Orlando Runners Unite in Berlin 2019

By Michael Prince, Local Runner and Orlando Runners Club Member 

Preface:  When I originally wrote this article, it was before any of the current events that the world has been facing since mid-March 2020 such as COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, and the spiderweb of subsequent aftermath from both events.  However, I believe that it still has the same value as before, and possibly now even more. 

Unity. With some of the problems that we face today, it’s a word that we may long for just a little more than we have in the past.  From our own Civil War, to political tensions of today, it can be easy focus on our differences rather than that which we share.  But running and sport in general unites us in an amazing way. However, for the city of Berlin, the idea of unification has a much deeper and more profound meaning. This fall, a small group of Orlando runners were able to experience that first-hand, traveling to Germany for the forty-sixth running of BMW Berlin Marathon.  

Shortly after the conclusion of World War II in 1945 and as a consequence, Germany was bisected in two, East and West, and further so the city of Berlin. Divided into four sectors, American, British, and French in the west, and Soviet in the east, Berlin stood like an island in communist East Germany. Then almost overnight in the summer of 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, forming a physical barrier between East and West Berlin, and surrounding the entire city. Families were torn apart in an instant, and lives were changed forever. The wall stood for nearly thirty years, before on the fateful day of November 9th, 1989, this symbol of confinement and oppression came crashing down. Some of us are old enough to remember this moment.  Some far too young. I was still very young at the time myself, but it is one of the pivotal world events still in my memory, even if at the time I admit that I absolutely couldn’t fully appreciate the gravitas that this moment had.  

This fall, within weeks of the thirtieth anniversary of this moment, a small group of Orlando runners came together in the city to run the Berlin Marathon.  For all of us, this was a memorable and truly life-changing experience. I am continually amazed at the unifying power that running can bring amongst athletes of all nations. No matter our ethnicities, nations we call home, religious or political differences, or socioeconomic situations, during a race we are suddenly all friends.  Part of the same club.  Family.  Speaking of family, many of our group from Orlando found our own personal connections even beyond the friends who had traveled with us, in our family names; Fischer, Schulz, Albig, and my own great-grandfather’s name, Loesch, just to name a few.  In the Berlin Marathon’s earliest days beginning in 1974, the race was run exclusively in the West, and primarily near the Grunewald (big forest) by only two hundred forty-four runners.  In 1981, the race was given permission to run through the heart of the city’s streets, but was still trapped in the western sectors. Then on September 30th, 1990, for the very first time, the marathon extended through the West and the former East, symbolically passing through the Brandenburg Gate.  Passing through the Gate this year in the rain, it was impossible to not think of those brave former East Germans and the conditions that they faced.  Many risked their lives through truly unimaginable and extraordinary means trying to cross the very line that the Gate was situated on.  And some never made it. The Gate itself was sandwiched in a no-man’s-land, still badly scarred by the wounds of World War II, with armed guards and any number of deadly defenses. Less than thirty years later people of many nations ran across this line, free from harm, with only meters to go to the finish line in a celebration of athleticism, achievement and togetherness. This is some of the best of what running can do.  It levels the playing field of all of our differences. 

Just one day before the marathon, several of us also participated in the Generali Breakfast Run, a free warmup run of sorts for all marathon participants, that celebrates athletes of all nations.  Only around 5K in length, moving at a very slow pace led by volunteers and a car equipped with speakers playing music, the run encouraged participants to show their national pride through flags and other means. It symbolically finished inside of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympic games, with a lap around its track and a final push up the stairs on its west end. These same stairs are where for the first time in the modern games, a runner carrying the Olympic torch ascended to the top to light the cauldron opening the competition. But for those who remember history, the 1936 games produced a much more powerful message of inclusion and equality.  It was at these games that African American track and field athlete Jesse Owens defied then Nazi Germany, not only participating through racial epithets and mistreatment, but winning a record four gold medals, proving to the world that no one people is above any other. 

The Berlin Marathon is one of the most wonderful examples of the unifying power of running, set on a world’s stage. We all had our own incredible and separate experiences in Berlin this year, but we found ourselves together there, thousands of miles from home to run nonetheless. But to see some of these same unifying qualities, we need only look in our own back yard here in Orlando. We see these every year with our great Track Shack Running Series races, as well as at the OUC Half Marathon in December.  Each year at OUC, we have an enthusiastic group of runners from our sister city of Urayasu, Japan, who join us on the streets of downtown Orlando. While some cannot speak English, running is the common language that we share. So to those running this December, those volunteering, or those simply spectating, extend a smile, a round of applause, or say “Ohayo” (pronounced like “Ohio” and shorthand in Japanese for “Good morning”) to our Japanese guests and show that we are all one when we run.  

Interesting YouTube Links:

Jesse Owens’ story at the 1936 Olympic Games:

Condensed 10-minute highlight of the 2019 Berlin Marathon:

3D rendering of the Berlin Marathon course:

OUC Half Marathon Promo:

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