Berlin Marathon: A Run with History
|December 6, 2017||Filed under Berlin, Germany|
Heavy thoughts weighed on my mind as I approached the start of the 44th Berlin Marathon on September 24, 2017. Compounding my usual pre-race jitters were the gravity of the city’s tumultuous history and the morning’s stormy weather. From the Potsdamer Platz U station, participants had to walk some 20 minutes to the staging area near the Reichstag (Parliament) building, passing graffitied chunks of the Berlin Wall, the haunting Holocaust Memorial, and the iconic Brandenburg Gate through which racers would later run to the finish. (I always pictured Berlin in black and white, undoubtedly influenced by many World War II images and the classic 1987 film “Wings of Desire” – are angels still watching over Berlin?)
Rallied by bright videos and pumping music, I couldn’t help but join the 43,000+ drenched runners and got into the spirit for the 42.1 km (26.2 miles) run. Considered one of the fastest marathon courses in the world, it was highly anticipated that another world record would be set. Alas, it didn’t turn out that way, but Eliud Kipchoge won at an incredible time of 2:03:32 (that’s 4:47 minute per mile!). For me, not having run a full marathon since the New York City Marathon in 2013, completion within the 6-hour limit was my only goal.
A shout out to “A” for standing in the rain to cheer me on along the course – now that’s a good friend! For anyone who has run a footrace of any distance, crowd support definitely helps especially a greeting from a familiar face. Berlin’s course featured lively neighborhood crowds, various bands ranging from folk to punk, and pounding drum corps. With runners from 137 countries, shouts of encouragement in German, English, Chinese, Spanish and other languages were heard along the way.
The Siegessäule (Victory Column) prematurely greeted racers as we began the Marathon through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s most popular inner city park. The 67-meter (220 ft) tall monument – topped with a golden angel – had been repurposed for various “victories” under different regimes since its inauguration in 1873. It survived World War II probably because it was relocated away from the Reichstag, a target of multiple air raids. As the Nazi capital, Berlin was bombed hundreds of time by Allied Forces before its fall in 1945.
Around the 7 km mark, runners crossed the Spree River into the former East Berlin. Although located entirely in East Germany after WWII, Berlin was also split into Eastern (Soviet) and Western (Allied) sectors. West Berliners were able to travel out of East Germany, and many East Germans moved to West Berlin in order to do so. In 1961, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) erected the Berlin Wall to stem the migration of East Germans. As the Cold War thawed, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The reunification of East and West Germany – and East and West Berlin – occurred in 1990, after which Berlin became Germany’s capital once again. Needless to say, prior to reunification, the Berlin Marathon’s route was entirely in West Berlin. The symbolism of finishing today’s Marathon by passing through the Brandenburg Gate from East to West would be poignant indeed.
As if in a time warp, we ran down Karl-Marx-Allee in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, lined with monolithic Soviet-era residential and commercial buildings. Built mostly in the 1950’s by the GDR and known then as Stalinallee, the grand boulevard was a showcase of housing, shopping and entertainment. Today, the apartments are still in high demand, with high rents to match. In contrast to the retro facades, the futuristic Fernsehturm (TV Tower) at Alexander Platz can be seen in the distance on the left in the photo above.
The Marathon meandered through many of Berlin’s twelve boroughs, including the multi-cultural Kreuzberg. Not long ago just a neglected area of West Berlin butting up against the Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg is now considered the “hip” area according to many tourist guides. One of many churches along the race route, the above pictured Kirche am Sudstern (Church at the South Star) was built in the late 1890’s as a Protestant garrison church. Overall, the Marathon was well-organized, but better cleanup near the water stations would have been helpful to minimize the treachery of slippery discarded cups and debris.
I probably spotted her before the halfway point of the Marathon. Decked out in running shoes and traditional Bavarian dress in honor of Oktoberfest (I presume), “Johanna” became one of my personal pacers… fellow runners who could serve as inspiration to keep going. At the end of a race, I often lose sight of my unknown compatriots, but here I found Johanna. Danke schön, Fräulein! (By the way, her name wasn’t Johanna.)
My spirits had lifted by the time I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 56 minutes. I gathered my gear and mingled with other runners in front of the imposing Reichstag building, finally restored in 1999 with a stunning glass dome. Under the still leaden skies, the finishers under heat wraps appeared like huddled masses from decades before. Nonetheless, I was happy and grateful to have completed the Marathon without injury, witnessed the spirit of the runners and supporters, and toured Berlin in a most unique way. I think angels are still watching over Berlin.