Rewind a year, and I was sat in the September sunshine, sipping a cool beer having just completed the 2016 Berlin Marathon. My friend was celebrating with me, however had been unable to complete the marathon, which we had originally planned to take part in together, due to injury. In that moment we resolved to come back next year and run it together, and in that moment I was equally determined to make sure it actually happened. The Berlin Marathon 2017 has therefore been a year in the making, securing places, planning the trip, training and looking forward to being back in the city again – we both just had to make it to the start line.
Friday 22nd September 2017 arrived and as in 2016 we both boarded the plane to Berlin, however this time we both had running gear packed. I was excited and happy for the trip ahead and I think this feeling overwhelmed any apprehension of the race, which itself was now rapidly approaching. Having been in Berlin the previous year we instantly felt more at home in the city, we knew what trains we needed, where things roughly were and also what we wanted to do. We collected our race numbers on Friday, braving the expo which was somewhat more manic than last year (perhaps an indication of things to come…) found our names listed on the Berlin Marathon ‘Wall of Fame’ and visited Brandenburg Gate. This gate is the iconic finishing landmark of the Berlin Marathon route and unsurprisingly I found it could be appreciated much more at this point than at mile 26 of a marathon!
Saturday we toured some of the landmarks of the city. What I love about Berlin is its totally relaxed feel; you can hardly tell thousands of runners have descended on the place for a world class sporting event, and this calm atmosphere removes so much of the pre-marathon nerves and stress. We started Saturday with a little two mile shake out run to the Berlin Victory Column and finished the day by climbing the 220 odd steps to the top of the same column. This was maybe not the most advisable pre-marathon rest activity, but the view of Berlin at the top was worth it, even if I did spend most of my time cautiously clinging to the side with a look of sheer fear on my face! It was not really until I was lying in bed Saturday night that the prospect of running the actual marathon really hit me. I just had one goal for this race though and that was to run it with my friend. I knew together we could be capable of a very good finish time, we had trained well and were both in good shape, but the complexities of a marathon mean nothing is a given, and as long as she was by my side as we passed through Brandenburg Gate I would class the race a success.
Sunday September 24th 2017 arrived – race day. After heavy rain overnight we were greeted by a misty and drizzly morning. It was cool though and we both agreed this was much preferable to blazing sunshine. The hazy skies meant as we took our spot in mass start line on The Straße des 17. Juni, which forms a somewhat iconic image of an endless sea of runners, the Berlin Victory Column which should have stood proudly ahead was nearly impossible to make out. The comfort of having my friend stood next to me on this start line really dissipated any nerves I had. I bobbed along to music being played over the tannoy and enjoyed watching video clips played across the big screens. When the countdown clock dipped below 5 minutes though I did feel some nerves rise within me. ‘Do I look as scared as I did at the top of that column?’ I asked my friend. ‘A different type of scared!’ she replied with a smile. ‘It’s just long run Sunday’ we agreed – albeit with a few more people and on a route we have not had to plan out! Throwing away are old unwanted clothing, it was time to put the route to the test, and crossing the start line together our journey to beat Berlin begun.
It’s fair to say the first few miles of the race were not very relaxing. Running wise my body felt good, but the streets seemed rammed with runners and much busier than last year (which may have been why the expo also appeared more manic?) We weaved as best as we could between runners, trying not to add too much extra distance on, but also attempting to stick to a good running pace. It was a challenge, but I guess it also meant I barely noticed these initial miles pass as I was not at all focussed on what distance I was running, more so on not tripping up! Despite the challenges we remained together though, and when we did get a small amount of breathing space I glanced at my watch and commented to my friend I could not believe how quickly that first hour had passed. ‘I hope you are saying that between hours 3 and 4!’ she replied – now that would be some outcome!
Ten miles passed and it was only really at this point I felt I actually started to run the marathon with more of a marathon focus. Slightly more space on the streets (I mean slightly!) meant running was marginally less of a weave, and we could appreciate some of the sights on route. The German spectators puzzled us at times; some stood in lines almost deathly quiet, staring at us all like we were mad (yes, we probably are!), whilst other pockets were enthusiastically cheering us on and had brought items such as drum kits to the street corner or were shaking tambourines madly. As last year, the water stations provided much entertainment though. The plastic cups are one thing, but why they only have aid tables on one side of the road I really cannot work out. This leads to everyone suddenly veering to one side of the route, and you have to almost dodge your way past, or fight your way to a cup and hope you don’t spill half of it in the process. It really seems chaotic. How my friend and I did not lose each other at one of these stations I don’t know, but somehow I would come out from the runners brawl and she would just be there and we would resume running side by side.
