How the Berlin Marathon Works

By: Alison Cooper
Ethiopians Haile Gebrselassie (right) and Atsede Habtamu Besuye (left) pose after winning the 36th Berlin Marathon in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009.
AP Photo/Gero Breloer

If you're a veteran marathoner looking to set a personal best -- or a newbie seeking a flat, fast course for your first marathon -- the Berlin Marathon could be the race for you. It's the third-largest marathon in the world (after New York and London) -- and the fastest. With its level route through central Berlin, it has a reputation for producing stellar times and being extremely well-organized. Many experienced runners call it their favorite event in the world, and in 2009, it was named the Marathon of the Decade by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races. And just in case you need a little more incentive, you'll get a spectacular sightseeing tour of the historic city as you run (or skate or walk) the course.

The real Berlin Marathon is organized by SCC-Running, one of Berlin's largest sports clubs, and sponsored by real-hypermarkets (Germany's answer to Wal-Mart). In the inaugural event in 1974, spearheaded by a group of SC Charlottenburg runners, 286 participants raced through the Grunewald forest near Berlin. Humble beginnings, yes, but only three years later it produced its first world record when Christa Vahlensieck finished in 2:34:47. The marathon remained on the Grunewald course until it moved into the city in 1981 -- but the race was confined to West Berlin throughout the 1980s. In 1990, three days before Germany's reunification, 25,000 marathoners ran through Brandenburg Gate and into East Berlin for the first time.


The Berlin Marathon, held on the last weekend of September every year, has grown to include almost 40,000 runners -- it's now one of the World Marathon Majors, along with New York, Boston, Chicago and London. If you feel like taking a trip to Germany and running 26.2 miles while you're at it, we'll show you how on the next few pages.

Berlin Marathon Entry

The Berlin Marathon is definitely a big-name event, but you don't have to qualify to run it. It's a first-come, first-served process, and online and mail registration starts about nine months ahead of time, in December of the previous year. Registration lasts until about mid-July -- or until 40,000 runners have signed up. (The 2010 marathon filled up in April, the earliest date ever.) Notification is sent in mid-August, and the race is the last Sunday in September. The registration fee varies depending on when you enter, but here's the basic setup:

  • Before late February: €55 ($70)
  • March through late April: €75 ($95)
  • Late April through mid-July: €95 ($120)

And if you'd like to run for a charity, the official Berlin Marathon site makes it easy, featuring a list of almost 50 organizations -- all you have to do is send an e-mail to your selected charity and say you'd like to run for its cause.


The marathon is open to anyone 18 and older (in 2010, anyone born in or after 1992 was eligible). The wheelchair race starts at 8:35 a.m., and hand cyclists take off at 8:45. The main race starts around 9 a.m. (in 2010, it was 9:03), with runners leaving in three "blocks" -- every race number begins with a letter that corresponds to a block (and the first and second blocks are further broken down into groups):

  • First block: A through E (for runners with times under 3:30)
  • Second block: F and G (3:30 to 4:15)
  • Third block: H (4:15:01 and over, or no registered time)

There's a 6:15 time limit, which means that all stragglers have to clear the course at 3:15 p.m.

In 2009, 48,740 people from 121 countries took part in the various Berlin Marathon events (40,923 marathon runners, 7,612 inline skaters, 169 handcyclists and 36 wheelchair athletes). The year before, a record 35,035 runners made it across the finish line [source: Berlin Marathon]. For some reason, the Berlin event skews more male than U.S. marathons -- it's an 80/20 split as compared to 60/40 in the United States [source: Running USA].


