On August 12, I race-walked the Helsinki City Marathon in Helsinki, Finland. This race was three days before the Solidarity Marathon in Gdansk, Poland, giving me a rare opportunity to do marathons in two new countries without the trip getting too long.
I started doing research in November. I studied the marathon routes for both races to figure out which hotels were most convenient for the races. Then I did a Google Flights search. I wasn’t planning to book anything yet. I just wanted to know what flights were available, so I could sketch out a tentative itinerary.
I was shocked to discover I could fly round trip from Minneapolis to Helsinki on Delta/KLM for $442. I was expecting the fare to be well over $1,000. It seemed too cheap even for a sale. I’ve heard of fares like that flying to Europe from New York, but never from Minneapolis. Sometimes airlines make mistakes and misprice a route. When that happens, they usually fix it as soon as they discover the mistake. I thought this fare was a mistake, so I didn’t hesitate to book my flight. To get to Gdansk, I booked a separate roundtrip itinerary with Finnair, which has daily non-stop flights between Helsinki and Gdansk.
The next day, I learned the bargain airfare on Delta was indeed a sale. Delta and American were both offering deeply discounted airfares from all over the US to several cities in Europe. I think they were competing with Finnair. That’s when I booked the trip to Barcelona that I took in March. I’m glad I acted quickly, because the fare sale only lasted two days.
At the time, I was assuming I could run this race. That was before I learned I needed back surgery. The surgery was eight weeks ago. I’m recovering well, but it will still be another four weeks before I can do anything high-impact. That includes running.
For the past eight weeks, I’ve been training to walk the marathon. There’s just one catch. It has a six hour time limit. That’s an average pace of 13:44 per mile (8:32 per kilometer). There are also intermediate cut-off times. For example, I had to reach 5K within 41 minutes. That’s an average pace of 13:12 per mile (8:12 per kilometer).
I was a little bit concerned about how intermediate cut-off times would be enforced. They described them as time “from the start.” Did that mean from when the gun went off, or from the time the last runner crossed the starting line? If it took me a several minutes to cross the line, and I had to make up that time in the first 5K, it would force me to go out uncomfortably fast.
Wednesday, August 9
I left Minneapolis on an overnight flight to Amsterdam. I had an aisle seat, so I could get up occasionally. Sitting for too long is bad for my back. I didn’t try to sleep at all. Whenever I try to sleep in an airline seat, I end of contorting myself into an uncomfortable position. That would also be bad for my back. I passed the time by watching movies. I knew I’d be tired when I arrived, but that makes it easier to adjust to a new time zone.
Thursday, August 10
After a two hour layover in Amsterdam, I flew to Helsinki, arriving in the early afternoon. The Helsinki airport is in Vantaa, which is about 20 kilometers from the city center. I could have taken a bus or train into town, but my hotel was about a mile from the city center, and I didn’t want to do too much walking carrying my bags. One bag had wheels, but the other was a backpack for my computer and other electronics. It was within my lifting restriction, but I still didn’t want to carry it any farther than I had to. Instead, I took a taxi. It cost €42, but under the circumstances I think it was a good idea.
I stayed at the Crown Plaza. It was outside the city center, but it was just a few minutes away from where the marathon started and finished. It was also close to the expo.
When I checked in, they had trouble finding my reservation. Then they asked if I was staying there again next week. I booked my room for the wrong days. When I realized I booked it for the days I’m going to be in Gdansk, I immediately wondered if that reservation was also messed up. Fortunately, that one was correct. I had reservations for August 13-16 in two different countries, but no reservations for August 10-13. The Crown Plaza wasn’t sold out, so they were able to give me a room for the correct dates. Then they cancelled the other reservation.
When I got to my room, it seemed unusually hot. The drapes were open and the sun was shining in on that side. I closed the drapes and went to adjust the thermostat. It was already on the coldest setting, and it didn’t seem like there was much airflow from the vent. I was skeptical that the room would cool off much, but I decided to be patient. I was lucky to have a room at all, so I didn’t want to be too quick to complain.
After doing some unpacking, I walked to the city center. Then I began a self-guided walking tour, using a route suggested by a travel book. My first stop was the market square. Helsinki was originally founded as a marketplace. The market square is still frequented by local residents, but it also caters to tourists. There are different sections with different types of goods, such as fresh produce, prepared foods, furs, and jewelry.
