2nd Place at a Hilly Half Marathon: Blankeneser Heldenlauf DERBE Edition
I’ve done this great race a few times before. It’s just a short bike ride to the west from my home which means I know the area and the course very well. The shorter 11k edition of the main half marathon event was among the first ever races I did, taking place in August of 2011.
Then, during the pandemic, the people managing Heldenlauf unfortunately ran out of money. The race didn’t take place until a successor company was found, and 2023 marked the first time since COVID hit we get to run this race in the hilly Blankenese neighborhood again! Signing up was a no-brainer for me.
Fitness-wise, I was doing alright during the preceding few weeks. It seems like I had finally digested the incredible strenuous Lavaredo 120K from two months ago. That’s the long recovery time frame I was expecting. During recovery, I achieved a surprisingly great 10k result in July, when I did the final discipline of Hamburg Triathlon in 40:07 minutes, but I knew that my body secretly needed more time. Intervals helped a lot and on Friday before Heldenlauf I ran a spontaneous flat 7.5k race in the area at a 4:00 min/km pace while feeling quite alright, ending up 5th out of about 100 runners.
Heldenlauf half marathon offers two options: the flat edition, name Sutsche, which is northern German slang for relaxed, or the hilly one named Derbe, meaning tough or hard. The new staff renamed them from the more confusing FAN and FANATIC, respectively. Good choice. I always chose the more difficult option.
My friend and training buddy Mathias had signed up for it as well, and when we met before the start he was super hyped about today’s race. He is on a fitness high after a few great recent results and was about to lay everything down here in Blankenese. I, on the other hand, was apprehensive and told him that I’m planning to start the race at a careful pace of just 4:30 min/km and see what happens later.
“Wouldn’t it be extremely cool to go sub 1:30 hours here at Heldenlauf?” he said.
Of course, he was right. The course has about 350 meters of elevation gain and slightly less loss. There are stairs involved and a few real hills, too. It’s no flat and easy half. Breaking 1:30 would definitely be quite an accomplishment. That’s 4:15 min/km on average, including all the ups and downs. So, when we thought about this a bit more, I got the bug. Why not just try.
Jogging down to the river in order to do a little warm up before the start got the blood flow going.
Let’s Do This!
The easy half marathon started quarter of an hour before us. We just went to the absolute front of the pack after they had left, giggling and anticipating the start of the race.
Mathias and I got pumped and just decided to keep standing there at the front of those 250 runners who had signed up and made it here. We were sure to get overtaken right away, but it’s fun nevertheless. So, when the starting gun was fired, we just took off at a much too fast 3:45 min/km pace, before settling somewhere between 4:00 and 4:10 after the first few hundred meters.
To our great surprise, we were still at the front after a few minutes! This felt so weird and surprising, it changed my perception. What if this isn’t just our little idiot prank, what if I can actually keep this pace, would I really stay at the front?
If I remember correctly, it was after about one or one and a half kilometers that finally someone else made a move. He just went in front and put meters between us easily. No one was able to follow him.
Mathias and I were happy at 4:10-4:15 min/km pace and intended to keep that as long as possible. This meant that a few other runners passed us by, but they didn’t take off like the mentioned guy, we stayed closely together. Their pace was nearly the same. I found myself at the end of that little pack of maybe 5-6 runners, soon. Not really struggling to hold onto them, but feeling more comfortable monitoring what they were about to do. I knew the course would get more varied after the first completely flat three kilometers, and I was interested in how they all would handle that.
The First Hill
We turned left onto the first trail section, which also led uphill, north towards train station Klein Flottbek. I know every square inch of that route. The others of our pack were doing well, so far. One other runner left our group towards the front, but he never got out of reach.
Mathias and I exchanged a few short sentences, it clearly was work for us to keep this pace. But on the first downhill, along Kanzleistraße, we were able to increase the pace and move back towards the front of our group. I put down a 4:00 minute kilometer there, followed by a 4:05 one.
The long straight Elbchaussee follows, kilometer 7. It’s a slight uphill and I deliberately stayed behind Mathias and Antoine, a guy from France who was putting down the hammer here and provided good drafting opportunities. In a situation like this, you have to strategize, I realized! A situation like this, right. What exactly is this situation? It’s a race. A real race. It’s not about reaching a certain finishing time anymore, it’s about a good result in the context of the other runners, now. This is very rare for me, since I mostly run bigger events where my power output is nothing special. Now, I really got into it. It’s fun and exciting!
Antoine, Mathias, and me were at positions 3, 4, and 5, respectively. One guy is far away in front, another one is within reach just a few dozen meters ahead of us, and there’s one other guy following us closely.
We made our loop around Hirschpark at the top of the Elbchaussee climb. Antoine was still ahead of me, Mathias behind me, and Antoine paid great attention to the arrows showing us the route here. Although I know the course, there are minimal alterations from year to year, and those can be tricky.
By now, nine kilometers were done, the previous one after just 4:09 minutes, and I felt amazing. The legs had power, there were still more than enough carbs in my system, the sunny but not too hot weather felt great, no winds, and there were even cheering crowds along the route.