Berlin Marathon Route

History buffs, beware: You might want to wear blinders for this race so you don't get distracted by all the amazing sightseeing along the loop route, which winds through 10 neighborhoods -- it's really an incredible way to see the city. The marathon starts and ends at the magnificent Brandenburg Gate, a former portal between East and West Berlin and the site of famous speeches by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"). The Reichstag (where the Third Reich convened and the modern German parliament meets) is also visible at the start, before the race heads down the Strasse des 17 Juni through the Tiergarten, a huge city park. Here are some of the other sites along the way:

  • Potsdamer Platz (public square that was also once a gate on the Berlin Wall)
  • Siegesäule (victory column for Germany's defeat of Prussia in 1870)
  • Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral)
  • Konzerthaus am Gendarmenmarkt (home of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra)
  • Bundeskanzleramt (the German chancellery)
  • Staatsoper Unter den Linden im Schillertheater (State Opera House)

There's definitely a party atmosphere around the Berlin Marathon. The festivities start on Thursday and Friday with the Berlin Vital Fair, where runners can pick up their race numbers and shirts, hang out in the Pasta Lounge or Massage Island, and check out the wares from almost 200 exhibitors. On Saturday morning, marathon participants have the option of taking part in the "Breakfast Run," a low-key 6-kilometer jog into the Olympic Stadium, where breakfast is served. Also on Saturday morning, there are 500- and 1,000-meter (.3 and .6-mile) "Bambini Runs" for kids 10 and under. Later in the afternoon, there's the inline skating marathon and the Mini-Marathon for older kids. The Mini-Marathon course comprises the last 4.2195 km (2.62 miles) of the marathon route -- in 2009, there were about 9,000 participants, many of whom ran with 10-member school teams in a hotly contested race in which the runners' times are totaled into a full marathon time (the 2009 winning team "finished" in 2:29:49).


For the main event on Sunday morning, about 60 to 70 bands -- along with more than a million spectators -- line the route. Runners can bring their own drinks and snacks and leave them to be distributed at the refreshment points, but the race organizers stress that actually finding your goodies can be nearly impossible. Refreshment points are located at the 5-, 9- and 12 km marks and then every 2.5 km (1.5 miles) thereafter. Starting at 25 km (15 miles), you can also get a massage every 5 km (3.6 miles) if you so desire (although that probably wouldn't do wonders for your finish time).

So, how much prize money are you in for if you win the race? Sure, it's a long shot, but we'll tell you on the next page, just in case.


Berlin Marathon Results

Six world records have been set at the Berlin Marathon since 1998 -- more than any other marathon. In 2001, Naoko Takahashi of Japan became the first woman to break the 2:20 barrier when she finished in 2:19:46. In 2008, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia set the world mark that's still standing as of this writing (2:03:59), breaking his own record from the 2007 event. There was much anticipation for Gebrselassie's performance in the 2009 Berlin Marathon, but he fell off pace late in the race and finished in 2:06:08. But don't be too disappointed for him: He still won the marathon for the fourth year in a row (making him the race's first four-peater) -- and broke the 30-kilometer world record along the way.

Three other runners -- Germany's Ingo Sensburg and Uta Pippig and Poland's Renata Kokowska -- have won the Berlin Marathon three times. Gunter Hallas, who won the inaugural marathon in 1974, still runs it every year.


The men's and women's winners each get $64,000 for their efforts, and the remainder of the $340,000 pot is divvied up among other top finishers [source: World Marathon Majors]. There are separate awards for the inline skating, wheelchair and handcycle events. The rest of the pack receives medals -- and the knowledge that they just ran 26.2 miles without collapsing, which is no small feat.

Think you have what it takes to run the Berlin Marathon? We have more information about the race -- and marathons in general -- on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Berlin Marathon 2010/11." (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  • Berlin Marathon.. (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  • "AIMS Names Berlin Marathon 'Marathon of the Decade.'" July 8, 2009. (Accessed Aug. 31. 2009)
  • "Marathon Records." (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  • "real,- Berlin Marathon 2009 Preview: Haile, Haile!" Sept. 8, 2009. (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  •"2010 Marathon, Half-Marathon and State of the Sport Reports." March 28, 2010. (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  • "Berlin Mini-Marathon Gives Kids the Run of the City." (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010)
  • World Marathon Majors. (Accessed Aug. 31, 2010