Guest post: Little Red Riding Hood (Heather Saunders) reports on the Hamburg Marathon

In a Run S’more first, a guest contributor chronicles an international racing experience. Here, Heather Saunders describes her recent experience running the Hamburg Marathon. Just a week later–a week!–she was part of the Swarthmore contingent to participate in the Broad Street Run.

Before moving to Swarthmore in 2012, I lived in Germany for 20 years, in a suburb of Frankfurt. I had a great group of running buddies there – other moms and dads from the neighborhood. We trained mostly in the forested hills of the Taunus, a park measuring over 1,300 km2 and crisscrossed with biking, hiking and riding trails. It was a runner’s paradise, accessible from our back door!

Heather Saunders (left) departing for Hamburg

Heather Saunders (left) and friends departing for Hamburg

Although I can no longer run with that group on a weekly basis, we keep in touch and continue to motivate each other. And when I do make it back to Europe, running with them is always high on the agenda.

Last year, my friends participated in the five-stage, 81-kilometer Brothers Grimm Run through the countryside where, once upon a time, the famous brothers gathered folk tales for their classic collection. My buddies bought matching shirts and assigned the name of a Grimms’ character to each. And so it happened that, several weeks ago, I traveled to Germany to run the Hamburg Marathon on April 26 with Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella and the Frog Prince.

Why Hamburg? It’s not Germany’s biggest, fastest marathon. (That’s the world-record course in Berlin, with 40,000 participants last year.) Nor is it the oldest. (That would be Frankfurt, founded in 1981.) Since we lived in the Frankfurt area, we’d all run there at least once, and it was time to try something new.

Hamburg is a comfortable train ride from Frankfurt, and the marathon has a reputation for great crowd support. As a major port city and a wealthy trading center since medieval times, the city promised an exciting, varied backdrop for a long race.

The fairy tale princesses at the start

The fairy tale princesses at the start

As for my fairytale companions, Rapunzel was my first, most loyal, most compatible running buddy. Over the last 10 years, Rapunzel and I have run seven marathons and numerous half marathons together. The Frog Prince works at an outdoor clothing and equipment shop, so he always has the latest, greatest must-have gear.

Cinderella, on the other hand, keeps an eye on the supermarket circulars and stocks up when ALDI has a special offer on running clothes. (Of course, Cinderella looks great in anything). Snow White is the only actual Frankfurt native on our team – a no-nonsense mother of two and a great travel companion.

Runners here have asked me what’s different about running a marathon in Germany versus the United States. Here are just three things I’ve noticed:

  1. The course is measured and marked off in kilometers – not miles. The great thing about kilometers is that they go by much faster! Unfortunately, there are more of them: 42.195, to be exact.
  2. Denmark has a population of only 5.6 million (compared to over 80 million in Germany). But when you run a major race in Germany, you have the feeling half the Danish population is participating! Marathon running is very popular in Denmark, and the Danes make themselves easy to spot by wearing the Danish colors. It’s not unusual to find yourself in a sea of red “Danmark” shirts at the start, in the middle, or at the end of a race.
  3. While standing at the start of the Broad Street Run a couple of weeks ago, I noticed another difference: Germans seem to have a stronger sense of personal space!

So what about the race itself? Training through the winter had been tough. I didn’t think a PR was on the cards, so I decided to optimize the “fun factor” in Hamburg – to run with my friend Rapunzel as much as possible, aim for a steady pace, enjoy the scenery and keep any feelings of frustration from creeping in.

Translation? Little Red Riding Hood.

Translation? Little Red Riding Hood.

The route was tremendous: the Reeperbahn red-light district (uncharacteristically quiet on a Sunday morning!), the Binnenalster and Aussenalster lakes with their sailing boats and luxury hotels, the huge port on the Elbe River (complete with huge cruise and container ships and the smell of fried fish), elegant stone and Hanseatic brick architecture.

The Hamburg fans lived up to their billing: crowd support was the best I’d experienced in Europe, even when it started raining heavily three hours into the race.

As for the results, Cinderella was the belle of the marathon ball, crushing her own PR and showing up the Frog Prince (and his superior gear) with a time of 3:44.

Rapunzel and I ran 41 of 42 km together, and maintained a consistent pace for a happy end at 4:05. Snow White joined us a few minutes later for that quintessential German post-run refreshment, alcohol-free wheat beer (Hefeweizen). And we all lived happily ever after…

–Little Red Riding Hood (aka Heather Saunders)