Eventually, I was going to run an international marathon. It was inevitable, and I’m so happy I ran the Dusseldorf Marathon as that first venture outside the US. My husband was not able to join me, so I was flying solo on this one. I won’t lie to you, after the acts of terrorism in Brussels (which is not far from Dusseldorf) in March, I was just a bit nervous about making this trip. But I don’t like the idea that the terrorists win by disrupting our lives through implied threats. After a discussion with my husband about this, we both felt like this trip was in our ‘risk equation’ and I would continue to travel to Germany and run the marathon as planned. So on April 20th, I boarded a plane to Atlanta (then on to Amsterdam, followed by another flight to Dusseldorf), arriving the following afternoon.
I stayed at a the Mercure Hotel Dusseldorf Haffen, which was about two miles from the race start/finish area. It was a nice walk from the hotel into the city centre, and you wanted to walk it briskly because of the cold temperatures and wind coming off the river. There is actually a great transportation system of trams, trains and underground, but I didn’t test those out until the Saturday. Instead, walking gave me a chance to see the city and stretch my legs after the long journey over.
For all those asking, ‘why did you choose Dusseldorf?’ I actually won this marathon entry by registering at their booth at the Marine Corps Marathon expo. Never in a million years did I think I would win, but in December, I got an email saying that I did. I told my husband and he basically said that since I won, I should go. Without hesitating, I booked my flights before he could change his mind. Then he asked what the value of the entry was worth – about $90. It was a funny moment when he realized that I spent significantly more on flights and hotel than the race fee was worth. That may be the first and last time I can pull this one over on him.
The race organizers had about 20 people who won entries from their booths at Marine Corps Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York Marathon. They gave us the option to participate in a walking tour of the city and a group dinner. We learned about the long history of Dusseldorf, which first became a city in 1288. Napoleon visited here twice, and the city is well known for its funky architecture and modern art. The tour was free; the dinner was priced based on what we ordered. It was a fun outing, helping me to reach almost 15 mi of walking that day (not ideal, of course). After a bit of beer, a chicken dinner that was delicious and lots of chatter with other runners, we headed back to our respective hotels. But first, we had to get some gelato. Truly the best deal in town at 1 Euro for the cone!
My friend Sarah, who lives in London, flew in to be my one-woman cheer leading squad. She ran the Vienna marathon just two weeks prior, and while she thought about running Dusseldorf, too, she decided to enjoy the race as a spectator. I told her I would likely be a 4:20 finisher, but luckily, she has a European data plan and tracked my progress to catch me smashing my previous PR by nearly 10 min – the new PR is 4:05:45. And where I felt tapped to my limit running the 4:15 in Louisiana in January, I felt really good and strong the entire race, walking only through water stops. So there it is. That 4-hr marathon doesn’t seem so out of reach at this time.
Since I was only in Germany for a few days, I tried to cram a bit of sightseeing in. When Sarah arrived, we decided to take the train to Koln (Cologne) to see the cathedral. On our way, we met a group of very young men (who are on the equivalent of a bowling team) in the train station. They were drinking beer at 11:45am, and somehow we joined them. The beer was terrible, but it was a fun moment. When in Germany…
Back in Dusseldorf, we hit the Schlüssel brew house, enjoying the local altbier, which is a dark colour – but it’s not a strong beer. We found ourselves in the middle of a bachelor party at one point, and made some new friends with a few locals who were sharing our table. They bought us a beer, and tried to get us to stay for a shot of the local herbal liqueur: Killepitsch. I knew the beer would be OK (but didn’t need anymore after that), but no thanks on the shot! This is where we met the German Sara, who promised to come out and join my friend Sarah in the cheering at the marathon. It was then back to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation before the big day.
