The journey to the Arctic Marathon began when looking for a marathon that my wife and I could run to celebrate her 50th birthday. I found that Rome and Paris marathons were due to take place in the weeks that were close to her birthday but further Googling opened up my eyes to a possible marathon that had the potential to be more of an adventure and make more of a mark in the memory than plodding around the streets of a big city marathon.
Also, it was due to take place on the weekend prior to her big birthday. So, I asked my wife whether she would prefer to hit the roads of with thousands of others and be cheered on by throngs of spectators or head off to the snowy landscapes and frozen tundra of the Arctic Circle with possibly a reindeer and an elf for support. To my joy, she chose the latter and the preparations for our adventure began.
After getting in touch with the event organiser, Apolo Esperanza at Wild Marathon to find out more, we discovered that the trip would be as much of an Arctic experience as it was a running race so we paid up, purchased some winter gear for running in the cold set about getting some training done.
I must admit, even the prospect of running in -12℃ did not convince me to go out running on the cold, wet days and I only tried out my trail running shoes twice before heading off for the race. Most of my runs were done on the treadmill, in the relative warmth of our garage but Patricia showed more courage and got out in the British winter days for more outdoor runs than I did.
Apolo kept in good contact with updates prior to heading off to the race and before long the day to travel was upon us. We were met at Rovaniemi Airport, Lapland, Finland and transferred directly to our chalet at Santa Claus Village, the home of the real man himself. Very cosy accommodation with en-suite sauna and our own Christmas tree just outside our window, even though it was the first day of April.
Soon after arriving, we decided to go for a run to get familiar with the course and so we ventured out into the snow for the first time to put our gear to the test. Apolo had already been around the course to put up the signs, so it was easy to navigate our way round which filled us both with confidence but we were both in awe of the beauty of the place and the fact that we were actually there to run a marathon in the Arctic Circle.
The rest of the day involved meeting our competitors and having the race briefing which was shared between Apolo and Anti, one of Santa’s full-time Elves. It was very exciting to be taking part in a small race with runners from various European countries who were experienced ultra-runners and had already run the Polar Circle Marathon in Greenland.
I felt completely out of my comfort zone amongst these hardy endurance athletes and knew that Patricia was feeling the same. The race briefing was very thorough and seemed to put to rest any concerns that anyone had.
After a nice refreshing sleep and good breakfast, it was time to go Huskie sledging which was part of the Arctic experience package and was another good way to build the bond with our fellow athletes. We were driven in a couple of mini buses to a remote venue about half an hour further into the Arctic and were quickly trained in the art of driving a sledge pulled by a team of 6 very enthusiastic huskies.
Then, in pairs we took turns to pilot these incredible vehicles across a beautiful expanse of frozen lake and snow-covered meadow. Despite the cold, it was a thrilling experience and great fun, all finished off with some local warm tea, of which I cannot remember the name, before heading back to the Santa Claus village for lunch and time to explore the delights of this extraordinary venue devoted to the bearded, crimson suited man himself.
Later that day, Apolo had arranged for a short training session and familiarisation run for the runners to have a look at the course. Patricia and I decided to miss this because we had already seen that part of the route and thought it would be more beneficial to rest our legs in preparation for the big race the next morning.
I had raced a few marathons before but my main focus had been triathlon and I had finished 12 Ironman races at the time. Patricia had found the joys of running much later than me and had worked her way through Park Runs to half marathons and had finished three marathons herself. Even with all those races under our belts, the pre-race anxiety still brings a disturbed sleep before race day and this night was no exception.
After a carefully light breakfast with enough coffee to stimulate a visit to the toilet, which is always the first cause for celebration on the morning of a long race, as well as bringing some peace of mind that toilet issues are less likely to interfere with the race, we were ready to join everyone else at the start line, right on the Arctic Circle line, right in front of the 24-hour live camera so all the world could watch us start.
Apolo’s super slick persuasion skills had also been put to good use, because there was Santa Claus at the start line to pose for pictures and start the race. There we were lined up and ready to go at 9am on Sunday 3rd April 2022 with the temperature at -9℃ and a carpet of fresh overnight snow just for us, to add to the magic of the occasion and make it look even more beautiful than the day before.
This event involved three distances over the same course: 10k, half marathon and marathon with everyone setting off at the same time. After Santa set us on our way, we all headed into the first turn fairly bunched up and whoosh, over I went sliding straight down after just about 20 meters. I quickly rose and regained my composure without losing any time to my competitors and thankfully, no damage done.
It was great to hear the crunch of our feet on the crisp snow as we made our way along the trail and started to spread out. I settled into a rhythm but did not want to start pushing myself early on because I was unsure how running a marathon in the snow was going to affect me. Up ahead, I could see a male and female seemingly gallop away, side by side, taking an early lead. I remember thinking that they were going well and wondering whether they would keep that going throughout the race.
After about a mile, one of the half marathon runners came past me. I thought that I should not concern myself with him and did not need to try to keep up. However, a couple of miles later and I overtook him and managed to stay ahead, even though he won the half marathon. By now, I was also catching the female who had jointly led from the start.
After catching her, I realised I was in second place and was beginning to wonder whether I might have gone off too quickly, though a quick check of my watch told me that I was running well within myself and slower than I would have expected in a road marathon, so I told myself to keep that pace and see how it goes.
Up ahead was a French seasoned ultra-runner who had completed UTMB and appeared to be running slightly faster than I was. I convinced myself that he would win and settled in to keep my current pace going.
It did not take long until I started to reduce the deficit with the Frenchman and caught right up to him when he took a relatively long stop at the first drinks station that was staffed by the very chatty Anti, Santa’s elf who was positioned near the bottom of the longest hill on a pretty flat course (I am sure it would be regarded as very flat by a UTMB finisher).
