The cross-border race: A local initiative uniting both sides of the Oder River6 min read

This article is the second in a series of articles written by the graduates of 2018’s Solidarity Academy and re-published in collaboration with Lossi 36. Solidarity Academy is an international project aimed at inspiring and supporting the development of the young intellectuals across Europe. 2018’s Solidarity Academy focused on the borderlands of Central and Eastern Europe, taking on questions of memory, identity and remembrance. 

It is Friday, November 23rd. After a short train ride from Szczecin, we arrive in Gryfino, a border town between Poland and Germany located on the shore of the Oder River. We walk through the streets of Gryfino, wrapped in a grey autumn mist. It is a typical middle-sized town: small houses, a few beautiful churches, dogs barking here and there, and people going on their daily routines. But there is something special about the city – for 25 years it has been hosting a German-Polish cross-border race.

At OSiR Gryfino Sport Centre we are meeting the organiser of the race, Jan Podleśny, an exceptionally energetic man who has signed up for the 2019 Berlin Half Marathon as a present for his 70th birthday. Running keeps him in shape and full of energy. He is not only involved in organising the cross-border race, but also works as a sport trainer and organises Olympics for kindergarten children and other activities.

The cross-border race is organised twice a year in order to mark two important dates: May 3rd, the Polish Constitution Day, and October 3rd, the Day of German Unity. In the first event, those who run the half marathon begin the race in Gryfino, reach the German town of Gartz, and then return to the start. Those who run ten kilometres begin in Gryfino, run up to the German village of Mescherin and back. The second race follows the same path but starts and ends on the German side – in Gartz. The participants are from both Poland and Germany.

One of the race’s participants, Filip, is a Polish engineer. He first took part in the event in 1998 when he was in high school. He was training for a duathlon, so their club saw it as a good training opportunity and a way to give the club exposure in the local media. The border crossing in Gryfino at that time was for pedestrians only. So far Filip has participated in two cross-border races, including the one in 2018. While he has not done any sports for several years, he is now planning to run in both races regularly.

When I ask Filip what the cross-border race means to him, he says he treats it as a hometown event and a great opportunity to meet old friends. Having been brought up in Gryfino, they are all used to the border. For him, a person with a sports background, all the runs are primarily competitions or workouts, only secondly does he think of the cross-border aspect. Nevertheless, he sees the race as a nice way to get closer to his neighbours, whom – because of the history – the local inhabitants know little about.

According to Filipin its early days in the 1990s the cross-border aspect was very different than now, and the race allowed people to interact with their neighbours living across the border.  It also helped to unite people through the universal experience of sport.

“These days, ironically, many Polish people from the region, due to the strange ways of the economics, buy properties and decide to live in Germany right across the border, and work in Poland. The neighbouring region of Germany is relatively poor and Germans move out to the other parts of the country,” Filip explains. “Many Germans come to Szczecin for cheaper shopping for basic goods and building materials. Germans used to look down on Polish neighbours, but now their extreme right political parties have the immigrants to look down at and suddenly Polish neighbours are okay.” According to Filip, Poles and Germans in the borderland appreciate each other for what they can offer.

Krzysztof Czosnowski,a Polish investment advisor and a cross-border race participant, was born in Szczecin, but has lived all his life in Gryfino, now together with his wife and two daughters. He participated in the race for the first time in 2014. The race has a well-known history in Gryfino and its surroundings and he wanted to be part of this history, too.

Since 2014 Krzysztof has already participated in the cross-border race nine times. He enjoys its atmosphere. For him, the main mission of the event is to gather together people from both countries who enjoy an active and healthy lifestyle. As he points out, there are currently a number of cross-border cultural, educational and sports activities, as Gryfino and Gartz are partner cities.

For the last 30 years there have been many examples of joint cross-border activities and investments. Thanks to EU funds, a waterfront was built in Gryfino as a joint project with the town’s partner – the city of Schwedt. There are also bicycle paths connecting the Polish and the German side. Krzysztof says he crosses the border without realising it, as he often uses German roads as a faster way to get to Szczecin. He describes the relationship between Poles and Germans as friendly, helpful and cooperative.

I am really curious – do most of the runners participate in the race because they want to take part in a competitive race, or because they are attracted to it by patriotic feelings? Is winning important? Is there competition between the two nations? Is a Polish person happier if the winner is from Poland and the other way around for Germans?

Filip thinks that most of the people treat it as a running competition, although of course its idea is to connect the nations. “Of course, I prefer if ‘we’ win! But in a long-distance-run amateur events the spirit of fair play is alive and there are no hooligans fighting over the victory,” he explains. Krzysztof agrees that most participants take part in other races too, but at the same time he agrees that for the majority of runners winning is not the most important thing. Many people from both countries run in the race because it is a local event and some take part in the cross-border race only. According to Krzysztof, spectators from Gryfino and Gartz enjoy the race and cheer all the runners, no matter where they come from.

When I ask about their future vision for the region, both runners say that in the coming years, the relationship between Poland and Germany might get even closer, in one way or another. Far detached from politics of states and governments, local initiatives bring people together, no matter what their nationality, occupation, age and interests. As long as there are men like Jan Podleśny who organise cross-border activities, and as long as there are men like Filip and Krzysztof who participate in the races, the future is in good hands. Local hands.

Solveiga Kaļva originally from Riga, Latvia, is a student of Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies Masters Program at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Her interests include writing, photography, art, music. She also runs a travel blog.