I'm late to the starting line. I'm cold. I'm disoriented from a trip that started yesterday – kind of – in Phoenix and left me 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The pack for the Midnight Sun Run 10K left without me moments ago. I have the road through TromsÃ¸, Norway, all to myself. This is my initial glimpse into the country, a barometer of its personality.
I'm the first to say that I'm not really a runner. I've coaxed myself through several half-marathons, plus sundry shorter races. Yet 10K races have become my way of tapping into the countries I visit. This is my third race abroad; they each leave me with a medal – and plenty of thoughts.
Running Abroad: Travel Tradition for the Active
One morning in New Zealand, I slept in while my wife, Sarah, went for a run. Her path intersected with a local race. She didn't have a number plate or a timing chip, but she followed its route for awhile. And she decided on our new travel tradition – we're going to race wherever we travel.
A half-marathon is barely enough time for Sarah to warm up at home. But during a vacation, that or a 10K is a good distance. We pile the miles on when we travel, taking in multiple hikes that stretch as long as 15 miles. We walk as much as possible in every city. For me, a 10k is a good challenge … especially to keep my time at less than 50 minutes.
We got the plan rolling during a trip to Iceland. We found the MiÃ°nÃ¦turhlaup, or Midnight Run. It's a nice cruise through Reykjavik. The course passes a zoo, athletic fields, churches. Best of all, it ends at a city-run geothermally heated pool called Laugardalslaug.
By the time we ran the race, Sarah and I had embraced Iceland's love for its hot tubs. We saw families and friends lounging in tubs, which they usually followed with an ice cream bar.
The MiÃ°nÃ¦turhlaup also reinforces our impression of Icelanders as cool and laid-back, more so than people we encountered in recent trips. They weren't likely to strike up conversations like Kiwis or Aussies. They wouldn't tell you all the insider spots to visit, unprompted, like a Costa Rican.
And don't expect them to "woo-hoo!" like Americans do at passing runners. Sure, running races prompt wacky spectacle in Americans. Some racers revel in outrageous outfits and costumes. The spectators love screaming at passing runners. If you go running abroad in Iceland, you’ll find the inhabitants are are made of cooler stuff. I heard an occasional golf clap, but that's it. Later, Sarah told me she waved her hands in the air at spectators and gave a yell, which seemed to boggle their minds.
The racers themselves are matter-of-fact. They get on with their run, and save the grins for the pool afterward. When it's time to run, run. When it's time to hot tub, get communal.
A Party with a Run in the Middle
I figured out what happened in Iceland: It exported its love for race hooplah to South Korea.
The Hi Seoul races started off with cowboy boot-clad cheerleaders leading the entire pack in warmup stretches. A news camera crew milled about, noticed me, then shot footage of my entire stretching routine.
And in South Korea, it's never too early or too bright for fireworks. A brace of rockets whistled into the air, and the boom echoed among the tall buildings. The theme to Star Trek: Voyager followed, and the 10k was underway. So if you want commotion when you’re running abroad, this is your race.
The race passed workaday portions of Seoul, far from the palaces, the souvenir shops of Insadong and the carts selling boiled silkworm larvae. It connected to the Han River, and ended in a public park.
As we ran, spectators yelled "Ite!" I can only guess it means "go" or something like it. The race, the runners, the spectators added up to a lively and outgoing experience. At this point, I had been in South Korea for more than a week. It confirmed my impression that South Korea is happy to see you and wants you to have fun ... even if the population wonders why you're here instead of in Japan.
At the finish line, I collected my second foreign race medal – plus a technical t-shirt and a can of spicy chicken. Perfect for post-race recovery!
Racing at the Top of the World
The Midnight Sun Run is the first time I've ever run a race the day after arrival. The previous races came mid-trip, after we'd had a chance to mingle, to form impressions. We slept through most of our first day here; we woke at 3 p.m., which doesn't look much different from 3 a.m. at this latitude.
So, what is TromsÃ¸, Norway, all about? As I start reeling in stragglers, I notice lots of revelers in skimpy dresses. A desert dweller like me wonders how they handle the cold.
The cityscape changes from businesses to homes. The residents line the course, cheering the runners as they pass: "Heja, heja, heja!" They wave, they smile, they clap.
The course drops to the shore. Even in June, snow covers many of the surrounding mountains. I forget that I'm even running, that I slept my day away in a tent, that my timing chip might not even work since I started so far behind.
I cross the finish line, get a finishers medal and settle in to wait for Sarah's half-marathon to start. Her race is a far bigger event, with runners carrying their home countries' flags – quite a few people are running abroad. The Norwegian spectators cheer the foreign visitors, sometimes throwing out a phrase of Spanish or Italian.
And once again, I experience the connection that brings runners together at races. And I look forward to my next race in a foreign country, wherever that happens to be.
My next adventure running abroad will be the Song Hong 10K in Hanoi, Vietnam.
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