How Berlin’s Newest Racing Team is Charting a Path for Runners who Believe in More
Editor's Note: The images featured throughout this article are a retrospective of the last year pre COVID-19. Berlin also saw restrictions on group training of less than 50 lift from May 15th. BTC would like to make it clear that they have obeyed all government guidelines, and athlete safety has been, and will continue to be their first priority.
Berlin, always on the run. Since the fall of the wall in 1989, this has been the city's mantra where an iconic red-haired Lola rushing through an eclectic city landscape has come to symbolize a city still in frenetic flux between past, present, and future.
The running scene somewhat mirrors this flux with a progressive and vibrant crew scene juxtaposed against a traditional and conservative club system. But somewhere in the middle of this, a new movement is brewing among ambitious runners who are working to reconcile the innovative creativity of crews and the developmental expertise of clubs.
Pioneers leading this movement are brothers and Berlin Track Club founders Sven Rudolph and Björn Menges, who as both former run crew and club members see a huge opportunity to bring the best of both worlds to offer runners more.
Inspired by the arguably original BTC, the Bowerman Track Club Elite’s motto, “not professional but not unprofessional”, the Berlin Track Club has over the last 2 years come to embody a diverse mix of runners from clubs and crews with a shared mission of helping each other find a work-life balance that collectively supports each members pursuit of his or her definition of fast.
More than a Marathon
Though creating a crew/club hybrid seemed logical, Sven and Björn had to first tackle two ingrained mindsets within the Berlin running community. A key mindset of crew runners was the half and full marathon being the only training worthy events in the Berlin running scene. While having the fastest marathon provides a platform to develop a kinetic running culture, the brothers noticed that training for the full and even half distance could be a tenuous and often lonely journey fraught with injury, especially for new runners. Despite meeting once or twice a week for workouts, crew training appeared episodic and void of the consistency needed for an effective marathon program.
Instead, the brothers thought about how to build equity in middle distance track events and the speed fundamentals foundational to being a more efficient and well-rounded runner. As a former soccer player, Sven was also Inspired by the NN team and its ability to challenge the paradigm of distance running as an individual sport. Kipchoge’s quote of “100% of me is nothing compared to 1% of the team”, helped Sven and Björn to crystallize their mission to help lonely hobby and ambitious Berlin runners get better with the help of a team.
The second barrier however was the notion that the traditional DLV (German Athletics Club System) clubs already provided a team-like structure and means to develop running fundamentals and that any hybrid culture would diminish the efficacy of an established and powerful system. Although the DLV clubs had an effective organization for developing runners, their template was geared toward an old arguably communistic model of adopting and developing only young talent. Without a school or college sports system, kids unless they are super talented go unrecognized by clubs and are ultimately reluctant to join clubs as young adults perceiving a void of camaraderie.
This was at least the experience of the team’s youngest runner Jonas. Cordially referred to as Hicham for his idolization of the 1500 world record holder, the 20-year-old felt BTC afforded him the perfect balance of crew camaraderie, teamwork, and expertise to nurture his passion and talent for 5000m.
“Most of the sessions I do with Adrian and Sven. Some days, it’s hard to keep up with them. But I know that we’re on a similar level and this is the key. Because I know that I normally run with them or even cooked them the week before, I push myself to stay with the group and go beyond my limits. I’m sure it’s the same for them. Training together makes us stronger. Mentally and physically. And therefore I’m super thankful and look forward to our future.“ - Jonas Marschall
Ingredients for Success
Confident with their hybrid formula, Sven and Björn sought out former club coach Benny Schalanda and eccentric expat and masters runner Brian Livingston to charter a way forward. Together they crafted a team contract along with three core tenets to differentiate the group as a track team dedicated to consistent training and building prowess from 800 to 10,000 meters.
Zone of Proximal Development: To create an impactful team dynamic, Livingston as a former teacher introduced the concept of “Zone of Proximal Development”, a term to describe how students improve when they are challenged just outside of their comfort zone. A men’s and women’s 5K standard of 17:00 and 20:30 respectively makes for training sessions where athletes at the same and slightly higher level push each other slightly beyond previously perceived limits. Workout tactics that leverage this principle include giving slower runners a head start on intervals to incentivize a stay up vs. catch up mentality or adding one to two surprise reps at the end of a workout to ingrain acceptance mechanisms for various degrees of discomfort. When athletes can train together in this zone of development they build confidence and progress smoothly to higher levels of ability.
