I love the city of Berlin, but it’s a complicated love affair. Berlin can be like a flea market where you expect to find treasures (like the gorgeous Tunisian bowls I bought!) but there’s also loads of plastic crap. When it’s time for a snack, a Russian gentleman serves you delicious pelmeni and lets you take his picture. Berlin is all of that: Tunisians bowls, Russian pelmeni, fascinating back courtyards and wide Stalinist boulevards. You have to take the good and the bad of what the city has to offer. Berlin can be frustrating and overwhelming (though at least there is much less dog poop than there used to be). You might not get what you came for. What you get instead is valuable, but it can take awhile to understand that. This is my Berlin, and it also was my Berlin marathon.
Before arriving in Berlin, I wondered what it would be like to run a marathon in a city where I have spent so much time in transit, often too hot or too cold, sweating before interviews or freezing before class. Berlin can feel like a series of train stations, incredibly far apart from each other, separated by empty fields and constant construction. What will it feel like to run a marathon in a city like that?
It will feel like sewing a place together. My race did not go as planned. I did not get the time or even the effort that I came for. Instead, as my race fell apart, the image that came to me was that the runners were a thread, knitting together the former East and the former West. [This is maybe what I get for traveling with a seamstress! Thank you Mistress Triple M!] The course traverses from East to West and back again several times. We can now run freely across the line where the wall stood, dividing the city for so many decades. Those big empty fields, where the wall used to be, have filled in with shops and cafes and Potsdamer Platz. The once-divided city has grown more and more together and it felt like the race was helping that process along.
The course is marked in red. The blue line is where the Berlin wall once stood.
My alarm went off at 6am. I had brought my standard race day breakfast with me [Shalane Flanagan’s race day oatmeal – she also raced Berlin this year!]. I did indeed purchase a Tunisian bowl at the Winterfeldt market for special race-day flair. The hotel didn’t have a microwave, but the hot water for tea worked just fine. I had coffee and another bottle of Maurten 360. I added a half a Brötchen (a delicious German roll) with jam because, why not? By 7:30, Disco Dan, the Running Munchkin and I were ready to go. Logistical note – they both went for the checked bag option and I went for the poncho. In the future, I would go the checked bag route. The poncho was no big deal, it’s not cool like the one for the NYC marathon and the checked bag retrieval is really easy to deal with.
We made our way to the Tiergarten, snapping a couple of Team IAGSP pictures along the way. The morning was absolutely gorgeous. Comfortable temps and the clouds had cleared [uh oh, cue foreboding music….] Disco Dan went to check his bag and the Running Munchkin and I made a couple of trips to the bathroom and sat on the grass for a bit, already trying to stay in the shade. Another logistical note – there are portapottys to the side of the corrals! We could have and probably should have gone to the corrals earlier. The portapotty lines there were much shorter and I found myself finishing my dynamic warm-up and jumping into the corral more or less as they were counting down the start. Not ideal, but live and learn.
I had brought three caffeine pills with me which I consumed just before lining up. I couldn’t quite figure out how to carry them to take later in the race and I decided I didn’t need them mid-race because Maurten makes gels with caffeine now. Note: That was *definitely* too much caffeine. This was a rookie error. I just wasn’t sure how much to take, so I went for it, but I should have had this settled beforehand. I brought a Brötchen with jam and peanut butter with me to the start in case I got hungry, but I ended up just pitching it.
The atmosphere in the corral was really special. We could hardly believe we were there. Were we actually going to pull this off? The first World Major Marathon since Tokyo in March 2020! The morning was glorious and the sun on the Victory Column was beautiful. There was a guy dressed in a rainbow suit and a guy dressed in a normal suit – not sure which was weirder or bolder for running a marathon, but I loved seeing the other runners and feeling everyone’s excitement.
The start seemed to be multiple countdowns or something, but one of the guns went off and we surged forward. We were off! I tried to hold this image in my mind. When I close my eyes, I can still see it. Just like in all the race videos I watched, the runners leave the starting line and split into two groups to run either side of the Victory Column. What a start for a race! We ran down the Straße des 17. Juni, through the Tiergarten and turned north and then back east. At the dinner with my local friends last week, they had asked about the course and I surprised myself by being able to tell them a lot of detail about where we were going to run.
The first mile clicked off at exactly 8:45 and so did the second one. At mile 2 I thought, 24 more to go, which isn’t really a brilliant thought so early in a marathon, but I was able to drop that nonsense pretty quickly. The first few miles were less relaxed than I would have liked them to be. I was watching pace pretty closely. A local friend had warned that the asphalt in Berlin can feel bouncy and that causes people to run too fast. That was true – I was holding 8:45, but it was taking some pretty consistent reminders to stay slow and mile 3 ended up 8:27 overall. The next three miles were 8:51, 8:30, 9:00, which was either me surging around people or just not able to settle to a steady pace. This course is *flat* so there’s no reason for the pace variation. But I think the combination of the crowds and my excitement/anxiety just made it hard to settle. I knew I should have a fairly blank mind at the point in the race, but I didn’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve done an exciting big city race. I definitely felt the crowd’s energy, but it was bouncing around me in a sort of unproductive way. In retrospect, I think the mega-dose of caffeine was coming into play here.