There are several attractions clustered around the market square. At one end of the square, there’s a fountain called Havis Amanda. It includes a statue of a mermaid, which has become as icon of the city.
From the other end of the market square, you can see the Presidential Palace.
Two blocks to the north is the Senate Square. In addition to the Prime Minister’s office, you can also see Tuomiokirkko, the Lutheran Cathedral.
After walking around these buildings, I started retracing my route back to the Crown Plaza. Along the way, I walked through Esplanade Park. This is actually one of the smaller parks in Helsinki. I saw several others. Finns love the outdoors, so it makes sense that they’d have lots of greenspace. I saw lots of people walking and even more on bikes. Along the major streets, the sidewalks were segregated into walking paths and bike paths. I had to watch where I was going, so I didn’t wander into a bike lane.
The next sight on my route was a statue of Marshal Mannerhiem, a hero of the Finnish civil war. I also saw two concert halls, the Parliament House, and the Finnish National Opera. These were all along the same busy street. I had to go out of my way to find Temppeliaukion Kirkko, a church built into a rocky hill.
I skipped the Olympic Stadium, because it’s currently closed for renovation. Besides, I knew the marathon route would start right next to the stadium. Instead, I continued past my hotel to walk directly to Sibelius Park. This park is named after Finland’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. I’m familiar with several of his compositions, including his symphonies. There’s a monument in the park constructed from metal tubes of different sizes and shapes. They look like organ pipes.
Finally, I wandered over to Café Regatta. Here, you can end the walking tour with a light meal, while enjoying views of one of Helsinki’s bays. By now, I was getting hungry enough for a more substantial dinner, so I walked back to the hotel.
When I got there, I discovered the room was even hotter than before. I called down to the front desk, and they moved me to a different room.
Finally, I had dinner at a pizzeria that was about a block from the hotel. After dinner, I waited until it got dark before attempting to sleep. Helsinki has long summer days, so it didn’t get dark until 10:00.
My new room wasn’t as hot as the first one, but it was still warm. I had a restless night. I didn’t find it easy to get to sleep until it was almost time to get up. That’s the jet lag from the eight hour time difference.
Friday, August 11
After eating breakfast at the hotel, I walked down to the harbor, which is right next to the market square. You can see most of Helsinki on foot, but there are also several small islands. I took a 90 minute sightseeing cruise that took us around several of the islands. Helsinki used to be guarded by Suomenlinna, a fortress built on three small islands. It was originally built by Sweden in the 1700s, but later it was renovated by Russia.
Most of the islands are residential, and a few have beaches.
The zoo is also located on an island.
Just before returning to the harbor, we got a look at Helsinki’s fleet of icebreakers. They can crack ice up to five meters thick.
By the time I got back to the hotel, the marathon expo had started, so I walked over to Töölön sports hall to pick up my race packet. While I was there, I asked about the intermediate cut-off times. I learned that they allow 15 minutes for everyone to get across the starting line. That meant the 41 minute cut-off for the first 5K is actually 56 minutes from when the gun goes off. I also learned that they would have a car following the runners. I just needed to stay ahead of the car.
My weather app was telling me there was a chance of a severe thunderstorm in the early afternoon. It never materialized, but I stayed close to the hotel until it seemed like the risk had passed. Then I explored more of the city. In contrast to Thursday, when I followed a planned route, this time I was making it up as I went. It gave me opportunities to explore different streets and see buildings I didn’t know were there. It also gave me an opportunity to “people watch.”
Wherever I went, I saw buses, trams and trains. Helsinki has plenty of transit options, but I preferred to walk. That’s new for me. I used to stay off my feet the day before a race. Now I walk every day.
The Finnish National Museum is free on Friday afternoons, but you have to wait until after 4:00. I made a point of getting there right at 4:00. When I was done at the museum, I had dinner at a restaurant that overlooked the harbor.
After dinner, lack of sleep caught up to me. I went to bed earlier that night.
Saturday, August 12
Saturday was race day. Most large European races are held on Sundays. The ones that aren’t are often Saturday afternoon or evening races. This was a Saturday afternoon race. That meant I didn’t have to get up early. I probably slept better knowing I didn’t have to set an alarm.
With the race starting later in the day, I was able to eat a full breakfast, knowing there was plenty of time for the food to digest before the race. I don’t like to start a race on a full stomach. In lieu of a full lunch, I had a pastry and some cocoa.
