“Sisu” is a central concept in Finnish culture. There is no direct English language equivalent, and it roughly translates as strength of will and determination. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. Sisu “entails an element of grim stress management” according to one description.
It’s perhaps therefore not surprising that the only annual marathon ergo race (42,195m) in the world is held in Finland. As well as marathons the organisers will host 100km and 24-hour challenges.
Whilst marathon ergs have moved a little more mainstream with CrossFit, when it was incorporated as an event at the 2018 CrossFit games, it’s fair to say – at least in most of the world – that it remains niche.
Attending the Finnish Open Ergo marathon www.ergomaraton.fi I was asked how many ergo marathons I’d completed. I said this will be my second, how about you? The reply from the local participants was often 30 or 40…
However, looking at the Concept2 logbook there is sisu being demonstrated in rowing clubs, gyms, and garages around the world. In just the men’s 50-59 heavyweight category there are 210 ranked marathon ergs in the 2022 season. Maybe it’s quite a big niche?
Matt Jackson, President of the Royal Navy Amateur Rowing Association, and I headed to Tuusula, Finland, to put our sisu to the test. 42,195m of physical and psychological sustained grim stress management.
We wanted to add the challenge of competing at a given time in an unfamiliar location, but also to benefit from the camaraderie of collective suffering. We were hoping for seasonal weather – low temperature and humidity, with a light breeze – but would have to cope with whatever the sky delivered.
We were lucky. The lake, overlooked by the hotel terrace where the competition was staged, was still largely frozen but thawing quickly. Race day was cloudy and breezy, with a temperature high of 12 degrees Celsius.
The event is organised by the local rowing club, Keravan Urheilijat, and has a welcoming family atmosphere. We arrived in time to help with the set-up and were handed brooms to help brush down the terrace. The gentle humour of our hosts pushing aside the nervousness of what lay ahead.
Matt and I had pursued our own specific preparation plans focused on this event for the last 8 weeks or so, sometimes modified for business travel or another near-term goal.
My programme was again set by training guru Eddie Fletcher, who remotely guides the sessions and incorporates flexibility as required. Sessions were bifurcated and focused on developing sustained power and, simply, mileage. The maximum session beforehand at target marathon pace was 90 minutes, with full preparation. For me this meant there were several practice attempts (learning experiences) to finalise a nutrition and hydration strategy, as well as chances to try different seat, cushion, and clothing combinations.
On my one previous marathon the searing glute pain made the final 30 minutes tortuous. Cramp in Matt’s most recent marathon meant he rowed the last 10km at quarter slide.
There’s the kicker with the marathon – the big challenge comes at the end, and you spend the piece dreading the cracks (dry mouth, aching butt, twinging muscles) turning into a chasm.
We were off at 11:30am local time. Flapjack from Oatopia for breakfast, hydration, set-up of the feeding station next to the machine, support the half-marathoners that started at 9am, playlist primed, warm-up… and we’re off.
It feels too easy to start with – the adrenaline of a race start makes it hard to find the rhythm for a marathon piece, but gradually it settles. I mentally broke the piece into 10-minute segments, taking a (partial) gel and drink on the move (the drinks in camelbacks suspended to one side).
During the feeding my split would worsen by 2 or 3 seconds, but it’s far more efficient than rowing one-armed and glugging from a bottle or cups. Gradually squeezing on to test where the limits are and backing off a little when needed, riding out the long (but fortunately low amplitude) waves of higher/lower energy.
During this piece “fuel” seemed to be my limiting factor – if I tried to bring the split down, I would gradually feel slightly faint, an almost out-of-body experience.
Looking up to see the great views of the frozen lake was a welcome distraction, as was the cooling breeze. I was happy hovering between 1:49s and 1:50s, with the average gradually converging to the middle of my planned range.
Stroke counting in each 10-minute segment, along with a good music playlist, was my main stress management tool (i.e., distraction). Matt turning to me with a smile and thumbs-up every 15 minutes or so was also a great boost – sisu shared is sisu doubled.
Perhaps it was conditions, or more likely our thorough preparation, but the chasms didn’t appear this time. We paced ourselves well, I was perhaps even too conservative, meaning we were both able to push on in the last 5-10km. Matt took 3 minutes off his Personal Best, a huge chunk, finishing in 2 hours 43 minutes and 39.1 seconds.
I managed my main objective, with a new British age group record by a bit over a minute, with a time of 2 hours 34 minutes and 2.8 seconds.
After the race we had the unusual pleasure of sharing a recovery sauna with other competitors, followed by the much more usual and welcome cold beer together. What a wonderful weekend.