Racing for the finish line – first published 18 September 2014

The cool of the September morning in 2014 when Commando was running the Cologne Marathon was rapidly turning into a sweltering day. Feeling thankful to be approaching the river I walked along Severinswall wondering how Commando was coping running in the heat. My jacket had long since been tied around my waist and I was still too hot. Hopefully there would be a cool breeze on the Rhine. The map told me this last stretch of wall was short and there were no more gates or mills to look out for. It was a surprise then, to come upon a large tower surrounded by a truly ancient circle of wall.

18 September 2014

This, I found out later, is Bottmühle one of the four mills built on the medieval city walls. The first, a wooden mill, was built in 1587 on a raised rampart called a bott. In 1677 it was replaced by this stone mill tower built of basalt and tufa. It was used to mill grapes but, by all accounts, the quality of the wine was poor, so much so it was commonly known as sour dog. It fell out of use by 1881 and, unlike the other mills and gates I’d seen on my walk, it seems to have been left to crumble. For me this is a plus point. It was the first authentic looking medieval wall I’d seen all day and I couldn’t understand why it seemed to have been left off the tourist maps.

Half hidden by the trees and covered in ivy, ferns and moss, it was a romantic sight. I’d have liked to have got a closer look but the large arched gateway was barred so there was no way in. Between the leaves I could see scaffolding, hopefully this doesn’t mean it’s going to be modernised and rebuilt like all the other walls. It would be a terrible shame.

As I strolled along the pleasant, leafy final stretch of Severinswall towards the Rhine I thought about Commando, by this time he’d be running the final third, the hardest miles of all. The map told me there was one last piece of the walls still to see, the Bayernturm. It wasn’t long before I was looking at it.

There wasn’t a great deal left of the original eleventh century stonework. This once beautiful building was a victim of allied bombing during World War II. All but the ground floor was destroyed. Sometimes we forget in England that the bombing went both ways and Cologne was one of the most heavily bombed German cities. Since the war a program of restoration has rebuilt many of the historic buildings, including this one. While I admire the German efficiency and dedication, I do feel the perfection of the fresh brickwork has taken some of the soul from the city’s old ruins and I can’t help liking the unrestored Bottmühle best.

So I walked around the tower taking photos of this last piece of the puzzle. It was then that I spotted the graffiti across the road. I must have walked past it too intent on the tower to even notice. As you know I’m a sucker for a bit of interesting graffiti and this was beautifully macabre. Quite what the meaning of a skeleton in a tiny top hat clutching a rose is I have no idea but I like it. Google tells me the artist is Aryz and, if you like a look at it as a work in progress check out the link.

Turning now towards the river, another look at the map told me I was a lot further from the cathedral, than I’d thought. It was getting close to one o’clock. I had just over an hour to get to the finish line and find a vantage point. I’d hoped to have time for a coffee and maybe a bratwurst before then but those hopes were receding.

The Rhine was crowded with people and boats, bicycles sped past, and long barges vied with river cruisers for space on the wide river. Looking at the buildings I’d moved from the ancient to the ultra modern. Now I was walking through acres of glass and steel. Lining the riverside three Kranhausen, or crane houses, huge upturned L shaped buildings, formed a tunnel over the path. Built in 2008 by architects Bothe, Richter and Teherani they are supposed to represent the cranes that once lined the Rheinaufhafen dock here.

When I saw a bridge across the Rhine I thought at first it was the one the marathon runners had crossed in the first mile of the race. Maybe I wasn’t as far from the finish line as I thought. Beneath it I could see Hohenzollernbrücke, perhaps a coffee and a bratwurst wasn’t such a stretch at all, if I could find somewhere selling them. Then I passed under the bridge and realised this was Severinsbrücke, not Deutzer Brücke, which had been hidden behind it. Lunch receded again.

