Thursday, July 21, 2005

Trip Report - Faroe Islands

July 12 –19/05
Faroe Islands

Race Stats:
Sat, July 16/05
Torshavn Marathon (3rd)
Torshavn, Faroe Islands
Marathon # 246
Country # 73
European Country # 49
Time 3:38:52
16th OA – 1st AG

Photos may be viewed at

The Faroe Islands. I had heard of them but wasn’t even sure exactly where they were until one of my ‘buddies’ in the UK informed me that they were considered a country because they have a football/soccer team that competes for the World Cup (one of our ‘loose’ criteria used to define a country in Europe). Thus I had to add the Faroe Islands to my list of European Countries.

Where are they? I’ll pass on my geography lesson:
The Faroe Islands are located in the heart of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic at 62degrees N, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. The archipelago is composed of 18 islands stretching 70 miles long and 47 miles wide. There are 687 miles of coastline and at no time is one more than 3 miles from the ocean. The highest mountain is 2883 ft and the average height above sea level for the country is 982 ft!

The first thing you notice when you arrive is the ruggedness and desolation of the terrain – and the GREEN! Everything – everywhere - is green – everything being grass because there are no trees on the islands! The islands have the highest annual rainfall in Europe and there are thousands of waterfalls cascading down the mountains into the ocean. It is very scenic but since there are only 48,000 people in the country and half live in the area around the capital city of Torshavn it is very isolated and desolate. Two of the islands, Streymoy where Torshavn is located and Vagar where the airport is located are connected by a very long tunnel under Vestmannasund. Steymoy and Fysturoy are connected by a bridge – yes there is a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean. The other islands have to be reached by boat/ferry.

The main industry and export is fishing. Tourism is 2nd and there are usually two cruise ships in the harbour at Torshavn each day of the summer. There seems to be a lot of money and everything is very expensive (I was told that Denmark pays each man/woman/child a stipend equal to $10,000 US each year from birth to death – whether they work or not?).

Now that you are an expert on the Faroe Islands let me back up a few days before I arrived on these starkingly green islands.

Since I had to fly/route through London and Stansted airport I decided that I would stay overnight in Bishop’s Stortford to visit some friends. Stortford is a quaint little town (can’t say village because I was reminded that Stortford is now 30,000 people) where we lived for a year while Nicole was working in the UK. Some friends from my old running club kindly offered to host me for a day and take me to the club for the regular Wed night run. It was a very pleasant visit. I had time to take a nostalgic stroll down High Street during Market Day to see if the town had changed. I joined many of my old mates and new ones to run a 2.5-mile club race – the conclusion of a 4-series club race called ‘The Tour de Stort’. After the race we all enjoyed a fine meal cooked at the club and washed it down with good British ale at the Club bar. I wish we had clubs like this in the US? I even enjoyed a 30-min massage from the club masseuse that prepared my legs for the upcoming marathon.
Once again – thanks to Chris, Colin, Peter and all the club members for a very pleasant stay!

On Thu afternoon I departed Stansted for the Faroes. The airport on Vagar is 50km north and west of Torshavn and it is a very scenic drive into the capital. As I described above – lots of mountains, green grass and waterfalls. As I soon learned much of the marathon course was located along this two-lane highway. I had booked a guesthouse in Torshavn because the hotels were fancy/luxury and too expensive. It was only a 10-minute walk from the central bus terminal and when I couldn’t find it I asked a young girl in the hopes she would speak English. She kindly guided me right to the guesthouse – the people are very friendly! It was 9 pm but the Faroes enjoy 19 hours of daylight at this time of the year – gets dark about midnight and light again at 5am! Messed up by body clock as usual. I decided to find a grocery/convenience store for some basic supplies. What a shock – a 9 oz bag of chips $5, coke $2, beer $5, 1.5 L bottled water $3! I don’t know how anyone can afford to live there? Since my room had no TV or bath I felt I deserved some kind of treat to enjoy while I read a book?

The following morning I was lucky to meet a runner/friend I was looking for at breakfast. Jaap – a runner from Holland is also trying to run all the countries in Europe. We had communicated via the Net but had never met each other until this marathon. Jaap is also a ‘birder’ and he planned to stay for a week to do some ‘birding’. Since I had only one day to explore the capital and surrounding area we decided to take a ‘bird’ tour to the cliffs of Vestmanna. These cliffs are on the west coast/Atlantic side of Streymoy and are famous for their huge colonies of puffins. It is necessary to take a bus to the village of Vestmanna and then a boat out into Vestmannasund and the Atlantic Ocean. It was very scenic since the cliffs soar as high as 2800 ft straight out of the Atlantic Ocean. The boat takes you into many coves and grottos to view the various species of birds nesting in the cliffs. There were thousands and thousands of puffins! I took lots of photos and have downloaded them to my photo website for your enjoyment. It was a pleasant tour and a wise/lucky decision because that turned out to be the only nice weather I saw in my 5 days on the islands!

