Race Review: The 42nd BMW Berlin Marathon

The 42nd BMW Berlin Marathon or…

How not to “hit the wall” in Berlin…


When I took up running in the spring of 2012 my goal was to run the Amsterdam Half marathon that October, something I thought of as almost unachievable. Unable to run before due to breaks and fractures, I trained on the dreadmill of the Virgin Active Barbican day after day until I was able to run my first race, the BUPA London 10K in May, the one that hooked me in, tapped the vein and turned me into a race junkie. A few more 10s were completed over the course of the next 6 months, as was an unexpected tester at my target distance, at the Royal Parks half and, when it finally came to Amsterdam, I was ready. I even ran it despite my leg being strapped up with the kind of bandage you would ordinarily see on a shire horse.

Woah there, Nelly!

Fast forward 6 months, and twenty races, including the Semi de Paris, and runs in Edinburgh and the US, plus another BUPA London, and I was ready for a marathon, or at least the challenge of getting ready for one, and so booked a place at the Berlin Marathon 2013, incidentally the last year before it went completely ballot based. I ran a lot that year, but playing around with shoes and lack of any real training meant I picked a lot of injuries, was bitten by something nasty on a Thames Path run that knocked me on my ass, and ultimately was too injured and too unprepared for the marathon. It has been my biggest regret in running, and as I sat in Gendarmenmarkt with a giant beer watching the tail runners walk by at KM40 back in September 2013 I thought I could have limped around in 6 hours or so.

Nasty

And so the Berlin marathon became my nemesis, the race I had to complete for closure. Sure I had DNSd a few times, a dozen in that year of sickness, divorce, and injury, but this was THE BIG ONE. And I swore that it would be my first marathon regardless of how many other 10Ks, 10Ms and halves I ran. And so I entered the ballot in 2014. No dice. And was about to for this year, when Pancreatic Cancer UK asked me if I would fill one of their charity spots. The game was finally on.

TRAINING.

Key to progress in running is training, and a lot of training at that. I never really trained before. I could joke that 30 races a year is all the training I did, but it wouldn’t be a joke really, as that is what happened until now. I printed off the excellent ASICS  programs but in the end was fortunate enough to  be on Twitter at the time when one of the runners I follow, a qualified running coach in the US, asked for guinea pigs. I DMed to ask if she would coach me remotely and she said yes.
Communication was all electronic and I was given lovely bite sized chunks of training plans. I liked this as I can handle 4 weeks of plan. You look ahead to see what is coming, and even if there is a 30K LSR, or hills, you can think about a 4 week chunk. If I was given the 15 week plan at the start and up front it would have blown my mind, and I would feel defeated before I started. Give a guy a dozen bricks and ask him to stack them and he can. Give him a plan for a 6 foot wall and his head will drop.

Here are the plans. In the end the pattern of Tuesday 10K, Thursday 10K, with those including hills, or sprints, or fartlek training, parkrun on Saturday, and either a race or a LSR on Sunday really did work. I ended up blowing away all PBs (1K, 1M, 5K, 10K, half, furthest run, and longest time running) in the build-up.

THE TRIP

And so to the trip. I have been to Berlin several times before. I do love the city. I have visited all the museums, found all the good places to eat, and even taken friends and loved ones around there a few times. The Currywurst museum has been the venue for giant French fry related japes, Check Point Charlie has been snapped, the Wall museum, the DDR museum and it’s virtual wall, curtain of steam (still don’t know what that is about) and Trebant you can sit in, the Bauhaus Museum, the cathedral and surrounding museums, food at 1840 at Hackescher markt, all amazing. In short, I know my Berlin. So there was no real plan to do any open topped bus tour, or shop at KaDeWe. I was there for the sole purpose of a completely relaxed overseas marathon weekend starting, as they do, with the EXPO.

Graffiti at the DDR Museum virtual wall for my virtual running community

EXPO.

I have been to many EXPOs. It is the given for the larger races, and all those foreign races where they do not send out your race packs. If you have not experienced a big one I highly recommend it, and the Berlin EXPO, at the disused Templehof airport, was HUGE.

When you arrive at the huge main terminal building with hundreds of fellow runners you are greeted, if you care enough,  and don’t just whizz through, by an information desk, an alcohol free Erdinger tent and hotdog stand. Those Germans do love their frankfurters. Now this is key, and something that a lot of people missed, and actually saved the day for me later: the information desk also sold the official Adidas marathon t-shirt. Okay? Remember that for later.
The venue was HUGE as I said and after going outside, where the inline skating marathon tents were (not sure how I feel about that), you went back inside. You walk through several hangers that house a mix of tents from running kit manufacturers of all shapes and sizes and for other international races. I spent a lot of time chatting with the guys at the Comrades tent (trying to convince me that running in 2016 was a good idea as it was downhill), and the Rock and Roll races guy on the off-chance of winning a free spot at Madrid.

