Written by Charlotte Thomas and Emma Lax, UK-based fitness bloggers. They blog at LungesandLycra.co.uk.
Between us, we’ve taken part in marathons, half marathons and 10ks in numerous European capitals. We’ve run through the crowded streets of Berlin, crossed the finish line in front of London’s Buckingham Palace, navigated the parks of Paris, passed canals in Amsterdam and plodded the streets of Edinburgh and Copenhagen.
Torshavn though, Torshavn we knew was going to be different. Europe’s smallest capital with a population of just 12,700, the Faroe Island’s first city hadn’t been on our radar until recently. But, while we weren’t expecting a huge expo or crowds packed 10-deep, it wasn’t until we landed on a misty June evening that we realised just how very different the Torshavn Marathon was going to be.
Located in the North Atlantic, around 200 miles off the coast of Scotland and 400 from Iceland, the Faroe Islands are possibly the most remote and least populated places we’ve ever visited – sheep substantially outnumber people here. They’re also one of the most beautiful.
As we left the airport in our hire car, we were a bit worried. Emma was driving and it’d been a couple of years since she was last behind a wheel. But there were no traffic jams or tricky bends to navigate, just long stretching roads with no other cars to be seen. Surrounded by highlighter green mountains, vast expanses of water and volcanic cliffs with improbable waterfalls cascading over the edge, it was like we’d landed in the middle of a film set. The most used word on our journey to the hotel was ‘Wow’. Well, wow and ‘Oh my God we’re going to die’! That last phrase when we encountered our first tunnel – around 5km long and dark, very dark. It took us right through the centre of a mountain, and rather than being tiled or bricked it was hewn straight from the rock. Like being in the Child Catcher’s cave or an instalment of James Bond.
The most used word on our journey to the hotel was ‘Wow’. Well, wow and ‘Oh my God we’re going to die’!
When we arrived at our hotel, Hotel Foroyar, around 45 minutes later, the slight mist that greeted us on arrival had begun to descend until we couldn’t see more than a foot in front of our faces. But while the mist was descending, the darkness wasn’t – at this time of year, the Faroe Islands only see around five hours of darkness – the effect was disconcertingly eerie.
Next morning, after an exhausted night’s sleep we headed to breakfast to think about collecting our race numbers. Our hotel was set on a hill and the breakfast room had a huge window overlooking the city – well, at least we thought it did, that dense mist was still there, we couldn’t see a thing. But the weather in the Faroes is as strange as the landscape, we turned our back to get a coffee and when we turned around again the morning mist had vanished and Torshavn harbour was laid out in front of us, glorious sunlight twinkling off the water and islands in the distance. Crazy. The morning mist was a recurring theme – we soon realised why the race started at the unusual, to us, time of 1pm.
Collecting race numbers
Collecting race numbers can be a hassle. Queues, crowds and stalls trying to sell you energy gels, pace bands and new trainers at every step. Not in Torshavn. We found the island’s largest shopping centre (tiny) where the numbers were being handed out. Rocked up to the desk and got it immediately, along with a handy Torshavn branded buff and some chocolate. We asked the woman how many people were taking part, “Between the 10km, half marathon, walking half marathon and marathon? About 700,” she said. Around 39,300 less than in my last race, London marathon, then.
With number collection taking much less time than we’d anticipated we decided to take ourselves on a walking tour of the city, visiting the old parliament buildings and ancient houses around the harbour. It was great, but Torshavn is hillier than it looks. Climbing the hill back up to our hotel, calves screaming, we realised a few hours walking probably wasn’t the best race prep. Whoops.
The day of the race itself was stunning. The mist dispersed to uncover weather that was sunny but in the mid teens – perfect for running. We headed to the start in the city centre, no time pens or queues for portaloos here, just a few hundred people gathered together and chatting (700 seemed like an overestimate). It was a friendly, international crowd. As well as Faroese entrants we met people from Italy, the UK, Denmark and even Canada. And as it’s an out and back course, we saw most of them on the route too.
Bang on time we were off, Emma was running the half, I was doing the marathon and both races started together. The course began with two laps of the city, taking in the colourful wooden houses and turf roofs, the harbour with its cruise ships and fishing boats, and passing an old people’s home, the residents lined up outside in their wheelchairs waving flags – the best cheer squad I’ve seen.
I’ve run all over the world but never in such amazing scenery, the sea on one side, cliffs on the other.
After the city laps it was out onto the coast road. And that’s when I really started loving running. I’ve run all over the world but never in such amazing scenery, the sea on one side, cliffs on the other. Swerving sheep and belting down hills, I might have let out a whoop or two. The air was fresh, I could hear the rush of waterfalls and high five the faster half marathoners who were already heading homewards. At one point I had to stop and say to the marshals at the family manned water stations ‘this is just amazing!’ It was as close to trail running as you can get on a road, just you, a few others and nature.
When the turn around point came for the half marathon I was ecstatic, not that we’d covered 7 or 8 miles already, but that I got to carry on running. Whoop, whoop. That happiness didn’t last!
Erm, it’s pretty hilly here
The course then dropped down to the side or a fjord, while it was beautiful, yes, it was also the toughest five miles I’ve done in a long time. There was a vicious headwind and cattle grids what felt like every 100m. While some were bounding across them with ease, my dodgy ankle, badly sprained a few weeks before, meant i had to cling onto the fence and hobble – so graceful – every time I slowed legs my seizing even more.
It seemed to take forever to reach the turnaround point, which was literally where the road ended and petered out into the countryside. Even the village kids cheering and the world’s cutest fairytale church with its sprinkling of ancient headstones couldn’t take my mind off the pain in every inch of my lower body.
Luckily, the wind was behind me on the way back round but then I got to the coast road and realised – you know all those hills I careered down ‘wheeing’? Yep, I had to go up them. And up, and up. If there’s one thing Torshavn marathon is beside beautiful, it’s tough, really, really tough, particularly for legs used to running on the flat streets of London – there’s around 2,300 feet of climbing. At this point I had to walk, save some energy for the sprint finish. Ahem.
Eventually, the sight I thought would never come appeared, the inflatable finish arch. As I crossed the line to be presented with my huge medal, featuring a massive axe, Emma, who’d finished a couple of hours earlier, was there to congratulate me. I say congratulate, what I mean is laugh as once I’d stopped, I couldn’t actually walk. At the finish people were hanging around re-living their race over free fish soup and drinks, I was taking 20 minutes to climb down the stairs. Yes, it was painful but was it worth it? Definitely? Would I do it again? Well, Emma was so high on running by the time I finished she’d already signed us up for next year so yes, I definitely will. This time though, I’m doing some hill work first.