A main road in Gothenburg, with next to no traffic on it.
Special Feature

Road to nowhere? – Or, training for cancelled marathons

This morning I should have been on a flight to London. Instead, I am writing this whilst feeling a little sorry for myself. I have a cold and haven’t slept well in a week. There’s no grand story arc – like with a race report, or a training journey that actually culminates in reaching the start line of a race. There are though a few photos of beautiful Swedish scenery if you like that sort of thing.

As regular readers will be aware, I emigrated to Sweden six weeks after participating in the Chicago marathon. That marathon didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped.  Unlike after Loch Ness, I couldn’t afford to take months to recover: training for London was supposed to begin in early January, and that was just a month after the overseas move.  I debated perhaps running to Sweden to kill two birds with one stone, but it seemed impractical given the amount of furniture I’d need to be carrying.

I had felt pretty strong at the Auchterarder Half Marathon just three weeks after Chicago.  I thought that maybe since I hadn’t executed it as well, my recovery would be correspondingly much swifter than from Loch Ness. The sheer busyness of moving though seemed to take its toll, and my Strava fitness score stubbornly kept dropping despite maintaining a base mileage of around 30 miles per week.

Photo of Stora Delsjön
Stora Delsjön on a sunny morning.

Starting on 6th January it was time to get with the program. I jumped into the same plan I had followed for both Loch Ness and Chicago, but with fewer weeks to prepare. I was also being much more flexible, moving sessions around and doing different types of sessions in order to be able to train with my new running club, Solvikingarna (this translates as The Sun Vikings), on Monday and Thursday evenings. It’s a big club and divides into different pace groups for training. I think it would be fair to say I am slightly below average compared to the regular attendees. I am usually going with the faster intervals group on a Monday.  That’s because the fastest runners do their intervals on the Tuesday evening and cunning timing is an easy way to improve my relative performance.

I generally run with the 5:30/km pace group on a Thursday night for the 90-minute session: They have groups from sub 4:00/km to 6:00/km. I come from a club where I won the Women’s Open Trophy in 2018.  It’s been humbling but also a great experience to be known only for being the Scottish woman who won’t understand most of what you are saying and whose pronunciation of anything is largely incomprehensible.  Given the history between Scotland and Sweden I really should be better – we’re historically predisposed towards running fast away from Vikings.  Now that I’m following UK lockdown rules and not currently training with them, I miss all the incidental language learning I got from the training, in addition to missing the training itself.

A section of the Gotaleden train. Photo taken by Angie.
A section of the Gotaleden trail. Photo taken by Angie.

I got in 3 solid weeks of training in January, and my Strava fitness score was steadily increasing. My pace had been really sluggish, but I thought I was starting to see the impact of the interval sessions. Then a cold set me back for a week and I missed several days of training. I then immediately went back into full training mode at 70 – 80 km per week. This was a bit of a risk for injury or relapse, so I dropped the mileage back down the following week before taking it back up .

My training in Göteborg has been quite different to my training in Scotland, but not necessarily in the way I expected. Moving from a (very) small town of around 7,000 inhabitants, surrounded by rolling hills and farms, to Sweden’s second city with a population of around 600,000, I expected some changes. I thought I would struggle to get enough hill work. And I thought my training would be on city streets, with frequent annoying pauses to cross busy roads. But it’s been even more rural than the Angus countryside.

When we visited in June I was introduced to the Delsjön nature reserve which is the site of Skatås parkrun. We were lucky enough to find an apartment around a mile from this idyllic beauty spot, and the nature reserve was much bigger than I realised, with around 200 hectares of forests and three large lakes. There are five signposted trails (so even I can’t get lost on them, if I go the correct direction around the loops) and hundreds of others. It’s amazing that a place so beautiful – and which feels so remote, can exist in such a metropolitan area. It’s also incredibly undulating, so my fear of losing out on hill work was completely misplaced. It’s an absolutely amazing place, and I loved being able to explore it – with my phone handy for all the occasions when I would “do a Pauline” (as a few BRR members call it) and take a wrong turn. The phone also enabled me to take photos of the scenery. Running solo isn’t so bad when it’s in such a stunning location.

Yet another photo of one of the lakes in Delsjön
Another of the lakes in Delsjön

I was feeling some benefits from this ramping up of training, but I still wasn’t sure how my fitness compared to before Chicago or Loch Ness, or what my target time for London should be. My long runs were pretty slow (6:00/km pace or even slower). In Brechin I could do them at 5:15 pace no problem. It wasn’t comparing apples to apples though. In Brechin I had friends to run with for many of my Sunday long runs. My new running club does the gentler-paced long runs on a Saturday.  I am sure they’re great, but I picked parkrun over that option every time.

The Sunday group though runs at a 5:30/km pace, or faster.  I tried running with them on a Sunday in December. It was torrential rain, I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast, and it was a hilly trail route. A couple of the guys had to break off from the other half dozen (I was the only woman there that morning) to go an easier (flatter) route with me after a few miles of me holding everyone up. Then I hit the wall after only around 12 miles and they had to do a walk/ run thing with me until I knew where I was and could find a tram stop.   To be fair, once I got on the tram my speed dramatically improved.

I’ve done my long runs solo since then, asides from one Sunday at the end of February when a lovely Scottish lady was visiting for a bit of parkrun tourism and we ran a section of the Gotaleden trail. Well, I say “ran” but some sections were so icy and muddy that we had to walk parts of it. It was a great adventure, and our late lunch at the café in Jonsered was fantastic. It’ll be amazing in summer.

Angie and I on the Gotaleden trail
Angie and I on the Gotaleden trail. This was one of the few dry sections. Photo taken by Angie.

My pace over long runs was discouraging. I was though running on hilly trails rather than flat tarmac. The runs usually had 400 – 600 metres of elevation over 16 – 20 miles. I had no problems getting the Climbing badge on Strava. The climbs were steeper than the gentler undulations of my usual routes around Brechin, which was quite surprising because in Scotland even downhill paths go uphill.  I was using the 8 km loop at Skatås for marathon/ half-marathon paced sessions and only hitting my target pacing for about half the miles. I’d picked this as it is by far the flattest of the signposted loops. And most of it is actually tarmac (though old and not overly smooth). But it still had 65 metres of climbing for the loop, with 3 noticeably steep sections that killed my quads.

I decided I needed to leave the beautiful nature reserve for the lactate threshold training and run alongside the main road to Partille – a fairly affluent town that borders Östra Göteborg. I did an 11-mile lactate threshold session on Tuesday 3rd March. This was 2 miles warm-up, 7 miles at half marathon pace, and 2 miles cooldown. My half marathon PB pace is about 7:28 per mile, but I decided to give myself a small window of leeway. When training for Loch Ness I’d tried to keep the half-marathon pace miles sub 7:40, and how easy or hard I found that to do on this flat, fairly boring stretch of main road would give me an indication as to whether I had any hope of a sub 3:40 marathon, let alone a sub 3:30.

A healthy and delicious salad after the Gotaleden trail
A well needed and healthy lunch after nearly 4 hours on the Gotaleden trail. (I also had cake after, but forgot to photograph that.)

I completely nailed it.

Those splits came in at 7:37, 7:38, 7:40, 7:36, 7:34, 7:34 and 7:29. That third mile had been tough, but I’d pulled it back and was slowly ramping up the pace. I couldn’t have held it for 13 miles, but it gave me a lot of confidence that the long, slow, hill training was translating to something reasonable on the road.

Five days later, I took 49 seconds off my course PB for Skatås parkrun and – thanks only to the fact that the fastest female runners were absent-  Förstaplacerade kvinnor for the first time since I fluked into that on my first run here the summer before we moved over. I followed that up with a 20 miler the following morning – at 6:02/km pace, but with nearly 550 metres of climbing. I struggled with the short hill reps a week later, but was near the front on the final, long hill. One of the guys I talk to at training told me that I just keep getting stronger and stronger every time he sees me. I was starting to think I might do fairly well at London after all.

One of the smaller lakes on a frosty morning
One of the smaller lakes on a frosty morning

Then it all fell apart, along with the rest of the world as we knew it.

I was at the International Board Game evening with my other half and a couple of friends on Friday 13th March when I checked my phone to see why it kept buzzing. The group chat for Brechin Road Runners was all about London Marathon being cancelled. This wasn’t a complete surprise, as there had been speculation for weeks, but it was disappointing.

Parkrun was also cancelled the following day.

I arranged to go for a run with Jeff in a different park.  Skatås was hosting an 8 km race which I had considered participating in, but my other half thought it was too risky under the circumstances to join over a hundred strangers chasing after – rather than running away from – each other. It was nice to see a different area of lakes and forests, and I still got to see my parkrun nemesis. He was there training with a couple of his friends but heading past us in the opposite direction.

