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Marathons in Germany: almost a national sport

Marathon running is a popular recreational sport in Germany. Every year, numerous major races are held in German cities, attracting large crowds of spectators. From a private hobby for staying fit and healthy, marathon running has developed into an important factor for tourism and the economy.

Germans love marathons. The event calendar of the German marathon portal shows that more than 200 marathons are scheduled in Germany per year. These events range from smaller race meets such as the Schorfheide Marathon in the town of Altkünkendorf (in the German state of Brandenburg) to flagship races such as the renowned Berlin Marathon, where more than 40,000 runners take part, cheered on by a million spectators lining the route.

German marathons host international contestants

Participants from fourteen different countries were among the thirty fastest contestants running in the 2014 Berlin Marathon, only one of whom was German. The top five places were occupied by four runners from Kenya an one from Ethiopia. African runners, particularly from Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, represent the world elite in this sport and are regularly the undisputed winners of Germany’s major marathon races.

‘Training with Marathon World Champions’ is an interesting documentary filmed by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, in which a German female reporter takes part in a training camp for top African runners in Italy’s South Tyrol province (in German only):

Running marathons for your health?

A considerable number of health initiatives were launched in Germany in the 1970s with the aim of convincing the Germans that they should exercise more. Endurance training in particular is well suited to helping stressed city dwellers – who spend their work day mainly sitting at their desks – to exercise their cardiovascular system and muscles and strengthen their immune system, as well as to switch off mentally. Jogging outdoors is a popular form of endurance training. And since many runners are also ambitious in their recreational activities and want to set training goals for themselves, it is just one step further to train for marathons. However, it has also been demonstrated that while the basic preparation for marathons is very healthy, the race itself can do permanent damage to a runner’s health.

The marathon as a source of business

Some 120,000 people take part in marathon races held across Germany each year, and these contestants must of course be equipped with the correct running gear. Every year, Germans spend approximately EUR 900,000 to pursue the sport of running, especially on shoes, clothing and electronic accessories such as heart rate monitors and navigation devices. For cities such as Berlin or Cologne, the contestants' overnight hotel stays and their further spending in restaurants and shops, of course, are also an economic factor, particularly as these runners usually do not travel alone to marathons.

Nowadays, major marathon events are often sponsored by well-known companies who provide the funding to organise the event and lure top international runners to take part by offering them lucrative appearance fees. Such corporate sponsored events include the Haspa Marathon in Hamburg, the RheinEnergieMarathon in Cologne and the Mainova Frankfurt Marathon.

More runners, fewer kilometres

A new trend has been observed in recent years in smaller cities holding marathons: many of them offer runners the opportunity to take part in their events without having to run the entire marathon distance of 42.195 kilometres. In many cases, more contestants run the ‘half-marathon’, i.e. ‘only’ 21.097 kilometres, than do the full marathon. Even relay teams that divide the route up into separate legs for their members have become very popular. This is especially true for relay teams of school-age runners who often run for a good cause, collecting donations for their efforts. One well-known example of this is the ‘Renniere e.V.’, where healthy children and children suffering from kidney disease run the entire marathon distance together in relay teams for the benefit of children throughout Germany who suffer from renal disorders.

The origin of the marathon

According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, the legendary first marathon was run in the year 490 BC. As recounted in lore, after the victory of the Athenians in battle over the Persians, a messenger ran all the way from the city of Marathon to Athens to bring the news, where he called out the words, ‘We won’ – before collapsing and dying on the spot. Despite this tragic story, millions of people have taken up the challenge since the first organised marathon race at the Athens Olympic Games in 1896.

Discussion in the community about marathons

While marathons are popular among runners in Germany, criticism can also be heard. Is the distance really suitable for recreation, or do you have to be a top, competitive athlete to be able to run marathons without risking your health? Are the major marathons still sporting events, or is it all just about marketing? Germany-Alumni are discussing this and other issues of marathon races in the community group ‘Sports and Integration’ – come join in the dialogue!


Author: Elena Krüskemper

July 2014

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