To truly understand what Berlin ‘22 meant to me, we need to go back a year when I “ran" my first marathon, on the same course. Hot weather, recent COVID and ongoing injuries were some factors but I also made an astonishing number of mistakes - too many to list here. Result: right before the HM mark I got cramps in both calves and both quads. It was so bad that I genuinely thought I’d end up DNF. Somehow limped, walked, ran a little bit, with countless stops and eventually dragged myself to the finish line in 4:49. I had my 2nd lined up just 7 days later - London 2021. I corrected some of the mistakes and completed in 4:11. Still nowhere near my (unrealistic) target of 3:45.
Planning & Training:
I knew straightaway I had to return to Berlin to redeem myself. Entered the ballot as soon as it opened and after failing to get through, secured a charity spot ASAP. I spent the whole year giving myself a very hard time for my failures, but also made many changes. Joined QPH to observe and learn from better, more experienced runners. Apologies for stalking your Strava profile and analysing your workouts John (he probably doesn’t know this). Religiously followed a 21 week structured training plan from MyProCoach (thanks again for the recommendation Gabby). My work responsibilities kept growing this year and to ensure I don’t miss any workouts, I had to do most of them before school runs and/or work, often as partial or full commutes. Not being an early morning runner, this was tough. Didn’t let work travel, holidays or hot weather (home and abroad) get in the way. Every single race I ran ended up in disappointment because I ran slower than I thought I could and in case of The Big Half, faster than I wanted (aim was to test marathon pace). My only consolation was that I improved my HM PB by a few seconds 3 weeks before Berlin, while trying not to race it. Despite a lot of self-doubt, encouraged by the MRP my plan suggested based on fitness tests, great shoe recommendation and reassurance that my training looked good (thanks for both Georgey), I revised my marathon target down from 3:45 to 3:30 with just 3 weeks to go. I am very successful at keeping my “injury chain” intact and always manage to acquire a new one just as the previous one is close to healing. Latest acquisition: Shin Splints which peaked about 2 weeks before race. Even walking hurt so much that in the last few days I needed to keep Ibuprofen in my system permanently.
I love the place which is one of the reasons why I wanted to do my first and “only” (little did I know about this slippery slope back then!) marathon there. There was a lot of peer pressure to participate in the "Generali Breakfast Run" by the expo morning before the big day. I resisted, joined friends for support but didn’t run, which was difficult given the amazing atmosphere. I wanted a 2 day rest from running, although I ended up walking more than 20k steps on each of those days! I only managed between 4 and 5 hours sleep each of the 3 nights before race too.
Got to the start area and was instantly reminded why, despite an abysmal performance, I preferred Berlin over my other marathon. You feel like the whole city is behind you. The race starts and ends right in the heart of the German capital. The organisation is flawless, meeting points clearly marked with wave letters that can be seen from far, entry points extremely efficiently managed, ensuring only runners with bibs on display and timing chips on shoes can enter and all of this without any queues. Short toilet waiting times (relatively speaking) due to the sheer number of them, including all along the start line for last minute use. The vibe is electric and the start line music highly motivating.
I use kinesiology tape to support my knees on really long runs as I have had problems in the past. Taped up for shin splints too which probably didn’t help. A friend with the same 3:30 target suggested we run together to keep each other in check but due to being in different starting blocks, it didn’t work out. It was a cool morning but not as perfect as the forecast suggested and a bit too humid for my liking. Ibuprofen was working and shin pain was mild. I started at the slower end of my MRP range (thanks for hammering the message home Susan). The course covers some very nice parts of the city including many touristy places. There are no tunnels and there is a decent amount of open space between any tall buildings so it is a very GPS-friendly course. I did make a pace wristband as was suggested to me but only looked at it 3-4 times to validate what the watch and my mental math (brain surprisingly engaged for a change) were telling me. The live bands along the route are strategically placed for best acoustic advantage and play the kind of music that really helps you keep going. The crowd is amazing at reading names and cheering you on.
After a few km I saw the friend I was meant to run with and caught up with him. Scared him with a pat on the back followed by a joke and thought to myself: “I’m actually enjoying this thing … this NEVER happens!”. He was running his 26th marathon including Boston & New York every year whereas I was only on my 3rd. So I kept reminding him not to ruin his race and leave me behind without hesitation if I slowed down. We ran together for well over half the distance in the middle part of the race. We were expecting a supporter at 21km and I was alert enough to seek her out in the crowd while she was looking behind. Shouting didn’t work so I had to cut across, stop and tap her shoulder to get attention, much to the amusement of other runners, then sped off to catch my pacer. I kept chatting until I felt he started avoiding responding. Only then it occurred to me that I was in a better shape than him on the day and decided to shut up. I had talked so much that I forgot my gels and electrolyte tabs TWICE and consumed them several minutes later than planned.
