There are always tough calls to make when you are a Run Director or part of the core team at a parkrun. Whatever you decide, not all participants will agree with the decision. When to cancel, and when to make that decision, are strongly debated. At Skatås, we made the decision on Friday evening, after our regular volunteer Henrik had conducted a route inspection and found that, amongst other things, the long downhill around 2.6km was already a slip risk. Given that it was forecast to freeze overnight, the conditions were only going to worsen. We were genuinely concerned that it would go from being a run to being the world’s most surprisingly spontaneous equipment-free luge. As fun as that sounds, we suspected the downhill would start to accumulate unconscious bodies at a rate that would exceed the excess on our insurance cover. A few people did a freedom run, but I’m not sure if they did the parkrun route, or took an alternate route avoiding the worst sections.
Shortly after we emailed out the cancellation notices, Brian messaged me to ask if Billdalsparken parkrun was still on. I checked their Facebook page and saw that they planned to go ahead. Not only that, but they had spent hours clearing the route and gritting it, to give the highest possible chance that it would be safe to run the following morning. I told Brian that I would probably just have a lie in then do some marking (the joys of teaching for a living), but he said to message him if I changed my mind. The next morning, my plans of sleeping in were dashed as I awoke at 5:35am (an hour earlier than usual) and my body resolutely refused to go back to sleep. After some internal debate, I messaged Brian and looked out my Icebugs. I’d show my body who was boss by driving it head first into searingly cold wind. That’d teach it.
Fear of falling
Anyone who has ever run with me in snow or ice, knows that I am terrified of falling. It doesn’t even need to be running. I am so timid when walking across an even moderately icy road that I look like a toddler taking their first tentative steps on a balance beam. The first 10km race I participated in after I took up running seriously, the February 2018 Livingston 10k, was unexpectedly icy and the start area was such an ice rink that I almost didn’t even line up to start. However, we had driven around 100 miles to get there, leaving Brechin at 5:30am, so it felt like there was too much of a sunk cost to not attempt it. I also reasoned that as my 3 travelling companions were running the half marathon, there was no way I was going to be holding them up even if I cautiously walked the entire 10km. In the end I started very cautiously and, after watching a woman fall and hit her head so badly she had to be taken to hospital and required two stiches above her eyebrow, I was even more cautious.
It took me around 1 hour and 20 minutes to “run” the 10km, which included one terrible downhill section I slid down like a child in a makeshift binbag sledge. Some of the fastest half marathon runners overtook me in the final kilometre, requiring me to jump out of their way into piles of slush. At least, I hope it was slush. Regular readers might remember Charlotte as the wonderful running mentor who paced me to my half marathon PB at Stirling in 2019. She was the first lady home in the half marathon on this occasion. Not only that, she was less than 15 minutes slower over that distance than I was in the 10km, despite her almost falling twice. There is a race report of this somewhere, which I wrote for a friend’s blog, but he decided to monetise it and put it behind a paywall so I no longer have access to it. This is probably just as well, as it doesn’t paint me in the best possible light. I can’t really blame him for taking my work and monetizing it though. I too would sacrifice my friendship for the prospect of earning literally ones of pounds.
All this is to say that I have a serious aversion to running in these conditions, and was questioning the wisdom of my decision.
The first cautious kilometres
Sixteen intrepid runners, including a family of tourists whose ten-year old daughter was celebrating her 50th parkrun, at her 50th separate location, stood poised on the start line. Most of them were not even wearing studs or spikes – just regular running shoes. The numbers were boosted by three of the Run Directors from Skatås (Roelof, David and myself), plus Henrik and Brian. Brian suggested that we all run together, When Brian says he plans to take it slow, his competitive nature usually kicks in pretty quickly. He is also very comfortable in these conditions, being a ski instructor. I did think skis were a bad choice for a parkrun, but I assume he knows best. Sure enough, within 50 metres of starting, Brian, Henrik and Roelof were at least 15 metres ahead of David and I. David hasn’t been able to run much over the past 6 months due to a couple of reasons, and he was running with his lovely dog, Ziggy. He decided to stay well back from the main body of runners. They ran slightly ahead of me, and he gave me warnings when there were slippery sections.
The shovelling and gritting had done a great job, and I admired the volunteers’ dedication to the cause. But the ground was still a little uneven due to the way the snow had frozen, and it was hard to maintain good balance. At least for someone such as myself who is usually that one person distracting everyone else in Body Balance during the balance track. I often find myself wobbling all over the place unlike the other elegant and stable participants. I’m a bit like what happens when you put a non-Newtonian fluid onto a vibrating speaker. Except, somehow, even less graceful. I tried running in the snow next to the path, but it was quite deep and so that didn’t help much. I tried to keep up with David, but I was taking very short strides, only focusing on the ground a metre or two ahead of me. The first downhill, to the bridge, had me walking cautiously, and I was glad to get onto the even, wooden surface of the bridge. The marshal shouted encouragement, and said something about being careful. I’m not sure it would have been possible to be more careful, other than by not participating at all. I was determined though to teach my body to sleep when it’s told.
