In January – our traditional holiday season in Australia – some folk I know fly to cold climate countries in search of some good skiing slopes, and to get away from the heat. My friend Rosie Vince took a very long flight from Sydney to Norway with a different kind of holiday in mind: sightseeing in the dark, dog sledding and to look at the Northern Lights. She told me that the town of Tromso is the best place to see them as it is located way past the Arctic Circle.
The other lure for Rosie was to participate in the Polar Night Half Marathon. When she told me she would be running in the cold and dark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with up to 1700 people from around the world and it was likely to be -11C, my ears pricked up. This didn’t sound like your run-of-the-mill competition.
The Polar Night Half Marathon takes place during the Polar Night Period when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Hard to imagine this in Australia during our sweltering summer! It is the most northern half marathon event in the world. If runners are lucky enough they may witness the light show of the Aurora Borealis along the torch lit route.
Tromso was Rosie’ 2nd stop in Norway, after Oslo, then on to Bergen. After that she visited Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Finland (the official hometown of Santa Claus), Saint Petersburg in Russia and Copenhagen in Denmark, travelling by train, bus and boat.
Rosie’s summary: ‘it was bone chillingly cold, exhilarating, breathtaking, awe inspiring, inspirational, fascinating, beautiful and brutal’. The brutal bit refers specifically to her experience in Russia: ‘I found the people to be very stoic but they do have a sense of humour when they relax.’
Rosie made a decision four weeks before her trip that she wasn’t in the peak condition required to do the half marathon. She decided to run the 5km race instead. Though when she actually arrived in Tromso she was surprised how just walking took so much concentration, even with spikes on her shoes. She chose not to run at all as she was worried about slipping on the ice and hurting herself.
Despite such caution, she suffered a dislocated shoulder the night after the race when she was thrown off a dog sled.
Rosie shares her life with her equally fit partner, Dave. He bought her a bicycle instead of chocolates for their first Easter together. They met at the local swimming pool in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district where Dave was the head coach. Ironman and triathlete Sean Kenny trained there too. Dave is still a swimming coach and runs his own swimming and triathlon clubs.
Rosie competes mostly in triathlons. I asked her what her training preparation looks like:
- Running 5 days a week: 12 to 15 km each session; a 25 km ‘long run’ would be added to a session when in peak Ironwoman training
- Cycling 3 days a week: 80 to 100 km each session
- Swimming 3 days a week: 2 to 2.5 km each session
I’m exhausted just typing this! I’m intrigued about what gets inside the heads of elite athletes, what makes them tick. I enjoy fitness and exercise myself, but I don’t have the perseverance or drive to put in the effort that Rosie does.
She kindly accepted my request to be interviewed for my blog:
What do you like about running?
The freedom it brings. And it costs nothing, apart from the shoes. It is a great way to discover your locality on a more intimate detailed scale, a sensory connection. I usually find places for dog-walking for example that I didn’t know previously existed. And running stopped me from getting too fat when I was a teenager!
I hate when I go through periods of lacking motivation. But even when I feel lazy and out of shape, if I can get the shoes on and push myself out the door I soon start to feel great once those endorphins kick in.
Also the aches and pains as I get older (Rosie is 51), and having to warm up longer beforehand – usually up to 45 minutes.
When did your running career start?
When I joined my high school’s running club, Mater Maria College at Warriewood in Sydney’s Northern Beaches district, and the Warringah Athletic Club at the same time. Straight after I graduated, I travelled to the UK where I joined a club at Battersea in London. Three years later back in Sydney I met Dave. During that period I became a member of the Manly Warringah Women’s Athletics Club.
What about injuries?
Fortunately I have only experienced niggling things – sore Achilles tendon and calf muscles. Though they can keep me out of action for up to three weeks. Of the three disciplines I compete in, I have experienced more injuries while cycling.
What opportunities has running given you?
I have travelled to other countries and met some amazing people through running. When I joined the Battersea Athletics Running Club in London I met Olympic Gold medallist and OBE Steve Ovett.
While still at school I competed in the Pan Pacific Games in New Zealand.
Who do you look up to in the running world?
Barefoot runner Zola Budd is my hero. I love her rawness. She runs from the heart, barefoot and gutsy. She was and is an ‘ugly’ runner: arms askew, gangly long legs, mouth open. During the eighties when I was in the UK I was trackside when she broke the world 5000m record at the famed Crystal Palace. The air was electric with excitement and joy. It was a magical time in my athletic life to meet and watch in action my running hero. Zola now lives in the USA and has completed a number of university degrees and she coaches a university track team.
Can you describe the mood in Tromso with all those fit people in town?
It was pelting with snow half an hour before the race. The course looked fairy tale inviting, with campfires and Christmas trees festooned with lights placed at the starting line. The town itself was buzzing with runners and their supporters in the lead up to the start of the event. I can always spot a long distance runner. They have a tendency to look a bit gaunt. Lycra clad athletes were hopping up and down, and a few foreign swear words muttered as people geared themselves up for the race. A big stage had been set up where instructors were belting out commands for aerobic warm ups.
How did you find the lack of daylight?
To be honest four days of darkness – the length of our stay in Tromso– was enough for me. I was starting to feel claustrophobic. I spoke to a local in a phone shop and he said he finds the conditions more testing in summer when it is light all day. Then the town is noisy with seabirds visiting from all round the world. He wants to kill them!
Attend to my new garden. I love gardening. I find it restorative and peaceful. It has taught me patience and to be more methodical. You can’t be the ‘bull in the china shop’ when gardening. What’s not to love when the plants burst into flower, the trees sprout and provide shade and privacy but more importantly those same trees provide shade, shelter and a home to all the local birds. I love the hard, physical, back breaking work that gardening can be, but its’ joy is seeing your efforts come to life and the vision that initially popped into my head actually take shape.
I also want to return to Ironwoman fitness. And start planning my next adventure…