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Helsinki in November

Photography: Phil Gale & Emmie Collinge

Words: Phil Gale

The taxi driver makes the same sharp inhale-through-the-teeth when we explain why we are here as we navigate our way out of Helsinki airport. It’s dark, very dark. The sort of dark that you associate with the Nordics in the winter. There is wet snow falling on the empty roads. ‘Winter is coming’ the driver continues, now he’s learned that we are neither here for business of the indoor meeting kind, or to visit friends. ‘Not many people come to Helsinki in November,’ he says, probingly. We proceed to tell him that we’re here to test, and shoot, a winter running collection, looking for ‘dank and darkness’. His final comment hangs in the air: Finland is perfect then.’

There are images of Nordic winters—you know the ones, the snow-blanketed, Christmas card-like scenes that tourist boards would be proud of. But what very few tell you is that before the snow, ice and subzero temperatures arrive, there is a sustained period of early winter when this region makes the UK look bright, dry and cheery.

As runners, we recognise that the build-up to the shortest day can sometimes align with a lull in motivation. It can become harder to find inspiration in your running. The thought of being outdoors over moving through that dank cold, which slowly seeps into your bones, makes the warmth and comfort of the sofa during those long nights hard to leave. Naturally, that is where the right clothing comes in, and it’s the reason why we are here.

On the first morning, we learn there’s little escape from the greyness. Sunrise is nothing more than a tone change from black to grey. It is only the lights of the city and the world passing through it that add some colour to the mix. With numerous parks, large harbours, and the typically Nordic low population density (for a capital city, that is), we are soon surrounded by colourless nature. The white trunks of the Birches contrast the blackness that’s embedded deeper in the forests. Though even with a world that is damp, grey and cold, we feel a buzz of being outside. Fabrics, cuts and clothing systems keep us toasty in the chill as we explore this inwardly vibrant city on foot.

For the final shakedown of the products, we head to Lahti, known across the winter sports community for its ski jumps and for hosting 100 years of World Cup Cross-Country Skiing. The ski tracks, before they get covered in snow, are suitably soft gravel. Navigation taken on the highest of the six ski jumps, that can be seen towering above the city from miles around. It feels like the perfect location to prepare for our own cross-country season. Natural fartleks on the short, steep climbs make us work, whilst the descents allow us to stride out. It feels like the Finns have everything worked out—then we find out that their own XC season is short, very short, and doesn’t kick off until April.

As we get closer to the greyest day festival in Lahti—yep, it’s a thing—we’re not disappointed. The incessant rain and a deep chill hints that winter is very close. Being outside in these conditions gives us energy, the feeling of being scratched by the change in seasons with the elements washing over us, makes us feel like we’ve experienced full immersion in Finland. That, and our daily post-run saunas.

We later find out that a few years ago the Helsinki tourist board ran a marketing campaign with the slogan ‘Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. WELCOME!’ A fitting find post-trip, and one that felt even more ironic, as when the dawn of the ‘Greyest Day’ festival in Lahti arrived, we were treated to the first sight of blue sky and low sunlight, making us conclude that even nature can be as ironic as marketing agencies.