After 40 years of running, and winning marathons, our Roving Reporter, Julia Armstrong, knows that things don’t always go to plan…
Helsinki… that’s the capital of Finland, isn’t it?’ one of my friends asked. ‘Why did you choose Helsinki’?
‘Because there was a race there in August and I needed a race to report on.’ Helsinki also sounded lovely from the reports of people who had been there, and I had never been to Finland before!
“I am so glad I did visit Helsinki. It is a modern city, calm and quiet, with a laid back feel. There didn’t seem to be many people around, but it also had a sense of being very alive. Everything was near to hand, because it’s small, like a metropolis village!
“The city centre has beautiful parks (opportunities for running!) It’s also rich with history; several architectural layers and different periods were reflected in its buildings.
“Situated on the Baltic Sea, meant I could satisfy the need for my ‘sea fix’ (back home in Eastbourne, a daily treat). The archipelago that surrounds Helsinki with hundreds of tiny islands is an amazing view – and the day after the marathon I visited the Suomenilinna Sea Fortress.
“But what about the marathon…?
“I had been feeling slightly ‘wiped out’ and ‘not right’ in the days leading up to the race, and had even gone on the race website on the Wednesday to see if there was a half marathon I could change to. The marathon was the only option, so I settled into trusting that my body knew what was required and that these odd feelings were simply my body’s way of preparing! “Ar
riving in Helsinki on Friday, the day before the marathon, I decided to find my way to the Olympic Stadium to collect my number. ‘Catch a number eight tram, it’s just behind the shopping centre,’ I was assured by the receptionist in my hotel. The adventure of finding the number eight tram took a bit of wandering round and asking friendly passers-by, who fortunately for me all spoke perfect English!
“At the stadium, I was struck by the energy and the history of the place. It was created in 1940 for the Olympics, which had to be cancelled due to the war, but the 1952 Olympics was subsequently held there and it has also been the host of two world athletics championships. It’s now the centre for concerts and sporting events. Places hold energy and it is doubled and multiplied by each new gathering, and this spot had good vibes – the feeling of possibility and inspiration.
“I collected my number and enjoyed a quick spin around the expo, buying a water bottle, as my last one had been abandoned at the bridge at the start of the Davos half marathon. Dinner or lunch next – with a two hour time difference I had somehow missed lunch! I sat outside in a lovely restaurant in the warm early evening sun with other diners enjoying a relaxing Friday evening start to their weekend. Then, it was back to my hotel and straight to bed for a very early night. I had been feeling spaced out all day – and a bit sick when I ate, but again I had dismissed it.
“However, after waking up having slept for 11 hours, I felt flat. As I lay in bed, I even promised myself that this would be my last marathon as a way to coax myself along! I have of course learnt never to say never again – but at the time it was a helpful thought! On reflection, it did indicate that all was not well…
“I had arranged for a taxi to get me to the start rather than the number eight tram! I asked the taxi driver about the city and it was he who suggested a trip the next day to Suomenilinna. Heidi and Matt, friends from Eastbourne, were also here, Heidi to run the race and Matt as supporter, and the promise of him at 5k, 21k and 29k was already a welcome thought. I could feel even before I started that I would appreciate some encouragement.
“We had arranged to try and find each other before the start, but this never happened and so as the race got nearer, I joined the masses making their way to the start line with the sound of rousing marathon music all around us. There were 6,400 runners taking part, of which 889 were foreigners from 56 different countries. The race announcer spoke of finishing with a smile on our faces, and of pleasure and of enjoying the race. I liked his words and I hoped my body would respond favourably to them.
“I was feeling very hot, already sweating standing in the crowd. I am not usually affected or bothered by heat at all, and still I felt flat, even though I was loving the atmosphere. An energy and spirit of endeavour and courage was all around, and a feeling of connection, the sense that we were all in it together, all with our own challenges to face along the way.
“The gun went and I found myself stuck behind crowds, which never happens! I usually find a clear route and get into my running straight away. I was free after about a kilometre and tried to settle in, but I felt hot and headachy. We ran past a beautiful monument and then headed through a park, where after 5k of running Matt was standing with his friends Twiggy and Sam – they jumped and cheered and waved a huge Union Jack.
“I felt ill really and like I wasn’t doing myself any good – or doing any good in the race. I began to doubt the wisdom of putting myself through something that would disappoint and exhaust me, and take a lot of recovering from, both mentally and physically…
“I decided to have a chat with Matt at 21k about these thoughts, perhaps I would call it a day this time? Wait for another wave? There is a rule amongst surfers: if you aren’t sure you can ride the wave, if it feels too big, go back to the beach and wait for another day, there will always be another day and you will start to ride the waves with courage and more competence. As I was thinking these thoughts, my groin and left leg started to stiffen and I stopped running – just like that – one minute I was running, the next step I walked and the runners flooded on by me, hundreds and hundreds of them. I’d run 20k of the Helsinki marathon.
“I walked along for a bit and a car drew alongside, a young boy reached out of the passenger seat and handed me a bottle of water, a lovely kind act. There is always support from other people, even in a place where you know no-one, human kindness is evident. Matt then appeared; a familiar and friendly face. He checked all was okay and pointed me in the right direction to find my way back to the stadium, which was about three miles away. I walked back down the road and waited for Heidi to go past. She was running well and looked relaxed and as if she was enjoying the experience. She was of course surprised to see me, but glad it seemed of the cheer of encouragement!
“Heidi ran her first marathon a couple of years ago, in Dublin. She ran 4:02, and so when she lined up for the Brighton Marathon last April, she was full of hope for a sub four – this was not to be. It was not her day and she ran disappointingly – finishing in 4:20 – and finding the whole experience much harder than her Dublin run.
“After she recovered from the race and her sore knees were ready to run again, she entered Helsinki, resolved that above all else she would come to Finland, have a good time and enjoy the race. It looked to me like she was doing just that! “The walk back to the stadium took me an hour and gave me time to reflect. I arrived back to have my chip taken off, feeling clear and at ease, and confident I had made the right decision for me that day. Luckily, after 40 years of competing, I know there is always another race and I have developed skills to deal with the days that don’t go quite as you expect!
“I arrived back at the finish just as the first three runners came in and so went up to the top of a hill to watch. I had a lovely time on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. I clapped and cheered and enjoyed watching people racing to break three hours.
“I found myself shedding a few tears when the women’s winner came in – but good tears. It was an acknowledgment that that used to be me, and isn’t anymore, but that’s okay. I like where I am at, although of course usually I do finish races!
“As the clock approached 3:55, I went down to the barrier in anticipation of Heidi’s arrival. Within a minute she was there, racing around the corner! I was so excited to see her, and to see her achieve her dream... I shouted so loudly and above the noise of the crowd’s cheers that she heard me – she beamed at me and raced down the finish to record 3.56, her personal best!”
A bit about the Helsinki Marathon…
- The marathon was held on August 14th 2010, and this year marked the 30th Anniversary.
- The race starts at 3PM, giving you time to travel either the night before or even the morning of the race!
- The course record for women was set in 1991, by Albina Galimova, of Russia. Ironically, her time of 2:36:14 is the virtually the same as Julia’s PB, set in 1986 (2:36:31).
- The entry fee is from 55 Euros (80 Euros for last minute entry) and includes: t-shirt, a medal and diploma, and free entry to the swimming stadium after the race.
- Next year’s race takes place on August 20th 2011. Find out more at www.helsinkicitymarathon.com.