Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Race Report: Tet Riga Marathon

To recap how I decided to do this double, it was back in January of 2019 when I started to do research on a few European races, looking at some double marathons on consecutive days when I found the option of doing a Helsinki, Finland/Riga, Latvia or Helsinki, Finland/Copenhagen, Denmark double. It was going to be two marathons, two days (in actuality, all within 24 hours), in two countries.  A rather logistically challenging feat, but one that could be done.  However, because of the late start of the Helsinki race, I wouldn't be able to make in time back to the airport for a flight to either of the second destinations on Saturday, meaning I'd have to look at options for a "first thing in the morning" flight on Sunday.  SAS had a flight to Copenhagen and AirBaltic a flight to Riga; the Copenhagen flight would land only an hour before its race start, the Riga flight two hours before its race start.  I inquired with fellow world traveling marathoners in the Marathon Globetrotters Facebook group, asking about the reliability of AirBaltic, the flag carrier of Latvia, which I didn't know too much about, and then ultimately decided on that combination for the weekend. The two hour cushion gave me more assurance in case of flight delays or other hindrances.

A completely empty plane!
So, when we last left off, I had just finished the Helsinki City Marathon in Helsinki. With a rather unique start time of 3PM, I finished 4 hours and 39 minutes later, before 8PM local time.  After waiting for friends to finish, I got a train back to my hotel, the Hilton at Helsinki Airport, where I decided to stay because of my very early morning flight the next morning to Riga. By the time I got back to the Hilton, it was nearing 9pm, and with my impending 5:30am flight, I quickly packed everything up and forced myself to sleep.  I woke up at 3:30am, more than enough time for me get dressed for the race underneath some sweats, walk over to Terminal 1 without feeling rushed, and got through security quickly, ready to get on the flight to Riga on time. After passing through the boarding door, the jet bridge quickly took us downstairs to an awaiting bus that drove us out to the AirBaltic plane flying us on the 45 minute flight.  I would run into my friend Paul, who I had spoken with about this trip, but wasn't sure if he was going to attempt to do the same - it turns out, he would!  We sat together on the short flight which had barely 20 people on board; the flight was virtually empty.  We'd arrive early into Riga (before 6:30), with more than enough time to get a cab into the old town to prepare for the marathon start at 8:40 that morning!

I had read that while there was no Uber in Riga, there was Bolt, an app formerly known as Taxify, that could be used to book a cab in a similar way, which was the same app I used when I was in Malta. Upon leaving the airport, Paul and I were easily able to get one of those cabs, and for €6.90, we were in Riga's historical centre, known as Vecrīga (literally "Old Riga"), where the cab had brought us within a short distance of my hotel, the Hotel Justus.  The cab driver was a little concerned with getting into Riga because of road closures due to the marathon, but having researched on the Riga Marathon website, the Akmens Bridge was going to be open for cars getting into the old city, but not out, at that early hour. It was 7am, and I still had more than an hour and a half before the race would start.  After dropping my bag, I went to pick up my bib from my friend Bernadette's hotel, just across Cathedral Square (Doma laukums), where she had left it with the concierge.  I still had quite a bit of time to spare, so I headed back to my hotel and used the time to upload some photos from the Helsinki part of my trip using the hotel's WiFi, before heading out to the November 11th Embankment (11. novembra krastmala) for the race start.

The start line!
It was a beautiful morning in Riga with temperatures similar to that in Helsinki the previous day, as half marathon and marathon runners began to assemble on the street prior to the race.  We were located right next to the Daugava River, the river that flows right through the center of Riga, which we'd be crossing multiple times over a number of bridge crossings in the city. The atmosphere was electric; the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), international governing body for athletics, had just named the 2019 edition of the Riga Marathon as a Gold Label Road Race, the first Northern European marathon to join the league of the world's most prestigious races, which includes Berlin, Tokyo, New York, Prague, Amsterdam, Vienna among many others. In 2018, only 36 marathons worldwide were allowed to use the IAAF Gold Label (of which only 11 were in Europe).  Prior to this year, the race spent six consecutive years as a Bronze Label Road Race. The race has been around since 1991, and is one of the fastest growing marathons in Europe.

Bernadette and I at the start
With some great music pumping up the crowd, announcements were made in Latvian, with a few in English as well; but it was truly an international race, as they spent a bit of time welcoming runners from the many different countries being represented in that morning's race, saying a phrase or two in their native language.  I ran into my Bernadette while waiting for the race to start, thrilled to be able to see her and thank her for helping me with getting my bib, as I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to see her at all over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, we were off, heading north along the wide multi-lane road.  I ran alongside a group of rather cheerful Spaniards as the route ran alongside the Daugava, turning into Eksporta iela, before veering right onto slightly narrower treelined Elizabetes iela.  All the while, the route was quite crowded, with many runners jockeying for position.  The legs were doing fine, but I was running noticeably slower than the day before.
Treelined Elizabetes iela
The Three Star Tower in the distance
We eventually turned right about 1.25 miles in, turning onto Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, Riga's main street, passing by a number of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, including the Latvian National Museum of Art (Latvijas Nacionālais mākslas muzejs), the Art Academy of Latvia (Latvijas Mākslas akadēmija), and Latvian National Theatre (Latvijas Nacionālais teātris).  As we continued down the street, we could Riga Castle's (Rīgas pils) prominent Three Star Tower piercing the air.  The road shifted slightly, and all of a sudden, the 358 foot tall concrete pylon of the Vanšu Bridge (Vanšu tilts) came into view.

The leaders of the race!
We began to ascend the bridge's span, making our way past Riga Castle, as the pylon became the dominant figure directly in front of us.  We hit the second mile of the race as we made or way over, passing by its array of cables, which were each covered by an entanglement of barbed wire, in order to prevent people from attempting to climb them. As we made our way over the span, I took advantage of the slight downhill, as we made our way down an offramp onto the neighborhood of Ķīpsala, on the same named island, on the left bank of the Daugava. The route took us up Ķīpsalas iela, the main road of the island, as faster runners began to make their way toward us, having completed the loop on the north end of the island.  We were largely surrounded by a mix of traditional and more modern residential buildings as we made our way further north. After turning right onto the slightly uphill Enkura iela, and then left onto Ogļu iela, I hit the 5K mat in just under 34 minutes, quite a bit slower than yesterday.  And within that amount of time, the temperatures already felt like they were beginning to warm up.
Vanšu Bridge before the 5K mark
Quiet residential area on Ķīpsala Island
It was pretty narrow as we made our way up this street, before turning onto a small street where an aid station was located, then turning left onto Matrožu iela, curving its way to Zvejnieku iela, which eventually became Ķīpsalas iela making our way back toward the road coming off of the Vanšu Bridge. When we got back to Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, we veered right, taking the onramp back onto the wide four-lane street, continuing westward.  Faster runners were coming back along the other side of the street, which was separated by a metal barricade, which only meant the turn around point (which was not immediately visible), was not too far away.  Looming over us to our left were a pair of 30-story cylindrical towers, a high rise luxury condominium known as Z Towers.

