Not the Berlin Marathon: Virtual Gothenburg Marathon 2021

Göteborgsvarvet Virtual Marathon

Brian and I decided to run the virtual marathon on Saturday 18th September. As we were volunteering at Skatås parkrun beforehand, we weren’t sure exactly what time we would be starting: anywhere from 10:30 – 11:30am. We had arranged to meet another lady from my running club, who was also doing her first marathon.  She, much more sensibly, planned to start at 09:30am. It was also her first marathon and she had support from friends at Härlanda tjärn and as support cyclists at points, even though she was running solo. She’s a stronger runner than me during club runs, but a marathon changes things. My guess was that her second half pace would be similar to Brian’s starting pace. She was running it in the usual (clockwise) direction, so Brian and I agreed to run motsols (anti-clockwise – the literal translation is “against the sun”) until we met her.  That way if she was doing better than us we’d be in a perfect position to tackle her as she passed and then be on our way before she realised what had happened.

A photo of the grusåttan - or gravel eight. You can see here how it get's it's name.
A photo of the grusåttan – or gravel eight. You can see here how it get’s it’s name. Brian and I are receding into the distance.

After a bit of faffing with Garmin’s and the RaceOne app Brian needed to use to track his run, we set off from Skatås motioncentrum at 11:44am. I’d eaten a peanut butter sandwich after parkrun, in lieu of lunch. Brian seemed dubious of this, but it worked a treat for Loch Ness, and I’m not known for my ability to skip meals. We wouldn’t be getting lunch, and breakfast had been 4 hours ago.

We saw my running club companion within a couple of hundred metres of starting. She gave us a cheery wave, and was happy to switch direction for a change of scenery (sort of). She had gone through halfway in around 2:07, and was now around kilometre 25. She wasn’t noticeably tiring, and we managed to have a fairly relaxed conversation in Swenglish. Her support cyclist found us after a few kilometres, and cycled with us for a short distance as we were heading for Svarttjärnen (the Black Pond). At Härlanda tjärn she stopped for a quick chat with her partner and support crew, whilst Brian and I ran off then looped back a little to re-join her.  Thinking back on it, I realised we’d made a tactical mistake in running rather than cycling – it would have made it so much easier.

It was all feeling very comfortable for Brian and I at this point, but she was now over 30km into her first marathon and understandably starting to feel tired. Our first few mile splits were around 5:45/km, but we had slipped back to 6:15/km pace by the end of the first loop. I was fine with that, but she didn’t want to hold us up. There was no way we were letting someone do a final 10km solo though, so we stayed together until her support cyclist showed up to cycle the remaining distance with her. We wished her luck, and Brian immediately sped up to what I thought was an unsustainable pace. We were not far into our second loop, and we were at 5:10/km pace. He had been talking about negative splits (which Angela and I had rolled our eyes at) but there was no way we could manage a negative split going at that speed. We eased off going up a gentle hill, then Brian started thinking about the location of outhouses. He had made the classic mistake of overhydrating prior to setting off. You really need to hydrate in the couple of days before the marathon: try it the morning of the event and it’s just going to result in a 2-minute penalty for a loo stop.  Or perpetual infamy as the Paula Radcliffe of the event.  I kept running whilst he used the facilities, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  It did mean our distances got out of out of sync though.

Three runners. Two finishing their first lap, one at 32 km.
Three runners. Two finishing their first lap, one around 32 km into the marathon.

The following mile had a long uphill stretch, so we came in just under 6:00/km pace. I was glad we had picked the reverse direction though, as a long, shallow uphill suits me better than the two shorter but much steeper hills we would face if running the regular direction. We picked up the pace on the flat and on those downhills, and miles 9 and 10 came in at under 5:20/ km pace. Brian finally started talking time goals, but I was concerned they might be slightly unrealistic. I’d have a better idea at the halfway point.

