Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Race Report: ASICS Stockholm Marathon

I took Friday off of work to give myself time in Stockholm for the Stockholm Marathon weekend.  With the race being on Saturday (seemingly a common occurrence for races in Scandinavia), I needed to leave on Thursday in order to give myself ample time to acclimate to the time difference as well as get there early enough for the race start on Saturday morning.  I booked a round trip flight on Norwegian Airlines from JFK to Stockholm, knowing full well I'd be subject to potential delays and potential plane changes, since their longhauls from the US have been notorious for being switched out last minute to 20+ year old wet leased planes due to engine issues with the Rolls Royce engines on their Boeing 787 Dreamliner Fleet.  But I had nothing to worry about - we boarded a Dreamliner, with a 1.5 hour departure delay.

We made up time in the air, and I slept for a considerable amount of the flight, landing in Stockholm only half an hour late, just before 2pm local time. "Flygbussarna" coaches depart Stockholm Airport in Arlanda regularly, so I boarded one headed into the city for 99 SEK (Swedish Krona), the equivalent of about $10.25 US.  Though it was a 45 minute ride, it was considerably cheaper than the 295 SEK Arlanda Express train that only took 20 minutes.  I was wanting to try to keep it as budget as possible because Scandinavia is known for being quite pricey!  Though note... Swedish economy has now become quite chip card centric, so there really is no need to exchange money into Swedish krona; in fact, you may run into occasions where shops won't even have local currency to give back to you in change!

Using a Lime scooter!
Upon arriving in Stockholm's Central Bus Station, I realized that the city was populated by electric scooters from various companies, most notably by Lime, a company based out of San Francisco, and locally based Voi. I signed up for an account on the bus on the way into town, and immediately found one that made my commute up to my hotel much faster.  It seemed that these short trips that I could take on the scooter, anywhere from half a mile to a mile, would cost me just under $3 a trip.  Not bad.  My hotel, the Scandic Anglais, was only half a mile away from the bus station, and I checked into my room, a slightly claustrophobic 129 square foot room with no windows on the building's basement level. But considering how expensive hotels could be, I was happy to only pay roughly $130 a night for this place that was centrally located, smack-dab in the middle of Stockholm in Östermalm.
 The Scandic Anglais rented out bikes to their guests!

At the Stockholm Marathon expo!
One of the best parts about staying at the Scandic Anglais was not only its convenient location and its walkability from the start and finish line of the Stockholm Marathon, but the offering of a free bicycle rental to guests for four hour time blocks - incredibly helpful to keep my transportation costs low! I definitely took advantage of this when I could, even though the seat (adjusted to its lowest level) was still a little tall for me. I mean... I am a good 12 inches shorter than the average Scandinavian. After checking in, I headed up to the expo, located at the Danicahallen, a speedskating venue located on the Östermalm sportsground, a facility that played host to several sports, including equestrian, fencing (and the part for the modern pentathlon), tennis, as well as baseball, for the 1912 Summer Olympics. It was just down the street from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium, the centerpiece of that Olympic Games, where the finish line for the 5K and the marathon would be.  I retrieved my bibs for both races, and eventually, it came time for the 5K that was being held on Friday afternoon.

The beautiful Olympic Stadium!
The 5K course was a bit interesting; starting at the same spot the marathon would be starting the following day, we headed east on Lidingövägen, then turned left where we would route around gravel roads between the equestrian fields of the sports ground. After skirting the edge of the football field, we'd head back toward Lidingövägen, then loop around the Swedish Armed Forces Headquarters. We then found ourselves going through a forested area with more gravel trail, but having to dodge what seemed like multiple spots of dog poop spread all along the road, known as Träskportsvägen. We'd find ourselves down along Valhallavägen, then turning onto an alleyway leading up to the stadium's back entrance.  After half a loop of the stadium's track, we reached the finish line, and I crossed in 26:14, at the time my fastest 5K since November 2014, only 23 seconds off my PR last set in July 2014.  A pretty telling start to my weekend!  After grabbing a bite to eat at the free pasta party at the stadium, I headed back down to my hotel to get a quick shower; I had plans for the evening with a friend who had gotten into town that day, too!

With Thomas at the Ice Bar!
I had kept in touch with my friend Thomas, who was flying in from Germany to run the Stockholm Marathon as well, and in the week prior to our visit, we went online to make reservations at Ice Bar Stockholm, the world’s first permanent bar completely made out of ice, kept at a crisp temperature of -5°C, or 23°F! All the interior components of the bar, including the glasses, are made of pure, clear ice from Jukkasjärvi in Lapland, along the Torne River, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, where the original ice bar was located.  With dinner reservations set that night a little later, we decided to find a spot near to our restaurant to grab a coffee before dinner - I found Waza Restaurang & Bryggeri, which was serving coffee but also several different beers on tap, but one caught my eye that was bottled - a barrel aged Imperial Vanilla Stout coming in at a whopping 12.8% ABV, called "Index Out of Bounds" from a Malmö-based microbrewery named Nerdbrewing.  It was delicious, but very thick, the consistency of motor oil.  Definitely got me feeling pretty sleepy by night's end!

Imperial Vanilla Stout... so thick!
Dinner was at Nomad Swedish Food,where we got to enjoy some local dishes.  After an appetizer of Skagen, or shrimp salad to start, I had the köttbullar (traditional Swedish meatballs, potato purée, cream sauce, lingonberries, and pickled cucumber) and Thomas had the baked spetskål (baked point cabbage with a mustard vinaigrette, honey roasted almond, onion confit, and pickled turnip). I washed the delicious meal down with a local Melleruds Utmärkta Pilsner, then shared a rhubarb pie for dessert! By the time dinner was over, the time change had got to me pretty strongly, and I was ready to get to bed!

The Vasa Museet
The next morning was unlike most marathon days... with the marathon not starting until noon, I had a whole morning to explore more of Stockholm.  With an early opening time, I rented the hotel's bicycle for the morning, and made the short trip down to the Vasa Museum, considered Scandinavia’s foremost tourist attraction, with 1.5 million visitors in 2017.  The museum showcases the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. The ship sat on the bottom of Stockholms Ström for 333 years before it was finally salvaged in 1961. The reconstructed vessel, 98% original, is splendidly adorned with more than 700 carved sculptures and restored as a fully rigged ship. I was so glad that I got to visit this magnificent sight before the race!  It was just enough time to get me back to the hotel to get ready for the race; and I leisurely made my way over about half an hour before the gun.

Spotting Dati at the start
It was quite a bit busier this morning along Lidingövägen, with marathoners finding their place along the street in preparation for the gun.  The skies were gray and overcast; rain was going to happen sometime during the race, and we all knew it, so we prepared for the worst.  I spotted some Stockholm Frontrunners in their noticeable green singlets, and made myself known to them, also finding some folks who I'd be meeting at dinner later that night.  I also found Dati, my friend from Indonesia, who I met at the Helsinki Marathon only two weeks prior.  Most people think I'm crazy for going back and forth from NYC to Europe on weekends; this guy does the same thing, but from Jakarta!  Soon, it was time to get started, and while the clouds spat out a few drops of drizzle, they dissipated right away, and wouldn't be seen again for a little while. I positioned myself appropriately as the race was self seeding; I would end up crossing the start some twelve minutes after the gun.
Startline at the Stockholm Marathon... cloudy day ahead!
Gustaf Vasa Church
We took off along the Lidingövägen, heading in the opposite direction from when we ran the day before, making our way past the Olympic Stadium.  We took a right turn onto Valhallavägen, named after Valhalla, the mythological hall where half of those who die in combat are supposed to travel upon death. With my watch recording my kilometer pace, I hit a 5:45 first kilometer, owing my speed to the flatness of the course. We turned left into the district of Vasastan, onto Odengatan along a nice downhill stretch, speeding up a bit with a 5:31 second kilometer. Up ahead, we ran toward the burnt orange colored Stockholm Public Library, designed by renowned architect Gunnar Asplund. The unique building, built in 1928 with its monumental cylinder at its top, is a splendid example of Nordic Classicism.  We then veered slightly right past the Odenplan plaza, named after Norse god Odin, along Karlbergsvägen, where we took our gradual first uphill climb.  Along this climb, we passed the Gustaf Vasa Church, the 1906 built Baroque Revival Church, with its 200 foot tall dome overlooking the plaza.  We turned left onto Sankt Eriksgatan, and hit the third kilometer of the race in 5:48.
Running along Sankt Eriksgatan
ABBA's biggest hits were recorded
in the building on the left
We continued along this street, headed south toward Sankt Eriksplan, a square named after King Erik IX, the patron saint of the city.  We crossed the Sankt Erik Bridge into Kungsholmen island.  As we entered the island, we were greeted by two tall buildings framing our view: the old Sportspalatset and Sankt Erikspalatset.  The Sportspalatset, on the left, was of particular importance as it housed the Polar Music recording studio, where ABBA recorded some of their biggest hits during their most popular years.

Hornsbergs Strand
The next four miles were going to be run on Kungsholmen island, which holds great importance for the city, as several of its most important sites stand here.  Historically, Kungsholmen was populated by Franciscan Monks in the 15th Century. Industrialization in the late 19th century led to a huge population growth here, from 4,000 to 26,000 inhabitants in a matter of 30 years.  We looped around Fleminggatan and Inedalsgatan, then began to run along the waterfront on Kungholms strand, a beautiful and flat section alongside Karlbergskanalen, named after the Karlberg Palace, the sprawling white Baroque palace on the opposite side.  Here, we hit the first timing mat for 5K, which I crossed in 28:29, a 5:42 per kilometer pace. We then ran through a lightly forested area known as Hornsbergs Strand alongside the canal. Eventually, we turn left briefly onto Mariedalsvägen and leave the water behind us, as we run along Franzéngatan through the quieter residential district of Stadshagen, which was once a rural area until 100 years ago.
Running along Norr Mälarstrand with the Stadshuset, up ahead
Running alongside the Stadshuset
We turned left onto Lindhagensgatan, named after Albert Lindhagen who led Stockholm’s redevelopment into a modern city in the 19th century. The road here was much wider and straight, and beautifully treelined.  My 7K split improved, running a 5:29 as we continued onward. We made our way around the Lindhangensplan to then run along Rålambshovsleden as we began to approach water once again. Alongside us was the Rålambshovsparken, known locally as "Rålis." This park is usually crowded with locals on sunny spring days, especially after the depressing dark winter months. Many of them even dare to swim in the freezing water, actually so clean that it is drinkable! The road turned into Norr Mälarstrand, eventually making its way toward the magnificent red-brick City Hall building, known as Stadshuset, a pearl of the national romanticism style that reigned in the Nordic countries in the beginning of the 20th Century.  The prestigious Nobel Prize gala is held here, in the Blue Hall with the Nobel ball in the Golden Hall.
Transitioning over bridges as we leave Kungsholmen
We left Kungsholmen island along the Stadshusbron and then the Vasabron, two bridges taking us into the political heart of Stockholm. We would also hit the timing mat for the 10K mark of the race in 57:04, a 5:43 average pace.  After running in between various important government buildings along Myntgatan, we ran along a short stretch of cobblestone as we made our way past the imposing Royal Palace, then crossed the Norrbro arch bridge over Helgeandsholmen in front of the Riksdagshuset, home to Swedish Parliament.

The Royal Dramatic Theatre
We arrived at Gustav Adolfs Torg, a major public square in Stockholm, where Strömgatan, Fredsgatan, Malmtorgsgatan and Regeringsgatan meet. Named after King Gustav II Adolf from he early 17th century, in the middle of the square there is a statue of Gustav II Adolf by the French-born, Swedish sculptor Pierre Hubert L'Archevêque, which was erected in 1796. The square is home to the Royal Swedish Opera, Arvfurstens palats (housing the Ministry for Foreign Affairs) and the Ministry of Defense.  As we veered right along Strömgatan, we headed up alongside the Kungsträdgården, the kitchen garden of the court during the Middle Ages, toward the Nybroplan, where we passed by the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Sweden's national stage for "spoken drama."