Running is a movement skill: Watch kids play tag or any elite runner on Instagram and you'll see how high hip extension combined with a powerful push out the back contributes to a longer stride length and quicker recovery of the standing leg. Termed triple extension, this biomechanic describes the compression and extension of the lower extremities to create a spring. To encourage this and in some cases relearn this mechanic, the team completes a 15-minute sequence of stretches and drills designed to improve rhythm, flexibility, and ballistic mobility at the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Once the mechanic is mastered the runner becomes faster and more efficient that when combined with a good mileage base makes for fewer injuries.
Balance of unity and autonomy: Albeit the team derives a lot of success from group training it also recognizes the merit of training alone to help develop resilience and an internal locus of control that is not swayed by external forces. The mantra that we must first succeed alone, that we may enjoy our success together proved effective during the Corona pandemic where team members stayed connected virtually but continued to train alone with the confidence that they would all come back individually stronger and ultimately better teammates.
Sven stresses that even though the team trains hard and wants to improve, it is never at the expense of team spirit, friendship, and mutual care. “I believe we can be both competitive and in service to each other simultaneously” a dichotomy he saw captured perfectly by Bernard Lagat who on Instagram shared how his training partner Abdi Negeeye on the toughest part of the long run slowed and pointed to his side in runners speak to say “you should be here buddy”. It’s anecdotes like this that Sven will often share with the team to inspire a spirit of support and encouragement.
“Training with BTC is completely different than any other team I’ve run with before. We are not only teammates but friends who enjoy running together, care about each other, and push each other beyond our limits. It has become easier to suffer in training because I know there is a whole team behind me. My favorite example is the last speed session in our training camp in Mallorca. Five very fast 1000m with heavy legs from the whole week of training camp. In the end, I even decided to go for “the extra credits” and did another rep. Brian immediately got the team together to help and pace me, finishing in 3:47 min, my fastest rep. That’s BTC!“ - Hannah Penz
Authenticity, Credibility, Friendship
Equipped with these tenets the team was able to attract runners from crews to clubs and everything in between like food blogger Anouk and expat dancer Cheryl who both competed at university and were keen on continuing to elevate their running. There would also be the trail runner Flo who confined to a city as flat as a pancake but with noticeable speed was convinced by Sven to explore track distances.
While the brothers are happy with the internal growth of the team to now 16 members (8 men and 8 women) they are most proud of the credibility they've established in the crew community as experts in track and a force for athletes who want to take their running to a more ambitious level. This credibility was validated through BTC hosting a Sunday long run in lead up to the Berlin Marathon 2019 for all the local running crews. Previously long runs in Berlin were mainly conducted in crew respective neighborhoods with a vibe based on running your streets. However, BTC was able to foster a culture around escaping the city to run in nature as a collective group exposing crew members to new faces and new ideas about running.
“I think for all of us, the Sunday runs became the best testing grounds for what we had in the legs and the spirit. I never felt as strong or prepared, or sometimes as nervous, as after those runs. One Sunday you'd manage to clip to the end sweaty and victorious with the numbers on your wrist saying your goal time was within reach and the next week you'd finish way off the pace, tired, heavy, questioning everything. It was beautiful. Especially during these wild times, what I wouldn't give to be back in that forest, sun on my back, kicking up dirt with some friends.” - Daniel Medina (Wayvrun Kollektiv)
The success of group Sunday long runs also demonstrated an appetite among crew runners to not only go beyond the limits of their city but also the limits of their perceived ability. This sentiment inspired the team to start a monthly open track session where runners regardless of club or crew could workout and get exposure to new training ideas and faster paces within their development zone. Like crew runner and now BTC member Nele, Sven understands some runners want to maintain affiliation with their crew but like the idea of being challenged once in a while with different pace groups. Besides these runners, the team also recognizes that there are several ambitious runners in Berlin with a desire to be more competitive and who would benefit from regular group training. Therefore, Berlin Track Club, like its BTC counterparts in Brooklyn and Beaverton, is exploring a membership model to further expand participation. Also, in the absence of official races, ideas like time trials and custom relays have been proposed as ways to keep running competitive but fun and accessible to the community.
Teamwork and inclusion will continue to be guiding principles and their first 3k time trial coming together as a group in 3 months provided an especially poignant metaphor to capture these principles with a waterfall start. While a waterfall start seemingly gives each runner an equal chance to capture a spot in lane 1 there's a tacit understanding among runners that it doesn't need to be a battle but instead a natural flow and respect for pace knowing that everyone in time will find lane 1. Allowing all runners to find lane 1 Sven hopes will serve as a call to action for all clubs and crews, especially his other fellow “BTC-ers”: Bowerman Track Club, Boulder Track Club, and Brooklyn Track Club, who can be a beacon for every runner who wants and believes in more.