STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Windows of time are precious on these trips. They happen usually at the ends of days, well after dark or before dawn. Here, in Sweden, in blustery mid-December, running in daylight was unlikely to happen no matter the schedule: It’s dark for more than 18 hours every day; the sun sets about 2:30 p.m.
So when we checked into our hotel at 5 p.m., with a few free hours ahead, the first thing I did was unpack my running shoes and winter gear and asked the hotel clerk for a route. He kindly gave me a map and showed me the way to run onto one of the city’s many islands, connected by bridges to the mainland.
As I prepared to go, a few colleagues in the lobby asked why I would bother. Two days earlier, nearly two feet of snow dropped on Stockholm, and what was left was four to six inches of mushed-up semi-packed snow, the kind where you slide back half a step with every stride. “Wouldn’t you get as much exercise if you just walked a few blocks?” one person asked.
Actually, no. The hotel was near the sea, and so I ran to it, and then kept the sea on my right (a variation of the Vermonter advice of not getting lost in the woods: Keep the river on your right). It was below freezing, a light snow was falling, and many people were walking along the path under street lights. There were a few runners and even a biker, who kept a certain pace in order not to topple.
I was thrilled to be in Stockholm, running in snow on snow, and stealing a view of the city in my window of time. I turned right on a bridge that crossed a canal, and then, less than a mile from the city center, found myself running alone on a snowy sidewalk.
It felt like I was back in a small New England town – the snow lightly falling, street lamps illuminating the snowflakes, emptiness ahead, silence, Christmas lights on houses, candles lighting windows, shadows of figures moving from room to room. I passed a young couple walking home. In their wake, they were tugging a bundled-up one- or two-year-old in a red sled. The bearded man and long-haired woman talked excitedly; the child in a snowsuit in back sat mute, eyes wide looking at me. I blurred past her, waving but getting no reply.
I ran on a plowed path in a city park lined with tall trees (the benches had humps of snow, no one had sat on them since the storm); to a ferry landing, where a sign said a ferry arrived every 24 minutes to take people somewhere in Stockholm; and then back toward my hotel.
One trick in running in a foreign place is not only to find a route, but also to find the route home. So when I left my hotel, I looked around and found my landmark: a billboard advertising “Dirty Dancing.” It was in pink neon. On the return, I could see it from a quarter-mile away, and I shuffled to the hotel, Dirty Dancing a hot-pink beacon.
I checked my watch: just 35 minutes. But it seemed like I had escaped for hours and had entered a hushed Nordic world during the Christmas month. My cheeks were cold. My hat was white. I stretched next to my hotel door, and I felt the tightness ease from my calves. It felt good to run in the dark, in cold, in Stockholm.