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Copenhagen Half Marathon 2023 review
One of Europe’s biggest and best. A late summer race: Flat, but hot this year. Plus: Copenhagen travel notes for runners.
The Copenhagen Half Marathon is one of the largest races in Europe. This year, there were 24,382 finishers according to the official results. It takes place each year in mid-September, making it the earliest major half marathon at the start of the main European season. It’s its own event, as opposed to being run in conjunction with a full marathon or some other distance. It’s a world-class race that attracts a talented field of elite athletes and has plenty to offer to recreational runners from around the world, too. About 35-40 percent of runners are from outside Denmark. It’s also very efficiently organized.
The newly changed loop course goes through the heart of the city, finishing very close to where it starts in the Frederiksberg municipality within Copenhagen. And it’s pretty flat, which can make it a good pick if aiming for a PR. However, as discussed shortly, the time of year and late start can make for warmer-than-ideal running conditions, potentially offsetting the speed advantages of the course itself.
Copenhagen and the SuperHalfs
The Copenhagen Half is part of a five-race series called SuperHalfs, which is a joint marketing and loyalty-building effort on behalf of five independent European races. Runners who complete all five within a 36-month window earn a special series medal. Grammatically speaking, it should really be called “SuperHalves.”
Personally, I’ve never been motivated by bonus bling based on cumulative race efforts. But the SuperHalfs series does contain some epic races. And if going for that medal is what it takes for you to do multiple races, then you should sign up in the program. Among the SuperHalfs races is EDP Lisbon, which I did with my son earlier this year, and Valencia, which is high on my bucket list.
Registration and packet pickup
This year, registration for the Copenhagen Half Marathon cost 74 or 81 Euros, depending on when you signed up. This included a Nike shirt. That’s a pretty good price for a race like this, especially as the rate also included some free personal race photos. It’s an example of how major races in Europe are generally priced favorably compared with many in the United States. The previous race I had done — San Francisco — cost over $200, yet, from an organizational point of view, was somewhat deficient. Copenhagen, by contrast, seemed very well organized. And pre- and post-race communications were excellent.
But you should register early for the Copenhagen Half, as this very popular race sells out. In 2023, it sold out in June, about three months ahead of race day.
The Expo with packet pickup takes place over the three days before the race at a location near a major stadium reached easily by Copenhagen’s very efficient Metro system. It was partly outdoor, partly indoor. You get your bib and your race bag with shirt at different counters, but lines were short when I went on the day before the race and everything was handled smoothly. The Expo is a mid-sized one with the usual sorts of vendors.
A nice touch was a canvas “wall” showing the names of all registered runners. It took a bit of time to find my name, as the layout was only somewhat alphabetical.
The white Nike shirt was of high quality, as you’d expect of the brand, but perhaps a little plain. On the plus side, there was a shirt exchange desk — so if you had second thoughts about the size you’d selected when registering, you could try for a swap. I believe they had some sizes in stock as spares, but popular swaps involved matching runners showing up with reciprocal needs. I tend to vacillate between mediums and large, and ended up exchanging my large for a medium after waiting a few minutes for someone wanting to do the opposite.
The next day, at the start of the race, I noticed there was a desk for late bib pickup. I hadn’t noticed that advertised on the race website. But it’s a nice service for people who for some reason end up missing the expo — assuming they know about it. Very few large races offer this.
The race start
The race start was 11:15 AM. For runners from North America, that’s pretty late and, as discussed shortly, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Especially as 11:15 is just the start of the start.
If coming by Metro, the Frederiksberg stop is right in the middle of where you want to be, close to bag drop-off for those using it and a short walk to where runners line up. I got there at around 10 AM on a train packed with runners. I’d gone there the day before to scope it out, something I usually try to do when running new races.
There was an upbeat atmosphere as the many thousands of runners gathered. There was music (not live). And pre-start announcements were in English as well as Danish. In fact, this whole event — like the city as a whole — is very friendly to English speakers. English is very widely spoken in Denmark, with a high degree of fluency. And there were also many English accents to be heard in the crowds both at the Expo and at the race start. This is quite the international event.
There were some coffee shops and concessions open close to the start area for people wanting refreshment or a place to sit down. And porta-potties seemed plentiful. Rather than the typical American arrangement of having them all in one place, there were small clusters around the wider race start area. This system seems to work, as I didn’t notice any really long lines.
As well as conventional porta-potties, which you step into before doing your business behind closed doors, they had outdoor “porta-urinals,” each about the size of a porta-potty but allowing up to four guys to use them at the same time on different quadrants. These make a lot of sense, in terms of maximizing the use of space and throughput. But somehow I don’t seem them catching on in the United States, where attitudes toward outdoor urination tend to be somewhat more prudish than in Europe.
Runners’ bibs showed assigned color-coded waves based on estimated finish times. And there were banners with matching colors indicating where to go. The faster waves — those with estimated finishes below 1 hour 50 minutes — lined up in front of the start, and the slower waves were on a perpendicular street to the left. The system was self-policing. Aside, perhaps, from the waves for the very fastest runners, it appeared you could, in practice, start where you wanted regardless of your assigned wave.
My bib placed me in the wave for finishing in a little under two hours. That was an aspirational estimate, but not a wholly unrealistic one as I had got to within 50 seconds of sub-two in the past year and have once run a sub-two race. But on race morning, I sensed I wouldn’t be competitive for that sort of pace on the day, so I demoted myself to the next wave down — the one for runners expecting to finish in between 2 hours and 2 hours 15 minutes. I didn’t want to be caught up in too fast a start.
Runners were mostly in place before the 11:15 AM start. But it takes a long time to launch this number of runners. And I didn’t cross the start line until 11:54 AM — almost 40 minutes after the race start, and over an hour after I got into position. Had I stayed in my original wave — also on the perpendicular street — it would not have been much sooner.
During the long wait, it was hard to get a handle on what was going on closer to the front. This was partly because the actual start was around the corner. And there were no loudspeakers along the perpendicular street, making it pretty hard to make out what was being announced closer to the front. To the extent I could vaguely hear anything in the distance, the announcements at that stage all appeared to be in Danish.
If I did this race again, I’d probably arrive at the start area later than I did. With the long wait for my wave to cross the line, I spent around two hours between arriving on the Metro and starting to run. If this year’s start is typical, I think showing up at 11 AM would be fine if your expected finish time isn’t much below 2 hours.
Overall, however, I like large races. There is something energizing in how they take over a city. So if waiting around is an inevitable consequence of taking part in a race with close to 25,000 runners, that is something I can live with. Keep in mind, though, that the organizers plan to increase the field to 30,000 in 2024. So wait times could become even longer.
Too late a start for a late summer race?
During the earlier pre-race announcements, the English-speaking master of ceremonies reminded runners it was still summer — race day was September 17 — and cautioned them to hydrate adequately because of rising temperatures. He was right to do so.
By the time I crossed the start line, the temperature was over 70 degrees Fahrenheit and it soon reached 73-74 degrees. That’s about 32 degrees Celsius. It felt even hotter when running without shade. This was especially so as — in contrast with the previous day in Copenhagen and the forecast for the next one — there was virtually no wind.
There may be some reasons that favor such a late start to a half marathon. For example, it can make it easier for runners to get there if they are not coming from within the city itself. It also makes it easier for others to get a good night’s sleep. And it probably encourages more spectators.
But starting a race that late in what is still summer is far from ideal when temperatures are hot — as, obviously, they can be at this time of year. And that’s all the more so if it takes so long to get all the runners launched — meaning the actual start time for many is around noon or later.
The organizers, to their credit, acknowledged the heat issue in a press release they put out hours after the race. This was headlined: “Hot weather in the streets of Copenhagen.” And it went on to say in part:
While many achieved their expectations of good race times, an unusually high number also experienced that the heat had an impact on their performances.
The temperatures in the city streets rose to 23 degrees throughout the day, and the hot weather conditions proved to be challenging for many runners — leading to cases of overheating. More runners than usual required treatment from the race’s medical team to recover, creating a busy situation for the medical team and added pressure on the lines when race officials needed to request medical assistance.
In collaboration with the Copenhagen Police, Hovedstadens Beredskab, and Region Hovedstaden, the race management activated extra treatment capacity during the race.
