The Berlin Reunification Marathon 1990: Through the Brandenburg Gate to an Emotional Win

By Jörg Wenig
Berlin Marathon 1990 © Laufzeit 4/'91
Berlin Marathon 1990 © Laufzeit 4/’91

No wonder the Berlin Marathon holds a special place in Uta’s heart. It was the scene of the first great triumph of her running career—on a very special day for Germany and the world as well as marathoning. It was on September 30, 1990 when Uta won the Berlin Marathon in her hometown. The Berlin Wall had fallen and East and West Germany were just three days away from their reunification. For the first time, the Berlin Marathon was run through both parts of the city and beneath the arches of the famous Brandenburg Gate.

For 25-year-old Uta, raised in East Germany, it was a deeply emotional experience, unique in her stellar career. She led 25,000 runners through the once-divided city to win in a course record of 2:28:37. “When I ran through the Brandenburg Gate into the East, I got goose pimples,” she remembers. “A shiver went down my spine as I realized, a chapter of history was coming to an end.” She was not alone in her emotions: many of the thousands of marathoners crossed the former border between East and West with tear-stained faces.

Uta bettered the course record, set the previous year by Paivi Tikkanen of Finland, by eight seconds. The Finnish star lined up again in 1990 and set the pace from the start. The first of the contenders to drop off at around five kilometers was Carla Beurskens from the Netherlands, and then Tikkanen herself began to struggle. The Finn finally dropped out at 15 kilometers with stomach cramps. Now, if Uta was going to win Berlin in record time, she’d have to do it alone.

© Laufzeit 4/’91

By the 38-kilometer mark, Renata Kokowska of Poland had cut Uta’s lead to 13 seconds—strangly, with hardly anyone noticing the move. With Uta assuming she had a comfortable lead, her coach Dieter Hogen had not realized that the Pole was a female runner.

He kept shouting to Uta that the lead was around a minute. It was five kilometers from the finish when Dieter finally recognized Renata Kokowska. “Suddenly Dieter was no longer shouting, ‘One minute,’ but ‘Just 15 seconds’ instead,” said Uta. “In the heat of the race he’d thought Renata was a man. But I didn’t panic, though I certainly had to work hard, since I was getting tired. The long running season was taking its toll.” Uta, running in the colors of LG Stuttgarter Kickers, crossed the finish line with 13 seconds to spare.

It was the first of a string of great marathon victories for Uta. When she ran through the Brandenburg Gate, it also signaled a great future in store for the young woman who had recently crossed the border to freedom. “I realized it was time to look ahead and stop looking back,” she says. “For me it was a new beginning.”