At that point, we were running along the Strandvägen for the first of three times, the beautiful boulevard in the Östermalm district featured on the face of the medal.  The Strandvägen is a tree-lined, waterfront boulevard, completed for the Stockholm World’s Fair in 1897, with exclusive stone buildings from the turn of the 20th century on one side and the water of Saltsjön on the other. Here, houseboats, passenger ferries and restaurants reign supreme.  At Narvavägen, we turned left heading north into the heart of Östermalm.  Along this street, mass graves were dug to bury the 20,000 Stockholmers who had died from the plague in 1710. After making our way around the roundabout at Karlaplan, we headed west along Karlavägen toward the park of Humlegården ("the hops garden"), a park established during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus to grow brewers’ hops, that also just happened to be in front of my hotel.  We turned right onto Sturegatan, then headed north toward the Olympic Stadium, but would be directed to turn right onto Valhallavägen.  We'd cross the 15K mark along this street in 1:26:23, a 5:52 per kilometer average pace.  So far, I was managing a pace just a smidgen over a two hour half marathon.  Not bad at all!

The US Embassy in Stockholm
We ran along Östermalm's northern edge on Valhallavägen, running directly toward Ladugårdsgärdet, but turned right to conquer the small hill of Oxenstiernsgatan. We were then directed to turn right onto Dag Hammarskjölds väg, as we ran downhill through the heart of Diplomatstaden, or the the exclusive Diplomat City, home of many embassies and ambassadorial residencies. We would also end up running past the American Embassy, before reaching the vast field of the Gärdet, once the drill-ground of King Charles XIV John, the French marshal who became the King of Sweden in 1818. Up in the distance, we could see the Kaknästornet and its 509 foot tall TV tower, which was the tallest buidling in the Nordic countries from 1967 (when it was finished) until 1971. It used to be open to the public, with an indoor and outdoor observation deck, but it has been permanently closed since late 2018 due to safety and security concerns.
The route continued along Djurgårdsbrunnsvägen, as we ran through a quiet, forested area before crossing the Djurgårdsbron Canal into Djurgården island. We were now in a beautiful pastoral setting, completely different than the built up city center we had been running through for most of this first half of the race.  We were now running along Manillavägen, named as such by Spain's envoy to Sweden, Ignacio Maria del Coral y Aquirre, who was handed a piece of land on Djurgården's southern shore by King Gustav III. He had a number of lavish buildings built here, which he called "Manila," after the capital of the Philippines, which was at that time a Spanish colony.  Early on, were greeted with open fields, and, to my delight, a huge flock of sheep!  In fact, Djurgården means “the Animal Garden” and once it really was. A fence surrounded the island where the royals hunted deer. Lions and bears were used in animal fights in the 17th century. The fence was taken away and Stockholmers began to make day trips to the green fields of Djurgården, escaping the filthy streets of the city.
Cirkus on Djurgården
At the end of the street, we turned right onto Djurgårdsvägen, beginning a section of rolling hills through more quiet parts of the island.  We crossed the 20K mat in 1:56:41, and the halfway point a little over six minutes later in 2:02:52. After passing the Italian Embassy, we were greeted with the museum quarter of Stockholm, several in close proximity to each other.  In addition to the Vasa Museum (which I had visited earlier that day), the 75 acre open-air museum and zoo of Skansen, the Liljevalchs contemporary art museum, the Viking Museum, Nordic Museum, Biological Museum, the Cirkus theatre and the ABBA Museum, were some of the sights I would pass by.  I took note of what was there, to ensure another visit here before I left the city.
Running past the Nordic Museum on Djurgården
Running along the Strandvägen again.
We crossed the Djurgårdsbron back over the water, turning left to make our second trip along the Strandvägen, but this time heading in the opposite direction. At the Nybroplan, though, we veered left along Nybrohamnen, this time taking a route bringing us around the Blasieholmen peninsula, where Stockholm's Nationalmuseum and Grand Hôtel is located.  Since 1901, the 300 room Grand Hôtel Stockholm is where Nobel Prize laureates and their families have traditionally been guests, as well as celebrities and world leaders.  Just opposite the hotel, and across the Strömbron viaduct, was the Royal Palace, the official residence and major royal palace of the Swedish monarch.

