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A Red Balloon

I’ve always been a bit sceptical participating in big, local races. Don’t get me wrong. I love running Nordmarkstravern in Oslo or Sylvesterloppet in Göteborg. Those are smaller races for enthusiasts by enthusiasts. They’re organized by small, local clubs and accomodate no more than a few hundred runners at most. Running in these races gives you a sense of kinship with your competitors and the volunteers, something that is even more tangible in the mountain and desert ultras we’ve competed in. This as opposed to huge local races such as the behemoth Göteborgsvarvet, the world’s largest halfmarathon where more than 64 000 runners registered for last year’s race (although ”only” 45 000 finished, probably reflecting that it’s easy to sign up for a race but quite a lot harder to actually show up at the starting line). I’ve had a huge problem with that particular race for many years and have never considered entering for several reasons. It’s just that most of those big races aren’t for me.

My wife calls me a snob. And yes, maybe I am. I am very well aware of the hypocrisy that lies in my own fascination of the biggest and most media-hyped race of them all – New York City Marathon. But I must say that the race-expo with all the NYC Marathon-branded stuff made me a bit nauseous. I have a complicated set of rules regarding my choice of races. But the simple rule generally applied is: the smaller, the better. There are a few exceptions to this rule and those are mainly the classic races like the marathons in New York, Boston and Tokyo or Marathon des Sables and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Göteborgsvarvet, Lidingöloppet and Stockholm Marathon have always seemed a bit too close to home for my taste. What’s the point of running marathons if you don’t get to travel to another country – or better yet; another continent – to participate?

But then I moved to Oslo and found that this place is full of lovely local little races just around the corner from where we live. Nordmarkstravern and Grefsenkollen Opp to name but a few. But even so, I had never considered to run in one of the biggest annual events in the Oslo running calendar: Oslo Marathon. You can choose between the ”10 for Grete” (in honor of the great runner Grete Waitz: NINE-time winner of NYC Marathon, breaking the world record in that race for THREE consecutive years), the Oslo Halfmarathon and Oslo Marathon.

Niklas and Charlotte pinning their shirts.

Niklas and Charlotte pinning their shirts.

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As you can imagine, I even surprised myself when I said yes to becoming a pacer at Oslo Halfmarathon last week. Marathon Tim, our head coach for the Run Tough-sessions on Mondays in Frogner, needed a few pacers for the halfmarathon and marathon. ”Will we be getting any balloons?”, we asked. ”I can promise you a big red one each”, Tim answered. Sold! And so it was that I found myself with a red balloon inked with the number ”1.55” tied to my running shorts last Saturday morning. My fellow Urban Tribes coaches Niklas, Charlotte and Margo had also answered the summons and we all met up in a big, white tent next to the starting area an hour before the start of the half marathon. The marathon had started at 09.30 in the morning and as we were changing into our sponsor shirts, a guy came sauntering through the tent opening with a ”3.00”-balloon trailing happily behind him. This guy was apparently so comfortable running marathons that he was pacing runners with capabilities far surpassing my own. 3.00? Not in a million years. Last fall saw me lower my PB with 20 minutes to 3.36 and I’m hoping to manage 3.15 within five years in order to qualify for Boston Marathon. But that’s still a looong way off. Charlotte tied her 2.00-balloon to her waist and Niklas and I picked a 1.55- balloon each before heading down to the start. We immediately drew a lot of attention and several runners started to inch toward us through the throng. The speaker started the countdown for our starting group (number 4, setting out 15 minutes after the elite) and just like that, we were off! Since we were running in the same group, Niklas and I decided to split up in order to accomodate more runners and I edged over to the left side of the street leaving Rådhusplassen behind and passing House of Oslo on my right. There were loads and loads of people, more than I was accustomed to during a race, and I was struggling to keep an even pace jostling between the sharp elbows of my fellow runners. I passed the first km in a bit under seven minutes which was horribly slow since I had to keep a pace of 5.27 in order to finish in time. Running through the streets of Frogner I got even more nervous and picked up the pace quite a bit in order to recover lost speed. Suddenly I felt a soft tug at the waistband of my shorts and a cry of ”There goes the balloon!” from behind me, but I didn’t have a chance to react. I had just passed 2 km and as I glanced up I saw the balloon winking at me before disappearing behind one of the trees lining the avenue down towards Skøyen. Luckily we pacers were equipped with a backup-plan in the form of signs on our chest and back sporting our pace time to give people a chance to follow us in case of balloon failure. So much for bringing my big red balloon home to little Panda. Running past the shops by Skøyen station and crossing the bridge over the highway we turned left onto the asphalt road along Frognerstranda taking us back towards Aker Brygge and the starting line again.

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With the sun warming my face and the wind from the sea to our right, this was easily the most beautiful part of the race. I had written my kilometers splits next to my starting number and could see that I was 30 seconds faster than my anticipated time. Perfect. Passing Rådhusplassen and running below the old royal holdfast of Akershus Slott on our left we followed the quay to one of my favourite buildings in Oslo – the marbleclad Oslo Opera House – before entering the most boring part of the course. For some unfathomable reason or other, Oslo halfmarathon (and Oslo marathon which consists of two loops of the halfmarathon course) here swings down on narrow sidewalks of mindnumbingly boring greyness ducking in and around dusty building sites and throwing loops around parts of the industrial harbour. There are so many beautiful parts of Oslo we could have run through and they choose the ugly industrial harbour to entertain us. Why not introduce a loop around the Royal Castle? Or up around or through beautiful Frognerparken? It would have made for a much more appealing run. I don’t know if they’re worried for the amount of traffic they would hold up or if they have any other reason for not drawing the course through a few more of the scenic parts of the capital, but if New York can close it’s traffic down for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, so can Oslo. Trying to avoid tripping over bike stands by the Barcode buildings on the narrow sidewalk, I forced myself to slow down again since I was now almost 50 seconds faster than I should be running. As we ran up towards Tøyen and the Botanical Gardens I had my eyes on a swivel searching for miss H and Panda who’d promised to cheer me on around there but since my balloon had abandoned me they only found me when I passed them in a blur and only had time to shout a big good luck. I was later informed that my father-in-law Per had indeed dutifully paused his own run and given his granddaughter a big hug before running on with a wave. Some people are too focused on PB’s, my wife hinted after the race. Regardless of my time on today’s race I would indeed cash in a PB since this was the first time I was running a halfmarathon. The hill up to Tøyen was the only vertical excitement I got during the race, the rest of it being almost completely flat. Zigzagging through the centre of town at Kvadraturen, I kept an even pace and as I saw the finish line I resisted an extremely powerful urge to sprint my butt off towards the big arch by the finish right in front of Rådhuset. I passed the finish line in 1.54.42, bringing in my faithful runners with 18 seconds to spare. That’s what I call timing!

I was very pleasantly surprised with my experience of Oslo halfmarathon and would love to run again, maybe the full one next year. This race has made me reconsider participating in the bigger local races. Maybe it’s time to try Göteborgsvarvet? I was sorry I lost my balloon but I was more than compensated with the camaraderie with my fellow balloon racers and my new status as an official pacer. It was a well-organized race with perfectly spaced water stations and friendly support staff. If they draw the course past king Harald’s bedroom window and around Monolitten in Frognerparken next year, then trust me: it would be bested by few marathons in Norway.

I hope I get a balloon next year too.

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