German marathon twins Anna and Lisa Hahner only took up running because an Irish folk rock star told them to, and now they're bound for the Rio Olympics. We join the two distant dots.

Sporting chance

Anna and Lisa Hahner were born 16 minutes apart, the second and third eldest of five siblings. They grew up on a hobby farm in the tiny German village of Rimmels (population 300) where they enjoyed the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle. “I remember we were strong as kids, bringing in wood from the forest and picking up the straw bales after the harvest,” Lisa recalls.

Sport was also an important part of their lives. They played table tennis to a regional standard and attained a brown belt in the German orientation of the Japanese martial art of jujutsu.

“Looking back it was important because from a young age it was completely normal for us to compete against each other,” Lisa explains. The pair even used to fight in the art of jujutsu, although their parents insisted they wore heavily padded punching gloves at all times.

Kelly the hero

The Hahner twins were inspired to run by a European-based Irish American musician called Joey Kelly. We’ll explain. As huge fans of the pop and folk group The Kelly Family (whose music truly divided Germany's youth during the 90s), the twins leapt at the chance to attend a talk being given by band member Joey in nearby Fulda. Joey had reinvented himself as an endurance athlete and multiple marathon and ironman finisher. The twins, then aged 17, were left spellbound by his running tales. 

“We were completely fascinated and inspired,” Lisa explains. “The way he talked about running sounded like the coolest thing on earth.”

The following day the sisters biked out of the village in a pair of table tennis shoes to go for a run. Initially embarrassed, Lisa says “we stopped running every time a person passed by”. But after overcoming their initial awkwardness they became hooked.

Hahner Twins ()

It's all in the socks

Winning start

Just three months later the pair entered their first race, an 11km on the roads, and finished first and second in their age group. “That was the moment we thought 'hey, we are quite good',” says Anna.

Later that year the pair ran 1:29 in their debut half marathon. On the back of that they began competing for the club PSV GW Kassel. In 2008, a little under a year and a half after her tentative debut run, Anna won 3000m silver at the German junior champs. Later that year she represented her country in the junior race at the European Cross Country Championships. She had well and truly found her calling.

Lisa took a little longer to catch up. She made her international debut in the under-23 race at the 2010 Euro cross. Yet the (marginally) younger twin was never jealous of her big sister’s early success.

“I had the feeling that if Anna can do it, I could do it also,” Lisa says. “I was always convinced I had the same potential. It doesn't matter who shows it first, as we do this together as a team.”

Marathon moment

In 2011 the pair continued to impress. Lisa placed fourth in the 10,000m at the European U23 Championships and Anna finished fifth in the U23 race at the Euro cross. Good results, but the one that changed things was Anna’s PB 73:41 at the Cologne Half Marathon. It convinced the pair that their future might lie in the marathon.

“We were in conversation with the German national marathon coach Wolfgang Heinig [husband and former coach to 1988 Olympic marathon bronze medallist Katrin Dorre] when he mentioned I should go for the marathon in 2012 to qualify for the Olympic Games.

“We love the longer runs and the marathon training,” says Anna. “It made sense.”

Aged 22, Anna ran 2:30:14 to place sixth in Dusseldorf, but fell 14 seconds shy of the qualification standard for London. It didn't matter. She had become a bona fide marathon runner. Lisa would follow her lead later that year, running 2:31:28 in Frankfurt.

Canova can

The Hahners are not scared of hard work: their brutal weekly kilometreage can top 230km, but there is plenty of method in their training. The sisters are coached by charismatic Italian Renato Canova (their German based coach is backwards man Thomas Dold), who also guides half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat and Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele.

“He very much focuses on one day of really hard training, followed by easy days, and then a hard day,” says Anna. “Sometimes you do an intensive training session on a morning and you are so exhausted you cannot possibly imagine doing another intensive training session on an afternoon, but as Renato always says, ‘don't worry, nobody died from that training’.”

In 2014 Anna ran 2:26:44 at the Berlin Marathon. Last year Lisa bounced back from a stress fracture to run a PB 2:28:39 in Frankfurt. At the time it was nine seconds short of the Rio Olympic qualification standard, but the German federation have since changed the standard – both twins are heading for Rio!


Olympia Quali geschafft.Riooooooo wir kommen! Die deutsche Olympianorm im Marathon der Frauen wurde heute auf 2:30:30h...

Posted by Hahnertwins - Anna Hahner und Lisa Hahner on Wednesday, 27 January 2016


Telepathic understanding

The pair say they have an almost telepathic understanding of one another. “We don’t need words to communicate,” says Anna. “Sometimes all we need is to look at each other without saying a word.”

In a race the duo can form a powerful presence. Anna adds: “It is an advantage [to be twins]. We can play games in the race. We know which of us is running faster so one or the other can go to the front and play tactical games.”

Hey sister

The pair may come as a package, but they differ in personality. Anna is more impulsive, Lisa more circumspect. They even have different athletic strengths. Anna, shorter by 2cm, possesses more natural endurance, while Lisa has fractionally more speed.

Differences don’t come between a special bond: the twins describe themselves as being closer than best friends. In fact, neither sees any downsides to spending each day together running.

“The best part of running with a twin is you are never on your own,” says Anna. While Lisa comments: “We share the same passion for the sport and I know if I am excited, then Anna is excited too and that acts as extra motivation.”