Monday, June 16, 2014

Sweden/ Norway

Stockholm (June 7-12)
The annual MDS meeting is usually my excuse to travel somewhere I would not otherwise have been unable to go. I had only the vaguest notions of Swedish culture but I had never been to Scandinavia and just had to go. After flying from Hoedspruit to Jo’burg then another 11 hour redeye to Heathrow, another layover, I landed in Stockholm exhausted. The place was full of doctor/ scientist types with their telltale poster cases, but I was there as a tourist. After all the space in Africa, I was in a tiny dorm room with no air and internet only in common areas, where a bottle of diet coke will set you back $6. First thing I did was find somewhere to go running, but it would have to wait until morning.

Got up at 3 AM not meaning to, because my dorm room had one window without blinds. What genius thought that up, in a city with 19 hours of sunlight/ day in June. I waited until 6 and went to go running using the map the front desk gave me. I followed it to what should have been the trail but hit a dead end. I stopped a lady on her bicycle and she said I could cross her backyard
(otherwise I would have to backtrack quite a bit), “but just this once”. I waded through thigh high foliage and landed in the Alvsjoskogen, a beautiful hilly wooden trail.
It was so peaceful I didn’t want to leave, and after the aggravation of travel, suddenly I found I had been running 2 hours and was late for my meeting. That evening at opening ceremonies I knew I had to cash in on some free wine because I found out, one cannot purchase wine on Sundays in Sweden. The Swedish don’t like if you gripe about their pale/ weak beer (2.8% alcohol!),
but they have a weird relation to alcohol, as I later found in the Spirit museum.

Tuesday I reserved for sightseeing. I was still tired and low in enthusiasm but I would not forgive myself if I had gone all the way to Sweden and not seen the sights. First stop was the Vasamuseet, a whole museum is devoted to a ship from the 17th century which sank in the harbor immediately after taking off on its maiden voyage, then a couple centuries later was rescued and renovated.
The Swedish don’t like it if you razz the Vasa. This is located on an island known as Djurgarden which is covered with museums, a zoo, and an amusement park. Stockholm is a city of water much like Seattle, with ferries, but more compact.

Down the pier from Vasamuseet was the spiritmuseum, which ended up being the highlight of my visit. It got mixed reviews but clearly, those visitors were not alcoholics. The Absolut artwork was not the main draw.
From the beginning it painted the picture of Sweden as having a special relationship with alcohol. Maybe it’s being so far north, but the average citizen drinks 4.5 cups coffee/day and alcoholism was such a problem they had a prohibition-like period as recently as 60 years ago. They had movies showing why it is so enticing (as a reward after a hard days work or liberating agent for repressed people, hmmm do I know anyone like that?)

all the damaging effects of alcohol on your health, a simulation chamber where you can experience the various stages of intoxication correlated with each BAL, and even a hangover room. Then they had an exhibit called “Swedish Sin” which is apparently a real term for how the repressed Swedes became known for being uber-sexually liberated in the 1960s, with the history of soft porn from Sweden.

Then of course I had to walk to Gamla Stan, the old town with 17th century architecture, visit the Nobelmuseet,
 Opera house, have a drink at the Gondolen bar
Admired the wide bike lanes and the huge waves of cyclists riding up steep cobbled hills in Old Town before meeting my fellow BIDMC alumni for appetizers.
I got horribly lost and arrived 30 min late all sweaty, which is my MO. Thursday I had no meeting-related dinner with free alcohol, so I went on a quest to find a wine store. All alcohol stronger than 3.5% beer is sold in state-sponsored System Bolaget stores
which are closed on Sundays. As a premise I decided to visit Globen and ride the lift up the largest spherical structure … which happened to be nearby a Bolaget store. The lengths I went to in order to secure the comforting bottle of wine for the evening to erase a week of Poser Anxiety….But worth it.

5. Norway (June 13-14):

I had only 2 days left in Scandinavia (no point in returning sooner since I would miss work Friday anyway) and hoped to see a little of Norway. The only race going on was the Birken runs, Norway’s largest trail run, with >10,000 participants. Aside from the 60 km Ultrabirken which I signed up for, there was the 21 km half-marathon, 12 km mini run, and shorter distances. I had no idea how technical a Norwegian mountain run was, or what the time limit was, but I felt odd going all the way to Norway to run a half.

The 2.5 hour bus ride from Oslo to Lillehammer was a scenic wind along the coast of Norway’s largest lake, with views of farmland that reminded me a little of Switzerland. After my near fiasco on the train to Stockholm airport (which also has no Toaletts), I was careful to note the absence of Toaletts on the bus. I dragged my 24 kg suitcase up a couple hills to the Hotell Molla, where I was lucky to find a room 3 months ago since the whole town was booked up for this run.

