When I Started Running: Lasting Lessons, Chasing Dreams, and Fond Memories

By Uta Pippig
…sprinting to the relay finish in the early days. © Uta Pippig
…sprinting to the relay finish in the early days. © Uta Pippig

“There’s a track meet tomorrow after school,” my girlfriend said, “Why don’t you come and join us?” That casual invitation, it turned out, was to be my introduction to a lifetime of running. I look back fondly to what happened the next day: Two long laps …800 meters, running on the track for my school… jumping into the competition just a few hours before the event.

That afternoon, in early autumn when I just turned 13, I discovered that athletics could be fun.

I had no idea back then that running would be such an awesome sport. But I quickly appreciated that it has the advantage of keeping you fit without requiring much: a pair of running shoes, somewhere to run, and a little love of being outside and in nature.

Let’s run together

I also learned if you can set aside some time to run, and perhaps find someone to run with, then you might get hooked on this beautiful sport, too. Occasionally, there will be times when you may have to give yourself a tiny push to get out the door and take the magic step outside but, within a few moments, you can start enjoying your run while feeling refreshed and liberated.

Gemeinsames Jugendtraining nach Sonnenuntergang bei meinem Heimatklub im Herbst 2014. © Gerald Angerer
© Gerald Angerer

My first real running experience was with the sports club “TSG Blau-Weiβ Petershagen,” a youth sports club in the little town near Berlin where I grew up. We were a group of happy 8- to 18-year-old kids training together three times a week for about two hours each session. This may sound like a lot of running, but it wasn’t, because the training was so varied I was never bored.

For these two hours, we didn’t just run, we also did high jumping and long jumping, ran the hurdles, played soccer and handball, and added all kinds of fun sport games. In winter, we went cross-country skiing. All the variety kept us motivated! In late autumn to early winter, when the weather turned too cold, we often went indoors and focused on more games, core training, and conditioning. We couldn’t wait until the warmer spring days when it was time to get back to the outdoor track.

© Victah Sailer/Take The Magic Step
© Victah Sailer/Take The Magic Step

Our track was not anything like the specially-designed modern tartan ones many of us are lucky enough to enjoy running on today. Back then, the surface was dirt. Sometimes the track needed our help, so on many Saturday afternoons we pulled weeds together. The track also had slightly tighter curves. This was not ideal for our fast 400m workouts. But the location close to a big forest was magical—we had countless beautiful trails that we used for warming up before our running sessions or for cooling down afterwards.

Running with joy

We enjoyed many running games that made those workouts fun! I still love to share them today when I meet high school running teams or young athletes who are curious about my training in those first years of competing and racing. I never have forgotten the fun interval programs, pyramid workouts, and other off-beat training sessions that helped a young runner like me to stay inspired and focused—and these all work just as well today.

© Betty Shepherd
© Betty Shepherd

As time passed, we grew to realize it was important for each of us to be as good of an athlete as we could be. Even at that early age, we wanted to be winners. Developing ambition and learning to run the relay races fast are among my fondest memories. I loved being outdoors with my friends amid the carefree companionship of the team. My favorite experience was the two-week training camp each summer: hanging out together with other athletes, having lots of fun, and looking forward to seeing our parents again after our return home.

Initially, though, my parents tried to keep my interest in sports balanced with my studies. They wanted me to concentrate on schoolwork and academics rather than on running, which is understandable. They did not see me as the Olympic athlete I dreamed of becoming—but rather as a successful physician who would one day follow their footsteps into the world of medicine. But, in retrospect, once I was really into this beautiful sport, no one could take from me the passion I had discovered for running. And I am thankful because I had the chance—and later the understanding and support—to find my way in pursuit of my dream of running, and I still studied medicine in school.

My first coach, Heinz Lüdemann, showing me his new watch during one of the youth track meets in 1996 in my hometown. © Victah Sailer/Take The Magic Step
My first coach, Heinz Lüdemann, showing me his new watch during one of the youth track meets in 1996 in my hometown. © Victah Sailer/Take The Magic Step

The joy of running always inspired me so it was easy for me to set personal goals from early on. Yet when I began training, achieving fast times was not much of a consideration because I was new to the sport and was learning how to run competitively. I did not have the experience many of my friends had. I seldom used a stopwatch—usually only for short sprints on the track or when I wanted to test myself on my favorite 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) and, later, 8-kilometer (5-mile) circuit.

Trying out different distances

I enjoyed taking my time to move up in the distances I ran. For a few years, I competed in shorter events as well like the 200 meters dash, 400 meters dash, and even the 400 meters hurdles. Though, the middle and long distances led to stronger results. Finally, I tried my first 10K competition and even longer races.

During the running seasons, I kept training “fresh” simply by trying out new trails and routes—in the forest or on the road, in the flats or in the hills. And I loved going with the training group to the sea in the summers and running along the beach. In autumn and winter, it was cross-country that I liked the best.

Sport Club TSG Blau-Weiß Petershagen… © Uta Pippig

Looking back on those years today, my fondest memories as a young girl revolve around the fun we had training and the comfortable feeling of being among friends in a team. The bonds we formed extended far beyond just the sport in which we were competing. We became a family of friends who helped, supported and cared for each other. Those are memories I always will treasure.

You can imagine how much easier this made my first competitive outings. We just went out and raced—dressed in cotton shorts and shirts, and wearing canvas shoes. It was a world away from today’s high-tech gear. We were confident we could run fast because we were focused, we had trained well, and—most of all—we just loved to run!

Come on and run with me!

In memory of my friend and coach Heinz Lüdemann.

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