Sunshine and Stars in a Swedish Forest: The 2023 Tjörnarparen Trail Ultra 50 Mile

A race report by Lydia Thomson, the women’s winner of the 2023 Tjörnarparen Trail Ultra 50 Mile in Sweden.

By on May 23, 2023 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This Community Voices piece comes from Lydia Thomson of the U.K.]

I didn’t know what to expect. Photos and videos had been shared on the race’s Facebook group of a very wet, snowy course. I saw long, boggy sections with water up to the knees. In the weeks immediately preceding the race, the ground started to dry up, and people joked about bringing in fire hoses to make the conditions more traditional.

The previous year, Kilian Jornet ran the 100-mile distance and set a new course record, which was broken this year by Bill Öster. Jornet had run in particularly cold conditions, but what Kilian Jornet can achieve is no stick by which to measure your own capabilities. I gulped, bought some merino wool socks, lathered my feet in coconut oil, and remembered to pack some humility.

As it turned out, we couldn’t have hoped for nicer conditions. We had dry, bright skies with the temperature hovering around 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius). So basically, I arrived at the start line blind to what was ahead of me.

There are 50-kilometer, 50-mile, 100k, and 100-mile races, and all four distances start together. This makes for a really fun mix of atmospheres: the starting whistle propels the 100 milers who want to start sensibly, full of trepidation at the hours and loops ahead of them, as well as the 50k runners who just want to redline it. In the 50-mile race, I sat somewhere in the middle, trying not to get too carried away sparring with the 50k runners.

Runners descending on a gravel road

Runners descending on a gravel road during the 2023 Tjörnarparen Trail Ultra 50 Mile. Photo: Lars-Göran Andersson

I knew there would be sections that were off trail, into rougher, wilder terrain. I didn’t know this would consist of patches of recently felled forest, tightly packed spruce trees, and stone walls and logs to climb over. I’m climbing up a hill of rocks and bogs and I need to find yellow ribbons between spruce branches? Ok. I need to do this again later, going downhill and in the dark? Sure.

The majority of the competitors were Swedish and they were really good at these sections. Although I could pick people off on the pillowy-soft, long gravel roads, they left me for dust as soon as there was a stream to navigate our way across. I thought I was ok at those sections, but while I would stop for a second to figure out a path, they could just see it immediately.

After around 15 miles, the 50- and 100-mile runners peeled off for an out-and-back section, and it became a bit clearer who was actually racing your distance. When I approached the aid station at the end and hadn’t seen any other women coming back, I realized I must be leading. Lars Hektor — the race director — confirmed this when I reached the aid station. I screamed in his face. He refilled my bottles for me and told me to eat. I shoved some banana and chocolate into my pack, grabbed handfuls of crisps and sweets, and started walking.

I saw the next two women almost immediately. “Bra gjort!” “Well done!’ “Bra krigat!”

The breezy downhill I had enjoyed to get to the aid station was obviously now uphill, but the adrenaline coursing through my body sent me flying. I had to keep this win. I now wanted it more than anything. I was a petulant child with the best toy in the world and no one else was having it. Push. Go!

Ok, I had to calm down. There were still 26 miles to go and I didn’t know what was ahead. I still hadn’t hit the section that was so famously boggy. But you know what, I felt weirdly calm about it all. The scenery was unbelievable. It’s difficult to get too wound up when you’re surrounded by acres of trees, vibrant green moss, and elegant lakes. I usually hate an out-and-back, but I was so excited to get to run these sections again. The singletrack sections were the stuff of my running dreams — playful, but smooth. I found flow states where I didn’t even realize I was following the course — it was like I already knew it.

A runner on gravel with a lake in the background

The view over Dagstorpssjön at mile 35. Photo: Lars-Göran Andersson

It did get pretty edgy in those wilder, off-trail sections — especially when I got lost and couldn’t find the ribbons. They were really well distributed — the best marking I’ve ever seen at a race — I was just tired. I trampled branches under my feet and kicked the rocks. I wailed. I felt like the other women were going to appear any minute now. Was I going to need their help?

I had developed a mantra that I counted off on my fingers. I counted it again. I ate some dry-roasted peanuts. I found my way.

As the sun set over another serene lake and soaring birds were reflected in the water, I was becoming concerned about my diminishing water supplies. I had written down the rough distance between each aid station, but by this point, I was moving slower, so the aid stations were appearing more slowly. I wept to see the next one. The volunteers were dancing to “Simply The Best” by Tina Turner. They gave me a rehydration tablet and refilled my bottles. I grabbed my handfuls of snacks and donned my high-visibility vest, ready for the dark.

All of the aid stations were brilliant. The snacks were varied and even catered to food intolerances. There was soup (and beer) at 13 miles. The tents were heated, there were comfy chairs to sit in, and the volunteers were bright, bubbly, and attentive. Here, a woman asked me if I wanted to sit down. I shook my head profusely and they laughed. I knew I’d struggle to leave.

The long gravel roads gave me confidence. I live and train in London in the U.K., so I have little choice but to train my flat speed. This worked to my advantage — the last 13 miles of the course had loads of it. There was one hairy climb, but at the top, I had the most breathtaking view of the sunset over the forest. By this point, I’d been alone for so long I had begun talking out loud. “Alright, you’re forgiven,” I said to the forest.

A beautiful purple sunset over trees

The sun setting around mile 40, before the final aid station. Photo: Marie-Louise Antonsson

With six miles to go and light diminishing, I opened up the gas. I knew that the other women really could still be right on my back, and I wasn’t keen on being pipped so close to the end. The route to the finish is an out-and-back too — you follow the same nine miles that you started with. I knew that I had loved it. I remembered all of the initial delight. I had to battle the spruces again — this time in the dark — but now, I had a man shouting instructions to me in Swedish from behind. I really don’t know how they’re so good at it. While I’m still looking for the first marker, they’ve already pinpointed the next three.

The last 5k. I stopped on a gravel road to turn off my head torch and look at the brightest, clearest, starry sky I’ve seen in a long time. Then I saw the light from a head torch just behind me — the spruce-tree orienteer — so I wanted to keep moving.

The trail to the end was sketchy underfoot — rocky, boggy, and slippery with rogue tree roots — but the man on my tail was really keeping me going. I would turn a corner, see his head torch encroaching, and run a little faster. I checked the route on my watch: the end was actually in sight! I could see the end on the map!

I heard cheering. Volunteers at the finish tent had spotted me coming up the road. I “sprinted” up that hill with so much happiness in my heart. I got my timing chip over the line and was greeted with applause into a warm tent. I laugh-sobbed. I ate some cake and drank some broth. I applauded others as they finished.

A volunteer removed my timing chip and GPS tracker. Another asked how I was. “Really good thanks. Fine. Great.” Laugh-sob. An offcial knelt beside me. She gently asked, “Do you know if you are the first finisher for the women?”

“I think I am, yes.”

She smiled and nodded. “Yes, I think so too.”

The author with her trophy for first place.

The author with her trophy for first place. Photo courtesy of Lydia Thomson.

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