The Royal Palace
I crossed the 25K mat in 2:27:44, or 6:23 per kilometer average pace. We were now on Gamla Stan, Stockholm's Old City, which dates back to the 13th century, and consists of medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and archaic architecture; but here, we were running along Skeppsbron, the road running along the edge of the old capital, where a medieval wall once stood.  We continued southward toward the island of Södermalm, where we ran over Slussen, the lock where the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren meet. For many years, this was an area also defined by a cloverleaf interchange and associated pedestrian passages and walkways, but now it was under heavy construction to be largely redeveloped and reshaped as a vibrant meeting place with modern traffic solutions.  It would be a short but steep 8% ascent as we ran on roads over built over the construction, then veered left onto Hornsgatan, one the central streets on the island. Södermalm was once the island of the working class, but now has become quite trendy and up and coming; in fact, dinner later that night with members of Stockholm Frontrunners would be at a restaurant/bar in Södermalm!
Running along Hornsgatan
Cranes above Södermalm
Hornsgatan was fully closed as runners were making their way westward on this street in two sections: where I was currently, after the 26th kilometer, and runners who had completed a circuit through part of the island that were 5 kilometers ahead.  At Torkel Knutssonsgatan, we turned right to follow the downhill to the water.   The road would then join up to Söder Mälarstrand, as we ran alongside the Riddarfjärden, the easternmost bay of Lake Mälaren, with the sheer cliffs and natural rock walls of the island were juxtaposed with the built landscape of historic buildings and the many new structures, punctuated by ever-present construction cranes. We also passed Katarinahissen, the "shortcut" passenger elevator that connects Slussen to the higher elevation parts of Södermalm. Though the elevator has been closed since 2010 due to security issues, many still access the platform by taking the stairs, in order to see a spectacular view of Stockholm.

Just past Slussen, we were now running along the old wharf of Stadsgården, where coal, hay and wood were once distributed. Today, ferries coming back and leaving for Finland are docked her.  By this point, we were now 2/3 into the race.  We followed the road until turning right onto Folkkungagatan, to cut through the center of Södermalm island. Not long after passing the 30K mat, accomplishing it just before the three hour mark at 2:59:36 (honestly, the fastest I've ever gotten to 30K), the greying skies opened up.  Thankfully, it wasn't before long that we veered right into a cutout along the side of a building to run through the Söderledstunneln, a tunnel that traverses the island from north to south. We were at least out of the rain, but not for long.

Raining on Lundagatan
We emerged out of the tunnel and back into the rain onto Hornsgatan, now on the other side of that same street I had run along half an hour earlier.  Despite the rain, the crowds were still out in droves cheering us on.  We ran a little further than our last foray down this street, turning near the Zinkensdamm metro station and onto Lundagatan.  With 10K left to go, the rain came down far stronger, and I was afraid I'd have to deal with being soaked for the rest of the race.  We climbed to the highest point of the race, just in front of the double towers of the Högalid Church, one of the most prominent buildings in the city, complementing the contemporary Stockholm City Hall on the opposite side of the water. We ran alongside the edge of the park where the church was located, following Högalidsgatan to Långholmsgatan, where we would turn right.  This road would lead to the Västerbron, Sweden’s largest arched bridge.

