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Helsinki

72

16 August 2014 10 min read

So, Helsinki! I think all of my marathon posts begin with how great the cities that we visit are. I have visited Finland in 1997 for the first time, although I didn’t go to Helsinki but to one of the other bigger cities, Tampere. I was 13 years old and it was part of a children’s summer exchange program. I liked it, especially the Sauna culture of course. Then, in 2009 I came back to Finland, this time Helsinki, with my then very new girlfriend of a few months, Sophie! You all know how that turned out. We visited a friend in the middle of winter. It was really, really cold and dark. Still, the city had its charme. The first great aspect is of course the Baltic sea right next to it. Countless little islands surround the city center and its port, which is a very nice scenery. What Helsinki did very well, is making the sea accessible to the people. There is no big industry right at the waterfront, there are parks instead. That’s how it should be. We enjoyed that.

Helsinki is home to people like Linus Torvalds (one of the key people behind the development of Linux), the company Rovio Entertainment (responsible for stealing a lot of the world’s productive time by releasing the app Angry Birds), and a whole bunch of metal bands. Especially the metal band situation is interesting to me, not only because I appreciate some metal from time to time, but I’m also wondering about the cultural reasons behind this. Metal seems to be exceptionally popular in all the Nordic/Scandinavian countries. Why is that? Because excessive hardcore dancing keeps you warm during the cold and long winters? Because people are so full with energy from all the coffee that they need an outlet? That’s another thing, people from Finland drink the most coffee in the world. Having been there in the tiring November, I know why.

Anyways, Finland is an interesting country with interesting people who don’t like to talk that much. But it’s okay, their welcoming personality is still noticeable. This was especially true for our hosts who we didn’t meet. They gave us their flat via AirBnB (a web service that just recently got a weird new logo). A real EU couple, with her being from Helsinki and him from Paris. It was their own cozy private flat, with lots of printed information about everything, maps, culture, the neighborhood, supermarkets, ATMs, shopping. Helpful!

All you need to know!
All you need to know!

A friend of theirs let us in, and he almost immediately stated that he had just been to Wacken Open Air last weekend, the world’s biggest metal festival, right in the vicinity of Hamburg. Of course. We felt right at home here.

The next day, a Friday, we did a small walking tour of the city. The weather was great and I also noticed Helsinki’s efforts to make cars obsolete. If you’re an adult traveling with a kid, public transport is free! So, thanks to Julie and Vera, Sophie and me didn’t have to pay for anything. A very family friendly move. With all those trams, metros and buses, it was really easy to get around.

Me with our two public transport tickets
Me with our two public transport tickets

We were slowly walking around town, having some fun at a public playground right next to a lake, making our way to the marathon expo. Right next to the Olympic stadium we found it. In 1952 this was the center of the world’s attention, as the Olympic games were held in this place. The stadium looked quite small for an event like that, but I guess the times were different. Still, Olympic stadiums are impressive, I think. They carry a lot of weight and historical importance. Everything that unites people, even if it’s just for a very short period of time, has a certain impact on me. At the marathon expo, I saw my name printed on a big wall, along with about 4,000 other registered runners, which was bringing us together this time. Then I got my bib number and the swag bag, which contained weird things like ketchup and mustard, along with a raspberry face lotion. Why?!

After eating out at a nice place, we made our way home quite early, to get some sleep. Getting good sleep is becoming harder and harder with the kids growing up so fast. The next day is Saturday, day of the race. This is a bit unusual, especially the starting time, which is 3:00 PM I don’t care for that, having done one late marathon in Luxembourg so far. You have the whole day to get nervous and waste your energy on other things. Sunday morning marathons are way better. Sleeping, standing up, running. But not this time, so I had some difficulties. Like eating the right meal at the right time to have enough energy in my body. Not that easy, because the perfect time to eat as much carbs as possible would have been something like 10:00 AM – a time when I just don’t like eating at all. I still tried at 12 though, which is still very early for me. After half a plate of pasta I was stuffed. Not good. The other thing is physical exertion. To entertain the kids we went to a playground and Sophie did some jogging. Being on a playground usually means running after Julie, carrying her around, laughing a lot and being tired afterwards. Like this time. Also not good to do this before a marathon.

