20 May 2008

Straßenlauf duch Frohnau

Shortly after eight o'clock on Sunday morning, I arrived at Potsdamer Platz - which is not the pleasant city square that the name brings to mind, but little more than a junction of several roads – where six of us were due to meet up to go to Frohnau for the eagerly-awaited Straßenlauf. I took the U-bahn from the Zoologishersgarten, the nearest station to my hotel, and as I emerged onto the street I was hailed by Viktor, so we walked together to the spot where I had told everyone to gather, under some scaffolding that afforded shelter from rain (of which there was none at the time, fortunately).

After a while, Marek joined us, and finally Cristobal sent an SMS from the S-bahn platform announcing that he was waiting for the train to Frohnau, but there was no sign of the other two. We waited until there was insufficient time to get to the start before registrations on the day closed – the point of no return for one of the missing two – and having received no reply to our messages the four of us set off. The train headed north through depressing, graffiti-covered developments of blocks of flats, running alongside a railway line so overgrown that it could not have been used for decades – trees, not just bushes, grew through the sleepers – and passing rusty, disused, iron bridges. Someone observed that railway tracks rarely give the best view of a city, but this was far worse than anything in London, and just then a disused building, perhaps a station, came into view with every available surface sprayed with graffiti. I explained to my companions that at least in England the tracks were taken up (and, I might have added, the stations sold for development) and that I had run a substantial part of the Shakespeare Marathon along just such a disused railway.

At Frohnau, the end of the line, reached after about half an hour, things looked better. A spruce station with some shops opposite, tidy houses and gardens and well-maintained roads: but where was the race? None of us had printed out a map of the area. As we wondered where to go, an elderly couple approached us and asked (in German) the way to the start – it was pretty obvious from our attire where we were headed. It turned out that our interlocutors were Israeli, the lady spoke good English but her husband had only German – and it was rapidly becoming clear that among the four of us, I knew much the most German – and he was running in the race. Marek interrogated a bystander, who referred us for some arcane reason to the bakery across the road, where someone in the queue of shoppers pointed us all down the road in front of the station. Our new Israeli friends took off with the four of us in pursuit. I ran to catch them up, and saw we were approaching a taxi rank, so (not wishing to involve them in unwanted expense) I asked whether they were up for a taxi ride. They were, so four of us approached the first taxi and the Israelis went for the second.

I asked the taxi driver whether he knew the Poloplatz, not that Berlin contains so many polo lawns that it was likely to have escaped his attention: Google had revealed to me that the German capital has precisely one such facility. He told me it was between three and ten minutes’ walk (or so I understood: I am happy to admit that my comprehension might have been defective) up a street the name of which he eventually spelt out one syllable at a time: Will-tig-er Straße. He showed no inclination to put down his book and invite us to sit in his taxi: he clearly thought we could walk it. Meanwhile the second cab drove away, two elderly Israelis up.

We dound Wiltiger Straße, and followed it rather further than we thought necessary to a tee-junction with another road. The name of the other road was not the name showing on Chris’s Blackberry, so while the non-German speakers hesitated I approached a woman standing in the front drive of one of the detached houses lining the tree-shaded road. “Entschuldigung”, I began, but it was downhill all the way from there. She retreated into the house to get her husband (I think this was on account of his superior knowledge of English rather than his ability to deter unwanted nuisances), which left me with her three small children in front of the house, all of whom seemed to know precisely where the Poloplatz was, and all of whom proceeded to tell me, at once.

Happily, the other three spotted a man wearing a running number heading down a track through the trees across the road, and managed to communicated with him sufficiently that he gestured to them to follow him. Seeing them disappearing into the woods, I gave chase and by the time I caught them we had almost reached another road on which numerous athletes were warming up.

We climbed a gate to get onto the Poloplatz itself, and someone learnt that the source of the running numbers which everyone else seemed to be wearing was a building on the other side of the field. The numbers were arranged in alphebital order, by surname, and we quickly collected our own, changed (leaving our bags in the pavilion), and met Patrick (another signed-up participant in the Not the INTA Race) and another Chris, an American, worryingly wearing a Boston Marathon shirt, whom we had not expected but who was nevertheless very welcome.

We followed the runners onto the road by the Poloplatz and milled about stretching until suddenly a gun went off and we were running. I found myself at the back when the race started, so chased Patrick down with some difficulty and settled into a comfortable pace with him. American Chris had disappeared, and Chilean Chris passed us shortly. I sped up and kept his white cap in sight for a long way, but finally dropped back to keep pace with Patrick again until he faded at about 8K and I ran my own race to the finish. A lap, increasing the tempo all the way, of the field and I was across the line in about 47 minutes, finding a certificate (104th place) and a long-stemmed rose thrust into my hand.

I took a seat on a bench to cheer first Marek and then Viktor down the final stretch, but failed to spot my Israeli friend. As we headed for the pavilion again we met the couple, and Chris and I found ourselves in deep conversation with them. He was a pensioner, so running was his career; he ran every day, though his wife appeared to be rather frustrated by this; he had spotted someone else 500 metres in front of him approaching the end of the race and, fearing that this was another runner in his age group (M70) had chased him down and passed him; and he produced a booklet listing races in Germany, pointing out two more within the next seven days which he pressed me to run with him. Sadly, I had to tell him I would be back in England by then.

The return journey to Frohnau station took us past the house where I had received so many directions from the children, outside which stood a 4K sign (with the number 4 and an arrow showing the direction of the race sprayed on the footpath), indicating that we had recently been this way a second time.

We found the station easily, since we had now run to it in the course of the race and were getting familiar with the layout of this charming leafy suburb, and immediately boarded a train to town. On the way, Marek observed to Viktor that when he got to Viktor’s firm’s reception every year the caviare had already run out. “Put some in a bowl, under the table”, Marek (from Warsaw) requested of Viktor (from St Petersburg), “like we did in the old days”, perfectly encapsulating the history of eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

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