Back across the Vanšu Bridge!
The route took us back over the Vanšu Bridge, giving us our first real view of the Riga skyline, with all of the old town's church steeples being beautifully lit by the morning sun. After crossing the bridge, we continued along Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, passing by a legion of camouflage-clad men and women, sporting badges from various countries, actively manning an aid station for the runners.  This was also where I noticed that in the four aid stations we had passed so far into the race, each one of them not only had water and energy drink, but also LOTS of bananas and oranges (some even so largely cut, they were hard to bite!)  It was then I realized... it helps to have one of your race's major sponsors be THE major supermarket retailer in the country, Rimi Baltic.

The most festive part of the race!
We turned right onto Zigfrīda Annas Meierovica bulvāris, the first boulevard of Riga, which ran alongside the City Canal (Pilsētas kanāls), the city’s old moat, which once protected the medieval interior from invaders.  We would be on here just for a short period of time, passing a couple of the beautiful canalside parks.  Along the way, we crossed the 10K mat - for me, in about 1:08 - before we reached Freedom Square (Brīvības laukums). Locals dressed in traditional Latvian dress were dancing and cheering on the runners as we ran by, giving out high fives as they stood on platforms above the runners.  In front of us was the Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis), a 138 foot tall memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, an important symbol for the country, and often serves as the focal point for public gatherings and official ceremonies in the country.  So it was fitting to have it be a prime centerpiece for the race!
The Freedom Monument
Nativity Cathedral
As we ran past the monument, we were on Brīvības iela, the central street of the Latvian capital.  Historically, the street was the beginning of an important trade route, and now we were running along it on as an out-and-back. Along the way, we'd pass the Nativity Cathedral (Kristus Piedzimšanas pareizticīgo katedrāle), the main Russian Orthodox cathedral in Riga; the Palace of Justice (Latvijas Tiesu pils), home of the Supreme Court of Latvia, of the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia and the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice; St. Gertrude Old Church (Vecā Svētās Ģertrūdes Evaņģēliski luteriskā baznīca), the parish church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, long associated with Riga's German ethnic community; and the bright yellow and green St. Alexander Nevsky Church, a wooden church originally constructed in the 1820s.  Some of the city's notable Art Nouveau style architecture could be seen along this street as well, which we ran along clear to Stabu iela and the "Corner House," a former building of the KGB of the Latvian SSR during the second Soviet occupation of Latvia, now home to an exhibition on the KGB operations in the country, as part of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
St. Gertrude Old Church
Laima Clock
House of the Black Heads
We returned along the other side of the road past the Freedom Monument past the Laima Clock (Laimas pulkstenis), a landmark advertising local chocolate brand Laima that has been known as a meeting place since it was erected in 1924, so people wouldn't have an excuse for being late to work.  We then crossed the street over to Kaļķu iela, a cobblestoned street running right through the middle of the busy old town of Riga.  Barricaded to give us exclusive access to the road, we made our way through as the pavers changed from smooth to slightly uneven,and emerged at the Rātslaukums, Riga's Old Town Square, as we passed Riga City Hall (Rīgas dome) and the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju nams), the landmark, Gothic style building, once home to a guild for merchants, shipowners and foreigners, and now a fascinating museum.

Akmens Bridge and the National Library
Once we reached the riverside, we finally left the cobblestones behind, but now crossed the Daugava River once again, this time over Akmens Bridge (Akmens tilts), making our way across the span and rounding the offramp onto AB dam, a dam built in the 1880s to save Riga from excessive flooding.  The dam was rebuilt in the 1960s after thwarted attempts to blow it up and now serves as a backdrop for international concerts, festivals and community activities. We ran along its length, making our way past a monumental flagpole bearing a huge 20 meter x 10 meter Latvian flag, with its distinctive carmine red bands surrounding the central band of white. We reached the 15K mat in just under 1:40, as we made our way down the length of the dam, and now under the Akmens Bridge.

Mūkusalas iela, with the TV tower
Now running south along Mūkusalas iela, the road along the Daugava River's western shore, we made our way past a very modern building, the National Library of Latvia (Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka), built by renowned Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts in 2014.  The building's design evokes a "crystal mountain," symbolizing the height of achievement – something not easily attainable but full of rewards for those who make the commitment to reach its peak. As we continued down the flat road, the heat began to take its toll on us, reaching the 70s.  We could see the easily recognizable Riga Radio and TV Tower (Rīgas radio un televīzijas tornis), situated on Zaķusala Island, the massive 1,207 foot tall tower that is the tallest in all of the EU, but the third tallest in Europe (less than the Ostankino Tower in Moscow, Russia and Kiev TV Tower in Kiev, Ukraine)

Krasta iela, heading north
Eventually, we made our way up a ramp toward the roadway taking us across another bridge, the Salu Bridge (Salu tilts), which first crossed over Lucavsala Island and its largely pastoral surroundings, and eventually over Zaķusala Island.  As we were running along one side of the multi lane road, the other side was already choked with busy traffic, additionally dealing with some mundane road construction providing for a rather dusty environment as we made our way across the river. When we finally made it back to the east bank of the river, we made our way down the ramp to Krasta iela, one of the largest streets in the city, heading north back toward where we had started. After another mile, the half marathoners running alongside us joyfully crossed the finish line, while us full marathoners continued on; I'd reach the halfway point of the race in just over 2:24.  It was a considerably thinner crowd of runners continuing on, along the part of the road we ran early on in the race during the start.
Very lonely on Riga's streets during the second half of the race
The hooklike out-and-back in Skanste
Only a couple other marathoners were in my line of sight in front of me, as we followed Eksporta iela north, passing where we had turned off a couple hours ago near the start of the race, and instead turning left a few blocks north at Hanzas iela, as it skirted the Viesturdārzs park, the oldest park in the city.  We continued east, as we made our way to a long hooklike out-and-back section of the course that would take us to the neighborhood of Skanste, northeast of the city center.  Skanste is known for being one the most modern parts of the city, largely populated by office towers, sports infrastructure complexes and high rise residential buildings.  From Hanzas iela, we veered left onto Skanstes iela, taking the course around past large swaths of land ripe for development, before turning right onto Zirņu iela, right onto Vesetas iela, and then looping ourselves around toward the area's huge Elektrum Olympic Center and Arēna Rīga sports complexes, where our turnaround point was located.  This was one of the most boring parts of the course, devoid of crowd support, and largely put in place to add up the mileage - some 4.25 miles out, and 4.25 miles back.  By the time we returned to Hanzas iela, and made our way back toward the Old Town, we were nearly 19 miles into the race.

