Saturday 13 October 2018

Harz-Gebirgslauf, Broken marathon 2018

There are races you can't wait to finish, and others you wish would go on forever.

Today, I ran the 41st Broken Marathon (and I survived!)

Good things always come in threes! After my Eco-Trail de Paris and the Wings for Life World Run, I couldn't possibly finish the year without a last race. With deep regrets, I couldn't manage to get into the Marathon du Médoc in September. I'll cover that one next year, I promise! So let's finish that amazing year with another of my bucket-list goals: the mountain trail! Until now, I never covered more than 800m D+. For a mountain-lover kid who grew up in Savoie (French Alps), it's about time to set the bar a bit higher.

I sent a few emails around to all events I could find and I was invited to the Harz-Gebirgslauf marathon, a 42km run into the Harz National Park of Saxony-Anhalt and up to the top of the Broken, the highest peak in North Germany. Wait a minute... Apart from the Alps, I thought Germany was as flat as a cheese plate! That's how I discover the beast: 1142m high, a rough subarctic climate with yearly temperatures below 3°C, eight months of snow and terrible winds all year long. The Broken is also famous for its mystic mists and fogs, creating optical illusions behind many cultural legends of witches and devils, that inspired authors like J.W. von Goethe or Heinrich Heine. No need to say more, CHALLENGED ACCEPTED!

The Harz-Gebirgslauf (in red), 42km and 1200 D+

Friday 12th October, 21:00 - Wernigerode

That's how I end up driving around Wernigerode, 3 hours away from Berlin, up to a little guest house lost in the forest. We were lucky to find a place to stay at a reasonable price, as most of them are fully booked for the event! As usual, I carefully planned my big day and thought about every thing but one: I'm not getting any phone coverage here and I don't have the wi-fi password! It's too late now, time to go to bed. I remember the race is at 9h and vaguely the address, that should be enough!

Wernigerode's Cityhall on Marktplatz, where runners meet on Friday night

Saturday 13th October, 8:00 - Hasserode

Getting into the pre-race mood

YES! Luckily, I find a parking spot right next to the start. I swallow the rest of my coffee and I leave the car in the fresh morning. The temperature hardly reaches 10°C, but the day is young and full of promises. Runners are emerging from everywhere around and I follow the crowd up to the starting area, in the middle of a large and noisy clearing. I'm always fond of this pre-race atmosphere, with runners hoping around on one foot trying to put on their socks, or getting warn while pinning their bibs, volunteers smiling and encouraging us, organisers voices in the background mumbling last-minute recommendations, the floating smell of bananas and coffee, the excitement raising each time you check your watch... I get my starting pack and head for the tents. Here is a bit more information about the event, while I'm getting ready:

Who wouldn't run THAT!?

The Harz-Gebirgslauf, also called Broken Marathon, is an annual event hosted in the little provincial town of Wernigerode, in the middle of Germany. It started in 1978, while Germany was still divided by the close-by iron-curtain. At that time, the Broken peak was situated in a restricted area of the German Democratic Republic, therefore runners had to wait for the German reunification in 1990 to enter the first Broken Marathon. 386 runners were present that day and the number of participants kept growing in the following years, to average 1000, a limit set to preserve the National Park and wildlife around. Today, the event offers different races, with a wide range of walking and running distances from the 5k to the marathon.

The Iron Curtain cutting the Broken and Germany in two (70's/80's)

But hey, here I come, all prepped up for the race. Hunger finally stroke and I'm munching on my breakfast sandwich. I walk up to the organiser's stage, where I finally meet Dieter, my contact from the team who invited me today. Warm handshake, smile, kind encouraging words, people are so nice and relaxed here! It's time to join the back of the pack and get ready, the countdown shouldn't be long...

Getting warm and impatient!

9:00 / 0 km / 280 m - Start

The horn blow announcing the start of the Broken Marathon

A horn suddenly blows ahead and cheerful runners start moving forwards, hands up, smile on their face, glitters in their eyes. The cold morning has disappeared and the air is warm and pure. I cross the starting line, start my gps watch and set forth on the steep climb that disappear into the bushy forest. My first thought as I'm covering the first kilometres is always the same: am I ready for that? It's a bit late to wonder, but I can't help having some doubts every time, since my foot injury three years ago. Today is my first mountain marathon. So far, the max D+ I had to cover was 850m during the Eco-Trail de Paris. I'm about to tank more than a thousand in the next 20km. Berlin in really flat but I managed to train on hills close to my place. Even with that, I can't say that I feel ready. I'm gonna need to be very careful today!

