How slow can you go? at Stockholm Marathon

When the weather is forecast as 28 degrees, you have to change your race expectations. Even more so when you turn up at the race start, and the announcer says it’s going to hit 31 degrees. It’s no longer about setting a time or achieving a goal, but simply about managing the heat so that you finish in one piece, and not collapsed at the side of the road. Marathons are hard enough, but hot marathons are even tougher. Of all the hot marathons I’ve run (London, Paris, Copenhagen), I tried to run like it was a normal day – and paid for it at the end.

…which is why it was a great thing that I had zero expectations for this race in the first place, and instead could turn it into a really fun experience! Because the Stockholm Marathon came two weeks after the NDW50 ultra, I barely knew if my body would be up for covering the whole distance, and certainly not at any sort of speed. So when I heard the forecast it came as a relief, because now I had a great excuse to just go as slow as possible and enjoy every minute of the race!

Stockholm coincided with my two-year anniversary, so I’d managed to drag Sye along for a weekend away. Unlike normal marathons/races though, where he will run around the city after me, I said that he could go and do a day of sightseeing and I would just meet him at the end of the race. We also enjoyed our celebrations the night before, which involved herring and shots of schnapps – aka a very untraditional pre-race meal. But it was just all about taking a super casual approach to the event, and not making a big deal out of it (for once!).

One of the great things about this marathon is that it only starts at 12pm! I imagine that they normally don’t have weather this hot and therefore that time means that you get the best conditions, rather than the worst, but I found it was a really nice time to have a marathon. It meant that I could wake up at a normal hour and have breakfast with Sye, before leisurely heading over to the Royal Tennis Hall in Stockholm to pick up my bib. Yes – bib pick up on the day of the race! It was then only a ~10min walk to the start-line, and I still arrived far too early. The timing did make it a bit awkward with when/what to eat, but I had half a Swedish cinnamon bun at 10:30 and hoped that would be enough.

Clearly when I signed up for the race I hadn’t realised how close it was to the ultra, and therefore found that I was in pen D with the ~3:45 runners. I was fully expecting it to take me up to 5 hours to finish the race, so just positioned myself towards the back and made sure that when the start-gun went I let everyone overtake me. Just before they started the countdown to go we had a fly-over of jets which was really cool, and then the start signal was literally a gun salute by ~10 soldiers! Certainly haven’t had that at a race before.

Knowing that it would be a slow run, I’d decided not to wear my watch when running, but instead to stick it in my pocket. What I hadn’t realised though, is that I’d packed my shorts rather than my standard capris. This is great for the weather, but unfortunately the shorts are lacking in pockets. In the end, I found some purple tape in our AirBnB and stuck it over the screen – and then drew a smiley face for good measure. It worked a treat as I really couldn’t see anything through the tape, and it wasn’t long before I stopped reflex-looking at it.

Yep, it was hot. Within 1km I was already sweating profusely, but it was a good reminder to look after myself. We’d each been given a sponge which I had tucked into my tutu, and then I was also wearing a bandana wrapped around my wrist. Both of these I planned to soak in water whenever possible and use to wipe my face/squeeze water over my head. I knew there were water stations every ~3km, as well as 15 showers along the course (upgraded from 6 thanks to the temperature!), which would also help to cool down. Beyond that I just had to regulate my pace and try and stick to the shade whenever possible. As I ran I kept telling myself “nothing is worth pushing it today”.

The first kilometres passed fine. Various pacers overtook me, and it wasn’t long until I found myself running somewhere behind the 4:15 group. Presuming they were on target, that meant I was running ~6:00/km or slower, which was a good pace for today. I skipped the first aid station but did stop at the second at 5km – and that was the longest stretch I ran in one go all day 😂 It was amazing how people were jostling and shoving each other to try and get to the water and then run off. Since I was in no rush, I could calmly collect my cup, drink it, and then move on.

For its 40th edition in 2018, the Stockholm Marathon created a new course to replace the previous two-lap version. This new course goes through all 7 sections of the city, and is a real sight-seeing tour! You even pass the royal palace twice, where they had laid out a red carpet so that runners can get their ‘royal selfie’. I imagined it as three different loops, with one stretch in the middle which is included on each loop, although you run it once in the opposite direction.

It was as I was coming along this middle-bit for the first time that I saw the first elite runner heading back for ‘loop 3’. This is always a great moment of a race, however made even more exciting because I knew that not far behind him would be Yuki Kawauchi! As a fan of the Marathon Talk podcast (and, well, marathon running), Yuki is a total hero. He recently won Boston Marathon, but also has just been able to prove that yes, you can run a marathon-a-month and still be fast. Anyway, when he came flying in the opposite direction I just about lost my voice screaming out his name, and then excitedly exclaiming to everyone around me that that was Yuki. It was a brilliant moment, and a reminder of one of the reasons why I love this sport. Where else do you get to participate in the same race as your heroes?

Just after I saw Yuki, I then heard someone yelling my name – but this time not just a random Swede at the side of the road – it was Sye! He had stopped on the other side of the road in the middle of his explorations of Stockholm, and with the coincidence of timing I had happened to run past. I was too far away to stop and say hi, but I blew him a kiss and felt really happy that I’d been able to see him.

