Like most challenges and trips there lies a story.
This one began 3 years ago in Africa, yes Africa, in Tanzania to be exact! I was on a Safari tour to the Ngorongoro Crater and met a Swedish couple, Emma and Ake. Not that this was my first encounter with people from Sweden but this couple enjoyed running like me and we even went on a run together through this little town, through it’s fields.
I remember before the tour had ended that they had mentioned the Stockholm Marathon and even invited me to stay and run it. I had heard of it and this sparked my interest, an invite. I am really bad a turning down invitations and well as you may have guessed…a couple of years later I signed up and showed up.
I not only went to Sweden (although it was definitely the main attraction) but I threw in Denmark which I was dying to visit 10 years ago when I lived in Spain. Since Spain had been so long ago I also stopped there for a few days (plus flights were cheap from Colombia so it was a no brainer). As I read about my trip I discovered how close by some other cool cities were and in the end added a day trip to Helsinki (as I later learned you really need a bit more time there though). So the trip was ready basically and off I went to run my first real International Marathon. Yes first, because Panama doesn’t count as I lived there and had no need to travel to it., and well the US marathons don´t either for obvious reasons.
I arrived a week early to Europe and made my way over to Stockholm with a few stops along the way. My first stop in Sweden was Ystad, a small beach city on the southern tip of Sweden. I went to see my friend Chris there before he went on vacation to visit his 114th country. Chris is another friend I met on the Africa trip but in Uganda white water rafting down the Nile River! I stayed a few days in Ystad then took a train up to Stockholm arriving the day before the race to settle into my friends house, pick-up the race kit and try to rest in another new city (very difficult for a true explorer).
The whole Stockholm marathon for me was a total trip. Weeks prior I learned through my friends that my original travel plans had me arriving on race day…I was caught off guard because I thought the race was on a Sunday even if I knew the date. I had to change plans to arrive in Stockholm the day before. When I was in Stockholm I realized that the race started at 12 PM, not a morning time like I anticipated. So again I had to adjust but this time it meant I would be having 2 breakfasts before the race, what? I like breakfast but I had never even practiced this on training runs but it seemed like it should work, right? Night before decisions! Turns out the race starts this late because many runners come from Finland on an overnight ferry to race, so this start time gives them enough time to get to the start line, check bags, stretch and run ;). In addition this seems like a common start time for the nordic races, so be prepared! Also imagine the number of backpacks the bag check receives on race day with so many tourists!
Ha ha something I did know before the race but was new to me; was the route. This race was a loop, a big loop, which was cool because I would see friends more than once and well I would know where I was in the new city by the second lap…plus part of the loop did detour through a park on the second lap making it more bearable. The loop factor for me was odd though since normally my marathons are out and back (in a loop around the city) or are point to point (one city to another. I have done loop courses in the 70.3 Ironman races and I really enjoyed them but were talking only 21k on those, not double that!
On the day before the race I arrived at my friends house, waited for Emma to get off work and then we headed to the expo together. It was quick and simple. Next to the expo was the finish line in the Olympic Track Stadium so of course we checked that out. Such a beautiful stadium with medieval style wooden seating, Olympic decals and history on its 1912 walls.
We did a little walking tour through the city to find last minute things that I ended up not purchasing nor needing because race day turned out to be perfect weather! (I though it was going to be cold and I was looking for arm sleeves). From the mini tour we headed back home to rest and do race prep.
So, visiting new places doesn’t help the diet as you want to try everything because it is all new. I had to really take it easy but at the same time enjoy…i’d say the diet was out the window by day 2 as I’d even permitted some sweets along the way (couldn’t resist!) but if anything day before the race the food plan was strict…it was pasta or pasta ha ha even if a new style all is good when you carb load. Something my friends mentioned to me is that on the race course they will offer pickles for salt… interesting, I did see them but no go since I had no time to test them out…but cool race culture tip.
Having race day at noon was also in my favor because it was Swedish Summer meaning the sun went down like at 10:30 and it was still light out at midnight so sleeping was not very easy. None the less I awoke early, ate breakfast #1, then slept some more, awoke again to eat my second breakfast and head to the race start. I had talked with friends the night before to confirm where they would be located on the course. Emma and Ake would be near the house (this year it passed in front of their house instead of the bay due to construction) and also on the other side of the bridge (2 for 1) which is a quick walk for them. Meanwhile another friend of mine who I met in Chile years ago (Annika) would be near the last few kms :).
When I arrived at the start area I was not cold at all and ended up checking in all of my stuff instead of throwing it on the course like so many other races…so I was happy about that…I stretched a bit and then I was off to the startline. As I waited I kept stretching and then 2 minutes before the gun went off I ran to the bathroom, quick enough to return and start with everyone (port o potties on the left and no lines ha) as I was quite close to the starting line.
On your marks, get set, goooo….except that right off the bat I was confused. At the very first turn I was nearly run over by runners because I didn’t understand that we took both sides of the road (who studies the route, apparently not me…humm) The turn was so immediate that one had no time to react, but no big deal for I quickly forgot about it and was in la la land watching people, buildings and everything pass. That phase was short because I quickly realized I should pay attention since it was a loop and I’d see everything again meaning I could use visual cues to gauge distance and time. As we neared the harbor I started to recognize some stuff I saw the day before and began focusing on getting to the spot my friends said they would be waiting for me to pass which I knew was coming up soon after crossing the harbor. After passing them and receiving energy from their cheers I concentrated on making it over ¨the bridge¨ they spoke of with dread…it was not bad at all coming from Bogota’s hilly landscape but I understand the fear and dread of the bridge knowing the Swedish landscape is pretty darn flat creating quite the challenge for locals. I personally enjoyed the bridge a lot, especially the loop off the bridge because it was new to me, a fast downhill and pretty. Plus I knew that right after I would see my friends again. A huge benefit on a loop course is they allow spectators more access to cheer on runners….for instance my friends could visit 2 points without rushing or going far from the first spot. They simply crossed the harbor and cheer the same runners on again. Since I knew their plan I looked for them at those spots…in particular this second spot where I was lucky to see them because I was feeling great, moving fast and I was super distracted…but hey, they spotted me, shouted and took photos of me! 😀 These cheers during a race are the best, they are the cheers you know are there but also somewhat unexpected…I mean I knew they were somewhere at this km but I didn´t know the exact spot and boy did their out of nowhere surprise cheers make me happy! Thanks guys :D!