Let's go!

10:05 / 9 km / 314 m - Ilsetal

Not for you, Runnix. You have been falling inside when a kid!

I reach the first aid station about one hour after the start. I have a low pace as usual in the first kilometres, to give my body enough time to warm up. I'm a slow runner anyway, with a simple motto: "Life's short so don't rush and enjoy every second of it". We get out of the woods after crossing a bridge above the Ilse, a peaceful stream, which is going to keep us compagnie for the next 5 km. A little road leads us to the supply point. I couldn't find any information about them on the website, so I packed some bars, nuts, a bunch of my home-made hyper-caloric flapjacks and a bottle of water in my backpack. But there was no need for that, as the aid station is covered with drinks and food. I've never seen so much choice: Bananas, apples, raisins, bread with salty butter, mint cookies, biscuits, chocolate bars. To drink, water, tea, iso drink and a mysterious magic potion, some kind of warm oat soup, that is now in my top 5 favourite running fuel. Boy I wouldn't be surprised if I gain a few kilos by the end of the race!

First encounter with the Ilse

I follow the road amongst the pack. We did stay quite grouped until now, but each runner is finding his own rhythm and the Indian file is spreading. We are now entering the hardest but most beautiful part of the race. I remember the map and Dieter warned me that if the first 10 km are pretty flat, the next 10 ones are a different kettle of fish! The route leaves the road to gain the undergrowth and we start climbing along the Ilse, our fellow traveller, winding between stones and rocks. The sunlight finally breaks through the thick rooftop of tree branches and a rainbow of colours burst around us. I find myself speechless, watching red, yellow and ochre leaves falling around us and the sunlight reflecting like diamonds on the cristallin water. I feel complete, in peace with myself, a nice feeling I too rarely experience. That's when it hits me for the first time: Whatever the difficulties might be, I have to finish this race, as this is by far the most beautiful one I've run in my life. This simple idea will stick with me for the next hours and push me to the finish line.

Lost in the painting

10:40 / 12,8 km / 565 m - Bremerhütte

We reach the top of the hill and exit the woods, leaving the stream follow its path while we progress on our own. I make a friend and we start chatting about this and that. "I take it easy today, he says, as I ran a marathon last week and I have another one next Saturday"... Hem, sure... I think about my usual three weeks tapering and two weeks recovering. Veterans always humble me, I'll be happy if I'm half that fit at their age! 

Here is the beast!

The route gets wider as we reach a flat area. Some runners in front of us start cheering and pointing at the horizon. I see it now! The Broken Peak is raising in the distance and on his head, the bright TV antenna is overlooking the region, waiting for us. It seems so close and yet unreachable, lost in the vastness of the sky. Our road resumes its vertical course and we climbs along a narrow hiking path, bordered with dead trees. "It's the storm", answers my travel buddy to my silent question. "A few years ago, it hit the region pretty bad, leaving many trees to dies, still standing, like spectres in the fog." 

Don't go anywhere, I'm coming

I will discover later that one of the goal of the event is to replant 10 000 trees in the next 3 years. That's 3333 trees a year, which represents the yearly number of subscriptions (all categories together). Therefore, by running today we are all contributing with 1€, and in a few years, we will have a tree living and breathing thanks to us, that we could picture as ours (I want Cheeseman written on mine!). What would be a better gift than to offer a healthy and luxuriant forest to our children? :)

We need Nature - 10 000 trees for the Harz region

The route climbs even more but I still manage to run at slow pace. The colourful living trees disappear, leaving along our path a cemetery of hollow ones.  There is not a single cloud in the immensity of the blue sky around us. The instant is surreal, I feel like climbing the steps to an other dimension. "Wonderful... I gotta finish this  race, whatever happens!"
After a few turns, bushy pine trees finally bring back some colours to the landscape, as we reach a well deserved second aid station. Foood!

Stairway to heaven

11:00 / 14,5 km / 650 m - Stempelsbuche

Free buffet!

After refilling my bottle and gobbling some salty-butter bread, mint cookies, chocolate and of course a gulp of magic potion, I resume my journey. The route is gently going up, but nothing like this hardcore segment everyone has been telling me about. Barely after a few kilometres, we reach another supply point. Why so early? The answer is right in front of me, as I check the route weaving left. I realise that I'm 5 km away from the summit and we barely reached 700 m altitude until now. I'm facing a home straight to the top with 500 m D+ to climb. Let's get to work!

Are you kidding me?