On Fri evening Jaap and Grieto (a friend of Jaap’s from Holland who was running the Half) and I walked to the Sports Hall to pick up our race packets. A pasta dinner was included in our entry fee and although I don’t usually attend these I did eat the ‘free’ dinner since pasta would have cost more than $20 in a restaurant! We also spoke to many of the local runners to get some last-minute details about the race. There were very few foreign runners in the race. There was one other American – a young man from Los Angeles running his first marathon (also a birder). We were the first Yanks to run the race? After dinner it was time to go to bed (in broad daylight) even though the race didn’t start until 2pm on Sat.

I hate afternoon marathons – it is difficult to prepare for them and they waste the whole day. On Sat morning I rose early for breakfast and bad news – the weather was really miserable. It was cold, foggy, windy and rainy. The wind didn’t feel too bad in the town where the buildings provided protection but I figured the 20/30 mph winds would be brutal outside the town and along the Coasts! I also couldn’t decide what to wear for the race?

As I walked around and explored Torshavn I figured that I might have to wear running tights and a long sleeve T-shirt? However by race time the rain had become a light drizzle and it was a bit warmer so I decided to run with only shorts and a T-shirt. I hoped it wouldn’t be too cold along the ocean?

There were about 300 runners lined up in the town center for the start of three races at 2 pm – Marathon, Half and a 5.8 Km Fun Run. The first 5.8 Km was a loop around – and up and down the town streets. Since Torshavn is built on the side of a mountain there aren’t any flat streets in the town! I started with Jaap and the other American. We finished the first loop at a sub 8-min pace in spite of the hills and I warned the young Yank that we were going out too fast. He ignored me and continued on while I slowed my pace. At 8 Km we left the town and headed north along the coast and directly into a North wind.

On our bus ride to Vestmanna on Fri Jaap and I realized that the marathon course followed the highway to the airport and it was ugly. The route had several rolling hills and two BAHs (Bad Ass Hills) that climbed from sea level to about 800 ft in elevation. I had studied the race results for the first two years of the race and figured I would have to run under 3:45 to compete in my age group. The winner had run in the 3:30s! After driving the course I didn’t believe I could beat that time and thought a sub 4-hr finish would be good on this course and in this weather?

I was running along with and mostly behind a female whom I figured was leading the Half but when we reached the turn-around point for the Half at 16 Km she kept going? She must be running the marathon? I decided to pass her. Good idea but much harder to implement. At 20 Km we had climbed and descended both BAHs and approached the first tunnel to the airport. However the route turned right before the tunnel and skirted the end of Kaldbaksfjordur Sund. There was a 4 Km flat section along the Sound to the hamlet of Kaldbak. We had also turned away from the wind so the 20/30mph gusts were at our back for the first time. Most of the runners literally flew along this 4 Km section. I passed the lead female at the Half-marathon mark – time 1:48:07. I was pleasantly surprised! I felt good. I knew I couldn’t run the same time in the 2nd Half but I was confident that I could break 3:45 – my original target?

As I approached Kaldback at 24 Km the lead runners were returning. I figured I was in 22nd place overall (about 60 runners in the marathon) and there was one ROF (Real Old Fart) who had to be in my age group - about ½ Km in front of me. Unfortunately when we made the turn at 24Km we turned back into the wind. It was tough and everyone struggled. I pushed as hard as I could to close the distance between my competitor and me. At 28 Km the lead female passed me again (while I was making a brief pit stop) and I decided I would have to catch her back? We turned back on to the main highway at that point with the wind behind us again but facing the first of the BAHs on the return loop. I made a strategic race decision - I was going to charge up every damn hill to the finish line and relax on the downhills. I started my push. At 30 Km I passed the young Yank who was struggling. At 32Km I passed the other ROF and continued to push up the BAH in the hopes that I could bury him? And I closed to within 100 m of the lead female. However when I crested the BAH and glanced over my shoulder my competitor was right on my ass and charging! Oh Shit! This is going to be an ugly/painful pissing match all the way to the finish line.

I tried to relax and let gravity help me on the backside of that BAH but ‘Mr. Wouldn’t Give UP’ stayed right on my butt and even closed the lead some. And so it continued for the next/last 10Km! I would charge up the hills increasing my lead but he would charge down the hills to reduce the lead. As I approached the last BAH at 38Km I decided I needed to bury this guy once and for all so I gave everything I had to charge up that last BAH! Maddog’s ‘Suicidal High Altitude Training Camp’ had prepared me well for this race. The Faroe hills were easy compared to the 13ers/14ers I had been training on and the really big difference was that there was lots of oxygen to keep the legs churning all the way up the hills! When I crested the hill at 39Km and looked back I had increased the lead to about 300m. But the last 3 Km were slightly downhill so I couldn’t back off. At 40Km I glanced over my shoulder again only to discover that ‘Mr. Wouldn’t Give Up’ had closed the lead again.

