Running the Gothenburg Half
"And on your left you’ll see the space museum,” says my friendly but very talkative taxi driver. “I remember when it was on the other side of the road; Sweden only started driving on the right in 1967…” Having been up since 4:30am, I begin to accept lost sleep isn’t going to be found on this particular journey.
Drifting into a state of semi-consciousness, I nod and chuckle and respond with the occasional, “Is that so?” But my mind is elsewhere. Having recently read about the power of pre-run visualisation, I’m already battling for victory in the largest half marathon on the planet. Rapturous crowds of painfully cool Swedes – all pristine Nike trainers and windswept hair – are cheering my name. The finish line’s in sight and, effortlessly picking up the pace, I cruise into first place – to the delight of the race commentator who, raising his megaphone, exclaims, “Your hotel, sir.” Dazed – but encouraged by my strong fictional finish – I pick up my bag and check-in.
As it’s the day before the race, I’ve got time to recce part of the route and get a sense of what Sweden’s second-largest city is all about. I’m expecting beautiful people, an IKEA and, unless my childhood memory fails me, a sighting of Batman.
It’s a sweltering 26° as I head west towards the city centre. After 20 minutes or so of ambling along the banks of the Göta Canal, it’s already clear this is a city reaping the rewards of a Scandinavian preference for high taxes and nice places. Sure, a pint costs £8, but it seems a small price to pay for lovely cities and happy people. In an hour’s walk I count at least four parks – including the Trädgårdsföreningen, a sprawling 19th century park that’s eminently more enjoyable to walk round than it is to pronounce – and a general sense of well-keptness that seems unique to this part of the world.
Naturally, where there’s green space, there are runners. Which brings me to the task at hand. All around athletic Scandinavians float by, oblivious to the midday heat that’s left me in need of some traditional Swedish refreshment.
Orange Fanta in hand, I trek up some very steep steps to Skansen Kronan, a 17th century fortress complete with turrets, cannons and some Swedish teenagers smoking cannabis. Sitting on a nearby mound, I have a read of the race leaflet left for me at the hotel. ‘Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon is our classic 21 km race,’ it says. ‘60,000 runners are ready to join the world’s largest race. Are you?’ Taking this as a hint, I head back to my hotel room and rest up for quite literally the biggest race of my life.
The next morning, after showing some impressive restraint at the breakfast buffet, I set off for my unconventional 1.35pm start – because of the huge number of runners, a wave system sees competitors set off in five-minute intervals. The start line is a short trip away – and, this being efficient, well-run Sweden, all runners get free transport on the day of the race – so I cram onto the nearest tram and spend 20 minutes avoiding a tall man’s armpit.
On arrival at ‘event HQ’, it’s clear this is a well-oiled race. The site itself is huge – festival-esque – so even among tens of thousands of runners there’s plenty of space to sit down, have a little warm-up, or shield your ears from the high-pitched Scandinavian pop blaring from inescapable speakers.
Itake my place at the back of a half-mile queue of runners – all divided into our respective start times – and try to get my head in the game. The truth is, though, that I haven’t really trained, it’s far too hot for a man of my ghostly complexion, and the motivation to properly ‘race’ isn’t really there. So, excuses out the way, I settle in by the 1:40 pacer and begin the long shuffle towards the start line.
Blind panic isn’t necessarily an emotion you want to feel 10 minutes into a race, but as the course winds its way up leafy, residential streets, I’m already running at
a pace best described as unsustainable.
It’s at this point I regret my pre-race decision to leave my watch back at the hotel. My free-spirited attempt to not be constrained by glancing at my wrist every minute has had the adverse effect of making me run far faster than I should be. Not wanting to be ignored, my ego is also rearing its head. “He shouldn’t be in front of you,” it chimes. And it’s right, he shouldn’t – so I pick up the pace some more. As far as race starts go, this isn’t going to plan.
Eventually, with about quarter of an hour and two miles gone, the roads widen and space appears, allowing me to settle into something akin to a rhythm. I’m heartened by the realisation that the route’s climbed steadily since the start, and my extensive knowledge of hills leads me to believe that I’ll soon be heading downwards. Before that quad-relieving bliss, though, a bridge looms into view – and as anyone who’s run the New York Marathon will know, bridges mean climbs.
Five minutes later, I’m battling strong winds and an overwhelming desire to stop and take a #running selfie for my legions of Instagram followers (mum, dad – hi). Safely across, a long downhill section provides a chance to flush out any lingering lactic and stretch my legs.
Once down on the industrialised bank of the Göta älv river, the course follows an unspectacular north-easterly route past the Lindholmen Science Park. The 10K marker comes and goes and, although I’m sticking to what should be a conservative 8min/miles, I’m feeling the heat – literally. My preoccupation with seeking out shade and the occasional, heavenly, on-course ‘showers’ (glorified water sprinklers) does at least distract from the fact that this patch of the race is not the most inspiring: all tower blocks and concrete.
As we head over another bridge, though – with another long, slow, innocuous looking but very painful climb – tourist-brochure Gothenburg springs back into view. With the re-emergence of leafy boulevards and 19th-century architecture comes a renewed energy – helped by bigger crowds this side of the river – and I begin to enjoy the race for the first time.
A mile-long straight to Götaplatsen – a public square in the heart of the city, complete with restaurants, an old movie theatre and a large statue of a naked man grasping a fish – is lined with thousands of spectators, and as the course cuts back on itself, before the final 5K to the finish, I grab a wet sponge handed to me by a water station volunteer. At least, I thought they were a water station volunteer, but the soapy liquid I ended up covered in suggests they were in fact a local valet. Unperturbed – and squeaky clean – I press on, thoughts of post-race beer motivating tired legs.
As always in a race, the final 5K is a lot longer than expected – fatigue clouding logic in not accounting for the fact that the 5Ks I do “all the time” don’t come at the tail end of longer distance races – but, after another sweaty, 20-odd minutes, I’m doing my best impression of a sprint finish. One lap of a 400m track leads me across the line in, well, I wouldn’t know – I didn’t wear a watch. (Let’s call it 1:15, give or take 25 minutes.)
My reward for finishing is a chocolate bar, a medal and a carton of Filmjölk, a traditional Swedish drink of thick, sour milk. Normally a huge fan of fermented dairy, on this occasion I stick to water.
Back on the tram, which smells a whole lot worse than it did on the way out here,
I reflect on a race that, though unspectacular, is arguably the slickest event I’ve run. Every aspect – from the start waves, to the regular water stations to the beautiful humans on the sidelines – was managed and controlled seamlessly. And in my first visit to Sweden, that’s the abiding lesson: everything, world’s largest half marathon included, just works.