The expo was a little small, but the way to get there was well marked with signs on the ground for a couple blocks. Packet pick up was rather busy; the marathon event includes the marathon (about 3,000 runners) as well as a 4-person relay race (about 7,000 runners). There were about 10 vendors selling shoes, the sports drink, clothes and nipple guards. Seriously. That was a booth. There was also a booth to get a personalized pace band (measured in kilometers, of course). Unlike US races, the race shirt was not included. So if you wanted one, you could buy it for 20 Euros. Of course I bought one. How could I not? Especially when I saw it was bright pink!
It was a cold morning, with rain in the forecast. The race started at 9am, which I originally didn’t like. However, after I saw the temps for 7am, I was very thankful that we didn’t start until 9am. Sarah and I woke up, and I dressed in my throw away ‘robe’ to brave the near-freezing temperatures outside. We decided to take the tram to the race start. As we were waiting, we noticed that the 37 km sign was on the street next to our hotel. After waiting and no trams coming, we realized that the trams were not running in the city centre because of the race. Duh! So we had to start walking the 2 miles to the race start.
Along the way was the bag drop. It was a small, busy place that was a bit overwhelming when you are already full of nervous/excited energy. It was like everyone had three shots of espresso before they came. Once I handed in my bag, Sarah and I continued toward the start area, where I ran into two runners from the walking tour group. We snapped our pre-race picture, and lined up in the corrals. The sky was looking a beautiful blue for the start, but a line of gray was threatening in the distance. I was hoping that it would hold off until at least noon, so I could be in the final stretch before any rain came.
Unlike American races, they didn’t play the national anthem. Another observation was that there were far more men than women in the marathon. I also don’t remember a gun/air horn being used to announce the start of the race. But start we did, and I took off at an easy pace. The cool weather helped me to get in a comfortable but quick pace from the start – a pace I was basically able to maintain throughout the race pretty consistently.
The Dusseldorf Marathon is pretty flat; you do have a couple areas where you go on a bridge and have some elevation change because of that. Most of the race is also run on the street. One exception to that is a short section (maybe a half mile, if that) that was like a cobblestone type substrate, which was fairly early in the race. Some people chose to run that section on the sidewalk.
We were taken out of the city centre/old town, the first of several times we would do this. The race ran in and out of the centre several times, but because the roads are not really on a grid, I was turned around pretty much the whole day. I just followed people in front of me, figuring they knew where they were heading. Spectators were pretty much everywhere, cheering on the runners. I had many people call my name (on my bib) and say ‘super!’ However, with a German accent, it sounded more like ‘zuppa’ so I wasn’t sure what that meant, other than it was an encouragement. I smiled, thanked people and waved throughout the course.
Some people had signs, but it didn’t seem to be as big of a thing as it is at US races. And of course, I have no idea what they said because I don’t speak German. I’m sure they were very funny, though.
We crossed the Rhine River around mile 7 I believe, and headed into a rather high end area (where the footballers live). This was probably my favourite part of the course. I just enjoyed the scenery and I felt fantastic. Of course, at about mile 11/12, I noticed some snow coming down. Until it hit me in the face, when I realized it wasn’t snow. It was hail! I just laughed and ducked my head so my hat could protect me from getting hit. It didn’t last too long, and it made for a bit of a wild race experience. I truly wondered what would be next. Luckily, the rain held off and the runners in all had a near-perfect race day, weather-wise.
I hit the half marathon point at about 2:01, and was a bit skeptical about being able to maintain that pace for another 13.1 mi. I was basically where I wanted to be at the half way mark to try and match my previous best, if not perhaps beat it by a couple minutes. As I continued on and still felt great, I kept recalculating how fast I might finish. At mile 18, I knew I was going to have a new PR, it was just a question of by how much. I figured if I could run through 20 mi, I would likely be around a 4:10 marathon (which would allow a couple short walk breaks). After I got to 20 and still felt strong, that 4:10 started to go down in my mind. I told myself I was going to get a PR unless I fell down. After that thought was in my head, it was all I could think about. I was pleading with myself to not trip and fall because a nice PR was within my sights.