We passed half way in 1:53:58. I had not really been too concerned with time or my pace and had simply been trusting what felt right from my experiences training and running with my friend, but this was pleasing and a confidence boost for the forthcoming miles. Normally at around miles 16 to 18 of a marathon things can sometimes feel a bit tough. However, this time I just didn’t get that feeling, and I could sense by the way my friend was running strongly next to me she had not either. The only minor glitch was at mile 18, when I was struck by the urge to use the toilet. It was not something I could ignore and I had to dive into a portaloo. ‘I will catch you up’ I promised my friend. I knew I would even if it killed me, and I did reach her again. The extra effort I exerted to find my friend boosted me again somehow, just the knowledge my legs clearly weren’t dead yet. Mile 20 was the next marker we then agreed; make it to here and then a new race begins.
I glanced at my watch at the 20 mile point and saw timewise we were running well, 2 hours 52 mins I think was roughly what it read. I did not get too excited about possible finish times though as six miles is a long way still, but I was happy. Between miles 21 and 23 though the sheer pain of a marathon hit me with a bang, and my friend agreed after that these last five miles was when it struck her too. Almost suddenly my legs hurt, I could not even pinpoint an exact spot of pain, they just really, really hurt. ‘Just a parkrun to go’ I grimaced to my friend – but it was probably about to be the most painful parkrun of my life! Despite the pain and the fact each mile seemed to be an eternity, we somehow managed to keep pace, and I was shocked to see my split at mile 24 was 8.27 min/mile pace. I have one person to thank for this and that is my friend. I was starting to struggle at this point and my friend had actually edged a few yards in front of me. I know her well enough to tell she had gone into her zombie mode, where it simply becomes a case of head down, keep moving. I followed her footsteps with a grimace, the determination to finish together was the only thing keeping me from slowing. At one point I forced some extra speed into my legs to make up the gap and tapped her on the shoulder with the intention of letting her know I was still hanging on in there, but instead all I could manage was a despairing cry of ‘my legs!’ - hopefully she guessed what I meant!
The final miles of the Berlin Marathon really are the cruellest. You twist and turn through streets longing for Brandenburg Gate to appear; I knew from last year the mind games it plays with you, but it did not stop it from happening again. As I finally made the last turn to find the spectacle of the gate looming on the horizon, I knew I had to make up those yards to be alongside my friend and pass through the gate together. This hurt a lot, but we were never not going to run through that gateway with each other. The packed streets of Berlin now cost us here, as our watches clocked marathon distance with the finish line not yet visible and before we had even passed Brandenburg Gate. I did not really care at this point though, we were together and I knew now we would finish that way. Emerging from the gate’s arch suddenly all the pain in my legs was forgotten – I am not sure how emotion can override the discomfort, but it did. We sped up towards the finish line - which is still a long way from the gate - and I grasped my friends hand and we used what energy we had left to raise our arms triumphantly into the sky. We stopped the clock at 3:48:13, which is a a new PB for me, but what I really cared about was we had started and finished together.
I was a mess at the finish line, a mixture of exhaustion, pain and emotion. My friend and I somewhat collapsed into a hug and it felt like I was crying tears of happiness onto her shoulder, although nothing actually came out – I was too knackered even for that. It felt so special to share that exact finishing moment together - even if we were in a bit of a state! After this joyful embrace the pain in my legs reminded me it was still there – ‘My legs!’ I echoed again, grabbing my friend’s hand to almost guide me along. The sight of our medals being held out ready to be hung around both our necks was worth it all though. All we had to do now was drag our bodies back to the same spot we sat post-race in 2016 and again enjoy some well-earned celebratory German beer - this time for two marathon finishers.
It has only really been since arriving back in the UK that I have fully been able to take stock of the Berlin Marathon weekend, and my conclusion is it was simply perfect. I feel so thankful I got the chance to share this marathon with friend as planned, and also create so many memories along the way. The PB has not really sunk in to be honest, it was never the goal and feels like a bonus. I actually felt prouder when my friend pointed out that we had ran the second half of the marathon only 18 seconds slower than the first half; easily my best paced marathon to date. I was also made to realise that our average pace meant that if we had actually ran a true 26.2 miles (and not virtually an extra half a mile!) our finishing time would have been under 3 hours 45 mins. This means that racking up that extra distance virtually cost me a guaranteed London Marathon spot. Initially this might seem disappointing, but to be honest I really do not care.
Berlin will forever hold a very special place in my memory now, both the city and the marathon, and I am not sure I will ever get to recreate such a unique marathon feeling. The race also signifies real progress in my running as in 2016 I ran a 4:00:44 time in Berlin, and now in 2017 this is down to 3:48:13. Hanging my medal onto my medal board I also was struck by the fact that this was my fifth marathon – five marathons by the age of 25 might not be significant to some, but it just felt like something I would never have dreamed of achieving some years ago. In keeping with the age ethos, I predict that the 2020 Berlin Marathon will in fact land on the exact day of my 29th birthday. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate can you?
Alice's Adventures In Running Land
Read about my adventures in running land...