Photo of a lake in Hisingsparken
Photo of a lake in Hisingsparken. It may look similar to Skatås/ Delsjön, but I can tell it isn’t based on the different configuration of the lake and trees. And also the date on the photo and my Strava logs.

Without a marathon to train for I was secretly a little relieved that I wouldn’t have to fly to London.  I could sack off the remaining 4 weeks of high mileage training before the taper. I decided to drop back to about 30 miles a week, do some strength training, and focus on improving my 5 km times.

That plan lasted less than a week.

Parkrun was cancelled as an ongoing concern, and my full-time Swedish course moved from 20 hours of classroom contact per week to 100% online. The Universities followed suit, and my other half was told to work from home, first until the start of April, and then until early May, and now until the middle of June.   Sweden has not implemented a lockdown the way many other European nations have, but since we had the privilege of not having to put ourselves at risk, we decided we should be socially responsible and try to help flatten the curve by staying in as much as possible. For me, this was and is a trial. For Michael, it’s business as usual.   He’s been socially isolating recreationally for the past thirty years.

Central Gothenburg on a Sunday morning.
Central Gothenburg on a Sunday morning.

I got pretty sick of trying to work out in the living room, but found Skatås too busy so started running around the city streets at off-peak times. The Solvikingarna are still training, and I miss their sessions.  Even with the regulations they are following the park itself is so busy that you are going to come into close proximity with too many people. It’s probably less risky than going to the supermarket, but why take the risk if you don’t have to?  Keeping ourselves isolated is relatively easy here – we rarely have to go to the supermarket here as you can get delivery slots pretty easily.

I managed to hold my mileage at around 40km per week. It was nice to be doing fewer miles, but I was missing parkrun and the coached sessions. I did no solo speed work. My reasoning was that I needed all my focus to be on identifying and avoiding potential hazards, which is to say… other people. The potentially infected. Every cough a sign of potential sickness.

I’ve relaxed a little around that now. I give people as much space as I can, but if they keep strolling unconcernedly down the middle of the pavement whilst I’m sticking to the rightmost edge, I’m not going to risk jumping in front of a bicycle in order to ensure there is over 2 metres distance between us. I got used to the suburb streets and, one Sunday morning, decided to risk venturing towards the city centre. It was quieter than the suburbs. Many shops are closed on Sundays in any case, and the ones that are open do not open until 10:00am or later. At 8:30am on a Sunday it’s one of the safest places to be.

I was thinking I could get used to this.

Central Station looking deserted
Central Station looking deserted

Okay, so working on my 5 km times wasn’t an option with parkrun now cancelled until the end of May. I just needed to keep ticking over until my next marathon training block – for Berlin – started at the beginning of June. I was still hopeful that it would go ahead – that the extreme measures Europe had taken to fight Covid-19 would have paid off by then. I was just kidding myself though.

I heard about Berlin Marathon being cancelled before most of the English-speaking world did. It was in a Facebook group for Berlin Marathon 2020 participants, and the link was to a German news article. I studied German for four years in high school, never got very far with it, and promptly forgot almost all of it. But Swedish (which I have been studying fairly intensively for a few months) has some similarities with both German and English. And, more importantly, I spend a lot of time putting things through Google translate – then working out what seems plausible and what parts of the translation are just absolute gibberish. Although no official announcement had yet been made by the race organisers, the German Senate had decreed that there could be no mass events of over 5,000 participants before October 24th. That seemed pretty final. Sure enough, a few hours later this was confirmed by the organisers and was being reported in the English-speaking media.

A kids sports match on a Saturday morning
There are no bans on outdoor sports here (if there are fewer than 50 people). In fact, sports are encouraged for children in particular for their health benefits.

I think perhaps we all are still underestimating just how much the world has changed in the past few months.   The big German board game convention in Essen, which takes place in October of 2020, still seems to think it’s going ahead.  210,000 people attended Spiel last year, and they’re not all going to be out in the fresh air running at speed away from lingering germs in the atmosphere.  For all the nice things you might say about board-gamers as a group, ‘sporty’ isn’t necessarily the first adjective that springs to mind.