This time around I remembered to give my windproof jacket to Angela. It had been tied round my waist since about 500 metres into the run. It had been a little cold and overcast when we started running, but the sun slowly burned through the clouds and now it was shining brightly. The jacket was just weighing me down. Brian got a water refill and asked when he should start eating. “About a mile ago” was my helpful response. He’d had a Lucozade tablet, and started on his flapjack a little further around the loop.

Whilst the sun was nice and showed off Stora Delsjön to its best advantage, we were hoping it would cloud over again. Being ever paranoid about sunburn, and incapable of functioning in the heat, I didn’t want to run for potentially 3 hours in blazing sun. The weather in Sweden is often not quite what you’d expect from its advertising.  It is often blisteringly hot, even as the year bends into autumn.   By now we were on our third loop, and we had been passed some runners going the opposite way as many as 4 or 5 times. Clearly we were far from the only runners who had chosen to run the half or full marathon around the åttan. There was a couple wearing their bib numbers, and we started “Heja Heja” ing them (a Swedish shout of encouragement) whenever we passed each other. We were also acknowledging about half a dozen other groups runners who were out in 2s or 3s, or even solo. One of the solo ones was going much faster but appeared to have friction burns in a painful location. I hope he was okay afterwards. He was wearing a cotton t-shirt, which is never the best idea for a long run.

Pauline and Brian waving to Angela after their 2nd loop
Pauline and Brian waving to Angela after their 2nd loop round the åttan.

We also kept passing a tall, ponytailed guy who looked to be younger than us – probably late 20s or early 30s, who had a support cyclist with him who may or may not have been his father. The places we passed at suggested that we were covering the loop more quickly than him, and he looked a little more tired each time we met, but no less determined. He was definitely doing the marathon as we saw him on each loop we did. With so many runners going the opposite way to us, we wondered how many were going the same direction as us.  In a real marathon, seeing runners going the opposite way is a warning sign that something has gone wrong for someone.   For a virtual marathon, it’s less likely to induce a panic attack.  Brian didn’t think it would be as many, but Angela said it was a mixture. We just didn’t overtake, or get overtaken by, the same people more than once. Angela was waiting for us on the flat stretch of track near the start of parkrun, close to the sports pitches. A few other spectators/ supporters had set up with camping chairs and blankets nearby, and were cheering us on too. She hadn’t thought to bring a chair, and I felt bad that it must have been really boring for her waiting for us to appear every 45 minutes or so.  As opposed to seeing us, which I’m sure was an unparalleled delight.

On that third loop we hit the half marathon point. I checked my watch when it buzzed 13 miles, then completely forgot to check it at 13.1, so I don’t know the exact time we crossed that non-existent timing mat. I think it was 2:01:49. We were going to be over 4 hours then. The only question was by how much. Also, in addition to the toilet break, I had also been jogging back and forth whilst Brian had been getting refuelled with Angela. That meant he was now around half a kilometre behind me, distance-wise, or around 3 minutes timewise, even though we were running together. He had mentioned that we might even scrape under 4 hours, but though we had settled into a pace that might achieve that if we had been sub-2 hours at the halfway point, it seemed highly unlikely we would manage a nearly 10-minute negative split.

Mile 14 was faster than the others, but from mile 15 onwards we settled into a pace between 5:44 and 5:50/ km. It felt really stable, until I got a sudden sharp pain behind my left knee during mile 17. It was acute, and we were on a downhill section.  Actually, I lie.  It wasn’t all that cute.  The slope got steeper, and the pain got worse. I didn’t want to abandon Brian, but I had to slow down rather than freewheeling down the hill as usual. I ate some more of my Clif bar.  I had ordered a box from Stockholm for stupid money (about £60) after the supermarkets in Gothenburg suddenly stopped selling them a few weeks before the run.  I then tried to focus on other things.  Like surviving and how long it would take, should I collapse, before the wolves took me.  We spotted a solo runner in black who had gone past us several times, and Brian thought he looked like he was really struggling. His head was bobbing from side to side, and he was grimacing. I gave some words of encouragement, but he had headphones in and didn’t acknowledge us. He looked a bit happier the next time we passed, so hopefully when we saw him walking later on it was because he had completed his distance.  It’s also possible he just came to his senses and realised that Gothenburg’s excellent tram system is an easier, and quicker, way to cover large distances.

