In the German province Schleswig-Holstein, there is a 96,6km-long route connecting the Nordsee and Ostsee. Since 15 years, it has been a tradition for thousands of people to run this route together in June. They call it the Run between the Seas (German: “Lauf zwischen den Meeren”).
A lot of things happen in the body when we run. The heart must tirelessly pump blood to muscles. The lungs must tirelessly pump oxygen into the bloodstream and filter out carbon dioxide. The quads, the hamstrings, the calves, all of them must constantly contract and stretch. The joints must glide smoothly. Above all, the brain must be working hard.
The Run between the Seas begins on the northern coast in a small town called Husum. From there, the route stretches itself towards the west. The nice thing about this run lies in its communal feeling. The goal is not to complete the run alone. Participants must run in teams. The 96,6km total distance is broken down into 10 courses.
Running is a dividing topic. Some love to run. Some detest running. I used to be in the latter group.
Then one day, I decided to switch to the other side. I wish that I could describe my experience with running like that. Ever since puberty and having to confront rapid weight gain, I started speed walking upon recommendation of a personal trainer. Then I started running and speed walking in short intervals. This method is called HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and it was promoted by a celebrity trainer that I religiously looked up to during my insecure years. It never gave me satisfaction, the activity of running.
At the Run between the Seas, the first runner will start at 9 am with the mission to complete an 11,5km course. She will run through the streets of Husum towards Ipernstedt, then Wittbek. All are rather small and unknown towns. It’s an important start, nevertheless, for it will set the tone for the team. Some might choose a relaxed tempo and some might give full gas. Teams of seasoned runners will set out to finish in the shortest time. Teams of amateur runners will set out to at least finish the run.
The first-ever experience with running is pivotal to the further process. My first time was purely instinctive, and I ran with full force. What is running, after all? The definition is less important than the associations. Running is a form of self-defence. To run is to mobilize yourself from A to B within a considerably short time in comparison to walking, which is the standard means of transport. Since when did running became a sport, and not merely a flight instinct?
The run continues from Wittbek to Hollingstedt, a 10,4km course with vast changes in escalation. Running uphill and downhill, through the forest, through farms and fields, and at times, alongside a frequented highway, the second runner will have to face the reality of running. In this sport, the first step is just the second hardest.
The truth is, it takes motivation to go on a run, but motivation will run out the minute the body realizes how overworked its organs are. The first 10 minutes of a run make up for the entire course. Set a tempo, regulate breathing, settle into the mood, all of these need to be done as quickly as possible. Of course, I didn’t know this when I started running. To be frank, it was simply about running as fast as I could. No wonder why I failed so miserably. Maybe you had experienced it too, the defeated feeling when it seemed like you couldn’t win over the treadmill.
The third course is a laid-back 11,1km route from Hollingstedt to Dannewerk. A refreshing change of scenery. Runners will pass through peaceful quiet fields. Towards the end of the course, they can also take a break to visit the oldest brick factory in Northern Europe. The run is yet to be over, but so far, the first three runners have conquered the hectic start and settled into a rhythm. The fourth runner will join their steps in Dannewerk and from there, they will complete a 9,8km course to Jagel. It’s pretty much the same scenery with the exception for a 3km sprint through a normally off-limit military airfield.
At one point, I decided to quit the treadmill. I have always felt so inferior in front of a machine that will always run faster than me. Come as no surprise, the treadmill was historically a punishment instrument for prison inmates. To run on the treadmill is literally to burn energy and make an effort to stay in the same place. Turning my back to the treadmill, I was hoping that running outdoor would be much easier and refreshing. Refreshing yes, easier no.
The courses seem to be getting shorter, indeed it feels like in a blink, we will be half-way there. The fifth runner takes over the torch in Jagel to continue an 8,9km course to Fahrdorf. Keep your cool friends, for it is no easy ride. Despite the short distance, the course promises running alongside and crossing big highways. If the fourth runner has had her head in the cloud, the fifth runner must have been a realist here.
Running outdoors became a recreational sport when a book promoted jogging as a health measure and capitalist companies hopped right on board to sell more shoes and gears. Luckily, I didn’t fall into the trap of attention-grabbing neon spandex. I started jogging in whatever comfortable and socially acceptable clothes that I had, in order to have a first taste of running outdoors. It feels completely different to run on a steadily moving band and to move your ass on the hard ground. On the treadmill, I ran because the band beneath me was moving. On the ground, I can only run when I move. The difference may be subtle for an outsider. To me, it was everything.