With a 30° slope of hard-stone pavement, impossible to run very long. I slow down to a steady walk, head high, chest open, hands on the knees. My muscles, which kept quiet until now, start aching and complaining. But it's still a long way up. A daring mountain bike overtakes me, his owner pedalling like if his life depends on it, until finally giving up and getting on his feet to push it. The air gets purer, I'm filling up my burning lungs, trying to lower down my heartbeat. The pine trees bordering the path are getting scarce, as we reach new heights. 

Thinking about calling a cab...

11:30 / 17,5 km / 950 m - Kleiner Broken

Keep your smile for the top!

I'd like too thanks the kind soul who put an aid station mid way to the top! I'm munching on some biscuits, alternating forwards and backwards walks, to rest my muscles. Nothing painful but I'm afraid for my left foot, which never really liked climbing. After a few kilometres, we reach a sharp left turn. I take a look back at the astonishing view on the valley and the Eckertalsperre dam. The route flattens a bit and I resume trotting, but I feel it's no use, I don't have the proper training to run uphill such distances.

Reaching 1km above sea level

Another turn and we finally see it. The long TV antenna rising on top of the Broken is just above us, now so close. Interesting fact, it was actually the world very first TV antenna, installed in 1935. We cross some railways getting out of nowhere and I remember reading that an old steam train commutes from Wernigerode up to the peak and around. No-one told me we could take the train!! Running it is, then...

Almost there...

12:00 / 19,5 km / 1139 m - Broken

Well-deserved selfie

I reach the top of the Broken at noon, in exactly 3h. We bravely walk the few hundreds meters separating us from the plateau, at the foot of the imposing antenna. I resume running, not willing to look like a dying turtle on my summit picture! People are cheering at us and I finally take the time to look all around me. The sky is pure without any cloud and the horizon is stretching to the infinity. A quick calculation afterwards taught me that we could see up to 125 km around. For a very brief moment, I find myself breathless, enchanted by the striking view. I feel like Kilian Jornet at the top of the Everest, sitting on the world rooftop and ruling over the world. I enjoy a few minutes of sunbathing, deep breathing and relaxing the legs while I do all the conventional selfies next to the imposing granite stone marking the highest point of the mountain.

♪ Sittin' on top of the world ♫

I'm so glad we took the car

Can't beat the view!

As much as I would love staying at the top for some time, enjoy the view, maybe even a grilled bratwurst, I know I have to keep running. I still have more than half of the race to cover and the last 5k really cut into my energy reserves. I leave the summit, after taking a last look at the breathtaking view and the unreachable horizon. The stone and rocky path turns into a narrow concrete road snaking down around the peak. Suddenly I find myself running against a crowd of visitors and bikes heading up. It appears I am now on the main road leading to the top of the Broken. Everyone is cheering at us. I feel that this marathon really is a well-known annual event. After a sharp turn, I run into a nice aid station, concealed behind a little wooden house. It's about time, the sun is high and I'm running out of water! I stuff myself with butter bread and biscuits, chocolate, apples and refill the water tank.

That was cool, now let's go home!

12:30 / 23,5 km / 900 m - Glashüttenweg

After an improvised wee break between two friendly pine trees, I do a quick check-up on myself: 21 km done, same distance to cover. Until now, I ran at an easy pace and walked part of the way up, so my heart rate stats are looking good. I don't feel tired, not hungry or thirsty (you bet, with everything I'm eating!). I'm just a bit concerned about my left foot and my hill. Will they handle the second half after all this D+? Only one way to find out...

Resisting the urge to steal a horse or a segway

After following the main road for some time and chatting with fellow runners, we finally leave it for the usual hiking trails through the woods. I feel good, the weather is perfect, the route quiet, a peaceful wind is blowing and pine tree needles are raining gently all around us, changing the ground into a soft carpet. I catch up a grandpa half- running half-walking on the side of the trail. He's wearing a t-shirt "100th marathon". I can't hold a "Wow, respect!" He laughs: "That's anold tee-shirt! After that, I stopped keeping track, but this marathon would be around my 350th one!" Jaw-dropping, eyes wide open... As often, in spite of my youth and energy, I feel like a baby learning to walk.

Peaceful ride under the trees

13:00 / 28 km / 740 m - Trudenstein

Not enough climbing for today?

After a welcome aid-station, we run along ravines, bordered with high trees. I am following a fellow comrade, about ten meters behind him, when he suddenly disappears after a turn. I look around, puzzled, and catch him trotting towards some boulders and climbing onto a makeshift iron ladder. My thirst of adventure pushes me behind him and I follow his footsteps, ignoring my painful legs complaining about this sudden change of pace. I climb on the first ladder, then on a second and a third one, up to the top of the highest boulder. Goodness, what a view! We are still high in the mountains and just above the tree-line, which looks like moss covering the valley. "I gotta finish that race..." 

