Berlin: The marathon heaven

42.195 kilometres is far. For many of us, the thought of continuously moving that far is fatiguing and yet, millions of marathon enthusiasts around the world still eagerly run every year, and few do it better than the elite athletes at the Berlin Marathon.

Since 1974, the Berlin Marathon has played host to some of the world’s best marathon runners. Known for how conducive it is to speed, the winning times at Berlin often feature in the fastest times in marathon history. Indeed, since its formal inception, the course has produced 12 world records (before the 2023 event), and with the elite portion of the 2023 rendition coming to an end, the desirability of a title in Berlin has only grown.

For decades, long-distance running has generally been dominated by athletes from two countries in East Africa: Kenya and Ethiopia. Of course, Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, and many others have long secured their own stardom within the sport, but with nine out of the fastest ten finishes in both the Men’s and Women’s races being from Kenya or Ethiopia, the two’s dominance in the discipline is unparalleled. And once again, at Berlin this year, the two nations flexed their muscles.

Eliud Kipchoge’s legendary status in marathon running cannot be disputed.

Whether his 13 major – including Olympics and World Championships – titles, or his (unofficial) sub-two attempt at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge, the Kenyan seems to fly wherever he races. Yet, Berlin is where he thrives. Including his successful 2023 title defence, his five wins – itself a record number – at Berlin include two world records, and overall some of the fastest races in men’s marathon running.

While Kipchoge was the race winner and his GOAT status indubitably further cemented, he was perhaps not the brightest star in Berlin that day as Ethiopia’s Tigst Assefa blazed through the Berlin streets with a time of 2:11:53, breaking Brigid Kosgei’s record set four years ago in Chicago by more than two minutes. If Kipchoge dominance is the sun, an unrelenting light over the men’s division, then Assefa’s rise is perhaps best characterised as meteoric. Having only competed in three career marathons, she won the 2022 Berlin race on her debut with a national record time of 2:15:37. And this year, with a dominant 2:11, almost exactly six minutes in front of runner up, Kenya’s Sheila Chepkirui, one can do nothing but wonder at Assefa’s potential.

Yet that wasn’t the end, the wheelchair and handbikers’ events also saw dramatic races with a new world record in the women’s wheelchair race by Catherine Debrunner and a heap of other close calls and repeat victories.

What makes Berlin, and indeed the 2023 rendition, so special? Berlin has always been fast, its low altitude and flat terrain ideal for road racing. Indeed, the men’s race was particularly quick, to make the top 10, one needed to run a time of 2:05 or less, making it one of the fastest races in history. Total Running Productions, a YouTube channel dedicated to the sport, pointed out that Sunday’s conditions were, simply, perfect – 55° Fahrenheit (12° Celsius), no chance of rain, plenty of cloud cover and no wind. In comparison, the other major marathon races do not have that level of comfort. Boston’s winding, hilly roads, New York’s bridge climb, and London’s twists and turns all make them difficult to navigate, while Berlin, with its flat, asphalt German roads and an elevation difference of only 25 metres, offer much more luxurious conditions. Even beyond that, the September weather provides an ideal coolness unavailable in other times of the year. Combine these with the high altitude, hilly, and generally difficult conditions of East Africa, it is easy to see why athletes such as Kipchoge and Assefa thrive striding down towards the Brandenburg Gate.

While Berlin 2023 has come to a close, one cannot help but anticipate the future of the marathon. Regardless, however, for all aspiring marathoners out there, the precedent is clear: if you want to go fast, go to Berlin.

Image Description: Runners on Rheinbabenallee during the 2021 Berlin Marathon.

Image Credit: Leonhard Lenz via Wikimedia Commons