From there we ran into the edge of Rovaniemi town, across bridges spanning large, frozen rivers, with people walking and skating on them. There were even some people sitting around holes they had bored through the ice for fishing. With the sun shining brightly and the clean white landscape as far as one could see, it was an absolute joy and privilege to be out there running. I remember shouting out loud, “This is incredible!”
The next drinks station was the turnaround point where we headed back along the same route to finish the first of a two-lap course. I caught up with my French friend here and from then we ran together, side by side until we got to the hill on which Anti was stationed. I was thinking about the famous Iron War during the 1989 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii when Dave Scott and Mark Allen ran almost the whole marathon side by side without saying a word to each other, not prepared to give an inch.
I was thinking to myself, “This is incredible, if we run side by side all the way to the finish it will be our own Iron war”. However, the reason for a lack of conversation was not because of competition but more likely due to the fact that I could not speak French and my friend could not speak English, but it was fantastic and I would not have wanted to be anywhere else than in that moment.
As we ran up the hill my French friend stopped to walk, but I told myself to keep going at the same pace and not slow down, but to make a note of his need to walk at this steepest point on the course, in case we were still side by side on the second lap; the hill could be an opportunity to for me to get a gap next time round.
My friend quickly started running and eased back to my side before pausing briefly once more before we got to the top and then surging to settle in just behind as we finished our run up the hill. He remained just behind me as it levelled off and we closed in on completing the first lap. I could hear each of his footsteps crunching in the fresh snow right behind me and pushing me on to keep my pace going. I felt fairly comfortable at the pace I was running but did not want to slow for fear that he would overtake and speed off into the distance ahead of me.
As we arrived back at Santa Claus Village to complete the first lap (halfway) some family members of other runners were there to cheer us on which gave me such a lift and made me feel quite emotional that they were standing there in the freezing cold to encourage us on. Even the ambulance crew were clapping and cheering for us and it felt great to be part of the leading duo of this fantastic race.
As we passed the halfway point, I noticed that the sound of the footsteps crunching just behind me had stopped. I speculated on the reason for the silence: had my French friend stopped to go to the toilet? I began to wonder if he was entered into the half marathon, but quickly dismissed that idea because I definitely knew he was in the full marathon race. However, I was not going to look behind in case he was right there waiting to pounce, so I tried to focus on looking ahead and keeping my pace going which had been pretty consistent so far.
I continued on the second lap for a couple of miles before looking over my shoulder and realising that I was running alone. There was no-one anywhere near me. I was actually leading and clear of any other runners. This was a completely new experience for me. The only race I had ever led before was a pub fun run about 30 years earlier. I just kept the focus on keeping the pace and keeping on going.
The rest of the race was not without a glitch or two. After leaving Santa Claus Village for the second time and heading towards the town of Rovaniemi, I took my glove off briefly to get a gel from my pocket, which caused me stop concentrating on where I was treading for a moment and I slipped over. I quickly got up with no harm done and carried on. However, I soon realised that I had dropped my glove in the fall but there was no way that I was going to go back and find it.
I was leading a marathon in the Arctic which was totally surreal and would never ever happen again. I thought that if I went back, my French friend would catch me and I could throw the whole race away. I did not care that we were running in sub zero temperatures. This was an opportunity to win and if that meant getting a bit of frost bite, I was ready for it. So, on I went.
The trail from Santa Claus Village to Rovaniemi is an out and back route, so I got to see some of the other runners who were finishing their first lap as I was heading into the town for the second time. It is the only race I have ever been in where encouragement and high fives were shared by every single runner. It was great camaraderie out there.
After the turnaround point, I began to get a sense of where the closest runners were. According to my rough calculation, I was over a kilometre ahead with about 10 left to run. Was it really possible that I could win? I thought that I had a great chance if I kept the same pace going but had fantasies about those behind me saving themselves to pick the pace up for the final few kilometres and they would come sprinting past me to take the win.
I tried to dismiss these thoughts and stay rational so just kept trying to keep the pace going. I thought that if I could keep running up the hill where Anti the Elf was stationed, I really could win this race because that was where my French friend had walked briefly on the first lap and after having run 13 miles since then, there was a good chance he would slow down again as he climbed it for the second time.
I managed to keep running up the hill and as I approached Santa Claus Village, I discovered that someone had kindly put my glove on a post so slowed down enough to reacquaint my hand with a bit of welcome warmth and continued round to where the finish line was, right on the Arctic Circle line.
As I turned the corner to run to the finish I slipped in the same place where I had gone over just after we had started. It was only metres away from the finish line and there was nothing that was going to stop me from crossing that line in first place. However, no injuries, just the pause in momentum before the finish. So, up I got and was so pleased to see my wife standing there at the finish line to share the joy of winning the first edition of the Arctic Marathon.
It was a magical moment. My wife also been running the marathon but after I passed her on the second lap and she saw that I was leading, she decided to finish at the half marathon instead, so that she could be there at the finish line which made the moment more special.
After the race was finished and we had all got cleaned up, we returned to the finish line for the award ceremony and photos before heading off for a group photo with Santa in his grotto. Later on, we all met for a final dinner together and to share stories from a great race experience.
I learned that at halfway my French friend had decided that he could not keep the same pace gong to a second lap so slowed down, hence the silence from the crunching footsteps. Also, like me, until that point, he was not going to stop for the toilet or any other reason because he was not prepared to risk losing time.
The whole trip was a great experience in a beautiful part of the world. It was a great venue for a marathon and provided an opportunity to meet some incredible people who like to challenge themselves. It was an honour to meet them and share a wonderful race together.
All photos courtesy of Wild Marathon