One last view of Z Towers in Ķīpsala
Once back near the city center, we turned left onto Pulkveža Brieža iela to bring us back to Elizabetes iela, the 19th mile of the race.  We'd follow familiar streets for the remainder of the race, heading back over the Daugava River along the Vanšu Bridge for the third time, this time with the sun blaring down on us as trudged over the river once again.  We disembarked back onto Ķīpsala, following the same roads we ran down early on in the race, returning back to the bridge span, but now seeing thousands of runners on an out-and-back -- these were the participants in the 10K race that began at 12:30, four hours after our start.  While I was approaching the 4 1/2 hour mark of my race, they were only halfway through theirs, and once we joined them on Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, we would veer a bit further to our turnaround point past the Z Towers.  The only peace of mind was that I only had three miles left in my race once we reached the turnaround-- and that it wouldn't be so lonely again on the course, as the 10K route would be joining the marathoners all the way to the finish line.
One last crossing of the Vanšu Bridge
Struggling through the 40 km mark
One last crossing of the Vanšu Bridge took us back to through the Old Town, and we were led back toward the Freedom Monument, to follow Brīvības iela for the last out-and-back of the race.  Back through the old town and those perilous cobblestones along Kaļķu iela, and we were within striking distance of our finish line.  I finally crossed with a finish time of 5:23:05.  It was considerably warmer, and I definitely felt the heat take its toll on me over the last two hours of the race.  The temperatures had reached 81° by the time I finished, a marked difference compared to the high 60s in Helsinki the day before. Getting only four hours of sleep between races probably didn't help either!

Local food!
Marathoners were led directly to an exclusive "finishers' lounge" in a cordoned off area near the finish after receiving our medal.  The unique medal was one of the big draws of this race for me; its beautiful design, reminiscent of the arcade game Q*Bert, was created by Latvian artist Artūrs Analts. Per the artist: "I created a medal for each distance with one unifying element: a cube. The cube structure reflects the process - systematic physical and mental work to prepare for the goal. Each cube represents one kilometer, and together they make up the medal’s shape - the distance. The medal is an optical illusion, an impossible journey, as a marathon can sometimes be. The path of this cube can be run in different ways, symbolising each runner’s uniqueness, unrelenting training process and willpower." In the lounge, we were treated to a truly fantastic way to celebrate my Riga Marathon finish... local food!  Prepared for me was oat porridge (auzu pārslu putra) with cowberry sauce (similar to the Swedish lingonberry) - and some buttered rye bread (rupjmaize)!
Showing off my newest bling!
A Victory Headstand with the Vanšu Bridge!
House of the Black Heads ballroom
After getting my headstand photo, fittingly with the Vanšu Bridge in the background (after all, I crossed over it four times!), I walked back to my hotel for a much needed shower and a 90 minute nap! I woke up to grab some food but also explore what I could of Riga before the end of the day, walking over to the House of the Black Heads, originally built in 1334, and checking out its fascinating exhibits on a self-guided tour: the historical cellar, the only original part of the building which survived World War II and the Soviet occupation, housing a wine cellar, a hypocaust (hot air furnace), and several exhibits relating to trading in Riga; the sumptuous grand ballrooms, rich with beautiful paintings (including a ceiling painting, the “Apotheosis of St. Maurice,” considered a masterpiece of decorative and monumental art), crystal chandeliers, and replicas of 19th century chairs and sofas; as well as the historical cabinetry housing silverware and snuffboxes that once belonged to the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, a merchant guild active during medieval times.

Baltic Sea caught pike perch!
Dinner followed, and I headed to Restorans Zila Govs, which touts a more modern twist on Latvian cuisine.  While I prefer more "mom and pop style" food, I was drawn to this restaurant due to its presentation and relative affordability.  It seemed that more restaurants in Riga designed their menus to cater to more "refined" tastes. I enjoyed a version of the national dish, pelēkie zirņi ar speķi, a stew of grey peas with speck. Their version was a yellow pea mash with speck and some toasted rye bread. I followed that with beetroot soup, better known to many as #borscht (though I never caught the Latvian word for it...) and finally, for a main dish, a delicious pike perch fillet, locally caught in the Baltic Sea.

The Cat House
The Three Brothers
I had a bit of time to explore near the restaurant, so I checked out some other local sites such as the the Three Brothers (the oldest dwelling homes in the entire city, dating back to as early as the late 15th century) and the Cat House (with its two cat sculptures, with arched backs and raised tails, on its roof.) Legend has it that a disgruntled tradesman who was not accepted into the Big Guild, built this house and put the cats on it with their tails pointing towards the Big Guild, thus expressing his scorn. I also stopped into a souvenir shop that sold Latvia's national liqueur, black balsam -- supposedly, it’s also a good cold remedy - no wonder it has a very “cough syrup” like taste, especially the cherry variety - and used to treat digestive problems (though there are no epidemiological studies which back these claims up.) I much preferred the cream liqueur version, as it tasted like Bailey's!
Various types of Black Balsam, Latvia's national beverage
What a sunset!
Before the sun went down, I went on a little excursion to find a memorial a little outside of the city center.  While I had an impressive sunset as I crossed the Akmens bridge in a bus headed toward the memorial -- complete with the Swedbank Latvia headquarters (the tallest building in Latvia at 397 feet tall), the nearly 200-foot tall Latvian flag on the AB dam, and the Vanšu Bridge in the distance -- my ultimate destination was quite the sight when I finally reached it.  The Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army (Uzvaras Piemineklis) consists of a tall concrete obelisk adorned with five golden stars symbolising the five years of World War II, with massive bronze statues of Mother Russia and soldiers advancing with their weapons raised on either side. It was erected in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet Army's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The flowers surrounding the monument were placed there only a few days before, on May 9, Victory Day in Russia, commemorating the surrender of the Nazi Germany in 1945. The monument remains a controversial subject, as many ethnic Latvians regard it not only as a symbol of Soviet victory in the Second World War, but also of the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia.  It was completely empty when I visited, so I was able to get some really interesting photos - the first time for me to visit a Soviet style monument!  I headed home to crash, and ready to explore for the limited time I had the following morning.
The controversial Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army (Uzvaras Piemineklis)
Riga Central Market
After breakfast, I left my bags with the front desk and checked out, but gave myself ample time to check out more of Riga that I could before catching a cab to the airport.  I walked down to the Riga Central Market, the central and largest market in the city. First opened in 1930, it was the largest and most advanced market in the world, with an area of 72,000 square meters, and is still one of the biggest markets at least on the European continent. Fresh produce, including seafood, meat (mostly pork), vegetables, breads, and cheeses make up much of the market’s haul, which receives upwards of 160,000 visitors on its busiest days.  It wasn't as busy today, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere, and even sampled a bit of the food being sold!