Speechless, again...

For 5th or 6th time since we started, I hear a loud distant vibration. I imagine a group of shepherds blowing into Alphorns, but my travel buddy points me towards the depths of the valley. A column of black charcoal smoke makes its way between the narrow trees. "It's the stream train connecting Wernigerode to the top of the Broken and the region around it. You should try it, it's a nice ride and a unique experience!" I keep the idea in a corner of my head for the next day, while we resume our journey.


13:30 / 32 km / 560 m - Bergwacht

My main concern as I was climbing on top of the Broken was the descent, and how fast the route would take us downhill. Like many trail runners, I don't like running down, as it is really demanding on the knees and ankles. Fortunately, or progression is gradual, alternating up and downs, with enough flat segments to rest. After passing an aid station, I get the first signals that my legs are tired. A little cramp seizes my left foot, reminding me old and unpleasant memories of my last injury. But it disappears immediately. I slow down the pace, as a reflex, and gather all my focus on my legs. I don't want to have to stop, I have to finish this race! 

Let's make it a 35k-marathon ok, I won't tell anyone!

I thereafter cover the remaining 10 km at a very easy pace, with this sword is Damocles above my foot. Which is not good, since my head loves to play real-pain or imaginary-pain? I know that it's a vicious circle, I try not to think about it too much and enjoy the landscape changing around me, as we go downhill towards the valley. Trees alternate from bright colourful leaves to dead branches haunting and casting worrisome shadows upon our route. I spot here and there some red little squares far ahead, the roofs of quiet houses. We are getting closer to Wernigerode, where we started this morning. After a last aid station, we follow the main path along a ravine. Runners overtake me, pushed by the thrill of the finish line approaching. I feel it too, but this one and only thought stick in my head, I gotta finish this race whatever it takes! That's why I refrain any excitement and keep my turtle pace.

Almost there

15:00 / 42,5 km / 280 m - Kuhbornteich and Finish

After a long descent, I end up in a large and empty clearing. I'm alone, not a single soul around. I wave at the two volunteers in the ambulance car and follow the last path diving under the narrow trees, almost forming a tunnel up to the finish line. I hear the speaker and the crowd greeting the finishers one by one. Finally, my last doubts evaporates. I am finishing this race!

Home-straight to the finish line

Yeah, please don't tell me I'm the last one ^^

I cross the line just a few seconds before 6:00. Medal around my neck, potato soup in one hand, a beer (without alcohol!) in the other, I walk barefoot up to a sunny patch of grass and I lie down there for a moment. I feel good. Sure, my legs are sore, feet a bit swollen but the rest could have covered another 10 or 20 km without a doubt. I guess this is due to my low pace (8'50'' average) and the fact that I ate quite a lot on the way, storing calories as fast as burning them. Maybe this is the key to long-distance running: take the time to refuel on the way. Today was definitely a new step on my journey to become an ultra-runner and explore new distances!

Om-nom-nom ♥

I stay a long moment like this, just enjoying the sweet caress of the sun upon my face, before heading to a nearby table to go berserk on my soup and my beer! People are celebrating around me, smiles on everyone's face, all behaving like if they had finished first. I hear that the honour goes back to a Thomas Kühlmann, who completed the race in 2h52min, which is like pure science-fiction! Time to leave for a long-coveted shower, after becoming one of the coolest certificate ever.

Thomas Kühlmann, Broken champion


Do not disturb...

If you ever come to visit Germany and if you are looking for an exotic race in the mountains, not too tough to give up before the summit but still hard enough to be proud of your accomplishment, then follow the road to the Harz National Park, when autumn is peeling off the first leaves from the trees. Spend the night in the picturesque village of Wernigerode, lost in the dawn of times. Take the steam train around the park and enjoy breathtaking landscapes. Or maybe visit the castel and immerse yourself in immemorial times. But be sure to be on the starting line of the Broken marathon, tame the beast, climb up to its summit and feel like you own this world, even if it's just for a few seconds. 

...In fact, isn't it what we are all looking for, when we cross the starting line?

Bib, certificate and medal, with the "We Need Nature" engraving

Photos and sources:

Special thanks:

To the whole team of the Harz-Gebirgslauf, especially Dietmar Ristau, for the kind invitation and the marketing material. See you next year :)