Across the river I could see the high arch of the Lanxess Arena where we’d picked up Commando’s race bag. A sign by the riverbank said Cafe Chocolate, my kind of place, and I wondered if I might be able to stop, just for a quick drink. The map told me this was probably part of the Shokoladenmuseum, a place I knew I’d never get out of in under an hour so I passed it by regretfully. Since I’d left the Bayernturm I’d been walking along the outer peninsular of the Rheinauhafen, a former harbour redeveloped as a commercial area, now a pretty little bridge that would take me back to the original river bank came into view.

Sadly I looked at the Schokoladenmuseum, wishing I’d had more time to go inside and learn about the cultural history of chocolate, see how chocolate is made and walk through the tropical greenhouse filled with cocoa trees and palms that I could see pressing up against the steamy glass. Ok, let’s be honest, it was the free sample from the chocolate fountain I was really thinking about but still, there was no time so I crossed the bridge and forced myself past a second cafe. Maybe if I got to the finish line I’d be able to pick up something to eat and drink while I waited, there was a Starbucks near the cathedral.

The cafe was in the grounds of Malakoff Tower, part of the Prussian defences of the city, built in 1885. The bridge I’d just crossed was actually a swing bridge, the workings ingeniously concealed inside the tower. A quick, sad, look back at the chocolate museum and I passed Groß Sankt Martin church with barely a glance. It was worth better, being built on the remains of a roman chapel between 1150 and 1250 but, of course, much restored after the war.

On I hurried, past the cafés and restaurants near Hohenzollernbrücke and the curious city of copper blocks in the little pond. The closer I got to the cathedral the more crowded the streets became. These were not tourist crowds, they were marathon crowds and soon I found my way blocked by tall black barriers I couldn’t see over. Weaving my way through the throng of people slowed me down. A quick mental calculation on the time, Commando’s blue pen started about ten minutes after the first runners, I probably had half an hour before he would finish, probably…

Struggling through the crowds people trod on my feet and bumped into me without apology. In England this kind of crowd is a string of sorrys and excuse mes. I wondered what the German word for sorry was, did they have one? The barriers went on and on, way past the finish line I was sure. The cathedral was a distant memory and I had no idea where I was. On I struggled.

More than half a mile from the cathedral I came to the end of the barriers, a small opening crowded with people. A short walk down the other side told me this was the only view I was going to get. No one was running here, people with medals, some crying and exhausted, others smiling in victory, walked or hobbled out of the gate. Two stern faced guards stopped anyone from getting inside. This is the legacy of Boston I suppose.

I found a quiet corner and sat to drink my chocolate milk, no time for lunch now. With my drink finished I tried to find a vantage point. A man turned and elbowed me painfully in the chest, he glared at me as if somehow it was my fault for putting my chest in the way of his elbow. I stood on a small black block supporting the barrier and waited, my only glimpse inside a sliver of light where the barriers joined. A green flag kept blowing in front of this blocking the little view I had. I waited…

Runners who’d forgotten to take off their chips tried to get back in but the guards sternly refused entry.
“Will you take it and hand it in?” an English voice pleaded. The guard took the chip but gave no reassurance, just a scowl. The runner walked away looking worried.

Eventually, just as I was trying to calculate how long it would take Commando to walk from the finish line to the gate, my phone rang. It was him. I hadn’t even known he’d taken his phone with him. He’d finished, he was walking to the gate, he wasn’t happy with his time, one minute outside his personal best, it had been hot, he’d stopped to use a toi toi. I jumped down off my pedestal and ran to the gate, trying to peer round the guard who moved purposely to block my view just as I thought I caught a glimpse of Commando.

A few long minutes later, when I was thinking it wasn’t him I’d seen at all, he appeared clutching the alcohol free Kölsch we’d sampled at the Lanxess Arena, they were handing it out at the finish line. He beckoned me forward to take a picture but the guards closed in.
“They’ll shoot me if I go past them,” I joked but I took the photo anyway. He’d stopped to take off his chip. At least he wouldn’t have to hand it to the stern faced guards.

So, I may not have got any photos of Commando actually running but the official Cologne marathon photos have come through so I’ll share a few with you now so you can see just how tough it is to run 26.2 miles. Proud, you bet I am!


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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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