Along for the Run | Chasing Vienna’s Marathon

As the Vienna City Marathon nears, runners gear up for their next big rush.

An admission: I am not an avid exerciser. Just recently I picked up a bit of casual football after a 10-year hiatus, and, honestly, I’m considering dropping it again. Life is tough enough.
But today is different: I’ve been invited to tag along behind Valentin Pfeil, one of Austria’s very own competitors for the 34th annual Vienna City Marathon (VCM). Pfeil finished 13th in his debut at the VCM last year with a staggering time of 2:16:37. I want to understand why anyone would put themselves through such an ordeal.

Valentin Pfeil
Austrian hopeful Valentin Pfeil finished 13th, with an impressive time of 2:16:37 in his VCM debut last year. // © VCM Victah Sailer

An Olympic qualifier as well as the largest sporting event in the country by active participation, last year the VCM weekend (there are half marathons and other special races tied in) totaled 42,207 participants from 125 countries, raising a VCM record total of €155,000 for charity, more than tripling the amount raised in 2014. It is arguably also one of the most picturesque marathons, passing nearly all of the city’s major attractions, including the Danube, Prater, Naschmarkt, Schönbrunn and the entire Ringstraße – practically a guided tour on foot.

Going the distance

Over the past month I’ve unearthed a whole web of runners and participants for this year’s race. Like spying an ant in the grass, you suddenly realize you’re surrounded. Now everywhere I look I see them. Just yesterday I was strolling through Museumsquartier when I suddenly had to leap into the wall to escape a stampede of fluorescent vests and trainers. What is the charm that has people setting aside other once-priorities like sleeping and eating in favor of cement pounding prework runs? How does one come by the motivation to even start?

I’ve quizzed a lot of would-be marathoners and the responses have varied. Couples have challenged each other in bets, solo runners have seen the VCM as taking their running to the next level.
At 45, Franz Reithofer, encouraged to exercise by his doctor in order to lower his blood pressure, fell in love with running and never stopped. He’s 77 now and has run in marathons across Austria, resolving to do another before he turns 80 in under five hours.

Fifty-five-year-old Regina Krammer was put up to the half marathon by her five children. She describes running in a meditative fashion, alleviating stresses and shifting focus from breathing to blood flow and then the surroundings – some of the myriad pleasures and ambitions that drag people to the starting line and carry them over the finish. But for Valentin Pfeil, it’s simple: to see how far his body can go after turning pro just two years ago.

Miles to Go

I met with Pfeil in the café corner of the runners’ apparel shop RunInc, flourishing after its first full year in business. Soon we were joined by Michael Buchleitner, a former Austrian Olympic marathon runner. We ordered coffee and discussed the route, just in case I couldn’t manage the whole way.

We set off along the Danube Canal towards the Prater at a fair pace. I already began to feel the prickling heat on my back and the tops of my thighs as the pros laughed and conversed with one another ahead of me.

They glided effortlessly through the chestnut tree-lined Prater Hauptallee, the part of the course Pfeil said is his favorite. Filled with runners, joggers and Nordic walkers, there’s no doubt this is a beautiful extension of a stunning city. But rattling away on my city bike a safe distance behind Pfeil and his running partner, I’m wondering why on earth I’m doing this. What made me suggest following him on a training run at all? He turned round a few times to offer to go slower; I insisted he carry on as normal, trying not to interfere with the exercise, but making a hash job of multitasking with the camera and staying on the bike.

As we turned back down to the river on the downward slope to the home straight, I spread my legs out, convinced I’m experiencing what they call “runner’s high” – albeit on a bicycle. After only 10 km I’m about ready to embrace everyone within reach. I could only imagine what it would be like to actually run.

Back at the shop, Pfeil told me his dream is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, having narrowly missed the cut last year. This year he hopes to clock in at 2:14 and I admired his patience, pushing while pacing himself. After turning professional just two years ago, he’s was grateful for the privilege to commit full-time to this, a hobby-turned-career.

Rathaus party
The Rathaus hosts the traditional carbo-loading party the day before. // © VCM/

Food For Thought

Having successfully followed a healthy person through a training regime, I decided I may yet again forgo the tedious trip to the gym. I stopped by the bakery for something sweet, mulling over the vicarious benefits of hanging around the fit and healthy.
As I sauntered along the Reichsbrücke with my Vanillekrapfen in the pale sun of early spring, I tried to picture how it might be to pound along here at a pace, here where the race will begin, the streets lined with 1,000,000 cheering spectators, and the huffs and grunts of dry mouths and cracked heels passing by.

My hands got clammy. By the time I reached the U-Bahn at Donauinsel, 19 runners had overtaken me. I’ve noted the VCM carbo-loading party in the Rathaus in my diary, where I’ll be served some steaming Kaiserschmarrn, and get the chance to hear from many more runners as they flock to Vienna from around the world to commune for one of the oldest sports in history.
And I’ll be there to applaud anyone who is taking it on.

Vienna Running Calendar

Vienna City Marathon – Apr 23

Carbo-loading party – Apr 22, 14:00-20:00


Ich-Du-Wir Lauf (+Nordic Walking) – May 20, 11 km run to 3.4 km nordic walk & 0.9, 0.7 km runs for children.

Millenium City Run – May 20, 10/5/2.1/1.4/0.5 km

Österreichischer Frauenlauf – May 21, 10/5 km run & 5 km walk

Wiener Zoolauf – Jun 21, 6 km

WEMOVE Morning Run – Jul 15, 7 km

Vienna Trail Run – Aug 20, 14/6.4 km

Vienna Charity Run – Sep 24, 1.5 km per lap

Vienna Night Run – Sep 26, 5 km

LCC Wien Herbst­marathon – Oct 15, marathon/half-marathon/7 km relay

Movemberlauf – Nov 18, 5/2.5 km

Silvesterlauf – Dec 31, 5.4 km

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Sam Jackson
Sam is Metropole's Events Editor and a frequent contributor. He's also a musician and an avid football fan. If he’s not recording or yelling at the television he’ll likely be out and about in town.

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