"Stalin's Birthday Cake"
Nearby was the Latvian Academy of Sciences building (Latvijas Zinātņu Akadēmija), located in the Riga suburb of Maskavas Vorstadt. It is the official science academy of Latvia and is an association of the country's foremost scientists. Nicknamed locally with scorn as “Stalin's Birthday Cake,” it was built after World War II between 1951 and 1961, collecting the necessary financing from the newly established kolkhozes (a form of collective farm in the Soviet Union, a component of socialized agriculture) in the former Latvian SSR and – as further expenses increased, collecting the finances as "voluntary donations" deducted from the salaries of the Latvian rural population. The building is decorated with several hammer and sickle symbols as well as Latvian folk ornaments and motifs. The spire was originally decorated with a wreath and a five pointed star, which was removed after Latvia regained independence in 1991.
A view into Old Town from the balcony of the Latvian Academy of Sciences
View toward the Riga TV Tower
Being 354 feet tall, it was the first skyscraper in the republic and was the tallest building in the country until the construction of the Swedbank Latvia headquarters, and at the time, one of the highest reinforced concrete buildings in the world. It is a “cousin” to similar Stalin-era skyscrapers, which were representative of what became known as Stalinist Architecture (sometimes referred to as Socialist Classicism). The architecture of the skyscraper resembles many others built in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries at the time, much like Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), which I visited in April. The view of the Riga cityscape is open for public viewing from its 17th-floor balcony.

Dome Cathedral
One last stroll through Riga’s Old City took me past the Riga Cathedral or Dome Cathedral near my hotel (one of the most recognizable landmarks in Latvia), St. Peters Church, St. James Cathedral, the Latvian National Opera, and more examples of the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and the quaint cobblestoned streets that bring so much character to this charming city. Before long, my time was up and I had to head to the airport for my flights returning home to New York through London.

Riga Airport has no direct flights to Heathrow, only ones with connections. They do, however, fly to London’s other airports, including an AirBaltic flight to Gatwick (LGW). When I booked my flights for this trip at the beginning of April, I begrudgingly added the RIX-LGW segment, knowing I would have to figure out the Gatwick to Heathrow connection, which could be via taxi or bus (direct, but at the mercy of extremely unpredictable London traffic at rush hour) or via train (through central London). For sheer frugality, I booked a bus fare with National Express, and also a Premium Passport Control (basically “Fast Track” since I'd be exiting the airport in London) for peace of mind.

The closer this travel weekend came, the more nervous I got with that connection, so I decided to use some points on a cheap Lufthansa flight taking me from Riga to Heathrow via Frankfurt. It would leave prior to the AirBaltic flight.  I got to the Riga airport, and got through security fairly quickly with my Lufthansa boarding pass, and proceeded to the Priority Pass lounge. While sitting there, I get a notification that the second segment of my Lufthansa flight, from Frankfurt to Heathrow, was suddenly cancelled. So I decide, “I still have the AirBaltic flight (which leaves two hours after the Lufthansa flight), why not get on that,” so I check in. I get on the phone with Chase to get the Lufthansa flight refunded because of the “short term involuntary change” from Lufthansa. However, they’re unable to process a refund at that moment because it’s 6am in the US, and their Lufthansa agents who could issue them a waiver are not available for several more hours.

Literally 20 minutes before the Lufthansa flight was to leave, I get a notification that I’ve been rebooked on an earlier FRA-LHR flight that leaves me only 55 minutes to connect upon arrival in Frankfurt. I realize that this was totally not going to happen. I headed to the Lufthansa gate to double check with the agents there, and they’re a bit skeptical, too. So, as boarding was happening, I quickly decide to not get on that flight.

Flying home!
I watch the Lufthansa flight leave the gate (mind you, fifteen minutes LATE!) while I wait for the AirBaltic flight to Gatwick.  I board that flight and we end up leaving a few minutes early and arrive in London a few minutes early! Immigration also ends up being a breeze - I didn’t even have to use the Premium Passport Control pass, but I do anyway, since I paid for it. I even get on an earlier National Express bus and traffic is not terrible at all. I get into Heathrow nearly two hours before my flight and after navigating through the terminal and fast track security, I end up being able to spend a good 45 minutes to relax in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, even fitting in a complimentary express facial at the spa, and even a quick bite and a mojito. I got on my flight home to New York on Virgin Atlantic, glad to use one of my Global Upgrade Certificates to upgrade into Business Class... though unfortunately, I'm booked on an A340, one of the airline's oldest planes in its fleet (about 14.5 years old) that didn’t have WiFi, touchscreens or USB ports. The pilot even announced over the PA: "yeah, this plane is being retired in a few months."

Accomplished weekend!
Despite that, the trip home was very comfortable, and I got to make use of the lieflat seats, a delicious catered dinner, and the onboard bar, where I got to drink and socialize with a couple other passengers who were trying to shock their systems back into Eastern time zone!  I came home knowing I accomplished a unique feat: two marathons, two consecutive days, in two countries (Finland and Latvia) and all within 24 hours, from the start of the Helsinki City Marathon at 3pm on Saturday to my finish of the Riga Marathon at 2pm on Sunday!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Race Report: Helsinki City Marathon

In January 2019, I began to do research on a few European races, even looking at some potential double marathons on consecutive days. I started to look at the possibility of doing the Helsinki City Marathon on Saturday in Helsinki, Finland and the Riga Marathon on Sunday in Riga, Latvia, two races in two countries - but with a unique situation as the Helsinki race starts at the fairly odd hour of 3:00 in the afternoon.  By the time I'd finish that race, there would be no flights available until the next morning to go to Riga, and if I booked the first flight of the day on Sunday (a super early 5:30am flight), it would be landing at potentially less than two hours before the start of the marathon there.  It would amount to running two marathons with a 13-14 hour break in between, which partly would be sleep and partly getting to and from my destinations.