Heading round the edge of the car park and into a different section of the park, the underfoot conditions seemed better, and I attempted a slightly less cautious jog. I was still talking very short steps though, and practically stopped at the 1km corner rather than attempting to both run and change direction simultaneously. The first kilometre buzzed in at 7:24. Okay, so this could come in at under 40 minutes, assuming the conditions remained as they were. If they got icier, I’d either come in slower, or much, much faster than I’d find comfortable. I followed David over the bridge across the stream, then up the winding hill towards Nygårdsskolan. At that point I was close behind David, and the school grounds seemed fine to run in. But then there is a short but steep downhill section which I jumped into the snow to descend, as I have a major fear of slipping and falling down a hill, even though my shoes seemed to be keeping me very stable.
Turning left and over another bridge, we met up with the mother and daughter who were there celebrating the daughters 50th parkrun. There was a sign pointing right, but this short section was completely unploughed and was snow at least 3 or 4 inches deep. They had waited for us to be sure they were taking the right route. Having run it before, we could confirm this. The snow was hard to run in, but I felt safer on it than the uneven frozen sections. There is another downhill after this, heading to the underpass which brings us back to the starting 600 metres or so but in reverse, and both I and the mother chose to walk down that, whilst David and the young girl continued running, but then of course she had to wait for her mum.
Getting back into what I consider the main part of the park, the marshal had moved position and was taking photos of us. We were also starting to see the front runners heading the opposite way. There seemed to be a bit of a battle going on for first place between a regular runner and the father of the tourist family. We all heja heja’d each other, and I was impressed by how little the difficult conditions were impeding the speed or strides of the front runners, and indeed the mid-pack. Henrik had said that he wanted to run slowly, but he also wanted to finish first. Occasionally those two things can be compatible, but not today, so it was Brian who went past me first, the band of 3 having broken up well before the start of the second loop.
A (somewhat) less tentative second loop
At some point amongst all this, my watch had buzzed 7:22 for the second kilometre. It seemed like I probably wasn’t going to get lapped. I’m not usually concerned about this on a 2-lap course, but at the speed I was currently doing there was a small chance it could happen. I was starting to feel a lot more confident on this surface though, and was starting to trust the dubbs (steel studs) in my Icebugs. I had only had one very slight slip, and they seemed to be doing an excellent job of gripping the surface and stabilising me. The only issue was the unevenness of the surface in places. I tried to extend my stride length and turnover a little, and wanted to overtake David and Ziggy. I had to wait a little to do this, due to runners coming the opposite way. I was then wracked with doubt, because the final 2 or 300 metres to the turning cone are a slight downhill, and those were the bits I was being exceptionally cautious on. I didn’t want to overtake David only for him to get stuck behind me as I abruptly froze in front of him in panic about a slight decline. He told me to go past and I decided to risk it.
I managed to pick up the pace, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, if anything, that increased my stability. This is probably because I was spending less time with my feet on the ground, which can only be a good thing. The volunteers gave me big shouts of encouragement, and I shouted that I loved spikes (not technically what dubbs are, but close enough). I hoped they understood that I meant the shoes, and that I didn’t come across as some violently deranged murderer. I slowed to a stop to go around the cone (I still wasn’t feeling brave enough to turn and move at the same time) then set off on the second lap. I could see how far ahead I was of David and the mother-daughter duo as I passed them on the way back out (not far, maybe 30 metres) and decided I needed to extend that.
The second lap felt much better than the first. Even though there was nobody in front to follow, and therefore shout warnings, I had been here before. And I had survived. Not only survived, I knew where the most uneven bits were, where the undulations were, and I honestly felt more stable at a higher speed. I was basically the Bear Grylls of this course. Surviving only with a well-defined map, several route signs, a bunch of volunteers, some friends, my special shoes, and my wits.
When I say higher speed, I don’t mean anything remotely fast. This was still an easy run pace with short strides, and slower sections where I was overly cautious on downhills. But the 3rd kilometre was a comparatively speedy 6:18. The marshal had also got a photo of me looking a lot happier. I started calculating what I would need to do to get under 35 minutes, 34 minutes, even 32 minutes. Plans for a sub 32 were quickly abandoned though after that downhill after the school, followed by seeing a huge white 4WD vehicle with a snow plough attached to the front coming directly towards me on the road towards another bridge. I was happy that the ploughing was happening. But I didn’t personally want to be ploughed. And the snow at the sides of the road was far too deep for me to jump into. My Icebugs may be waterproof, but they’re not 10 inches high. I slowed my speed and found a slightly wider section to stop in, whilst the driver kindly squeezed over to the other side of the road, giving me about 10 inches of clearance.
