Running Quietly in Stockholm
There must be a Greatest Hits For Races collection that arrives in the mailbox of all race directors. Regardless of location, the same music is blaring over the crowds of athletes waiting to race. This principle held true in Stockholm on Saturday, September 17th at 4 PM as I stood with my husband and our friend, getting ready to run the Stockholm Half Marathon. We listened to pretty much the same pumping hits as we would in Chicago, with a few Swedish pop tunes and ABBA classics thrown in. Of course, they worked. I couldn’t wait to get going! I’d come to Stockholm to run this half, and conditions couldn’t have been better. I was wide awake. It was sunny, slightly breezy, and right around 60 degrees. If anything, it would cool off by the time we finished the race around dusk. And the course would give me a nice preview of the city, which I had a full week to explore!
We had picked up our packets the day before. It was the standard format, where you get an enormous bag that dwarfs the half a dozen ads for events or services you’ll never attend or need, and a sponge. The sponge was for cooling ourselves off in case of extreme heat; did they think it was going to be hot? It was supposed to be in the 50s! I also had an enormous stack of blister band-aids in my bag, enough for a battalion of tender feet. Drew only got one. Hah! There were some vendors as well, one selling ridiculously over-priced race shirts. They were nice wicking shirts, but they wanted $25-45 dollars apiece, depending on the style! There was also a booth for Maxim, the sports drink supplier. Ordinarily, I’d train with the sports drink that will be on the race course, but Maxim is specific to northern Europe, and the only way I could have gotten some before the race was to pay to have it shipped from Britain. Yeah, right! But I did look at the selection of bars, gels, drinks, and recovery foods, and I bought a couple packets of the drink to try out. We scored a couple of sports bottles, too – bonus!
Stockholm is a beautiful city, built on a dozen or more islands and peninsulas. The original settlement, now close to a millennium old, has become Gamla Stan, the old town. The city expanded, and the downtown neighborhoods are full of cobblestone streets, elegant apartment buildings, and parks. The race course started in front of Slottet, the Royal Palace, and then described a figure eight through three neighborhoods before coming back to finish in front of the palace.
The race start was amazingly cheery and well organized. I am so used to race starts being full of shivering, crabby, sleepy people who have been up since 3 AM. This race started at 4 PM, so everybody was awake! And happy! The race went off in eight waves, based loosely on expected completion time. I stood in my corral in the warm sun, listening to content racers chatter and watching them do aerobics. Instead of jogging in place or stretching, many people in the crowd were doing the arm raises and side steps that I associate with group fitness classes at the gym. I don’t recall ever seeing much of that before races before. I was the only one with a race belt (Gatorade Pro, since I couldn’t train with the Maxim), and I only saw a few people with compression socks. Everybody was wearing wicking clothing, though. Often at races in Chicago you’ll see people turning out in the cotton race t-shirts, but there was nothing like that at all. And people in Chicago arrive in all shapes and sizes. Here there was a lot of Adidas and Craft brand clothing on very slender, very fit people. Our wave started at 4:25 PM, or 16:25. At 16:20, we moved to the start line and the announcer started pumping up the crowd. At least, I think he did, as he would speak animatedly in Swedish and the racers would cheer enthusiastically. At 16:25, the gun went off and we started to run.
And everybody got very quiet and very focused. All of the chatter and laughing from the happy crowd stopped instantly. The first part of the course headed north up a hill into Norrmalm, and there was no complaining. There wasn’t much cheering from the observing crowd, either. About two kilometers in, we made a left turn and went into a long tunnel. Inside the tunnel, it was silent except for the sound of running feet. Nobody was talking! In Chicago races when you go into a tunnel, everybody cheers to hear the echo. All I could hear was feet and breathing. It was surreal. We came out to a few spectators, and the only people cheering were some volunteers in neon yellow vests. They had commandeered the back of a moving van and were inside, beating on the walls and yelling, “Heja heja heja!” (“Hey ya!”)
About this time, I started paying attention to my pacing. I set a PR at the half marathon distance about 4 months ago, and I wanted to have a good showing in comparison at this race. Figuring out my pace took longer than usual, as all of the markers were in kilometers in this race, and I think in miles. What I ended up doing was ignoring the markers for the most part, and focusing on the markers that had timing mats at the 5K intervals. I had a sense of how long it should take me to run 5K, which helped me to put my times in perspective. Let me quote Jeff Palmer here and say that for most of my race, “I was cruising along comfortably at a 6:15 pace.” Too bad it was minutes/kilometer, not minutes/mile!
There were bands or DJs every kilometer or so. One of the early bands had blonde women in tight red dresses drumming madly. At five kilometers in, we ran through the neighborhood that our friend and host lived in. Then it was off over a bridge, where we could see the racers in front of us on the road below. Stockholm isn’t really hilly, but it is built on islands, so going from sea level up onto the islands and over bridges does create some elevation change. We headed to the northwest, with more bands and more loops over bridges in Kungsholmen. I heard YMCA, some ABBA, and Drew later told me he heard “Sweet Home Chicago” around this point. A few moose hats appeared on spectators, who were cheering faintly, if at all. Heja, heja-ja.
A lot of the course was along the canals and waterways choked with cruisers and sail boats. It was beautiful! The water stops had Maxim and water, and a couple of them had troughs of water to wet the sponge in. I actually saw people using them, too! I wonder what they’d do if it actually got HOT?! We went by City Hall, Stadshuset, which looks out over the water, before zooming along the edge of Gamla Stan to the sound of a band singing ABBA. I picked up my pace, as I was about two-thirds of the way into the race. Then it was along the water under a cliff of houses in Södermalm, on the south side of the city. I ran by a DJ playing Boy George, and past a bar blaring the Beastie Boys. The course made a sharp left up a hill in a city park. I could hear drumming, and as the crowds parted at the top of the hill, I saw eight very bored looking guys in band uniforms drumming unenthusiastically to provide rhythm for six belly dancers in sparkling outfits. I wasn’t sure why the drummers looked so bored. They had scantily clad women to look at, and they weren’t running up hill!
The final part of the course involved a long, gradual hill, then a sharp downhill to the long straightaway into Gamla Stan. In the middle of the straightaway was the band that had been singing ABBA. On my way to the finish, they were singing Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” with a Swedish accent. Apparently they were feeling höt, höt, höt! I, too, was on fire as I dashed around the corner of the palace and up over the bridge to the finish line. Here, finally, the crowds were cheering and the announcer was yelling! And I had a new PR! I think I like this racing-while-fully-awake business! Heja-ja!
Immediately after the finish line, the racers were funneled into the finishing corral. The Swedes started to talk and laugh again, since the serious business of racing was complete. We got rid of our timing chips and were given water – strawberry flavored sparkling mineral water! It wasn’t quite what I was expecting! Instead of the post-race food frenzy, everybody was handed a plastic bag with a banana, a soda, a protein recovery drink along the lines of Muscle Milk, a bag of almonds, and a recovery bar. They were very welcome! I met up with Drew and our host, who both had great races as well. I later found out that my first two 5K times were pretty similar, and the last two 5K times were similar, but faster. Excellent, negative splits!
I would definitely recommend traveling for a race. This was an easy one, since we only had to take running clothes and the conditions were likely to be favorable. We were also staying with a friend who could cook familiar foods. That won’t be the case for every race, but a race is a great excuse to stay active on vacation. Do a race for fun and see somewhere new at the same time! Check out the Association of International Marathons and Distance Racing for a list of great places to explore. http://aimsworldrunning.org/ Pick a race, and be prepared for me to invite myself along!