The Berlin Marathon experience (part 2)
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
It was Sunday, September 25 in Berlin, and race day had arrived!
A little bit different to what we are used to, the race started at 9:15am. The weather was supposed to reach 20 degrees, slightly higher than ideal for world records, perfect for targeting PBs.
I was in Berlin with Marty, his parents, Chris & Brian, and our friend Monique.
Something starting with ‘2’!
The plan was simple: don’t think, just run!
I had a rough pace in mind, and hoped to run fairly even splits. I didn’t want to start too hard, but also didn’t want to be making up time at the end. And with that, I was drifting into the territory of thinking too much! I was definitely a bit nervous. It was time to “just run”!
The first things on my mind were the two Bs, breakfast and bathroom. I had a few nervous bites of porridge and banana in between several bathroom stops, not sure if eating too little would mean I ran out of energy, or eating too much would mean more bathroom stops! Definitely something to practice more next time.
I spent a bit of time rolling to warm up my dodgy left ITB, which had been uncomfortable all week. My right hamstring, which had been complaining on and off in the lead up to the race, seemed to be okay.
After bathroom stops #3, 4 and 5, it was time to jog to the start line (with a brief stop at a port-a-loo on the way!).
The race precinct
We arrived at the race area and navigated our way through the bag drop towards our start group. We briefly considered lining for the toilets until we noticed countless people using the bushes. If I was desperate enough, I’d follow suit.
It was a long walk to the start area for the “D” group (3:00 – 3:15), though it was well organised, with lots of help from signs and volunteers. I found a private section of trees for one last bathroom stop, then entered our start block.
I was feeling a little bit nervous, but at the same time, ready to get underway. Even though race day can sometimes bring the unexpected, I was well prepared and knew what I had to do.
The wheelchairs and handbikes were underway, and all of a sudden, the elites were introduced, the gun went, Kipsang and Bekele set off, and we went… nowhere.
In hindsight, we probably should have made sure we were at the front of Group D, but while trying to stay relaxed at the start, I didn’t think too much about it.
It took us almost three minutes to cross the start line. When we started running, the first few kilometres were very difficult; squeezing between people, dodging around them and a few times almost coming to a complete stop.
We passed the 3:15 pacers in the second kilometre, and when I saw more balloons a few kilometres later, I assumed it was the three hour group. It turned out to be the second 3:15 pacers, and I remember being surprised they were running so fast. It only occurred to me later that they must be running gun time. The three hour pacers were nowhere to be seen.
Despite the dodging and weaving, I felt comfortable. We were behind the rough pace I had in mind, but I wasn’t too concerned at that point.We had an exciting moment seeing Chris, Brian and Monique at the 7km mark. The race was underway, our Berlin marathon experience had begun!
Early race challenges
Going through the 10km, I could feel my left knee twinge a few times, but told myself to ignore it. We were making good progress, going through in about 42 minutes. The crowds hadn’t eased, but we had picked up the pace slightly.
Getting through the drink stations was a bit chaotic as everyone tried to grab a cup. I can only imagine how the road looked as more runners came through, completely covered in cups!
We were around 13km, when we noticed how far before the kilometre markers our watches were beeping. We started to focus on sticking as closely as possible to the blue line. I had wondered if we were using extra energy dodging around people, but hadn’t thought about the extra distance it might be adding.
Around the same time, I had a few brief moments where I thought I might need to make an emergency bathroom stop. I didn’t want to lose any time, so mentally prepared myself for the possibility of having a Paula Radcliffe moment.
Luckily it didn’t come to that, and my focus changed when I finally noticed the three hour pacers in the distance ahead. It felt like the crowd had thinned slightly on some of the wider roads, but as we approached the pace group at around 16km, it got a lot more crowded again.
I knew it was going to take awhile to get past them, but it was also a huge confidence boost. Knowing they were running gun time, it meant we were actually a few minutes ahead of them and feeling strong, though it was early days.
We had maintained our pace through the last five kilometres, and managed to hold it as we worked our way through the massive three hour bus. We were told later by someone who ran with them that there were so many people, it felt hard to breathe. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Finding a rhythm
We were just in front of the pace bus when we saw Chris, Brian and Monique again, just before 20km. Somewhere around there, I distinctly remember thinking that every runner should do a major city marathon. It was crowded, but the support along the way unbelievable. There were kids waiting for high fives, bands, people dancing, cheering and offering encouragement the entire way. Once again, I’d never seen anything like it.
We had held our pace through 20km, but I remember thinking not to get ahead of myself. There was a long way to go, and I was hoping to feel as good as I did at 20km when I got to 30km.