I moved in front of our pack, and by now we had caught the guy in second place, too.
The Tricky Part Begins
A short stretch of Elbchaussee, and we take a left into Baurs Park, the technical little park involving a sharp downhill followed by a steep uphill, both including stairs. This is were I usually lose my rhythm because the stairs are so narrow. But I was leading our little group now, and the adrenaline did its work: I decided to take the risk and run through the steep grass next to stairs. The course got more crowded now because we were moving through the field of the people who started the easy half marathon a quarter hour earlier, and the 11k runners were crossing this section, too, I think.
Leading the pack, I decided not to look back now. Maybe someone will pass me by, in fact, I was certain that was about to happen. You can never be sure if what you’re asking of your body actually is the sustainable thing to do, and also, how well the other people manage their energy. Of course, there would be some uphill or downhill specialist somewhere behind me, who was just about to show me how it’s done! I was sure of that. But until then, I’m going to run as hard as I think I can on this tough course.
Dealing with False Information
A spectator saw my bib which showed my name and said “Well done, Tim, you’re in fourth place!” – I was surprised to hear that. I was very sure I was second. I saw all the runners who were in front and overtook them. Either the guy made a mistake because there were runners from the other races mixed with us, or two guys had taken a shortcut somewhere. Either way, my reaction was that I needed to step on the gas!
Blankeneser Hauptstraße downhill. Kilometer 12 in 3:52 minutes. This is getting ridiculous, that’s close to my 800 meter interval pace. On the other hand, it’s just nine more kilometers. The next one I did at a solid 4:15 along the flat Strandweg. I stepped slightly on the breaks here, because I knew what was coming. Waseberg, Hamburg’s 3rd highest peak. We wouldn’t reach the top at 78 meters, but use the accessible streets next to it to reach 70 meters from 0 in one short go. I know I know, it’s not much. But running it up as fast as possible with competitors probably breathing down your neck is something else entirely.
It was great that I was on my own here. I could go as fast as I wanted. I ran up almost the whole hill with just one very short bit of power hiking, and I reached the top with a few spectators and an ambulance ready to congratulate me. I shouted “what position am I at?”, just to see if that earlier spectator made a mistake, or I did, or the two other runners did. “You’re in second place, hurry!” – glad to hear it! So the guy was wrong, I was right, no one cheated. The only question remaining was, how far in front. I was getting ambitious now, remembering how the two races I won in the past went.
But first, the course did a 180 and as I went on the downhill back to the Elbe river, I saw Mathias just coming up towards the top. He was still there, not that far behind – maybe 20-30 seconds. He seemed to be alone, but he later told me he was running shoulder to shoulder with the runner named Finn most of the time. I shouted something motivating at him, he replied, we ran on.
How Races Can Take Surprising Turns
Both times I won a race, I was in second place for a long time, before the leading guy dropped out. At Te Houtaewa Ultra in New Zealand, he collapsed in my view after 58 of the 63 kilometers – I had to stop passers-by so he could get to a hospital. And at Rauchwart Marathon it went rather similarly when the leading man had to be taken to hospital with a helicopter after 36 kilometers. Of course, both instances provoked my compassion, but on the other hand it was clear the guys had miscalculated their nutrition.
I wouldn’t ever wish that fate on the guy who was leading here, but maybe there’s a chance he just ran too fast and was slowing down now? Or maybe he will drop out somewhere for any other reason? Because anything is possible in a race, my own motivation moved up even higher. I was committed to running at the limit of my personal ability, not just in case I stood a chance to even win this thing, but just for the heck of it, too. This is feeling amazing, I’m loving it.
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After sprinting down towards Elbe at 4:00 minutes per kilometer, there’s another short flat section to get the heart rate steady. This is the first time I feel like taking in some carbs, and coincidentally, there’s an aid station providing sugary electrolyte drinks. I quickly down a cup which hit the spot.
It feels very similar to doing intervals, because right when the body has settled again, the next uphill starts, Falkenschlucht. This is a cobbled stairs uphill from 0 to about 50 meters. A little traily forrest section follows, and I had another chance to ask a volunteer how far ahead the leading guy is, because here we were on our own, not mixed with any other races. The volunteer girl was again surprised by that question but answered, maybe two or three minutes. Oh, that seems like not much when comparing this to the pace he put down in the beginning, maybe I’m actually closing in?
Bringing It Home
I definitely was increasing the space between me and the runners behind me, led by Mathias and Finn. Moving up to Tafelberg, not to be confused with the one in Cape Town, we’re at 75 meters above zero again. There’s a slight downhill section afterwards, which I did at 4:12 min/km, and then the final section begins. 18.5 kilometers in, we have to tackle the last hill. I knew that, of course, I’ve run it countless times. It’s easier than most of the other inclines, but you’re also this close to the finish and the fatigue sets in. Running closely to threshold for this long and even crossing it a few times on the uphills is very draining. For a short part of that uphill, I moved down to 5:00 minute pace, but that kilometer still had a 4:22 minute average. I am on fire!