Heading off for another loop. My gait looks really awkward here.
Heading off for another loop. My gait looks really awkward here.

After about half a mile the pain receded, but we didn’t really pick the pace back up. We were still in that 5:45 – 5:55/ km pace zone. I told Brian we were probably looking at 4:15, as long as neither of us spectacularly hit the wall. He was onto his second flapjack by this point, and had also had a few jelly beans. Maybe having to hang back a little on the first 6 miles meant he wasn’t going to crash?

Of course it didn’t mean anything of the sort.

On the 5th lap there was a little bit of walking. Brian suddenly felt light-headed, and had to walk up the first hill. It’s not a steep one, but it is when you’re 34km into a race and have never paced anything of this distance before. I kept slowly jogging, and ran back to collect him. He ate more of his flapjack, and we didn’t slow down too much. There was a downhill which helped a bit, but the next hill also required a bit of walking. He quickly got back into our previous rhythm, and I told him he was doing really well.  Still, it was useful to know that if the worst came to the worst I’d only need to outrun Brian and not the wolves – I fancied my chances.

As the pace was, I suspect, just a little more comfortable for me, and having a little more experience of training for this distance, I was hoping I wouldn’t hit the wall. This had so far been as pleasant as Loch Ness was until that mile 18 hill. I can’t say that I smashed into any wall, but sure enough I did get rather lightheaded around mile 20 despite having eaten 60% of a Clif bar. I ate some more, and maintained the same plod rate whilst waiting for it to kick in. Brian said that I looked like this was a walk in the park for me. My response was that I would happily tell him exactly how I was feeling, but that it was probably better if I didn’t. At around 19 miles I had started having some gastrointestinal discomfort, and I was just praying that I could make it round without any “gingerbread man” experience or needing to waste a couple of valuable minutes on a toilet break.

View of Lilla Delsjön from the outhouse.
View of Lilla Delsjön from the outhouse.

We were still getting heja heja’s from a few of the other runners, but they were dwindling in number as people were finishing and going home. I wondered what finish time my running club friend had accomplished, and was slightly jealous of the fact that this was already over for her. It was now well into the afternoon and I was wishing I had eaten both my peanut butter sandwiches before starting, though at that point I didn’t want to take in any more food on account of the fact that my body wasn’t coping overly well with the food it was currently processing.

At mile 23, on what I thought was our last time past Härlanda tjärn, Brian got a sudden acute pain in his hamstring. It was so bad that he thought he might have to quit. There is little worse than having to walk in the final 3 miles of a marathon.  Except perhaps running the first 23. We were heading up a slight slope, and there was a bench about 50 metres ahead. I jogged on whilst he walked, and jogged back and forth as he stretched it out. It still hurt when he started running again, and he said the downhill felt worse. Then, as suddenly as it came on, the pain eased again and he was able to resume running.   I’d been talking about the benefits of crowd support, and how it can be great, but also a bit annoying when people shout “You’re nearly there” when you still have 3 miles to go. “I wish you hadn’t said that, as that’s how far we still have to go.” was his response.   It reminded me of the old story.  A man in Ireland is walking past a farm, and he shouts to the farmer ‘How far before I get into town?’.  ‘Twenty miles!’, shouts back the farmer.  ‘Ah he’s walking’, said his wife.  ‘Tell him it’s ten’.

