west, so it had suddenly become a bit cooler, and the headwind wasn’t helping things. The turning point of the second half was the airport. You could see the landing lights ahead which gave the impression you were nearer than you actually were. The one thing that did help, and I hadn’t mentioned so far, was that the markers were all in kilometres. While fairly common in continental races, on this occasion, they also actually counted down. On this section I’d miscounted and ended up being a kilometer further ahead than I thought which came as a blessing. It also served as a distraction as I kept having to convert the numbers every so often to work out how many miles were left!
Approaching the airport was when the route certainly became a bit weird. We ran under the end of the runway, round the side of the airport itself, turning at the control tower (where the magical 20 mile mark was), passing the planes parked a couple of hundred metres away, before going past the terminal building. At this time of day there weren’t any flights, but there would well have been some puzzled looking people if there were! Exiting the airport meant we were on the homeward leg and the kilometre markers were now down to single figures, though they certainly seemed to getting further apart. It’s funny how your brain tends to go during a long race, as approaching the 5K to go mark, I heard a cowbell ringing, and instinctively went to look for Gillian Harris from the club, as she always has one when supporting, though a few seconds later I then realised that of course it couldn’t possibly be her!
I was keeping an eye on the clock, not for my race time, but for the actual time. It was just after the 3K to go mark that the clock ticked over into Sunday, and I remember thinking this was just plain weird I was running on the stroke of midnight with the sun still up. At the final kilometre marker, you could start to hear the crowds by the finish line which certainly gave you that last boost you needed. The last 500m was almost like running down The Mall at the end of London Marathon, as it was straight down the main street in the town, and even given the time, the support was packed on both sides. I can’t quite describe the feeling of finishing a marathon at 12:15am in broad daylight, other than bonkers!
I was very grateful the hotel was just a few hundred metres away, as by then I was quite cold, and the hot shower was one of the nicest ever. You’re used to the temperature increasing during a race, not the other way round. Back in the hotel lobby, myself, an Irish runner and two Americans were talking about the race. We all looked like zombies but knew we weren’t going to get to sleep any time soon, as our body clocks were all over the place. It was almost 3am by the time I think I finally got to sleep.
The next day was spent doing very little and walking (very slowly) around the city. It was easy to spot who’d done the marathon given who was walking very gingerly and looking half asleep! The organisation of the race was faultless, and the enthusiasm and cheering from the spectators all the way along the route was fantastic. It was certainly a unique experience, the like of which I’ll probably never do again, hence the reason that sixth marathon was definitely my last one. The fact I also got a negative split for the first time ever meant I go out on a double high!