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The Man Behind The Bottle: A Conversation With Bottle Claus

Claus-Henning Schulke became famous worldwide for being Eliud Kipchoge's official bottle man during his world-record performances at the Berlin Marathon in 2018 and 2022. We had the chance to discover the man behind the bottle.
Bottle Claus 2022 Berlin Marathon
Bottle Claus at work in the 2022 Berlin Marathon

Just before 11 am on 25th September 2022, Eliud Kipchoge crossed the finish line at the Berlin Marathon beating his previous world record set in 2018 by 30 seconds: 2h01’09”. The two performances had one common denominator - aside from Kipchoge running of course - Claus-Henning Schulke, a 56-year-old German construction engineer and amateur triathlete in charge of Kipchoge’s nutrition during the race. After the world record performance, Schulke, known around the world as “Bottle Claus” after his performance in 2018, became a world-famous sensation with media covering his performance as much as Kipchoge’s.

My biggest remembrance of Berlin is the guy who was handling me water. [He is] still my hero up to now. The way he was handling and acting and talking was unbelievable Eliud Kipchoge, 2018

Handling a bottle to a person running at 2’52”/km is not an easy task. You have to prevent the bottle from falling, make sure the athlete can spot you from a distance to come your way, ensure the athlete catches it without missing a step, and arrive at the next aid station before the athlete. All this work has been featured in many articles and Youtube videos amounting to millions of views and they all convey one message: Bottle Claus is a true - maybe the truest - fan and enthusiast of the sport.

Eliud Kipchoge Berlin Marathon 2022 bib
"No Human is Limited" Kipchoge wrote on his 2022 Berlin Marathon bib. Image Claus-Henning Schulke

We had the pleasure of getting some time with him while he is preparing for Race Across America (RAAM) this June, the toughest bicycle race in the world, to discuss how he ended up becoming Kipchoge’s bottle man, his work for the Berlin Marathon and his next adventure, which started this week and you can follow on his channels.

You had amazing performances on marathons in the past and you now focus on triathlon. From your videos on Youtube and interviews, you transmit a huge passion. Where does this passion come from?

I did high-level sports (amateur level) for over 40 years and still doing it. Competitive sports work mainly on the base of volunteers. I want to give a little part of the kindness and support back, which I received. On the other hand, I know very well how outside support can affect performance because I have also a benefit when I perform. And if I can transfer my enthusiasm to a minimum benefit to the athlete, I will be very glad. A big part of the performance is mental.

The last thing is the tension if the bottle transfer went well. So many things can go wrong. So each time the transfer is working well, I am very, very glad and the pressure must find a valve in emotions

How did you start to collaborate with the Berlin Marathon in 1998? After almost 25 years, how do you think the event has changed and your role within it developed?

In the 90th the sons of the organizer were involved in the event. They asked their sports clubs (Swimming, triathlon) for volunteers. I was electrified to get so close to these world-class athletes and help them to perform at their highest level.

For the past 10 years, I have been the team leader and organized athletes' nutrition with about 30 people. I start about 3 months ahead of the event and spend about 100 hours each year. Our goal is to let the athletes perform at their highest level and they should not focus on their nutrition but on running.

In the beginning, we were allowed to run with the athletes on the course. But the IAAF officials forbid this. Since then we are standing behind a line not to step on the course. In the past years the focus on nutrition during a race changed from just compensating the liquid to keeping the energy level high with carbohydrates. And we increased the number of aid stations, so the elite athletes can benefit in smaller intervals.

You assisted Eliud both in 2018 and 2022 and on both occasions he ran the new World Record. After the good work you did in 2018, you have been specifically assigned to Eliud again in 2022 when the world was aware he was going for another world record attempt. What changed for you during these 4 years? Were you excited or stressed knowing that your role was crucial in his pursuit of the record?

In our team of the Elite-Nutrition, we do a lottery on the morning of the marathon. So everyone has the opportunity to get the winner. In 2017 I drew Eliud. The weather conditions were horrible but he performed very well and I did it too - laugh. That was the year when we started our trusty relationship. The management asked me to do the job in 2018 too (besides the lottery). No question that I agreed in seconds. By accident, the cameras were focused on the bottle transfer. That was the start of my career as “Bottle Claus“.