From here the loop was almost complete or so it seemed. Finally I came upon the known portion of the route although things remained new even this time around because now (that confusing original turn) we were running on just 1 side of the street the opposite of where I previously ran just outside the Stadium where we would finish. It is amazing how even this slight change felt new…ha ha keeping the adventure alive and real as we rounded a corner and headed down hill this time entering the park. I remember it clearly, the park, because you could see many runners up ahead, a big tower in the middle of nowhere and soon the half way point was visible! As I came to half way I was thinking holy mole I have hit very close to some of my best times at each 5k distance. I thought that was crazy because I didn’t train for these times but I felt good and well at halfway I started thinking holy mole if I keep this up I would finish, wait what?, faster than ever. I now kept this faster goal in my head but I was also a bit lost at what times I should be hitting 25k or 30k or 35k because in my mind I didn´t have a reference for my best time at these distances to know if I was on track or not, so at the same time my mind was a bit lost….and too lazy to calculate it obviously because I was distracted every two seconds by the beautiful new scenery in the park…(I might also not be a big fan of math but whatever :P). I decided to let it go and just keep at it. After exiting the park I found myself on the harbor again!! I found myself at kilometer 28/29 and I had to stop and walk because apparently I miscalculated my hydration and energy gel/salt pill intake for this race and my pace began to slow drastically and I felt the loss of energy hitting, so much so it was best to walk it out…so I took water, Gatorade, gel and salt and when I felt better a km or so later I went at it again. I picked up pace quickly and a few km later I found runners I recognized. I remember getting to the bridge again very happy because they had a campaign ¨Let her fly¨ and I felt like I was flying I swear I speed over that bridge with so much energy, ha ha…that was until the downhill parts after the bridge when it burned the muscles. My friends weren´t on the second loop cheering (well at least not the second spot) and I didn´t anticipate that they were not there so it was kind of a bummer but still I kept going meanwhile cursing at any little downhill part. Luckily there weren´t many more of those on the route.
From this point I was very set on getting to the finish line and fast. With all these great times each race distance I had now estimated my finish time to be somewhere between 3:08 to 3:10 if I could keep the pace, either way I was going for a new PR…so that was very exciting. My mind was trying to decide at what kilometer to start pushing even more. I tend to start pushing speed very early so naturally I started pushing about 5km out. I was also expecting another friend near the finish so I started looking for her, but these last kms I was extremely focused on getting to the finish as fast as possible that my search was too quick and I never spotted her. Turns out she did see me and even cheered but I didn´t hear anything 😦 Lucky for me she came to the post race finish area and found me because it was so awesome to see her!
According to my watch I was nearly there but I had yet to see the stadium and I still would have to enter it..boo When I finally got to the stadium I passed many people, it felt like a never ending route into the stadium in addition to a 300m sprint on the track to the finish….On the track I kept trying to remind myself to look around and enjoy the run on the historic athletic track, a short and fast stint, but who knows what I recall, all I know is I made it in time for that PR :D.
I finished 3:10:32, a PR by over 2 minutes, over 10 minutes faster than my anticipated finish time. I received my medal and stretched a bit, hydrated and then headed over to the post race finish area (also start area). The race threw in a joke at the very end because to get there you have to go down some stairs where they kindly put a sign saying the real finish line are these stairs….pain in the butt stairs after a marathon is so cruel…I decided to pour cold water on my legs going down them and the strangest thing happened, I could now go down the stairs quickly and painlessly…I swear I told everyone to pour water on their legs as I went down them because it was like the fountain of youth but for sore marathon muscles…ha ha.
From there my friend invited me for a celebratory beer, a short but quite enjoyable moment with Annika who I had not seen in 4 years 😀 What an excellent way to reunite randomly after a race and celebrate together!
My visit to Stockholm ended two days later. The day after the race I had a massage and toured old town (Gamla Stan) with Ake until my legs had enough which about a block from the house walking from the center. My last day I spent with Annika having breakfast and visiting the Vasa Ship Museum…highly recommended this Museum, the 17th Century boat is huge and has so many beautiful and well preserved detailed…I concluded the day in Helsinki which I flew to for a quick visit. 😉
Even with all this running I felt I had not seen much of the city, but then again i saw some 42km of it or so. You will probably find me back to Stockholm in the future!
….travel portion to be continued in another entry.
***SPECIAL THANK YOU TO EMMA AND AKE FOR INVITING ME TO RUN, HOSTING ME, CHEERING ME ON, BEING MY TOUR AND RACE GUIDES, AND FOR THE YUMMY LOCAL FOOD TASTING!!
**CHRIS SUPER COOL TO CATCH YOU AT HOME, TO SEE YOUR PAD AND CITY!
*ANNIKA THANK YOU FOR THE MANY CELEBRATIONS, AWESOME TO CATCH UP!