I was a lot more gutted about Berlin than about London. My plan had always been that London was my first attempt, something of a trial run for Berlin. I’d learn from what went right and what wasn’t good, and hone the training and prep for Berlin. I’d cancelled my London entry when given the opportunity because I had booked a 5-day holiday to Berlin around the marathon dates. I thought it would be unwise to do that then immediately fly to London for a second marathon a couple of days later.  Also, I reasoned that GFA times for London are achievable for me, but a pipe dream for Berlin. That was a lottery entry, and I might never be successful in the ballot again. I hope they decide to give us deferred places for 2021, or for whenever it goes ahead. I’d even pay again.  It wasn’t cheap – cheaper than Chicago but much more costly than London entry fees – if it meant a guaranteed spot. I’ll probably go for the vacation anyway if the flights aren’t cancelled. The hotel is already booked and paid for, and non-refundable. I booked everything very soon after the ballot results at the end of November, before corona virus came on the scene.

Focus. Something I need right now
A lovely, quiet stretch of canal, next to the (currently closed) Liseberg amusement park. And a useful instruction on the building.

I haven’t been on a run since I heard the news about Berlin. That’s not because I’m feeling downhearted – although I am. I’ve had a fever for the past few days (it never goes over 38 degrees) so I don’t think it would be advisable for me to go outside, even though I could probably manage a slow, short cycle or jog. I keep taking my temperature so I can see when it has been back to normal for 48 hours meaning I can safely leave the house.

I am feeling a bit directionless. The events of this year have consolidated my belief that the running community is what makes running such a great sport, and keeps me enthused about running. Without parkrun, running clubs, and runs with friends, thanks to trying to follow social distancing recommendations, it loses some of its appeal. And not having any races to compete in makes me a bit lethargic.

Central Gothenburg canal
Lovely reflections in the canal

However, I now have a new training goal – and it doesn’t involve running.  I realise how amazingly privileged I am, and I have no real worries in life compared to the millions of people who have been personally affected by corona virus, either health-wise, through someone close to them getting infected, or by the economic impact, but it’s still a blow when something to which you’ve been working towards is taken away from you.   But a friend from Denmark messaged me. We had previously discussed the possibility of doing some cycling in Sweden when the weather got better. She had seen my post regarding Berlin and said (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘Sorry to see both your marathons are cancelled. Do you want to cycle to Norway with me this summer instead?’

It’s about 300 km to the Norwegian border from where I live. I have been on a bike only a handful of times in the past 5 years, and only once in the past year. I haven’t even got my bike fixed since it got a little beaten up in transit on the journey over here.  The chain came off, the brakes got knocked out of alignment, the front light got damaged… it’s just a litany of woes. That’s despite the fact that Göteborg is a cyclist’s dream, with bike lanes everywhere and much safer than in the UK. The public transport though is so cheap and efficient (and the winters so wet) that I’ve stuck to using the lovely blue trams. I’m a below average cyclist at the best of times, averaging a whopping 11 or 12 miles an hour. I’ve now got approximately 10 weeks to get in good enough shape to manage a multi-day cycle.  Of course, this is contingent on it being safe to travel in July. But I’m going to train as if it will definitely happen.

Focus. Something I need right now
A lovely, quiet stretch of canal. And a useful instruction on the building.

I know it’s discouraging to have all these races cancelled. I’ve seen the chat on Running Friends Scotland, and discussed it with some running friends. It looks like 2020 might be a complete wash out.  This pandemic though won’t last forever and it gives you a lot of time to reflect:  On past races; On future goals; On what is the essence that draws you to running and keeps you putting in the miles.

I’m hoping to come out of these disappointments a stronger person, if not a stronger runner. (Though I’m hoping the cycling will benefit my running.) If an effective treatment or vaccine is found for corona virus in the next 12 months then 2021 is shaping up to be a huge year for racing and for the friends we’re missing in the meantime.   Hopefully I’ll see you on a start line.



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  1. Love the feature.

    2020 is a leap year. What is leap year in Swedish? The Swedish word for leap year is skottår, which could be interpreted as scot year or scots year.
    So Pauline this could still be your year.
    To make another bit of word play. The same word leap exist in Swedish as löp, but löp means run.

    1. Pauline Belford says:

      Thanks Stefan 🙂 Love the wordplay.

  2. […] week I read Pauline B’s cathartic blog post about cancelled races. These last few sentences really struck […]

    1. Pauline Belford says:

      Yay, you’ve written a new blog post. Looking forward to reading it Wendy 😀

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