Yes, it was two months ago. But, yes, I finished!
Those of you who had followed my series leading up to the marathon knew that I was struggling those last few weeks, filled with doubts. For a number of reasons, the last three weeks of my training were just rubbish. Too much other life stress meant I struggled to find the will, the energy, and the time to go out for a run.
But as soon as I found myself in the middle of 40,000 people at the start of the marathon, all of that doubt just dissolved away. I knew I’d put in the hours of training and I knew that the excitement of the day would carry me through. Most of those running along side me likely had specific times they were looking to achieve, and, honestly, this was probably the number one question I got asked when I said I was running a marathon. How fast do you want to finish? What’s your target time? Etc. Etc. As if that’s the only measure of success. Instead, I ended up with just three simple goals for my first marathon:
- Finish with a smile.
- Finish with clean underwear.
And I can say I was successful doing just that!
The journey to Berlin didn’t have the most auspicious beginning though. Our flight from London was severely delayed and when we did finally take off, it seems they didn’t get anyone’s bags on the plane. Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will already know how I felt about British Airways at the time as my carefully packed bag of running kit still sat in Heathrow. (Yes, LESSON LEARNED. When traveling for a big race, CHECK-ON.) So, I spent most of my Saturday chasing British Airways for our bags which finally, thankfully, arrived just after mid-day.
Luggage sorted, I was then off to the race expo to collect my number. It was held at Tempelhof Airport, site of the Berlin airlift, and I quickly realized that it wouldn’t have mattered if all my running kit still sat in a hangar at Heathrow. Filled with acres of booths peddling every bit of running gear imaginable, including my same shoes, my credit card and I could have quickly rebuilt my race day kit.
One of the things I had worried about was my pre-race meals and how I’d figure out how to eat the right stuff while travelling, likely eating out in restaurants. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. Italian restaurants dotted just about every corner of our neighbourhood, so pasta was an easy choice. I also found myself lucky to have an American diner directly across the street that specialized in pancakes. Also, our local shop had the rice cakes, peanut butter, honey, & banana that make up my usual race day breakfast. On race day morning, and in keeping with my race goal number three, I washed it all down with an Imodium. Brilliant.
With a race start just after 9AM, race day was an early start for me. We stayed in a lovely apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, formerly part of old East Berlin and so I needed to allow about an hour to get to the start area on the U-Bahn. But while the streets were mostly quiet as I left our flat, I immediately found myself meeting other runners on the same journey to the start.
Because who’s on the U-Bahn at 7AM on the Sunday of the marathon? Runners, lots of runners. And a banana, who was also a runner. As we got closer to the start, the carriages became filled with runners and, in the end, the crowd resembled the London tube at rush hour, just with sneakers instead of suits.
Getting off the U-Bahn, it was easy to find my way to start, I just followed the crowd. Heading to the start was the first time I’d been into the center of Berlin since we arrived and the early morning walk was a great way to experience the city. Morning sunlight was glistening over the Holocaust Memorial as I walked past and I did stop for a moment just to take in the scene and significance. The route to the start also took me through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time. Next time, I’d be running through it.
If I’d been able to order the day’s weather off a menu, I would have chosen exactly what Mother Nature delivered. Crystal clear blue skies, cool-ish weather. Perfect for running 26.2 miles.
With 40,000 runners, I was expecting crowds. And for the most part, the Germans managed this with the precision you’d expect. But I was surprised that there weren’t more loos. I thought I’d given myself plenty of time to get to the start, but by the time I’d dropped off my bag and waited in the enormous loo line, I ended up having to rush to the start. And it was pretty early in the race when I came to regret only having time for one pre-race trip to the loo.
I started in the last wave of runners, well behind the elite and fast runners but the atmosphere was still electric. The crowds, the beautiful day, and bass from the club music pounding through the loudspeakers filled the air with excitement.