I decided to make the decision to do both races a few months later, and had my long haul flights booked to and from London Heathrow: leaving Thursday evening from JFK and arriving the following day; and a return flight home to New York on Monday evening.  I would book the shorter haul flights from London to Helsinki, Helsinki to Riga, and Riga back to London separately - ultimately choosing to do so with a bit of frugality - the flight to London to Helsinki was cheapest with KLM, so I still ended up flying through Amsterdam, but I would get SkyMiles; and then I ultimately booked Helsinki to Riga and Riga to London with AirBaltic on a multi-stop trip. For accommodations in Helsinki, I decided to book the Hilton at the Helsinki Airport for two nights, which was about half an hour from town - the equivalent of being on the train from home to work for me; it made sense, so 1) I wouldn't have to change hotels over two nights, and 2) I would not have to worry about having to get up super early for my flight to Riga on Sunday morning.

The flight to London was like most of my flights from JFK to Heathrow, pretty unmemorable; though, I did not have my ideal choice of seat in getting there, having to sit on the aisle.  I managed about 4 1/2 hours of sleep on the flight, then upon landing, made my way to connections where I had to board a bus from where we landed in Terminal 3 to Terminal 2, then disembarking to continue on to Terminal 4, where my flight on KLM would depart.  Terminal 4, which I've actually never been to before, is on the other side of the two parallel runways that serve the airport, so the airside bus connections took a little bit of time being able to cross it, waiting for departing and arriving planes to go through before we were allowed to cross.  Still, when I finally got to Terminal 4, I still had about half an hour before boarding, so I got to enjoy the rather soulless SkyTeam Lounge located here for a little bit before getting on the plane to Amsterdam.  As expected, it was a quick flight across the channel to Schiphol Airport, and despite a lengthy line at passport control, I was able to move to a much quicker line to get to my connecting gate for my flight onto Helsinki, which still allowed me to use the KLM Crown Lounge before that flight.  I caught up on a bit more sleep on both flights as we made my way to my final destination.

Arriving at the Helsinki Airport
We arrived in Helsinki at 4:30pm, and I quickly got checked into my hotel room at the Hilton Helsinki Airport, where I quickly showered and got changed so I could feel refreshed from the 14 hours of traveling via airplanes and airports I just completed.  The airport is located in the city of Vantaa, roughly 10.5 miles north of Helsinki's city center, but is easily connected via a railway link that just opened in mid-2015 that takes roughly half an hour of travel.  Overseen by the Helsingin seudun liikenne (HSL), the ride from the airport to the city falls within the A, B, and C fare zones, and costs €4.60 for a single ticket, either through a machine or through the mobile app, and is on a proof-of-payment system, meaning that fare inspectors who randomly patrol the network may periodically request to see your ticket, and if caught without a valid ticket, the passenger must pay a €80 fine! I took into the city for the evening, and as soon as I got into town, decided to walk to the Töölö Sports Hall (Töölön kisahalli) where the expo was being held, roughly 1.3 miles away from the Helsinki Train Station (Helsingin päärautatieasema). The route was pretty, as it hugged Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti), actually part of the route of the marathon on Sunday.

The Passio Musicae sculpture
Retrieving my bib was quick and painless, and from there, I decided to navigate my way westward toward the Seurasaarenselkä, the sea area that dominates Helsinki's west coast.  Right on the water is Sibelius Park (Sibeliuspuisto), a beautiful park dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, widely recognized as his country's greatest composer and is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.  A gorgeous monument to him, titled Passio Musicae, is located there, completed in 1967 by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen, consisting of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes that resemble organ pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of the artist was to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius, and despite having created little music for organs, sparked a lively debate about the merits and flaws of abstract art. It is one of the best-known tourist attractions in Helsinki, and luckily was not too crowded when I came to visit.

I continued to walk alongside Merikannontie, the street that hugged Seurasaarenselkä, and eventually came upon a rowing competition happening on the bay, which I later found out was a prestigious University Rowing Competition pitting eight top university rowing teams from all over Finland against each other at the Soutustadion overlooking the bay.  There was a raucous crowd cheering from the stands as I passed by, and I continued on, wanting to enjoy seeing more of Helsinki that I wouldn't be able to see during the race on Saturday afternoon, nor during my free time on Saturday morning where I had a list of places I wanted to check out before the race.

Oodi Helsinki Central Library
I made my way back toward the train station area, passing through the Etu-Töölö neighborhood and meandering past the imposing steeple of Christ Church (Kristuskyrkan), a Methodist church; and the The National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo), housed in a national romanticist style building completed in 1916, built to reflect Finland's medieval churches and castles. I walked past the Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo), and Kansalaistori Square, a square and lawn area located between the Music Centre, Oodi Helsinki Central Library, and the Kiasma contemporary art museum, where a concert happening in real time inside the Music Centre was broadcast out to the masses enjoying the late evening sun.  It was nearing 8pm, and the sun would still be out for about two more hours - a normal phenomenon in Nordic summer!

Sunset over Helsinki
I neared the train station, and got in touch with my friend Bill, who was in town with his fiancé Julie, nearing the end of a two week trip out to see all the Baltic countries, and fitting in a half marathon as well!  We had gotten in touch earlier that day and agreed to meet up for dinner, eventually going to Friends and Brgrs, a fast casual burger spot with most locations in Finland, but also Denmark and Germany, that had some decent reviews on Yelp.  While it wasn't my usual "seek local food" type restaurant, it was affordable, which is not easy to find in Nordic countries, which are known to have some of the most expensive places to travel to in the world.  After dinner, we made our way to the Ateljee Bar at the top of the Hotel Torni, which has magnificent views of the entire city from 260 feet up. During clear sunny days it might even be possible to see Tallinn, Estonia on the other side of the sea, and at night time the city lights make a beautiful and breathtaking landscape. We got there just at the right time; the sun was JUST setting for the day, only to get right back up over the horizon some six hours later - and even then, darkness meant duskiness!

