Right. Where were we?
It didn't start well. I hadn't been able to walk pain-free throughout May and June due to the knee injury sustained in Boston and exacerbated in London. I was becoming concerned that I'd done some serious damage so, whilst in Kenya, I arranged an MRI scan in Nairobi. I knew I could get one done within a day and at a fraction of the cost versus the UK. Between the results of this MRI and consulting with a GP/physio on my return to the UK in mid-July, I discovered that the pain was most likely a combination of a medial meniscus tear and patellofemoral pain syndrome (aka 'runners knee'). After some physio treatment, within a couple of weeks I was able to walk without pain, then hop, and started light running and cross-training toward the end of July. This gave me an eight week training period to decide whether I was able to run in Berlin. A wonderful couple of weeks training on the trails and hills of the Dartmoor National Park had given me some hope that all may not be lost but after falling ill on my return with a recurrence of my Dengue symptoms, I had to pause training and undergo further blood tests in August. At that point, I requested the forms for withdrawal and had the closing date not been as generous as it was, would probably have conceded defeat there and then. As it was, the next few weeks, although an utter grind and with a serious loss of motivation and confidence, put me at a level where I thought that I could go and at least get round. I decided I would go ahead.
MRI good times in Nairobi
Arrival & Expo
I landed into Berlin Tegel airport late on the Friday night. The airport is 30 mins or so out of the city centre and Berlin has an excellent, affordable public transport network (a single cross-transportation transit ticket is £2.50/2.80€/$3.30US). I reached my accommodation in Bernauer Straße within half an hour. As you would expect, accommodation costs rocket on the major marathon weekends. If you're trying to do these races independently and on a tight budget, that can make things difficult. I had managed to find a place that offered pod style rooms with shared bathrooms just a few euros out of my budget. I entered the building and was met by a stern elderly gentleman who informed me that I had fallen nine minutes foul of his 9pm arrival cut-off and would need to pay extra. Well, what he actually said was "you are late, you pay me 10 euro more". Knowing that there was nowhere else available and just wanting a bed, I did so without argument.
The following morning, I headed to the Expo which is held at the abandoned 1930's Tempelhof airport. Constructed (but never finished) in the 1930's by the Nazis, it's a sprawling complex. A listed building, it has been used as a concentration camp, a U.S. air base, Germany’s largest refugee shelter and a concert venue amongst other purposes. As you can imagine, the morning of the day before the marathon is the busiest time at the expo, and after a queue of 15 minutes or so, I collected my race pack and number before a little cry when I found out that a race t-shirt was not included in the 120€/£107 entry fee. I'd missed breakfast so snacked on various samples of porridge and snack bars as I moved through the growing crowds to the exit, somehow managing to bump into Stephen, an old Dulwich Runners team mate amongst the thousands present. We decided to decamp for a spot of light lunch someplace a less crowded and a little more relaxing.
The evening before a marathon is always a booming time for Italian and pasta restaurants as thousands of hungry runners head out for their pre-race carb fix. Following many previous pasta disasters where I've waltzed into a restaurant expecting to eat, only to find that everywhere is fully booked before spending hours wandering the streets of a new city, hungry & tired, I heartily recommend booking a table in advance. I've never actually remembered to do this of course, but got lucky with a walk-in relatively early in the evening this time around. For once, it was me gleefully stuffing my face with tagliatelle and bread whilst crowds of marathon runners (and non marathon runners) were turned away at the door, destined to wander the streets of Berlin the night long in a desperate search for carbs.
Tempelhof Airport - home of the Berlin Marathon Expo
As always the night before a race, I didn't sleep particularly well. At least there was some variety in my race eve dream. Gone was the standard 'overslept and missed the start' narrative, this time it was that my feet were glued to the floor when the start gun went off. Any ideas on the meaning behind that one? Answers on a postcard please.
Fortunately, I didn't have to be up and about too early as I was staying in a decent location in relation to the start area and the start time wasn't too ridiculous. Outside my pod, there was a shared kitchenette and a kettle so there was no issue being able to fix a basic race day breakfast, I feasted on Sainsburys instant porridge followed by some brioche and a cuppa. I head to the race around 07.40, walking down to the U-Bahn at Bernauer Strasse. From 05.30 until 22.00 on race day you can use your race number as a ticket on public transport. Rumours that you could also use it to pay for beer were sadly unfounded. I bump into a couple of lads from Cyprus on the underground platform, Costas is running and his friend has come along to support (and also to sample some of the Berlin nightlife. He's drinking strong coffee after a big night). We make our way to the Tiergarten together, Costas and I discussing previous marathons and our hopes for the day. We reach a consensus of 'get round alive and beers afterward'.
Walking past the Siegessäule (Victory Column) on the way to the race village
The race village is situated in the eastern part of the immense 'Tiergarten', 519 acres of centrally located parkland. The size of the venue and location of the baggage and toilet areas around the edges, made for plenty of space to prepare. It certainly didn't seem too chaotic considering there were over 40,000 runners in there. The morning temperature had warmed up enough that that was no real need for wearing extra layers before the start and I changed into my race kit, delighted to discover that there was no queue for checking my bag. I made my way toward the start in good time, runners were directed to the appropriate location for the four start waves:
9.15am (predicted time up to 3h 15m)
9.25am (3h15m - 3h 50m)
9.45am (3h 50m - 4h15m)
10.05am (> 4h15m or first marathon).