“More runners than usual became overheated today. The severity of the cases has not been alarming, but there have been more cases than usual. This created extra pressure on the phones to our medical center when officials called in to request medical assistance,” said Dorte Vibjerg, CEO of Sparta Atletik and Løb, the organizer of the Copenhagen Half Marathon. ….
“Despite the extraordinary workload, it has always been our and the authorities’ assessment that the situation was under control. However, it doesn’t change the fact that it can be uncomfortable when — like some of our officials — you find yourself in a situation where you can’t necessarily determine whether it’s dehydration, overheating, or something more serious,” said Dorte Vibjerg.
Personally, I think this race should start two or three hours earlier when temperatures would likely be cooler. For me, the late start is the one major drawback in what is in other respects a near-perfect large event. And with global temperatures becoming harder to predict, the issue could become more pressing in the future.
The race experience
I wondered if the organizers could have launched the waves a bit faster to mitigate the late start. But one benefit of the pace at which they did so was that there was little in the way of crowding after runners had crossed the start line — at least, that was the case when I eventually started to run.
And runners seemed to have self-seeded themselves responsibly, as the part of the pack in which I started moved pretty homogeneously in the first couple of miles without excessive weaving by people trying to get around one another. Likewise, I did not notice a single walker until roughly the half-way mark when some runners began to take breaks. In the U.S., by contrast, walkers, or run-walkers, frequently plant themselves in faster waves to get a head start.
As noted earlier, the Copenhagen course is pretty flat, but it is not near-perfectly flat. There are many areas where there are very slight inclines, with matching declines soon after. But there is only one part where there is something that might be called a “hill,” and that — an ascent to a bridge at around mile 11 — is a gentle and quite short one. It was just after that hill when I encountered the only medical emergency I myself saw while on the course. Paramedics made runners stop and wait a short while while they attended to a runner who had collapsed.
The race offers a varied course, with no out-and-back segments. It takes one though a mixture of neighborhoods, including some of the most beautiful parts of the city center. No part of the course seems boring.
And out of more than 70 half marathons I have done, I have never seen crowd support that is even close to as plentiful and enthusiastic as in the Copenhagen Half Marathon. Throughout the course, there were areas where spectators lined the streets cheering on runners in ways one normally only sees at race starts and finishes. This does not just happen by accident. The organizers actively encourage spectator participation, by handing out maps suggesting where to go at different times and even arranging a special “event” ticket for the Metro to enable people to move around the course in order to cheer in more than one spot.
This year’s course was redesigned and had an all-new finish area in a tree-lined avenue, Frederiksberg Allé, which provided the final surge of crowd support.
Course support was good in other respects, too. There was a choir at one point, and at least one band. And there were adequate water stations, each with a water spray to help runners try to cool down a bit.
After crossing the line, the finish area was very crowded. But that is hardly unusual with large races. The medal was a nice one.
A disappointing time
Many runners PR in the Copenhagen Half Marathon. Perhaps a bit less so this year than others, but I’m sure that a good number of runners succeeded in beating the heat to score their best time. Unfortunately, however, I did not run a good race. My first half was okay, although not stellar, but I slowed down a lot in the second half. So much so that my time — 2 hours, 17 minutes and 48 seconds — was my worst in over four years. In fact, it was about 17 minutes slower than my best time in the past 12 months. In every other half marathon with a relatively flat course in the past year, I have finished between 2:00 and 2:06 with pretty even splits:
And my time in Copenhagen was also slower than on two very challenging, hilly courses I have run lately, Sydney and San Francisco.
I somehow felt I was not going to do brilliantly even before the race started, when I downgraded myself to the slower wave. But I wasn’t expecting to fall that short.
So what went wrong? I’m not entirely sure. The heat certainly had something to do with it. But many others were able to cope. Perhaps the heat got to me more than some. Whereas I generally finish comfortably in the top half of my age/gender division — and often in the top third — I was 131 out of 226 in this race. I was carrying my own water and also picked up some along the course, so I thought I was hydrating enough. But maybe not.
To the extent heat was the issue, I obviously don’t blame the race. I signed up for a summer race knowing it would have a late start. So that’s a risk I and every other runner knowingly assumed.