Karl-Marx-Allee [NOT race day – note cloud cover!]
The next part of the course runs on Karl-Marx-Allee heading toward Strausberger Platz. Karl-Marx-Allee is a socialist boulevard, originally called Stalinallee. Built to impress, it showcases large apartment buildings, meant to be part of the East German workers paradise. The street’s storied history includes it being the site of the 1953 workers uprising, a protest against the East German government which was put down by Soviet tanks. It was also used for parades during the “DDR-Zeit” [East German period] to showcase the power and glory of the Communist government. First the Victory Column and now the fountain at Strausberger Platz – our tour of Berlin monuments was just beginning.
The course goes back to the former West Berlin, through Neukölln and Kreuzberg. Around mile 8 or 9, I turned on my music. I certainly didn’t need more noise. Everything felt loud and kind of crazy and I was hoping the music would settle me down a bit. Splits from mile 7 to 13: 8:28, 8:53, 8:46, 9:12, 8:34, 9:11, 8:55. This is a *flat* course and those splits vary wildly. I was not able to establish a rhythm and zone out, which is the best approach for the early miles of the marathon. It was getting warmer and the idea of moving to 8:35 in the fourth mile had gone right out the window. I figured if I was ready to push at all, I would wait until after the halfway point and perhaps even a bit longer.
This section of the course is in Schöneberg, where the architecture appears most typical of northern Germany. Even having spent a lot of time in Berlin, I might still come across a beautiful church or bridge or gate that I had never seen before. These buildings can suddenly makes the city seem entirely different – like finding treasure at the flea market after all.
I was looking forward to seeing Eismacher Maximus and Mistress Triple M at kilometer 22 (around mile 13). Even though I was using miles on my watch to keep track of where I was, the course is marked in kilometers. The discrepancy didn’t bother me at all. When thinking about my own progress, I used miles. When thinking about when I might see Triple M and Eismacher Maximus, I used the course markers. Kilometer 22 came and went and they weren’t there. I know spectating and supporting a marathoner is a tough gig. I knew neither of them had done it before. But I also knew that they were a fantastic combination. Mistress Triple M turns out to be a brilliant navigator and was already mastering Berlin’s complex public transit system on the way into the city from the airport. Eismacher Maximus’s combination of extreme politeness and total stubbornness meant I was certain he’d be able to procure ice. Then I remembered that we had agreed for them to be on the far side of the intersection. There they were! HOORAY! With fantastic signs and the biggest bag of ice I’ve ever been handed mid-race but most of all their smiling and encouraging faces. I stuffed some ice down my bra and off I went again.
Somewhere in there I got my half split: 1:57. Not great. If I even split the race, that meant a time of 3:54, already well over 3:50. And I was pretty sure I was not going to even split because the temperature was still rising and I wasn’t feeling good. Having counted down the first half of the race to the first time I would see Triple M and Eismacher Maximus, I now had a measly 10k (6 miles) to go before seeing them again. Six miles was feeling quite far, but then the ice started to work its magic. I kept thinking of a passage in Deena Kastor’s book where one of her training partners says something like “It’s not your job to run well on a day when you feel great. It’s your job to run through the bad patches as fast as possible and try to extend the good ones.” Every marathon has good patches and bad patches and as the ice started to take effect, I felt better. Miles 14-17: 8:38, 9:33, 9:27, 9:04. Now I felt more of a rhythm and I could hear the runners’ feet, clip-clopping along the pavement like horse’s hooves.
Fueling and hydration were going as usual, which is to say, exactly according to plan. I race with Maurten gels and I take one every 30 minutes. Now that Maurten has caffeinated gels, I alternate with and without caffeine. For a hot race like Berlin, I drank at every water station, walking if necessary to be sure to get the water down. I also poured 1-2 cups of water on my shoulders at every water stop, starting with the first one. Ironically, I didn’t put water on my head because I was a little worried about my Aftershokz getting wet. I *should* have worried about my phone. It got drenched in my FlipBelt and was dead by the end of the race.
Even with the ice, my race was starting to fall apart. It was warm and I was more tired from the travel than expected. But I was also struggling to find my “why.” I have really good answers about why I run in general. But why run this race and why run it in this way? Coach Mick had said over and over again to have fun. But what did that mean? Should I just let go of time goals entirely? High five all the kids, dance to the bands, make a bunch of friends? That does sound fun, sort of. But I knew I would feel terrible at the end of a 26.2 mile dance party. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but that wasn’t it.
Lack of clarity of purpose is a horrible idea during a marathon, even though it might sometimes be inevitable. Miles 18-19: 10:33, 9:36. I had been walking the water stops, but mile 18 is where that water station walk extended itself . You really need a reason to keep running at that point and it’s even harder to find a reason to start running again if you walk. I thought about my understanding of myself as a “tough runner” and that helped. I am someone who doesn’t give up – I’ve ingrained that into my identity so therefore, I must keep going because it’s who I am. But I am also not stupid – I am a “smart runner” and a smart runner slows down on a hot day, especially with a time goal so clearly out of reach. Did that mean walking was smart? Eventually I convinced myself to start running again.