Plugging along on Västerbron
Västerbron was warned to be the toughest ascent of the race, but I wasn't feeling it, and continued to plug on through with a consistent rhythm, as the rain began to dissipate.  In fact, I was passing people left and right as we took to the 1.5 kilometers over the bridge. Passing over Langholmen, we then took off over the two spans stretching over the Riddarfjärden.  I felt strong as we continued on over Rålambshovsparken, as we reentered Kungsholmen island for the first time since leaving it 15 miles ago.  We turned right onto Rålambshovsleden, still making good time as I crossed the 35K mark at 3:30:57.  That was eye-opening -- with 7 kilometers to go, I knew I had a potential PR if I stayed consistent with this strong pace.  That PR, set six weeks earlier in April at the Queens Marathon, was a 4:22:49, which gave me nearly 52 minutes of time to do 7 kilometers -- entirely doable.  By then, the rain was just a faint drizzle.  I then began to retrace the route we had run from kilometers 8 through 15, taking us past the Stadshuset, through Norrmalm and back near the government buildings in the center of the city, and through Östermalm and my third passage through  beautiful Strandvägen boulevard.

In the stadium with 0.2K left to go!
Though the toil of running so many miles had slowed me down, it wasn't as considerably slower than before.  On average, my splits for the later kilometers of the race were only 30-40 seconds slower than before.  With only 2 kilometers left to go, I crossed the 40K mark in 4:02:29, or 6:19 pace, on Narvavägen.  I had that PR in the bag!  We rounded Karlaplan, and took off westward along Karlavägen toward Humlegården.  Turning right onto Sturegatan toward the Olympic Stadium, all we had was a left turn onto Valhallavägen, to follow the same finish as I did the day before in the 5K.

I reached the entrance into the stadium, completely in shock from what I had just accomplished.  Looking down at my watch, the time had not even clicked 4:15 yet.  I was eight minutes ahead of that PR with only a half lap of the track left to go.  With the stands packed with supporters, I made my way around to the finish line, in pure disbelief.  My finish time: 4:16:00. A 6:10 average pace, for a nearly 7 minute PR. I was fighting back tears of joy... this was a finish I was always going to remember!  My reaction was even captured in the video below, a wonderful reminder of a fantastic day of running for me!

Ringing the PB Bell!
After finishing the race, we were given our medals, passing through the other side of the stadium, and headed toward the Östermalm sportsground, where the finish festival was located.  Strangely, they had us climb down bleacher stairs to the field, an interesting feat considering our tired muscles from the race.  But at the bottom, we got our finisher's t-shirts, and were treated to some delicious energy replacement options in the form of hot dogs, beer, coffee, and cardamom buns (kanelbulle!)  I eagerly got a chance to ring the PB Bell they so kindly installed during the race, and even got a well deserved foot massage.  I was in heaven!

Victory Headstand
I garnered my strength to head out of the ground and find my way to a working Lime scooter, and took it down to the Djugårdsbron, with Strandvägen in the background.  After all, I ran along there three times today, and with it being featured on the face of our medal, I had to honor it by making it part of my ritual victory headstand!  I got a kind passerby to take it for me, before heading back to my hotel, eager to take a warm shower.

Victorious Front Runners!
Later that night, I enjoyed a delicious post race dinner, meeting up with members of Stockholm Frontrunners at Side Track Stockholm in Södermalm! It was fun to meet many of them, some who also ran the race, and that I had seen and conversed with briefly during the race, like Conny, Vilo, Tomas and Jannis! After a delicious dinner, we headed back to our homes by subway, and I of course made sure to click a quick picture of us with our finish medals, content with our race finishes that day.

With Thomas at the Djugårdsbron
On Sunday morning, I woke early to meet back up with Thomas, returning to the Djugårdsbron to get photos with him and the Strandvägen in the background.  He had a flight to catch not long after, so we parted ways and I continued on to enjoy my last day in town - heading into Djugården to hit up the ABBA Museum, which we passed by during the race!  The ABBA Museum showcases the Swedish pop group ABBA from its humble early beginnings through being thrust into the world stage after winning the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with their hot song, “Waterloo,” to their international superstardom and even post break-up to their own individual endeavors - even Benny and Bjorn’s forays into musical theatre! Not only does the museum have costumes and props from their career, but also items from the wildly successful Mamma Mia movie starring Meryl Streep, and its sequel. It's also interactive, and one can even do karaoke and perform with hologram versions of ABBA, and be their “5th member!” Of course, all the other museum visitors that were clamoring to get a chance to sing on stage for ABBA karaoke... were all tourists visiting from the Philippines. SURPRISE!

