Stockholm Halvmarathon 2016

It’s a strange dance that occurs before the start of a long run; the DJ tries to pump up the crowd, with a variety of motivational slogans and Avicii tunes. The runners bounce from foot to foot, trying to find the perfect equilibrium between moving to warm up the muscles and not moving so much that the heart rate goes too high, too soon. It’s over 100, don’t move quite so much, but the tunes are getting you psyched, move a little more.

“Hands in the air,” demands the voice through the speakers, and thousands of pairs of hands reach for he heavens and start to clap. The clap lacks the intense and protracted rhythm of the Icelandic clap, yet makes up for in passion what it lacks in beat.

With fifteen seconds to go before the gun the tunes stop entirely. A hushed silence falls across the thousands of runners. Voices whisper to friends and yet somehow their collective whispers do nothing to break the silence. Anticipation descends upon the collected host, heightened by the heat of the piercing mid-afternoon sun.

Bang. The gun goes. Quick step forward followed by an immediate slow down as every competitor starts the dreaded shuffle towards the line, a multitude of steps like the slow and efficient coiling of a spring. With the start line in sight the shuffle becomes a jog. Fingers hover impatiently over watch buttons, determined to catch the very instant that the chip laced through their shoe passes the timing mats.

As they cross the line the jog becomes a run. Don’t dodge too much, they say, go with the pace at the start, and yet—is that a gap? Take it. Come now, a course adjustment or two won’t hurt too much. There’s two sets of pacers in sight, the 1:45 and the 1:50. 1:50 was the pre race target but why accept that? Why start slower than your best? Why rule out a PB before you’ve even began? Is that the Olympian spirit?

Okay, 1:45 it is. Your PB is 1:47:01 so it’s a bit faster, and that heat is gonna cost you, but maybe there’s something special in the tank. Maybe that IT band injury wasn’t so bad after all, and hey—you may have only been able to train with 5k runs but Athens is hot in the evening is it not? Yes, aim for the 1:45 and may God be with you.

Crossing yourself, how does it go anyway? Testicles, spectacles, wallet, watch? Or is is spectacles, testicles, wallet watch? And why even do it? You’re not a catholic, you’re not superstitious, yet every race—cross yourself, remind yourself who has your back. God, I hope He has my back.

This pacer is going quick. Definitely not negative splitting this, they’re steaming along. Slightly quicker than evens but they must know the drill. 700 metres in and it’s into the tunnel. A break from the sun and yet it’s hot in here, a tide of thousands surging through a cramped space, hug the wall lad, hug the wall and get the slightest moment of air as you pass the fire exits. How long is this for? A kilometre? We’re flying.

Round out of the tunnel and through the city before dropping down to the river—or is it a canal? 4.5km in and here we go, the unmistakeable feeling of something you’ve recently put into your mouth tying to make its way back out. You gulp instinctively, there’s no time for puking. Puking costs seconds. Where’s that pacer? Your a couple of steps ahead of him now. Flying.

Water station follows water station. Two cups each time, one in your mouth and one over your head. Damn it’s hot. Almost 8km and time for an energy gel, turns out that safety pinning to your shorts and the. pulling them off really does work for opening. Gulp it down. It’s not so bad, not so bad as those foul syrups you had in London. Now watch for more water to wash it down.

Next drink station they’re giving out sports drink, that’s good, right? You’re sweating buckets, you need the electrolytes, but boy wouldn’t some more water taste good right now? Wouldn’t it just? The sticky fluids drip all over your hands and your beard. This running thing sure is glamorous.

Approaching half way now. Check the pace, man, you’re still on 1:45 pace but it’s starting to hurt, you can’t keep this up for much longer but got to keep the legs turning, got to keep moving, one foot in front of the other. Is this water station ever going to come? Water, man, just give me some water.

Drink station on the right. Come on. We can do this. Only they’re shouting Pepsi. Pepsi. Pepsi? Who on earth though that was a good idea? It’s not even coca-cola. And it’s water we need. Give us the water already. Drink some down all the same, it’s surprising good but it sure ain’t water.

10k to go and you’re starting to drop the pace, the pacers have taken off and you can’t keep up. You order your legs to go faster but it’s like they just won’t listen, somewhere, between the brain and the legs, the order gets lost in the post. You’re slowing still.

Damn, what’s with the sun? Surely you’re not going to slow to a walk. Not now. But water, water, water. Someone just provide some water and it’ll all be okay. Walk, just for a few seconds, then pick yourself up. Finally you can see a water station. You’re back on.

Are they goose pimples? You’ve only five or six k left and you’re breaking out in goose pimples? How can that be? The sun is still there, the heat is still on your neck and yet—yes, you’re definitely shivering. Stop that. Go back to normal. Quit with the goose pimples and the shivering and the bloody hell it hurts so much where did this come from? Isn’t the body supposed to be able to regulate temperature?

There’s no way you’re going to PB now, but if you can keep this pace, you can still get in at 1:50. The 1:50 pacer has overtaken you but don’t read anything into it. You’re quick enough to fix this, just another five seconds of walking first. Wonder what the poor guy buy the side of the road is suffering from? There are enough medics, can’t be good. And he looked fit, fitter than you and that’s a fact.

Just two k left now and every ounce of energy is going into this, it comes in waves as some energy from the last gel hits you then goes, then another wave from some water. By now you’re not pouring water over your head but rather dousing your hat in it completely then replacing it. You live for that moment of comfort when it goes back on your head and you feel like you may not die of heat exhaustion after all.

Another hill. So much for Stockholm being flat and this guy, why is this guy walking? Not now. He’s not even doing the awkward speed walk of the cramping runner, he’s just trudging.

Encourage him, “come on mate, not far to go now - you’ve got this”.

He smiles but doesn’t pick up the pace.

“Have you got a little more inside, can you just run a little,” you say, hoping that maybe you can motivate him just to get going again and follow you to the line. It’s no use. He’s spent. You take off again.

Over the bridge from SoFo into Gamla Stan and down by the river again, can it really only be a kilometre left? Are you sobbing? You can’t be sobbing? You make the movement, you make the sound, and yet no tears come from your dehydrated body.

There’s the line in sight now. Come on. Talk yourself up. You’re a running machine. God crafted your body to be able to do this, you’re tall, you’re lean, keep going—you round the corner from the old parliament building and its sprint time. Maybe 200 metres left. Go hard or go home. Go hard then go home.

Balls. This hurts. Keep the legs pumping, finger on the watch, over the line, click, arms in the air…

1:50:03.

So close. So damn close. And yet the three seconds night well represent eternity, a yawning chasm between you and your pre-race goal. More dry sobs, a mixture of elation and pain.

Kipling would’ve wrote about this, in fact he did:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.