London has Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the Mall. Paris has the Arc de Triomphe, The Eiffel Tower, Barcelona has the Sagrada Familia. Berlin has…I don’t recall passing a single landmark from the German capital.
I have an image frozen in my mind from that day. It is the peak of my cap, water dripping off it, through my rain specked sunglasses (I always take sunnies as I hate squinting in the sun, and once you have them, they’re easier to wear than carry…and I’m dead cool).
My marathon PB stood at around 3:20, after a mysterious heart condition had rendered me on the verge of death in the run up (turned out to be bollocks). I’d had a little revelation during the summer and decided to experiment with veganism. I was neck deep in Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, listening to The Rich Roll Podcast on the regular and had been shown What the Health in June.
I’m not going to delve deeply here into what I think about the merits or otherwise of this diet. Suffice to say, I was impressed with the initial results. I felt like I shed my dairy and meat gut and was left with a much leaner and more energetic vegetable burning greyhound physique, with a sweet aerobic system to boot. I think I lost around 10kg in two or three months.
One thing I will say here. Dairy is definitely bad for your (I mean my) airways. Having lived almost totally without it for nearly two years, if I eat a cheese pizza and run the next day, it literally feels like cheese is in my windpipe, moving up and down trying to spew out as I inhale and exhale. Easy reps are harder, my breathe is shorter, be your own data set.
Anyway, Berlin. I have thought about this race more than any other I have run. I feel like it was such a momentous day, where my running took a huge leap forward, but I never really stopped to celebrate it. That happens a lot I find, and I suspect this is the case for most runners.
I had wild ambitions of smashing over 20 minutes off my time and going sub 3, which earlier that year had seemed at best a lofty ambition, and at worst, just stupid.
I arrived in Berlin on a grey Friday afternoon. It was cool, just right for running. I love these little solo jaunts across the continent, no schedule but my own. Going as fast or slow as my body pleases on the days leading up to the race.
Berlin is fast, just ask Eliud Kipchoge, he ran 2:01:40 there in September 2018! The course undulates so gently it is barely noticeable. The streets are wide, the support is vocal, but closer to the English applause than the French or Spanish chanting.
An aspect of marathoning I have definitely not nailed is mastering the corral. Berlin was my sub 3 race, my be all and end all. Except when I signed up a year previously, that goal wasn’t in mind. So there I was, in the sub 3:20 starting wave. This doesn’t sound like much, but in a race of that size, it means five to ten thousand more people to navigate through before reaching a group of similar pace to you. Only myself to blame here.
Some races aren’t that strict and you can always resort to a bit of fence jumping, but they are on it in Berlin. One thing I will not take the blame for, is the assignment of the bag drop tents. They are assigned by your race number, all of them are in one spot on the huge common in front of the Reichstag…except one, my one. This was further away, round a corner totally hidden from the others.
I’ve considered this many times since the race. Did I mess that up? Was I just being stupid? NO, this particular bag drop tent was really hard to find. The simple way I judge if a race is well organised or not is this:
Do I have to think at all?
If the answer is yes, the race is coming up short. With correct signage and marshalling, you should glide past all the stops you need, which are basically two, baggage and toilets, before entering your corral. Having to think and search for things moments before a massive race is really off-putting, infuriating and unnecessary.
Oh well, adapt. Back to my old favourite, the tried and tested, no warm up, standing in the cold rain in a vest and sunglasses…in the wrong corral.
I absolutely loved every second of this race; it was dark, wet and beautiful. I was just cruising through, not paying too much attention to anything. I actually find I love wearing shades even when it is dark, it helps me focus, nothing I see is too bright and distracting, it’s almost like having my eyes half closed, I can feel more than I see. The road really does just roll in front of you in Berlin. I don’t think I’ve run another marathon like it.
I think, at this stage, I was still in the ‘just shove it in your face’ school of race day nutrition. I don’t remember at all what I had with me. I think I started with a Clif bar then just relied on the aid stations to get me through. I’ll always be angry with myself for this. I know I could have run sub 3 that day, if I had executed things a bit better here and there. I ran too fast overtaking people, I ran too slow when I had space.
My splits were atrocious, over a minute variation between fastest and slowest miles, on a basically flat course, is not good enough. Having said that, at 20 miles I was riding high. I had done it, I was going to go sub 3!! I’m going to run a 20 minute pb AND go under 3 hours and then everyone will realise how fucking cool I am.
All I had to do was run 6 more miles at around 6:50 mile pace and I was there…until I wasn’t. Like the fool I so often prove myself to be, I sped up at mile 20. At around mile 23, my world had almost fully imploded. I think everyone should be made to experience a disastrous marathon at some point in their life. When you are running at the edge of your capabilities and push it that bit too far, it is a truly humbling experience. I’ve actually come to love these most brutal of lessons. A nice taming every now and again is good for everyone.
Every corner I rounded without seeing the finish line made me furious. I was sure they had measured this one wrong. It goes mile 22, then mile 23, then mile 26 doesn’t it?!
Between miles 20-23 I had bought myself some more time. I don’t recall the exact splits, but I needed to run 3.2 miles at somewhere in the 7-7:30 pace range to slay this beast, easy peasy, I can hit that pace on a full stomach uphill on stilts. I will never forget rounding the final corner, which is still far away from the finish, and seeing my watch tick over the 3-hour mark. I actually thought for a moment about just walking off to the side at that point, with the finish line in sight.
I finished in 03:02:09. Eighteen minutes faster than ever before, gutted, but not for long. This was around 16 months from my first marathon and, for once on the finish line, I had perspective. I had loved the day, the conditions, the grind. I’ve loved Berlin for years so it was always going to be a great time.
I always enjoy the finish line camaraderie of the marathon. I imagine it is something similar to what being in a war feels like, on a much smaller scale. The shared suffering you have with fellow runners eliminates all social barriers. I’ve had some great chats and hugs and cool downs with people at marathon finishes, only to bid them farewell, never to be seen again. Something beautiful about that.
Later that day, I sat alone in the cafe near my airbnb in Kreuzberg, with my medal, a beer and a huge plate of plant-based cuisine. I hadn’t achieved my goal yet, but I was in the room, at the dance as it were. I now knew I could do it, whether or not I would, was entirely up to me.
I will definitely run Berlin again given the chance. It’s only since doing the race that I’ve realised how lucky I was to get a place through the ballot on the first attempt. To all those who have been unlucky so far, keep trying. It’s worth it I promise.
Happy running, O.