On August 17, I ran the Six Lakes Marathon. This is a trail marathon that starts and finishes in the Fjällnora recreation area, which is about 20 kilometers from Uppsala, Sweden. The course is a single loop, which goes around six lakes.
Both of my parents had Swedish ancestry, so I feel somewhat remiss at having waited so long to visit Sweden. I always assumed I’d do the Stockholm Marathon, but it’s been difficult to fit it into my schedule. That race is held on the same weekend as my favorite home town race. It also conflicts with other notable international races, such as the Comrades Marathon. I finally gave up on that and started looking for alternatives.
The main Stockholm airport is about halfway between Stockholm and Uppsala, and it’s connected to both cities by train. That made it convenient to do some sightseeing in Stockholm first, and then take a train to Uppsala. From there, the race organizers provided bus transportation to and from the marathon.
Tuesday, August 13
I arrived at the Stockholm Arlanda airport just after noon and took an express train into central Stockholm. From the train station, it was just two stops on the subway to get to my hotel. I stayed at the Hilton Stockholm Slussen. This hotel was on the island of Södermalm, but it was just across a bridge from Gamla Stan (the old town).
I got a free upgrade to a room with a small balcony, so I had a view of Gamla Stan and Riddarfjärden (the main waterway through the city center).
The weather in Stockholm ranged from lows in the mid-50s to highs in the upper 60s. Rain was always a possibility, so I usually carried an umbrella, but I never needed it.
It only took a few minutes to walk to Gamla Stan, so I began my sightseeing there. Walking down the narrow streets and through the crowded squares, it was obvious that this is where all the tourists go.
There were lots of shops and restaurants. That was no surprise. I was surprised, however to find Belgian waffles and an abundance of Italian restaurants. Many of the souvenir shops had these Dalecarlian horses. My parents had one of these in their living room when I was growing up.
One of the churches in Gamla Stan is called the German Church. They hold services in German.
Not far from the German Church, there’s a statue of St. George and the dragon.
This brick Gothic church is called the Great Church.
Riddarhuset was a meeting place for the nobility in the 17th century.
A short distance away is Riddarholmen’s church. The crypts of this is church were the final resting place of Swedish monarchs.
This courtyard is called the Square of Branting, although it’s actually a circle.
My last stop on Gamla Stan is where I spent the most time. Here are some views of the Royal Palace.
From Gamla Stan, I crossed a bridge to get to the city center. There’s a large park called the King’s Garden. I didn’t realize it until I got here, but my trip coincided with the Stockholm Cultural Festival. The festival occupied all of King’s Garden, along with several other nearby parks
The theme of the festival was space. Outside the Royal Swedish Opera, they had several globes representing the planets.
Next to King’s Garden is St. Jacob’s Church.
I couldn’t go inside the Royal Swedish Opera, because there was a large stage set up in front of the entrance. That was also part of the festival. As I wandered farther into the city, I continued to see streets that were decorated for the festival.
When I got hungry enough, I finally stopped for dinner. Wherever I travel, I sample the local pizza. Sometimes I find good pizza in unexpected places. I had dinner in a restaurant called 1889 Pizza that was located inside a shopping mall. I had something called a Swedish Forest Pizza. It had Västerbotten cheese, smoked deer, Swedish crispy beets, grilled Portobello mushrooms, lingonberries, and fresh parsley. It’s among the most unusual pizzas I’ve ever tried.
After dinner, I started to get really sleepy. Ideally, on the first night of an overseas trip, I like to stay awake until it gets dark. Stockholm is pretty far north. In the summer, it stays light until late in the evening. I explored the neighborhood around the hotel, but then I went to bed early.
Wednesday, August 14
My room rate at the Hilton included breakfast, which was served in a dining hall that has windows overlooking Riddarfjärden and Gamla Stan. The breakfast buffet included all the usual items, such as bacon, eggs, fruit, cereal, and a variety of breads and pastries. It also included Swedish meatballs. I’ve never thought of meatballs as a breakfast food, but once I tried them, they became a staple of my breakfasts in Stockholm.
After breakfast, I took a two hour canal cruise called “Under the Bridges of Stockholm.” Our tour started near the Grand Hotel.
We went under about a dozen bridges as we passed through the canals that surround the various islands in central Stockholm. Twice during the cruise, we passed through the lock that connects Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea.
Halfway through the cruise, we reversed directions, so we eventually passed everything twice. This allowed me to sit on one side of the boat and eventually get the views on both sides.
This is an amusement park on the island of Djurgården.
These apartment buildings are examples of a common form of Swedish architecture. They have tall windows and large balconies.
This is a communal bath house that was used in the winter, before people had hot water in their homes.
This building is so impressive that a passing naval vessel once mistook it for the Royal Palace. It’s actually a retirement home.
The boat docked close to where the cultural festival was going on. After the cruise, I had lunch at a café next to King’s Garden. Then I walked to Djurgården.
Djurgården is an island with large parks and several museums. The highlight of Djurgården is Skansen, a large open air museum that depicts life in Sweden earlier in its history. There are full reconstructions of Swedish homes, as well as several complete farmsteads.
You could go into most of the homes. Inside, they had period décor and furnishings. In one home, I recognized a style of rug my grandma used to make.
Some of the farmsteads had animals.
In one section of Skansen, they reconstructed a small village, with shops of different types. Like the homes, the shops had realistic interiors. Employees in period clothing depicted the type of work that would have been done in each building. When I went into the bakery and smelled the cinnamon rolls, I couldn’t resist buying one.
They also had windmills and this large belfry.
There’s another area where you can see Nordic animals in open air habitat areas.
Skansen is so large, it also includes a children’s zoo, fairgrounds, and ampitheaters.
There are other museums on the island besides Skansen. Next, I went to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a 17th century Swedish warship. It was the first ship of its kind to have two decks that could hold cannons. That gave it twice the armament of other warships. There was just one problem. It was top heavy. In 1628, on its maiden voyage, the ship capsized and sank in Stockholm’s harbor.
The ship remained in the harbor in a well-preserved state for 333 years before being raised and restored on land. Now it’s inside the Vasa Museum, where you can not only see the ship, but learn about its construction, and its restoration. The ropes for the rigging had to be replaced. Almost everything else is the original material.
This model shows what the ship looked like with the sails and cannons.
I had to stop at the hotel to drop things off and start recharging my electronics. Then I went to dinner in the old town.
Thursday, August 15
I didn’t want to go too many days without running, so I went for a run before breakfast. I wanted to run on the trails on Djurgården, but I had to run almost two miles just to get there. Those first two miles were already familiar to me, but it’s not the easiest place to run. I had to contend with crowded sidewalks, busy street crossings, and sections of cobblestones. It was early, so there weren’t as many pedestrians on the sidewalks, but it was sometimes difficult to get across the bike lanes. There was a steady stream of people commuting to work on bicycles.
My route took me across three bridges before finally arriving at Djurgården. Then I left the sidewalks to run on a gravel trail that followed the island’s northern shore. Toward the east end of the island, the channel separating Djurgården from Djurgårdsbrunn gets narrow and the waters were tranquil.
I saw other runners on Djurgården, but most of the time, I was by myself. I enjoyed the solitude of running on the trails, but eventually I had to turn around and run back into the city. Because of my run, I had a somewhat late breakfast and got a later start on my sightseeing.
After breakfast, I walked over to Stockholm’s city hall, where I bought a ticket to go to the top of the tower. I had to wait an hour for my scheduled time slot, so in the meantime I went to a café at a nearby marina.
They had an elevator that would take you about halfway up, but it could only hold five people at a time, so I took the stairs. It was a long climb. From the top, I had good views of the whole city.
At noon, I heard the bells ring. They’re loud when you’re right underneath them.
I needed to be at the harbor to board an archipelago cruise at 2:00, but I had plenty of time to get to there, so I spent some time wandering through the festival at King’s Garden.
The Stockholm Archipelago consists of about 30,000 islands that are between Stockholm and the Baltic Sea. The smallest ones barely stick out of the water.
Many of the islands are large enough for summer homes, although they can only be reached by boat.
The largest islands in the archipelago are home to large communities. About 10,000 people live on the islands all year, but there are also 50,000 summer homes.
We went far enough to be within sight of Vaxholm, which was once of strategic importance, to guard the shipping lanes. Then we returned to Stockholm. The cruise took about two and a half hours.
After the archipelago cruise, I took a break at the hotel. Then I returned to the old town for dinner. There’s no shortage of good restaurants there.
Friday, August 16
Friday morning, my digestive system was unsettled, so I relaxed at the hotel until I felt like I was ready to travel. Then I took a train to Uppsala. In Uppsala, I stayed at the Radisson Blu, which was right next to the train station.
The race organizers had a table outside the train station where we could pick up our race packets. After checking in at the hotel, I went back to the train station to get my race packet.
Intermittent rain showers made sightseeing difficult, but I managed to see a few things. My first stop was Uppsala Cathedral. It’s so tall that you can’t get it all in one picture when you’re right in front of it. Later, as I continued walking around town, I noticed good views of the cathedral found other vantage points.
A short distance from the cathedral, high on a hilltop, is Uppsala Castle. As with the cathedral, it’s hard to get it all into one picture.
Across the street from the castle are the botanical gardens.
Speaking of gardens, I also went to see the Linnaeus Museum and Garden. Carl Linnaeus was a Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician. The museum is his former home, with many of the original furnishings, as well as his collections of china, silver, and textiles. Outside are his gardens, which contain many plant species.
In between, I occasionally crossed the Fyris River, which runs through the city.
I had dinner at an Italian restaurant about four blocks from my hotel. I didn’t want to venture any farther than that, because I didn’t know if it would rain again.
Saturday, August 17
I had one of those nights where you wake up at 2 AM and suddenly remember six things you forgot to do. I didn’t get back to sleep for hours.
The race didn’t start until 10:00, so I had plenty of time to eat breakfast before catching a bus that took me to where the race started.
I was on the first bus, which left at 8:40. Jan and Tania, who are also Marathon Globetrotters, were on the same bus. I first met Jan and Tania last year at the Manitoba Marathon. More recently, I saw them at the Fargo Marathon.
We were dropped off at Fjällnora around 9:00. Shortly after arriving, we met another Marathon Globetrotter and took a group photo.
It was about 60 degrees at the start, but there was a cool breeze. I was originally planning to run in shorts and a singlet, but I started to feel some drizzle. There were dark clouds overhead, so I made a last minute decision to start the race wearing my Tyvek jacket. Before the race started, the drizzle stopped, but by then I had already checked my gear bag. Before the race started, I took it off my jacket and tied it around my waist.
In addition to the marathon, they also had a 5K, a 10K, and a half marathon. Altogether, there were 600 runners. Of those, 125 were doing the marathon.
Because there were four different races, they had four colors of flagging to mark the various courses. The marathon was the most complicated, since our course sometimes overlapped with the others. During the pre-race announcements, I paid particular attention when they told us how our course was going to be marked.
At first, we were to follow the blue flagging, which was used to mark the 10K course. At the second aid station, we would begin following the yellow flagging, which was used to mark trails that were only used for the marathon. Later in the race, we would follow the red flagging, which was used to mark the half marathon route. The RD never said where we would switch from yellow to red flagging. He just said later in the race. Other runners had printed out a course map that was on the website. I never studied the course map, so I had to figure it out on the fly.
Sweden is an environmentally conscious country. In keeping with that, this was a cupless race. They had aid station every two to three kilometers, but they didn’t use disposable cups. Instead, each runner was expected to carry a cup or bottle. For runners who didn’t have one, they provided HydraPouches. I used the reusable cup I got for the Beer Lovers’ Marathon.
I didn’t really have a goal for this race, other than to finish and avoid any falls. I knew it was a trail race, but I had no idea if it would be technical. Before the race, Jan was asking other runners if they had done this race before. He didn’t find anyone who had. Then he joked that maybe nobody has ever survived it.
I generally prefer road races to trail races, but by a quirk in scheduling, this was my sixth consecutive trail marathon. In the previous five, my times ranged from 4:35 to 5:07. Without knowing how technical this would be, I expected my time to be somewhere within that range.
For most of the first kilometer, the trail was narrow, but runnable. It was relatively flat and there weren’t many rocks or roots. Because we were still bunched fairly close together, I worked to keep up with the runners ahead of me, so I wouldn’t hold up traffic.