The nice weather had brought the spectators out in force. We ran past a group playing those huge Alpine horns. A bunch of cheerleaders in sparkling purple in front of a huge arch. A gang of locals having a *serious* party on their second floor balcony. Many people were walking now though, which was demoralizing. One woman was on the ground, screaming in pain, with medical personnel all around her. That was scary.
I have the very best friends!
The kilometer markers between 22 and 32 seemed to be crawling by. Again I wondered if my friends would miss the stop, which would be so hard, but then there they were! By mile 32, I knew I was having a rough day at the office. Eismacher Maximus could tell and said “You’re doing something today I could never do!” One part of me wanted to sit down with him – preferably right at that moment with some coffee and some beer – and explain why that was not true. Why he was perfectly capable of running a marathon, if he wanted to. But the other part of me thought – he is saying the thing he thinks will best motivate you to keep going. Because these friends are some of the greatest friends ever and they are out here cheering for you. And you might be a tough runner and a smart runner, but you are also a great recruiter. You bring people into your schemes and adventures and mostly they are grateful to be a part of them and you are *always* happy that you are so good at getting yourself some company. For goodness sake, keep running.
I did keep running, but unfortunately, I also did a good bit of walking between kilometers 34 and 37 [miles 20-23: 9:41; 11:53; 10:30; 11:26 – ouch]. I could tell a lot of the problem was mental. I had two mantras going into this race, “Faith over Fear,” and “Show Yourself.” But I wasn’t sure what either of those meant when I knew I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to because of temperatures. Faith over fear is brilliant when getting yourself to believe that 8:20 is possible over 26.2 miles. Show yourself is excellent for proving toughness. But what in the world was I looking for here? Show myself what exactly?
The Gedächtniskirche, it turns out. Also known as the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, the Gedächtniskirche was bombed by the Allies in World War II. The Germans left the hollowed-out spire in the middle of West Berlin as a reminder of the horrors of war. They built a new modern church next door, which I always think of as a reminder of the possibility of renewal. It’s one of the symbols of Berlin I’ve walked by countless times and here it was right on the marathon course. I could hardly walk past the Gedächtniskirche. That was a place for running, so I started again.
It was really hard. I felt like a leaf being blown about in the wind though I don’t think there was a lot of wind. My head was almost lolling backwards and it took huge concentration to try to lean forward even a tiny bit to run more efficiently. But I also thought, if the runners are sewing the city together, this is our last big push. We are bringing the poles of the Gedächtniskirche and the Brandenburg Gate together if we can just finish this run. I was expecting my friends at kilometer 39, Potsdamer Platz, which seemed an eternity, but then there they were! Mark said only 3 kilometers left!
The end of the course is brilliant. It goes by the Bundesrat [admittedly more of a landmark to political scientists] and the Humboldt University and the Gendarmenmarkt. Finally the zig-zagging at the end as you approach the Brandenburg Gate. No walking here, none at all. If my “strong finish” was a pace in the mid 9s instead of the low-8s, well that’s what it was today. I had visualized finishing strong so many times that I was damn well going to do just that. Miles 24-26: 9:14; 9:34; 9:25. Finally I turned and saw the gate. This is one of the best finishes to a marathon in the world. Take it in. Remember it. SEE the gate! I saw it!
I realized that even though I was so much slower than I wanted to be, I might still beat my time from the Philadephia marathon in 2015. Isn’t it amazing how a concrete goal suddenly works. Last .7 miles at 8:49 pace. Just as I practiced, even though I could hardly keep my head up straight, I crossed the blue ZIEL line and raised my arms to get a good picture!
Final time: 4:09:15.
I was so very grateful to stop running. I held onto the fence for awhile. I got my medal and some water. Very slowly, I collected my poncho, which turned out to be ridiculous. I got my food bag. I discovered my phone was no longer at all functional, but I found an official photographer to take pictures. I wanted to lie down on the grass so badly, but I had to get to the family meeting zone to find Mistress Triple M. Unfortunately, Eismacher Maximus didn’t have his vaccine card with him so he wasn’t allowed into the race zone.
What amazing friends!
Triple M found me even without a working phone!
It was a tough day, but in the end a good one. I’ve thought a lot about this race in the past few weeks. High Power Running Mentor #1 says that the clock is not the only way to measure the success of a marathon. I certainly didn’t get the finishing time I was looking for. I also didn’t execute the race to the best of my ability. That’s the point I have struggled with and still struggle with, to be honest. Rose always says, the effort yields its own reward. I didn’t get what I came for this time around, but I got something different. I certainly gained a new perspective on the city of Berlin and I somehow love the city more than ever. I am so incredibly grateful to be able to travel and to run races like this again. More than anything, I am grateful to my friends and my family and my coach for putting up with my brand of insanity. I know I will run Berlin again and better next time. For now, this is enough. Well, this plus pizza and a great cocktail!