Somewhere in the next five kilometres, I started to feel the same wobbly/tight feeling in my right knee that had come up in a few other races this year. Having got through it twice before, I told myself to ignore it and focus on the footsteps in front of me, it had held out in the past.
The tactic worked, I stopped thinking about it, and while going through the 25km mark, I noticed we had picked up the pace. I tried not to get excited, and reminded myself to wait and see how I felt at 30km.
By about 28km, I felt like I was picking it up slightly again, and decided to go with it. In the next few kilometres, the crowds thinned and there was a clear path to run for the first time in the race. For the first time in the race, I also felt like I started to work a bit harder, and wasn’t sure if I was speeding up or slowing down. I told myself to be patient and see where I was at 30km – 12.2km is still a lot of running.
Towards the finish
When I reached 30km, I had picked up the pace again and felt good. I told myself to try to get another 5km out of my legs at the same pace. It was a big confidence boost, and I started feeling like I would be able to hold on.
At 32km, I had a little conversation with myself about whether I should check my watch to see where I was at with 10km to go. I decided it didn’t matter, and to focus on enjoying the run. Not long after, I saw Monique and Brian for the last time.
Inside the final 10km, we were at the business end of the race! We were treated to a few sponsor fun zones, possibly as a distraction from the pain that was setting in. The first was a stretch of athletics track covering the road courtesy of main sponsor BMW, then later a Red Bull zone. The track was fun to run over, but I did wonder who would be drinking Red Bull during a marathon?!
Crossing the 35km mat, I was definitely starting to get tired, but my pace was consistent. I gave myself the same pep talk as at 30km, to see if I could get another 5km out of my legs at the same pace. I didn’t feel like I was slowing down, but was having to work a lot harder to hold the pace.
The next 5km are a bit of a blur. I remember thinking, ‘a parkrun to go’ at 37km, and not long later, 4km to go at 38km. I noticed a large group of spectators with flares and was coherent enough to wonder if that was safe. The 40km marker seemed to take an eternity to appear, and by that point I had started to feel like I was running on empty.
The final 2.2
I looked at my watch as I crossed the 40km mat, and saw that I had only slowed about 15 seconds from the previous 5km. I just needed to hang on.
There were a few moments where I felt like I couldn’t run any further, I was tired, my wobbly knee was back, and my breathing sounded like I was hyperventilating.
Luckily, the next two kilometres went by very quickly. It felt like just after the 40km marker, 41 appeared, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had managed to speed up slightly. I could see a corner ahead, and knew the Brandenburg Gate had to be around the other side.
The feeling of relief when it came into view was overwhelming, and I think I almost started crying. I was completely spent, but pushed myself forward for the long stretch to the finish. I don’t think I had much comprehension of the time at the point, I just knew that I had done it. Seeing the photographers at the Brandenburg Gate brought about feelings of elation, and I think I almost started crying again.
The final few hundred metres seemed to take an eternity, until finally I reached the finish line, stopped my watch, and went flying as the runner next to me fell over the line and landed on my feet. After a brief ‘WTF’ moment, I regained my balance, then realised I had run 2.51.54!
That time, there were definitely a few tears, a mixture of exhaustion and achievement, knowing I gave it everything I had.
I waited at the finish line for Marty, who was just a few minutes behind me. We were still well under 3 hours, and runners were streaming in, it was an incredible sight.
My feet were sore, my shoes were off, and I was moving very slowly. We got our medals, goody bags, and had a few photos before we found Chris, Brian and Monique in the meeting area.
If I had been less tired, I probably would have been more impressed by how organised and efficient it was. We got our medals engraved, and went back to the hotel for lunch, and the perfect post race activity – floating in a spa.
This was my first marathon major, and my first time running under three hours – it was definitely a big deal! The entire event was a great experience, the support from the crowd along the way was fantastic.
It is definitely a fast course, completely flat.
The massive number of participants has it pros and cons, the crowd can pull you along, but it was tricky in the early stages of the race trying to move through the pack. It was probably more difficult because we had a slower qualifier than our goal time, and didn’t prioritise getting to the front of our group.
For runners looking for a time goal, I think it would be best to do a qualifying marathon first, as runners without a previous time start in the last group. Half marathon times are not accepted as qualifiers.
Finishing writing this about five weeks after the marathon, I am still extremely happy with my race. I did wonder if I lost much time early on battling the crowds, but the slower start probably helped my energy levels later in the race.
There are a few things I think I can tweak to take a bit of time off and target my next marathon goal – sub 2:50.. sometime in the future!