Feeling rundown: Locals try to outrun chasing car as long as possible before it finishes them as part of global charity race

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You’re being chased by a car while running on a road. You cannot leave the road. And the car will keep getting faster until it inevitably catches up and finishes you.

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Longyearbyen residents compare a countdown clock and other settings on smartphones moments before the local Wings For Life World Run race starts Saturday at Svalbardhallen. Participants ran until their phones let them know a virtual chase car set in motion 30 minutes after the start had reached them. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While that sounds like (and is) the plot for a horror classic, about ten local residents – including small kids – willingly submitted themselves to that fate by taking part in the Wings For Life World Run on Saturday. The annual global event, which Longyearbyen participated in for the first time, launches a “chase car” 30 minutes after the race starts which gradually speeds up until it overtakes all the runners, with the race ending for each when the vehicle reaches them.

“I like the idea that the best one runs the longest distance,” said Håkon Lohne, a planner for the city who was among a handful of people participating in the northernmost of the race.

In Svalbard and many other smaller locales the race was as much video game as real-world competition, since the “car” chasing them was virtual. Which meant all the runners were tracked with a smartphone app that let them know through audio and other cues how close they were to being run down.

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Runners of all ages depart from the starting line of the Wings For Life World Run at Svalbardhallen. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The start of the race was supposed to occur at the same time globally, which in Svalbard meant a rather convenient time of 1 p.m. But it appears there might have been a few bugs in the system as one local racer suddenly took off while others were comparing their countdown clocks about 30 seconds before the race started in the parking lot at Svalbardhallen.

The course was a loop with intersections at Nybyen, Husetm Store Norske and Svalbard Snøscooterutleie serving as the corners. Runners, once “caught,” simply dropped out, thus meaning no ribbon breaking or cheers from waiting spectators – but they could print out an award certificate for themselves or any other participant) at the race’s website.

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An award for Vilde Lohne, 10, shows she finished in the top 20 percent among 130,000 runners worldwide – including her dad. Image courtesy of the Wings For Life Foundation.

Lohne said he signed up because his daughters – Malin, 7, and Vilde, 10 – wanted to participate and at the starting time he wasn’t sure if he’d run with his kids or to avoid the chase car as long as possible. Ultimately, he ran 8.08 kilometers while Vilde outpaced him by running 9.46 kilometers (Malin wasn’t listed in the race’s official website results).

The elder Lohne is familiar with unusual and challenging races in the far north, including setting a record time during a dominant win in last year’s Topptrimutfordringen race along all ten of the peaks surrounding Longyearbyen. But while he described that race at the time as “brutally hard,” the mentality of Saturday’s race was completely different.

“Normally when I’m racing I’m wondering if I’m in shape,” he said. “Now it’s quite relaxing.”

Cecilia Blomdahl, a booking manager at Huset, also wasn’t sweating too much about how far she might make it before the digital car finished her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just decided 10 minutes ago to do this.”

Silje Hagen, an official with Svalbard Turn, said she decided to organize Longyearbyen’s participation in in the race in the hope of hoping generating publicity in advance of next month’s  Spitsbergen Marathon, which she also organizes.

Proceeds from the race go to the non-profit Wings For Life Foundation, which funds research for treating spinal cord injuries and paraplegia. More than 130,000 people, at 111 locations in 58 countries participated in this year’s race, according to the official website. The top finisher was Aron Anderson, racing in Dubai, with a distance of 92.14 kilometers.

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