A Marathon along Alsterwanderweg / Way of St. James

15th of June

One of my annual quests is to do one marathon length run per month. As most of the races are still getting canceled, I need to do this on my own. The only problem is finding routes – a task which is usually done by the race staff of the races I sign up for. But during COVID-19 times, I have to do this myself and get creative.

To be honest, I think it’s a bit annoying. I’m certainly no navigational expert and I have not much of an interest to become one. It’s great that smartphones and tracking watches do most of the work these days, but I still find it distracting to re-orient myself every few hundred meters of a long run in an unknown area, losing the flow of running, and, in the worst of circumstances, having to track back to the route when I get lost.

After having completed the Wesel Marathon in Germany on January 5th, and Nicosia Marathon in Cyprus on February 16th, my next planned marathons all got canceled. The third, fourth, and fifth marathon for me this year were therefore all solo runs and I decided to use the easiest routes in order to do a bare minimum of tracking work. But then, I got bored. A new route, please!

Alsterwanderweg

There’s a hiking path along Alster river starting from close to its source to its estuary into Hamburg’s main river, Elbe. That sounds nice and also not too annoying to navigate. I hoped for enough signs and thought that I could just follow the river all the time.

The route is supposed to be about 35 kilometers long, but its end is around 7-8 kilometers away from my home. Combined, I would get a solid marathon distance out of this. 

Standard breakfast, marathon or not: 1 liter of my special smoothie and a cup of black coffee and off I go
Standard breakfast, marathon or not: 1 liter of my special smoothie and a cup of black coffee and off I go
Empty Saturday morning train
Empty Saturday morning train
Don’t forget your face mask while riding on public transit!
Don’t forget your face mask while riding on public transit!
Bus, train, another bus – 1.5 hours later I’m here
Bus, train, another bus – 1.5 hours later I’m here

The route is supposed to begin right around this bus stop, south of the small village of Kayhude, around 25 kilometers north of Hamburg’s city center.

And that’s absolutely true, I found the first sign just 100 meters down the road
And that’s absolutely true, I found the first sign just 100 meters down the road
Immediately, the forest trails are beginning
Immediately, the forest trails are beginning

Today’s weather was warm at around 18 to 25 degrees but cloudy and very humid from a rainy night before. This clean air and the quiet reminded me of Rennsteiglauf a few years back, where I first encountered this forest bathing practice the Japanese call shinrin-yoku. This is the purest medicine for the soul as it improves the state of mind right away.

A First Look at Small Alster

There it is!
There it is!

I’ve never seen this northern part of the river. So tiny! When doing the research on the route I wondered if I could start the run from the real source of it, which I imagine to be a bit of water just coming out of the earth like out of a garden hose at some random point, but apparently there are no good paths to it and also the area is under protection of natural conservationist efforts. Fair enough. 

What I imagined the path to be
What I imagined the path to be

As most natural rivers, this one follows a squiggly line and the path is not always right next to it. At a few points this early into the run I lost track and had to pull out the phone to get back. Overall though, the signs make it pretty easy. On most of the crossings you can see yellow arrows painted on the trees to guide you. 

The Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago

A big part of the Alsterwanderweg is shared with the route leading religious folks down to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, who are usually searching for spiritual gains while on this journey. 

The official signs of the pilgrimage route roam the path here, too
The official signs of the pilgrimage route roam the path here, too

I think it’s a very natural idea that hiking or running has been this well connected with spiritual growth for centuries or even millennia. I’m not religious in the sense of the word, but I recognize that all humans are longing for some sort of connection to themselves in a way that’s less explainable by scientific methods. It’s not surprising that many major religions have incorporated long hikes into their ways of practice. This is just one example, but I also think of the Hajj to Mecca that Muslims are required to do once during their lifetime, but also the Maori journey of spirits along the 90 Mile Beach in New Zealand, of which I have the fondest memories. There are probably many more examples of this.

For me, running certainly has these redeeming qualities. 

One of the many bridges I would cross today
One of the many bridges I would cross today
Alsterwanderweg and route towards salvation
Alsterwanderweg and route towards salvation

So far I’m doing fine and enjoy the nature very much. So why not share the experience using the Stories feature on my Instagram channel, I thought. That’s not something I feel comfortable doing at all, but on one hand I enjoy watching people I know doing similar things to this and I remembered that phrase “do something everyday that scares you”. So here goes nothing.