One thing I quite like doing is acknowledging the children who stand along the course, by giving them high fives. I did that several dozen times as I feel it gives me an energy boost, evidenced by me leaving my friend behind every single time despite weaving and going out of my way (not recommended, I know!) to reach their extended hands. Then slowing down to let him catch up, shaking his head in disapproval at my antics. But I was having fun, unusually. Then the thought came back: “Am I going too slow? Did I underestimate myself and set a very easy target?”. The faster end of my plan’s MRP happened to correspond with Boston qualifying time for my age group (3:20) and I did consider going for it right to the end and even after starting the race but decided against it every time. With still a long way to go and as tempting as it was, I told myself “one step at a time”. I’m glad common sense prevailed, seeing what was to come next.
I made up my mind to speed up a little in the last 10km if I still felt good. When that point came, I had left my friend behind enough not to bother slowing down for him (what I had told him to do) but I was also getting tired. Effect of Ibuprofen wore off and shin pain flared up. I had forgotten my mid-run dose in the bag. Then muscles started throwing those familiar, horrible cramp warning signals, with increasing frequency. First calves, then quads. It was the last quarter of the race and I was still a minute or so ahead of schedule with a real shot at my target. Heart and lungs seemed capable of maintaining the pace, even speeding up a bit to secure it, but legs not so much. Backed off a bit to keep fighting off the cramps. It became obvious to me I would need more than just slowing down to manage the situation. Brain surprisingly still working, I evaluated that given I am so bad at drinking from cups while running, it would be more efficient to continue running except at the last few water stations.
The sun was out and it was getting warmer so I needed to drink more and spill less anyway. I also started distracting myself from pain and cramps by imagining how I would feel if I do make 3:30. Then the 40km marker came, by which time I wasn’t sure whether I would achieve the goal at that rate but continued to resist the urge to speed up. I’d like to think I have a high threshold for pain but also fully aware I am as helpless as anyone if I get full-on cramps, doesn't matter whether there are 2 or 20 km to go. That last left turn, Brandenburg Gate in sight is an amazing experience that fills me with energy. I had already increased the pace a bit but knew it was still too early to sprint given my calves and quads were on the verge of giving up. As I was getting close to the gate, I glanced at my watch and it was clear I was at risk of going over 3:30. A few seconds here or there doesn’t really matter but I really wanted to see ‘2’ as the second digit, as irrational as it may be. That sent shivers down my spine and I pushed with everything I had in the last few hundred metres. Crossed the gate sprinting (well, as much as I could near mile 26), 42km marker visible and finish line further ahead. Still managed to pose for the camera mid-sprint and then back to it. As I crossed the finish line and paused my watch, it said 3:29:57. I knew I had started it before start line timing mats and paused after finish mats so I knew I had made it. Only just. That relief is obvious in my finish line photo. Then the notification arrived to confirm: 3:29:50.
A sub 3:30 marathon is no big deal for most people in a club like QPH, full of highly talented runners. But it is for me, someone who started proper running at 40+, not long ago. I will admit to having an emotional moment - when I called home, I wasn’t able to talk much. Those tears washed away the horrible memories from 52 weeks ago. I had taken almost 42 mins off the better of my 2 marathons from 51 weeks ago. I am happy with that regardless of where this sits on the overall performance spectrum. Looking at my splits, my second half was very slightly slower than the first but that’s ok, I aimed for even pace rather than negative splits. Happy that my last kilometre was the fastest of all though. More importantly, the km splits were reasonably consistent which was great to see because I consider myself very bad at pacing. All the disappointing races were irrelevant now - the whole year was a build-up to Berlin and everything slotted into place on the day that mattered the most.
Trying to remove the timing chip from the shoe is always “fun” I haven’t yet found a way that doesn’t give me cramps somewhere. At least I wasn’t the only one with that problem! I spent hours in the finish area taking pictures with friends, chatting and just soaking up the atmosphere. Stark contrast to the previous marathons where I headed to my hotel or home as soon as I could.
While still enjoying and feeling good:
Posing for camera close to finish:
Preparing to overtake this next group of runners during my sprint to the finish, having already passed several others:
Relief at the finish line: