Just Once: Elbtunnel Marathon 2019

3rd of June

It’s rare you get a chance to do something you wanted to do for years but never could and had already given up hope on. This is one of those times.

I don’t remember when I first heard about the existence of this race – The Elbtunnel Marathon in Hamburg’s first tunnel underneath Elbe which was built in 1911. It must have been around 10 years ago and I remember thinking a race like this is crazy. How could this possibly be fun? Since then, I first started to enjoy running and then went on to collect 52 marathon and ultramarathon finishes.

Who is Crazy Now?!

Meanwhile, the race reappeared on my radar a few years back. The organizing team routinely spread the message that they weren’t able to stage another event because of the ongoing renovation of the 100+ years old tubes. As is tradition with publicly funded big building projects in Germany apparently, the timespan and budget got extended periodically and reached astronomical heights. (From a supposed 17 million Euros for both tubes combined, to just under 60 million Euros for just one of them.)

The race team was clear on their message.

As Long as it’s a Construction Site – No Marathon Race

My personal interest in this race increased and I monitored the situation more closely. Finally, on April 27th of this year, I was surprised by a funnily dressed man at the Hamburg Marathon expo. He was wearing a tunnel shaped outfit, apparently making some sort of advertisement. I chatted him up. Turns out, he was a representative of the Elbtunnel race team and they’ve found a way to make the race happen again!

During the early summer of 2019, the 10 year renovation of one of the tubes will be finished, allowing for a short window of a few weeks during which both tubes will be open. Right then, the other tube will enter into its own 10 year renovation phase.

This is the only chance in about 20 years to run this race!

Flashy looking new tube
Flashy looking new tube

A marathon run with no natural light, 20 meters underneath the earth’s surface, involving 48 laps of the same boring surroundings with next to no supporting crowds and possibly bad air? Sign me up!

On the morning of June 2nd I rode my bike down to Sankt Pauli district, got excited to see the new tube for the first time and was looking forward to the run.

Sankt Pauli entry building
Sankt Pauli entry building

This tunnel is special not only because of its age of now 108 years. For example, you enter it through an elevator. Both buildings at either end have four elevators capable of transporting a couple standard cars each down to the bottom of the tunnel. It’s silent, a bit shaky but fun to ride down. 

I prefer taking the stairs, though – gotta get the step count up!
I prefer taking the stairs, though – gotta get the step count up!

When you’re down there, the air is noticeably cooler. That’s great on a day with supposed 28 degrees outside at its peak like today. 

You then enter one of the two tubes which are around 430 meters in length and are nearly flat. 

The old tube is clearly in need of some modernization
The old tube is clearly in need of some modernization

At the other end of the tunnel you’ll get into elevators again or take the stairs like a healthy person. Done! The tunnel supports cars, which can use the one open tube south from 5 AM to 1 PM and north from 1 PM to 6 PM. For most car driving people, the more recently built highway Elbtunnel is a lot faster and more convenient, though. Usage of this old one costs 2 Euros per car but is free for pedestrians and cyclists. Also, cars are prohibited on weekends – which meant good air for us here on Sunday.

The Marathon Distance

About 430 meters per tube leads to a measured 868.5 meters per lap. Divide a marathon’s 42,195 meters by that and you end up at 48 laps and a bit. That bit being 508 meters. We would have to start somewhere in the middle of the lap. 

One of the advantages of this is that we would come by an aid station 48 times during the marathon. Compare that to the usual once every 5 k’s of other marathons – luxurious!

They put up a great aid station as well
They put up a great aid station as well

How to do the Lap Counting?

Surely it can’t be easy to count the laps in your head. The fatigue will give you a hard time later in the race. The website of the race had a bunch of funny suggestions like bringing 48 peas and eating one after each lap. Or collecting the drinking cup after every lap until your 48 cup stack was finished. But they concluded that the best idea would be to pray that the tech they brought holds up.

Technology doing the work for us
Technology doing the work for us

Standard timing mats and little chips on each runner’s leg like every other marathon has. In addition they installed a projector to throw a big screen onto the wall tiles which showed everyone’s progress right after crossing the mats each time. And yes, it held up.

220 signed up runners warming up
220 signed up runners warming up

For safety reasons, the event was limited to 300 participants. Because of the short timespan during which advertising of the race was possible, 220 signed up. Still, this seemed like a lot down here. The road is just under 2 meters wide, each sidewalk around 1 meter. It was originally intended for horse carriages, after all. So this is going to get crowded.

Old and new tubes
Old and new tubes

The organizing team is the 100 Marathon Club Germany, which is based right here in Hamburg. You get to be a member after having finished – you’ve guessed it – one hundred marathons. So I’m just over halfway there. Not sure what would be better, being halfway there of becoming a member of the 100 Marathon Club or of the Billionaire’s Club. Take your pick!

Some things you just can’t buy with money. Another new tube maybe, granted, yes. 🤔
Some things you just can’t buy with money. Another new tube maybe, granted, yes. 🤔
Not sure if “wagerecht” is deliberate ancient spelling or just a typo. After a bit of research I’m guessing the latter. Guys you had 60 million Euros!
Not sure if “wagerecht” is deliberate ancient spelling or just a typo. After a bit of research I’m guessing the latter. Guys you had 60 million Euros!