Thankfully I got a few self-esteem boosts from positive reactions to these videos, so the scary feeling got less and less

You can see my new runner’s backpack on me. For today I filled it with 1.8 liters of water, 1 liter of iso drink, and a few emergency supplies like a cereal bar and a power gel, sunscreen, stuff like that. The weight is noticeable and therefore good training, I guess. No way around it as the path does not lead me along gas stations or grocery stores.

Comfortable with eating what nature throws in front of them: horses
Comfortable with eating what nature throws in front of them: horses

Who Doesn’t Like Running in the Woods

About 15 kilometers in, a familiar face appears!
About 15 kilometers in, a familiar face appears!

It’s Cara, who helped Michael Mankus and me to pull off that insane Hamburg Everest race last year by being one of the longest standing volunteers during the ~30 hours of the event. She’s also a great runner and was flying up and down the hills around here on her own Saturday morning long run. Great to see her here in the middle of nowhere and have a little chat. 

Reiterbrücke (rider’s bridge), a place people have chosen to commemorate publicly they had coitus
Reiterbrücke (rider’s bridge), a place people have chosen to commemorate publicly they had coitus
After 20 kilometers

In retrospect, the course thus far didn’t offer a lot of diversity. You could say it’s been a bit boring, actually. On the other hand, it is easy to navigate and easy to run. Good enough for me today, but I’m not sure I need to do this northern part again any time. 

This bridge had the most incredible echo effect – shame I didn’t make a video of that
This bridge had the most incredible echo effect – shame I didn’t make a video of that
The river is getting larger and the flow becomes visible, entering the well-situated neighborhoods of the city
The river is getting larger and the flow becomes visible, entering the well-situated neighborhoods of the city
And there’s a Grüner Ring sign!
And there’s a Grüner Ring sign!

I do not remember running along this way when I did the complete Grüner Ring last year. But maybe that’s because I was already very tired at that point, probably around 80 kilometers into the run. 

Oh, some more evidence of coitus, well done Hamburg!
Oh, some more evidence of coitus, well done Hamburg!
And finally, a familiar site for me: Krugkoppelbrücke
And finally, a familiar site for me: Krugkoppelbrücke

On these flat Hamburg marsh lands, the Alster river created a big lake which is divided by two parallel bridges into Außenalster and Binnenalster. Außenalster is the northern lake and probably Hamburg’s most popular running loop of around 7.3 kilometers circumference. Right here, I’m reaching the northern end of it.

Doing it all for the ’Gram
Some statues that no one has to topple I think
Some statues that no one has to topple I think
Hard to imagine all this water came from that tiny river I saw earlier today
Hard to imagine all this water came from that tiny river I saw earlier today
And suddenly there’s my brother-in-law, running his Alster lap pushing my little niece – a nice coincidence!
And suddenly there’s my brother-in-law, running his Alster lap pushing my little niece – a nice coincidence!
And that’s been Außenalster
Here we are at the Binnenalster, a loop is 1.8 kilometers
Here we are at the Binnenalster, a loop is 1.8 kilometers

I’m not doing any loops today. Just following the flow. 

This part of our Alster is also used for the swimming parts of Hamburg’s triathlon events, if they will take place in September after already having been moved from July because of the pandemic
This part of our Alster is also used for the swimming parts of Hamburg’s triathlon events, if they will take place in September after already having been moved from July because of the pandemic
Town hall, swim exit of those mentioned races. Still Alster.
Town hall, swim exit of those mentioned races. Still Alster.
The final stretches of the route
The final stretches of the route
Last downhill approaching Elbphilharmonie
Last downhill approaching Elbphilharmonie

The End of Alster

Completed!

About 35 kilometers later, the path ends at the Elbe river, as promised. Not the worst route, the big lakes certainly make it worth while and the quiet forest parts up north also do their part. I would recommend doing the route. Great for running tourists to get an impression of this city, too. 

Off Home

At the end you’re right next to some more interesting spots of Hamburg
At the end you’re right next to some more interesting spots of Hamburg
Elbe is really powerful compared to Alster
Elbe is really powerful compared to Alster
And around here, even more people wanted to display their private bedroom activities
And around here, even more people wanted to display their private bedroom activities
This is part of one of my favorite training routes, heading towards St. Pauli Fischmarkt
This is part of one of my favorite training routes, heading towards St. Pauli Fischmarkt
Hurry up, almost there!

In the end these 42.2 kilometers took me 4:14:22 hours including all breaks like the chats with Cara and Philipp and a handful of navigational mistakes. But I didn’t do this in order to break records, it’s been more like a relaxed long run for me. A tiny vacation of sorts. That it definitely was. 


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