The Berlin Marathon - my second marathon of 2016 and my third marathon in total. After setting a 4:09:32 time at the London Marathon in 2015, and following a collapse at the Manchester Marathon earlier this year, I had trained for this race with the idea I might be able to run sub 4 hours. However, whilst I had trained with this thought in mind, it was apparent my mind-set for the race had begun to shift dramatically as the marathon neared, even more so when I was in Berlin itself…
The trip to Berlin was the first time I had been abroad in many years and thus travelling and being in a new city was a wonderful experience for me. Arriving Friday lunchtime my friend and I were able to take in the expo, before enjoying a relaxed day of sightseeing on Saturday. Compared to the London Marathon, the Berlin expo was a joy; spacious, calm and stress free. In fact as we explored Berlin more on Saturday I found the whole city to be of the same nature. We toured the landmarks on an open top bus (saving the legs!), explored Berlin from above by going up the giant Fernsehturm TV Tower, and basked in glorious sunshine by the Berlin Victory Column whilst watching the Berlin Inline Skating Marathon. I was at ease and barely even contemplating the marathon task I ahead of myself.
Deep down I was actually thinking about the marathon though, and when my friend asked how I was feeling over my pre-marathon, carb fuelled meal on Saturday night, I was honest. I was aiming to run 8:50-9:00 min/mile pace in the hope to go sub 4 hours. However, I had decided that more importantly I wanted to enjoy the race and hence wasn’t willing to sacrifice this feeling for a time. My experience at the Manchester Marathon has taught me that the marathon is truly such an unpredictable event, no matter how hard or how well you have trained, 26.2 miles tests you to new limits. I did not enjoy the Manchester Marathon and this time I wanted to savour the Berlin Marathon. If I crossed the finish line in under four hours perfect; if I did not - and as I said to my friend - I would still be happy just to finish. This may be a bit of shock to some, but it’s how I truly felt.
Sunday 25th September arrived – a date that had been etched in my mind for so long. I had anticipated maybe some fear or panic would hit when I woke, but I was still calm. Even as I travelled to the start line and went through all the pre-race rituals of dropping off bags, queuing for toilets etc. I was at ease. The only time my heart began to quicken was as I joined the file of runners headed for the iconic Berlin Marathon start which is based along The Straße des 17. Juni. It felt surreal to be one of the bodies that forms this huge sea of runners and I am not ashamed to admit that as the start gun was fired I had tears in my eyes. Now it was time to race.
I wanted to make sure I did not start too fast in my excitement to be running the Berlin Marathon, so kept my pace in check reasonably well for the initial miles. Although I was running at the quicker end of my target pace, this felt comfortable for now. I instantly found the Berlin Marathon route to be extremely pleasant as it meandered through the beautiful streets of Berlin. The streets were well supported and loud, and I found that Germans’ seemed to like to make noise, with cars keys being rattled against lampposts and street bins being banged. What I was also quick to discover at the first water station was what a nightmare these stations would be. At this first water station I literally ground to a halt. There was no room to walk let alone run. It was chaos in fact. I tried not to let this bother me, with it being so early on I just quickened my pace a little for the next few hundred metres to get back on track. As I continued running, so did the chaos of the water stations though. Virtually all the stations on the route caused me to slow, whether it be through trying to navigate my way around the slowing runners, or from when I actually wanted water myself and had to try and battle my way to a cup. Yes, a cup of water; a tiny plastic cup which I spilt most of unless I actually stopped to take a proper sip from it. Even after the stations themselves you then had to then try and avoid slipping on the hundreds of plastic cups that littered the subsequent route. Not a good feature of the race.
Ten miles ticked by very quickly, and on a beautiful sunny September day, I seemed to be coping well in the conditions, especially as virtually the whole route was shaded by tree line streets or tall building structures. As I neared the half marathon point I felt strong still, and I beamed a huge smile and waved enthusiastically to my friend who had made her way to this mark to cheer me on – I wanted her to know I was feeling ok!
Between miles 13 and 18 things began to get a bit tougher and my pace dropped slightly, now closer to the nine minute/mile mark, I was fine with this though as I was still on track. After passing 18 miles things changed and the marathon pain started to truly hit. Between miles 18 and 20 I even questioned why I thought running marathons was a good idea! I pushed this thought out of my mind though and there were three clear things I focused on; one was how good I actually felt in comparison to the Manchester Marathon, the second was the message which was inscribed on the running shoe trainer tags which my friend had given me before the marathon: ‘run strong’, and third was the thought of sitting after the race with my friend enjoying a large German beer! I kept going.
I hit 20 miles in roughly 3 hours – some quick metal maths told me that even if I ran roughly 10min miles for the next six and a bit miles I could still just get my sub 4 hour time. This drove me on and I found some energy in my extremely painful legs. At this point my quads were the main cause of pain, each step hurt, but I just had to keep going. Passing mile 24 felt euphoric. It was here I had crashed at the Manchester Marathon and there was no way I was going to let this happen again.
Miles 24-26 were my slowest, my legs were very much spent and it was pure grit which was now driving me on; I was just willing the iconic finish through Brandenburg Gate to appear on the horizon. To my despair, my watch was ticking closer to marathon distance and yet the gate was nowhere to be seen! When the gate finally did appear I realised two things simultaneously; firstly I was going to reach marathon distance before the finish line, and secondly this pretty much meant waving goodbye to my sub 4 hour time.