Maybe the issue also had something to do with the fact that my normal training regime had been disrupted by travel. I had been in Los Angeles and the UK before going to Copenhagen. Normally, I’d do my last long run a week before a race. This time, it took place 10 days before. I also misjudged the timing of my first energy gel — the one taken before the start — not realizing how long I would actually have to wait before starting. But I’m not sure those things can really explain it.
So for whatever reasons, I had a bad day from the perspective of my time — even though I still enjoyed the event as a whole. Part of the problem is that once you start realizing things aren’t going well, it is a challenge for the mind to exert influence over the faltering body. But I’m not sure I could have physically done much better at the point when things started to go wrong, because I felt absolutely wasted at the end. At one moment in the crowded finish area, I feared I might pass out.
I guess the one good thing is that I did keep on running. I never slowed to a walk. Some might say I should have done so in order to recover. But I find that once I walk, I lose even more momentum.
I didn’t leave Copenhagen with the “runner’s high” I like to feel after a race. But I console myself with the thought that if running half marathons in closer to two hours were all that easy, the satisfaction of succeeding would be less.
Copenhagen travel notes for runners
Hotel suggestion: I stayed in a hotel called Wakeup Copenhagen. They have three locations in the city, and mine was the one at Bernstorffsgade. This is one of those modern hotels with very small rooms that resemble ship cabins. They offer comfortable beds, a small but perfectly functional bathroom, a tiny sitting and working space, and not much more. But the rooms are clean and quiet. Mine had a good amount of natural light. The hotel reception doubles up as a bar and a place where you can buy sandwiches and snacks.
I got in on the Friday night and left early on the Monday morning, so three nights in all. And the rate — booked well ahead, but flexible — worked out at around $115 per night including taxes. I was very happy with the hotel. It’s an excellent value in a city that can be quite expensive. At one level, it’s a “budget” hotel. But it seems to attract a broad variety of travelers. I shared an elevator with a couple who had just checked in whose bag tags indicated they had flown into Copenhagen on Qatar Airlines Business Class. And there were a lot of runners staying in the hotel. I wish there were more hotels like this in the U.S. In the U.S., any $115 hotel in a major city center would likely be somewhat sketchy.
The hotel is a short walk to the main railway station, which, in turn, is a short train ride from the airport. That station is also where you get the Metro to take you to the Expo and race start. From my room to the start area took less than 30 minutes.
Pasta recommendation: There seemed fewer choices for my eve-of-race, carb-loading pasta dinner than I’d expected, at least ones reasonably close to my hotel. And the first two places I went to turned out to be closed. However, I was very happy with my third try, a hole-in-the-wall place called Ciao Pasta. This mainly operates as a take-out. And judging by the volume of foot traffic while I was there, it is very popular locally. But there are also some counter spaces for eating in.
The pasta dish I had was excellent, at least as good as what you’d expect in a fancy Italian restaurant. They also sell beer and wine. However, there was no functioning toilet — they told me it was “broken,” but I suspect from the way that was said, and the layout of the place, that it is never available, so be prepared.
Getting around: Copenhagen’s Metro train system is really easy to navigate. You should plan on downloading an app called DOT, which allows you to buy inexpensive flat-rate passes for one or more days good for unlimited travel in Zones 1-4, which should cover most visitors’ needs. But Copenhagen is also a very walkable city. I recorded over 23,000 steps the day before the race. That’s maybe not a textbook pre-race formula, but it’s what I usually do when visiting a city for a race — because the experience is also about the travel and exploring, not just the running. There is really no need to use taxis in Copenhagen. And Uber doesn’t operate there.
Pros: Large, very well-organized, world-class, late-summer race; varied and generally flat loop course taking you through the heart of a great city; fantastic crowd support, better than any I have seen elsewhere; good-quality race shirts. Cons: Late start at this time of year can make for hot running conditions; long wait times at the start to get moving if your expected finish is around two hours or slower. Sum-up: I definitely recommend the Copenhagen Half Marathon. But it would be perfect if they made it start earlier. Remember to register early, as it can sell out months ahead of race day. ✈️ 🏃
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Related post (coming soon): SAS mini airline review.
Next race: Tokyo (mid-October).