I’ve been in a bit of a running kick as of late, so much so that I’ve been signing up for half-marathons left and right––at least one per month since April. (That makes it sound like it’s more than three, but… it’s three.) Looking for one more to do before heading back to the States for a 10-day family visit, I spotted the EVL-Halbmarathon Leverkusen.
After doing the VIVAWEST-Halbmarathon in and around Gelsenkirchen, I decided I was especially digging races in smaller town/cities that I otherwise might not think to visit, following courses that show the best the region has to offer. Leverkusen matched that description to a T.
I made the retrospectively silly mistake of assuming the race started in Leverkusen Mitte, which is the easiest connection from Düsseldorf and what I took for the city center. Ya know, “Mitte” or “middle.” Center, right?
I found out just days before the race that the action is actually centered around Opladen––a neighborhood of Leverkusen that only joined the city in 1975. In fact, after a thorough reading of the city’s Wikipedia page ( I do my research, folks), it seems Leverkusen itself is a hodgepodge of formerly disconnected villages. What I knew as Mitte––the train stop I’ve only run through in between Düsseldorf and Cologne––is historically known as Wiesdorf (a “dorf” being a village).
That’s all well and good, but unfortunately for my sleep and general convenience, it more than doubled the time I thought I’d be spending getting to the starting line. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it meant getting up at the punishing 5 a.m. hour in order to do all my race prep (coffee, breakfast, get dressed, take the dog out) and catch the train down to Leverkusen. Instead of a brisk 15-minute journey from Düsseldorf’s main station, I had to work my way to the next town over and take a regional train that went down to Cologne before working its way back up north to Leverkusen-Opladen.
For all I’ve been mentally doing to manage performance expectations, I suppose I should’ve added transportation and knowing a bit more about the city where I was running that list.
To The Starting Line
Based on the collection of running shoes and drawstring bags growing on the train to Opladen, I wasn’t alone in taking the strange route.
Runners were trickling in, heading toward Opland Marktplatz by the time I arrived. Because of what I griped about above, I opted to get my race bib the day of instead of making two trips. Like in Gelsenkirchen, it was quick and easy. Something I’ve come to appreciate about these smaller city races is the ease of the organization. I grabbed my numbers, put them on, dropped my bag off to pick up after the race, and only briefly had to wait in line to use the restroom one more time before the gun went off. In bigger city races, there’s always that internal debate of whether or not to risk ‘holding it’ rather than standing in an impossibly long line to use a porta potty. I was plenty happy to skip that deliberation.
By the time I came out of Landrat-Lucas-Gymnasium, the square had livened up a bit. The concert stage was just about ready to go, picnic style benches filed the square, food vendors were setting up, and a giant inflatable slide had caught the eye of children passing by. I continued over to the starting line, anxious to get moving, and soon crowds of runners filed in behind and in front of me.
I decided to try running without music, my phone, or headphones to see if it made any difference in my running. In the end, I’m hesitant to say one way or the other, but the course was plenty interesting to keep me interested, perhaps even more so than had I been listening to the Black Keys for 90-plus minutes, my usual racing companions.
The sun was out, so I was a little concerned about overheating. In Gelsenkirchen, my last half-marathon, I felt like I was sweating bullets through my tech tee, and welcomed the opportunity to pour cold water down my back at every aid station. But the course kept us runners more or less out of direct sunlight for a majority of the race. I’d say 80/20 if I had to ballpark it.
The biggest surprise was the bit of trail running in the course. Nothing grandiose, but the wide dirt paths through splashes of forests were a nice diversion from the monotony of the road. Another nice addition, one that I duly noted in an earlier study of the course, was running around the pitch at BayArena where Bayer Leverkusen play, one of the top teams in the Bundesliga. And then the final surprise came with a jaunt around Neuland Park with its manicured gardens and colorful spring flowers of yellow and purple. I barely noticed that the sun was melting me.
Getting The PR
With a few kilometers to go to the finish, I glanced at my watch and realized I was within reach of a PR. That meant grinding it out despite not knowing if a hill was waiting for me ahead that would crush any hope of reaching my sudden goal. Hills are few and far between in this corner of Rhine country, but it only takes one to flatten the tires and rip the air out of your lungs. I was taught that lesson most recently in Gelsenkirchen and purposely started integrating more plyometrics into my training to make up for some sorry-looking climbing.
On cue, a dirt hill came just in the nick of time. It wasn’t too early that I’d give up on the PR and it wasn’t too late that I’d taken it too easy. It was a point when I had to decide right then if I was still going to go for it––and I did. I’m also certain that I must’ve looked like a glorified power walker to the supporters cheering on the sidelines as I grunted up what would’ve been a mere hiccup in the first few kilometers.
With the hill behind me, I glanced again at my watch and realized I’d be golden if I just kept my pace. I kept it up, cursing at myself to get the damn thing done, and sprinted across the finish line at 1:38:07.
Again, points for ease of organization. Whereas criticism of Düsseldorf’s clothing dropoff had reached local papers, I simply strolled in, waited behind just one runner to read off my numbers, and got my bag back in less than a minute. Then, I headed back out to Opladen Marktplatz where announcers were congratulation race winners to a crowded audience.
Although I’ve been making more of an effort to eat less meat, I decided I can’t run in Germany and not get a Wurst. I went to the first food stall I spotted and ordered up a Bratwurst mit Brötchen und Senf. Sausage with bread and a little mustard on top.
I may have stuck around longer had my race partner been around (my busy and important wife was giving a talk in Hamburg), but I decided to high tail it back to the train station and release the hound back home.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.