As predicted, my watch clicked onto 26.2 miles at a time of 3hrs 59mins – I had run a sub 4 hour marathon but just not in reality. In reality I had a good few hundred metres to go still. However, rather than get despondent, I dug deep and pushed for that finish, there was not an ounce of disappointment in me even at this point. As I approached the finished line I triumphantly punched the air, stopping the clock at 4hrs 44 seconds.
As I stumbled through the post-race procedure of gaining my medal, getting wrapped in foil and being offered yet more plastic cups of water, I was smiling though the pain and the intense calf cramps which gripped my legs. I had just run a new PB, taken nine minutes off my previous marathon best, completed my third marathon, and had conquered the streets of Berlin. If I had not weaved so much during the race and thus had not added the extra distance, then it seems I would have got that sub 4 hour time. This told me my body is capable of a sub 4 hour marathon, a feeling which made me even happier.
The walk to find my friend was long and I just wanted to see her and find someone to share my delight with. Upon meeting her I gave her a tired yet joyful embrace – this moment meant a lot to me as after the Manchester Marathon I had given her a sorrowful hug, holding back the distress and emotion inside me. The contrast in this moment made all the weeks of training seem even more worthwhile. My friend and I then found a place to sit beside The Berlin Victory Column, which was where my Berlin Marathon had started some hours ago, and we had our German beer. I hate beer and never drink it in the UK, but I enjoyed these immensely.
Berlin was simply brilliant – I left with a medal, a PB, another marathon under my belt, new experiences and many treasured memories – it’s not hard to imagine I didn’t really want to board my flight back to the UK! The Berlin Marathon was not however perfect. My friend who accompanied and supported me throughout the weekend should have been out there running with me, and no doubt would have conquered those Berlin streets in equally triumphant fashion. Injury had sadly put an end to this goal of us running together, and before leaving for Berlin it was devastating to have to watch her make the decision not to run the marathon. Having completed Berlin Marathon I now want more than ever to run the race together. So next year we will be back to take on Berlin Marathon again, I may still be chasing a sub 4 hour marathon time or I may not, regardless of this fact, I already cannot wait.
As I near to running a marathon, I tend to take some time to think about what my current training cycle has taught me (see here and here for past reflections). As Berlin Marathon race week approaches I have realised that I have both learnt new things and also reaffirmed to myself a few important factors during the past few months:
1) Summer Running
This is the first marathon I have trained for during the summer, having previously undertaken the somewhat more traditional spring marathon. There have been some questionable ‘summer’ training days as you would expect in Great Britain, but there have also been some joyous days of glorious sunshine and warmth. On these long, light days it has meant that it feels almost acceptable to wake up at 6am and fit a run in on a busy day, and likewise heading out late evening is not a battle against darkness. If you think you may struggle with time to fully train for a marathon, I suggest you try a summer race. Just be ready to accept the truly awful runners tan you will inevitably gain!
A slight downside to marathon training in summer is the consequential thirst and dehydration the heat can bring. I found I could no longer get away with completing a long training run without the need for a water stop. This trick was suggested to me a while back but I was yet to fully embrace it until this training cycle. I have been carrying a couple of pound coins in my running belt whilst out on particularly warm and long runs, which allows me to stop at a shop for water. There’s no carrying a bottle or wearing a hydration vest, and even when going into the countryside there’s always a little village shop open to nip into. Just be ready to accept some slightly strange looks as you stand there at the counter pouring with sweat!
After hitting the wall at Manchester Marathon earlier this year I have explored the use of running with gels during my training, having previously utilised a handful of jelly beans as extra fuel. I was dubious of gels before, thinking I preferred the feeling of ‘real’ food. But I am now a convert. I have found gels easy to take and I feel they have given that energy hit I need when I have begun to flag on a long run – it may also be psychological, but if it works it works! I am not saying that gels are the answer for everyone, but if like me you are a bit sceptical, I would say there is no harm in trying – just not for the first time during a race!
4) Enjoy Yourself
Do not let your marathon training stop you enjoying other races and events. I entered a couple of 10ks during my training programme and although they didn’t really fit with my training plan, I made it work, switching long runs and swapping rest days. I did not want to allow myself to become so preoccupied with following such a rigid plan that I missed the chance to enjoy a race day. Although not a race, the same goes for parkrun. Some might say that pushing myself as hard as possible around a 5k on a Saturday morning is not the best idea the day before a long training run; but I think if you do not find time to include what you enjoy then there is a risk that you may become a bit resentful toward your marathon training.
5) Trust the Training
The first few weeks of my training were not great in terms of how I physically felt. I was a way off the paces I had previously been running and my body just didn’t seem to be capable of what it used to be. I stuck with it, determined not to let this get me down, and over the weeks the improvements have developed, my pace has quickened, my body has changed, and I am physically and mentally in a much better place than when I started nearly sixteen weeks ago. This has led me to remember that training is a long term process – do not expect instant results and be willing to stick with it through the tough times in order to gain the rewards.
6) Remember Why You Run
Looking back at my Manchester Marathon experience, I became very preoccupied with running a sub four hour time and was also tempted by the fact I may be able to try for a Good For Age time for the London Marathon. My obsession with time is something I am leaving behind as I head to Berlin. Yes, I still want to run sub 4 hours, but what I really want to do is complete another marathon in an amazing city, amongst thousands of other runners, and relish everything that makes running a marathon so amazing. I was also due to be running in Berlin with my friend, however injury has meant that sadly she will now be cheering me on from the side-lines. To say I am gutted for her is an understatement, and it has made me realise how lucky I am to be running this race and how I am not going to sacrifice my happiness for the sake of a clock time. Berlin beckons.
Alice's Adventures In Running Land
Read about my adventures in running land...