With a third of the race run, you pass by the stadium to complete ‘loop 1’. Later, you’ll run kilometres 8-13 again as kilometres 36-41, but for now you keep going towards Djurgården for ‘loop 2’. I’d been recommended this park by a Swedish friend as a nice place to chill out, and it was a beautiful part of the course. There weren’t many crowds of supporters around here, but being amongst nature always makes up for that. I did get the chance to chat to a guy wearing a pink bunny outfit, with a sign saying ‘Not Official Rabbit’ on the back. I asked him who the official rabbit was, and it turns out that’s the Finnish term for a pacer. He must have been warm in that costume!

I had really been looking forward to the halfway point, not because it meant that the countdown could start, but because of something I had read while researching the course. At the 21km aid station, rather than handing out the standard bananas/gels/energy drink, they were going to be offering salted gherkins! I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but knew that I had to try one because hey – when in Stockholm… The volunteer was trying to give out fistfuls but I only took one and good thing, because it was gross! I’d also been warned that they were very slippery on the ground, so walked for a little while to avoid falling over on my face, and to get ready for the second part of the race.

    

I’d cleared the first half in ~2:07 (as I knew from the big clock, not my own watch, obvs), but my running had long been purely to get from aid-station to aid-station. These were typically ~2.5km apart, and meant that it was never too long between drinks/water on my head. However, it was hot enough that my throat would already be dry within a kilometre. While the aid-stations were well-manned and mostly had both water and sports drink, they had got into a terrible state thanks to all the cups scrunched on the ground and the dirty pools of water that extended half a metre out from the table.

At 25km we were running along a road in Södermalm (‘loop 3’) when I noticed that there were a whole bunch of people running in the shade on the opposite side of the road. Annoyingly, there was a piece of tape down the middle of the road between me and the shade, but up in front I could see lots of people jumping across. I found a part where the tape had broken and so could get across to the shade, while some women ran into the middle of the road to repair said tape. Now for whatever reason, none of this triggered in my brain that ‘oh, the course doubles back on itself, and you have to stay on your side of the road’. Nope! I just wanted to be in the shade. Luckily though a bit further down a guy was hoping up the tape and motioning for people to turn right to ‘twenty-six’ and I just happened to go that way. It’s only when I was a little ways further down the road that I realised what had just happened, and that I could have easily skipped out on 6km of course. Whoops! But at least I got some extra shade.

I’d been negotiating with myself about when I’d move my cold, wet (great!) bandana from my wrist to my neck, and when we hit a boring industrial section in the late 20s, the time was right. Why are the worst bits of courses always at this worst point of the distance? Today I was hardly noticing the distance, but it is an interesting correlation. Soon afterwards (29km) we hit a nice long hill which I walked up (because “nothing is worth pushing it today”) and then there was another walking hill at 32km. We’d had a lot of rolling hills up until this point, but these were the steepest of the day.

However, the big corker came at 34km, called ‘the CLIMB’. By naming hills I swear you’re making them seem really scary, even if they’re actually runnable. This was a ~600m slow incline over a bridge, and was entirely runnable (if you hadn’t given up on the race by now). Tied to the lampposts along the side were signs stating with precision that there were only ‘309m to go!’. It was quite fun really 😄

This race in general had been a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the course, getting to see all different parts of the city, and running easy meant that I was in a good mood from start-to-finish. This is epitomised by a moment at ~31km when we were running through a really long tunnel. Now, when running in a tunnel it is customary to whoop and holler and enjoy the sound that the echo makes. So I did – except that no-one responded! Not one person was happy enough to even give a little yell! I probably should have given up then, but I couldn’t resist a few more coo-ees over the next 500m. I told you, I was having fun!

Of course though, every marathon starts to feel long once you get into the final few kilometres. I was still running, unlike many of the people around me, which got me a lot of cheers from the crowds. The support was a nice boost but I was mentally getting ready for it all to be over. When we got to 40km I decided that enough was enough, and I needed smaller increments to be able to count down to the end. I pulled the cover off my watch screen and then could see the kilometres tick upwards in all their minute glory.

I’d met two French guys in the start pen who were running their 105th marathon. Somehow I’d managed to have an entire conversation with them in French, and now with just a few kilometres left I caught up to them. We exchanged the customary ‘ça va?’ and ‘il fait chaud’ (it is hot). I kept going and not long later was turning into the Stockholm Stadium (where there were 83 world records set in the 1912 Olympics) to run the last 300m on the track. After 42km of plodding I picked up the speed, waved at the crowds, and crossed the finish line in 4:17:11. Not bad for a sub-5 hour target!

I’m incredibly pleased with how that race went. It was the first time that I’d sensibly run a hot marathon, and felt like my experience and knowledge of this sport was shining through. It was one of my slowest results, but I really don’t care one iota – it felt a hell of a lot better than London in April and I’m much prouder of my time, even if it’s over 20min slower. Plus, it was another new way to experience the race – truly chilled out and casual. Worth trying some time!

Stockholm Marathon is great – even with the conditions. There was plenty of water, showers and sponges to keep people cool, and I really liked the course. The t-shirts are in women’s sizes (!!!) and well-fitted, and the medal is great too with its Swedish-flag ribbon. At the end there was alcohol-free beer, hot dogs and cinnamon buns along with the usual fruit/water/sports-drink – what more could you ask for at the end of a long run? Highly recommended, and definitely one of my top-five marathons.

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