And that’s sort of what I did because we actually had another 4 miles. This was partly due to me running ahead and back like a dog whilst he was walking on a few hills towards the end, and stretching out that irksome hamstring. But it was also because the RaceOne app was counting the distance as less than either of our Garmin watches said. When we got back to Angela after the 5th lap I thought we had just under a mile to go, but Brian said we needed another 2.7 kilometres. So this was kind of going to be my first ultra marathon then. He stopped for a very quick chat with Angela to tell her where to meet us. I did not want to stop, despite the extra distance I would have to run. I had kind of recovered from the light-headedness, and we were still maintaining 5:50/km pace. But we had stopped talking so much after mile 17 and I was only okay if I kept moving. I tried to slow down as we were approaching Angela, but I got light-headed. I increased my cadence and felt better, so shouted my apologies as I ran back and forth.  Sometimes the only way out is through.

Härlanda tjärn in winter.
Another view of Härlanda tjärn, on a colder day, clearly.

Brian and I were both very keen to avoid having to run up any of the more prominent hills for a 6th time. His plan was to run to the bottom of the first hill, then reverse direction and run back to Härlanda tjärn, following the first 2 kilometres of Skatås parkrun. If he had judged it correctly, we would finish just before the tjärn, avoiding further hills. This suited me fine. But I really wanted to know what distance his app was saying, because I was very keen to get to the facilities there. I was also at the point where I wanted this to be over. My watch buzzed 26 miles just after the stone, which meant I was going to go at least a mile over. I forgot to check for 26.2 on my watch, but eventually stopped it at 42.26km – so only about 50 metres over. So my marathon time was 4:05:22.

Stopping my watch was a mistake. I tried to set it up to record the final part of the run, but it spent a good couple of minutes refusing to find a GPS signal, despite having had one immediately beforehand. I had no idea what pace we were doing. And stopping the watch somehow signalled to my legs that they should be stopping now, and they felt heavier than they had done. Brian was in complete business mode now though. He kept checking his phone for the app distance, and was trying to get me to increase the pace up that very gentle slope towards the tjärn, but I was struggling to find the turnover.

We got there and the app still hadn’t buzzed. My head was feeling fuzzy again. I had almost finished my Clif bar and hadn’t taken a second one. Surely this must end soon though!

Brian said we were not going up the hill, and we took the turn off to the left along the side of the car park, on the road out towards Östra Sjukhuset (The Eastern Hospital). I was hoping we wouldn’t have to go there for medical reasons – or run as far as there as it entailed another uphill. Brian checked the time on the app – 4:14 something, and ran off in front of me, putting in a determined sprint. I’d never have managed a sprint at that point, and could only watch whilst trailing by a few metres. Finally, thankfully, his app buzzed and we were able to stop. The app said 4:14:57. And he’d just completed his first marathon! I gave him a high five, and we wobbled about a bit whilst trying to work out how to walk on legs that seemed keen to keep jogging slowly.

Pauline and Brian after completing the virtual marathon.
Pauline and Brian at Härlanda tjärn picnic area after completing the virtual marathon.

As with the West Highland Way, it was a bit odd not knowing exactly where you were going to finish, and having nobody to tell you what to do when you got finished. We walked back to Härlanda tjärn, thankful it was over. Brian ran a really great first marathon. Not quite the negative split he was hoping for, but very close to even splits. And our pace had remained very stable from mile 15, with no clear slow-down. Despite hitting a bit of a wall, and a hamstring issue, he had recovered quickly and finished strong.

I felt a lot happier about 5 minutes later, having been able to alleviate the gastrointestinal discomfort, and we sat down to wait on Angela. Brian was feeling justifiably proud of his accomplishment, and of his time. He had fought really hard to get it under the 4:15. If the app had been measuring the same as his Garmin it would have been about a minute quicker. He was also just a little disappointed that he hadn’t beat Angela’s PB of 4:12 though. I told him that would be easier in a proper race, and that he would have to do the Gothenburg Marathon in 2023, which is when it has been postponed until.

