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Take the tube!



In what is a whole new take on tunnel vision, for marathon runners in Hamburg after years of renovation work there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. June 2 marks the return of the Elbtunnel Marathon, with runners completing 48 laps beneath one of Europe’s major waterways. 

Asked to describe their symptoms, people talk about headaches and feeling unsteady on their feet. But we’re not talking about the aftereffects of a night on the town, although Hamburg’s red-light district and the famous Reeperbahn are barely a stone’s throw from the Old Elbe Tunnel. Instead, these are the symptoms occasionally encountered by runners in the Elbtunnel Marathon in which the competitors actually run the whole race “underwater”. The course takes them over 48 anticlockwise laps through the two tubes of the tunnel, itself a historically significant piece of civil engineering located at the Landungsbrücken harbor terminal. At the deepest point, the runners are 21 meters beneath mean high water in the Elbe, one of Europe’s most important inland waterways. Fact is that here, at the heart of Hamburg harbor, the Old Elbe Tunnel crosses the river at a level that, depending on your constitution, can leave you feeling out of your depth.

Tunnel vision: The Elbe Tunnel links the Hamburg districts of St. Pauli and Steinwerder. Photo: Wittler


But such moderate discomfort is nothing compared to the conditions to which workers were subjected when the Elbe Tunnel was built more than a century ago. Exposed to constant temperatures of over 40°C and expected to work in a pressurized environment, many of the laborers were unable to cope. In only the first three months of construction activity more than 200 workers fell victim to decompression sickness, or “the bends”, as divers call it, in which bubbles form in the body when leaving a pressurized environment in an uncontrolled way. But never fear, this can’t happen today. It’s nice and cool in the tunnel and the air is not under any real pressure.


Today celebrated as a significant technical achievement of bygone days, back in 1911 the tunnel was officially opened with typically North German understatement by a single blast of a policeman’s whistle. As the first tunnel ever to be built underwater, it was a technical sensation and was to become one of Hamburg’s most important road links, connecting the districts of St. Pauli in the north and Steinwerder in the south. The tunnel accommodated pedestrians, cyclists and cars, with the cars not driving in and out on ramps but being hoisted down and up again by huge elevators at either end. In 1923, more than 19 million people used the tunnel to cross the river. Every change of shift at the companies based in the harbor led to long queues at the head of the tunnel. In the course of the 1970s − and particularly when the new Elbe Tunnel carrying the A7 autobahn opened in 1974 − the Old Elbe Tunnel gradually fell into disuse. Today it may be no more than a popular tourist attraction, but even in this role it attracts some 800,000 visitors a year to admire its time-honored tubes. Over the years, two World Wars, numerous dredging operations to deepen the Elbe and more than a century of Hamburg’s history left their traces in the tunnel. Eventually, cracks in the walls, contaminated floors and broken elevators meant the time had come for extensive renovation measures.

Dressed for the occasion, workmen and officials pose for the camera. The Elbe Tunnel opened for pedestrians and cyclists in September 1911. In November they were joined by carriages − with and without horses. Photo: Hamburg Port Authority


As a result, what in the year 2000 was the first ever marathon to be run entirely underground, came to a complete halt in 2009. Both tubes of the Old Elbe

Tunnel were up for renovation, Initially the tab was supposed to come to EUR 16 million and both tubes were supposed to be restored to their former glory by 2011. But 2011 came and went, and the costs soared to EUR 60 million – for just one tube. For the people of Hamburg who witnessed similar developments with their Elbphilharmonie concert hall, this was familiar ground. Ultimately, the renovation of one tube took as long as the original construction of the Old Elbe Tunnel, begun in 1907 and completed in 1911.


So for the organizers of the Elbtunnel Marathon, it was a long time before they saw light at the end of the tunnel. Now though, the celebrations to mark the reopening of the West tube in April 2019 are at hand. At the end of May a full orchestra of some 140 musicians will play a specially composed Tunnel Symphony. But the next sporting highlight on the calendar will doubtless be the revived Elbtunnel Marathon which is to be staged on June 2. The 280 runners will be accompanied by a selection of tunnel-dwelling creatures, including crabs, porpoises, eels and seals. But there’s no cause for concern – they are only decorations on some of the 400,000 or so tiles that line the walls of the tunnel. But if you didn’t get one of the coveted starting numbers and still feel like some exercise in the Old Elbe Tunnel, it’s open to pedestrians free of charge all year round – and the 132 steps down and back are sure to set your pulse racing.


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