Gruppenbild der MDC Teamstaffel 2023

Max keeps on running

The Max Delbrück Center has participated in the Berliner Wasserbetriebe relay race every summer since 2009. As part of the “We at the MDC” series, Min-Chi Ku and Tanja Butzek talk about the race and why it’s so much more than just a fun run.

Dr. Min-Chi Ku can well remember the cuddly glial cell that was used as a baton the first time the Max Delbrück Center participated in the race, back in 2009: “It was a little unwieldy, but we wanted a baton that was both fitting and funny.” At that time, Ku was working in the Cellular Neurosciences Lab. Other batons in the history of the Center’s relay race participation have included a large pipette and on one occasion a bundle of lopped-off power cables – that was a team from the IT Department, of course!

These days, Ku is a member of the Experimental Ultrahigh-Field MR Lab, but she is still a keen participant in the relay race. The Berliner Wasserbetriebe 5 x 5 km relay races take place over three days in summer, with thousands of teams of five competing along a total route of 25 kilometers through Berlin’s Tiergarten park. Ku has been organizing the Center’s teams for several years now. The runners come from a wide range of different departments, and the teams are often initiated by group leaders or departmental heads.

Boosting fitness – and team spirit

Ku first joined in with the race at the suggestion of her group leader at that time, neuroscientist Prof. Helmut Kettenmann. She stayed on because she enjoys team sports and welcomes this excellent opportunity to interact with colleagues from other departments. Fellow runner Tanja Butzek of the Personnel Department has also participated in the event from the beginning and helps organize the teams. She neatly summarizes the concept behind the relay race: “To strengthen rapport by running as a team.”

Tanja Butzek comes from a family of runners; her parents were keen marathon participants, and their enthusiasm spilled over. As a schoolgirl she started preparing race packets for marathon runners, and then she began taking part herself. “Fun is the most important factor for me when I’m running in the relay race,” she says. “I don’t have to achieve a personal best or anything.” But every year the tension is high: will the baton handoffs work out? “That’s why we always have newbies as the first runner,” says Ku. “It means they don’t have to retrieve the baton within the chaos of the transition zone.”

All places allocated within a single day

For some teams, however, the competitive element still plays a big role. In the past few years, several of the Center’s teams have come in among the top 100. In 2014, a men’s team even made it to sixth place, with a time of 1 hour 35 minutes 26 seconds. In 2023, the Center’s best performance was 2 hours 7 minutes 10 seconds. The Society of Friends of the Max Delbrück Center paid the entry fees for a total of ten teams of eager runners – the maximum possible: “This year the applicants far outnumbered the available places,” says Ku. “They were all allocated on the very first day.”

In 2023, Ku’s relay team decided on a very practical solution for their novelty baton. The day of the race was very warm, and the prolonged spell of dry weather had made the paths through the Tiergarten very dusty. They therefore opted for a pair of sunglasses – these protected the runners’ eyes from dust particles and sunshine and could be conveniently carried on their faces.

Text: Wiebke Peters