Berlin 2021 Race Report, Part 1

I can hardly believe that I drafted this race report on an Icelandair flight home from Berlin. After a long pandemic-induced break, major marathons are back! Berlin has been my number one bucket list marathon for a long time so it’s truly a dream come true to run through the streets of that once-divided city.

I’ve been planning to run Berlin 2021 for four years. In 2017 I was in Berlin for the German elections, traveling with the International Association for the Study of German Politics (IASGP). I discovered, to my delight, that the Berlin marathon and the election were on the same day so I was able to spectate. I also hatched the plan to run Berlin four years later. In November 2020, when it seemed the pandemic would be over by spring, I convinced two colleagues that we should enter the lottery for Berlin as Team IASGP. It’s much easier to get a spot in Berlin if you register as a team. It worked! The winter of 2020/2021 was even harder than expected, but finally it was spring. I started training for Berlin in late May.

Coach Mick and I had a lot of discussions about how to approach training. I wanted to do “more” but I didn’t have the knowledge or even the vocabulary to express what I meant. I wanted to say something like, I am happy to work harder for a PR attempt and increasing intensity seems a better choice than increasing mileage. But how to increase intensity? Coach Mick and I read some new books. We held a pow-wow with High Power Running Mentor #1. They both drafted some training plans and we worked to combine them and adjust to fit my running ability. Luckily, Coach Mick is an exceptionally patient man because he had to put up with me through all of this. Me and my big fat huge desire to run a faster marathon.

Eventually we came up with an approach we both liked. We increased mileage to about 60 miles per week and ended up holding it there for 12 straight weeks. We re-arranged my weekly schedule, moving long runs to Saturdays, “mid-week medium” runs to Mondays, and track or tempo workouts to Wednesdays. We also agreed to increase the intensity of the Wednesday workouts.

Mostly I have loved the new schedule. I would never have believed that I could run 60 miles a week and feel good, but I did all summer. The speed work was challenging, but rewarding when I managed it. I loved that he gave the workouts Star Trek themed names. Some went great and others not so well, but I was able to roll with both. Summer was hot and humid, but I largely stuck with the plan even through summer travel.

In the meantime, the pandemic sort of limped along. We thought we were out of the woods with the vaccine, then the Delta variant threatened to take away much of the hard-won progress. Races started up again, smaller and shorter at first, but gradually bigger and longer. With international travel still uncertain, I found it impossible to resist registering for the Boston marathon in case Berlin fell through. Then I threw the Wineglass marathon into the mix, in case only small fall marathons took place. Like many marathoners, I hedged my bets, but the dream was still Berlin.

Now is the moment for a huge congratulations and a big thank you to the organizers of the race, SCC-Events. They planned a series of three races, moving from a 10K in July to a half marathon in August, to the full marathon in September. At each stage, the race organizers could test their hygiene concept and consult with city officials. When the half marathon took place successfully and safely on August 22nd, I started to believe Berlin would happen. On the academic side of things, the IASGP had been proceeding with plans for our usual election trip, checking in with participants about their interest in travel and with politicians about their willingness to meet with us. All systems go by about mid-July. A lot of stars had to align to make this race a reality for me and I am so grateful they did!

One other critical piece of background information. In conversations with the Mistress of Mischief and Mayhem, we jokingly raised the idea of her coming along to Berlin. Jokingly, as in, hahaha, wouldn’t that be fun, not at all serious. But then we thought – why not? Her planned summer vacation had been canceled for complicated family reasons. She could have fun in Berlin while I worked and we’d still have a day or two to hang out in the city. Then she could head up the cheerleading squad. Suddenly an outlandish idea seemed much more feasible and within a couple of days, we had purchased tickets.

Taper coincided with a lot of life changes at home. Rose and I both re-started full-time, in-person school. Aidan’s girlfriend went off to college. If not exactly back to pre-pandemic times, fall 2021 was a whole lot more normal than fall 2020. Early September flew by and suddenly it was almost time to head to Berlin!

The Covid-19 pandemic created an extra layer of stress and preparation for travel, of course. I have been vaccinated since March, so that was no issue, but the rules around international travel were confusing and frequently in flux. The race needed proof of vaccination but the requisite app would not accept the American CDC card. Iceland required a negative test result as well as the CDC card in order to change planes in Reykjavík. Germany required surgical masks, homemade ones were not allowed. The U.S. needed a PCR test to get back home. Etc. etc. Traffic on the Facebook group for the Berlin marathon was about 90% pandemic-related. What in the world did runners talk about before we had to worry about which test to get when? But, having mastered the Covid protocols to the best of our ability, it was finally time to fly!

Winterfeldt Market with Caraway and Mistress Triple M

We arrived in Berlin on a Tuesday and spent Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the city and meeting up with old friends. A delicious Vietnamese dinner, shopping at the Winterfeldt Market with Caraway, wandering about Schöneberg and dinner with old friends were some of the highlights. Then I spent two intensive days learning about the election campaign. That was fascinating and if you’d like to read some of my thoughts on the election, you can find them here.

Thursday’s program included hearing from the Social Democrats and learning about German foreign policy, as well as a visit to the dome on the top of the Bundestag.

