The Sandsjobacka Trail…Gothenburg, Sweden
I’m not sure what the reason was this time… Possibly, it was the beginning of December, I had 14.5 days of holiday to take before the end of January and I like trails and Scandinavia. A quick Google search and eight weeks later, I’m on the outward leg of my £19.99 return flights from Stansted to Gothenburg on my own (Michelle being short of holiday).
Those who’ve followed my monologues before will know (to grab a coffee, find a comfy chair and) that I’m a bit of a fan of the cold and Scandinavia, following Stockholm and Svalbard trips last year, but this time I catch the plane after 5 weeks of chest infection/bronchitis/[insert nationality here] flu, stocked up with Sudofed and other decongestants, my luggage carrying a ludicrous 14.6kg of kit for a 3 night trip.
Arriving in Gothenburg, spending the first 45 minutes on the ground in the baggage hall and the ensuing bus trip into the city on the phone / computer logged into to solve work crises, did not bode well… A quick trip to the central train station to pick up a train ticket for the 5.15am departure the next day to the start line and to the local supermarket for some breakfast (pastries of course), before investigating the evening meal options and realising there were no reputable pasta suppliers for 2 miles in any direction; oh well, the carb-loaded burger, parmesan fries and local beer it is, before a 11pm self-imposed curfew #teamubercasual.
The alarm went off at 4:00am, 4:05am, and 4:10am before the phone got dispatched across the room. An hour later, I am talking in my best French and English to other fools waiting for the driver to open the train doors, having no regard to the fact that it is -4C and trying to snow on the platform.
30 minutes later, we arrive at "Kungsbacka slutstation” which I double checked translates as ‘Kungsbacka, the end of the line’, moving into a local gym to collect bib numbers etc, the streets already lit up with oil lamps in the way that only Scandinavian Health & Safety will allow.
At 7am, with two hours of darkness ahead, about 200 runners/idiots are lined up, with 44.6km ahead of them. At 7:02 we’re off; the first 7km on roads and pavements which starts to highlight the most important decision people have had to make: What shoe to wear? The locals turned up at the start with a selection so they could check local conditions - spike road shoe, trail shoe, trail shoe with added metal studs, and the some fools with road trainers… It is fair to say for the first 7km, I wasn’t 100% sure about my choice - the faithful Speedcross 4s, especially as at every bend (even at my pedestrian pace) I was showing off my ice skating skills (which as Michelle will confirm are completely lacking, together with my core - last seen around 2005) as the roads were either covered in frosted snow/ice or black ice. That said, I was underway with my new Swedish friends, Oliver and Christopher, who like every other person apparently had recced the route at least once; cheaters!
I soon saw why that might have been a good idea as we hit the true trail…and the mud, in fact, 150 shade of mud. Ice encrusted for the first runners, it varied between a thin layer to deep swamp by the time we got there; I’d never seen inch-thick chunks of ice in mud before, but such chunks were reflecting the head torch light as we ploughed through.
I quickly lost my compadres or more accurately they lost me, though it might have been just after Oliver had stated he liked a drink: he had recently shared a bottle of wine with his wife only 3 weeks ago at Christmas. He clearly just hadn’t taken long-term carb loading seriously enough...
1km in to the mud, and in what Trump must have really been describing in his infamous quote of last week, a lady in front of me lost her shoe at least a foot down in to the quagmire. It was retrieved, but I think that was a DNF as she was scraping clay from the inside of her road shoe… Speedcross 4s / Inov8s / what ever your trail shoe of choice was winning.
12km in and we came out of the wood in to a hill top clearing, and things looked easier... Silly assumption: stone outcrops, ice and wind blasted snow, created a barren ice rink on top of the granite like rock… With the course marked out with the less than reflective red and white plastic barrier tape every few hundred metres, and the ground conditions not showing any signs which way 100+ runners had already passed, people headed off into all directions, scattered like seagulls at the local fish market. Those with metal studded shoes (albeit weighed down in mud) were smiling at this point.
Thankfully the mud and visibility returned (very thankful for runners wearing reflective hi-vis jackets reflecting my head torch) we turn off the stone slabs… and so it continued; up hill and down mud slides. Serious fun; yes, I may have been going at the speed of a Viking long boat rather than the speed boats sitting in Gothenburg harbour or indeed the car ferries, but the air was dry, the ground muddy, the scenery stunning…
Feed stations at 11km, 22km, and 33km were amazing: 5 types of drink (water, sports drink, blueberry cold soup, coke, coffee), snacks galore and oodles of crisps and cake; I’ve seen wedding buffets with less. Arriving at each one and everyone was supportive; if you don’t speak Swedish - whatever language you did speak - was spoken… Encouragement a plenty; many a great conversation and stories of the race two years ago when it was -18C (I think that was a ‘it’s only -2C' pointer to a Swedish competitor who arrived at the same time as me and was complaining of being cold) or how the person who came second last year (allegedly) broke their arm doing so… Amazing, considering these marshalls had been outside in silly temperatures for 5+ hours towards the end…
Onwards, or downwards as ~30km in, I jump on to a ‘floating’ rock which moved a bit too freely, leaving me sliding, my left hand side landing on its more stable rocky neighbour, up to my thighs in clay. Limbs intact and a few Scandinavian words later, we conclude that mud might be insulating and somewhere there’s a [rather expensive] beer waiting. It’s worth noting that it’s illegal to serve beer before midday in Sweden even in restaurants; therefore there was no point in trying to break the sub-5 hour barrier…. I had thanked Christopher for pointing that out to me.