Aid stations were plentiful, and they had water and the local sports drink available at all of them. Bananas were available at so many aid stations, and the volunteers cut them and peeled them for the runners! I ate the equivalent of probably two bananas during the race because it was so easy to grab. Coke was found at the aid stations starting at mile 20, for those who needed the extra sugar. I never felt like I was looking for the next water stop; they were well placed and well stocked. No issues at all there.
Relay runners started 45-min after the marathon start, which was nice. It was a little soul destroying as you hit miles 18+ and someone would sprint by you. These relay runners had a much shorter distance to run and obviously had fresh legs. Occasionally a runner would run by, but overall, the delay in their start time allowed for a nice spread of the field. It was never crowded and I didn’t waste much energy darting around people – even at the beginning.
The final 2 km were mentally very tough. We saw the final stretch to the finish line but were diverted right up the road to continue on those final kilometers. This out and back seemed to go on forever (as they always do at the end of a race), and when I saw people turning, I was excited to think it was time to hit that final stretch of the course. Wrong. We had to head down another street for a short distance before turning to go back in the direction of the finish. As I headed toward the river the wind hit me smack in the face! The final full kilometer was one of my slowest in part because of the wind (and because I think I stopped to eat yet another piece of banana). But at this point, I knew a 4:05 race was possible so I kept going. At the first arch leading to the finish, a DJ called my name, and I took off, doing a bit of a sprint down the last 1/4 mile of the course, passing a few people. I heard my friend yelling my name from the top of the viewing area so I waved and pushed even harder. Feeling incredibly good, I ran across that finish, knowing that I had likely hit my 4:05 target. For the first time after a race, I remembered to stop my Garmin within a couple steps after finishing, noticing that my watch had me in the 4:05 range. In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think I could do it for this race. But sometimes, it all just falls into place. Dusseldorf Marathon on April 24, 2016, was that day.
After finishing, I received my medal, but had to ask (mostly with hand gestures) about the mylar blanket to keep me warm. With the wind coming off the river, it was really cold and I would have been frozen if I didn’t get a blanket. There was a good walk (almost 5 min) to the finishers area, so this blanket was a necessary item. The soreness started to set in and I was ready for a post-race beer.
Marathon runners were corralled into the bag check area, where we could pick up our bags, grab a Berliner (a jelly-filled donut – which was YUMMY by the way), non-alcoholic beer (Seriously? in Germany? Pffft.), and take a shower in the trailer (um, it was too cold for me to do that, so I settled for changing into my dry clothes). Once fed and dry, I headed out to reunite with my friends.
We went to the brew house from the day before, and all I wanted was french fries and a beer. We had a few beers, enjoyed the warm temps and ended the afternoon with a shot of Killepitsch. This digestive is similar to Jaegermeister, but not nearly as harsh. While I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. Chasing it with a bit of altbier helped.
I would honestly expect nothing less than a well organized experience from the Germans, and I was not disappointed in the least. This race ran like a well oiled machine and runners I spoke with all had nothing but wonderful things to say about their experience. From a spectator standpoint, this is a FANTASTIC spectator race to attend. Because the course takes you in and out of the city centre so many times, it is easy for spectators to catch runners at 5-6 places along the way without moving too much. My friend Sarah was later joined by our new German friend Sara (who we met at the brew house the previous day), and they waited for me, ducking in and out of coffee shops to warm up in between Robyn sightings.
The only word I really have for this race is FUN. It was a fun race – a fun course, fun crowd, fun event overall. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Germany; of course, I am thrilled with my PR.
So not only did I leave Dusseldorf with my spicy mustard, altbier and marathon medal, but I left with some fun memories of my first visit to Germany, a great girls weekend with a friend and a desire to run this course again. If you are interested in running an international marathon, Dusseldorf is a great option. Definitely put it on your list!
(And on the way home, I registered for the 2017 Paris Marathon. So yeah, I’m definitely a Marathon Maniac!)