After the day’s sessions, Team IASGP visited the expo. Besides me, Running Munchkin and Disco Dan rounded out our gang. The expo was pretty small for a World Marathon Major, but thankfully not at all crowded. It’s held in the old Tempelhof airport, where the monument for the Berlin Airlift is located. Despite having pre-ordered a good bit of swag, I bought YET MORE SWAG because I am a total sucker for clothes and accessories from a marathon. We made it back for the end of dinner and enjoyed our spaetzle and Kaiserschmarrn.

Friday was another work day, during which we met with all the other parties and learned about increasing diversity in German politics. We also paid a visit to a rally with the Left Party and caught the end of Gregor Gysi’s speech! We capped off the day with a lovely dinner at Max and Moritz. NO problem with the carb loading while in Germany – in addition to bread on the table, we had lasagna, potatoes, and still more spaetzle.

Mistress Triple M and I started our Saturday morning with a Covid test (of course) and a visit to the East Side Gallery. Then I met Caraway and some friends for lunch and we got to truly geek out about all things marathoning. I spent too much time wandering around the Mitte neighborhood shopping and finally returned to the hotel for final race preparations. Only to discover that I had been placed in the wrong corral. Berlin has several waves and corrals and the faster you’ve run before, the earlier you get to start. Starting earlier means fewer people in front of you so ideally you can run faster. More importantly, earlier waves also start, ahem, earlier, meaning possibly better weather.

Yeah, a word about weather. As is my long-term custom, I attempted to put Coach Mick in charge of weather worries. But this time around, there was no ignoring the weather, even as I tried not to worry about it. A few weeks out, conditions looked decent. Temperature in the low to mid-50s, fairly humid, cloudy, maybe even a possibility of rain (which is a *great* thing for a marathon under those conditions). But every day, the temperature had crept up a degree or two. The rain vanished from the prediction. The tell-all dewpoint increased steadily. Not good, not good at all.

Meanwhile, in our last phone conversation before I left for Berlin, I asked Coach Mick how he thought the training cycle had gone. I was surprised when he hesitated before answering. I had looked back on my training log, considered how workouts and long runs had gone, and decided that a goal pace of 8:15 was not at all crazy. But I couldn’t quite get my head around that and getting your head around goal pace is pretty damn important. I could conceive of a goal pace of 8:20, however. That felt do-able, and it still comes out to a 3:38 marathon, which would be a nice PR and my first time under 3:40. So when I asked Coach Mick how he thought training had gone, I did want confirmation, but I also had an idea of what we were looking at.

But that hesitation. Ouch. The seconds felt like minutes. Finally he said that he wanted to be careful with his answer. He didn’t want to give a time that was overly cautious and have me miss out on a potentially great race. He also didn’t want me to be overly ambitious. He said what he really thought is that it was up to me, and what I believed I could do, within reason, of course. But also – here was the big but – that he thought I had been squeezing the soap a little the entire training cycle. “Squeezing the soap” is Coach Mick’s term for when you want something so badly that you end up missing your goal because you just push too hard. I could see immediately what he meant and of course, he was right. [After all, MIC(K) stands for Mark Is Correct]. I can be a pretty intense person in general and I tend to be quite intense about running in particular. Ironically, often the best running happens when we manage to let go. But when you want something so badly, it’s really really hard to let go. And I really really want to run under 3:40 for the marathon.

As it turns out, the weather conspired to force me to let go, at least a little. That day in the low 50s with cloud cover and a chance of rain had advanced to temperatures starting in the low 60s, rising to over 70, with full sun likely before the race was over. I had a fairly good idea of what I was capable of: holding 8:20 pace for 26.2 miles on a really good day with a dash of luck and a solid dose of grit. Holding 8:20 with that forecast? No chance. Coach Mick and I texted a bit more once I reached Berlin as the forecast clarified. I eventually asked for an adjusted race plan and he suggested 8:45 for three miles, then move to 8:35, and see what’s left after 20 miles. That sounded great to me. Oh – and most importantly – he told me to have fun. Really important advice though “fun” was maybe not quite what I was looking for.

Anyway. Back to that dilemma several paragraphs back, when I discovered I had been placed in the wrong corral. It was just after 3pm in the afternoon and I had dinner reservations for 6pm. The expo was still open so I made a last minute decision to dash back, get the corral changed, and scoot back to the hotel before dinner. Which turned out to be just a few blocks away from the expo. Sigh. So instead of spending the afternoon before the race on mental race prep, I basically spent it on the U-2 and the U-6, shuttling back and forth. Dinner with friends was amazing though.

Back at the hotel, Team Sarah assembled! Eismacher Maximus and Mistress Triple M combined forces to map out a route, create signs, and assign duties. Mistress Triple M in charge of navigation. Eismacher Maximums in charge of ice procurement. We finished up our battle plan and I headed to the hotel room. I mixed and drank a bottle of Maurten 360. This night-before Maurten is a practice I started in Chicago and I’ve stuck with ever since. Does it work? Who knows, but I have a good track record of not bonking. A quick flat-Sarah and last minute good luck wishes from Mervus and it was time for bed. A little less sleep and less visualizing than I had hoped, but that’s life in the (very!) big city. I slept medium well. Not great, but not a total disaster either.

Flat Sarah, ready to roll!

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