Marathoning the Rotterdam

“I came here six weeks ago and caught up with the people of Rotterdam and saw the track. I promised them that I would win, so, it is good to win. It is good to win and to get a good time.” Eliud Kipchoge in an interview with Losse Veter.

The Rotterdam Marathon of 13 April, 2014, was sold out; with some 25,000 taking part in the 10km and (full) marathon events. This was on a day in which major marathons were also held in London and Vienna. Wilson Kipsang won London in  a time of 2:04.24. Getu Feleke won in Vienna in a time of 2:05.41. Rotterdam may not have the reputation or international pull of cities such as London, New York and Paris, but as a marathon-city it has a fine reputation. The marathon was the site of many world records between 1985 and 1998. The course record for men is 2:04.27 and for women 2:18.58. In this year’s race, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya won in a time of 2:05.00. He was one minute ahead of his compatriot Bernard Koech. In the women’s race, Abebech Afework, Ethiopia, won in a time of 2:27.50 ahead of her compatriot 2:30.23.

Kipchoge said, “It was windy between the 25km and 35km mark, that was when it got tough.” Even the champions have reasons for not setting a better time.

The dominance of East Africans at the elite level is due to a range of factors and is hardly a matter of race or ethnicity, but more so of culture, training, diet. Sporting dominance by specific nations or members of particular ethnic groups emerges within changing sporting and social conditions. To put achievement down to a matter of race is also a belittling of the discipline, training and efforts of the athlete involved. While the elite groups of major city marathons are seemingly over-represented by Kenyans and Ethiopians, the majority of marathon runners – those who range from poor to proficient amateurs – appear overwhelmingly white and middle class. This time consuming sport affords those with disposable time and income the ability to train in a consistent and disciplined manner.

“Actually, they were the ones pushing me,” Kipchoge says of the dense crowd along the Coolsingel. The crowd was dense at several points along the 42km route. Rotterdamers were having picnics, many had brought their children, many had their dogs. Some had set up tables and chairs. At times, these runners may have had a sense of what it would be to take part in the Tour de France with the ongoing persistent support from crowds on the sides of roads. Many in the crowd had the regional flags from throughout The Netherlands; a few had flags from representing other nations. There were Turkish flags, Union Jacks and Finish flags. The marathon’s website includes a feature in which runners could submit information about where they come from, their previous experience in marathon running. This function also allows runners to provide a sentence which can be shouted by the crowd to show their support.

Demortiere Regis of France gave the statement of, “enjoy the run, have fun, show your solidarity with other runners. This sport brings us together, allows us to travel and meet people from throughout the world.” Paulo de Moraes Barros of Brazil makes a curious analogy, “running the Rotterdam marathon is like travelling first class. You want to do it every year.” And Rene Roux of Canada states his enthusiasm, as follows: “running the Rotterdam marathon will be a fantastic experience. Enjoy the journey, fans and the electric atmosphere of the city.” He also states that he chose the course because it is a flat track allowing for fast times and that it is one of the world’s major marathons.

City-based marathon events provide a great opportunity for a mass audience: and thus multi-national companies are largely the sponsors behind these major events. ABN Amro sponsored the Rotterdam Marathon, The Marathon de Paris was the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris, the London marathon was the Virgin Money London Marathon. Marathon websites often have the sponsor’s name as part of the domain name. Indeed, many of the runners themselves make up the workforce of these major players in global capitalism. A sub-category of the marathons is targeted directly at runners who take part in the ‘business runs’. This is complemented by the many acts of philanthropy and charity that form a part of the increasingly globalised practice of marathon running. Runners often justify their acts of extreme running (i.e. running across countries carrying a fridge) in the name of raising funds for cancer research. City marathons often nominate a specific charity. Perhaps all the time long-distance running training takes up makes it feel like a particularly selfish, or at least self-oriented (and lonely) pursuit. And thus runners often times need to justify their running in terms of either self-improvement, as an act of philosophy,  or for doing it for someone or something else. The act of running becomes an instrumental pursuit: doing it for something else rather than its own inherent values.

The course was lined not only with tens of thousands of spectators, but, with also some thirty different music stations. These ranged from groups of African percussion, sixties rock, DJs playing pop hits, brass bands, ska. The presence of such bands not only gives the runners something else to think about and enjoy during the race, but, provides entertainment for the crowds as well as an opportunity for the local musicians to strut their stuff to a probably appreciative audience. The sheer number of bands and DJs limits the amount of dead and quiet time that runners experience along the route. For the rank and file whose running times go well above four hours, that allows for a lot of thinking and quiet time. The music is hardly for the elite who know how to concentrate for 42km; it’s for those who do it for the hell of it or for some kind of personal milestone in the trajectory of their running training.

The day was windy and a little overcast at times. Prior to the race, runners donned the dark green ABN Amro plastic bags to keep warm. Runners ate their bananas, drank their energy drinks and sucked on their packets of gels while waiting in their starting blocks determined by their target finish times. Again, for the amateur demographer, the race seemed to be an overwhelmingly male affair. There were a few women: gaunt and wearing little. Their small frames were in contrast to the greater variation of men – many a little on the heavy side, even more looking like they still could have dropped a couple of kilograms. Many had grey hair and assumed the deportment of marathon regulars.

“Now I feel like a marathoner. Back in Hamburg I was still learning. Now, I know what to do. I can call myself a marathoner”. So said Eliud Kipchoge in his interview with Losse Veter. A humble man indeed: after a few marathons and a couple of wins and a time of 2:05.00 he is willing to acknowledge himself as a ‘marathoner’. His modesty stands in contrast to the amateur and self-referential heroicism of the lay-marathon runners who burden friends and family with endless tales of training and preparation. For the family of these long-distance runners, it’s also a relief it’s over. Marathoning appears as an individual sport, but it is impossible to enjoy without the support of family, coaches, training partners, pace-makers and, for perhaps a couple of times a year, a huge, appreciative and generous crowd.


  1. Skip of Skipton says

    The Rotterdam Marathon was established to be a ‘World Record” course. Flat as a tack with tail-winds up some sections and large buildings blocking head-winds in other parts. Deek won it too, I reckon.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Skip was trying to remember what was familiar re Rotterdam marathon yep deek won in 83

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Thanks Andy, you really took us there with this detailed account of the event. I love the sense of engagement that a mass of spectators provide in city marathons, and you have conveyed this characteristic quite powerfully with your account.
    Good get Skip and Malcolm. I needed to refresh my memory by checking; 1983 Rotterdam was very gratifying to Australian nationalists. It had been billed as a match race between Deek and Alberto Salazar, the dominant US marathoner at the time. Rob first, Salazar fifth, two minutes adrift, established the Aussie as the leading contender, which was confirmed by his victory in the event at the inaugural World Athletics Champs, a few months later.

  4. Mick Jeffrey says

    Perhaps i will sample the course one day. The fact that it was on the same time as London is a real Alexander (downer). Always pleasantly surprised by the number of locals lining the route on any run, not just marathons but also events like City2Surf.

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