18 March 2016, 2pm
This most natural means of getting from one place to another (the car was only invented little more than a century ago) was uppermost in the minds of the runners who back in October 1992 decided to set up the Arctic Marathon Club (AMC) in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland sitting almost astride the Arctic Circle at 66.30.
The need for such a club was obvious: it attracted over 100 members in no time, people who described themselves as “living to run”. The Club’s energies in its first years went into organising various fitness events, arranging group runs, talking up fitness in workplaces and taking part in marathons abroad. The foreign favorites at the time were Stockholm and Berlin but the club was certainly well represented at the Ruska Marathon in Kittilä (one degree of latitude to the north of Rovaniemi) and the Helsinki City Marathon.
Finland’s Grand Old Man of distance running, Tapio Pekola the founder of Juoksija (Runner) magazine who passed away in 2011, remarked that the three best sports in the world are ”running, running slightly farther and running even farther”.
Pekola’s wisdom was taken to heart by the enlightened band of runners — concerned as they were for keeping their fellow citizens fit — who came up with the idea of holding a marathon themselves. The first Rovaniemi Marathon — dubbed ”Santa Claus’s Summer Trot” — was run in 1996. The event was organized by the Arctic Marathon Club and Lapin Lukko, another local athletic association.
In 2001, the name of the event was changed to the Santa Claus Marathon with AMC and its long-term and reliable partner in distance running, Rovaniemi Roadrunners, in charge of organising it. Since 2013 AMC has arranged the event on its own.
In the early years the start and finish were at the Ounasvaara Ski Stadium, the home base of Ounasvaara Ski Association which boasts international success in winter sports and orienteering.
In 2003, following the lead of other city marathons worldwide, the organisers decided to ”take to the streets” rather than run in the shadows. The start and finish were moved to the city centre and have remained there ever since and the name of the event was changed back to the Rovaniemi Marathon.
Most of the course follows the scenic banks of Finland’s longest river, the Kemijoki (552km), crossing three of the bridges that span it. The route offers runners the chance to admire beautiful hills, lush riverbanks and the local architecture. Rovaniemi usually enjoys nice, summery weather in the beginning of July — partly cloudy, about 20C and fresh air to breathe.
The route is flat and although Rovaniemi is not a big city, there are a lot of spectators along the way cheering the runners on. The locals are welcoming and the event offers quality prizes. Santa Claus is there at the start and the prize ceremony, and medals are handed out to the runners by elves. In addition to a full marathon the event features a half marathon, a 10km and a children’s minimarathon.
The aims and principles of AMC remain unchanged over the decades. The club promotes running as a lifestyle and encourages people to exercise for their physical and mental well-being. It is an ethos where high spirits beat low finishing times. The focus on the lighter side of running was foreshadowed in the potential club names bandied about at the founding meeting: the Rovaniemi Night Runners, the Rovaniemi Night Owls.
AMC continues to take its mission of fitness and training very seriously. Every year its activities in the frozen Arctic winter include group training runs, 50km ‘in-house’ ultras and marathon courses. Since 2007 AMC has been chaired by Maarit Simoska; her predecessors include Jarmo Kiuru and Markku Torkko.
Rovaniemi Marathon has attracted wide acclaim and interest and has grown steadily since the year 2000. This success has established it as one of the top international distance running events in Finland and Lapland attracting between 700 and 800 runners: the organisers are now targeting a field of 1000.
Race director Olli Tiuraniemi sees the essence of distance running as remembering that in a marathon everyone is only competing with themselves and everyone who makes it across the finish line is a winner.
The Rovaniemi Marathon brings together athletes of all ages. It the largest athletic event in the region and has been recognised further afield as well. The “crazies in bibs” will soon be at it again, accompanied by Santa and his elves, the magic Arctic Circle, the Midnight Sun, and the feast of sun and light that is Lapland in summer. All these add up to a warm welcome for distance runners.
A solid piece of advice for all runners is that offered by Juhani Petäjä, a founding member of AMC: “A marathon is a long distance. You should run it lightly so you don’t get tired.” Every bit as reliable are the words of Colonel Zápotek: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to discover a whole new life, run a marathon.” Asked if it makes any sense to run marathons four-time Olympic gold medalist Lasse Virén said: “There might be something crazy about it. It’s kind of like heavy drinking.”