The race started at 3:00 PM. To get an official time, I needed to finish within six hours (chip time). Additionally, I needed to be done before they closed the finish area at 9:15.
In contrast to a morning race, we were starting at the warmest part of the day, but it would cool off later in the race. That suited me just fine. It meant I didn’t need any warm-up clothes, so I didn’t have to bother with a gear bag. It also meant I didn’t have to worry about my legs getting cold while I was waiting in the start corral. It was 72 degrees when the race started. I would work up a sweat in the early kilometers, but I would get more and more comfortable as the race progressed. By 9:00, it was forecast to cool down to 63 degrees.
We started just outside of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, next to a statue of Paavo Nurmi. The course was two loops around Seurasaarenselkä, a bay in the Gulf of Finland. The first loop included an extra out-and-back section that took us along the waterfront, just south of the city center. It’s a relatively flat course, although there are number of bridges.
I lined up toward the back. I could see the 5:00 pace group in front of me. Even that far back, it only took about two minutes to cross the starting line. As we started moving, it was a bit congested, which limited how fast people could run. I easily kept pace with the runners, even though I was walking.
As the pace picked up, I still kept up with the runners around me. Toward the end of the first kilometer, I noticed the 5:00 pace group was right I front of me. I assumed they were starting slow and would pick up the pace later. Then I saw my time at the one kilometer mark. It was 7:05. Anything under 8:00 was too fast. Anything under 7:40 was way too fast.
I eased up a bit. I could see the 5:00 pace group pulling away. For the first time, some of the runners started to pass me. I checked my watch again at two kilometers. It was 13:45. I actually sped up in the second kilometer. Apparently the first one would have been faster if not for the congestion as we got started.
When I got to an aid station, it was difficult to reach the tables through the crowd of runners. I kept going until I reached the last table. Then I had to wait for a volunteer to fill a cup. They couldn’t keep up with the runners. Does this happen often in other races? I’m not used to being near the back in a large race.
Stopping briefly at the aid station gave me a chance to hit the reset button and adjust my pace. It didn’t work. I subconsciously adopted the pace of the runners around me.
After about three kilometers, we reached a short section over gravel. It was only about 100 meters, but I worried about getting a small rock in one of my shoes. After we got back on pavement, I started talking to a runner from England who’s a fellow Marathon Globetrotter. He was running and I was walking, but I matched his pace as we talked.
Being with a pack of runners pulled me along to a faster pace than I would have walked on my own. Keeping up with the runners was exciting. Actually, it was intoxicating. I kept going at the same pace, even though I knew it was much too fast. I reached 5K in 35:33.
Seurasaarenselkä is surrounded by several small islands. As we worked our way around the bay, we crossed several bridges to get from one island to the next. I was getting hot. I expected this section of the course to be windy, but we were sheltered by trees. I only felt the wind when we were crossing bridges.
I reached another short section on trail. This time I wasn’t worried about getting rocks in my shoes. I should have been. Before long, I became aware of some grit under the arch of one foot. It wasn’t painful, but it was annoying. I did my best to tune it out.
At about 6K, I reached another aid station. I hit the reset button again. This time it worked. We were started up a hill, and several people in front of me were walking. That made it easier for me to set my own pace. I slowed down to about 7:30 per kilometer. That was still too fast, but at least it was closer to my training pace.
Occasionally, we had to step over curbs to move from the street to the sidewalk or vice versa. I’m always wary of curbs when I’m running. I like them even less when I’m walking.
Just past the 13K mark, we diverged from the main loop to begin the out-and-back section. I was still doing about 7:30 per kilometer.
As we got into the city center, we encountered a few short sections of cobblestones. During my sightseeing, I noticed lots of cobblestone streets. The marathon route avoided most of them, but we couldn’t avoid them completely.
At 14K, it occurred to me that if I maintained my current pace until the halfway mark, I could break my half marathon walking PR. I’ve only race-walked one half marathon. I was only 33 years old at the time. I finished that race in 2:34:59 and couldn’t imagine walking that fast any farther. I didn’t walk any other races until this year, so I didn’t expect to ever break that PR.
