Is Berlin the fastest marathon in the world? Ten world records on one course is an unmatched credential. And one or even two more could be added on Sunday, with favorites Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) and Tirunesh Dibaba (Ethiopia) both appearing ready for something special.
Berlin has had a lock on the men’s world record since 2003, as well as hosting three break-throughs by women since 1977. Why is this such a great spot for fast times? Cool conditions, flat well-maintained roads, and carefully selected elite fields are the Berlin formula. Add in a phalanx of well-drilled pace-makers who protect and guide each aspiring record-breaker with Germanic efficiency, and you have many elements for success.
When was the first Berlin marathon?
The race was founded in 1974 by a Berlin baker, Horst Milde, who combined his passion for running with a family bread and cake business that had flourished just west of the Brandenburg Gate for 300 years. His first marathon had 244 finishers, only 10 of them were women. It was won in a modest 2:44:53 on the men’s side, and 3:22:01 for the women.
Milde patiently kneaded the race like dough until it rose to become this year’s gourmet mega-dollar global-audience marathon with 44,000 sought-after starters. With Milde still a watchful presence, the race remains under the auspices of his Charlottenburg sports club, with his non-baker son Mark Milde as race director.
When Germany achieved reunification in October 1990 after 45 years of division and military occupation, the Berlin Marathon went through the previous Eastern Zone for the first time and gained a world profile as symbol of the new sense of free and open access that swept Europe.
Some of the course’s 10 world records have also carried greater meanings:
Christa Vahlensieck (West Germany) ran a world record 2:34:47 at Berlin at a time when female runners were beginning to discover the new opportunity of the marathon, building the pressure that led to its inclusion for the 1984 Olympics. Vahlensieck was a protegée of Dr. Ernst Van Aaken, a visionary advocate for the health benefits of exercise and the endurance abilities of women.
For three years the world record had been swapped between Vahlensieck, France’s Chantal Langlacé and USA’s Jacqueline Hansen. When Vahlensieck took back the record on German soil, it was consolation for Van Aaken, who had lost both legs in an automobile accident.
Ronaldo da Costa, a Brazilian, youngest of a poor family of 11, had only rarely competed outside his home country. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he finished a modest 16th in the 10,000 meters. In his first visit to Berlin in 1997, he placed fifth (2:09:07), but the next year he astonishingly improved by three minutes and broke a world record that had stood for 10 years. Da Costa is the only South American, male or female, to hold the world marathon record. He became a national hero.
He will be in Berlin again this week to be inducted into the race's Hall of Fame, and at age 48 will run the race on the twentieth anniversary of his break-through.
The world began to look for the first women’s sub-2:20 marathon after Joan Benoit Samuelson slashed the world best mark down to 2:22:43 at Boston in 1983. But the barrier eluded the first generation of great Africans, even Fatuma Roba (Ethiopia), first African woman to win the Olympic marathon in 1996, and Tegla Loroupe (Kenya), first to win a big-city marathon, New York in 1994. Berlin wanted the sub-2:20 notch on its belt, and Loroupe came close there with 2:20:43 in 1999. After almost 20 years, sub-2:20 began to look like the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister.
Then Berlin lured the Japanese Olympic champion (Sydney 2000), Naoko Takahashi. Trained on super-high mileage, Takahashi scorched the flat Berlin streets to give herself lasting fame with 2:19:46. It was more than a sporting breakthrough. In Japan’s long but patriarchal culture, Takahashi became the first popular national female hero, even featuring as the lead character in a “manga” comic-book series, with a multi-million readership.
Three dramatically marginal breakthroughs over 15 years make Berlin the location of choice to break each barrier. Paul Tergat (Kenya) was the first man under 2:05, with 2:04:55 in 2003. Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) cut it even closer when he took the world mark under 2:04, in 2008, with 2:03:59. And when Dennis Kimetto (Kenya) went sub-2:03 in 2014, again at Berlin, it was by only three seconds, once more ensuring full impact in the finish-line photos. At Berlin, those always show the clock.
Will Kipchoge be the first under 2:02 on Sunday? Could Dibaba’s track speed finally convert to take her under Paula Radcliffe’s legendary 2:15:25 women’s record?
All the trends in Berlin’s history suggest that breaking these marks are not merely possible; they are almost compulsory.
World Records at Berlin
1998: Ronaldo da Costa (Brazil; 2:06:05)
2003: Paul Tergat (Kenya; 2:04:55)
2007: Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia; 2:04:26)
2008: Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia; 2:03:59)
2011: Patrick Makau Musyoki (Kenya; 2:03:38)
2013: Wilson Kipsang (Kenya; 2:03:23)
2014: Dennis Kimetto (Kenya; 2:02:57)
1977: Christa Vahlensieck (W. Germany; 2:34:48)
1999: Tegla Loroupe (Kenya; 2:20:43)
2001: Naoko Takahashi (Japan; 2:19:46)
A version of this article appeared on Runnersworld US