Costumes worn by members of ABBA when they won the Eurovision Song Contest
Stadion station on the Stockholm Metro
Getting around Stockholm can be pricy, and thankfully, I was able to get around town affordably using both the bicycles my hotel rented out to me as well as the largely available Lime scooters.  But of course, I had to spend some time enjoying the Stockholm Metro. Stations on the Stockholm Metro are well known as being some of the most beautiful in the world, earning the nickname of the “world’s longest art gallery.” More than 90 of the network’s 10 stations are decorated with sculptures, rock formations, mosaics, paintings, art installations, engravings, and reliefs by over 150 different artists. Several stations, particularly on the Blue Line, still have bedrock exposed as part of the decoration, which has been painted over, giving life to the otherwise dull interior. And, like much of Scandinavia, the cost of a single journey on the metro is one of the most expensive in the world; adult fares, when bought from an app or ticket machine is 45 SEK, or just under $5 USD per ride.

For the afternoon, I decided to hit up parts of the course we ran by: first up, was the Stadshuset, with its spire featuring the golden Three Crowns. Considered one of the most famous silhouettes in Stockholm, its Blå Hallen, or Blue Hall, is where a large banquet dinner is held every year in honor of Nobel Prize laureates, followed by dancing in the Gyllene Salen, or Golden Hall, with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles.

Though during the race we only ran along the road at its edge, Gamla Stan is well known for its cobblestoned streets, its many cafes and its quaint alleyways... definitely a bit too dangerous to conduct a marathon on!  I'm glad I got to enjoy this area, Stockholm's most tourist-friendly area, and particularly indulge in "Fika," a way of life, and an everyday occurrence in Sweden.  Translated as "coffee break," fika is essentially a light meal of a pastry (usually a kanelbulle, or cinnamon bun) with Swedish dark coffee.  And this kanelbulle was incredibly delicious, to say the least.

Beautiful sights on Gamla Stan
After enjoying my fika, I headed over to the Royal Palace to watch the Changing of the Guard, which occurs daily during the summer months. The 40 minute ceremony is quite the spectacle, complete with a full military band and parade through the streets from the Stockholm Army Museum. The program isn’t always the same; sometimes there is a mounted parade. The Royal Guard has had a presence at the palace since 1523, and today is made up of units from all throughout Sweden. They are part of the Swedish Armed Forces, and besides guarding the Palace, perform ceremonial duties at many events such as official state visits, the opening of the Riksdag and other occasions. The ceremony has attracted an estimated 800,000 people annually to the palace grounds, making it one of the most popular visitor attractions in Stockholm.

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Nobel Prize Museum
Before heading back to my hotel to get my bags to head to the airport, I hit up one last spot: the Nobel Prize Museum, located in the former Stock Exchange Building (Börshuset) next to the Royal Palace. The informative museum showcases information about the renowned Nobel Prize and its prizewinners, as well as information about the founder of the prize, Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). The museum's permanent display includes many artifacts donated by Nobel Laureates, presented together with personal life stories. A temporary exhibition about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “A Right to Freedom,” is also on display until September 2019.

Brunkeberg Tunnel
On my way back to the hotel, I stopped by Brunkeberg Tunnel. A 231-meter long pedestrian passageway under the esker Brunkebergsåsen, a ridge that separates Stockholm’s Normalm district into an eastern and western section, the unique tunnel was first opened in 1886, and is considered one of Stockholm’s most iconic Instagram photoshoot spots - notable with its bright yellow walls!

My return flight back to JFK left on time at 5:45 that evening, arriving back in New York a little after 8pm.  I got to sit in Norwegian's Premium cabin this time around, which was quite comfortable for the return flight home.  I was glad to be back with a brand new shiny PR, and excited to see what the start of the summer had in store!

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