Race Report: Tórshavn Marathon 2012 (Faroe Islands)

Wow

I’m going to have to edit my top six runs to include this one – the scenery of the Tórshavn Marathon places it in a class of its own.  Starting with 1.5 loops of the main town, from there the route travels up the coast and turns off onto a fiord across the bay, at which point it turns around and comes back to town.  The amazing thing about this route is that other than about 2km of the route through town, you’re never out of view of the water.  Being an island where it’s nearly impossible to go more than 2km “inland” without coming out on the opposite coast, any route that the race directors choose will be considered “coastal” by any other standards.  With a mix of cliffs, coastal grass and rocky shores, the scenery around make it impossible to feel anything but lucky, even when the legs are screaming.

The White Kenyan

The day prior to the race we stumbled upon a Faroese-language marathon seminar as part of the race weekend’s events, and were quickly greeted (in English) by the race director.  He was pretty surprised that a few Americans had come all the way over for a marathon in the middle of the North Sea with just 63-odd competitors, so we explained why we were there (I think we were still trying to figure it out, too…).  During registration, I had registered with my current address in Kenya, so on the competitor’s roster online it showed me as a Kenyan.  Imagine their shock that a Kenyan would be coming all the way up to Tórshavn to run a marathon with them!  The race director explained that I had incited quite the pre-race panic, as top runners in the local club who were gunning for the title started furiously searching my name and location on Google to scope out this Kenyan ringer, and apparently were quite relieved after finding my blog, reporting back with a smile to the race director, “don’t worry….he’s white!”  I reassured the director that I was not Kiprop’s training partner in the hills of Kenya, either, and that I wouldn’t be breaking any records this year…but to keep an eye out next year if I come back, as I’ll surely find a few good running buddies, and I hear that Kenyan running genetics are contagious (fingers crossed…).

The Run

My university buddy Scott, who in a moment of pure wisdom chose this race, and I got to the start area around 45 minutes before the race.  Plenty of time, as there were only about 200 competitors combined running races of 2.2km, 5.5km, and half and full marathons.  A rather cold and wet morning, we layered up and went outside a few minutes prior to the start.  After a wholly entertaining Nordic-style group warm-up routine in a language we didn’t even begin to understand, the gun went and we were off on a mad dash through town.

 

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The marathon race route.

I immediately felt more comfortable running than I had at any point in training, and found a rhythm quickly, sitting somewhere around 8-minute miles for the first few.  I knew at some point I would fall apart, as I hadn’t run more than 13 miles since April, but I had no intention of letting that ruin my day.

 

Though the sun was peaking through when the gun went off, we quickly ran into a strong headwind leaving town as well as a brief wall of freezing rain that had us all a bit concerned.  The freezing rain would turn into a less-freezing drizzle, and would come down intermittently throughout the race.  The headwind on the way out of town reminded me of the winds on the bike at Ironman South Africa, and I quickly reverted to the same state…bare down into a constant effort, and no matter where the wind blows and what it slows your pace to, just keep that effort.  This got me up the first few climbs.  There were more people than I expected on the road until the turnaround for the half marathon, where it seemed like everyone else but me was turning around.  From about 15km and for the rest of the race, it was the most quiet and reflective race I’ve ever run.  Aid stations were only ever 5km and each one was just 1-2 people with a tiny table in the middle of nowhere, pouring sports drink and water into 5 or 6 cups and laying out 2 or 3 banana pieces.  As there were only 63 people on the marathon, there really was no reason to lay out any more at one time – I felt like each station was just a little lemonade stand on a run through my home town, which was a new and welcome feel for a long-distance race.

 

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Elevation profile of the marathon route.

Though I didn’t have a watch or a HRM, I could tell that I was holding my pace quite well until the turnaround at 25km.  At that point, though, the wheels started to come off.  I was passed by a group of local runners as we attacked the headwind on the way back around the fiord, and I could start to feel the mounting miles on my knees and hip flexors.  Scott said it well as we passed on the turnaround – “can’t we just swim back across?!”, referring to the freezing-cold 500m bay that separated us from the very visible next 15km of our race…a strange reality to be able to see exactly where you’ll be running in an hour’s time but can’t quite get there.

 

The next 5km was all mental, just pushing through, but at 30 km the hills started again, and I wasn’t going to hold up.  I tried to avoid it, but my legs were on fire and I walked a few times just to shed a bit of the joint fatigue taking over my legs.  My pace slowed notably even though my cardio was right in line, and I just plugged on into town with almost nobody around me, enjoying my first rather silent distance event.  I finally turned the corner into the finishing area and was smiling and waving to a small group of cheerleaders when I saw the clock was just 15 seconds to 4 hours.  I turned quick and put on the gas to cross just about 6 seconds under the 4 hour mark (30/63 overall).

With no real goal going into the race, I was completely fine with the finishing time.  My next marathon will not be that way – I’ll be gunning for under 3:30 – but as I hadn’t trained I was just happy to get through it and thoroughly enjoy the day.  Scott crossed the line a few minutes later, we got some food, went back for a rest, and then prepared for a great evening of drinks and steak with the other runners.

 

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The After-Party

 

We had met a few others from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Denmark, Germany, England and Scotland, and shared several hours of food and drinks with them after the run at a great after-party organized by the local Bragdid running club.

One highlight was spending time with Andy on the bus into town and then again after the race.  An American from New Jersey, we were joining him for his 653rd marathon – and 170th or so since he was read his last rights and nearly died in Russia in 2001.  At 73 years young, when we asked him what his next race would be (doctors having told him that he would never run again after his recovery in 2001), he answered “the hospital”.  Apparently his way of preparing for open-heart surgery was to run another marathon!!  An extremely humble and inspiring guy, and more than anything, just nice, Andy regaled us all night with great stories from around the world (he had plenty, having run races in 83 different countries!).

 

All thoughts and prayers for Andy’s speedy and painless recovery as he goes into surgery tomorrow morning.

 

 

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My Top 6 Runs of All Time

In honor of the upcoming Tórshavn Marathon this Sunday, I’ll share with you My Top 6 Run Routes of All Time (well, really just the last 3 years).  It’s both fun and stressful to move around a lot, but there’s nothing that makes me feel quite so comfortable than uncovering that amazing new running route.  Here are my top 6.

(6)  Magdalena Milpas Altas to San Miguel (Milpas Altas, Guatemala)

A good 20 minutes outside of Guatemala City and tucked in the farming hills a few miles off the main road to Antigua, all I had to do was step out the door of my temporary abode on the farm to hit the peaks and valleys of this epically painful run.  Starting with an ascent into the main town of Magdalena Milpas Altas and then dropping off to the river valley on the other side of town, the first mile of this run sees close to 100m change in elevation.  Climbing out of the river valley and hitting the rolling hills of San Miguel, the route would take me pass tiny family farms on the hillsides and screaming kids in and out of school for a few miles before dropping sharply back to the main road towards Antigua.  Doing this route in reverse, then, was the most painful of all, as the ascent from this road back up to San Miguel burns both legs and lungs, and reminds me once again that I’m running at an elevation of over 5,000 feet. Beautiful all the way through, and a nice challenge away from the smog of the rest of the country’s roads.

(5)  Saferoom Treadmill (Kabul, Afghanistan)

I know what you’re saying – how can a dreadmill make your top 6??  It’s crazy, yes, and there have been some truly terrible times on this machine, but it was also a beautiful escape at times from an otherwise rather stressful existence.  Some days when I would get on this thing I would hate every minute of it and wonder why I was even training for an Ironman, but other days…wow.  The long weekend runs, especially in combination with a long bike (the apparatus next to the treadmill…), would give me hours on end to space out, think about the world around me, and sometimes just stay quiet and stare at a wall of sandbags.  Although the treadmill is typically not a friend, the runs themselves were enough of an escape from the sometimes-not-so-fun world around to make the top 6.

(4)  Al Barsha Midnight Loop (Dubai, UAE)

The most peaceful run on the list, I have always done this run in the dead of night, usually starting somewhere between 11pm and 2am.  Dubai is peaceful at night, as traffic dies to only the occasional speed-racer on otherwise vast and empty 6-lane roads.  This loop, beginning across from the Mall of the Emirates and going back into the neighborhoods of Al Barsha 2 and 3, could easily be the scene of a running commercial.  Just me and my legs, the pounding of the pavement (and sometimes sand), and the distant lights of a city that seems miles away just five minutes from the start.  I’ve never felt quite so relaxed as after running this route, and seem to regularly come to a place of peace and quiet just before calling it a night.

(3)  Washington Heights to Tenafly (New York, USA)

From my old home in the north of Manhattan, it was just a 5 minute jog to the George Washington Bridge and an incredible view of downtown Manhattan and the Hudson River.  On one of my first runs over the bridge and off the island, I found that by turning left, there was a set of wooded trails on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River with no traffic or city noise – as if I were up in the hills hundreds of miles away.  These trails spit out after about 1.5-2 miles onto a feeder road, and after about another .5 miles I’d find myself in the heart of the nearby suburbs, meaning wide and quiet roads without much traffic, nice houses, and couples going on evening walks with the dog.  As a single guy in the city, and having grown up in the suburbs, there was a nice peace that came via running through the somewhat familiar and quiet territory.  And living in the concrete capital of the world, of course, any trail running feels like the running equivalent of floating on a cloud.

(2)  Lake Naivasha Southern Road (Naivasha, Kenya)

Giraffes, warthogs, and gazelles, oh my!  Easily the most wonderful recreational route I’ve ever come across, this half marathon out-and-back brings you past wild animals galore, including giraffes just a few feet off the road, the odd water buffalo lounging under a lone tree, and several troupes of baboons cheering you along from the brush just feet from the road’s shoulder.  Beginning at Camp Carnelly’s and turning around at a pond full of flamingos, the people are just as nice as the wildlife, as on at least two occasions I’ve had random company running alongside me in jeans and t-shirt for a quarter of the total distance.  At 6,500 feet of elevation and with some rather sizable hills at the start and finish, this one will take your breath away if you’re not prepared.  But train up, because this one is surely worth it.  Come visit me in Nairobi for a weekend, and this is the first place I’ll take you.

(1)  Al Barsha 2 Utility Field (Dubai, UAE)

Lest you forget amongst the air conditioned malls and 5-star resorts that Dubai is actually built in the middle of the desert, this run will quickly bring you back to reality.  A 15 minute run from the Mall of the Emirates, weaving through the neighborhoods of Al Barsha 2, brings you to a 15-foot wall of sand blocking your view from an expansive field of 30,000-watt electrical lines en route to the heart of Dubai from who-knows-where in the desert.  This open field of sand, blocked on all sides by giant sand dunes, sports 5 sets of high-voltage power lines buzzing overhead across a width of around 500 meters, and runs between two highways for a distance of about 4 km.  Hilly and rough utility truck tracks run between the monolithic power line structures, and only the tallest buildings remain visible over top the sandy sidewalls.  With only desert bush as the occasional vegetation, climbing the sandy wall to get into this sandpit instantly transports you from one of the most developed desert cities on the planet to one of the harshest environments I’ve ever seen – a reminder of the wonder that such a city ever sprouted up from an empty desert.  I have never conquered this run – only tried it on many occasions, each time leaving feeling physically shattered to varying degrees.  Typically running this route in the afternoon heat, this place acts as a very personal mental and physical testing ground for me.  At times I’ve come away broken after just 2 km, and other attempts have lasted as many as 25 km, forcing myself to prove that I could go farther and harder.  It is the challenge and the hurt of this run – and the beauty of a self-cleansing shatter-fest – that keep me coming back on each trip and brings this run to #1 on my list.

This Weekend: Tórshavn Marathon (Faroe Islands, Denmark)

With any luck, I’ll be editing this list after this wekeend’s sure-to-be sufferfest on the hills of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands with my buddy Scott.  Projected conditions are 50 degrees, pouring rain and 22-mph winds.  Not having trained much at all for the race, this is sure to hurt quite a bit, and to finally test my theory that “given a general level of fitness, I think I could probably complete a marathon whenever the need arises.”  I never thought it would be pretty, but we’ll surely test that thinking tomorrow (if I don’t post for a few weeks, please check the hills of Tórshavn…)

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Tórshavn Marathon (Faroe Islands) elevation profile.

Do you have a favorite run?  Let me know in the comments – I may have to come by and take it for a test drive myself when I’m in the neighborhood!

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