Vienna Marathon: the View from Behind

For 21 km, all legs, arms and arobic fatigue; we ran it our way

Marathon runners making their way over the Reichsbrücke; just meters after the start each on a personal crusade | Photo: Daria Klimova

Looking straight ahead, the bridge that had only moments ago been gray pavement, was now a sea of brightly clothed bodies, bobbing up and down in one teeming mass of humanity. People around us inched ahead, first with a slow walk, and then moving into a slow canter. But just as soon as we started, we stopped suddenly – like a line of cars in stubborn traffic – bumping into those ahead of us. Start, walk, run, stop. Slowly, the mass of people lurched forward. Until one final time, when there was no stop, but only hundreds of little irregular beeping noises, growing louder as we approached the line.

It was the start of the 28th annual Vienna City Marathon, and my wife Corina and I were going to do half of it – from the back of the pack.

Why the back?  Fewer people to pass us; there’s less jostling, less hassling, and the runners don’t take themselves so seriously. My time? Funny you should ask. People kept pressing me to say what my goal was. Truth is, I did not have one. With my wife, relatively new to long-distance running, we just wanted to run the 21 Km race from start to finish without stopping.

Being at the back also has its advantages. When we were hitting 9km near the Schwedenbrücke, the leading runners were just crossing their 26th km coming – or rather sprinting – in the other direction. At first I felt embarrassed. I had crossed the start only 13 minutes after they did, but they were on KM 26 and I was on KM 9. But I slowed a little and clapped as they swept past me.

The main disadvantage of running at the back is that, as the runners thin out, some spectators and cars take the opportunity to cut in front of you to cross the street. Most are careful, but some don’t quite move out of your way in time – the last irritation you need while running 21 km.

My wife and I have worked out a sort of mutual co-existence on the course. Corina runs at the most consistent pace (I often call her “tartaruga” or turtle in Italian), which prevents me from getting too pumped up by the crowd and starting too fast, preserving my stamina to make the distance. I, on the other hand, usually go surging off in front, pushing her to keep up.

The crowd was great this year, as always, and surely responsible for at least 5 of my 21 km. I really like watching the fans, an estimated 400,000 of them along the course this year, particularly the ones who shout for you when nobody else is around. “Hup Hup Hup,” they yell, and clap their hands, seeing you need a little boost.

In the Half Marathon, every runner has a story. One friend had just lived through the Japanese earthquake in a Tokyo business boardroom, and came back to Vienna to run the marathon – this time with a different perspective about life, and many stories of the human spirit he found in Japan.

Another friend came down with the nasty chest flu that was making the rounds. This cut down his training routine, so that in the end, he only ran half of the half. A few friends signed up among the 33,000 participants, but could not work in the training and didn’t run at all. And then there was a friend’s wife, who in her mid-40s, just discovered this year that she was a naturally gifted long-distance runner, and booked a stunning first-marathon time of 3:19.

I had my own story. In 2008, I finished the half marathon, and a week later going up some stairs, my knees gave out. The pain was worse than anything I had ever felt. X-rays showed a possible bone friction in my kneecap. The doctor talked about a messy operation… At first I laid off the knee and dared not run – running equals more friction and pain, I reasoned.

Then I bought a soft knee support and started light jogging. The next day, the knees felt much better than usual. It turns out some knee tissues need more exercise, not less, to circulate fluids, and build up the muscles around the knee. I built my distance and time back up again – and planned my comeback at the Vienna City Marathon 2011.

As we came out of the Prater and turned onto the Untere Donaustrasse in the 2nd District, the strains of “Black Velvet”, the 80s hit by Alannah Myles, came pumping out of a couple of large Bose speaker systems in a second story window. Now these people understood! Strange how an old song well amplified provides fresh motivation. We picked up our pace to the thumping bass line just as a small hill was coming up.

As we continued along the Donaukanal, two American women were running side by side who had been with us nearly the whole time, talking and catching up on old friends, as if they were sipping a coffee at Meinl’s. I shook my head: How do they do this? We focused on “conserving” our energy, without talking at all. But most at the back were like us, where everything happened as in a silent movie – there was almost no sound.

The spectators caught my eye as we passed the Secession and onto the dreaded Linke Wienzeile, the 4+ km long stretch that is straight into the sun – with little to no shade and even fewer refreshment points. There were good crowds gathered at key intersections, mostly parents and their children, who came to cheer the runners along by shouting, clapping, or banging something, anyway they could. Farther along this stretch, there were just a mother and her young son, standing alone on a remote sidewalk, waving flags, clapping and shaking noise makers because they know you hear them, and DO appreciate their support. Still farther along the Wienzeile, an ambulance was out in the middle of the course. A runner was laying flat on a stretcher inside, getting treatment from the medics. This is not for the faint-hearted.

Then, coming up on the biggest hill just past the Schoenbrunn near the 16 km mark and the BP Station, there was a little blonde girl, bounding energetically from side to side, with a big smile, shouting encouragement and offering a high-five to all runners, as we finally, finally rounded the corner to flat ground again at the Technisches Museum.

VCM Runners came in all shapes and sizes; not all runners are built long, tall and thin and carry a huge stride. Many lack this perfect physique, built low and wide to the ground, yet who still figure out an efficient way to run for 21 km or 42 km.

As we began jogging down Mariahilfer Straße toward the Ring, we drew more inspiration knowing that we were nearing our goal. We focused mentally on making it  to the Hofburg, fighting back all physical forces – legs, feet, arms and aerobic fatigue – that just wanted to stop right then and there.

In the end, we finished the race, and ran it our way. Exhausted and glowing, we stood, hands on our knees, taking deep breaths to regain our composure, watching as other runners came down the red carpet on Heldenplatz to the finish line. It was a fine show, all of them – including us – putting on a “bella figura” as we trotted upright in full stride over those final meters, enjoying the crowd response, with a smile and the satisfaction of having conquered the course for that day.

Four days later, my knees were still intact. Everybody asked me my time, but I just smiled; I was happy to have run and finished.

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