Twenty-five years ago I sat in front of my television and watched as the Berlin Wall came down and jubilant crowds celebrated their newfound freedom on top of the wall and at the Brandenburg Gate. This year I got to run through that Brandenburg Gate during the Berlin Marathon.
In my quest to run all six of the marathon majors, I signed up for the Berlin Marathon. I knew it would be an interesting experience as most majors are. I didn’t realize how much the experience would change me.
I traveled to Berlin with Rick and Elfi Ortenburger. Rick met Elfi while stationed with the Army in Germany during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One of the most interesting photos from that time is of Rick standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate during a short visit. Unable to move freely between the East and West, the Berlin Wall looms ominously in the background. Forty years later we have a picture of him running hand in hand with his wife through that very spot where once he was under heavy watch.
At one time, Berlin was a city of oppression -- physical, spiritual and intellectual stagnation. Under Hitler’s reign, entire races were under threat of being extinguished. An entire culture was under attack as books and great works of art were destroyed. Intellectual giants run out of their homes for fear of being used or discarded like so much trash.
After World War II, with the advent of the Berlin Wall, families were separated literally overnight -- freedom stolen in a moment. Even East German soldiers, desperate to cling to what little sovereignty they had, made every attempt to escape. More than 2,000 soldiers fled to the West over the next few years. Buildings that straddled the two sides would now be the last hope of escape as many East Berliners would jump through windows to the West side, risking their lives to save their freedom.
As we toured the city, we learned about the great lengths put in place to keep East Germans in the East. The Wall wasn’t simply a wall. At its most secure, the Wall consisted of a 12-foot high concrete barrier, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire fencing, attack dogs, 116 watchtowers, beds of nails under overhanging balconies and motion sensors. In spite of the seeming impossibility of escape, the urge to be free was too great for many to ignore and many did attempt to escape, some successfully, some not. As someone who’s enjoyed freedom from birth, it’s hard to appreciate the desperate desire for a right so basic.
Watching the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 was unforgettable. Even as a 14-year old girl, while I didn’t fully understand its significance, I knew I was witnessing one of the greatest moments of my generation. The peaceful reunification of a city, of families and the restoration of freedom denied to so many for so long was a moving moment for this ninth-grader.
And as a nearly 40-year-old woman running through the Brandenburg Gate during the 2014 Berlin Marathon, I thought of all those families whose only communication occurred through barbed wire fences. I thought of those who ached so badly to be free they were more than willing to risk everything they had to obtain it. And here I was, running fearlessly and joyfully through the gate as free as a bird with 41,000 others. Every time my feet passed through the ghost of that Wall, my thoughts turned to those who could only have dreamed of doing the very thing I was doing.
The day before the marathon, we participated in the Breakfast Run, a 6K run from Charlottesburg Castle to the Olympic Stadium, the same stadium where Jesse Owens showed the world what the human spirit is capable of. The same stadium where Hitler watched a man debunk his “Master Race” theory. Unlike most 5Ks, this Breakfast Run was led by pacers holding flags from various countries, leading the runners through the streets of Berlin with cheers, chants and music. Countries from around the world ran united through the streets, coming together in a celebration of life, health and happiness.
It was the closest I’ve personally come to experiencing the Olympic spirit. As we made our way under the Olympic tunnel and up onto that hallowed track, I had chills. People were openly weeping with appreciation of where we were.
For me, running has always been synonymous with freedom. There’s nothing more exhilarating than lacing up my shoes and going wherever the wind takes me. It’s a sport that is accessible to all. All that’s needed are shoes and a sense of adventure and you can let the run take you wherever you want to go. Running may be simple, but freedom rarely is. The human spirit yearns to be free. The harder one tries to steal it away, the harder one fights to retain it.
I’ve been blessed to live in a time and place where most of us have so much freedom we take it for granted, but these particular runs in these special places made that freedom more exceptional to me. Life isn’t always easy, but I am free to lead it however I like. My life is a story waiting to be written however I choose. How fitting to celebrate freedom with a run.
And for one weekend, I could truly say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
(Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and marathoner who is grateful to everyone that came before her that made this experience possible.)