The trail surface varied considerably. At various times, it was dirt, grass, gravel, and paved road. And that was just in the first kilometer. As we got onto our first road section, there was more room for people to pass. By the time the trail got narrow again, we were starting to spread out.
We were about two kilometers into the race, when I had my first sighting of a lake.
Soon we reached the first technical section. This was a narrow trail over terrain that could best be described as “boggy.” Then ground was soft and the footing was uneven. We were also navigating around trees. I really had to slow down on this section. I was relieved when I got back onto a dirt road and could run freely again.
After a brief section of dirt road, I reached another section of technical trail. This one had more reliable footing, but there were roots, rocks, and other obstacles. Here I slowed down so much that I lost sight of the runners in front of me, I realized I needed to pay attention to trail markings to make sure I didn’t go off course. To clear all the roots, I was “high-stepping” (i.e. taking short strides while lifting my feet as high as possible). Early in the race I could do that, but it was tiring. I was counting on only having a few short sections like this.
When I got back onto a dirt road, I gradually gained ground on the runners ahead of me. As I came up to the 5K mark, I could see a group of four runners who were about 40 seconds ahead of me. Then I stopped to drink at an aid station and lost sight of them as they went around a corner.
This was the aid station that marked our divergence from the 10K route. As I turned the corner, I immediately started to see yellow flagging instead of blue flagging.
Looking for the yellow markers was easy while I was on the road, but I soon reached another section of technical trail. I found it annoying that the sections where I need to pay close attention to trail markers were the same sections where I didn’t dare take my eyes off the ground.
On this section, I was going so slow that several runners passed me. On the bright side, I now had runners to follow again. As we eventually got back onto road, I gradually passed them again. I was faster on the roads. Everyone else was faster on the trails.
Earlier in the race, I was on pace for a four hour marathon. By the 10K mark, I had fallen off that pace. Then I started a long section that was all either dirt road or paved road. I didn’t know it yet, but only about 15 percent of this course was technical. The rest was quite runnable.
Now that we were on roads, we left the forest behind and got into some wide open countryside. We sometimes ran through small villages or past farms.
Earlier it was cloudy, but now the sun came out. The temperature was beginning to rise. I wasn’t hot, but it was obvious I wouldn’t need the jacket that was tied around my waist. I felt foolish for having it with me for the whole race.
At 14K, I checked my watch. I was on pace for a 4:06 marathon, but I didn’t know what proportion of the course would be technical. On dirt roads, I expected to maintain a consistent pace. On technical trails, I would probably get slower and slower, as I became less sure of my ability to dodge the rocks and roots. As it turned out, it was all dirt road from 10K to 15K.
At 15K, we got onto a section of paved road. Up to this point, I had only been drinking sports drink at the aid stations. I wasn’t eating any solid food. I didn’t really need any, but it occurred to me that I was seeing cookies and candy with brand names I didn’t recognize. They were probably local brands. I decided I should really take this opportunity to sample the Swedish snack foods.
The next time I came to an aid station, I saw a bowl with some small pink and white candies. Not recognizing them, I tried some. They looked like soft candies, but they were actually more like gummy bears. They had a nice flavor, but they were difficult to chew.
We were on paved road for the next two kilometers. I expected to go faster on pavement than I did on gravel, but the terrain was rolling. I started to find that my pace wasn’t sustainable on the uphill sections.
For much of this time, we were in open countryside. Even when we ran past a building, I got the impression that we were pretty far from the city.
At 17K, I returned to dirt road. Then at 18K, I had my second sighting of a lake. Our route would go around six lakes, but that didn’t necessarily mean we would see them all.
I reached an aid station that had something called Vanillas. There were small round snack cakes filled with vanilla custard.
Shortly after that aid station, the dirt road turned into a jeep road. Then we ran over grass. Then it turned into a technical trail. It was the first section of technical trail in about nine kilometers. I had to slow down again to watch out for the roots. I slowed to the point where every stride was relaxed. I never tripped on a rock or root, but if I did, I wouldn’t have had enough forward momentum to throw me completely off balance. Before long, I came out of the woods to a section of narrow trail through tall grass. That was tiring, but I could be sure of my footing.
Soon, I got back onto a dirt road, which led me to the next aid station. This one had some candy bars. I don’t remember the name, but I had never heard of it, so I tried one. It was a chocolate covered waffle type candy.