Lillehammer is actually a fairly small town, though my rememberance of it from the 1994 Olympics was that it was bigger. I decide to go to the expo first then sightsee what I could in the remaining 2 hours, since I would probably be running for 10 hours Saturday and this was my only chance.

Walked about 1 mile seemingly straight uphill to Hakons Hall, home of the Norwegian Olympic Museum and the race expo/ finish line.   And it wouldn’t be Norway without at least one polar bear sighting 

The famous ski jump was just behind. Lillehammer has taken great care to preserve its Olympic heritage, unlike many other cities where the old venues have become decrepit. It was amazing to see how many Norwegians had donated their medals to this museum. There were exhibits showing the gear from past Olympics, every single one.

Then a hike to Maihaugen, the outdoor museum where they have model houses dating back to the 17th century and people in traditional costume who tell you how Norwegians lived over the centuries. The famous church (where I just beat out a busload of Chinese tourists, Chinese is the new Japanese),

the parsonage where the lady explained that Norwegians were not shorter back then, the doors were built small for structural reasons and the beds were small because they liked spooning in the cold months. I forgot to ask them why so many houses have the “chia” look, i.e. grass or even plants growing on the roofs.

Tried to catch some of the 1980s house but it was closed by the time I got to the other side of this huge park. There were model houses of each decade in a fake neighborhood; and in fact I did see a lot of the pre-fab houses in the countryside on my run the next day.

Then back to the hotel for dinner. Stopped at grocery where I bought some hearty (but really bland, rough, dry bread) and butter for prerace meal,
then to hotel restaurant. In Norway, as in Sweden, most restaurants you order at a counter then they bring you the food. The Norwegian Krone was even more expensive than the Swedish one, a small plate of antipasti, pasta, and a glass of wine set me back over $75. Norway being a rich country, they don’t expect tips but they also don’t bend over backwards to help you. Went up to the rooftop bar and got more spectacular views, including a Nordic bartender.

Next morning got up at the relatively late hour of 4:30. I had to walk back up to Hakons Hall to catch the shuttle to the start by 6:30. There was a long laundry list of things they required us to carry in our packs for the mountains though there would be at least a water station every 7-10k, but it ended up no one checked. I brought the map of the course, so tiny it reminded me of my impending need for reading glasses, and the list of cutoff times. All the starters for the Ultrabirken seemed to fit on 1 bus, which was about 90% male, 10% female, and 99% super-fit looking skinny people (I’m excluding myself and the bus driver). I got to chatting with Jonas, who is a Swede living in Oslo, because Oslo is a rich city and many Swedes work there. He had not run this course before, but had been here skiing; in fact there was a skiing on this very course just 3 weeks prior. He told me about the top Swedish ultrarunners but remarked that most Nordic runners are just killing time in the off-season while waiting to go back to cross-country skiing.  I expressed apprehension about finishing the course under the cutoffs (seeing as I DNF half my trail runs). When I asked the race expo workers, 90% of them did not know what the cutoffs were, but the one who did looked at me like, “if you have to ask, you shouldn’t be running this”. Jonas said he would look for my name in the finisher results and wished me luck. 

It was a beautiful clear sunny day, probably mid-40s at the start going up to low 70s at finish. The start was up-up-up and I lost sight of the other runners fairly quickly. 
I chatted with a couple of cyclists, who were leapfrogging me briefly, and who seemed amazed to find a random American running alone on this trail.
They looked like they were having a ridiculous amount of fun, as was I at that point, feeling the intense sun, cool breeze, and feeling so small on top of these hills in the wide open with no one around, endless views of mountains, lakes, trees, tiny farmhouses way in the distance. Then I heard footsteps which was weird since I was in last place, but realized these were the sweepers.
Uh-oh, was I that close to missing cutoff’s already, only an hour into the race? Better stop dillydallying and do what I came for, the work of rocky climbs and descents,
sloshing through muddy creeks and snow patches, bush-whacking at times. I thought I was working hard but I was struggling to go 5k/hour at times, and I wasn’t sure I would meet the 4 hour/ 25 km first cutoff. I had 10 minutes to go when I rounded a corner and saw this
 and I resigned myself to a DNF.

I did reach the 25 km marker at 4:13, but there was no aid station until about 15 minutes further on. I saw another DNF runner and some aid workers. I said something about being pulled and the guy looked at his watch (which clearly showed I was 25 min after the cutoff) and shrugged. He said OK to continue. “Just go over that mountain (pointed to the distance) and only 7 km to next station”. I was elated and regretting slowing the past 15 min, picked up more speed and thought, “Norwegians are SO AWESOME!”.  At an intersection I saw a course marking sign, but pulled out of the ground and pointing nowhere. I chose one road, and saw a farmer by a fence. I pointed where I was going and mimed running, and he smiled, nodded, and pointed in my direction, but after about 5-6 minutes of not seeing any trail I realized I was going the wrong way. 