My route to the start took me through the woodland which ran alongside the starting pens. These were a hive of activity as runners used the pathways to go through their warm up strides, passing crowds of figures in bright clothing, hiding in the undergrowth, doing their business due to large queues at the toilets nearest the start. Marathon runners can be an antsy sort, especially the super-serious ones, and many were clambering over the fences to enter the starting pens rather than calmly entering at the allocated points. With ten minutes to go, videos were shown on the big screen above the start line, sharing good luck messages from runners representing some of the many countries taking part. Then came the intros, I was just close enough to see the pros gathered at the start and cheers went up from the runners as they were introduced. A huge cheer erupted for Eliud Kipchoge, there was a feeling that with the fast course and near perfect conditions, something special could be in the offing.
Early on at the start/finish area in the Tiergarten, Reichstagsgebäude at the rear
It's a fantastic backdrop for a marathon start, in the middle of this great park. The start gun is fired and hundreds of blue & white balloons are released into the air as we move forward in two lanes, back toward the victory column. I'm planning on setting off conservatively and gauging my fitness so I pull to the right hand side and run tight to the kerb, letting those who are hoping to do something special get off to a strong start. I spend the first few miles testing my legs, as I didn't taper, there's still some heaviness there from last weekend's 20 miler and I know I'm doing the right thing. Don't get over excited, stay on plan.
As we move through the streets, the roads are still crowded but you have enough personal space not to feel cramped. You can see that it's a very international affair, 133 different countries are represented in the race and there are a multitude of flags and encouragement from the side is being shouted in several different languages. I pass a huge crowd of vocal Danish supporters and decide that as I don't have anyone supporting me, I will pretend all shouts of 'Danmark' are actually 'well done Mark' - you have to take what you can get in these situations. As the sun moves higher into the sky, the temperature begins to rise but it stays the friendly side of 20°C. For anyone that is feeling a little too warm, the fire service have rigged hoses to trees to make some temporary showers by the side of the street and there is plenty of shade around. We pass under a bridge and the sounds of a drumming group are amplified - that always gets the blood pumping and you have to make sure you don't speed up too much. Berlin is a cycling city and every now and again, a cyclist takes exception to the marathon passing through their cycle route and appears on the course, attempting to zigzag through the hordes in a suicide mission before a brief exchange with a race marshall.
I hit the half way point bang on my 'sensible' target, 1.45. I know I don't have the legs to go much faster so decide to stick rather than twist. There will be other days to go for broke.
Regarding the course, my impressions were that Berlin is certainly flat and fast. I could see why lots of people come here looking for a PB or something even more special, eleven world records have been set here.
Course profile: Ok, it's not quite pancake flat and there are a couple of rises after halfway but it's quick alright!
As I pass mile 18, I start to experience some stomach issues. This is not unusual and probably happens in half of my marathons. I will normally make a call on whether it's something I think I can endure or it needs to be 'dealt with' during the race. Between 19 and 20 miles, it becomes clear that some action needs to be taken so I dash into the row of portaloos situated after each drinks station. As I hopefully pick a door in the 'state of the toilet' lottery, it's safe to say that someone before me had experienced a similar situation but it appears that they weren't able to take timely action. I'll leave it at that I think.
I lose a couple of minutes here and once I'm going again and feeling a little more comfortable, work out that I need to up the speed a touch. I'm able quicken my cadence a little and it's enough to get back on sub 3.30 pace as I approach the last mile. The crowds thicken as we near the Brandenburg Gate and I figure it's a good time to put my foot down. The finish is just around the corner, right? Except it isn't. There are still another several hundred metres to go and my legs turn to jelly in the final 100 metres. I cross the finish line in 3 hours and 29 minutes exactly. A decent workout and encouragement that with a reduction of volume into Chicago I might be able to knock a wedge of time off. As the finishers hobble through, collecting their medals and trying to regain their composure, one of the volunteers holds a handwritten cardboard sign that simply says 'New WR - 02.01.39'. Eliud Kipchoge has annihilated the existing record by over a minute! Gladys Cherono, also a Kenyan, also breaks the women's course record which had stood for 13 years with 2:18:11. I grab an Erdinger alkoholfrei from the bar for a bit of recovery sustenance and move slowly into the Tiergarten.
Celebrating Marathon Major number 3 with an alcohol free beer in the Tiergarten
I find a spot on the sun parched grass and take a few moments to process things. When you're doing a series of events as part of a bigger challenge it can be easy to instantly leave one behind and move straight onto focusing on the next but by doing that you're not allowing yourself to celebrate each achievement in it's own right. You've just run a fricking marathon after all. This time would have been a PB for me just three years ago.
After working through my stretching routine and putting on some dry clothing and the obligatory flip flops (no bag queue again - kudos Berlin Marathon!), I negotiate my way through the masses of athletes lying in the sun and head back. I opt for the tried & tested post-race bath-burger-beer combo and an evening amble along the green walkway that has replaced the old wall.
Monday morning brought a 3.45am alarm call to make the first flight back to London. I shared the departure lounge in Tegel airport with runners of all nationalities, many sporting their medals, souvenir t-shirts and excitedly exchanging stories from the previous day, some looking a little worse for wear (50-50 DOMs/hangover I would suggest). I land in London, have a day to wash my kit, gather some belongings then it's on another plane to Chicago and the preparation for World marathon major #4 in three weeks time!
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