Poor Angela had walked over 25,000 steps, or more than a half marathon distance, whilst supporting us. This was partly to keep her occupied whilst we were off running our endless loops, but also due to a trip to refill water bottles. She said it hadn’t been too boring as there were a lot of people doing the same thing as us. She also said that we looked more comfortable and consistent than a lot of the other people going past her. They had been slowly unwinding, with their form worsening each time they went past, whereas we just looked the same. It had been getting harder on the final two laps though.

Strava satellite map of the route.
Strava satellite map of the route.

Brian said he would never have done the marathon solo, and I agreed that I wouldn’t have either. I was somewhat disappointed that I made the wrong call regarding Berlin – it did go ahead, but I wasn’t able to change my decision – but it was great to get to run an unofficial marathon with a friend who was running his first one. I also felt I had probably made the right call as, despite it not being possible to treat it as a “proper” race, it was still tough. As a guesstimate, I think I would have really struggled to go sub 3:50 in Berlin. Yes, the terrain wasn’t as easy underfoot, the elevation gain of 317 metres is much greater than for Berlin, and we didn’t have pacers, people to race against, or crowd support. But I’m doubtful that those things would have made me run an average of 40 seconds per mile faster.

After walking back to Skatås motioncentrum – where we made the mistake of sitting down with our refilled water bottles – it was soon time to head home for dinner. Angela and Brian were trying to work out how they could get both myself and my bike into their car (I had cycled to parkrun that morning) but after Chicago I realised the best thing for me to do would be to cycle home. It’s only 5 ½ kilometres and it would help flush out the lactic acid in my muscles. They made sure I was able to get on my bike (it took two attempts to get my leg over the crossbar – it’s a guy’s bike) and then headed for their car. I took it easier than usual on the bike, and was fine until the final hill. It was once I got off the bike that walking to my apartment block was a struggle. Brian messaged me later to check I had made it home safely, and also to say that he was unable to get out of the car. I told him Angela should video it, but he said she was too busy laughing at him.

Thoughts on Virtual Marathons

I really enjoyed running with Brian, and it was also nice to run with my clubmate for the first section.

However, I would not recommend running a virtual marathon solo, or doing one for your first marathon. They are fine for 5km or 10km races, and possibly even half marathons if you train well enough for that distance. But a marathon always takes so much out of you. This took more out of me than I was expecting, given that I wasn’t running quite at 100% marathon effort. If this is anything to go by, I have discovered that those final few miles are always going to be horrific, no matter how cautiously you start off. And I have no idea what kind of sorcery people are performing when they manage to run a negative split. Those final few miles always seem at least twice as far as they actually are.

Lilla Delsjön from the southern edge.
Lilla Delsjön from the eastern edge.

Delsjöområdet is a beautiful nature reserve, but you get inured to the scenery by the 4th time around the loop, and it mainly felt like a long training run with a friend which started off fun and ended up being a grim grind towards completion. I guess a lot of marathons feel like that too. But at least then there are thousands of people cheering you on.

I’m not sure if I will do another marathon major or not. My competitive nature is counter-productive to enjoyment of this. I put in 14 weeks of serious training, missing out on some social events, and ran slower than I would have hoped to be able to. If I could get into the mindset that it was fine to go to Berlin and not care about my finish time, then maybe I would enter the lottery in future years.

But I know myself too well for that. There’s no point in me signing up for a destination marathon unless I think there is a good chance that I can achieve a time I would be satisfied with. But a one-off marathon in my home city? Where I (attempt to) speak the language and can get to the start via a short tram ride? Where I know some other runners, and can get Michael to provide the ideal pre-race meals for me?


I don’t want to do another virtual marathon. But if I’m still capable of running in 2023, I’ll be there on the Gothenburg Marathon start line.

Photo Acknowledgements

Race-day photographs were all taken by our wonderful support crew – Angela Bushell. The photos of the various lakes were taken at various other points in time by Pauline, except for the first one of Härlanda tjärn which was taken by her long-suffering other half, Michael Heron.


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