At 21K, I was still on pace to finish in roughly 4:06. I had no idea, of course, whether the second half would be easier or more difficult than the first half.
We got back onto paved road again. I was almost to the 22K sign when I heard a clackety clack as something hit the pavement. I looked back. It was my drinking cup. As I ran, it gradually worked loose from the band of rubber holding it in place. I picked it up and put it in more securely. I’m lucky that happened on a section of paved road. If it fell onto grass, I probably wouldn’t have heard it.
I started to feel a strong headwind. It was tiring. We were running through open farmland, so there was nothing around to break the wind.
At the next aid station, I had a small cinnamon roll. By now, I was getting full from eating so much solid food, but I associate cinnamon bread and cinnamon rolls with my Scandinavian heritage. There’s no way I could resist eating a cinnamon roll while running a marathon in Sweden.
Because I was feeling full, I gave myself permission to slow down a bit. Often, I tend to latch onto a pace and try to maintain it to the end of the race. I reminded myself that this wasn’t just a race. It was also a scenic run through the countryside in a country I had never visited before. I needed to relax and just enjoy my surroundings.
I was on paved roads for a long time. I liked the running surface, but hated the headwinds. I wondered how I would feel about entering the forest on a technical trail. Would I hate the trail or be relieved to be out of the wind? Eventually, I turned onto a dirt road that took me through a wooded area. That was the best of both worlds. I was sheltered from the wind, but I still had a runnable surface.
After a few kilometers on dirt road, I reached an aid station that was at a junction in the road. There was a sign indicating I was supposed to turn right. After making the turn, I saw blue flagging instead of yellow. In the pre-race instructions, the RD said it would be blue flagging, then yellow, then red. There was no mention about a return to blue. I saw a sign pointing to the right, but there was no yellow flagging in sight. Seeing no other options, I turned right, but I felt uneasy about it. It’s the first time I was unsure about the course markings. I wouldn’t be the last time.
I kept running, but I felt still unsure about it. I couldn’t see any runners ahead of me. I knew another runner reached the aid station just after I did, so I looked back to see if she was going the same way. I couldn’t see anyone behind me. At a bend in the road, I stopped to wait and see if anyone was coming. Eventually, I saw her coming. Relieved that I wasn’t the only one going this way, I resumed running. She might have been following me, so I still felt uneasy. Since there was blue flagging, I knew I was on a course. I just didn’t know if it was the marathon course. Eventually, I would see a kilometer marker. If it was in sequence with the other marathon markers, I would know I was going the right way.
I eventually saw a sign that said both 9 and 30K. The 9K marker was for the 10K race. The 30K marker was for the marathon. I was still on course.
A short time later, I saw red flagging ahead of me. When I got there, I saw blue flagging going to the left and red flagging going straight ahead. I’m glad I paid attention to the pre-race announcements. I knew we were supposed the follow the red flagging toward the end of the race. Just to be sure, I took a close look at the markings. The blue ones said 10 Km. The red ones said 21 Km and 42 Km.
A short time later, I looked to my right and saw a red ribbon tied around a tree. Was I supposed to leave the road? On closer inspection, it didn’t say 21 Km and 42 Km. It had different markings. I spotted a red ribbon with the correct markings farther down the road, so I continued on the road.
At 31K, I left the road for a section of technical trails. It was the first one since about 20K. There were lots of rocks and roots. It was downhill, so I had to be careful. I eventually reached a clearing where I could see a lake on my left.
I ran across a meadow and back into the woods. It was technical trail again, but only briefly. Then I turned onto a dirt road.
After a short distance on the road, I saw a lake on my left. Was this the same lake or a different lake? I wasn’t sure.
As I continued down the road, I started to see runners going in the opposite direction. Were they in one of the shorter races or did this race have an out-and back section? I reached an aid station and asked. I was told to turn around there, run back for 250 meters and then turn right. I should have studied the course map. Then I wouldn’t have been surprised by the out-and-back.
Another runner who was coming from the opposite direction asked me if he was going the wrong way. I gave him the same instructions. A few minutes later, I saw where to turn.
At 36K, I reached another section of technical trails. Was it just a short section, or would I be on difficult trails for the rest of the race? I didn’t know.
