The Quest for the Two Hour Marathon comes to Vienna

And the city’s most popular running spot has had a facelift.

To a Scot like me, who would happily batter and deep fry any foodstuff that came her way and keeps fit by wrestling umbrellas in the wind, the Austrians are a nation of serious exercisers.

They like to hike and are blessed with some beautiful places to do it.

They’re keen Nordic walkers and use the poles as a stretching aid before and after their workout.

Every other park seems to host a Sunday morning yoga class.

Even in the middle of Vienna, there are a hundred and one different places to go running and, from most parts of the city, you’re only a few minutes away from a place where you can run for several miles without stopping to cross a road.

There’s the mighty Donauinsel, an island in the middle of the river so long that you could run from end to end and complete a full marathon. It’s joined to the Donaukanal, a canal with another 17km of unbroken footpath dropped down from street level. The Viennese even love to run around the Zentralfriedhof, one of the largest cemeteries in Europe.

But perhaps the most popular running spot is the Prater Hauptallee, the 4km long, arrow-straight ‘high street’ that runs the length of Vienna’s largest park.

Tokfo 2014 — Prater Hauptallee in spring

The Prater park itself is the historic hunting ground of the empire, twice the size of New York’s central park and almost 4 times bigger than Hyde Park in London. It’s a mix of open ‘Liegewiese’ meadows for sunbathing and sports and thickly forested areas. There’s a funfair at the north end of the park and the historic Lusthaus at the other. But the Hauptallee is the main attraction for those who want to put in the miles, whether by bike, by roller skate, by horse or on foot.

This summer, when it was too hot to exercise anyway and most of Vienna had fled the city for the mountain lakes or the coast of Croatia, the Prater Hauptallee had a facelift. Large sections of it were resurfaced and potholes were filled. It was all for a very important reason.

October 12th 2019 marks the beginning of a week in which the Kenyan marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge will attempt a superhuman feat. He’s making an attempt on the sub-2-hour marathon, and Vienna has been chosen as the location.

Kipchoge has been called the greatest marathon runner of all time, breaking records and London, Berlin and Chicago since making the switch from track to road in 2012. He’s the current Olympic champion and, when he beats records, he smashes them. His time of 2.01.39 in 2018 in Berlin was the greatest improvement on a marathon time since 1967. Even his first junior world record in the 5000 meters stood for over 9 years.

Kipchoge was born in Kenya in 1984, the youngest of four children. He ran 2 miles to school each day in the 90s but it was not until 2001 that he started to train seriously. Within 2 years, he was competing at the international level.

Nevertheless, Kipchoge compares the 1:59 marathon to ‘stepping on the moon, going up the tallest mountain, and going to the middle of the ocean.’ It’s a herculean feat of strength and endurance, but if he’s going to be able to do it anywhere, Vienna is the place.

The Prater Hauptallee was chosen as the location for several reasons. As a place for running far, fast, it’s unique in the world. It’s almost perfectly flat, with an elevation difference of less than 3m over the whole 4km circuit. At either end of the long street, there are roundabouts, so Kipchoge will be able to make the turn without losing momentum. It’s also lined on either side with mature chestnut trees, which offer protection from the wind.

Geographically, Vienna also has many advantages. In October, it’s likely to be cool but dry. From previous attempts, Kipchoge knows that even a rain shower before a run can increase the humidity to a level where it starts to affect his performance. The Austrian capital is also only 165m above sea level, much lower than his training grounds in Kenya, which should mean that his body is conditioned to run at its absolute best in these conditions. Finally, Austria is only an hour behind Nairobi time. While it’s nice that Kipchoge’s supporters in Kenya will be able to watch the event without staying up all night, it’s more important that the journey to Vienna (which he made a week in advance) won’t disrupt his eating and sleeping schedule.

Kipchoge’s sponsor paid for the work on the running surface, and a whole week has been set aside to wait for optimum weather for the attempt. If the record is going to fall, it’s going to fall here.

Win or lose, all of Vienna’s runners will benefit from the investment and, whether or not Kipchoge succeeds, people are sure to be inspired to go out and try out the new Hauptallee for themselves.

Edited to add:

On Saturday 12th October 2019, just before 10am, Eliud Kipchoge made history as the first person to run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours. Though they had planned several attempts at the record to take account of conditions, he didn’t need them. He smashed the target and completed his run in 1:59:40. He stepped on the moon.

Copywriter, literature grad, incorrigible sweet tooth, collector of Austrian historical trivia, pub quiz champion.

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