By the way, the ever so slight descent and ascent in the tubes would in the end add up to 150 meters of total elevation gain during the run. Barely noticeable, though.

Runners in front of me getting ready
Runners in front of me getting ready
Runners behind me getting ready
Runners behind me getting ready

Two short speeches by the organizing team leader and a representative of the tunnel owning company, Hamburg Port Authority, followed. The latter was especially appreciated. When the guy said: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new tube!” frenetic applause followed. We as Hamburgers got really excited that the day is finally here. He seemed genuinely happy to have this event take place as a sort of breaking in of the new tube. 

*Crazy Vuvuzela Sound*

At 9 AM sharp, the signalling horn made us nearly deaf. As you can probably imagine, the acoustics are insane in here. It all gets amplified hard. But the 220 runners would stretch out over the whole lap, making this less of a problem.

Runners ready and running
Runners ready and running

Here we are, 48 laps to go! Don’t you get dizzy running in circles like this? I usually do get dizzy quickly, but I didn’t here, of course. Silly question. 

Here’s a timelapse video of a complete lap. Try not to get dizzy.

Sorry about the shakiness. Maybe I should invest in better gear.

I found a good rhythm right from the start. Running worked out pretty well, even though training during the last four weeks was bad. I’m glad I bounced back. Also, my friend Marcel whom I first met during the Elbe-Lübeck-Kanal Ultramarathon a few years back, was here! We chatted a bit and he’s the one briefly crashing into the screen of the timelapse video. At that point he was in position 3. Fast guy!

The Tech I Brought

The laps went on as did the lap counter on the wall. I brought my GPS watch, although obviously there was no signal down here. The watch, a Garmin fenix 3 HR, promises to be able to write a good log of the run inspite of this. I was interested in how it would do. The accelerometers inside the watch must have a very smart algorithm to make this happen. 

So, for now I just used the standard lap counting function which the watch also offers. Pushing the little button after each lap gives me the lap count as well as the time of that lap, which gives me a good idea of my pace because I know the length of the lap. With that information I was calculating my actual pace in my head quite accurately. And I noticed that I seemed to not need as much effort to keep a steady high pace of about 5:00 minutes per kilometer down here. Rather fast for my current training state. How so?

Laboratory Conditions

Just the 180 degree turns became a bit of a challenge later on. Also, some runners were in a chatty mood and ran next to each other, thereby blocking the course for others. A bit annoying sometimes, but negligible. 

As always, the kilometers flew by. My watch’s lap count and that projected count matched up well, the fluid and food intake worked perfectly, I never stumbled or fell while jumping on the sidewalks, no one gave me a hard time – it all went pretty well. 

Another thing was the lack of crowds. Also for safety reasons, just 500 people are allowed down here at any given time. Entries were limited. At both ends, a few hardcore family and friends clapped and made noise. The occasional Asian tourist group walked by cheering and taking selfies with us. But that was it. I didn’t miss it as it was loud enough due to the acoustics.

Tunnel Vision and Light at the End of the Tunnel

I kept the pace up quite well and noticed that my watch was not off by too much calculating the distance as well. Just around 10 percent under what I would theoretically have run. Magic!

As the lap count entered the 40s, I was looking forward to the end. It’s not the repetitiveness but rather the general fatigue of this continued activity. Marcel passed me by about 10 times, but most of the people got passed by me multiple times. Maths suggests that a 3 hour runner would come by a 5 hour runner a total of 22 times on these short laps. Quite a lot!

Coincidentally, I was right next to Marcel when he finished the race, coming in 2nd place after 2:52 hours – what a pace! I had about 10 more laps to go but was able to congratulate him right there. 

Now I was counting down the laps. The numbers had more meaning now than at the beginning. Just five left, then four, three… until suddenly, it’s done. 

I give this race a double thumbs up
I give this race a double thumbs up

3:33:15 – a great result for me! I think this is my third fastest marathon ever. Now that’s the sort of motivation I was searching for during the last four weeks. Really happy about it. My tracking on Strava, done by the watch, arrived at 38.8 kilometers. Not too bad with no GPS signal at all! In the end I finished 24th of 164 finishing men. 

Marcel was still here waiting for the prize giving ceremony and we had a nice chat
Marcel was still here waiting for the prize giving ceremony and we had a nice chat

A few minutes of relaxing, a bit of water, and up the stairs again.

Schicht im Schacht!

When I exited the building up top I was surprised to find myself on the Steinwerder side of the tunnel. How did that happen? I must have gotten dizzy after all! 

So, down again, through the tunnel one more time, and up the correct stairs.

They do look similar, don’t they?
They do look similar, don’t they?
Coming out of the Sankt Pauli exit, I really appreciated the warm weather
Coming out of the Sankt Pauli exit, I really appreciated the warm weather

I am quite thankful I got to be down here today. Who thinks this is crazy? Talk to you in 10 years, maybe we’ll run together! 😉

Pretty medal
Pretty medal

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