From now on, the rest is a beautiful downhill on the Blankenese streets. The people living here came to the course, the other races use the same street and I overtake a few runners of them. Many of those slow runners are confused by this and say things that didn’t make sense, like “seems you saved up all your energy for the last bit!” or “you’re overtaking me this late, you’ve earned it!” – when I was blazing past them. I guess they were not really aware of the Derbe race I was part of.
Not looking back, and also not spotting the guy in front, I was putting the hammer down for another time and did the 20th kilometer at 4:00 minute pace. The last kilometer of the race, I even increased it to 3:45 minutes. Carried by the crowds who were loving this, I sprinted.
The MC was not as confused as the other runners, and when he said “here comes the second place of the Derbe race, Tim Teege!” the people went wild and I got goosebumps. Fists into the air, this is my moment!
The Finish Line
What an achievement! This race has been marketed as a tough one from the start, and every runner in western Hamburg knows about it. And now I am on the podium, second place at that hard half marathon. Wow! My finishing time according to the watch was 1:30:42, the official clocks measured 1:30:38 hours (official result list). That’s incredible, I came this close to sub 1:30, but I’m not at all disappointed by not breaking it. The result is something I would have never dreamed of this morning. Even when Mathias got me hyped up and we decided to start at 4:15 minute pace, I was sure this couldn’t work for the whole race.
I think we need to celebrate those improbable wins, those surprises our own bodies hold for us, more than we do.
They hung a medal around my neck and another thing, too, but I don’t care about that for now. How is Mathias doing? I stay here right after the finish line and look back the straight street, and there he comes, finishing in third, running straight into a big hug with me – we share the podium!
The crowds look at us in awe, Mathias’ family is there to congratulate, and I take a look at this other thing they put around my neck. It says I’m one of the first three runners and that there’s an award ceremony later. Right, an award! That’s very cool.
Mathias and I welcome Finn and a few others who reach the finish not too long after Mathias, and move over to the food section, my favorite. A well-deserved non-alcoholic beer is what I’m conditioned to appreciate after a race. We don’t notice how the time flies until the ceremony begins.
Philipp, who won the race, was a whopping five minutes in front of me in the end. He took 1:25:49 minutes. That’s such a good result, it’s certainly way out of my league right now. And from the looks of it, he didn’t struggle.
I received an additional gift, which was a big bottle for carrying water (my daughter Vera was happy about that), and Philipp, the winner, received a cool lifebelt around his neck which had the race engraved. Also, he got one of those giant glasses filled with that beer. I would have loved that! There’s only one possible conclusion: I need to win next year.
Some Concluding Thoughts
First, I learned that sometimes, you just have to dive in and give everything you’ve got right now at a race. There’s not always a need to play it safe. Although this was supposed to be just another race for me during this year, it would have been sad to miss the opportunity of this incredible outcome. More courage!
Then, I think my nutrition game was perfect today. A half marathon is a bit tricky, especially at this duration – it’s right at the edge of needing to bring carbs in the form of gels or similar. If you’re running a 2:00 hour half marathon at near your threshold pace, you should definitely bring them, but at 1:30 hours, what’s in the body might be enough. I asked my nutrition expert and fellow podium runner Mathias before the race and put about 25 grams of carbs in my body right before the race. This was perfect. There’s no need for water, but it helped to have a little sip after 7 kilometers and throw the rest of the cup on my head to cool down. But when they offered sugar drinks at about 16 kilometers, I was very happy and made the effort to carefully drink that whole cup. More wasn’t needed.
The shoes are a bit tricky at this particular race. About half of the route is on asphalt, but there are trail bits, forrest paths, stairs which can be slippery, and a tiny section where grip on the grass next to the stairs helps a lot. These changing grounds would destroy your standard carbon-plated racing shoes. I went for my trusty allrounders, the Asics Novablast 3. These are fast and comfy, but not at all made for trail running. In retrospect they were a good choice, but not the best possible. I think the HOKA Tecton X 2 or the new Novablast 3 TR (Trail Edition) ones were optimum here, but I don’t own them. Both have a little more grip than a road shoe, but are very fast still.
Training-wise, it turned out that the hard intervals I did in the weeks leading up to this prepared me very well. I usually do 6x 800 meters at a 3:45 minute per kilometer pace each. This is very comparable to how the rhythm of the race is like. And I think my daily strength building exercises have done their part making me faster on the uphills, too. Last not least, the downhill experience and therefore increased courage I have accumulated, especially during Lavaredo 120K, helped me quite a bit, too.
Regarding my result, of course a 2nd place at a half marathon with a finishing time of 1:30 hours is rare. This is where I got lucky. There were 206 finishers of this race, but I don’t know how many started and dropped out. Usually, I’d say you would need to at least run 1:20 here for a podium. This year’s field wasn’t as strong as previously, is my feeling. But still, out of more than 200 runners, I was faster than every one of them except for Philipp, the winner. And I think I’m rightfully proud of that. The power of incremental improvement over all these years of being a runner, going from 5:00 hour marathons to this, is astonishing.
And now finally, here are the stats on my Strava activity of the race. Thank you for reading this far, and feel free to leave a comment!