When the organization told me about Eliud in 2022. I was very, very excited to see him again: the Olympic Champion and world record holder. Because of his warm, focused, and professional character, I like him very much. He is my hero also besides his sportive performance. Rene Hipen is responsible for the media presentation of the marathon and asked me about a “Bottle Claus Story“. I was blown by this idea. The days before the race I had restless sleep. I had a lot of pressure. I was thinking about so many scenarios of what could happen and go wrong. Besides I had to organize my team. To do a record attempt so many pieces of a puzzle have to fit together. Nutrition, or bottle passing, is just a small piece. Luckily Eliud had an excellent day on the course. All the transfers went well. The perfect day.

After the 2022 race, your popularity exploded on the internet, your performance went viral on social and your story has been covered by media around the world. How did you manage this instant popularity?

I am not involved in social media at all. So I did not notice at first. My roommate from Ukraine asked me to do my “management” and also asked Anna to support me on social media and management. I was so glad, that I had such big support. There were more than 400.000.000 (four hundred million) clicks on the video. So many interviews – even with the New York Times! Absolutely flashing!

I was able to promote my own projects: Atlas Mountain Race, a bike-packing-race through the mountains and desserts of Morocco, and the Race Across America (RAAM) which I will race this June you can follow me on or @bottle_claus.

I enjoy the situation very much. And if I could inspire some people around the world in these hard days to look positive in the moment and in the future and maybe forget all the stress for some minutes I would be very glad. But in the end, I still like my job, earn money with my job, enjoy sports, have positive moments with my friends, be healthy, and feel good.

Bottle Claus bike
Claus after a 250k ride from Berlin to Altenberg

Tell us more about your next adventure, Race Across America. What does this challenge mean for you?

The bike race was held for the first time in 1982, still under the name Great American Bike Race. It leads over a non-stop route of almost 5,000 km set by the organizer. The category of solo riders is considered the supreme discipline. Timekeeping begins at Oceanside (Pacific) and ends at the finish in Annapolis (Atlantic). How the racers spend their time in between is up to them. In the solo discipline, you can save time by sleeping less. However, the lack of sleep is also associated with a reduction in performance. Finding the right balance here is a significant challenge. The time limit is 12 days.

In 1987 I did a bike-packing tour from New York to San Francisco. On halfway we met an RV (Recreational vehicle) and were offered a Coke. They told us: “We support a rider doing the RAAM!“ Since then, I was carrying this dream in my heart. In the meantime, I did a lot of sports – Marathons, Triathlons. I had been to Ironman Hawaii 6 times. During Corona-Restrictions, we were just allowed to cycle for ourselves. So I developed a passion for long-distance riding and completed Race Across Germany, a bike race through Germany, in 2021 and 2022. Both events were qualifiers for the RAAM.

In 2022 my Roommate encouraged me: “Live your dream!!“. So I researched the details of the event and started to organize it. The total costs are about €50/60.000. I had to find sponsors, a team, Train, Train, Train, get the equipment, the Van, the RV, book flights, and motels …… Puuuh. What a bunch of things to manage to get to the Startline on June 13!!

So: it is my dream. Do it now! You do not get younger! Get out of your comfort level. Develop yourself. It is an adventure to new levels I never saw before. I will tell you about this on June 26th at the finish line!!!

Are there any points of contact in preparing for the bottle performance and a personal race? The level of detail?

In the past 25 years, I saw so many things which went wrong with the bottle-transfer. Some are from our side, while some are from athletes’. The most difficult thing is to get in contact with the athletes at the first aid station. He/She does not know you and when a group of athletes of about 10 runners comes to the station: how do you pick up your athlete to transfer his/her bottle prepared the day before? Wow. This is a challenge. We implemented different policies:

  1. Shouting out very loud their name.

  2. Putting their name on the arm.

  3. Stepping back of the table if your athlete is not in this group.

  4. In 2022 I put the backlight of my bike on my wrist, so Eliud can focus on the light

  5. Holding the bottle on the bottom, so the athlete can grab it easily on the top

What can go wrong:

  1. Your athlete misses the bottle

  2. The bottle falls down

  3. Another athlete takes the bottle

We are asked to step off the race course. So, a missed bottle can just be compensated at the next station. There are a lot of does and don’ts, how to act in the aid stations and on the way between the aid station. But it is not rocket science rather than common sense. Shortly before the race in 2022, I had a meeting with Eliud's management to discuss the latest details about the stations and the handover.

This interview has been edited.


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