After this externally imposed slowdown and stop, I was glad that I still couldn’t hear anyone behind me. I couldn’t see anyone ahead though, so everyone else must have been far too far ahead to have any chance of catching up with. No problem, I’d just have to race against myself and the conditions. I even ran (very slowly) down part of the hill towards that underpass which brings us back onto the main park section after a right-hand turn. The 4th kilometre had said 6:14, but it buzzed noticeably before the 4km sign.
Run, Pauline. Run!
A little past the left-hand turn onto the final long stretch, I reckoned I had around 700 metres to go, and the time on my watch was almost 29 minutes. By this point though, I was feeling so much more confident than I had on that first tentative lap, and knew what I could expect for the remainder of the route. I passed a lady who had decided to walk the route today, closely followed by the Tail Walker, and realised I could pick and choose which sections of the path to run on as there would be nobody else coming the opposite way (asides from the occasional dog walker). I can’t say that I managed anything approaching a sprint finish, but I really started to try and push it as much as I could in these conditions, and the final kilometre was a comparatively speed 5:38 pace. That’s faster than I manage for most 10km training runs just now, and I was slightly out of breath upon finishing in a time of 32:43. I also couldn’t remember who was polletutdelare, so the poor guy had to chase after me to give me my finish token.
I felt pretty proud of myself, even though I had achieved my slowest time at Billdalsparken parkrun of 5 attempts, and by over 6 minutes. Brian said I’d not done badly time-wise, and Run Director Jan was kind enough to say that I should be proud of facing my fears. Even though nobody else was remotely frightened, and it doesn’t look too bad from the photos. I remember it being much worse. Jan then proceeded to tell me just how much effort they had put into making the course safe enough to run wearing regular trainers. I really admire their dedication, and they were rewarded with a slightly higher turnout than average. I definitely wouldn’t have attempted it with regular trainers though, or would have taken several minutes more to complete it. But then, I also refused to take off the cover for the “slippy shoe” when our department went curling on Thursday, whereas half the team were happily sliding along the ice within minutes of being shown how to do so, and plenty of runners managed a time only a few minutes slower than their PB’s at that frozen Livingston 10km race, so it’s clear that I definitely lean towards the cautious extreme in that regard.
This parkrun really needs to get more regular attendees. It is a lovely route, and the current core team and regulars are so friendly. I even got a hug from one of the volunteers who occasionally volunteered at Skatås and whom I hadn’t seen for a while. Swedes are generally friendly but fairly reserved, so receiving a hug from one who is not a family member or your best friend is much rarer than in Scotland, unless it’s in a pub, so it felt really welcoming. The fika at Systrarna Werner was delicious as usual, and we struck up a conversation with two Swedish locals, one of whom was quite new to the parkrun but was planning to make it a more regular occurrence as part of her training for the Göteborgsvarvet (the hugely popular Gothenburg half marathon which attracts around 60,000 runners most years). Hopefully they will become regulars and word will get out to more locals too. The wintry conditions hadn’t put them off, so their times can only get better as the snow and ice melt and their training ramps up.
We had to head off fairly sharpish, due to other demands on our time, but I was really glad that I had gone. I thought the Icebugs were rather expensive when I bought them in December (2200 kronor, which is around £175 at current exchange rates), but on the drive home I told Brian then were worth every penny. I’m aware that is a statement which can only be made by someone privileged enough to not have to choose between heating and eating in these tough inflationary times, but they gave me so much confidence, and this was a very different experience to that 10km race which had made me so scared of these conditions. In previous winters I have lost several weeks of training due to snow and ice, and it takes twice as long to get back to where you were. If these help me train through the weeks I would otherwise have missed, I might have a chance at getting a time I wouldn’t be completely distraught over in the Varvet.
Billdalsparken is a lovely parkrun. You can read more about the course in my previous blog post about it. It is also a great place to test your winter running skills, as it is a reasonably flat and mostly open course. I also strongly recommend studded running shoes for running in icy conditions. They (eventually) gave me so much confidence, and I felt like I’d really made a breakthrough by the final kilometre of the run. Due to being on the core team at Skatås, I probably won’t manage a 6th trip here until Sweden’s National Day in June, but I’m already looking forward to it.
Photos were taken by the volunteers at Billdalsparken parkrun, and were posted on their Facebook page. They kindly granted me permission to use them in this blog post.