#runsolo Hamburg Marathon 2020 in COVID-19 Times

22nd of April

There are no races anymore.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has killed the endurance racing scene as well, which is sad for someone like me who has been enjoying that for years now. About one race per month is what I usually aim for. My plan for 2020 was full of great and interesting new ones I couldn’t wait to do, but now, on a nearly daily basis, emails arrive proclaiming the cancellation of another race I had signed up for.

So, one must run on their own! 

The annual Hamburg Marathon in late April has been a must-race for me for years, and this year I was especially looking forward to it because I wanted to try for a new official personal best of around 3:10 hours. But now, that is also out of the question, but for different reasons.

In February, I did my most recent marathon race – maybe the last one for a long time. It was the Nicosia Marathon in Cyprus, which was my Encore to the EU Challenge I did between 2011 and 2018. For a variety of reasons, I wasn’t able to run this race at the fast pace I usually am comfortable with and ended up with a time of 4:05 hours. Horribly slow, by my standards.

Training before and after had been very disappointing as well. Although I didn’t reduce training by much and was still doing three to four runs per week since my October Frankfurt Marathon in 3:17 hours, somehow my fitness level declined steadily. Fast intervals became nearly impossible, and longer runs of above 15 kilometers were slowly even more out of the question. 

I think it was mainly my pre-occupied mind due to my new work situation. Now, the pandemic also played a role at first. I’ve recently heard the apt description of this collective trauma we’re all experiencing:

“If neither fight nor flight works out anymore, the body and mind can go into play-dead mode.”

Maybe that’s it, maybe my body just didn’t see the necessity of running long distances anymore and decided to tell me this way that there’s existing anxiety and a need to relax and calm down to take care of more important things first. Who knows, really, but the explanation seemed to make sense. 

As the weeks progressed and I came more and more to terms with both my more stressful work-life and the new situation at home (many of you will have faced similar challenges), slowly my state of mind improved, thankfully. 

I tried a 42 kilometer training run a few weeks ago and had to break it off at 25 kilometers. Still unthinkable to continue on. A few months ago I would have laughed about 25 kilometers and done them before breakfast. Then, I tried an even slower and more careful 50 kilometer training run. Result, cancelled after 37 kilometers, energy completely drained again. But at least, there’s visible progress! 

So now, when the Hamburg Marathon 2020 date approached, 19th of April, I gained back my lost confidence and decided to give it a go. It’s just 5 kilometers more than that failed 37k run, so that must be possible. I’m not thinking about pace or records at all by now. Just getting through is all I need.

Hamburg Marathon 2020

I decided to use the route of the 2019 edition of this race. It’s something special to me to see all the places again and remember the situation of last year, a great day and a very good run I finished after 3:36 hours right after coming home from a four months long New Zealand stay, still jet-lagged. Solid.

Armed with a backpack containing 1.5 liters of water, an energy gel and a cereal bar, as well as a good breakfast in the stomach, I started at my home at about 9:45 in the morning. I live near the western most turning point of the official course, which I just set as the start and finish point of 2020’s #runsolo effort. Usually it‘s at around kilometer 6 or 7 of the course.

Perfect weather, blue sky, sunny, around 5-8 degrees, trending upwards, with a forecast of around 15 degrees. Couldn’t have wished for better weather. The streets are completely empty most of the time. 

The first few kilometers along the Elbe river are still a bit cold but smooth. 

Famous Elbphilharmonie after around 7 kilometers
Famous Elbphilharmonie after around 7 kilometers
Empty main streets connecting Hamburg’s West and East
Empty main streets connecting Hamburg’s West and East

I hover at around 5:30 minutes per kilometer, which is usually my feel-good speed. Then, after around 10 kilometers, the course usually leads through a tunnel, Wallringtunnel, which is cars-only. So I needed to take the high road here, gain and lose some elevation and lose a minute at a red traffic light. At that moment it was clear to me this will definitely be a fast hike instead of a race-like run. The four-hour barrier, which has once again become a magic hurdle for me, would not fall today. No worries though, I can very much live with that. I just need this win today and finish the run, that’s all I care about.

A fellow solo marathon runner!
A fellow solo marathon runner!

The Hamburg Marathon people had put out these downloadable bib numbers, all having the date as a racing number, 19420, for people to do their own marathon today. Honestly I expected more people on the course, but probably many just chose different routes I guess.