Damn – I was hoping he would give up so we could both relax and cruise to the finish line. This SOB just wouldn’t quit! But there was no way I was going to lose a race this close to the finish line. I decided to suck it up – dig deep – ignore all pain – and drop the pace to sub 8s for the last 2Km. I drew on every last once of willpower to focus on that goal and keep my legs moving as fast as I could. At 41 Km I stole a glance back over my shoulder. The lead had increased to 300 m again. I knew I had him! There was no way he could make up that distance and pass me in the final 1 Km unless I stopped! But the SOB still wouldn’t give up?

However the sweet smell of success/victory was enough to get the old bod to produce one final shot of adrenaline – even some endorphins - and I ‘floated’ through the final 1Km in a ‘zone’ – no pain – just a wonderful feeling as I crossed the finish line in 3:38:52! I waited at the finish line to congratulate my opponent on a fine race. He finished 1 minute behind me. I wasn’t sure whether I should thank him for pushing me or give him shit for hurting me? But I remembered one of Maddog’s famous sayings “Pain is only temporary - memories are forever”! And the pain had already vanished so I thanked him for pushing me. However he was not a happy camper – he was upset because he had won our age group the first/past two years of the race and had lost his Senior Title – to an American no less! (Holy Crap! - he was the guy I didn’t think I could beat on paper?).
He soon cooled off and paid me a compliment by telling me that he couldn’t believe how strong I was on the uphills – I had killed him on those uphills! I explained that the Faroe hills were relatively easy compared with the 14ers I trained on in Colorado.

After a quick shower back at my luxurious guesthouse I returned to the finish area for my usual finish line photo and to collect a gold medal for winning the Senior Division (50+).
Obviously I was quite pleased with both my time and performance. The only disappointment was that I had not caught the winning female – she beat me by one minute. I have got to find a way to change this frustrating trend – this is the 3rd straight race where I have chased the winning female only to be beaten by one minute?

There was an official post-race party and dinner being held on Sat evening but it was very expensive so my two Dutch friends and I decided to eat at a local restaurant. I ordered ‘breast of Puffin’ but unfortunately it was not available that day. After dinner and a few well-deserved Faroese beers my friends returned to the guesthouse but I decided to go to a popular local hangout/bar to meet some locals. I joined a group of young Faroese lads and over many Faroese beers (at $10/pint) learned much about the Faroese history and culture that you won’t find in the ‘Lonely Planet’ or other guidebooks! For example the Faroese language has its roots in the Old Norse language from the Viking Age. After the Reformation, Danish became the official language and the Faroese language almost became extinct. It was revived in the 19th century by a famous local scholar and poet.
How did he do it because there were no written records of the language or vocabulary?
The answer was the renowned Faroese dance for which it is necessary to learn and remember a long story. The dance is a continuation of the medieval ring dance that was forbidden in many parts of Europe. Since there is no instrumental accompaniment to the dance only the voices and feet are heard. The scholar collected many of these stories that had been handed down for many generations and from these ballads was able to recreate and reinvent the Faroese language. It is now the official language of the country – and you won’t learn that interesting story in any guidebook! I love learning about the local people and culture even if it can be hazardous to my health (and head) the following morning!

On Sun morning I did make it to the bus station and airport in time for my 12:30 pm flight. But on the drive to the airport the weather was not looking good? The fog was so bad/thick that we could barely see the road? It was worse at the airport! No planes were landing or taking off because they couldn’t see the islands let alone the airport! To make a very long and frustrating story short I sat at the airport for over 18 hours on Sun and
Mon before my flight finally departed at 5pm on Mon. I arrived in Stansted at 9 pm and at my friends place on the south side of London at 11 pm. We ate dinner at midnight and then I had to leave at 7:30 am to take the tube to LHR.

I was very disappointed that uncontrollable circumstances (the weather) had caused me to miss a BBQ and party with my UK mates on Sun night and a pub-crawl through London on Mon night. I had planned those two days in London because I wanted to spend some time with my UK mates because I don’t expect to be back to London for a few years? My European quest is almost finished. I have two more countries left – Bosnia and Bulgaria and I plan to run both on the same trip in Oct.

However I will have to schedule 2 or 3 marathons between now and then to keep in shape – NO – to improve my marathon shape.
So stay tuned for the next race report!


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