What is “Fränkische Schweiz” in English? It is an area by Nuremberg, Germany, close to where I spent a big part of my youth. Now it was time to do the marathon there and wanting to write in English about it made me check the dictionary. So, here you go: It is “Franconian Switzerland” – and no, it has nothing to do with the Swiss. Now the technicalities are out-of-the-way, I want to add that it is the first marathon where my parents came with me, which made it really special (I had to run 43 marathons to see my parents at the finish line). The race itself was quite spectacular, too. They closed off an entire A-road (or B-road in Germany, B for Bundesstraße), which goes along the amazing Franconian Switzerland’s scenery. The marathon route was quite simple, running up and down this road (B 470) for 42 kilometres, but the backdrop was stunning. Unfortunately I did not take pictures, having been rather busy chasing my personal best. It was great running weather, much cooler than the hot August summer days earlier this week, so I thought I might have a chance here. The official times are not published yet, but I must have missed it by a few seconds. At kilometre 38 I desperately had to pee, something that had never happened before that late in a race. (When you think you’ve experienced it all.) Anyway, it was a great small event and a lot of fun to share my marathon passion with my folks. And if you ever consider doing this one, don’t forget that the right airport for Franconian Switzerland is Nuremberg, not Basel or Geneva.
Yesterday I did the six hours Musik Legends Challenge. The idea: Run for six hours and try to do as many laps as you can. I was a little bit nervous, not quite knowing what I would get myself into. Pure boredom and uninspired running of 3.75 miles (6 km) loops in Northampton? Or would it be a great way to explore the terrain beyond marathon distance, not focussing on the number of miles (or km) but overall time and having every round a save base station to come back to? It turned out to be the great, despite the odds increasingly being in favour of dull.
On race day it was announced that due to last minute street closures, they had to change the course to 3.3 miles (5.3 km) and instead of loops we pretty much had to run up and down the same way along the busy A45, traffic noise and uninspiring views included. Initially it was said that the course is half tarmac, half trail, but now it was 10% trail and 90% tarmac. The trail bit was very nice though and marked the turning point of the route, something that later turned out to be rather motivational. And so we started. I didn’t have a game plan, as usual. I just worried how to survive six hours running with dignity and so I focussed from the beginning on a much slower pace, than I probably ever had started any race with before. Once the first “loop” (rather back and forward) was done, the shock of the missing trails, boring views and iritating street noise hit me. How often do I have to do this now? 10 times? 11? Maybe even 12!? Having been just over 30 minutes into it I found this rather hard to comprehend. And another observation sunk in: This event was called Music Legends Challenge and was dedicated to Prince. But what happened to the music? There was none. Zero. The only Prince related thing was that runners were encouraged to wear purple, so you had roughly half of the runners wearing this colour. Big deal. I started my second “loop”, still no being convinced that I would managed to endure this for 6 hours, especially having had a late night out with too many beers the night before. My legs felt heavy and somehow unready to face any challenge.
The turning point came after “loop” four and its name was Paul. Paul was what I would call a seasoned marathon and ultra runner, but came across so down to earth that it took a while to realise this. He did the Grand Union Canal race this year (145miles!!) and had attempted an other race over 250 miles non-stop running where he literally dropped out early: He collapsed, was unconscious, stopped breathing and needed to be revived, which took 15 minutes. It turned out later that he must have caught a nasty bug on his holiday just before the race. Now four weeks later he was happily running this race, entertaining me with his unbelievable stories. “Loops” five and six passed by in a breeze and suddenly over 3 hours running were done. My spirits somehow got lifted. The whole back and forward running had something comforting. You saw the same nice runner faces over and over again, encouraging each other (“Looking strong”, “nice running mate”, “good job”). The tiny loop at the end, the trail bit, became a real booster which you started to look forward to. The street noise became something familiar and reoccurring and the base station a point of interim reward. And so I went on: “Loop” seven, eight (marathon distance, but still 1 hour and 45 minutes to go), nine. I did not think in pace or distance, I only checked my running watch for how much time was left. At the end of “loop” nine I got the feeling, that in theory I could finish twelve in total. The rules are that you can start any new lap under the 6 hours cut-off and then still finish it. It felt that I could finish my eleventh just in time to start the twelfth one. I still can’t explain why I did not get really tired or had to stop and walk. I just didn’t. I ran on and on and on. I knew with finishing the twelfth lap I would have done just under 40 miles (63 km), much more than I ever though I am capable of. But because I never counted miles it did not seem to be a biggy. Weird how the mind works sometimes. And it happened as I hoped: 5 hours 58 minutes into the race I finished lap eleven. Asking the officials if I could still go out for the last one, the answer was: “Of course, if you do it within the next 2 minutes.” And so I went out and finished the race with just under 39.5 miles (63.5 km) in about 6:33 hours (don’t have an official time yet). I was one of the last ones to arrive, most of the other runners were gone, but I rung the bell which indicated I broke my own distance record (my first ultra marathon) and I was given the biggest, heaviest medal I have ever seen. What a glorious finish to what turned out to be one of the best feel-good races I ever had. I am still puzzled what actually had happened here, but hope I will continue working on these ultra distances and continue to have fun with it.
What has Prague in common with an English medium sized town called Milton Keynes? I can tell you, not very much, but one thing is, they both had marathons in the first week of May. And I did run them both. It’s a first for me, to run two marathons in the same calendar week. But what a different experience it was: Milton Keynes is best known for their concrete cows, Prague is best known for, well, being Prague. While Milton Keynes has the charm of a dystopian George Orwell place, Prague is just amazing and running a marathon there felt like a huge privilege.
At the start they did not play some up-pumping rock tunes, but (very fitting and classy) Smetana’s The Moldau (Vltava). The first 5k were great, we passed all the stunning buildings of the Old Town and when we crossed Charles Bridge, it felt a bit like a fantasy movie, with all these stone statues left and right – a goosebumps moment. Milton Keynes tried to score with a finish in their football stadium. Which was fair play and fun in some way.
However, the best thing about Milton Keynes was that I had family and friends around, friends to run with and family to cheer. But then I also met friends in Prague and ran with them and had one friend to cheer. And in Prague I had a lot of beer before and after and the whole place came across as very chilled and relaxed – absolutely loved it. Milton Keynes famous concrete cows I even missed. Never saw them, despite having passed a sign that indicated something. Milton Keynes was built 50 years ago on a green field, I guess just because back then the government could, the same way the Chinese government can today. And being the artificial grid city it is, the running felt a bit like maze running, with all the pedestrian ways and roads weirdly meshed under and over each other. I constantly thought I had been at this or that point several times before, just because so many corners looked so similar. Prague in fact did repeat some parts of the route, but because it was such a great experience and nice backdrop I did not even notice or would have wanted it to be any different. Well, it is completely silly to compare these places, but I thought I should give it a try having run marathons in them in the same week. Milton Keynes was on UK’s bank holiday Monday and Prague on Sunday. Time wise Milton Keynes beat Prague though: I did a 3:37ish time while Prague was 5 seconds above 3:40. And when it comes to the medals the difference could not be more obvious. But hey, at least the ribbons are both in a shade of light blue.
Saturday night before the race I started to panic: I visited Hamburg’s recently opened opera house Elbphilharmonie and nearly froze to death. The building is truly amazing with viewing platforms and awe inspiring architecture, inside and out. But the location is also extremely windy and despite the 8 degrees temperature it felt like zero.
The weather forecast for marathon Sunday said the same 8 or 9 degrees temperature, but even more wind. So I worried that my shorts, short sleeved top and thin running gilet means I am hopelessly underprepared for Hamburg’s weather. At least I’d got a thermal hat to keep my head warm. On the other hand the forecast also said there won’t be rain, unlike the day before and the predictions for the days after. Out of lack of real alternatives I made it to the start line in my shorts, short sleeved top and thin gilet, covered in one of those foil blankets, still worrying about the potential freeze horror lying ahead of me.
It came different: I did not only start to rain just in time when we started running, it also hailed and not only at the start, but also throughout the race. The little hailstones do get you, feeling like tiny needles piercing your skin with their icy coldness. To our luck each hail attack did not last for too long and once it was over, the simple absence of ice on you, made you feel warm. Really warm. Weird, right? The rain did also stop and even the sun came out a few times. But this constant thread of cooling down too much had an unexpected positive effect on my running attitude. I felt I simply can’t afford going into my “let’s see how it goes today” mode of motivation. I ran against the fear that at any time I might end-up next to the road in fetal position, shivering and shaking. So I ran faster than I thought I am abled to do and managed to do a new personal best! Yeah!! Only by 17 seconds, but hey it’s a PB!!! 3:25:45. I am over the moon. And even having done Hamburg for the fourth time now and facing a moody weather even worse than London weather’s (mostly undeserved) reputation, this marathon was a great event, with a lot of music, not only put there by the organisers, but also from the many balconies of residents that threw little cheering parties. There is a several hundert metres long tunnel part of the route, which was prepped up with light effects and sound boxes spread out all way through playing Eye of the Tiger. And then there was this attractive girl holding up a poster to runners saying “You are sexy” and when I read it she made eye contact and pointed to the words indicating it also applies to me!! Only in Hamburg. It might be rainy, has hail and weather that makes you wonder why anyone come up with the idea to have to 2 million metropole (Germany’s second biggest) at exactly this place on earth, but Hamburg does rock. Big time.
Does Rome have more rain than London? Some articles out there are seriously suggesting that and today I might start to believe it. I had been running 37 marathons (about 10 of them in UK alone) without ever experiencing severe rain. The most unlikely candidate to end this streak did end it: Rome. It was raining today and it rained hard. Not all way through, but a solid 90 minutes at the beginning, to get the runners completely soaked, and just after the finish, when you rather wanted to chill in the sun and not being re-soaked while you are getting increasingly cold trying to find your way home. I am still a little bit baffled. The other interesting twist to this Rome Marathon (which turned out to be a fantastic event after all) was the “system” of letting runners start in waves, depending on their estimated finish time. My running partner Michael and I were both in the medium fast group, which was represented by a green number. All three groups, blue for the fastest and orange the slowest, had their own starting arch, identified by ballons that matched the colours. Without any delay we followed the masses of runners which were herded towards these three arches and for reasons still not clear to me our green line ended up joining the orange runners. At this point we realised that the second wave must had already happened and maybe only green runners who used their elbows had managed to get to the front. As a result I had to dodge slow runners the entire marathon, which can be very stressful, because you are constantly distracted finding a path through the running crowds and never find quite your own flow and pace. But despite all this I managed to do a much better time than I thought would be possible, based on my current training level and shape. And it turned out to be a great run. It is a little bit like running along buildings that belong more to historical drama than to reality. Super cool, I loved it. At some point I felt very much reminded of my Florence Marathon in 2013, only bigger and greater. And then the medal: It is the nicest one I have received. The ribbon is done in burgundy, with golden and lightly rose writing and together with the golden medal ist looks very classy. So, apart from the rain Rome was all the good and Italian spirited race that I hoped for. And even the rain was not just rain: It was in fact a thunderstorm, right when I started and the thunder was echoed by shouts of a crowd of weather-excited runners. In Rome even rainy marathons are done in style.
The Rome Marathon preparation presented a rather different challenge to me: getting the medical certificate that proves I am fit too run a marathon. (The fact that ten days ago I just successfully completed one does not seem to prove anything.) I had been there before in 2013 when I did Florence and Pisa, which also required this certificate (it comes down to an Italian law from 1982 after all) and while it was sort of an annoyance, it did turn out to be rather straight forward to arrange. Not so this year: drawing from my 2013 experience I rocked up at my GP, who was French and kind of familiar with issuing these certificates. The French have a similar law. The checks took 5 minutes. Two minutes later I was out of there, with a stamped and signed paper. Off it went to the the organisers to confirm my successful registration for the race. Only that they did not. Apparently I had the outdated form from last year, which could not be accepted anymore. The new form required ECG, lung test and urine analysis not older than 30 days. So I went back to my French doctor who was surprised by this level of details required, same as me. £260 was the price tag to get this done. UK prices. I wrote to the organisers and asked if there is an other way. And there was: for foreign runners who have difficulties to get these examinations they offer to get it done in Rome prior to the marathon for €70. Alternatively a proof of membership of an British Athletes affiliated running club would make the need for a certificate obsolete. So I investigated this route. Unfortunately these British Memberships seem to have a fixed start day, always running from 1st April to 31 of March. So how do I ensure that when I sign up for a running club end of February, that by 2nd of April (the date of the Rome Marathon) I have a proof of a valid membership for the new and not only for the old period. None of the three different running clubs could or wanted to answer this question. So I ended up organising a medical appointment in Rome. The time window for applying had long be closed, but here the Rome organisers were rather flexible and I did get a slot. But there was one condition: I still needed to bring a full urine analysis for the appointment, written in English not older than 30 days. I just had got a whole health screen done, with urine, blood and you name it analysis, but unfortunately that was 45 days ago. So I went to my GP the third time, peed into a cup the second time within 45 days, paid £26 and got an email a few days later with access to the online portal where I could download and print out the result. Which I did. But the print out looked worryingly informal and my concerns were growing that it might be rejected based on missing formal stamps and/or signatures. An email to the organisers to double check this was not answered. So on the last day I went to my GP a fourth time asked for a stamped and signed copy, which they were happy to do, but I had to come back later. Finally on my 5th visit, when I collected it, I felt I had everything in place to start journey to Rome. Which turned out to be right. After I managed to locate my contact in Rome just in time, who should bring me to the medical practice where the EGC and lung test was performed, I got the clearance from a smiling Italian doctor: “Good news”. When I finally was the proud holder of my start number (12 thousand something, which shows how last minute I got the clearance), I felt like a finisher already: running the whole thing now can’t be more difficult than getting this stupid paperwork sorted. And I got an explanation why it is so different this year: the Italian Athletics Federation came up with these great ideas just recently. So if you want to run marathons in Italy, better be prepared.
Sorry, but I have to add this: the results are here and I did it in 4:05:22! Not that the number has any significance or is in any way special. I believe if this marathon had not been the unfolding running drama that it was, I would have finished it under 4 hours. But what makes me so excited is that there actually are results. For the last two days I could not find my times and I thought that the 50 minutes late start disqualified me in some way. But no, I was not disqualified and the results can be found here. And as an extra bonus there are even some race pictures. If I ever want to become member of the 100 Marathon Club, now I can officially prove I’ve done it, Jerusalem will count to it. It gives me some strange piece of mind.
Yes, the Jerusalem Marathon was a very special one… but for the wrong reasons. The 37th marathon of my running career should become the first that brought this nightmarish feeling to reality, when the foreboding of having missed something very significant thickens, to the point where it hits you like an ice shower once you realise it is too late. The runners information page had been slightly confusing, especially when you read it on your small phone screen, paragraph of paragraph of minor relevant information in search for a clear indication of the start time. The section “Warming Up” said we meet at 7am for gathering, warming up and briefing for a race start at 8. So on the day, when we arrived just after 7am we took our time, stretched, went to the loo and eventually moved towards the start. Instead of focussed fellow runners in eager anticipation we found happily mingling families at, what seemed to be, a rather unorganised and relaxed marathon grouping. The feeling of something is not quite right started to form, even when taking into account potential alien customs and Jerusalem ways of life. Next to us appeared a similarly confused and increasingly bewildered Chinese runner and at some point we decided to find and ask someone who looked remotely official. The questioned individual gave me a look as he experienced an encounter with a white-gloved four-fingered Mickey Mouse asking for the next train to Disney Land. We learned that the race started in fact at 7, the clock was now showing 7:50. It must be the runner’s equivalent to a good Christian boy who just realises the rapture happened and he was left behind. I had several responses to choose from: Hit the messenger and hit him hard, have an emotional meltdown throwing my hands in the air screaming WHY??!! off the top of my lungs or, the runner’s response to all problems, start running. We started running, surrounded by kids and encouraging responsible parents, completely focussed on the task to bless their offspring with positive early memories of sport events. We tried to find our way constantly dodging out of control running youngsters. I promise though, the thought of wishing for a baseball bat to help clearing my path did not enter my mind even once. And the fact the this 5k fun run, or whatever that was, made it nearly impossible to have confidence that we are actually following the marathon route did only affected my running moral a little bit. Probably because there was not much moral left in the first place and the only thing that kept me going was the lack of better alternatives. Eventually, when the 5k was over and I had done not more an extra 500 metres that were not part of the marathon route, I could focus with all my imagination on making me feel like actually running a marathon. By this point I was running by myself. The slowly moving fun family masses got our small group of post apocalypse marathoners separated. This is were the many years of watching The Walking Dead paid off: despite all opposing forces, despite feeling abandoned and scared, I found the strength to carry on. (I am sure Glen would have done the same, if this whole baseball bat mess thing had not happened.) And so the marathon turned out to be a survival run in several stages.
Not long after running in solitude Jean-Paul caught up, a barefoot runner who got delayed because he accidentally had joined the half marathon and noticed his mistake 4 kilometres in. He had turned around, went back to the start and tried again. Jean-Paul turned out to be a former professional football player, now personal fitness trainer who cured his hip issues by running barefoot. He was good company, but did not like the hills too much and was panting around kilometre 14 more than it is healthy and fell back shortly after. I then saw, stopped and high-fived my new Chinese friend from the start. The U-turn of the route made us run in opposite directions and it turned out that he had got completely disorientated, had returned to the start line and as a result was now 20 minutes behind me. Slowly but surely I caught up with more and more of the slowest runners, which gave me a bit of a boost. Probably a morally questionable boost, but hey, in situations like these you need to take what you can get. The part of the race that goes through the magical Old City was about to come and I pictured having an awesome experience running it all by myself through the narrow alleyways surrounded by friendly and encouraging spectators cheering me on. What did happened was that just before entering the Old City, a horde of countless fast and fresh 10k runners joined the marathon route. As a result I felt almost hunted down and swept up in this not ending stampede of what could easily have been the super fast zombies from the World War Z movie. Nothing can prepare you for a moment like that and the only memories I have of this Old City section are vage fragments of being brutally herded along overcrowded, narrow lanes, trying to stay up-float fighting not to allow myself to fall and being trampled to death. This stage of the run stopped as sudden as it began, when the 10k split from the marathon course, leaving me slightly traumatised but with an hardened will to survive. My legs started to complain about the constantly hilly terrain, a long forgotten knee pain started to make a comeback and some muscles got more and more into this limbo state of cramp or no cramp. What did help was the increasing number of runners I was overtaking and that satisfying feeling of being a sort of an underdog (in my own little pathetic narrative), getting closer and closer to the Jerusalem Marathon medal against all odds. And it happened as it always happens when you don’t stop moving forward: you reach the goal. A deep wisdom for life lies in this simple marathon truth. Of course by then my inner drama of managing the flaring-up knee pain and the constant thread of being attacked and brought down by nasty calve cramps, was hidden behind a big smile and the relief that the odds of not finishing this truly special race have been beaten. By the way, after revisiting the information page later at the hotel, in an attempt to make sense out of all of this, it turned out that the “Warming Up” race that started at 8 was a completely different event some days before the marathon. The different date mentioned somewhere hidden in between the paragraph should have given me the clue.
I am in Jerusalem and tomorrow I am going to run the marathon here. Still not sure what exactly it is, that makes this place feel so special to me: Is it its unparalleled history oozing through every aspect that makes this city, the countless annotations to faiths and believes that have been and are shaping the world (including my own) or the diversity of people and backgrounds that seems to mix and blend and stand out all at the same time?
Whatever it is, the thought that tomorrow roads will be closed and thousands be welcomed to celebrate their passion for running and that I can be part of this give me goosebumps. It will for sure one of the very special marathons, I can feel it in the air. 😉
… my medal picture. I also updated the All My Marathons page with the latest events, times and thoughts since Edinburgh in May.