I turned around and saw the support van and waved him down. I asked which way and it was clear he was the first Norwegian I met who spoke no English. Most Swedish and Norwegians speak all the Scandinavian languages as well as English, but though they are fluent, there is absolutely no English signage anywhere, especially the race handbook. He seemed to be beckoning me into the van, but since they had just let me go despite missing the cutoff, I didn’t want to risk DNF by getting help from the van, so I kept pointing and talking. After a minute he shrugged and drove off. I ran back toward the aid station and saw another felled course marking sign. For kicks I ran down to the lake where the road ended in a dead end at someone’s farm. Crap, where was the trail? I realized with dread what had happened; since I had missed the cutoff they had already started sweeping the signage, and really didn’t think I might not be able to find my way over the mountain.

I went back to the last stop but it was now deserted except for a couple of cycling tourists in their early 60s. They kindly looked at my map and my cutoff sheet, told me I would have to get to the next town and hope to catch a bus to Lillehammer, even called the emergency race number to report where I was. Apparently the race officials didn’t give a crap, I would have to find my own way back. My thoughts shifted to “Norwegians are SO NOT AWESOME”. I was in the middle of nowhere Norway and the only way to the nearest city was a trail over a mountain that I couldn’t find. The couple pointed at the mountain and said, “just go over it, it’s not far to the next city”. I smiled and pretended to feel confident about where I was headed, then turned the other way toward a “you are here” sign. There I met a young group of super fit looking trail runners who pointed me to the trail. Not that strangers need to rescue a non-injured looking foreigner, but I was starting to get the Norwegian culture. It was only partially that they didn’t think climbing the mountain was no big deal, I mean, the trail was CLEARLY marked with rocks painted with a red “T”…. but it was mainly they just don’t get too much into other people’s business in general. I got myself into this mess, I would have to get myself out. I started climbing.

At the top I saw another couple in their early 60s, hiking. They very nicely told me it wasn’t far over the top of the next mountain into the nearest town, just pass by the cabin and turn right when I reach the road. The man pointed out all the landmarks, not that I can tell one mountain peak from another, but I can say the view was spectacular.
Then they kept on (in my direction, but much faster), and I scrambled behind. After awhile I learned if I just stick to the T rocks, I prolly wasn’t far from the trail, but there were several points where I saw a “T” but saw only a sea of rocks and had no clue which way to go.
At least I knew the weather was good, I had not fallen (except in the snow), had lots of water and a pack of Norwegian cookies. I also knew I had loads of sunlight left, but if I wanted to check in with race officials, I would have to be back by 6 pm. Lillehammer is nearly the latitude of Fairbanks, AK so it’s not so much that the sun rises at 3 and sets after midnight, it doesn’t really set at all.

7 km went on for a couple of hours, then I finally hit the road, and another “you are here” sign. I followed the road to the town of Nordseter, where I thought I could catch the bus.

I stopped at a local hotel to ask directions and learned with dread the last bus had departed. The young woman working there was alone, the only other worker had left so no one could drive me and a taxi would cost ~500 Kronor (over $100). She said that Lillehammer was not far by trail and showed me the trail by map. Beyond that she could only offer the consolation, “if it were me I’d be crying”. But I was still feeling OK and had my iPhone, so asked for wifi access. I was only 8.3 miles away from Lillehammer by road. I bought a coke (bottles are printed with regional names; I had another one that said "Knut") and a muffin and headed off… on the road. I was done getting lost on trails.

It was a quadpounding downhill to Lillehammer, on a winding paved road which probably didn’t get much traffic as it was a bit too narrow for 2 cars. Some aggressive sheep followed me for awhile (wanted my muffin?)
but I needed the fuel, by then I was tired and stinky, caked with salt and dried shoe-sucking mud. I reached the wrong side of the finish line at nearly 5:30 PM, after about 5 hours lost on an unmarked trail. I asked several volunteers in green shirts but no one knew where the bag drop was. I finally found the results checker who seemed neither surprised nor interested that I had found my way back to race headquarters.

Suddenly a random Norwegian guy ran up to me and yelled to his friend to come over. They were the cyclists who had passed me early on, and were now in street clothes with their families. They were indeed sorry to hear I had DNFd and seemed a bit more amazed I found my way back on my own 2 feet, but said hey, I have reason to come back to do it again someday.

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