BMW Frankfurt Marathon

The History of the BMW Frankfurt Marathon

The start of the first race in 1981

Taking the marathon world by storm

The BMW Frankfurt Marathon has made an amazing development in the past few years. Germany’s oldest city marathon had been knocked down in the national ranking lists behind Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne a while ago. But today in terms of international significance it is Germany’s undisputed number two behind Berlin. No other German race and probably only very few if any internationally have produced such a turn around as Frankfurt did in the past eight years.

When the race will see its 30th edition in Germany’s financial capital on 30th October it very likely becomes another record breaking event. In terms of elite performances Frankfurt now is among the fastest marathons in the world. Therefore it is no coincidence that the BMW Frankfurt Marathon belongs to the prestigious group of IAAF Gold Label Road Races since 2009. While the marathon has made huge steps regarding world-class results its field of fun runners also grows considerably. In 2011 a record number of 15,000 entries were accepted and the limit was reached.

The story of the BMW Frankfurt Marathon began back in 1981, when the first three major city races took place in Germany. Two of them were started in May: The 25 k in Berlin and the Frankfurt Marathon. Then in September the Berlin Marathon saw its first city edition – it had been staged next to a wood in its first seven years since 1974. In Frankfurt there was no predecessor that had been staged in a park or wood. So the initial marathon was the one through the city. It was a great challenge for the organisers, but they had the support of a major German chemical company: Hoechst is based in Frankfurt and even a district is named after the company. Hoechst also has its own sports club (OSC Hoechst). In the years leading up to the first Frankfurt Marathon there were around 130 runners competing for the club nationally and internationally. At some stage they decided that they should stage a race themselves. And they agreed that it had to be one where elite runners and fun runners were both involved.

An organisation was founded with the help of Hoechst. The company not only became the title sponsor with a high amount of cash involved but also provided staff and materials. Wolfram Bleul became the first race director. On 17th May 1981 legendary Emil Zatopek started the first marathon next to a factory of Hoechst. The race had 3,169 entries, 2,588 finishers and some sort of a political scandal. That was because two South African elite runners had been invited to the race. Since the country was banned from international sport at that time the German athletics federation interfered. The organisers still allowed them to run, but without bib numbers, making them look unofficial. But the story after the race was the successful launch of the Hoechst Frankfurt Marathon. Around 150,000 spectators had turned up to cheer on the runners. The winner was Sweden’s Kjell-Erik Stahl, who clocked a fine 2:13:20.

In 1982 entries were up to 5,529 and the race also progressed regarding winning times in the years to come. While Germany’s Charlotte Teske produced the first sub 2:30 performance of 2:28:32 in 1983 (a national record) it was the men’s race in 1984 that caught international attention. Ethiopia’s world-class runner Dereje Nedi clocked 2:11:18. It was the fastest time on German soil so far, improving the Olympic winning time of Frank Shorter from Munich 1972 (2:12:19).

The withdrawal of Hoechst led to the Frankfurt Marathon being cancelled in 1986 (that is why the 30th edition is this year). But a new organisation was formed with the city’s government being much more involved for many years to come. The sixth edition of the Frankfurt Marathon was started in 1987 on a new course. The race had a number of national winners in the 90ies – among them Katrin Dörre-Heinig, Luminita Zaituc or Herbert Steffny – but compared to the marathons in Berlin or Hamburg it could no longer cope. While Berlin produced sensational results and even world records during these years in Frankfurt they were still waiting for the first sub 2:10 time. After a great start in the early eighties Frankfurt had lost the connection.

With the city of Frankfurt in charge a political decision was the basis for things to turn around. In 2002 it was decided to go for a new organiser and Jo Schindler took over. He had successfully developed a marathon in his hometown Regensburg (Bavaria) and was eager for the challenge. Jo Schindler had the vision of transforming the Frankfurt Marathon into a world-class event – something that looked highly unlikely at that time. The new race director used local knowledge but also brought in expertise from elsewhere. For example Petra Wassiluk, the former German elite long distance runner, is one of Jo Schindler’s closest partners in the organising team.

“After the 2002 race we analysed everything and then started changing things. It was our goal to position the Frankfurt Marathon as a first-class elite race and at the same time as a marathon that offers outstanding service for the fun runners,” explains Jo Schindler. One of the first major changes was the repositioning of the finish. Since 2003 Frankfurt’s finish line is indoors, in the ,Festhalle’. “We had to offer something really emotional, because the marathon is an emotional event,” says Schindler, who also improved the content of the goody bags significantly. Additionally this year – because it is a jubilee edition – every runner receives an Asics backpack. Aspects like the pasta party or hot water showers in the finish area were all looked into and improved. Then Jo Schindler abandoned the inline skaters. “We wanted to give centre stage to the marathon runners.” The changes and investments seem to pay off. “We have reached entry figures of which we could only have dreamt of when we took over in 2002,” says Jo Schindler.

For the 2003 race Jo Schindler had brought in a new elite athletes’ coordinator: Christoph Kopp, who had originally developed the Berlin Marathon into a world-class race and who had already helped Schindler in Regensburg. He had immediate success. It was in 2003, when the 2:10 barrier finally was broken in Frankfurt. Kenya’s Boaz Kimaiyo clocked 2:09:28. Since then there was no winner who ran slower than 2:10. From year to year Frankfurt’s course record became faster and faster. So strong was the development that today a 2:08 finishing time would be regarded as a disappointment. The course was improved and made faster on a couple of occasions and again for this year’s race.

In the past four years the men’s course record was broken at each race by a Kenyan and improved from 2:08:29 (record set in 2005) to 2:04:57. In 2007 Wilfred Kigen ran 2:07:58, a year later Robert K. Cheruiyot clocked 2:07:21, then Gilbert Kirwa finished in 2:06:14 and in 2010 Wilson Kipsang was timed with an amazing 2:04:57. At that time it was the tenth fastest result ever in the marathon. The average of the ten fastest men’s times now is 2:06:53.5 and this currently puts Frankfurt in ninth place in the list of the fastest marathons in the world. In 2010 the women’s course record was also smashed: Caroline Kilel (Kenya) took the race with 2:23:25. A record number of 12,475 runners from 76 nations had entered the event.

So one might wonder what is next for the BMW Frankfurt Marathon. Can it get any better at this year’s jubilee race? Well, organisers have decided to offer a world record bonus for the first time in the history of their event!


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