Bill and I showing off our bibs
With my exhaustion setting in from being seven time zones ahead of normal and my normal immediate-upon-arrival rush to see as much of the city as possible, I bid Bill and Julie adieu, to retire back to my hotel at the airport.  Heading to the train station, I admired how it looked in the early evening; the station was designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1909, and completed ten years later. The station is mostly clad in Finnish granite, and its distinguishing features are its clock tower and the two pairs of statues holding the spherical lamps, lit at night-time, on either side of the main entrance. Saarinen eventually became a visiting professor at the University of Michigan's School of Architecture, and his son Eero, an architect himself, made a name for himself building many prominent structures throughout the US, most notably the very space age and ahead-of-its-time TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. The half hour trip was quick, and surprisingly crowded (apparently lots of folks use this train to get to and from the city and suburbs as well - I did end up having to show my ticket to an onboard train agent!) and I got back to the hotel at 11pm, completely exhausted.  Within minutes, I was hitting the hay and ready to get up early the next morning to have it all start up again.

The best salmon soup I've ever had!
Before going to bed, I managed to set everything up in one easy to carry bag for the following day, which included a full change of clothes into my kit for the race. I got a restful night's sleep, waking at around 7am, and stopping by Alepa, a Finnish grocery shop, conveniently located landslide at the airport between my hotel and the train station, to grab a quick bite to satiate my morning hunger. I grabbed a riisipiirakka, a traditional rice pasty that was a good option during that commute.  Ultimately, my first destination of the day was to head to the Old Market Hall (Vanha kauppahalli) just a short walk from the central station, and right on the South Harbour (Eteläsatama). Built in 1889, it is the oldest continuing shopping market in the city; there are about 25 different merchants and cafes in the hall, the product range of which consists mostly of food. Among them is Kalakauppa E. Eriksson, a fishmonger selling smoked fish, cured fish, fresh fish and shellfish - and a salmon soup considered the best in town... and it was pretty damn good!  The same week I left for Finland, travel vloggers Kara and Nate Buchanan had posted a video from their trip here during the winter months, showcasing the same exact shop, with excellent reviews - so I made sure to take their word for it!
Entering the beautiful Vanha kauppahalli

Helsinki Cathedral
The rest of the morning and early afternoon, I tried to fill as much as possible - and it was made easier when I finally was able to figure out how to use the Helsinki City Bikes, a bike-share system that's been fully integrated into the city's other public transport systems. The rental system, which has been in place since 2016, is fully web-based, and for only €5, one can make unlimited 30 minute trips with the bicycles within a 24 hour period, as long as it's re-docked at any of the city's 345 bike stations. Overage fees apply if you exceed the 30 minute limit. After registering online and making my payment, I was given a personal cyclist ID and a PIN code to unlock a bike from any station. In a matter of hours, I managed to zigzag all throughout the city center, making my way to the Finnish National Theatre (Suomen Kansallisteatteri), Ateneum Museum, Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko), the Lightbringer (Valontuoja)/National Memorial to the Winter War in Kasarmitori Square, Design Musem (DesignMuseo), St. John’s Church (Johanneksenkirkko), the Amos Rex museum that rises whimsically out of Lasipalatsi Square (Lasipalatsin Aukio), Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli), Allas Sea Pool urban spa and sauna, and Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali)!
"My Helsinki"
Uspenski Cathedral
Bad Bad Boy statue
I also notably went out of my way to Helsinki's West Harbour (Jätkäsaari) to see “Bad Bad Boy,” Helsinki’s answer to Brussels’ hugely popular Manneken-Pis statue. Standing 8.5 meters tall and sporting a surprised expression and an amiable blush, Bad Bad Boy is a work by artist Tommi Toija produced by Amos Anderson Art Museum. Some photo angles might make it look like the statue is now being used to water a landscaped area, but don’t worry: It’s just pissing on the sidewalk... except it wasn’t when I visited on Saturday morning. I also was able to get some time to stop into Kotiharjun Sauna, the last genuine wood-heated traditional public sauna in Helsinki, located in the laid-back eastern district of Kallio.  Heading to a sauna is part of everyday life in Finland - in fact, there is a statistic that over 3 million saunas exist for the 5.5 million inhabitants of the country.  So, this was a must do... and this particular sauna, a very no frills one, has welcomed sauna-goers since 1928. It was the best way to get myself ready for my race!

Met a Finnish corgi!
Eventually, 3pm started to come closer, so by 1:30, I made my way back to Töölö, and even spotted a corgi on my way there!  Here was the finish line area of the race, located on the grounds of Telia 5G -areena or Töölö Football Stadium, home to professional football club HJK Helsinki. Here, I could change and leave my bag, and at the time I arrived, lounge around on the practice field turf with runners who just completed the Helsinki City Run, the half marathon that started at 11:30am. With still lots of time before our start, I stuck around until it was time to head to the startline down in front of Töölö Sports Hall, situated right in front of a statue dedicated to renowned Finnish Olympic track star, Paavo Nurmi, who won nine gold and three silver medals between the 1920 games in Antwerp, 1924 games in Paris, and 1928 games in Amsterdam. I spotted my friend Wojtek from Poland (who I met in Egypt back in February), who in turn introduced me to several of his fellow globetrotting friends, including Dati from Indonesia. Wojtek and Dati were going to run a double this weekend as well, opting to do Copenhagen on Sunday after a similar early morning flight.

The 1952 Olympic Stadium
Before long, we were about to start. After announcements were made and a countdown began... all in Finnish... we went through the start gate on Mäntymäentie and began to run down the narrow street, heading northward along Urheilukatu, passing by the Olympic Stadium and its distinctive 238 1/2 foot tall tower, site of the 1952 Summer Olympics. It’s currently in the final year of a three year €209 million renovation, funded by the national and city governments. We also passed the arena, knowing we'd pass one more time before finally running into it several hours from now. The marathon is essentially two 10ish mile loops, with a separate five mile section in between, and a mile of other routing that all adds up to the 26.2 mile distance.

