A city race with a trail perfume

Saturday 19th October 2019 – 6:30 am

“Why do you run another marathon, if you finished one already?”
The day is young and the sun is barely showing up over the horizon, filling up the sky with a gradient of dark blue layers. We left Berlin a half hour ago. The car is doing 150 km/h on the highway and I’m sipping on my coffee thermos, waiting for it to kick in and dissipates the clouds in my head. Why do I always feel exhausted on every race day? Well, this time at least I have a good reason: I just got a second star on my daddy’s Jersey and the last month has been pretty full, with busy days and short nights!

“I mean, didn’t you run like 3 or 4 already?”

Sitting next to me, my mom is insisting. I can’t see her in the dark but I feel some apprehension and mostly bewilderment in her voice.

“5, mom. This will be my 6th one!”

Coffee is doing its job and her initial question finally reaches me… Why am I running another marathon? I don’t know what to say. I guess a lot of runners pushed themselves painfully through these 42 km, to cross it once and for all from their bucket list or simply because “everyone does it today”. Then they move on to something else. For a non-runner (you know, that annoying colleague who asks you every Monday how many marathons you ran this weekend!), there is no reason why someone would do that again!

I’m lost in my thoughts and I just mumble:
“Why do you go skying every winter, since you’ve been once already?”
I don’t think she got it, but it’s fine. You have to cross that finish line at least once to understand.

8:30 – Stralsund

We enter the narrow streets of Stralsund, after a quiet 2.5 hour drive. We leave the car in a parking lot close to the start and get out in the cold morning. I changed in the car and a penetrating wind bites my bare legs. I put on my running jacket. I kind of expected this. After all, we drove North of Berlin until we hit the shores of the Baltic Sea, which is finally here, in front of our eyes. On the other side, a strip of land stretches on both sides of the horizon: Rügen Island (sometimes called Rugia), our final destination.

My mom is smiling next to me, so happy to see something else than Berlin, despite the early wake up at 5 am this morning. It’s the first time she comes to cheer me up on race day and it’s nice to have a friendly face around. We head to the Ozeaneum (Aquarium) to get my bib and finisher shirt. I couldn’t eat anything this morning and I force myself to chew on a sandwich, while runners are gathering at the starting line, in front of the Ozeaneum. Quiet ships are gauging us, amused. I can see the bridge on the horizon, our first stage.

The clock is ticking… Finally, the countdown echoes on the red brick buildings and the 200 runners move ahead, in a burst of flames topping the staying line. A quick wave to my mom and I’m on my way to my 6th marathon.

9:30 – Ozeaneum, 0 km

We circle around the block and head towards the bridge. I’m doing my usual pre-race check up, now that it’s too late to quit! In all fairness, I feel okay, better than I expected. Two things bother me though: I had two rough last days at work moving around a lot and my legs are aching. But most concerning, I haven’t trained or slept properly for a month, after my baby champ decided to do an early show up! Therefore, no expectations, let’s see how my body puts up with the distance. Still, for once I would like to run a marathon not worrying if I’ll be able to finish it!

9:45 – Rügenbrücken, 2.5 km

We  cover the first kilometers when the Rügenbrücken (the Rügen bridge) appears on our left and stretches over our head like a Chinese dragon. I’m impressed, it looks way bigger than on the photos. We follow the road to catch it where it’s reaching the land. Finally, after taking an access road, we find ourselves on the monster’s back, snailing towards the horizon.

I’m speechless. The bridge is blocked to the cars for a few hours and we are all alone, no more than ten runners on the three lanes around me. With a length approaching 3 km, the Rügenbrücken is one of the longest bridge in Europe.

I feel lost in the vastness of the asphalt, crushed under the two columns raising towards the sky, 125 m above my head, in a spider web of cables, like two wings of a sleeping dragon. I know it’s not the Golden Gate, but the experience is like nothing I ever experienced before: a strange sensation that I don’t belong here, running a path made for vehicles far bigger and faster than me. It’s like climbing Mount Olympus to meet the Goods…

Okay, I’m losing myself here, let’s just say it was a pretty cool segment and definitely one of the  marathon highlights! The bridge raises up quickly and after crossing the pillars, the road smoothly goes down towards the Rügen island, over the little Dänholm strip of land. Stralsund disappear behind us, as we slowly approach the island, each step counting twice on this never-ending road.

10:10 – Rügen Island, 6 km

I reach the island about 40 min after the start. I’m sorry I forget to do the presentations: Rügen is Germany’s largest island, located North in the Baltic Sea, at equal distance from Danemark, Sweden and Poland. With 900 km² and 42 km from East to West, this “Jewel of the Baltic Coast” was definitely made to host marathons! With 60 km of unspoiled sandy beaches, crystal-blue seas bordered by lush greenery, up to the Jasmund National Park with its heritage forests and sheer white cliffs, the island is a Paradise for swimmers, hikers, bikers and… Runners! The vast choice of luxury hotels, beach-side villas and relaxing spas makes Rügen one of German’s most praised vacation destination.

Unfortunately, we’re not here for the sauna and I still got 36 km to cover! First aid station: no coffee, croissant and fresh juice but sweat tea, bananas and ISO drink. That’ll do. I do a quick break to put on my ankle pads as a prevention, still hoping that my legs will hold on all the way. After a sharp turn left, we follow an alley of brown and yellow-leaves trees. Autumn is finally here, although we can’t complain as it’s not raining today. I even spot a shy sun fighting its way through the thick clouds.

10:25 – Altefähr, 8 km

The narrow path leads us to what I consider the second highlight of the race: the small village of Altefähr. I do a quick break, taken by surprise. The houses alongside the main street are beautiful. White walls, exposed beans, little balconies and English gardens thoroughly looked after, they offer a perfect mix of tradition and modernity. Their dark roof remind me of Romanian countryside houses.

We cross the small village in a few strides. People are out in their garden, cheering us up. “First one?” yell an old lady to me. I smile and show her six of my fingers. We pass the St. Nikolai church on our left, which looks magnificent, and reach the Bergener street, bordered by trees and exiting the village. No sidewalks, but cars are passing us slowly with friendly encouraging signs.

10:45 –  Poppelvitz, 11 km

We enter now a 6 km loop North, before heading to the coastline, and I’m really disappointed. When I saw it on the marathon map, I thought it was intended to bring us to interesting highlights inside the island. But like that little loop at the end of the bridge, its purpose is simply to add kilometers, and quite boring ones I must say. After leaving the road, we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, empty fields up to the horizon with just a few windmills here and there, like sleeping giants. A strong wind makes me shiver, while a group a runners in shorts and singlets overtakes me. Damn vikings…

I stick with two nice ladies, munching on salty crackers (for carbs) and Toblerone (for motivation). A quick check up at my legs, tired but functional, everything’s fine.

11:15 – East coast, 16 km

We finally close the loop and after an aid station offering Coke and energy bars (best breakfast ever!) we take the direction of the coast. After the boring loop, a good surprise is waiting for me: a long sandy trail following the coastline. I was afraid this marathon would be only roads and bicycle lanes, but this is turning into a nice morning trail run. The sun is joining the party, through the disappearing clouds, and I joyfully remove my jacket. This is for sure, like the bridge segment, a highlight of the race.

We follow the little trail weaving inside a canyon of thick bushes. The Baltic Sea appears here and there through the vegetation, half concealed to our eyes, like a treasure you have to discover. I can’t resist to stop a few times to little alcoves of green, offering a bench to sit and rest in front of the sparkling water. Stralsund is still visible on the horizon, its church tower emerging from the clouds. I take a deep breath, full of wild aromas. The show must go on!

11:50 – Rambin, 21 km

The pleasant beach side slowly disappear, as the track bring us back inside the island changing into a bicycle lane. I pass the 21st kilometers after 2:20 h on the way, not so bad for a first half with tired legs, let’s see if I can score my usual negative split.

I cross the first participants, running in the other direction. A quick look behind me and I notice the 31st km mark on their side. Boy, are they fast! The best of them will finish the race in barely more than 3h! But I’m in the 4-5h train, so let’s focus and be happy if we finish 😋

After a few boring kilometers in the middle of nowhere, we run along houses again, visit one or two aid stations held by friendly volunteers and firemen, to finally reach the village of Rambin, our going-back point. 26 km done and another 16 km to cover to make mommy proud (I wrote her, she found a nice little coffee place to chill out). A cup of Coke (which is starting to give me some belly aches, but the caffeine kick is really nice) and it’s time to head back ‘home’.

12:50 – Way back, 30 km

This will be my only disappointment about the Rügen Marathon. Not only do we have to cover a useless loop in the middle of nowhere, but now after 26 km, we have to go back following the exact same path as on our way in. Therefore, from the 42 km, you can only count on 21 km of really enjoyable trail.

On the plus side, my legs are tired but still working fine and painless. I take out my earbuds, start my motivating playlist and switch to autopilot mode. Kilometers are flashing up on my watch.  I pass a few tired runners on the way, everyone is slowly hitting the wall and entering survival mode. I still feel fairly okay. My crackers/Toblerone diet helps a heap! Fortunately, we don’t have to run the extra loop and I’m back in Altefähr in no time. I leave the village towards the bridge, on the silent horizon.

13:45 – Rügendamm, 38 km

As I finally reach the bridge, two new surprises are waiting for me. First of all, we are redirected to the left lane and I realize that we won’t be running on the Rügenbrücken this time but rather on the original road through the Rügendamm, a first bridge built in the 30’s for cars and trains. Why not, I’m just happy to take a different path. Second surprise: a hoard of hysterical runners suddenly bursts on the parallel road and head towards the Rügenbrücken. The start for the 6 km run was just given!

I cross the bridge slowly, each step more painful than the last. But the view of the Rügenbrücken from below is impressive and I even find the strength to take a few selfies. High above my head, the flow of runners is flooding the bridge in a rainbow of colorful outfits.

14:10 – Stralsund Finish, 42.2 km

Finally, we are back on the side street leading to the Ozeaneum. I have imagined a solitary finish, supported by a cheering crowd. But instead I find myself drown in the flock of 6k runners, all raising their head and smiling, full of energy. I hate it! 😭 But to be fair I’m smiling to, as the finish line is 1 km ahead and my legs held tight all the way back.

I cross the finish line at 14:12, after a nice morning stroll of 4:42 min. Yep, that’s 5 min less than the Vienna marathon this April! My mom is here, getting wild on the camera button of her phone. A medal is thrown around my neck. I yelled “marathon!” to the volunteer, showing him my bib, but he answers that all medals are the same. I’m a bit disappointed that all 6k runners around me harbor the same trophy that mine. Oh well, we are all winners after all. A 6k is for some harder than a marathon for others!

After refueling at the aid stations, it’s time for a well deserved warm shower and a proper meal. Mom’s treat, we end up enjoying Italian pasta and fresh fish on the old market place, facing the beautiful Nicolaikirche, with the sun playing hide and seek behind its arcades.

Conclusion

This was a very fun marathon overall. The trail along the coastline came out as a nice surprise and crossing the huge bridge almost alone is an amazing experience I would recommend anyone to add to their bucket list.

To finish on a personal note, this was my 6th marathon and surely the one I prepared the least for: lack of training, sleep deprivation, tired legs before even starting. But my body surprised me again and I’m blown away by its obvious capacity to get stronger and ensure the distance better over time. My muscles seem to have developed some kind of memory and in spite of poor training, they still conserve a good level of fitness. “What does not kill me makes me stronger”, used to say Friedrich Nietzsche, who for sure was a kick-ass marathon runner! 😋

Mom keeps looking at exhausted me, proudly wearing my medal and glowing, a little smile on my face. I think she won’t ask me again why I run next time…

Things to improve

I see only one: Rügen is a very large island, longer than a marathon in both directions. Why adding boring loops in the middle of nowhere and why having us run back 16 km on the same route? The island is big enough! Create a nice loop leaving the bridge and getting back to it through a different path. Show us more from this beautiful island! And if it’s a budget issue, increase the entry fee. I’m sure participants would gladly pay a bit more money to run through another village or a nice area.


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank with all my heart the organizer of the Rügenbrücken Marathon for inviting me to the event and offering me to discover this beautiful island. Thank you to all volunteers too, who have been delightful all along the way.


General Travel Information

Transport:

We took the car from Berlin, which is a 2.5 hour drive. Alternatively, if you don’t have a car, you can take the train from a large city like Berlin or Hamburg. Maybe even from Copenhagen.

Food:

We ate at Göldener Löwe restaurant, on the beautiful Alter Markt place. The restaurant offers a wide choice of meats, fresh fish from the day and for course vegetarian and vegan alternatives. The place is quite touristic and therefore the prices are a bit higher than usual, but you can’t beat the view on the old market place and the Nikolai church.

Tip top:

Before leaving and if you are not too tired, loose yourself among the city medieval streets. Wonders await you at every corner. Don’t forget to visit the Nicolaikirche!

Sources and additional links

Rügenbrücken Marathon event page
Rügen Island tourism information
Wiki page about the bridge
Altefähr tourism information

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