I was following another runner when the trail got more difficult. It seemed more and more like we weren’t on a well-defined trail. I had to slow to a walk in some spots. I saw red flagging, but I became suspicious. It didn’t look like the same red flagging we were following before. It looked like the red ribbon I saw tied around a tree earlier.
Eventually, the runner in front of me caught up to another runner who had stopped. They were questioning whether they were still on the course. I told them I didn’t think the red flagging on this trail had the correct markings. When we all agreed we were off course, we began to backtrack. I slowed to a walk as we retraced our route. Eventually, one of the other runners spotted red flagging with the correct markings. I still had to bushwhack through brush that wasn’t on a trail, but eventually I was on course again. I don’t know how much time I lost. I was more concerned with the scrapes on my legs from fighting my way through the brush. Had this happened earlier in the race, it could have put a damper on the whole race. With less than 6K to go, I put it behind me and focused on finishing.
Now that I was back on a well-defined trail, it seemed much more runnable. That wouldn’t last. At 35K, I reached a short section over big rocks. This was more uncomfortable than it looks. These rocks had an average diameter of about three inches, and they were jagged.
After the rocks, I got back on single track trail. It was downhill and full of rocks. I wondered if I was on a trail or running through a dry river bed. I started to hear what sounded like running water. It was probably just the wind blowing through the trees, because I wasn’t near any river or lake.
I eventually came to a dirt road. I didn’t see any sign indicating which way to turn, but there was a volunteer who told me to go to the right. He held out a basket of candies and asked if I wanted one. I took a licorice candy. That hit the spot.
I had 4K to go. The next 3K were on dirt roads. I ran slowly at first, but gained both confidence and speed as I got closer to the end of the race. I somehow missed the 39K, 40K and 41K signs, but I knew I was getting closer to the finish. I saw one more lake.
In those last four kilometers, I passed several runners. Everyone else was slowing down. I was accelerating.
I eventually saw some red buildings that looked just like some cabins I saw in the start area. I saw a parking lot and an area with tents. I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the finish, but I knew I was getting back to Fjällnora.
I turned to run across some grass, but I kept accelerating. I saw sure I was in the last kilometer. I passed one more runner. After one more turn, I was headed toward the finish. I saw the finish line and kept accelerating. I finished in 4:15:48.
I ran positive splits by 10 minutes, but a wrong turn and uncertainly about the trail markings accounted for a substantial portion of that.
There was another lake near the start/finish area, but I never walked down to the lake to take a picture. The race literature suggested going for a swim after the race, but it didn’t seem like that warm of a day. Also, I wanted to get back to Uppsala.
After finishing the race, I made a long overdue bathroom stop, picked up my drop bag, and boarded the next bus to Uppsala. In another 20 minutes, I was back at the hotel.
After a long shower, I uploaded my photos and started jotting down my thoughts about the race. A lot of thoughts go through my head while I'm running, but by the time I finish, my memory is already getting fuzzy. I wanted to get some of my thoughts in writing before I forgot everything. Before I knew it, it was already 7:00. To save time, I had dinner at a Scandinavian restaurant inside the hotel. The food was excellent. I don't think I could have found anything better in town.
Sunday, August 18
On most international trips, cash is king. I can use credit cards most places, but there’s always a few places where I need to have cash. To be prepared, I always exchange about $100 into local currency when I arrive in another country.
In Sweden, I never needed cash. In fact, some places wouldn’t accept cash. I went to one restaurant with a sign saying, “No cash. Credit is queen.” Even some of the pay toilets, which used to require coins, have been retrofitted to read credit cards instead.
I paid some unnecessary bank fees getting Swedish Krona. I ended up using that cash for part of my hotel bill when I checked out from the Radisson Blu.
I was able to get an afternoon flight from Stockholm and connect to a flight in Amsterdam that gets me home the same day. That gave me plenty of time to eat breakfast at the hotel and take a train to the airport. I didn’t have to set an early alarm, but I woke up early anyway. That made a long travel day even longer. By the time I boarded my last flight, I had already been up for 12 hours, and I still had a nine hour flight to get home.
Distance: 42.2 kilometers
Average Pace: 6:04 per kilometer (9:45 per mile)
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 382