Starting off the race in Töölö
We veered left onto Reijolankatu, then followed the wide boulevard of Mannerheimintie northwestward, skirting the single diagonally-arranged buildings that form the southern boundary of the massive Keskuspuisto, or City Park, which stretches some 10 kilometers from this point all the way up to the border between Helsinki and Vantaa in the north. The afternoon sun, keeping things nice and warm at 67º, began to be a bit of a nuisance, making me break into a sweat early on, and it didn't help that this opening mile was also on a barely shaded corridor.  We got a quick respite of shade as we turned slightly right onto Tilkanvierto, but that was short lived as we rounded the corner under a bridge overpass, then proceeded along a bike path that took us out along the southern edge of Little Huopalahti Park (Pikku Huopalahden puisto), a small park overlooking the Seurasaarenselkä, as we crossed from the Meilahti neighborhood into Munkkiniemi over the Munkkiniemi Bridge (Munkkiniemen silta).  It took two miles, but finally as we began to run through this more pastoral setting, away from the city, that I stopped feeling overheated; a nice calm breeze began to blow as we began the run through the islands surrounding the bay.

Crossing the Lehtisaarensalmi Bridge
What's unique about this race is a good chunk of the run, particularly along the section through the islands, is actually on biking and walking trails, reducing the need to close streets, many of which are the only way in and out of certain areas.  We would alternate between trail and road all throughout this part of the race. This part was beautiful, as we ran along the trailside on the edge of the bay, alongside Ramsaynranta and Lillnäsvägen, two roads leading to the peninsula. We crossed the short Kuusisaaren Road Bridge (Kuusisaarentien silta) onto the island of Kuusisaari, the are with the highest average income of all the Helsinki metropolitan area and where many foreign embassies in Helsinki are located. We then crossed another road bridge, the Lehtisaarensalmi Bridge (Lehtisaarensalmen silta) onto the island of Lehtisaari, and a wooded section through the small St. Lawrence Park (Pyhän Laurin puisto) that took us up a hill onto what was one of the hilliest sections of the course, thus far.

Running across the Kaskisaari Bridge
Now running along the more residential roads on Lövövägen, the elevation undulated as we made our way through the island's hilly terrain, as we made our way  onto Kaskisaari, an island with many beautifully designed modern homes. From this island, we made our way over the steep wooden Kaskisaari Bridge (Kaskisaaren silta), onto the large island of Lauttasaari - this bridge is featured on our finisher's medal!  It was absolutely beautiful to see the view of the bay as we crossed.  After coming off the bridge onto Laukkaniementie, we took a sharp right turn onto Luoteisväylä, which led us onto the straightaway of Katajaharjuntie.  It was along this area that I befriended Julianne from Germany, and after chatting, found out that she had spent some time as an exchange student in Finland, but grew up near the city of Karlsruhe in Germany, where a few of my relatives lived!  She was quite surprised to find someone from America, running in a race in Finland, who knew her hometown in Germany!  We would run together for the next few miles, crossing over the Länsiväylä highway across another bridge, before being directed to run along the bike trail cutting right through the center of the island on Isokaari, a light commercial district through this largely residential area.  This was a fairly flat section of the race that allowed me to regain some of the speed I lost traversing through the hillier part of the race that just preceded.

Jaksaa Jaksaa!  Keep Going!
We turned right onto Kuikkarinne, then left onto Hakolahdentie, surrounded by five to six-floor apartment buildings, with a few spectators cheering us on, and where I saw someone with a sign that read "Jaksaa! Jaksaa!" finally able to learn some new Finnish, which meant "keep going!"  We crossed another wooden bridge, this time over a road that took us to Haahkakuja, where we turned left and reached the 10k mark of the race, a respectable 1:02:29 split.  My pace was still going strong as we turned right onto Tallbergin Park Road (Tallbergin puistotie), a beautifully manicured boulevard with two grassy medians.  This fairly flat stretch led to a left turn onto Meripuistotie, a road right by the island's busy Vattunokka marina.  We then veered slightly right onto Lauttasaarentie, as we made our way across the lengthy Lauttasaari Bridge (Lauttasaaren silta) back toward the city centre.  Near the end of the bridge, we encountered several fishermen, casting off their reels off the side of the bridge, many coming back with quite the catch!
Crossing the Lauttasaari Bridge
Passing by fishermen on the Lauttasaari Bridge
The Rumba scultpure by Martti Aiha
The slight descent off the bridge into the West Harbour (Länsisatama) neighborhood sent us along Porkkalankatu, as we jumped up over the curb and onto the bicycle lane, passing the imposing "Rumba" scuplture by artist Martti Aiha, commissioned by Alko, the government-owned alcohol company, who unveiled it in front of its headquarters on its 60th anniversary in 1992. We quickly found ourselves back on the asphalt, running down Itämerenkatu, then turned right onto Länsisatamankatu, where we were "greeted" by the two tall chimneys of a power station, running around the building as it curved around to Kellosaarenranta. We passed the Helsinki Conservatory of Music (Helsingin Konservatorio) and a raucous crowd of spectators, before following the pathway adjacent to the canalside Ruoholahti Park (Ruoholahdenpuisto), beautifully manicured with one section quite colorful as tulips bloomed in the flowerbeds.  We were then directed through a pedestrian pass-through underneath Mechelininkatu, which also reminded us how early we still were into the race - an archway directed runners on their first lap to run straight forward, while those on their second lap to run toward the left.  Of course, I continued on straight forward, running on Eeriikinkatu, to begin the only significant section of the race that would not be repeated a second time.
The Power Station chimneys
Alongside the Meripuisto
We had now crossed over into the busy Kamppi district, a busy shopping area that had our street roped off since runners were coming in both directions.  Faster runners were already coming from the other side of the street, as we had just recently passed the 13th kilometer (8.3 miles) of our race.  Those runners were over 8 kilometers ahead of me, just having reached the halfway point of the marathon.  We turned right onto Hietalahdenkatu, passing by the Hietalahti Market Hall, one of the Finnish capital city's many popular market halls that are spread throughout its neighborhoods. This was one of the locations I had docked my bike rental earlier in the day, so the streets here were seemingly familiar.  We then ran along the harborside road of Hietalahdenranta, where unfortunately there was a bit of construction, detouring briefly along Perämiehenkatu, before running along Merikatu toward Merisatamanranta and the Meripuisto, a very active park, at that time of afternoon teeming with people, overlooking the Merisatama boat dock.
Following the waterside road on Ehrenströmintie
Running next to the Port of Helsinki
We followed this road to Ehrenströmintie, which ran along the perimeter of the Kaivopuisto, a beautiful park by the sea in the southernmost part of the city, which is one of the oldest and most loved parks in the city.  The park sits on very hilly terrain, with parts of it on flat ground, and some on cliffs. While we only ran along its edge, we definitely felt some of that hilliness on the road.  We eventually made our way up to its northernmost section, facing the three passenger terminals that make up the Port of Helsinki's South Harbour (Eteläsatama), where ferry boats and cruiseliners sail to and from Tallinn, Estonia, and Stockholm, Sweden.  In the distance, as the road curved from Laivasillankatu to Eteläranta, we could see the distinctive green dome and white facade of Helsinki Cathedral.  I knew that the turnaround point for us was not far from the Old Market Hall. Soon we were headed back in the direction we came, but then this time, veering right past a roundabout and cutting along the Kaivopuisto's northern boundary, Puistokatu. This was largely a very affluent residential area (in fact, some of the most expensive in Helsinki), happening to contain the official private residences of several ambassadors of foreign countries to Finland, including the United States, Estonia, Spain, France, Belgium, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Returning along Eteläranta, with the Helsinki Cathedral in the distance
Sinebrychoff Park
We ran along the northside of the Meripuisto, joining back up to the course we had run down earlier, and made our way quickly toward that point in the race where we first saw the runners coming down  at the 8.3 mile mark.  After a steep downhill descent through the crowded and very happening Sinebrychoff Park (Sinebrychoffin puisto), I passed the 20km timing mat, coming in  with a 2:04:48 split.  I realized as I passed the Hietalahti Market Hall on the way back that I had run a 2:11 first half, which in my mind was maybe a bit too fast considering I had two races to run in two days.  Almost immediately, I pulled back on my speed, and decided to take an easier approach to begin the second half of this race.  We made our way back to the pathway just before the split, this time running northward through a sunken carless pathway known as the Baana.

