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Postcard from Sweden, Marathon Edition

The Noel Coward song suggests that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Following Saturday’s Stockholm Marathon, I’ll add marathon runners and thousands of cheering Swedes to that list, too.

Every novice runner begins a marathon with three aims: to finish; to run the whole way; and to beat some special time (usually four hours). Following Saturday’s race, I can claim two out of three, as I finished in 4:15:08. It’s 20 minutes faster than my 1996 Sydney Marathon, but 15 minutes and 9 seconds slower than my goal.

While most runners hit “the wall” at the 30 km point, I was in trouble from the 25 km point onward — probably due to insufficient training and the mid-80’s heat. A funny thing kept me going to the finish line: the sunk cost fallacy.

I remember that at the 37 km marker I said to myself “I wonder what it is like to run the final 5 km of a marathon,” and realized that it normally costs 37 km of effort to get there — whereas at that moment, that opportunity lay right ahead of me. (Stated this way, it sounded more like a marginal cost argument, and so I didn’t feel so bad.) And so I kept on plugging along.

The Swedes ran an extremely organized race, but it was also distinctively Swedish. This was the first time I’ve ever been in a race, when I was offered a gherkin at a refreshment station; a bit further along, vegetable soup was offered, too, and then later on, a hot flat coke.

It took me all of the first lap (21 km) to realize that while “Heja” is usually Swedish for “g’day,” in this context, it means “Go!“; the spectators suddenly started making more sense to me.

Upon finishing, I went to the post-race refreshment stations — the first ones served water, the next sports drinks, but then the final one served hot dogs and beer!

Our wisdom of crowds experiment was the real winner. There were more than 200 forecasts of my finishing time, and the median was 4 hours, 23 minutes. By comparison, the crowd was much more accurate than my own guess of 3 hours, 58 minutes. It was a rather spooky feeling that hit me during the run, as I realized that a crowd of strangers had forecast my fitness better than I had. Indeed, the median estimate was wiser not only than my forecast, but also than 78 percent of forecasts.

The winning forecast was from “jz,” a 51-year-old female physician from Illinois, who has run the Chicago Marathon a couple of times. With qualifications like that, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the crowd was so wise!