So before the 33km feed station, my new friend and I missed the red and white tape and followed an orange and white tape (I wish I was joking) for about 500m before we hit civilisation which felt wrong and we tracked back. The award for marketing ploy of the year, however goes to the local Salming shop who - 500m before the last feed station - had a marquee with new trail shoes and socks which they were encouraging runners to change into / borrow for the rest of the race. The thought of dry socks and shoes was a draw which may people went for…the idea being you simply return them at the finish. Given what people had been through I see the attraction, but as the ‘pro’ I am, no rest for the wicked and all that, the mud between my toes had reached a nice temperature, thank you.
Replenished at the last feed station, we headed back up the hills, past an ideallic frozen lake (where the straight line over the lake would have saved a km but nobody wanted to risk the role of 007) with local families cooking salmon over, and sitting around, open fires outside their log cabins. For a food lover, that was the closest to a wall… caramelised salmon wafting across the trail knowing there was about 11km to go was a step too far. Over the penultimate biggish hill, we descend past a range of stables under a main road and past Macdonalds which kills off any ideas about food; even after 38km, I have standards!
We approach the last main hill (or so I thought), and then the top 30km race runners (who started after the marathon race) come hurtling pass; I later hear they are Swedish champions…Personally I let them by as I feared being trampled on the narrow mud swamps. The terrain didn’t let up. My favourite obstacle being two fallen trees, one on the ground the other at head height on top of each other just after a blind bend; sometimes its good to be slow! At the top of the hill, we’re diverted up an escarpment even though there’s a path around the 15m high lump; why I later ask -‘because it’s traditional’. OK, but this traditional route had some 2.5m steps / slides down on the other side of it; oh well, let’s drop in.
It’s at this point - having started to walk faster than I could run - I am starting to get Swedish trails and frankly its great, but let’s be honest I’m not fit enough. They make Welsh trails feel like a road race at home: Undulating in Sweden = 1-in-1 hills swimming in clay with the air at freezing point. Tough mudder to these guys equals a workout in a warm gym.
5km to go and we hit a hill which anyone who’s been to Coed-y-Brenin will recognise as the ‘sting-in-the-tail’; frankly, a rude incline. Up and over, and you can hear the finish line and in my head smell the promised soup. Running parallel to the road, we come to the edge of an athletics track. the sign that says go left is fixed to the edge of the track fencing but takes you away from the finish line you can see directly 250m ahead of you and straight up another 30m high hillock just because its there…of course, it does. And you know what; coming down that hillock was great… and the soft athletics track frankly a boring end to proceedings.
Officially 44.6km (27.7 miles) or - with a little detour - 28.48 miles and 730m of hills, under those lovely lugs of loveliness in 7:02 (26.2 miles in 6:29:55). Yes, admittedly awfully slow for the serious athletes amongst you, but mud splattered from head to toe, bruised legs/arms/knees, having met all sorts of runners and gained the smallest of medals: what great way to spend a Saturday in January.
Would I recommend it? Oh, yes; and you have a choice of races: 25km night run on Friday, 12km, 30km or 44 km on Saturday, and 22km or 82km (ARE YOU NUTS?!) on Sunday, and they do combined race challenges over the three days (Go on do the 25/44/82 three layer…). On reflection, the 30km distance would have been a better choice having only run a local 13.2 miles once in the 2 months before, but I’m a self-confessed idiot who doesn’t train enough.
Worth adding it would be easily possible to fly in on the Friday evening and get home on Sunday, so an easy weekend destination. If anyone fancies it, please let me know as I’ll happily come back… I’ve recced the route now.
So that’s a first ultra (technically), 3 very Sore League points (please), 2 UTMB qualification points (as if) and now 6 days recovery before the Winter Trail Half in Snowdonia (thinking cake)… bring it on #teamcasual.
Leaving you with a Swedish proverb the hotel bar staff suggested this evening as they saw me type this monologue (thank you for sticking with it if indeed you are still reading):
"Kom och gå en mil i mina mockasiner innan du bedömer vem jag är.”
'Come and go a Swedish mile in my moccasins before you criticize who I am.’…oh and please let me know because I want to join you!
Fantastic read Andy and so impressed with your time in those conditions! Think you got the nutrition absolutely right:) Only wish I had known about these events before my knee operations as they sound amazing.
Hugely well done, Andy - what an achievement! And thank you for a highly entertaining read :joy: