Sigrid Eichner joined the Standard Chartered KL Marathon 2015 so that she could add Malaysia to the list of countries she’d competed in. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled due to heavy haze that weekend.
But the 75-year-old German takes it all in her stride. She recalls taking part in a mountain race in Switzerland which was stopped midway due to a sudden thunderstorm.
“You can’t plan things when it’s up to Nature,” Eichner says through a translator. “If something goes wrong or something changes in the weather, that’s just how it is.”
Her first race was in 1980, in what was previously East Germany. She was a database engineer who lived on the eastern side of Berlin.
At that time, the communist government viewed sporting excellence as a mark of ideological superiority, and one of the things they introduced was competitive community running. Despite the inherent propaganda, Eichner enjoyed the activity.
She’d done swimming and gymnastics, so running came quite naturally for her. “It was also a way to escape the pressure put on by the government then,” she adds.
However, travel was limited or forbidden and for years, she stood on the other side of the Berlin Wall, wistfully watching the Berlin Marathon. She has run it 18 times since reunification.
One of her favourite things about the Berlin Marathon is that it’s held around her birthday, Sept 29. This year’s race was on Sept 27 and she finished it in 4 hours, 57 mins and 59 secs.
STEADY AS SHE GOES
Eichner says she hardly ever realises her age when she runs. “Within the running community, I feel like everybody else. Some people say I look quite old, but when I look in the mirror, I'm still happy,” she says. “Runners who are 45 or 50 could be my children.”
Eichner has two daughters, a son and six grandchildren. None are runners though they keep themselves active through rowing and martial arts.
Occasionally, spectators would point out excitedly and exclaim, “look at that old lady running!” but Eichner laughs when it is suggested that she’s inspiration to other runners.
Eichner says she has “a little diabetes, but nothing really serious”. She admits to being concerned about injury. She stopped swimming after hurting her shoulders, and she underwent hip surgery not too long ago. But she’s not in any kind of pain, she says, as “otherwise I would stop".
Eichner’s current race strategy is to maintain a steady pace and to finish in her own time. She doesn't sprint or change her speed anymore and she’s learned to listen to her body on how far she can push forward.
She explains that running is a natural movement. “You walk, then you walk fast and sometimes you have to run for the bus,” she says.
She ran her first marathon when she was 40, which might be considered as late. But she says she knows people who only began in their 60s.
“It’s how we prepare ourselves. You can’t go from zero to a hero at once. You have to do it gradually. But I never had the feeling that it was too late to start,” she says.
For Eichner, the biggest difference she's seen in marathon running is the use of chip technology to determine finishing time. She experienced running with a card and stopwatch and needing a race official to write it all down manually.
“Accuracy back then was an issue,” she says. “They shoot the gun but it takes you 10 minutes to get to the starting line. I was in a 24-hour race before chip technology. Imagine that at some point the race officials got tired and I had shout ‘Hello! I’m still here! Clock me!”.
While Eichner welcomes this development, there are changes she’s not too happy about. One of these is how marathons are becoming too commercialised. She’s more used to experiencing races as community events rather than money-making opportunities.
“In New York, you have to pay US$400 to enter the marathon and can only do so through a travel agency if you’re not American. They could probably ask for US$600 because people want the experience,” she says.
“Big cities hold marathons because these attract so many people. There’s accommodation and food too, so it has become a business.”
Eichner’s philosophy is to keep it simple and to run for the joy of it. When she runs, she thinks about mundane everyday things. As the race goes on, she starts to focus on the finish line and when she gets to the finish line, she likes to have a beer.
She doesn't train that much anymore, she says. Even her diet is nothing special, at least not by German standards. She eats egg, potato, yoghurt, fish, bread, pasta, meat and lots of vegetables.
“I’m not a Kenyan runner chasing a 2:02 and living on protein,” she quips.
Despite her easy-going stance, she is nowhere near done with running. She tells me that she has been asked to complete 2,000 runs as soon as possible. (See sidebar for explanation on runs and Eichner’s amazing record.)
But a new idea has emerged. Because she was born in 1940, she’s aiming to complete 1,940 runs in her 75th year. She has 1,936 runs currently, so she’s close.
“I have a whole year of being 75, so there’s no rush. As long as I can run, I will run,” she says.
Eichner's 1,936 runs
In 35 years, Sigrid Eichner has recorded 1,936 total runs. It’s not the same as 1,936 marathon events, she explains; 750 of those are races longer than a marathon i.e. ultra-marathon such as a 100km track event or a 24-hour race.
Each 42.195km in an ultra-marathon counts as one run in the total record. So overall, Eichner has run over 81,689km. That’s twice the earth’s circumference.
There is a Japanese organisation that keeps track of these things. Eichner is second on its list. At the top is another German, Christian Hottas, with 2,320 total runs. He is 16 years younger than Eichner.
“It is never my intention to run this far. It is for pleasure,” Eichner says. “When East and West Germany came together, I found out that Western German runners count their races this way, so I started counting too.”
She is a member of the 100 Marathon Club, open only to those who have more than 100 marathons under their belt. (Eichner clearly over-qualifies.) One of things that members also do is to “collect” countries.
Eichner has “collected” 42, meaning she has run marathons in 42 countries. “It’s difficult to go by country. If you go to the US and you run in New York, Boston or Death Valley, that still counts as one,” she says. Malaysia was supposed to be her 43rd, until the haze ruled otherwise.