Katharina Heinig at the 2016 Berlin Marathon (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Frankfurt, Germany

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Heinig looking forward to World Championships debut

As a young girl Katharina Heinig would never have imagined that she might follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Katrin Dörre-Heinig was among the best marathon runners in the world in the 1980s and 1990s. She won an Olympic bronze medal in Seoul in 1988, took another bronze at Tokyo’s World Championships in 1991 and won the London Marathon three times and Osaka Marathon on four occasions.

In 1994, when Katharina was five years old, her mother broke the Berlin Marathon course record with a 2:25:15 performance. She had stayed back home as she usually did when her mother travelled to major competitions together with her coach and husband Wolfgang Heinig.

“I saw that my mother worked really hard,” Katharina remembers. “Sometimes we were doing barbecues with our neighbors while my mother was training. When we spoke about running and I was asked if I wanted to do this as well one day I replied, Forget about this - never, it is much too tough!“

Yet some two decades later Katharina Heinig will be on the start line of the IAAF World Championships London 2017 marathon on 6 August. Coached by her mother, her breakthrough performance came when she was fifth with 2:28:34 in the Berlin Marathon last September.

It was at the age of around 15 when Katharina Heinig changed her original intention and began to concentrate more on running.

“There was no pressure from my parents. I always did what I wanted and what was fun. As a child I contested the main athletics events in a club,” she said. However it was obvious that Katharina was a talented runner. “Already at the age of 11 or 12 I was always doing very well when I competed at road running events.”

A relatively early move to the marathon

While she concentrated on shorter distances at first she moved up early to the marathon distance. Just a few weeks after her 21st birthday Heinig won the Cologne Marathon in 2010, clocking 2:46:05. She improved by a few minutes in each of the following years and results in the spring of 2014 looked promising. She clocked personal bests at 10km (33:31), in the half marathon (1:14:32) and the marathon (2:33:56). For the first time she competed at a major championship, finishing 28th in the European Championships in Zurich.

However she suffered from a heel problem time and again in these years. In 2015 it was so bad that Heinig could barely walk. An operation included the risk that she might have to end her career. She finally decided to go for surgery. All went well and Heinig came back stronger than ever in 2016. Early in the year she improved her half marathon PB to 1:12:55.

Then she was unlucky in her next two major races. A time of 2:30:18 would have been enough to fulfill her dream of an Olympic marathon start. Heinig decided to go for it in Zurich but very cold and wet weather conditions made it impossible. Battling snow and ice in freezing temperatures she was leading the race. But suffering from hypothermia she fell twice and finally had to give up. No other woman elite runner reached the finish line on that day.

After the disappointment in Zurich Katharina Heinig then hoped to bounce back at the European Half Marathon Championships in Amsterdam that summer. But this time food poisoning took its toll. Exhausted she finished 55th in 1:17:15, running five minutes slower than expected.

“It was really sad, that Katharina was so unlucky twice - something like this never happened to me during my career,” said her mother Katrin, who had taken over from her husband as Katharina’s coach four years ago and in the meantime became the German federations marathon coach as well. It was a big relief when Katharina Heinig finally broke 2:30 in Berlin last year and achieved the national qualifying time for the World Championships in London.

“I think Katharina has big potential,” her mother said. It will be interesting to see how close the 27-year-old can get to her mother’s PB of 2:24:35 in the years to come.

Preparing for the World Championships Heinig has already been in two high altitude training camps, one in South Africa and the other just recently in Livigno, Italy.

“I will do the final part of my training for London at home,” said Heinig, who lives in Frankfurt and sometimes goes to her parents’ home in Erbach which is about an hour’s drive away. 

“I want to perform really well in London. It would be superb if I could get into the top 20. However this is a championship race and we have a 2 pm start. So anything can happen.”

Jorg Wenig for the IAAF