The numbers were in Hanger 5 apparently, and so I walked by Brooks, and Asics, and the Riga Marathon, and the Tromso Night Marathon tents, and On, and On, and On before arriving at a large line of people queuing in front of a cardboard replica of the Brandenburg Gate.

The British are supreme queuers

This queue was slow moving and eventually made it to the gate to be told “runners only from this point.” This point turned out to be another zig-zagging queue that lasted for a further quarter of an hour or so. And at the end, did I get my number? No. This queue was to get the blue runner wristband that allowed you to…. Hold on, what did the wristband actually mean? From what I recall, it made no difference at all. Next room, and another queue, I finally got my number. 3 queues to get a number.

From there it actually got worse. The next bit was the runner only Adidas store for competitors. You could get all manner of race related clothing, well green tee, yellow tee, green windcheater, yellow windcheater, black hoodie with the race emblem and name emblazoned on it. The problem, well one of many problems, was that this area was so terribly laid out that the runners were falling over each other to look at the merchandise.

10% tills, 70% queue, 20% oversized merchandise

Now, the merchandise, as I got to it, was so poorly planned that only XXL and XXXL was left. There were no mediums, no smalls. Let me tell you about runners, 90% of them are M or S. When I finally found a M, in a hoodie I didn’t really want, and would have bought out of pure desperation, I started following the mass of people that zigzagged through the queuing system and out, taking up over half of the Adidas store. The queue, as I did eventually find the end, went as far as the edge of the shop so I gave up and dumped the hoodie and left miserable.

Things did get better though. I picked up a Berlin t-shirt (black with a pink skyline) that will be ideal for the Run with Girls (my next race). And, after grumpily stomping around, after chatting with the ING Luxembourg Night races peeps (excellent event that one), I walked back through the hangers, back outside by the inline skaters, and out the first room where I noticed the race tees at the information desk. They had all sizes for both sexes and so I got one. Job done. Just a lot of stress in the meantime.

Oh, apparently the race is so big it has it’s own mascot (I am thinking back to the pengiun at the Two Oceans).

Fridolin Flink

On a side note; the same merchandise was also available at the Adidas Store in the West side of the city but, as I went by, the queue was out the store and along the street. Inside looked like a jumble sale. Clothing was discarded, and thrown all over the place. There was no way I was going in for a memento.

THE BREAKFAST RUN

The day before the race the event organisers held what was known as The Breakfast Run, a gentle 6K jog from Charlottenberg or Schloss Charlotte, Queen Charlotte’s castle to the old Olympic stadium. Yes, you know the one. The Jesse Owens stadium. 1936, thumbing his nose at Hitler and all that.
It was a bit of a ways away in the West, and I took a cab to Tiergarten to walk the rest after meeting up with Jen from the UKRUNCHAT crew, Chris and Katie, with several others there too. And, after a strange pom pom shaking dance troupe dancing to Brazilian music, and being given a helium filled BMW balloon, we all let the balloons go and were off.

Although we were not off, as there was a huge bottle neck at the exit of the castle before we could start up residential streets all the way to the stadium.

The breakfast run is called so because, well, it is in the morning and at the end you get breakfast. This sounded great in the land of cheese and meat and beer but in the end was rather disappointing dry brioche, donuts, bananas and a strawberry yogurt drink. Nothing I would normally eat, especially at breakfast.

Worse still, I got off the S-Bahn at the wrong stop on the way back and had to walk all the way back to the hotel. 12K, in my running shoes. At the end my feet were in bits.
Oh, and at the moment, I cannot get to the photos from the Breakfast Run as those braniacs at MarathonFoto have made it so you cannot find a photo without a Bib number or name. Guess what? The Breakfast run was run without numbers. So, cannot even look.

UKRUNCHAT TWEETUP 1.

I am quite active in the #UKRUNCHAT community, or at least have been this year. I do have the vest. I do have a team. I have hosted the fastest hour on the internet (twice, third time coming up). So it was great to be chatting with a good group of people leading up to the race about our training, concerns (lil bit of maranoia going on there), and points to clarify re the race itself (music, no music). In the end Chris organised two events. The first being a tasty cake and coffee afternoon after the Breakfast Run at the lovely Fassbender and Rausch.I had the White Symphony, I highly recommend it.
We like cake!

THE RACE.

