Road Running

Five reasons the Berlin Marathon is fast

At 9am on Sunday morning, 40,000 runners will line up in Berlin’s Tiergarten for the 41st edition of the world’s fastest marathon and with a typically stellar trio of athletes heading up the men’s field, there’s every chance Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57 will be rewritten.

If so, it will be sixth time in the last nine editions of the race that the men’s record has been broken and if it is to happen, then it will undoubtedly be one of the power three – Eliud Kipchoge, Emmanuel Mutai or Geoffrey Mutai – who achieve it.

While Paula Radcliffe’s women’s world record of 2:15:25 remains out of reach, the race has also produced three world records on the women’s side, most recently through Japan’s Naoko Takahashi in 2001.

Indeed the race has such a monopoly on the men’s record that the last time it has been lowered in a place that wasn’t Berlin was 2002, when Khalid Khannouchi ran 2:05:38 in London; six times since, it has been rewritten in the German capital. But why is it so fast?

Here, in no particular order, are the five main reasons.

1) The athletes

2013 BMW Berlin Marathon

Star billing: Eliud Kipchoge will headline the 2015 Berlin Marathon. Image: photorun

It seems a blindingly obvious starting point, but it’s the athletes who make a race and these days, Berlin is increasingly able to attract the best talent for its annual showpiece. Seeking to carve out its unique selling point against other marathon major behemoths such as London and New York, Berlin has narrowed its focus over the last decade to home in on a small number of super-elites who they feel have a chance of breaking records. This has occasionally seen the race built around a single athlete, as it was when Haile Gebrselassie set his world records in 2007 and 2008.

In recent years race director Mark Milde, who took over from his father Horst in 2003, has sought to put on an elite race which is not just a time trial, but also a contest – a fast contest – on the streets of Berlin. Never did this work as well as in 2014, when Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai served up a terrific head-to-head duel and also ran faster than Wilson Kipsang’s previous world record of 2:03:23. From Paul Tergat to Patrick Makau, Gebrselassie to Kimetto, the best marathoners in the world now come to Berlin and when it comes to fast times, there’s simply no substitute for talent.

2) The Course

The 26.2-mile course starts and finishes near the Brandenburg Gate and winds its way through many of the city’s best-known areas such as Charlottenburg, Mitte, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Schoneberg. The beauty, if you’re a runner looking for a fast time, is in its lack of hills; the highest and lowest points differ by just 84ft, the second lowest variance of the six marathon majors. New York, by contrast, differs by 263ft between, while Boston is a whopping 480ft. Though the course has a relatively high number of turns, they are, as Gebrselassie once noted, wide and sweeping, allowing athletes to maintain their momentum. Race director Milde has also pointed to the course’s asphalt surface which, compared to the concrete found in other marathons, seems to be more accommodating to athletes.

3) The weather

The marathon, staged as it is in late September, is often been blessed with perhaps the most important aspect for any world record attempt: good weather. Experts agree that somewhere between 10C and 16C (50-60F) is the ideal temperature for a record attempt, and that’s usually the race conditions in Berlin. On Sunday, the average temperature is expected to be 15C (59F), with calm, overcast conditions once again providing the perfect platform for a fast time. Wind, which can scupper even the most determined of record attempts, is again set to be conveniently absent.

4) The Pacemakers

The leading athletes are provided with a horde of the best pacemakers in Berlin, most of them world class marathoners themselves, who are given strict instructions and time goals to reach through each section of the course. Almost always, they are up to the task. Last year, Wilfred Kirwa and Geoffrey Rono led Mutai and Kimetto through halfway in a perfect 61:45, with Kirwa recording the second fastest time ever as he passed 25K in the lead. Both stepped aside shortly before the 30K mark, which Mutai passed in a world record of 1:27:37.

The perfect example of just how good Berlin’s pacemakers are came in 2003 race, where Sammy Korir – tasked with assisting Paul Tergat on his world record attempt – very nearly won the race, finishing just one second behind Tergat, who set the world record at 2:04:55.

5) The mentality

It’s an often overlooked aspect, but a big reason for the cascade of fast times in Berlin is that athletes go there with the primary goal of running fast, much like middle distance runners have targeted Monaco in recent years as their go-to place for personal bests. Athletes who come to Berlin run with one eye on the clock, which is why they so often are able to breach new ground there.

Shalane Flanagan rejected considerably bigger financial incentives to run her Autumn marathon there last year instead of in New York or Chicago, and London Marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge has chosen Berlin this year. He’s coming to win, yes, but he’s also coming to see just how fast his body is capable of covering 26.2 miles. When he eventually hangs up his running shoes, he’ll never have to ask himself the question how fast he could run a marathon in ideal circumstances because on Sunday, like the 40,000 others around him, he’ll get his answer.

Star billing: Eliud Kipchoge is the leading Olympic hope for Kenya in the marathon. Image via photorun
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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