It’s amazing how relaxing running a race in your hometown is. You get to stay in your own place, so there are no worries about noisy hotel rooms. You can plan all your pre-race meals perfectly, and you know precisely how to get to the start line. It makes the whole race feel much more like another run-of-the-mill Sunday run. And so it was with the Heidelberg half marathon. A race that begins a mere 350m from my front door, and finishes less than 150m from it. It’s as local as it is possible to get!
|The finish line, 150m from my flat|
The day before was almost perfect. I went shopping, and bought all the necessary ingredients for my favourite pre-race evening meal (pasta, pesto, salad and garlic bread) and my pre-race breakfast (a choice of either marmite on toast or chocolate muesli, and a banana on the side). I picked up my race number from UniPlatz, and then relaxed with a bit of True Detective as I inhaled my dinner. The only negative: I’d been struggling with some sort of cold/allergies/Sahara-smog-induced-asthma most of the week, and was feeling particularly snotty all day. I wasn’t feeling as bad as I had midweek though, which I hoped was a sign that, whatever this was, it was on its way out. Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing that for sure until the following morning. BUILDS DRAMATIC TENSION…
Aaaaaaand I was fine. Well, still snotty, but not sick. Huzzah! Because, believe you me, the last thing you want when you’re facing ~400m of climb over 21.1km is a cold. Or any kind of sickness, really. It is decidedly not cool.
After waking up and realising I wasn’t sick, the rest of the morning felt very relaxed as I ate breakfast and got ready. Part of this was the ‘local race’ aspect, which allowed me to pee dozens of times without having to queue before heading to the start line. The other aspect was the nature of the race itself. The Heidelberg half is not a PB race, owing to the RIDICULOUS HILLS. There are 3 in total. The 1st is the highest. The 2nd is the steepest and the 3rd (feels like) the LONGEST HILL IN EXISTENCE. In short, not a quick route. Which, for me, takes all the pressure off! Pacing is no longer an issue. All I wanted was to finish.
In my opinion, the start was well organised. But then, I’m local so I can’t say how accurate that statement is. But I easily met up with my other running buddies, Melissa (who had just returned from Chile 12 hours ago, had a cold AND hadn’t been training), Luis (an Iron Man), Casey (a very talented first timer) and Mandy (Casey’s marathon-running sister, who paced him). It was a staggered start, and ours was the last, but at 9:30 sharp we set off, running the flat 7km through town that would lead us to the 3 hills.
|Casey, me, Ben Luis and Melissa before the race - taken by Mandy|
The first part went fine. It was a really warm day, but it was early enough that the heat wasn’t oppressive. I started running with Melissa, and we caught up on a week of lost gossip during the flat opening. Running through the Altstadt in Heidelberg is a really impressive way to start a trail race. When we reached the Alte brücke, some Chinese people running the race alongside us just gasped, and Melissa and I were reminded just how beautiful this city is. As we reached the first hill, sick, out of shape Melissa shot off with impressive speed, leaving me behind to continue my race alone.
|Me, about to run over the Alte brücke|
|A view of the Alte brücke on a different day|
The first hill takes you up the Philosophenweg, which starts off pretty steep, then gently winds its way up to 200m above the town, the highest elevation on the route, after about 3.5 km. The route here is really pretty, taking you above the river to an impressive view of the part-ruined castle opposite, before bringing you into the woods. The crowd support up here is also excellent, especially considering the hike people have to make to get there. Up until you move into the proper trails, people are lining the path, cheering you on with gusto. In general, throughout the event the support is fantastic, with people playing you music, handing out food and drink at unofficial stations (including beer), singing, clapping and high fiving. It’s really impressive, and very encouraging to the weary runner.
|A view over town from the Philosophenweg (not taken on race day, but the week before)|
Just after the 10km marker, you reach the summit of the first hill. For me, this felt like a huge milestone. Firstly, you’re halfway round. Secondly, this is the highest elevation you will reach, so after that, the rest is small potatoes (obviously, this isn’t true, but that doesn’t matter at the time). After this, you run down hill for a couple of km, which should be equivalent to a rest. But for me, it was not. For I suddenly developed one of those gut-busting stitches that nothing other than waiting for it to pass can seemingly fix. It was awful. And to happen when I finally earned a break? CRUEL!
|About to hit the top of the first hill. Person not to scale.|
The thing that seemed to cure the stitch was the next hill. The STEEP HILL. Apparently, the pain of the stitch couldn’t compete with the agony of this ascent. So, a win..? This hill really is something. If you’re not prepared for it, I feel like it could break your spirit. It’s not long (only 350m) but the climb is 50m, which is really quite a lot. The support beefs up here though (probably due to the proximity to a local brewery), so there’s plenty of encouragement to get you to the top. Half way up this hill, I paused to take a quick picture of the view over the river (and to catch my breath) before continuing on to the top, where you’re rewarded with water and isotonic drink before cruising back down to the town.
|Taken during my brief break on hill 2|
For me, this middle, flat part is somewhat hard to remember or focus on. I found it sort of tough, because my legs seemed to have become accustomed to hill running, and they were not quite sure what to do on the flat. Basically, I just want to get to that FINAL HILL as soon as possible, so I could run to the top, and then start my final descent to the finish. But my legs couldn’t push like I wanted them to.
Finally though, I reached that hill… THAT FINAL HILL. It’s only 125m of up over 3km (compared to 200m of up over 3.5 km for the first hill) but, as it begins at ~16.5km, it feels like the LONGEST, HIGHEST THING you have ever, EVER run. After the first few hundred metres, the gradient drops off, the pain in your legs and lungs lessens, and it suddenly feels much more manageable. And, here the support is as good as ever. At one point, a particularly exuberant German lady high fived me SO HARD, she almost spun me round!
After 3km (and just after the first proper beer stand, which I declined), FINALLY you start to come down hill for the last time, sound-tracked by an INSANELY good teenage drummer who is independently set up on the roadside. He was also out playing last year, and drums an excellent rhythm to roll downhill to. And once you’re down, it’s only about 500m to the finish, which flies by (especially when already-finished-speedsters Melissa and Luis are there to cheer you along, followed by friends and spectators, Amy and Remco). And, this year I had the added joy of overtaking a number of people towards the finish, which I felt pretty great about. And then, it was done! I had finished! And while I was tired, I didn’t feel quite as much like I was going to die as I had only 4 weeks earlier in Cambridge (a pancake flat course). Wunderbar! All I had to do now was return my shoe-chip and reclaim my 25 euro deposit…
Which was a NIGHTMARE. For some reason, the event crams the meeting point, all the food and drink stands, the award ceremonies, some random tents AND the chip return point into an area that’s basically equivalent to the size of my one bedroom flat. After running 21.1 km, the last thing you really want to be doing is fighting through dense crowds of people. If I could change anything about this event, it would be this. It was so awful, and at times, I feared I wouldn’t make it out alive. But, I did. For I am a true survivor! Then, I limped the 150m home, had a quick shower, and headed to Marktplatz for beers in the sunshine. Where I seem to have sunburnt just the left side of me. Which is cool, right? The two-tone look is going to be in this summer, I hear J
|Post-race beer in the sun. Perfect!|
The winning time this year was 1:14:44. My time was 2:17:02, which was 10 minutes faster than last years attempt, but 16 minutes lower than I finished in Cambridge 4 weeks ago. All in all, I felt pretty excellent about it. All my running buddies did fantastically, with Iron Man Luis coming in at 1:45, First-Timer Casey and Mandy at 2:04 and “I’m sick and unfit” Melissa at 2:06. All in all, great success! J