Running through the Baana.
The Baana was part of the Helsinki harbour rail line which was built in the 1890s, and dismantled in 2009, originally leading from Helsinki Central railway station along the city's coastline to Katajanokka, the neighborhood where Uspenski Cathedral was located, facing the South Harbour.  The name Baana is a Finnish slang word for (rail)way, coming from Swedish bana and German Bahn.  It took several years to modify the former rail line to bicycle and pedestrian use, finally opening to the public in June 2012. The race would pass through here twice, of course, running through nearly its entire 1.5 kilometer length.  I felt like I could pick up a little speed here, as it was quite flat, and I could measure my exhaustion level by trying to run its nearly one mile stretch.  Despite me picking up speed, another couple runners sped right by me - they were on their second lap, just about to finish their marathon in just over 2 1/2 hours! We emerged out of the Baana along the edge of the Kansalaistori Square, to crowds cheering us on as we made the slight ascent back to street level on Mannerheimintie.

We were then directed right along Töölönlahdenkatu, just past the Helsinki Music Centre, toward Karamzininranta, running northward as we passed the Finlandia Concert Hall, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, then ran along the path skirting Töölö Bay toward the Finnish National Opera building (Kansallisooppera). We turned right onto Helsinginkatu, then ran along Mäntymäentie past the Paavo Nurmi statue to begin our second loop of the race, now about 24.5 kilometers into the race.

Aurora Bridge
The crowds were huge as we passed the stadium. A slight difference of the start of this second loop took us around the northern edge of the stadium, toward the woodsy trails of Eläintarha park. We then crossed over the Aurora Bridge (Auroransilta), a beautifully designed steel arch bridge over Nordenskiöldinkatu. By then, the 4:30 pacers had passed by me, which I had expected, considering my purposeful slow down since the halfway point of the race. We followed Nordenskiöldinkatu turning right onto Mannerheimintie and back onto the familiar roads we took some three hours ago.

Making our second loop on the islands
The second time around the islands was admittedly harder, with tired legs pushing forward as best as they possibly could.  The hills seemed much more magnified as we ran from island to island with my continued efforts to dial back my exertion; there was no need for me to push because it was more important for me to conserve my muscles for my second marathon the next morning.  I walked every hill, and took liberal walk breaks throughout the next several miles. Still, I ran when it felt comfortable, especially on straight flat sections, and through areas where the downhill was manageable.  It was great to even see some of the same people who were out earlier for our first pass still out and cheering runners on a couple hours later.  Miles 18-21/Kilometers 29-34 were admittedly slower than what I had run rather consistently in earlier miles, but they still weren't far off of the pace; the 4:30 pacers, even though out of my line of sight, were only a few minutes ahead.

40 km mark!
We reached the Baana and what I considered the "home stretch" of the race, with only two miles left to go, and only 4:13 on my watch.  I was definitely going to go under 5 hours, but wasn't expecting to be this much under 5.  Like before, I used this flat section to my advantage and clocked a couple faster miles.  I had it in my head that I could run under 4:45 easy.  Mile 25 was a 4:24, and all I had left was to run past Finlandia Concert Hall, the sidewalk along the edge of Töölö Bay, and the sidewalk past Olympic Stadium to the finish line inside the football stadium.  I managed to spot a corgi just before turning into the stadium, and while I really wanted a picture -- I had a job to do, to finish my race in a decent time!  We turned into the stadium, now running on the astroturf, making my way to the finish line, and I crossed the mat in 4:39:42; it turns out I stayed only less than ten minutes behind the 4:30 pacers all that time since they passed me 25K into the race!
Running past the Finlandia Concert Hall
With Wojtek and Dati
I gleefully got my medal, and rested my legs (also enjoying a cup of coffee!) while I waited for Wojtek and Dati to come in.  They both ran in together, sporting their own country's respective flags, which was a fun sight to see as the Polish and Indonesian flags are both red and white horizontal fields, but inverses of each other!  After quite a few photos together (including one that would be taken by the social media managers of the Helsinki City Marathon, who caught wind of our double marathon feat that weekend, and would feature us on their Facebook and Instagram pages), we exited the stadium and they joined me for a few photos back at the Paavo Nurmi statue, including helping me with my headstand photo, before we parted ways, and I took a city bike back to the train station to catch the next train back to the airport, back to my hotel room to catch as many hours of sleep as possible before having to wake up for my morning flight.
Victory Headstand at the Paavo Nurmi statue!
With fellow double marathoner, Paul!
Having a 5:30 am flight meant being up very early to get dressed for the race underneath some sweats, then walking over to the other terminal to get through security.  While waiting for the flight, I found my friend Paul, who I had spoken to about possibly doing this crazy double marathon weekend - I wasn't sure if he was going to do it, but lo and behold, he was! We would sit together on the rather empty flight to Riga, Latvia, ready to take on our second race of the weekend!