Social Movement The running club at the top of the world
It’s -16C, it’s dark and was that a polar bear I just heard? Time for a brisk run
NEXT TIME you’re struggling to get out the door for a run on a chilly morning, spare a thought for members of the Longyearbyen running club in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Winter temperatures there range from -7C to -16C, and between mid-November and late January, the area experiences ‘polar night’ – absolute darkness 24 hours a day. And then there’s the local polar bear population to contend with. People are advised to always carry a rifle when travelling outside ‘downtown’ Longyearbyen.
Despite all this, Trine Hakonsen, a run leader with Svalbard Turn Joggegruppa, the local running club, insists Longyearbyen is a great place for running.
Twice a week, 52 weeks a year, Trine, 51, who heads the finance department of a local company, leads runners on a five-mile loop in and around town. The runs start at 6.30pm on Tuesdays and 4.30pm on Thursdays. And if you ever happen to be in town, she’d like you to come along. ‘The polar bears are seldom close to the city,’ she says.
Longyearbyen is the third-northernmost town in the world, perched on the edge of Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s largest island. It is closer to the North Pole than it is to Oslo. With a population of little over 2,000 – and a transient one at that (some researchers stay for a few months at a time) – it’s often a small group that gathers for the run. But the hardy souls who do venture out value it greatly. In a town where life revolves around long, cold, dark winters, having a group activity twice a week helps relieve cabin fever. ‘At one point I felt that one of my fellow runners almost acted as my private psychiatrist, and I hers, but we never met up outside of running,’ says Pernille Bronken Eidesen, 42, an associate professor in terrestrial biology at the University Centre in Svalbard and a frequent Tuesday-night participant.
Trine doesn’t know when Svalbard Turn Joggegruppa started, but she has been a member since 2001 and took a leadership role in 2007. The club is open to runners of all abilities. After all, she says, it’s the shared experience of running through a brutal yet beautiful landscape and embracing the elements together that makes runners compatible.
‘The running group is particularly nice to have when the weather is bad and you would rather be inside,’ says Pernille.‘it gives you that extra push to get some fresh air.’
Come early summer, group-run participation tends to increase, as the temperature rises to 6C and the annual Spitsbergen Marathon draws near. The June event, which attracts runners from mainland Norway as well as the wider world, is the most popular running event on the Svalbard calendar.
But it’s winter when Longyearbyen’s runners experience the best rewards of being part of the running club at the top of the world. ‘In the wintertime, light pollution is at its least,’ says Pernille. ‘If it’s a clear sky, we run the road toward the Longyear Glacier and watch the Northern Lights.’
SNOW MOBILE Pernille Bronken Eidesen (in yellow) and a fellow runner , and (inset, in purple) Trine Hakonsen and other members of the Svalbard running club