After the start gun went off, it was easily another 10 minutes before I actually crossed the start line. Thank goodness for chip timing, right? For the first few kilometers, I took it super slow and easy. I’d let go of the pressure of getting a specific time and so just wanted to make sure I didn’t start too fast, something I’ve done plenty of times in other races and then bonked. Given the pace I’d been running in training, Coach Julia had told me to make sure I didn’t go any faster during the first 21 km than 6:30 min/km and I stuck to that slow pace (or slower). I was super conservative with speed as the most important thing was finishing and feeling good.
It was at about 5 km that my bladder starting sending out warning signals. Drat that long loo line! I looked on with envy at all the men just darting off to the side of the road for a quick loo break. I hung in there as long as I could but my bladder hit the wall at around 10 km and I gave up and stopped at the port-a-loos. The queue was thankfully only a handful of people deep, but the stop probably cost me about 5 minutes.
Because of my slow pacing, I was still feeling really good past the half-way mark. I stuck as close as I could to the blue line, the official racing line that’s painted on the streets. The blue line served as a mental checkpoint and something to keep me focused. The crowd and the atmosphere along the route were just amazing and served to keep my mind engaged and free of boredom. People lined the route everywhere cheering. And then there were the drums, drum bands everywhere. Who knew there were even so many different types of drum bands? But they were great at motivating me to keep running. As a tourist, this was truly a great way to see a new city.
Even though I still felt good, I did stop and walk through most of the water stations after the half way point. Plus, the water was in open top cups and that is frankly impossible to drink while running! The water stations also became a minefield with deep trenches of open road cutting a path between the mountains of discarded plastic cups. I had to be careful to navigate the clutter.
You hear about the wall, everyone talks about hitting the wall in a marathon. But I never felt like I hit the wall. By around 35 km my legs were starting to feel like jello and things were getting tough. But I never felt like I couldn’t keep going. And, as my name was on my race number, there were cheers from complete strangers urging me to keep going. Once I got past 35 km, I finally allowed myself to start believing I would finish and for those last couple of kilometers, I even picked up the pace. I didn’t bonk and I still had the energy to run to the finish.
As you’re running through the streets of Berlin, there is this magic moment when you turn a corner and then see it, the Brandenburg Gate and the finish dead ahead. All those months of training had culminated in this, a final sprint to the finish. (I felt like I was sprinting though video evidence suggests otherwise.) The experience at the finish was overwhelming. There were crowd filled grandstands, cheerleaders, and big screens. I ran through the Brandenburg Gate with my arms in the air and a big smile on my face. What an amazing life experience I’ll never forget!
Finish time 4:53:38. And I’m over the moon with that. In my first marathon, I finished in under 5 hours, managed a negative split, and overcame the mountain of doubt I’d had before the start. In training, the furthest I ever ran was a half marathon as Julia built my plan around fartlek and threshold runs and less about the traditional long slow run. But Julia listened to my doubt and assured me that it would be ok, that I would do it, and she was right. Thanks for the encouragement Julia!
And how cool to have been in the same race when Dennis Kimetto set a new world record!
Then it was time to collect my bag, change clothes in the middle of a field (modesty was out the window), meet up with family, and head back to the U-Bahn for the journey home. I’d packed plenty of post race recovery fuel to feed me until we got home. And then I wolfed down a nice juicy burger and fries from the American diner across street.
That night, my legs were sore and stiff and not very interested in moving around. However, an early night and a long sleep meant that I felt ok enough to go exploring around Berlin the next day. Another thing Julia was right about, the fact that I wouldn’t be sore the next day.
Training for a marathon is no easy undertaking and there were any number of sacrifices and tradeoffs that I had to make to fit in training. I’m grateful to have friends and family that supported me (and put up with me) during my months of training. But it was such an amazing adventure that I’m so glad I took on. So yes, I finished, I finished with a smile, and I finished with clean underwear (maybe).
SHANTARAM Countdown: Finished. An excellent audiobook. Highly recommend. And, Humphrey Bower, the narrator, is freaking amazing.