When Eliud Kipchoge crossed the finish line at the Berlin Marathon last weekend, breaking his own world record, Claus-Henning Schulke breathed a sigh of relief.
The Berlin Marathon volunteer — whom Kipchoge has called his hero — had done his job perfectly.
Schulke, a 56-year-old German construction engineer, handed Kipchoge his bottles of nutrition 13 times over the course of the 26.2 mile race. There was no room for error. A botched handoff could be the difference between history and disappointment, which is why Kipchoge’s team sought out the services of the bottle-passing maestro now known as “Bottle Claus.”
A triathlete growing up, Schulke started volunteering at the Berlin Marathon as a bottle passer in 1997. Twenty-five years of bottle passing later, he has not only perfected the craft, but he also manages the team of 34 volunteers who help elite athletes access their nutrition during the Berlin race.
It’s a unique and high-pressure role.
Among the World Marathon Majors, a collection of the six largest marathons in the world, Berlin is the only event to offer a bottle-passing service. Even there, only a handful of top professionals are able to take advantage of the service: This year, volunteers passed bottles to only 19 men and 15 women, while all other elite runners had their bottles placed on numbered tables, which they grabbed on the run. Taking the wrong bottle is one of the many ways a nutrition plan can go wrong.
But what exactly is in those bottles? It depends on the runner.
“Athletes all have something different in their bottle,” says Scott Fauble, the top American finisher at this year’s Boston Marathon. “Some athletes like powders that you mix with water, some like gels that they tape to the outside of their bottles. Some take caffeine, some people can’t. Athletes have to figure out what agrees with their belly.”
Identifying the right kind of fuel can be a major hurdle for runners, elite and amateur alike. And missing it during a race can spell disaster.
“Fuel is a major limiter of performance in the marathon,” said Sara Hall, a professional runner who owns the third-fastest marathon time ever for an American woman. “Getting the right fuel and hydration that you know will sit well in your stomach when you’re clicking off fast paces is crucial to maintain that speed. It’s why you see some athletes go back for a bottle if they drop it. It’s worth it to lose that 10 seconds.”
Schulke’s partnership with Kipchoge began in 2017, when he was randomly assigned to assist the Kenyan. Kipchoge won the race, but rainy conditions thwarted his attempt to set a world record. When Kipchoge returned to the race in 2018 for another attempt, his team requested the same partnership.
“Before the race in 2018, I got a call from the race director who said that Eliud’s team wanted to meet with me at their hotel,” Schulke recalled. They met and talked strategy. What’s the best way to get Kipchoge’s attention in a crowd of runners? How did he want his bottle held?
They looked to a table near them, where there was a vase with a tulip. “I held the vase from the bottom, and he grabbed it from the upper part,” Schulke said. “That was the most efficient way of passing it.”
The practice paid off. On that 2018 race day, Schulke navigated 11 flawless bottle handoffs, and Kipchoge set a new world-record time of 2:01:39. As clips of Kipchoge’s effort spread across the internet, so too did clips of his enthusiastic water handler who celebrated each successful pass with emphatic double fist pumps before jumping on his bicycle to ride to the next aid station.
The day after the race, Kipchoge asked to meet Schulke in the lobby. He had written a note to Schulke on the back of his race bib. “Mr. Claus, Thank you for helping me today,” Kipchoge wrote. “My world record wouldn’t have happened without you.”
As this year’s race approached, Schulke felt the pressure. “I wasn’t just nervous the night before the race. I was nervous four weeks before,” he said. “I don’t want to be blamed for something that goes wrong or disturbing the record. The days before the race, it’s hard for me to sleep.”
At the five-kilometer mark, or just over three miles into the race, it was Schulke’s time to shine. As a group of six front-runners approached at over 13 miles per hour, Schulke, in his neon pink-and-yellow outfit, crouched down and stretched out his arm. “Bottle Claus! Never has so much fuss been made about a man giving a drink to another man,” a commentator on live television said.
After the bottle pass, Schulke hopped on his bicycle and pedaled to his next stop five kilometers away, weaving through pace cars and camera crews. Over the course of the next 12 aid stations, Kipchoge’s lead grew, and so did Schulke’s fandom.
“A lot of spectators were shouting, ‘Bottle Claus, Bottle Claus,’ when I was passing on the road,” Schulke said. With every successful handoff, his fist pumps rose higher into the air.
Schulke made his final pass at 40 kilometers, nearly 25 miles through the race, and watched Kipchoge disappear around the corner. “I had no idea if he was going to break the record because he seemed to be losing a little speed,” Schulke said. For the next six minutes, he stood at the final aid station awaiting word on the official time.
2:01:09. Thirty seconds faster than the last time Schulke handed Kipchoge bottles in Berlin.