The sixth course will fly right by, for it will be the shortest route with 8,2km between Fahrdorf and Fleckeby. The upside is that it will be a beautiful run in nature. The downside is the timing, the runner will probably have to withstand midday heat on a hopefully but condemningly hot day in June. The end is near.
The revelation of running outdoors was monumental for me personally. Finally, I understood that running is much less about strength than it is about willpower. After a while, the body will take the cue and the legs will swing back and forth almost automously, as long as the mind is focused. Running outdoors requires so much concentration, probably because I am still a beginner. I had to learn it the hard way though, for a long time, I was sprinting 1-2km then gave up because my mind wandered off and I suddenly found my heart racing through the ceiling, threatening to fail.
The seventh course might be the most underestimated of it all. It’s a humble 9,3km long route from Fleckeby to Gammelby. The catch: running on sand. This is when you will realize the beautiful concept of running as a team. Most success stories happen right after the moment someone was about to give up. The seventh course is the testing point. If I were a lone runner, here would be the exact part where I hung up the white flag. Luckily, the seventh runner may have been waiting almost a whole day for her chance to shine. She’s prepped and she will conquer.
Right before I decided to give up running altogether, I came across Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, the writer’s journal about his own experience with running and how it impacted his life. I have loved Murakami for his other works and I never would have imagined him as anyone else other than a writer. The contradiction between such a sedentary activity like writing and a hyperactive one like running seemed absurd at first, but through Murakami’s revelation, they share pretty much the same philosophy. Both are discipline practices.
It will just go up from here, the eighth runner knows it, as she starts on her 10,4km course from Gammelby to Loose. She will have to take more turns than her preceding fellows, and that’s fine for her. Most will have nothing to say about this course, except that it’s just two steps away from the finish line. I think that’s impressing enough. By the time the eighth runner reached Loose, the whole team would already have 79,6km behind them.
Gradually, the body will get used to running. And with running, I am referring to the real activity, that is to run outside. Towards the end of the run, when the lungs have kind of figured out how to cope, the calves will slowly begin their strike. Somehow, the legs will feel much heavier. With each step, the feet can’t lift much higher like before. What now? The runner might as herself. She could have stopped right then. After all, she has left a rather significant distance behind and she deserves to call it a day. A runner with a growth mindset should realize that the real run is just about to start. The last kilometres usually take more effort than the collective effort it took for their previous kilometres.
The ninth runner takes charge from Loose, from where an 8,4km course towards Waabs awaits her. Here, she will run on a rather camouflaged bike route, where trees and bushes prevent it from being seen by most. The route promises beautiful and varied scenery, but the ninth runner can’t promise that she will enjoy it, because she set out with another goal in mind. 88km completed.
Running is a very personal activity, and most of the process happens internally. On the outside, people in spandex who pass each other in parks look almost identical. On the contrary, each person is on a very different journey. That is the beauty and at the same time the curse of running. Each finished run is an utterly rewarding experience, which can only radiate as far as a sweaty, all smiles face.
With the last 8,6km course from Waabs to Damp, the tenth and last runner will bring home the victory of her team. Together, they will have run between the seas. Pure human flesh and blood and sweat and all that have proved what is possible. Sure, it might take a fraction of the time to go by car, or even by bike, but what is more glorious than achieving a seemingly overwhelming goal by utilizing what most of us lucky and healthy people were born with and do it together. Without the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth or the tenth runner, it wouldn’t have been possible at all. Maybe it will be possible if one or more runners compensate for the absence of others, but then it will be proven again that it wouldn’t have been possible without the first, the second, the third,… You know the drill.
Running is about embracing endings too. All the highs are followed by the lows and vice versa. It is the polarities of life that one will and must learn as first a human, then as a runner. There will be bad runs which enhance the great runs. There will be rough starts which make the finish line even more worthwhile. There will be injuries, and there will be rehabilitative training that makes one surrender in awe and gratefulness for the ability to simply walk, much less to run again.
I never mentioned the intention behind running. I think it’s not necessary. As long as your intention keeps you running consistently, as long as you don’t beat yourself up for failing to meet your goals, as long as you care more about the run than whatever that comes afterwards, you’re good to go. Happy running.
Paying homage to the 15th annual Run Between the Seas 2020 (German: “Lauf zwischen den Meeren”), for which I have been diligently training. It has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. A legitimate, but at the same time tragic reason nonetheless.
Sources used in this post:
1) Lauf zwischen den Meeren Homepage
2) The John Hopkins Newsletter, 2017. The long and winding history of sport and recreational running (online). Available at: https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2017/10/the-long-and-winding-history-of-sport-and-recreational-running/ (Accessed: 16 April 2020)