The 160km-long Berlin Wall used to represent the communist “Iron Curtain” surrounding Germany’s capital, but this weekend, a hardy group of ultramarathon runners aim to run its length.
The second Berlin Wall Run starts from the suburb of Kreuzberg at 6am on Saturday following the entire route of the former wall which separated west Berlin from their neighbors in the communist east.
It is the equivalent of running four marathons in succession.
The race winner is expected to take 16 hours, but most entrants will run through the night and the cut-off point is set for noon on Sunday, 30 hours after the start.
Berlin’s ultramarathon is held on the weekend nearest Aug. 13, the date in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was raised by the former East German government eager to stop their citizens fleeing to the West.
Until restrictions on border crossings were lifted by the communist regime on Nov. 9, 1989, it was a symbol of oppression for the city’s citizens on either side and the race is closely linked to the wall’s history.
Finishers of the inaugural race in 2011 were given a medal engraved with the face of Chris Gueffroy, the last person shot dead by East German border guards trying to cross the wall on Feb. 5, 1989, and his mother Karin was a guest of honor.
This year, the medals will honor the first victim: Guenter Litfin, who was shot trying to swim across the Spree River over to west Berlin on Aug. 24, 1961.
“We wanted to organize a 100 mile [160km] race partly to commemorate those who lost their lives on the wall and every year we remember a specific victim who was killed trying to cross,” organizer Ronald Musil told reporters.
For the first race two years ago, 93 runners started and 78 finished, with winner Michael Vanicek from north Berlin covering the 160.9km course in 16 hours, 22 minutes and 17 seconds, while the last finisher came in just seconds before the 30 hours cut-off point.
Compared with the typical Sunday jogger, Vanicek’s average speed of 6:06 for each kilometer is as impressive as the idea of running four marathons back-to-back. This year there are 245 competitors, the youngest being 25, while the oldest is 72, and entrants will either tackle the entire distance solo or as part of a relay.
However, most have either some experience of long-distance running or at least a realistic idea of what to expect.
“It’s not unusual for people to underestimate a marathon, but that’s not something we tend to find [here],” Musil said. “People tend to know what they are letting themselves in for in an ultra marathon. The only thing we ask is that participants have a medical check with a doctor, carry a mobile phone plus water and wear a reflective vest when running at night, with a head-torch to see the way.”
This year’s field includes past winners of both the Spartathlon, the 246km Greek race held annually between Athens and Sparta, and the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon, the self-styled “world’s toughest foot race” over 217km through California’s Death Valley in the US.
The logistics of the Berlin race include 300 volunteer helpers manning 27 first-aid stations along the route, each kitted out with 470kg of food and drink to restore weary legs.
“It’s a logistical challenge to supply each station, many of which stay open through the night,” Musil said. “It is actually harder in the city center than in the remote areas, as there is more traffic to contend with and more regulations.”
On race day, breakfast is offered at the start from 4am and the route is marked by fluorescent blue arrows to help runners stay on course, especially through the night.
Runners are registered from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand and the US.
At 189 euros (US$251) entry is not cheap, but the event is run by a group of dedicated volunteers as a non-profitmaking venture.
Entry for next year’s race has already opened and the limit has been raised from 250 to 500.