9am Sunday. There were very few toilets at the start. This was mentioned by Laura at the Fassbender coffee tweet up, and she was right. So a KM in  I took my chance and, at a third attempt made use of a natural upright toilet device (tree) before setting into a rhythm.
 My training run pace is about 6 minutes per kilometre, which would mean a 4 hour 12 finish, so I was happy to see me running under that for a large amount of the kilometre splits. I reached 10K at the hour and, in my head, I wanted to keep running at least until 14KM (a third of the way). And so I did. Next up my brain was concerned about water and nutrition. After all, training your muscles is one thing, but dehydration and refuelling is essential. As I may have mentioned, I trained in my Camelbak Marathoner vest. It has a 1.5L reservoir and two sizeable pockets on the chest. It fits snug enough to your body that when emptied you do not know you are wearing it. For the start of the race it was laden with:
  • Caffeinated Jelly Belly jelly beans
  • A mini mars bar I was given at The Martian exhibit at the Humbolt Museum the day before
  • Gu gel (lemon and lime, my old go to flavour)
  • Torq gel (raspberry ripple, never tried before, and now my favourite)
  • A small running bottle of coke, that I dumped on the way to the start
  • Some jelly babies
My thoughts were along the lines of avoiding the water tables where possible and use the Camelbak, and eat something each 5K after about 20. My thinking being that, if it takes half an hour to get into your system and I am running 30 min 5Ks then I am always fuelling for the 5K after the next one. See? I am smarter than I look.
 

And so physically it was fine, and my plan worked, although I did use the water tables more than planned as it was a hot day. I guess we should all have a plan, but realise that circumstances may well make you need to adapt it and I ran until KM37 when, as you can see from the reddening of the line, things slowed down. I felt I could run, but I didn’t want to burn out, especially so close to the line. I was under my 6 min/KM plan for much of the way. Although if you look at the splits the slowdowns all coincide with water tables and almost stopping to avoid fellow runners and the sea of plastic cups all over the wet ground. They gave apple slices and bananas, which were good. Tee, but not as we know it, was served from time to time, although it was the spiced apple tea you get at German Christmas markets, and the foulest of energy drinks.

 

From KM37 I have to say I walked quite a bit, everybody was, running when there was a crowd of supporters, and always running to KM markers and when I saw photographers (who doesn’t do that?). And when I got to KM40 I saw Spencer (a regular on my Regents Park training runs, although I didn’t recognise him without a bike between his legs) and others as I hit Gendarmenmarkt and sped up to enjoy the last 2KM up to Unter Den Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate and to the finish.
 

I finished my first marathon in 4:38, although it measured long and my Nike+ says 4:34, half hour slower than I wanted, but I know I can take 45 mins off that and now have at least one opportunity to do so at Copenhagen in May. I also felt good finishing it, I felt comfortable. Was it easy? I do not think running for over 4 hours is easy, but I finished, got my medal and walked back to the hotel to shower, change and go out.

Recovery
 
There was hardly any aching other than a bit of a knee niggle (feels like tendonitis) and only needed to wear my compression sleeves for that night. I could handle steps, I did not look like I pooped myself or was the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. I actually went around Berlin and enjoyed the next two days in a great city.
UKRUNCHAT TWEETUP 2.

Tweetup 2 was a drunken affair at Hofbraeu and I missed it due to other commitments. From what I could tell this started as a sedate large beer drinking time at a local beer hall. And descended to shots and dancing on the table.
But these kids earned it, and so as many beers or shots as they wanted were justified. I am kinda sad I missed it but I was otherwise disposed.
THE BLING.

It is not brilliant, to be fair, on par with the BUPA/Great Run medals we get every year but it is precious to me in the same way my first medal, the BUPA London 10K, and my first half, Royal Parks, is. They prove to me that somehow I managed to do it.

Bling #87

Oh, and I forgot to hand in the damned timing chip (AGAIN!) and so have been charged for it.

In Summary:

It was an amazing experience but I had blown it out of all proportion in my head. Thinking about crossing the line for the weeks leading up to the event I would get a lump in my throat and think, “shit, don’t cry, you fool, not with all those cameras there.” But when I did run to the finish, through the Brandenburg Gate, it was just the end of another race. I got my medal, and tried to find my way out of the race village and back to the hotel.



The comfort and ease was all down to the training and I really need to thank my coach for that. Even though I scrimped a bit and only ran 70% of all planned training runs, I found the run quite easy and comfortable. I did have muscle soreness the next day but had worse back when I first started running tens and by day two was absolutely fine.


It was wonderful to meet and hang out with some great people from the #ukrunchat community. I do regret not taking part in the over-exuberant drinking session but I think my days of jaeger shots and dancing on tables is over. I loved seeing thousands of people wearing race tees or sporting their medals for the next few days, and even got chatting with a couple of other London based runners on the plane back.




I am glad I psyched out my maranoia by planning and booking Copenhagen before I had even done Berlin, as it took the pressure off me and in the end it couldn’t have gone better (well maybe 30 mins faster, but not better). Maybe if I did it again I wouldn’t walk for 2 hours to the hotel from the Breakfast Run. I would put ice in my Camelbak, I would take different snacks. I didn’t have the GU, I only had a couple of the jelly beans, but I loved the Torq gel, and the Mars bar was a good inclusion. I would also run the whole way. And, in short, bring on Copenhagen. I feel a PB coming.



So would I run it again? It was an amazing race, superbly supported etc and you can see why it is one of the majors but no.


Would I recommend it? Absolutely.

WHAT IS NEXT?


THE RUN WITH THE GIRLS 10K, HYDE PARK 
(Infinitely more scary)
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