Pretty Binnenalster after 11 kilometers
Pretty Binnenalster after 11 kilometers
Jungfernstieg, a beloved shopping and strolling street, is empty as well
Jungfernstieg, a beloved shopping and strolling street, is empty as well
Town hall selfie
Town hall selfie

A loop around Binnenalster, and up north along Außenalster

It’s such a nice day
It’s such a nice day
I think those are cherry trees
I think those are cherry trees

Now, the part I’m most unfamiliar with starts. The northern loop towards Ohlsdorf. It is a nice and quiet area today, but still I make a mistake within the City Nord area and run an extra 0.5 kilometers. Doesn’t matter much. My legs and energy are holding up, the water from the backpack is still cold enough and helps.

Companies with a bat as their logo might have rough times now, too, after the Corona beer crisis has once again proven humanity’s irrational tendencies
Companies with a bat as their logo might have rough times now, too, after the Corona beer crisis has once again proven humanity’s irrational tendencies

27 kilometers, northern most tip in Ohlsdorf. Glad I made it this far, because from now on it feels like I’m on the way home. The 5:30 min/km pace is still somewhat manageable, although I don’t feel nearly as good as I remember I used to during last year’s marathons. It’s definitely warm now, and I notice my lower back and behind getting wet and cold. What has happened? The backpack’s water bladder wasn’t leakproof. Lots of water lost, but still enough in that bladder, I felt. It doesn’t bother me. But I realize I need some sugar. 

Eppendorf neighborhood has a few stores where you can buy food and drinks still, thankfully
Eppendorf neighborhood has a few stores where you can buy food and drinks still, thankfully

Contactless payment, 1.5 meters of distance between me and the counter at the bakery, but I got my Coke. This drink has so much stored energy in it. It takes me about two minutes total to buy and down it, which is not too bad. 

Now it’s back to Außenalster, my favorite route change in 2019. Before, the course would lead along Mittelweg, which is further away from this pretty river. 

People are enjoying the day outside, mostly adhering to the new rules
People are enjoying the day outside, mostly adhering to the new rules

It’s time for the finishing stretches, usually. Back towards the Congress Center area, the last little uphill, and there I am at what is the traditional start and finish.

Today, I reached it after 38.5 kilometers
Today, I reached it after 38.5 kilometers

I can see two other runners who apparently went for the original marathon route. We smile at each other at a distance and I congratulate one that has just finished his marathon here. We’re in this together, as everyone reminds you these days. Yes we are. 

I got the way back home to take care of first. Down towards Reeperbahn, really heavy and stiff legs by now, this empty partying area has a weird feeling to it today. Everything is clean. 

The Beatles Platz and Große Freiheit
The Beatles Platz and Große Freiheit

To my delight, I’m still running. My new shoes might play a role here, as I went for the Hoka One One Carbon X type, a high-end shoe for the first time in my life, recently. The stability it provides certainly helps the longer I run, I realize. 

There are a few more traffic lights which block my constant power output a bit, but on the other hand I’m glad to catch a breath and shake out the legs for a minute at times. Good thing I’m still standing. 

Next nutritional stop at a gas station got necessary
Next nutritional stop at a gas station got necessary

Sugar, I need sugar! This break is two and a half minutes extra. The 42.2 kilometer mark is reached after a total of about 4:05 hours, including all the traffic lights and the two commercial transactions. That’s not too bad, I think, as I see the numbers on the watch. The most important thing is that I made it this far. This is a huge boost for my ego. One I was in desperate need of. 

To finish the official loop and then get home, I need an additional three kilometers. I’m happily welcomed by parts of my family on the final stretch, which is the street we‘re living on. What a relief! It worked! I’m slowly bouncing back! 45.35 kilometers in the end.

Shoes and backpack on the floor, relaxing in the garden with the kids. That’s what it’s at.
Shoes and backpack on the floor, relaxing in the garden with the kids. That’s what it’s at.

This was a major success for me and much more meaningful than many other races I’ve done in the past. Although there’s no bib, no medal, no journey, no new things to see, I learned a lot about myself today. I can come back after having a bad phase, and that’s a very valuable lesson. Maybe this can give you hope if you feel yourself in a similar situation. Thanks for reading and all the best to you!


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