A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Monday, 12 October 2009

Munich or Helsinki: A Comparison of Marathons

With a bit of a bad conscience, I went for Block A yesterday. Block A was for runners with a goal time of below 3:45, Block B for the rest. My personal record was 3:52:20 and my target time that I had entered into the Munich Marathon website was 3:55. Thanks to perfect weather, less drinking and a relaxed running attitude, I fulfilled my "promise" to my fellow runners and finished at 3:43:42.

The topic of the blog entry isn't PRs but a comparison between my last two marathon runs: Helsinki 15 August 2009 and Munich 11 October 2009. Which city was more fun? Which run is better organised? What makes the atmosphere different?

Let's start with the objective facts.

1. Tradition: The marathons are more or less equally old, Helsinki a bit older. This year saw the 29th Helsinki City Marathon and the 24th Munich Marathon. Hence, both will have celebrations in 2010.

2. Size: The marathon runs are about equally popular, Munich slightly bigger. The press releases talk about 6472 (Munich) and 6041 (Helsinki) starters.

3. Elite: Helsinki had the clearly faster winner this year, with 2:22:32 over five minutes faster than Munich (2:28:11). Neither Munich nor Helsinki had any bigger rush of Kenyans this year.

4. International flair: Munich had participants from 61 countries, Helsinki from 46.

5. Finisher: Both races saw the ratio of finishers at slightly above 80%. In Munich 5397 of 6472 registered reached the finish line (83,4%), proportionally a bit more than in Helsinki (4939 of 6041 makes 81,8%).

6. Pace: The Munich runners clearly have much higher ambitions or at least a faster pace than those in Helsinki. In Munich, I finished at 1956th place (the 1811th male, with 145 ladies finishing before me). This means that 36 % were faster than me. With an 8 minutes slower time, I had just 25 % before me in Helsinki (finisher 1228 of 4939).

Let's now proceed to the more subjective perceptions.

7. Start: Munich is separated into two blocks, A for the faster ones, B for the slower ones. It appears as if the participants indulge in more wishful thinking in Munich than in Helsinki, when estimating their finishing time. In Helsinki I stood behind the pacemakers for 3:45 (in Finland we call them hares), and in only 35 seconds, I had passed the starting line. In Munich I was (with a bad conscience, as I already confessed) next to the 3:30 hares, yet got past the starting line only after 1 minute 31 seconds. To a large degree, this is due to point 6 above, i.e. faster runners in Munich.

8. Weather: Perfect in both cities. Not too hot, not too cold. Luckily, it was cloudy in Helsinki (as it would otherwise have been too hot in August) and sunny in Munich (as it would otherwise have been too cold in October).

9. Olympics: Helsinki 1952, Munich 1972. Hence both cities can offer the opportunity to finish at an Olympic stadium. This shouldn't be underestimated. The feeling is fantastic! I felt the difference clearly in Helsinki this year, as the Olympic stadium was closed for repairs.

10. Route: Both are great. In both cities, you can see the sights of the inner city; even if I'm patriotic, I have to confess that Munich is the winner on this account. In both cities, you run through nature; as I like water, Helsinki is the clear winner here, in spite of Europe's biggest inner-city park, Englischer Garten, in Munich. In Helsinki you see the elite runners at a later point in time and hence better, which is great. In Munich, the route is flatter -- about at km. 38 one runs into a bit of uphill in Helsinki (Tilkka), which leads many (including myself) to swap running for walking.

11. Music: Munich is the uncontested winner. Lots more music, hence also better atmosphere. The run through the Big Marathon Gate in the Olympic stadium is emotionally unbeatable, largely due to the music.

12. Transport: Helsinki was easier on local transport, at least for me. Public transport in Munich is generally near perfect, but the distances from the venue to trams or U-Bahn seem large especially after the run. Helsinki feels more intimate.

13. Provision: Both are very good. Munich still is the undisputed winner, because of the Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen. As a non-German, it's hard to imagine, but between km 37 and 38, not just water, bananas and energy drinks are on offer, but beer! Sure, alcohol free, but still. My stomach being very sensitive during long runs, I had my doubts in advance. Still, the beer tasted great and didn't cause any issues. Felt good!

14. Chip return: Helsinki is the clear winner. The chips are returned immediately after the goal. In Munich, you have to walk for what easily feels like another five km on tired legs, to return the chip somewhere far, far away. This was for me the single biggest disadvantage for Munich.

15. Showers and sauna: Helsinki is the winner. Both races offer showers in an Olympic swimming stadium. Due to cultural differences, this automatically includes a sauna visit in Finland. And what an atmosphere in the sauna! Satisfied faces, comparison of finishing times, encouragement. Pure joy in the chock full saunas. In Munich, I also went for the sauna (at an extra cost of 12,80 €). What a contrast! A place filled with silence. A majority of non-runners. Perfect for regeneration, but not necessarily as part of the marathon experience.

16. Gifts: Munich is the winner. Directly after the finish, you don't only get a medal (like in Helsinki), but you get your name and finishing time engraved on the medal. Not bad. Still, that's nowhere near the Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen as an unforgettable memory.

17. Finally: The time. If I'd only focus on the finishing time, the winner would be Munich, by 8 minutes 20 seconds. I hadn't trained any more, and the external conditions were similar. I believe the trick was drinking less. In Munich, I didn't feel sick at the end, but could just be happy about the whole marathon experience.

For me, as an avowed Runnist, it isn't about the time. It's about enjoying the run. And the fun was equally big in both Helsinki and Munich. Both races are worth a trip!