Wednesday, October 13, 2010

American vs German Races

I started running and racing in San Diego and kept up with it since being in Germany. People have asked me if I prefer races in the States or in Germany. It's hard to say where I prefer to race because my overall experience in both countries has been good. Organizers in both countries do a great job in creating a good race day. Today's post will be about the things I like best in each country.

What I Like About American Races:

1. Flexibility. Americans are more flexible when it comes to having to adjust water points or courses based on conditions. A good example was when I ran the 1992 America's Finest City Half-Marathon in San Diego. The weather was unseasonably hot and humid. The organizers added four more water points to the original four. I've also been in on-base races where the original course was altered due to excessive mud or ice.

2. Porta-Potties. Americans are great about putting Porta-Potties along the course of a long race. Germans haven't quite caught on to doing that. Men have the physiological advantage of being able to simply turn their backs to the course and "take care of business" anywhere. We women either need a Porta-Potty or bushes. Since bushes aren't always available, Porta-Potties are nice to have. I personally never used a Porta-Potty during a race, but it's good to know that one is there if I need it.

3. Races are for Everyone. In the States, you don't have to be a serious runner to participate in a race. A runner can enter a race just for the accomplishment of finishing. Until recently, there was a "serious and fast runners only" mentality in Germany, which discouraged slower runners. In the States "relaxed runners" and walkers are welcome. In races where there is a time limit, walkers and slower runners have an earlier starting time. Opening races to everyone is a great way to encourage people to get off the couch and move.

4. Swag. The last time I raced in the States was in 2004, before the economy went downhill, so things may have changed. But in just about every race I did in San Diego, I got a good-sized bag full of free samples, a t-shirt, and discount coupons. There were vendors at the finish line handing out free Power Bars and sports drink samples. A lot of races also had prize drawings. I won prizes in drawings twice: hockey tickets and dinner for two at a fancy restaurant.

What I Like About German Races:

1. Kilometers. Because Germany uses the metric system, courses are measured in kilometers instead of miles. Maybe I've been here too long, but I prefer kilometer markers. In the late stages of a long race, when I'm feeling tired, I know that it's not so far to the next marker. When I race in the States, I have to remind myself that the course is marked in miles so that I don't feel like I'm super slow. An 8-minute mile is much faster than an 8-minute kilometer.

2. Small Local Races. When I lived in Parsberg, there were a lot of small local races in my area. The people who organized them were very friendly and welcoming to all runners. They made each runner almost feel like a member of the family. In many small races, each runner's name is announced as he crosses the finish line. It makes the race experience more personal. Some small races also had the best prize giveaways. The Velburg Easter Run (near Parsberg) and the Eibsee Run in the Garmisch area are known for their prize drawings. One year in Velburg I won a large chocolate Easter bunny. At Eibsee two years ago I got warm mittens and a calendar. Small races also have very inexpensive entry fees.

3. Free Public Transportation. In big city races the public transportation is free for the runners. Because parking is hard to find in large cities, and is often limited at a race start or finish, people are encouraged to use public transportation. Whenever I race in Munich, I park at a park-and-ride on the south side of the city and take the subway to the start. The trains run every few minutes and are clean and efficient. When I ran the Berlin Marathon in 1994, I also took the subway to the start area.

4. Odd Distances. In big, organized races a course is set to fit the race distance. A 10K race will be 10 kilometers, a marathon 42.2, etc. But the little local races are fun because the organizers plot out a course, then measure the distance. The course is often a scenic trail in the woods. If the trail is 8.7 kilometers, then that's the race distance. To me it's fun to run a different distance than the standard 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon. The Eibsee Run is a surprise because the starting point changes slightly from year to year. The advertised distance is 12.2 kilometers, but it varies a little because of the where the organizers decided to put the starting line.

In both Germany and the States, the organizers and volunteers deserve a big "thank you" for doing a great job and for making each race day a memorable experience.

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