In Stride

Why Is this Man Running with Ashes?

Since 2008, a Swedish adventurer has run marathons around the world with the cremated remains of a young man in tow

Why Is this Man Running with Ashes?

Anders Forselius scatters the ashes of Alex Blackburn on the beach near the Fort Grounds in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Photo: AP

For 26.2 miles, through the blaring reggae music, pungent clouds of ganja, and tropical heat, a Swedish man named Anders Forselius and two Americans—12-year-old Alex Blackburn and 48-year-old Dan Fox—were inseparable. In a time of 4:48:05, they crossed the finish line of last December’s Jamaica Marathon joined at the hip. Forselius was running with the cremated remains of Blackburn and Fox, zipped into a belt worn around his waist.

Where Anders keeps the ashes.   Photo: Roy M. Wallack

While there are reported instances of people carrying the ashes of loved ones on marathons and other endeavors, Forselius may be the only person who carries the remains of strangers on adventures they’d hoped to have in life, but didn’t get to.

“These guys motivate me," says the perpetually smiling, admittedly eccentric, 38-year-old Swede, who never met Blackburn and Fox when they were alive. “They give me the reason to continue my traveling.” 

Traveling is everything to Forselius—it’s how he met the deceased duo. A part-time writer and occasional forestry management engineer from the small village of Ljusdal, Sweden, 200 miles north of Stockholm, the unmarried and childless Forselius has run 113 marathons—including one in every U.S. state—and bike-toured through 33 countries since 1999, including six trips across the U.S. and Canada, blogging on-the-road stories for a local newspaper and a Swedish running magazine on the way. The day after the Jamaica Marathon, he and his ash companions ran another marathon in Costa Rica, Forselius’ 50th in as many countries.

Anders crossing the 2014 Jamaica Marathon finish line.   Photo: Roy M. Wallack

In 2008, riding from Seattle to San Diego, Forselius stopped for two days at the iconic Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in California, north of Santa Cruz. Sick with a fever and unable to ride, Forselius struck up a friendship with Sparrow Bar, the manager, who grew wistful when listening to stories of Forselius’ worldwide adventures.

“My son Alexander, who had a congenitally weak heart and died suddenly at age 12 in 2001, always told me that he wanted to have his ashes spread all over the world,” she said. She had already scattered some of him in Budapest, Florence, Rome, and the Caribbean.

Alexander Blackburn.   Photo: Sparrow Bar

The story set Forselius’ mind abuzz. “This would be such an interesting destiny,” he thought, to bring her son’s ashes along on his travels. “I was hoping that she would ask me. That would be so cool. Such an honor.” 

A few hours later, after he showed her a blog post he’d written about his stay at the lighthouse, she agreed. “Take Alexander with you and scatter him,” she said. She handed him a small wooden box. 

After three years in bike panniers, halfway through Forselius’ 50-marathons-in-50-states project, Alexander ran his first race at the 2011 Missoula Marathon. “ I didn’t think it was fair that just only one of us had to wake up early every Sunday to run 26.2 miles,” he says. “I felt that Alex was laughing at me. Since he had been a runner himself, I decided to take [him] along to get a workout instead of staying in his wooden ‘bed.’”

The next year, back in Missoula to do the marathon again during a ride from Seattle to New York, Forselius was introduced by mutual friends to Laura Fox, whose husband had died 15 years earlier in his late 40s. While staying at her place, he told her about how he was carrying Alexander’s ashes. “What he was doing was so special,” she says. “So I said, ‘Dan would love to travel with you,’ and put him in a plastic 35mm film canister.” Dan Fox was a non-smoking health department worker and mountain climber who developed lung cancer from second-hand smoke. 

Dan Fox.   Photo: Laura Fox

“Dan’s only done two marathons with me,” says Forselius. “I save him just for mountains, but wanted him with me and Alex when I got my 49th and 50th marathon countries.” 

The trio will be covering more ground than ever in the next 15 months, as Forselius is currently on a quest to ride his bike to every city in the world that has held a modern Olympic Games, both summer and winter. The two-year project, now partially completed in Europe, will take them to London, Paris, and Barcelona before moving on to North America, Japan, Korea, Beijing and Sydney and finally ending up at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Forselius frequently sends email status reports to Alex’ mom and Dan’s wife, and even was awarded an extra finisher’s medal for Alex at the 2011 Boulder Colorado Marathon, which he gave to Sparrow Bar.

“I cherish that medal,” says Bar. “Anders really knows how to make people smile—that’s what Alexander did, too. ” Now living in Montana, she’s hoping to see Forselius again when he pedals through the winter Olympic cities of Calgary and Vancouver, the former just a six hour drive away.

Forselius says that he is open to carrying more people’s ashes if he can “feel a connection” with them. But the Cubs fan does have one requirement: “It must be someone who will fit in with the group,” he says. 

Roy M. Wallack writes a biweekly fitness column for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100—and Beyond.

Filed To: Running, Adventure

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