Full of energy, this girl!
Full of energy, this girl!

Then it started raining, as I got more and more nervous. The next step is going home and trying to prepare for the race, both mentally and physically. I was glad I didn’t forget anything important, at least. So, off to the Olympic stadium in the rain. The kids were both falling asleep right at this point, which was a bit relaxing, to be frank. The party was starting over there, lots of music and speeches, excitement in the air. I was really really nervous this time because of all the mentioned things. Having my running friend Jürgen Penthor’s report about his Helsinki run (German) in 2010 in my head, in which he basically said that the course goes up and down all the time, didn’t help.

You can’t see the nervousness in my face, though. But Vera looks anxious, maybe because Julie is tickling her.
You can’t see the nervousness in my face, though. But Vera looks anxious, maybe because Julie is tickling her.

Thinking about my current level of training, though, I felt quite positive. Just four weeks ago I did a new personal best at the Hamburg Triathlon, in which I completed the 10k at the end in just 50 minutes. That’s almost my all-time best, although I did it after 1.5k swimming and 40k biking. I also ran an alright half-marathon in Hamburg recently and I found the time to got running twice in the last four weeks. This is better that I usually train. And I felt quite alright. So from that perspective I should be fine, I thought.

The organizators were very excited and mentioned the international character of the race a lot. This is something I would personally emphasize as well, as it means people coming together. 54 different countries were represented, including Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, by the way.

About 4,000 runners from 54 different countries wanting the same thing: to finish a marathon.
About 4,000 runners from 54 different countries wanting the same thing: to finish a marathon.

Okay, here we go. When the sound of the gun was heard, something unusual happened to me: I didn’t lose the nervousness immediately, as I always do. I didn’t know why. But I thought it would go away soon. Running felt really good, though. The pace of the people was nice, it wasn’t too crowded and the rain had stopped to make way for some intense sun beams. Sophie was there at KM 6 with the two sleeping girls, just when I had found my rhythm and was getting comfortable. Good timing. The course was leading through the very green city and the very green outskirts of the city, which was beautiful. It meant clean air and not much noise from cars and industry. At KM 10 there was a parked car with the current time on it. I did the first 10k in about 58 minutes, which is a rather fast pace for me. Shortly afterwards I wanted to take a selfie of me in front of a beautiful lake next to us, but a nice guy offered to help me take the photo.

The result was acceptable
The result was acceptable

We talked a bit in English, because he thought I was from Amsterdam wearing that shirt, until we noticed we were almost neighbors. If there is one thing that German people never fail to do, it is not noticing another German’s thick German accent when speaking English. This was true for both of us. He was a nice guy, running 1 to 2 marathons a year just for fun with no particular goal. He suffered from the striking sun and the hills as much as I did, but he had more energy left and ran away from me soon.

My personal fan club at KM 19
My personal fan club at KM 19

Running back towards the city, there is my family again! Always very nice to see them. Julie was still sleeping, but Vera was awake and happy. It still went quite okay for me, legs didn’t hurt, energy still there, but no idea for how long. I should soon find out. But first, there was another car.

Halfway there!
Halfway there!

If you subtract the ~3 bonus minutes at the beginning because of the 4,000 runners having to go through a small gate, I could still realistically do a sub-4 hour marathon. I thought. But now it got harder. I ate the first PowerGel at KM 22 already, very early. My energy started to leave me. It got worse and worse, but I powered through and held the pace. Big mistake. At KM 29 I saw the girls again, I was very fast, about 2:50 h, but at this point I felt like walking. I even sat down with them for a few minutes, in order to get back some strength in my legs and steal some ice-cream from Julie. Both didn’t help a lot. So, starting at 30, I walked more and more. At one point, when I tried to summon some left-over energy and run again, I almost fainted. This is when I said to myself, that this isn’t worth losing consciousness for. I can just walk and be healthy, who cares about the time in the end. I had another PowerGel, but it didn’t change anything. My legs were cramping from top to bottom, and several short stretching breaks didn’t change anything. At one point I even had to lay down on a bench for a while.

Of course I was asking myself what might have gone wrong this time. All the other marathons, even Athens, have been so much easier. Was it the hills, or maybe the late starting time? The sun, the bad eating? Probably all of it, but I think mostly the hard weeks before the race. I couldn’t remember the last day I had real relaxing free-time. We were in London visiting friends last weekend, which was fun, but still exhausting with the kids, the weekend before we hosted a birthday party and I had to do some cycling to practice for another upcoming triathlon, and on the weekdays I was just loaded with work recently. On wednesday evening at 10:00 PM I fulfilled the last deadline right before leaving for Helsinki the next day. And every free minute during the weekdays was filled with the kids. I guess this is how being an adult feels like. Perfect timing that I just turned 30 two weeks ago! I’m not complaining, I like all of this a lot. But now I’m thinking about my priorities a lot. Marathons are probably moving down a few steps. At least these were my thoughts on those terrible kilometers.

KM 35, just seven to go. Literally, to go. There was no way I could run anymore. I had a spoon of salt which was given to everyone here, and another PowerGel, but both didn’t change anything. It’s getting colder now, the day is about to end and clouds are moving in front of the sun. All very fitting. I was sad. Marathons are usually so much fun for me, but this time I felt defeated. Like I lost at something. Like someone took these 4 hours of quality me-time from me. KM 36, 37. I write a text message to Sophie, and she responds with a cute Julie video, cheering me on. I have such a great wife! She was supposed to meet me at the finish line, but because of the circumstances she decided to take a bus towards me. At KM 39 she was standing there with Julie and Vera, being lovely and really helping me. We walked together.

Can you believe this photo was taken during a marathon race?
Can you believe this photo was taken during a marathon race?

My spirits went up slowly, as I realized that losing this race is not the end of the world when you have people like these around you. Additionally, I heard more and more shout-outs on my headphones, coming from you people – you must have seen me struggling on Runtastic, thanks for cheering!

We walked for the remaining 3 kilometers until a helping lady told Sophie to leave the course with the kids right before entering the Olympic stadium. Suddenly I found some strength and ran the last 300 meters towards the Finnish finish, ha.

In front of me: people who finish a marathon in just under 5 hours
In front of me: people who finish a marathon in just under 5 hours

A bad pun for a bad time: 4:57:01, my worst marathon time ever. Still, I finished and got my medal. As I realized that, I got more and more happy and forgot those horrible 12 kilometers at the end. Now I even remember how beautiful the scenery was, when I was struggling so much. The course was really nice and well planned, I just barely noticed this at the end. By the way, right after the finish there was a coffee place, of course. Finnish people can’t get enough of it. I took my finisher’s swag bag full of food (a whole package of butter, for example) and met the girls for an evening picnic. I was happy again.

Post-race selfie
Post-race selfie

After that, we slowly (really slowly) walked towards the tram, I had a burger at Hesburger (Finnish guilty-pleasure fast-food restaurant), and was really happy to have a shower in our flat and just fall asleep at the same time as my daughters. It’s always a good day, when I’m with them. The night was about to be short again, because we had to get up at 5:00 AM to catch the flight back home. But everything went okay, and after being picked up at the airport by tall auntie Vera, we enjoyed our first real free day in a long time, which was great. We need to slow it down a bit, I think. There is enough time in life to do great things, we don’t have to do everything at once. Maybe I should postpone my plans of doing an Ironman race next year!

That’s it, guys. Thanks for reading and thanks for cheering on Runtastic, if you did! This was the race where your cheers made the most impact on me so far, I think. Thanks a lot for that. Until next time, in six weeks it will be Warsaw. Looking forward to it!

Medal and racing number
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Riga Marathon
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Warsaw Marathon