Continuing with my current pace to set a half marathon PR wasn’t smart. I knew I’d pay for it in the second half. I also worried that I might have trouble recovering from this effort in time for my next race. Still, I couldn’t resist trying. At my age, I don’t get many opportunities to set new PRs.
I saw a runner just ahead of me wearing a red and white striped shirt and carrying a tuba. His shirt said, “Tubaman.” As if that wasn’t enough, his tuba was decorated to look like Big Bird from Sesame Street. I’ve seen some interesting outfits at races, but this one might have topped them all.
As we got close to the waterfront, I finally started to notice a cool breeze. I really needed it. I was hot.
Next, our route took us through Kaivopiusto park. Going out, we were right next to the Baltic Sea. As we left the park, we rounded a corner to enter the harbor. As I made the turn, I saw the Suomenlinna fortress. I actually had a better view of it here than I did on my sightseeing cruise.
As I walked alongside the harbor, I passed a few cruise ships. Ahead of me, I could see the Presidential Palace and the Lutheran Cathedral. Then I saw an ambulance in the middle of the street. On the sidewalk, paramedics were attending to a runner who was lying on the sidewalk. His head was resting against an ice bag. He must have been suffering from the heat. That was a reminder that I needed to be careful. I had been sweating pretty hard since early in the race.
The turnaround was just before the market square. Coming back, we followed a different street. This one had a long section of uncomfortable cobblestones. There were tracks in the street for a tram line. I quickly realized the smoothest part of the street was between the tracks. Unfortunately, Tubaman had the same idea. I had to go outside the tracks as I passed him.
A short time later, I heard spectators with noisemakers. Tubaman responded with a deep bass note. That got a roar from the crowd.
At 19K, I was still on pace for a half marathon PR, but I realized it might be close. I pushed hard to keep up the pace. I was racing like the half marathon mark was the finish. I got there in 2:34:33. That’s a PR! It wasn’t smart to take the first half so fast, but I never thought I would break that PR. I certainly didn’t expect to do it in the first half of a marathon.
After the halfway mark, I immediately slowed down. For the next few kilometers, I averaged 7:45. Eventually, I slowed to about 8:00. That’s the pace I should have been doing all along.
Shortly past the halfway mark, we finished the out-and-back and returned to the main loop. We were entering a busy part of town, but we avoided crossing streets by following a bike path that was below street level.
We finished the loop by going through Central Park, alongside a lagoon, and past the opera house. Then we went past the start/finish area to begin our second loop.
The street we started on was now open to traffic. We began the second loop with a convoluted detour that allowed us to avoid crossing major streets. When we got back to a busy street, we followed the sidewalk instead. That made the second loop seem different than the first one. The first part of the second loop that looked familiar was the first of two short gravel sections.
One of the small rocks that got into my shoe on the first loop had worked its way behind my heel, where I frequently get painful blisters. Earlier it was just annoying. Now it was painful. At this point, stopping to get the rocks out of my shoe was no longer an option. My legs were already getting sore. If I stopped – even briefly – they’d get stiff. I had to just tough it out.
I heard thunder in the distance. The last forecast I saw included a thunderstorm at 9:00. It was arriving two hours early.
As I approached 30K, I was curious to know what my split would be. In my next race, I have to beat a 30K cut-off time of 3:50. In this race, I got there in 3:44 and change. I was struggling to maintain eight minute kilometers, but I liked my chances of breaking 5:30.
I heard thunder again. I couldn’t see the lightning, so I didn’t know how far away it was. When I crossed a bridge, I could look to my left to see the city from across the bay. The sky there was still light. To my right, I saw dark clouds. The storm was west of the city, but which way was it moving?
Somewhere around 31K, it started to get darker. The wind picked up. I had a really bad feeling. Then it started raining. It was really coming down hard, and the wind was driving it. As the rain pelted me, it hurt. Running in this rain and wind was unpleasant, and I still had 11K to go. It takes a long time to walk 11K.
The sky got so dark it was tough to see. I saw runners ahead of me moving from the road to the sidewalk. A car was coming, and they weren’t confident the driver would see them in the dark.
Deep puddles formed in the streets. In some places, the road seemed like a river. Then I started noticing branches on the road. Then a falling branch almost hit me. I had to make a quick step sideways, and I stepped into the gutter. That caused me to have a few awkward steps before getting back into the street.
I was wearing sunglasses. They sheltered me eyes from the rain and wind, but they made it seem darker. After taking off my sunglasses, it was easier to see the fallen branches so I could avoid them.
