Running Fiesta

Writing and running in Austin, TX.

Running as a Way to See the World: Berlin

I think there’s a point in every expat experience where you make some sobering realizations:

  1. That Web site that said you could learn a new language in three months was lying.
  2. It’s not easy to build a social circle in a new place when you don’t speak said place’s language more-or-less fluently. (In other words, the fact that I can now understand my German teacher in German class does not mean I can now understand a drunk guy in a karaoke bar.)
  3. Unless you make a permanent move to your new country, you are – and always will be – a visitor.

It’s not a bad thing to be a visitor. It allows for some important cultural exchanges that are enriching to both the visitor and the visitees. For example, my German colleagues can teach me about their diet staple, Rotkohl (also known as Blaukraut), and I can teach them about my diet staple, Clif Bars.

Note: Clif Bars are not generally available in Europe. I am at this very moment sitting on an email from, wherein a very concerned customer service rep is trying to figure out why I couldn’t seem to pay for the 45 Clif Bars I ordered. In my defense, it can be extremely difficult to use a US credit card in a non-US country. 

Having accepted that yes, we are visitors in this country, Handsome J and I decided to make the most of it and fill our time with, well, visiting. The plan: Every other weekend, we will take a trip…somewhere.

The crimp in the plan: This is going to wreak havoc on my long runs.

But, we are after all living in Europe, and this is after all a situation that is not likely to happen again. I can’t justifiably say, “We can’t explore the world because it will interfere with my marathon training!” (Although being–like all committed runners!–rather selfish about my running, the thought did cross my mind.)

I pride myself on being a low-maintenance partner (which to me simply means recognizing when I’m being unreasonable), so I decided to make the best of both worlds. We would travel to Berlin AND I would get my long run in…by booking us a hotel less than a mile from Berlin’s best running location, the Tiergarten.

Now this wasn’t entirely a selfish move. The hotel was also right next to the Berlin Hauptbanhof (central train station), which is a real bonus when your train arrives at 11:45 pm. Besides, if you get lost in a foreign city, you’re much more likely to find your way back if you park yourself next to a major site that every local – and most of the visitors – know. So really, the “prime running location” aspect was just a bonus.

Posing in front of the Berlin Hauptbanhof. The building on the far left of the pic is our hotel.

So it was that Saturday morning found me trotting toward the river with no route in mind and no plan other than “get to the park and stay there until Garmin says you’ve gone at least 10 miles”. I had considered trying to plan a route, but the paths through the Tiergarten made me think it would be a bit tough to keep straight:

Google Maps image of Berlin Tiergarten

At first I did what I expected to do…I followed random paths chosen on the basis of how pretty they looked. If a sign pointed to an interesting landmark, I’d head that way. Reichstag? Check. Haus der Kulturen der Welt? Check. Brandenburger Tor? Check…although that one was sort of a mistake. (Roughly 40% of Berlin appears to be under construction at any given time, and I missed a turn because the sign I was looking for was hidden behind some temporary fencing.)

Reichstag as seen from the other side of the river.
But, from a running standpoint, the best landmark I found in the Tiergarten was a sign near the Siegessäule Berlin that said “Start” on one side and “Zeil” (goal) on the other. It was a MARKED RUNNING PATH!!! That’s right, in Germany, the land of minimal signage, I had found a trail with not one but two options just for runners — an 8K and a 5K. 
I was right around 2.5 miles when I found this remarkable site, so I decided that if I ran both paths, I would probably end up around 10 when I finished. 
And what a time I had with those 10 miles! Despite the excitement of being a new place, a run can feel loooooong when you don’t actually know where you’re going and you’re just trying to hit a number. However, add a few foot-tall wooden posts with numbers on them, and that same run becomes an adventure of hunting for the next turn and wondering where it will take you.
In Germany, they’ve realized that runners and bikers can successfully navigate 10-foot gaps between trees, and that you don’t actually need level every oak that happens to be growing in your path. 
And those turns took me to lots of interesting places. In addition to the aforementioned landmarks, I also saw a half-constructed, full-scale “Hollywood” sign, the Italian and Austrian Botschafts (embassies), assorted buildings of the Bundestag (federal government), 1940s-era green cars taking tourists on a “sites of the war” tour, multiple “Grillen verboten” signs, and some really odd-looking permanent metal boxes that smoked and had signs that said “not dangerous if smoking”.
And that is why — if you can avoid getting too hopelessly lost — running is one of the best ways to see a new city. Not only can you see major tourist fixtures at a much more leisurely pace than a tour bus allows, but you also can see all that stuff that isn’t “touristy” per se, but is interesting and different. Even if you’re not a runner, I highly recommend seizing any opportunity you get to take a walking tour of a new place. Somehow cruising around on a tour bus just doesn’t give you the same feel.
Plus, after all that exercise, you can enjoy the beer guilt-free!

Celebrating post-run with a Berliner Weisse, a wheat beer mixed with raspberry syrup. In Aachen,  our colleagues call these sorts of things “Madchen Getränke” (girly drinks).

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2011 by in Berlin, Germany, travel.
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