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Notes from a very small island

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23/05/2019
 

The Helgoland Marathon may have a rustic, romantic image, but with five laps, each including the infamous Düsenjäger climb, it’s a tough challenge. The weather alone is a force to be reckoned with: There’s always a stiff breeze blowing on this tiny German island in the North Sea. 


Düsenjäger (“jet fighter”) is the local nickname given to the path that soars up from the low-lying part of Helgoland to the high plateau. It’s not very long, but it is steep. Very steep. There is an elevator that carries people – mainly tourists – effortlessly from sea level to the top, and steps for the more energetic. But hardly anyone goes up the Düsenjäger, or Millstätter Weg, to give it its official, far more innocuous-sounding name. For 364 days of the year, it is rare to see anyone using this path. But on one day in May, all that changes – the day of the Helgoland Marathon (May 11 this year). The course takes runners straight up the Düsenjäger – not once, not twice, but five times in all.


The North Sea island of Helgoland (the English spelling is Heligoland) is Germany’s only island on the high seas. It’s small – just 4.2 square kilometers – and has a population of around 1,500. Truth to tell, it’s not really big enough for a marathon. Moreover, that surface area includes both parts of what is strictly speaking an archipelago – the main island of Helgoland and a smaller island called Düne, a beach resort one kilometer away. Once you subtract Düne and the sea-covered areas included in the total, you are left with just 1.2 square kilometers for the main island. And yet a marathon has been held here every year since 1998. Given the limited available network of roads and tracks, the participants have to run several laps to notch up the official marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers. As a former mayor of Helgoland once said, “Organizing a marathon on Helgoland is a bit like running the 100-meters on a beer mat.” But it can be done. One lap covers 8.4 kilometers, plus there’s an extra 195 meters at the start. The race involves tackling the infamous Düsenjäger fives times. This stretch may be only 200 meters long (or short), but it has a gradient of 40 percent. By way of comparison: The toughest stage in the 2018 Tour de France had a gradient of just 11 percent in places.

It’s a good thing the runners will be staying the night. They’ll be able to take a dip in the enticing blue sea straight after breakfast. Photo: Zastrow

 

But that’s the worst part of the race. Anyone who reaches the top – whether running, walking or crawling – is greeted by cheering crowds. And what follows is undoubtedly the most beautiful section of the course – the cliff-top path that leads to Helgoland’s landmark: Lange Anna, a slim, 50-meter-high sea stack. The plateau is the place to go for postcard impressions of the North Sea: views out over the water, green meadows swaying in the sea breeze, the lighthouse standing proud, and the countless sea birds that nest among the rocks. But be warned. Marathon runners arriving here in May do well not to expect typical May weather. It could be fine, but the opposite is equally possible: Solid cloud, pouring rain and gusting headwinds are all par for the course on Helgoland.

 

Even just travelling to the island and back for a marathon can be tricky because of the ferry connections. Anyone who takes part in the Helgoland Marathon stays on Helgoland – for at least one night. That means there’s time for a bit of sightseeing the following day, and it’s worth making the most of it. Lunch in one of the colorful lobster shacks by the harbor is a must, as is a trip to the shops, because there is duty-free shopping on Helgoland. The old World War II air-raid shelter is also worth a visit, and no one should leave without enjoying a sunset with wonderful views at Lange Anna or seeing rare birds like the northern gannet and guillemot on the red sandstone cliffs, and the seals basking on Düne’s sandy beaches.

 

What’s more, on the evening after the marathon, all 200 or so participants and any number of guests congregate at the Nordseehalle venue for an after-show party. This kind of thing would be unthinkable in Berlin, New York or Cape Town: When a race has tens of thousands of participants, it invariably remains impersonal. Not here. On Helgoland, the runners gather to reminisce about the race, swap anecdotes and make new friends and future plans. Anyone with any energy left can dance and sing along to the live music – or go out alone in the dark and run up the Düsenjäger one last time.