The rainwater was washing salt from my forehead. As it ran into my eyes, it made them sting. I thought the salt would wash away quickly, but this was a problem for several minutes. Apparently I was sweating much more than I thought. I was no longer in any danger of overheating, but the storm was unpleasant in other ways.
I came to a fallen tree that covered my path. I saw one runner crawl underneath it. Others stopped to take pictures. It was too high off the ground to climb over it, but getting underneath it was uncomfortable.
Soon I reached a bridge where I was out in the open. I could see the lightning now. After a flash of lightning, I immediately heard the thunder. It was close.
Deep puddles were forming on the sides of the streets. I followed other runners onto the sidewalk to stay on higher ground. That just postponed the inevitable. Eventually, we had to wade through ankle deep puddles to get back into the street.
The aid stations were still operating. Things were blowing over, and some of the tables were surrounded by deep puddles, but the volunteers weren’t deterred. They were still smiling and enthusiastically supporting us.
As I left one of the aid stations, I encountered a street that was completely flooded. The only way forward was to wade through eight inches of water for about half a block. Trudging through that water was slow going. I didn’t want to know how slow that kilometer was going to be.
I was worried that the organizers would stop the race, but they never did. When I reached another tree that had toppled over the street, police were there to direct us around it.
With about 8K to go, I saw a runner stop to step under a bus stop shelter. I didn’t see the point. This rain wasn’t going to stop any time soon. When two other runners joined him, I realized what they were really doing. They were abandoning the race and taking the bus home. I couldn’t blame them. If I was a local runner, I might have done the same thing. Conditions were really ugly, and I was still going to be out there for well over an hour.
Two runners from England caught up to me. One noticed my Marathon Globetrotters singlet and asked me which races were my favorites. That was the beginning of a long conversation. I matched my pace to theirs for as long as I could keep it up. That pulled me out of a bad patch and back into a faster pace. Eventually, I had to let them go, but by then the rain was stopping.
I was cold and wet, and my shoes were drenched. I had painful blisters and my legs were sore. I had about 5K to go, and I wanted to get it done as soon as I could. Those last five kilometers were tough, but I could see I would finish in about 5:22.
This race has historically finished inside the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, which was used for the 1952 Olympics. That stadium is currently closed for renovation, so we finished at Sonera soccer stadium instead. After entering the stadium and crossing the field, I finished in 5:21:57. That was also a PR.
After I got my medal and some Gatorade, I saw a woman handing out pickle spears. We collected all of our other finish line food and beverages in a paper bag. You don’t really want to drop a wet pickle spear into your bag, so it made sense to hand those out first.
Other volunteers were offering to spray our legs with a cooling gel. I saw something similar at the finish of the Tokyo Marathon. My legs were going to be sore, so I was willing to give it a try. By the time I got back to the hotel, I could feel it working.
Compared to races I’ve run, this one was slow. Still, it was gratifying. I finished under difficult conditions, and I set two PRs in the process.
After the race, I hustled back to the hotel as quickly as I could. It was almost 9:00 PM, and I still needed to get cleaned up and eat what I could. Then I needed to get to sleep as soon as I could, so I could catch a morning flight to Gdansk for my next race.
This was one of those “what was I thinking?” moments. Why did I book a flight for the morning after an evening race? The non-stop flights from Helsinki to Gdansk are all morning flights. My choices were Sunday morning or Monday morning. Waiting until Monday morning would leave me with less time for sightseeing in Gdansk. It was also a more expensive flight. Monday morning is when all the business travelers are flying.
I knew I’d be hard pressed to get to bed early, but I honestly thought I would finish this race by 7 PM. When I booked this flight, I assumed I would be running.
Even after eating and taking a hot bath, it took time to unwind. I got to bed around 11:00, but I was still awake at midnight.
Sunday, August 13
I got up at 4:30 AM to pack before taking a taxi to the airport for an 8:25 AM flight to Gdansk. I couldn’t pack the night before, because my clothes were wet. I was sleep-deprived, my legs were sore, I had a painful blister.
Do I have regrets about going so fast in the first half of this race? Ask me again on Tuesday.
To be continued …
Distance: 42.2 kilometers
Average Pace: 7:38 per kilometer (12:17 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 338
Total Countries: 25